SOFT POWER 

Photo by Craig Schwartz

Ahmanson Theatre

Let me say one thing about David Henry Hwang’s magnificent Soft Power, now in its world premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre before traveling to San Francisco and, without a doubt, off to New York to rock the Great White Way:  I promise you, never will you see another musical like it.

Billed as “A Play with a Musical,” nothing could be as accurate in describing the unique experience—one that prompted one of our time’s most noteworthy playwrights to stop me in the lobby opening night to ask, “What did I just see? Can you tell me?” Frankly, I couldn’t, as I was as dizzy as she was. “I’ll have to go home and ruminate over it before I can answer that question,” I responded, although “...and before I write my review,” was the subtext.

Perfectly complimented by music composed by the versatile genre-hopping Jeanine Tesori (Tony-winning for her equally memorable score for Fun Home), Hwang has created something truly groundbreaking. Writing himself in as a character in the story, the play opens in a Hollywood production office just before the 2016 election as DHH (Francis Jue) pitches the concept for a TV sitcom set in Shanghai to a slick Chinese film producer (Conrad Ricamora). The clearly westernized Xue Xing is all for a project created by the most famous and successful Chinese playwright in America, but is concerned how a contemporary comedy depicting the citizens of Beijing as characters created by Darren Star would survive their government’s censoring anything less than perfectly politically correct material.

Xing is also not at all convinced the people of China would accept an Asian Carrie Bradshaw dealing openly and honesty with modern living and relationships. This is especially personal to him since he seems stuck in a bad marriage himself, admitting he’s “happy…enough” but remains forced by familial duty to accept what he’s been taught about the institution from his highly traditional father: “You must stick with your mistakes.”

That same night, he brings his American mistress Zoe (Alyse Alan Lewis) to a Hillary Clinton fundraising performance of The King & I right next door at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. There, though confliucted about the inappropriate Asian stereotypes running rampant through the classic R&H musical, he is bolstered by meeting the sure-to-win (right) Presidential candidate after the show, where he praises her for being so friendly and respectful to his oft-misunderstood country. "She believes we can learn a thing or two from China,” he tells Zoe and DHH, “and I replied that China believes in global warming because we believe in science.”

After the subsequent shocking and depressing conclusion of the Presidential election, DHH begins to wonder if Xing was right in an earlier conversation about the abject failure of the democratic system in America, a place where “they voted for the guy who promised to hold back the future.” On his way home to Brooklyn that night, he is randomly stabbed in the neck on the street, presumably by some previously-timid fly-by-state racist Trump supporter encouraged by the Orange Nightmare’s “Make America Great Again” campaign—sadly mirroring a real-life incident that happened to Hwang at the time.

DHH is rushed to a hospital where, simply, he hallucinates a musical called Soft Power—the title recalling the first conversation where Xing remarked how culture and media influence the world in which we live. In the imagined musical, America has gone even more drastically to shit than it has the last 17 months of insanely destructive totalitarian rule, but the tale is told in a wildly colorful, incredibly glitzy Broadway style, Tesori’s brilliant score, director Leigh Silverman’s inventive staging, and Sam Pinkleton’s wonderfully silly over-the-top choreography helping immensely to make it all work.

As DHH—the character, obviously—dies from his wounds, Xing becomes the hero of the writer’s hallucination, based on all the stuff that occurred before the attack. The producer again travels to America, but this time is greeted by a totally lawless society where bigotry is the norm and gun-tottin’ punks, played by the musical’s mostly Asian cast in elaborate blond wigs and wearing Anita Yavich’s hilarious hip-hopping Brittany Spears-ware, rule the streets.

Again, Xing meets Mrs. Clinton (also played by Lewis), who is licking her wounds in self-imposed solitary confinement, sitting alone in a room spreading Ben & Jerry’s on take-out pizza and belting one of Tesori’s best ballads. This time, however, Xing falls for his Hillary and the two begin a romance in the well-appointed high-end restaurant that McDonald’s has become—complete with short-shorts-wearing servers on rollerskates and statues with chandeliers on their heads holding oversized containers of french fries.  

As Act Two opens, Hwang’s mindblowing twists continue, so grab your seats, strap in, and hold on tight. Now set in the 22nd century, the hallucinated musical-within-a-play is now a great American classic, although it has become part of the new culture at a time where China is clearly recognized as the premier world power. And as experts from the future discuss its importance to the evolution of society and art, just like with all great themes, philosophies, and religions throughout human history, each sees the value of it from their own individual viewpoint and caring only about how it affects them personally.

The twists and turns and innovative Charles Mee-esque situations invented by Hwang and implemented by his fellow creative believers are brilliant and nonstop, perfectly realized in this exquisite production. David Zinn's design is both sweeping and at its heart reverent, yet whimsically echoing traditional Asian minimalist simplicity.

The cast is throughout impressive and all blessed with spectacular voices, possessing a uniform knack for “getting” Hwang’s outrageous satirical overview, while the exceptional individual performances of Ricamora, Louis, and Jue, as well as Kendyl Ito as Xing’s neglected young daughter, are the stuff of which musical legends are born.

There’s inevitably a Pulitzer Prize in Hwang’s future for this, I suspect, as this project checks off all the requisites, and Tesori’s score is one for the ages and perhaps her finest yet. The production also benefits immeasurably from the inclusion of LA’s own gifted and driven composer-musical director David O, who conducts the precision orchestra with gusto and a visceral understanding of the emotional complexities of the score.

When this visionary effort hits New York, there’ll surely be many comparisons made between Hwang and Tesori’s incredible contemporary masterpiece and Hamilton, another rule-defying, groundbreaking musical that dazzles the senses yet clearly slips in its political morality message while telling its story in the most entertaining way imaginable. Those comparisons will be valid and, unless I’ve totally lost my perspective, Soft Power, like its namesake musical within the play, is destined to become a future American classic.

THROUGH JUNE 10: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

 

ANGELS, DEVILS AND OTHER THINGS 

Photo by Ashley Randall

Actors’ Gang Theatre

Most theatre companies traditionally conjure their own annual one-act play festival to give all those hardworking ticket-taking and toilet-scrubbing members a chance to let their freak flags fly. As might be expected, however, the Actors’ Gang takes the concept a giant step further.

First of all, most of the performers filling the Gang’s Ivy Substation space for their summer end-of-the-season treat Angels, Devils and Other Things will be welcoming familiar faces to anyone obsessed by the Gang's prolific body of work. These dedicated artists work hard and regularly at the Gang, surely despite the fact that this kind of brave experimental theatre ain't a'gonna pay nobody’s dang rent.

Beyond the fact that this slightly mad veteran troupe of dedicated crazies has for 37 years been encouraged by founder and artistic director Tim Robbins to be unwaveringly creative, at their leader’s behest this time out they were asked to write—then eventually direct and appear in—their own original 10-minute plays.

Explains Robbins: “When I asked the company to all write plays last year I had no idea that we had such talented playwrights within the company. What was doubly impressive though, was how much the plays had in common: themes of life and death, judgment and the afterlife, the anxiety and struggle of everyday survival, all written with intelligence and humor.”

Starting with the premise that Robbins wanted the evening to be a “tour of the human landscape,” 11 of the short plays workshopped were chosen to produce under the guidance of longtime Gang member Brian T. Finney. As in any such one-act fest, some of the offerings are better than others, but unlike many similar self-generated collections, although a few of the short plays could have benefitted from a little more rehearsal time and a bit of judicious rewriting, not one of those chosen should have been eliminated.

Among the most memorable are Will McFadden’s See Bots Chat, directed by Jason Ryan Lovett, where two robots (Tess Vidal and Ethan Corn) find out what it is to be human when they discover a passion for one another; the Vidal-directed James Play, as writer-performer James Bane III bravely tries to sort out the penchant for suicide initiated by his predecessors James Sr. and Jr.; and Delia Saba and Chas Harvy appearing in their own A Cat’s Play, where a man and his smartassed feline struggle to deal with one another without abandoning their own personal dreams.

Just Be Worthy is also a standout, as a group of recently deceased travelers wake up to find Judgment Day isn’t exactly what they expected. Under the direction of Pierre Adeli, Dora Kiss’ short play is crisply written and full of wonderful one-liners, as when one of those gathered is sent back for a second chance, leading the Devil (Bob Turton) to grumble that the invention of the defibrillator has ruined all his fun. Turton’s sparring with his ol’ buddy Jesus (triple-threat Adam Bennett, also serving as director of A Cat’s Play and hilarious as a befuddled researcher in See Bots Chat) is a comedic highlight of the evening—and whomever fashioned Lucifer’s multiple dildo-infused costuming is due special kudos as well.

With Turton as director, Bennett also explores a similar theme as author of The Gardeners, where the newly-dead are promised their next life—unlike this one we’re all trying to maneuver—will be “accessible and bearable.”

With Ethan Corn as director, Turton also excels as the writer of Clean Slate, where a woman (Julia Finch) wakes up each morning to a new world devoid of memories, although she is told her daily fresh take on things offers the “promise of absolute freedom of choice.” She soon realizes, however, that her freedom from life’s guilts and pressures is more restrictive than celebratory. 

Perhaps the most entertaining pair of plays are Lynde Houck’s A Perfect World, where under Will McFadden’s direction, Lee Margaret Hanson and Adam J. Jefferis don commedia dell’arte-inspired masks (designed, one might guess, by Erhard Stiefel, whose artistry so energized the Gang’s Harlequino last season), bringing to hilarious life an elderly couple as they simply live another day, seemingly thrilled and totally content with their boring and repetitive lives that Houck hints is a substitute for purgatory right here on earth.

In Mashka Wolfe’s Have You Even Done This Before?, director Bronwyn Leland Watson leads Hanson and Finch in an adult-themed feminist Will Farrell-John C. Reilly pairing about a newly separated housewife and the hooker she hires—leading to a place where the arrival of an expected voyeur promises that nothing much will turn out to be as it originally seemed.

The entire ensemble begins Angels, Devils and Other Things appearing together in Finney’s fluid movement exercise The Futurist Manifesto, which not only introduces the cast but ushers in one thing I especially loved about the entire collaboration. As a critic who often grumbles about excessive and unnecessary set changes, here the frequent intervals between the pieces are choreographed with fascinating precision.

Never does one person remove a chair or two people bring on a table. Instead, the entire company, including one guy relentlessly circling the wagons in a motorized wheelchair, floods the stage as several performers gather around the designated movers in tight Evita-esque movable tableaux, again emphasizing one impressive detail about any unique Actors’ Gang production: these folks clearly reinforce the idea that great art succeeds best when created in a collaboration with other exceptionally committed and ego-free artists.

THROUGH JUNE 16: Actors’ Gang Theatre, 9070 Venice Blvd., Venice. 310.838.4264 or theactorsgang.com

FOREVER BOUND 

Photo by Kathy Flynn

Atwater Village Theatre

Poor Edmund. This nebbishy agoraphobic book scout is really on the ropes. Flat broke despite having sold his beloved classic comic book collection, he’s still forced to live on raman noodles while fearing the next phone call will be one of those incessant bill collectors instead of a potential customer.

After trying to convince his skeptical landlord there are cockroaches scampering all over his tiny LA apartment, at the suggestion of his best friend Shep he has begun to capture the critters in mid-crawl by scotch-taping them to the wall to struggle and twitch and die the same slow death as he himself seems to be experiencing. This odd behavior is hard for Edmund to discuss, quipping to Shep that he probably should stop mixing cocaine and meth but then again, it does give him less teeth to brush. But whatever the origins of his roach-taping obsession might be, it really doesn’t matter much anyway now since the guy has just delivered Edmund’s final eviction notice.

When Shep hatches an unexpected plan to steal a rare first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass from the home of a dour and unfriendly collector he met in a bookstore and followed home, Edmund is conflicted. Interested, yes, but conflicted. In the world premiere of Steve Apostolina’s Forever Bound at the Atwater Village Theatre, no bumbling amateur thieves have been as endearingly watchable since Donny and Teach first enlisted Bobby as their accomplice.

And what could have possibly been a better one-of-a-kind choice than to cast French Stewart as Edmund, an actor who has devoted his entire career to playing quirky, modernday Walter Mitty-esque losers? Although Stewart has certainly veered over the years from his days as the otherworldly (literally) Harry Solomon, native of the barred-spiral galaxy on the Cepheus-Draco border—you know, the “One with the Transmitter in his Head”—it’s a pleasure to see an echo of his signature bizarre behavior we all grew to love.

Not only does Stewart possess the most fluid timing of any comedian working today, under the precision guidance of director Ann Hearn Tobolowsky, his lovably dysfunctional Edmund is fully able to suddenly tumble into emotionally-poignant dramatic moments without a hint of a seam.

Playwright Apostolina is also well-cast as Shep, a role he probably wrote for himself, ironically running with the least fully-realized role in his own play while giving way for Tobolowsky’s other three actors to shine. Still, he manages to mine a wonderful dark humor in the depths of his Shep as more and more details of the roughhewn guy’s questionable former life are exposed—to Edmund’s shock and awe.

As the play’s other two at first unrelated characters, Emily Goss as the troubled Rosalind and Rob Nagle as her mentor Thomas, another pair of gifted veteran El Lay theatre performers hold their own as well. Goss is incredibly moving as a girl who deserves more than life has had to offer her and, through the course of the play, gradually discovers a brave new world around her. Goss is exceptionally believable as the revelations begin to unfold.

As Thomas, well… without giving too much away, let me just say that Nagle even surpasses his several previous turns playing some of the creepiest Hannibal Lector-clone villains to ever step before an audience. In one scene and with his character at a considerable physical disadvantage, Nagle’s subtle eyerolls and quietly amused facial expressions as the Laurel and Hardy of criminals try to solidify their plans, are perfection.

Apostolina’s sharp humor is amazingly topical in a clever subterranean way. As our country goes to shit at the hands of a mentally-challenged madman and we are all collectively questioning and redefining our morality on a daily basis, though the laughs are frequent in Forever Bound, we are ultimately left with a reason to contemplate what is moral and what actions are truly acceptable in the world today.

In this messed-up era when kids are killing other kids at school on a regular basis and the rights of others to live however and wherever they desire is in question, Forever Bound offers unsettling food for thought and, probably, can generate a few sleepless nights as well. Quite an accomplishment for such a razor-edged comedy.

THROUGH JUNE 16: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Av., LA. 323.960.4429 or www.plays411.com/foreverbound

 

CHITA RIVERA:  BROADWAY @ THE WALLIS 

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Somewhere in the darkest, dustiest corner in the attic of some deteriorating old Victorian mansion on some traditionally gloomy moor, there must be a hidden portrait of Chita Rivera that’s really going to hell. Oscar Wilde himself would be impressed.

It was 1960 when I first met Chita, during the time I squeezed my fine young ass into bright orange jeans and started asking Mrs. Garfein eight times a week if Charity was home from school yet. It was a bit intimidating stepping into a huge hit show where a bunch of precocious kids my age had already bonded bigtime, but one person immediately made me feel at home: Chita Rivera, the star of the friggin’ show.

I was 13 then and Chita was 26. I thought she was the oldest person in the world—or at least the oldest person in the world who treated me as a friend and a contemporary despite my age. Still, you see, almost six decades later, something Twilight Zone-y has occurred here: Chit is now younger than I am. She frequently turns her classic profile to one side, noting with pride that she’s been alive so long “I face the wind now.”

This brief one-night edition of Broadway @ the Wallis proved another indelible evening of time-defying brilliance as Broadway’s most unstoppable superstar came to the Hills of Beverly to gift us once again with her spirit, her energy, her razorsharp humor, and her unique ability to defy the laws of gravity—let alone nature. At 84, perhaps her legendary extension doesn’t quite bump against the side of her head any longer but, as she noted from the Wallis’ Bram Goldsmith stage last Thursday, “as long as it’s sharp, it doesn’t matter.” Sure, there were one or two of her early signature dance contortions Chit admitted she would no longer attempt, quipping that if she did, we could all go home and forevermore be able to say we were right there the night she died.

Hosted and accompanied by another Broadway legend, Seth Rudetsky, Chita offered yet another of many memorable evenings in my lifetime being awed by this remarkable woman. Beginning with one of the catchiest tunes from Bye Bye Birdie, “Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do,” those 58 years came flooding back—and I’m sure that must have gone double for another former fellow resident of Sweet Apple, Ohio in attendance: Susan Watson, our original Kim McAfee, who sang “Livin’” to Dick Gautier’s Conrad Birdie nightly for the show’s entire run.

The evening shifted from Chit and Rudetsky lounging in adjoining easychairs reminiscing about her long career to stepping back to the piano to perform the actual songs from the celebrated shows that energized her career. From Birdie’s seldom-performed opening tune “English Teacher,” the last notes of which made me want to run onstage on cue and start wailing about going steady for good, the amazingly prolific Chita Rivera Songbook was explored decade by decade, surely causing any diehard musical theatre fan in the audience to experience some kind of collective cerebral orgasm.

There were numbers recreated from her two Tony Award-winning performances in The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman, as well as highlights from her many other celebrated appearances, including her last of eight other nominated turns in The Visit. Without much surprise, however, the songs bringing the house down more than any other were from her first New York performance as the original Anita in West Side Story (“A Boy Like That” and a charming recreation of “America” with Rudetsky trying gamely to sing the Bernardo lines) and Velma in Chicago (“All That Jazz” and another hilarious though ill-cast duet of “Class”).

In the interspersed chats, Chit talked about her fascinating days hangin’ and being mentored by guys named John and Fred (Kander and Ebb, of course), Lenny (Bernstein), Bob (Fosse), and Jerry (Robbins), defending her name-dropping to Rudetsky by evoking her impressive longevity: “At my age, I call everybody by their first names because I can.”

She recalled the day at age 15 when some guy sitting in on Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero’s ballet class in her native Washington, DC showed an interest and offered her a scholarship to come to New York to study with him. She had no idea at the time who the gentleman was, but her first great admirer was none other than George Balanchine. When a classmate at his School of American Ballet named Helen begged her to go to an open call for the national tour of Call Me Madam for moral support, Chit tagged along and, having no fear of auditioning, she joined the hopefuls gathering to be seen. She had never acted before and had no idea she could sing but regardless, she was the one who was hired and Helen was not (“And I have no idea what became of her,” Chita recalls with a tad of amused guilt).

The evening ended with a hard to beat finale, performing—compete with cane and top hat—the final showstopping duo she and Gwen Verdon shared nightly in Chicago some 40-plus years ago. Recreating Fosse’s incredible choreography and magnificently imitating Verdon’s famous quavering vocal style in Roxie’s solo sections, she aced “Nowadays” as an inspiring homage to the lategreat Mr. and once-Mrs. Fosse.

There is no way to truly describe this ageless human dynamo because there’s no one else quite like her. Even in her second of two grueling shows at the Wallis that one night, she faced her guests for hugs and cheer well into the night—providing an opportunity to hear the same thing she’s said every time I’ve been in her presence for nearly 60 years: “How could I ever forget that sweet face?” For me, of course, the feeling is mutual but also easier to express. It’s that portrait in the attic thing, I’m sure.

Chit’s advice to staying youthful and vital well beyond the time when most people are sitting at home knitting and watching HGTV? She does knee-raises every day while she’s drinking her morning coffee. “If the leg goes up,” she explains with a laugh, “you know you have a little more time.”

So, I'm going to start doing my own morning knee-raises while nursing my everpresent pot of Cafe duMonde. If for no other reason, I still need a little more time with Chita Rivera.

CHECK FOR FUTURE BROADWAY @ THE WALLIS OFFERINGS: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Bl., Beverly Hills. 310.746.4000

 

SCHOOL OF ROCK 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Pantages Theatre  /  Segerstrom Center

As one of the five human beings on the planet who has never seen the film School of Rock, I came to the west coast opening of the musical at the Pantages with a totally blank slate—save, of course, the spirited ensemble of yung’ins who hit the stage for the Tony Awards ceremony a couple of years ago when Jullian Fellowes’ clever theatrical adaptation first showed up on Broadway.

Of course, it’s not hard to imagine Jack Black in the never-resting leading role of Dewey, the slovenly couch-hopping moocher who assumes his current mooch-ee’s identity to commandeer a well-paying substitute teaching gig at a stuffy private grade school. Luckily for this production, Rob Colletti has all but channeled Black’s familiar lovable slacker routine, which is great for telling this story but does make one wonder it the actor was directed by Laurence Connor to mimic his famous predecessor or if his stoner-dude persona is something he can call his own.

Either way, it works gangbusters. Colletti leads a gamely vigorous cast of adults, with a particular nod to his costar Lexie Dorsett Sharp, who steals the thunder when her rigid stick-up-the-assy schoolmarm Rosalie hoists a few afterschool brews and let’s her hair down—literally—with the show’s most notable ballad and her showstopper solo, “Where Did the Rock Go?”

The second biggest surprise for this production is the raucous, rockin’ all-electronic score by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, who proves he still has a wild side in that increasingly more tame demeanor of his—and after soaking in his gorgeous and richly resonant near-opera score for his Phantom sequel Love Never Dies at the same theatre last month, I am thoroughly impressed once again.

From his gorgeously lyrical and evocative Aspects of Love to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to Jesus Christ Superstar to Evita to Cats and beyond, no matter the criticisms over the years—so many have a problem with monumental success, it seems—this guy is truly one of our time’s most obvious musical geniuses.

Still, I did say his achievement was the second biggest surprise to me, didn’t I? The first? Surely something that benefited the most from the aforementioned second surprise. Although Dewey admits early on his class at Horace Green Middle School gives him flashbacks to Lord of the Flies, the production's knockout ensemble of teeny-tiny 10-years-old-ish kiddies eagerly and energetically prove they can friggin’ rock out with the best of ‘em.

Playing their own instruments onstage under the able and surely patient leadership of musical director Martyn Axe, who admits in his program bio he’s “very happy to be touring with the youngest and best rock band in America,” this gifted band of brilliantly-cast children are all breakout stars, both in the music industry and as promising young actors.

From the uniformly jaw-dropping ranks of major minors come several wonderful featured performances, particularly Iara Nemirovsky as the annoying perfect but soon transformed Summer, who goes on to bring the house down with Lord Andrew’s infectious “Time to Play.”

Theodora Silverman is a standout as the sutone-faced Gene Simmons-tongued bassist Katie and Theo Mitchell-Penner, as the band’s nerdy keyboardist Lawrence, morphs from socially-tortured introvert to posturing rockstar in glittery superhero spandex as Dewey comments he’s “seen salads better dressed than that.”

Huxley Westemeier gives the bravest and most smoothly committed performance of the evening as the light-loafered Billy, who clearly telegraphs the writing on the wall since he would rather sew elaborate costumes than perform.  

Yet of all the youthful dynamos taking the well-traveled Pantages stage hostage with their talent and their musicality, the most memorable turn comes from pintsized carrot-top Vincent Molden, beginning as a meek little tyke anyone could take home for Thanksgiving and be sure he'd say "please" and "thank you" in all the right places, into worldclass hip-gyrating Steven Tyler status. If the goddess Terpsichore plays fair here, this kid is a musical protégé guaranteed a career as he grows into his teenybopper years and beyond.

This national tour of School of Rock simply rocks, more crisp and full-out than most productions that have been on the road awhile. This was perhaps energized by the surprising attendance of Lord Andrew himself on opening night, posing in the lobby with tongue stuck forward and flashing the Devil’s Horn right alongside his junior ensemble. This guy, it seems, is experiencing a welcome second coming and I, for one, will gladly add this score to the top of the list of his many accomplishments.

THROUGH MAY 27: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 800.982.2787 or www.HollywoodPantages.com

JUL. 24 - AUG. 12: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. 714.556.2787 or scfta.org

 

  HEAD OVER HEELS

Photo by Joan Marcus

Hudson Theatre, New York City

Set to premiere in New York at the Hudson Theatre in late July, the much-anticipated pre-Broadway tryout of Jeff Whitty’s unique but risky musical Head Over Heels at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, featuring a score honoring the classic punk-pop standards of the Go-Go’s, proved itself to be not at all what might be expected.

Considering my well-known predilection to brake for anything emanating from the traditionally sugar-soaked American songbook weighed down by corn as high as an elephant’s eye and real good clambakes, in my twilight years it seems I am only able to stomach musicals focusing on mothers addicted to psychotropics, grinding people into meat pies, celebrating sweet transvestites, or dealing with an entire town’s citizenry not being allowed to pee.

Keeping this in mind, I faced Head Over Heels with more than a little trepidation. O, Great and Good Terpsichore, was I pleasantly surprised. How many people besides director Michael Mayer could stage a chorusline of performers in full Elizabethan finery doing the Cool Jerk and make it work? I tell ya, these magical folks certainly got the beat.

Sir Philip Sidney’s great work of prose, The Arcadia, was first published in 1585 and through the centuries, it has been rewritten and reinterpreted several times. Jeff Whitty (Tony winner for Avenue Q) conceived and wrote the original book for this musical, which was then adapted by James Magruder as a celebration of the music of those groundbreaking punk-rock icons Charlotte Caffey, Belinda Carlisle, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, and Jane Wiedlin.

In Sir Philip’s original tale, Basilus, the Duke of a fictional Grecian kingdom called Arcadia, journeys to see the Oracle at Delphos and receives the bleak prediction that his daughters will be stolen by undesirable suitors, he will be cuckolded by his wife, and his throne will be usurped by a foreign state. Hoping to preempt this fate, Basilius entrusts the Arcadian government to his second in command and retires to a pastoral lodge with his wife, Gynecia and their daughters, Pamela and Philoclea.

Along the way there’s a plethora of mistaken identity and those typical mournful wails issuing from three sets of unrequited Shakespearean-like lovers all told in verse and iambic pentameter, something which, in less talented hands, could have resulted in a confused mash-up of Pippin and Twelfth Night.

It’s always puzzling in such tales how few people are able to recognize their potential or even current beloveds when all the person does is don clothes of the opposite sex, but that seems to be just part of the genre—or maybe it was just harder to test for 20/20 vision until after the Renaissance. Either way, we are asked to suspend all belief in such epics if we want to hear the story told.

In this adaptation, which debuted in the summer of 2016 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, instead of going into hiding Basilus (Jeremy Kushnier) takes all the citizens of his community on the road with him, the Oracle telling him if he loses his throne, his subjects will also lose their… guess what? Yup. That. And after the massive opening number featuring the Go-Go’s most popular hit tune, seeing these gifted Arcadians unable to access their beloved beat would be tragic for everyone on both sides of the footlights.

This clever communal trek through Julian Crouch’s gloriously detailed ever-changing pastoral and palatial sets offers a perfect opportunity to feature an all-singing, all-dancing ensemble of loyal subjects conveniently ready to go along for the ride—and these particular chorusmembers are more than able to ace the wonderfully spirited and brazenly athletic choreography created by Spencer Liff.

Of course, the borrowed plot here still borders on the terminally sappy, just as thin and predictable as anyone might expect, but what has been built from the fanciful premise is genius. Magruder’s dialogue makes wonderful tongue-in-cheek fun of the limitations inherent in its own reliance on verse and the direction by Mayer, the guy who breathed glorious life into Spring Awakening, American Idiot, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is stunningly brilliant throughout.

His cast is also worthy of the task, especially Bonnie Milligan as the plus-size Princess Pamela, who seems to have conked her head on an exercise machine ala Amy Schumer to find a pleasing image smiling back at her in her looking glass, and Broadway legend Rachel York as her mother Gynecia, who has a chance to do some impressive Joplin-tinged rockin’ out of her own before the final curtain.

Alexandra Socha steps out from Philoclea’s quiet shadow in the more obscure Go-Go's ballad “Here You Are” and, as her love interest Musidorus, Andrew Durand, with a Chaplin-esque comic timing and the voice of an angel (especially in “Mad About You,” his lovely love song to Socha), handily steals the show when his lowly mooning shepherd boy dons Wonder Women gear to disguise himself as a warrior amazon to protect the caravan and be close to his beloved.    

In another brazen twist, the Oracle of Delphos, here known as Pythio, is played by Peppermint, a well-known non-binary contestant in the 9th season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Although the songstress is not the most polished actor in the stellar ensemble, this casting is more than a clever stunt, offering a glamourous rush of personality and attitude that easily makes up for any line-reading deficiency.

As much as there is to mention here, including Arianne Phillips’ Cirque du Soleil-inspired costuming shimmering in Kevin Adams’ gorgeous lighting and a knockout all-female band led by musical director Kimberly Grigsby, the true wonder of Head Over Heels is in its message. With a not-too thinly-veiled reference or two to the “huuuuuge” abuse of power practiced by an out-of-step leader that can bring down a kingdom, Magruder’s script takes on a new wave of sexual identity issues sandwiched between its wink-wink-nudge-nudge Midsummer Night’s Dream-y slapstick humor.

Musidorus seems to enjoy his crossdressing idylls a little too much, while Pythio, who insists on being referred to as “they” by his subjects, has some gender-bending surprises of her own. And although wearily searching throughout for her prince charming, as Pamela composes a poem detailing her quest for perfection she is puzzled trying to conjure words to rhyme with “wit,” “China,” and “runt,” eventually leading to find her true love with her handmaiden Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones, who also serves as the story’s incredulous narrator).

Nope, my lips simply cannot be sealed. Whomever thought of melding The Arcadia and its Olde Worldly setting with the still joyous and highly infectious 1980s music of the Go-Go’s should get special commendation. It is, pure and simple, a match made in theatrical heaven.

PREMIERING ON BROADWAY JULY 26 (previews beginning June 23): Hudson Theatre, 145 W. 44th St, NYC.  855.801.5876 or thehudsonbroadway.com

 

BEACH BLANKET BABYLON 

Photo courtesy of Beach Blanket Babylon

Club Fugazi, North Beach, San Francisco

It was in the early 1970s when, as Talent Coordinator of The Boarding House in San Francisco, I booked Bette Midler at the club and the Troubadour in LA on her first national tour. Mutual friends transplanted from New York hosted a welcome for the Divine Miss M at their massive Pacific Heights mansion and told me they had hired a special treat for those gathered, a group of outrageously costumed and unstoppably goofy local street entertainers to surprise guests as they infiltrated the party.

Suddenly, there they were: a line of hula-dancing middle-aged housewives in Carmen Miranda headdresses and a bunch of male dancers dressed as poodles, among other wonderfully bizarre visual oddities. I had heard of the Rent-a-Freaks but never had seen them in person. To say they were the hit of the night would be a massive understatement.

Then less than a year or so later, when SF mimes Robert and Lorraine Shields were married (silently, of course) in Union Square, there were the Rent-a-Freaks again and this time I went to David Allen, my boss at the club, to suggest booking them as a possible opening act for the upcoming engagement of a new unknown little singing group called the Pointer Sisters.

My former boss at the LA Troub, Doug Weston, had opened the Boarding House as the Troubadour North in 1970 and I commuted between the two locations, nothing as glamorous as it may sound. When David took over the lease two years later, he got me fulltime along with the deal; after commuting between the two cites for too long, I decided I’d officially left my you-know-what in you-know-where and the rest is history.

David already knew about the Rent-a-Freaks since its creator, Steve Silver, had been a ticket-tearer at the infamous hungry i in North Beach, the club David had managed and brought to national attention by presenting such previously unknown talents as Lenny Bruce, Mort Saul, Bill Cosby, Barbra Streisand, and Joan Rivers.

Just about the time I approached Steve about playing the club, the Freaks had quickly grown into a far more elaborate musical revue and he was considering changing the name of the troupe. Soon, his Rent-a-Freaks would forevermore be known as Beach Blanket Babylon and the show rapidly became a San Francisco phenomenon, perhaps the only city in America at that time willing to embrace their silliness and brazenly off-centered humor that spared nothing and no one.

In the summer of 1974, BBB crammed revelers into a 214-seat space at the Savoy Tivoli Restaurant in North Beach, where a guy dressed in speedos climbed a lifeguard tower to manipulate lighting made from coffee cans over a floor covered with sand—and Steve’s immensely game and talented band of looneys have never stopped working since.

Debuting in 1975 at their own permanent space, a reclaimed 1913 Italian community center in the Russian Hill district called Club Fugazi, he continued to loan out his troupe for charitable and public events, including honoring Queen Elizabeth II in 1983 and subsequently opening versions in London and Las Vegas. Steve was thrilled when his brainstorm was recognized at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park with their own exhibit called Beach Blanket Babylon: 15 Years of Hats and Costumes and, five years later, an expanded version of the show played the grandly austere San Francisco War Memorial Opera House to celebrate its 20th anniversary.   

BBB has become a huge tourist attraction and a major part of San Francisco nightlife in the ensuing years, playing over 16,000 performances at Club Fugazi and seen by over 6 million people from all corners of the world. Under Steve’s generous stewardship, it also became a constant champion of health, education, and arts funding in the City by the Bay and, for San Franciscans, the revue today remains a local treasure and its innovative creator is memorialized with a bronze bust installed outside the venue that brought tears to me weary ol' eyes.

“The show belonged to Steve, but many of us feel it belongs to us,” said Charlotte Maillard Swig, former chief of protocol for the city when Steve Silver passed away of AIDS in 1995 at the tragically too-early age of 51. The following year, San Francisco officially changed the name of the 600 block of Green Street where the Club Fugazi is located to Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd., where the show still holds court and is today known as the world’s longest-running musical revue.

What has kept BBB in the spotlight when other such ventures have long since outlived their welcome? Simply, the onstage proceedings never stop evolving. Over the years, the costumes have gotten even more outrageous, the enormous hats worn by the castmembers have gotten even more enormous and, above all, writers Kenny Mazlow and Jo Schuman Silver, Steve’s widow and the show’s dedicated producer, never stop finding current events and pop-culture celebrities to royally skewer.

No one is off-limits here, from standard classic BBB characters such as Wonder Woman, Mr. Peanut, Oprah Winfrey, Tina Turner, and Glinda the Good Witch to some of our time’s most notorious political figures, as Snow White travels the world searching for her Prince Charming to get her away from those seven annoying little taskmasters telling her what to do.

Still, as I say, a great deal of the show’s continued success is in its constant updating, with new characters added to keep it constantly fresh and hot. Currently there are visits from Kim Jong-Un, Vladimir Putin, Barack and Michelle Obama, Kim Kardashian, Hillary and Bill Clinton, Lady Gaga, Colin Kaepernick, Elizabeth Warren, Beyonce, Bernie Sanders and, of course, there’s a properly vacant stumble-on from Sarah Palin.

Our current abhorrant administration is anything but ignored, as Steve Bannon and Sarah Huckabee Sanders lead the way for the revue’s current showstopper, the Von Trump Family, with Ivanka, Don Jr., Eric, Barron, and the "other one" leading the way for the entrance their illustrious parents. Melania and Dotard Donnie himself take the stage greeted by an immediate round of enthusiastic jeering emanating from all sides and levels of the club’s gathered audience, much to my personal gratification.

Thankfully, those dancing poodles are still a feature, as is the towering headgear worn by the performers, including one donned in the sensational finale that takes over nearly half of the stage and incorporates all of San Francisco’s major landmarks, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, Coit Tower, AT&T Park, and the Transamerica Pyramid, which not only lights up but grows in height as the performers vie for attention below.

Even more significant than the spectacle is the worldclass talent of the performers themselves, including BBB’s longtime headliners Tammy Nelson, neck-challenged bearer of the aforementioned city-themed headdress, and Renee Lubin, two performers who have been with the show for, respectively, 25 and over 30 years. Their celebrity has not only come from longevity, as these two ladies both have amazing comedic skills overshadowed by voices that could fill the Curran without electronic amplification if the show ever transferred there.

As Snow White, Rena Wilson delivers with delightful Imogene Coca-inspired awkwardness, Jacqui Heck is dynamic as Wonder Woman and also a knockout salsa-infused Carmen Miranda, while Jim Appleby is the perfect James Brown, among others. Curt Branom is totally hilarious in all his guises, particularly a wildly effete pink-wigged King Louis XIV, an Elizabethan Liberace on steroids.

Lauren Howard is a standout throughout, but it’s her Hillary Clinton, with hips so wide she can’t even hide ‘em behind her podium, and a dead-on lethally-fingernailed send-up of Barbra Streisand that steal the show. And that chorusline of tail-waggin’ poodles, Ryan Cowles, Derek Lux, and Doug Magpiong, step out expertly in all their incarnations, especially Cowles as Caitlin Jenner, Magpiong as King Elvis himself, and Lux nailing it as our pants-less Celebrity Appresident. Surely, Stormy Daniels can't be far behind.

A serendipitous highlight for us was being seated behind an extremely affectionate and obviously newly-minted couple, two very drunk ladies who ordered several expensive bottles of champagne as though it were Fiji water, tipped the waiter like rappers, and obviously enjoyed the performance.

When not pawing one another, they screamed and hollered and flailed their arms throughout—that is until the cast took the stage as the Von Trumps. Suddenly, the audiences’ collective booing shocked them and instantly changed their demeanor, causing them to bury their faces in their hands as all of their spirited revelry dissolved like a NDA signed by a Presidential hooker.

The girls continued to be shocked—no, outraged—by the goings-on of the White House’s resident Tyrolians, eventually resorting to their cellphones, each madly sending individual angry texts that concluded with one turning to the other and loudly declaring over the music, “That will put a stop to that.”

Soon after, however, the pair was back to cheering the performers, applauding and hooting loudly at curtaincall—that is until the Von Trumps retook the stage. That at least proves Steve and Jo Silver’s cottage industry hit has something for everyone, even that humorless minority known as the Republicants.

Scoff while you can, you deluded dinosaurs; the tar is quickly lapping at your heels while the zany fun of Beach Blanket Babylon and the groundbreaking legacy of the Silvers will live on long after you’re gratefully dun ‘n buried. And while you're at it, take your arrogant leader down into the slime with you, won't you please?

PLAYING FOREVER: Club Fugazi, 678 Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd. (Green Street), San Francisco. 415.421.4222 or beachblanketbabylon.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 AUG. 17: Second City Hollywood Studio Theatre, 6560 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. www.secondcity.com/shows/hollywood/trump-in-space or 323.464.8542

 

THE MOUSE TRAP 

Photo by Spencer Stayer

Crown City Theatre 

Dame Agatha Christie’s notorious whodunit The Mouse Trap holds the distinction of being the longest-running stage play in modern history, playing continuously in the West End since 1952 and racking up a staggering 27,000-plus performances. Beginning as a short radio play in 1947, The Mouse Trap follows a group of eccentric travelers stranded together in an old English manor house during a raging snowstorm and, of course, one of them is a murderer—and soon, another of them is a victim.

Among the assembled are the inn’s new owners, a fresh-scrubbed recently married couple (Megan Cochran and Bobby Slaski) who maybe don’t know each other yet as well as they should before tying the knot; an eccentric young architect (Hans Obma) who on the surface seems would rather would rather cook, scare the bejeezus out of people, and appreciate good looking young men rather than design buildings; a typical blustery old military man (Nicholas Cleland) who lurks around behind studying the other guests a bit too suspiciously; and a Gale Sondergaard-y tailored British ex-pat (Annie Liebermann) who lives in Majorca and will only say she’s returned to England to take care of some personal business.

Add in a perpetually lemon-faced, starchy former magistrate (Mouchette van Helsdingen), a Miss Marple-type dowager who complains continuously and would be my first choice to strangle, and a bizarre “foreigner” in full old-age makeup (Michael Mullen), the only unexpected guest who may or may not be present because his car overturned in the blizzard. Then of course there’s the obligatory police inspector (Tavis L. Baker), who arrives on snowshoes to warn the others their lives may be in danger and stays to interrogate everyone when someone in the group becomes the first little mouse caught in the killer’s trap.

On Joanne Lamb’s nicely appointed set and under the direction of Sonny Lara, this is indeed a welcome and delightfully non-thought-provoking divertissement, filled with its traditional slew of Dame Aggie’s typical red herrings and that famous plea, made to audiences of the play during its curtaincall for the past 65 years, to not give away the twist ending and reveal the name of the killer to anyone.

The cast, all of whom are obviously enjoying themselves, work hard to give us a chill, but the performances do suffer from an unfortunate unevenness in style that any director should have caught and made better. Obma creates a wonderfully quirky Christopher Wren, but delivers too many lines directly out front to the audience, which might work if he actually gave the feeling of looking out a window at something beyond the fourth wall rather than just performing for those gathered before him.

Slaski doesn’t say a line or leave the stage without an ominous final double-take reminiscent of a silent movie melodrama while, sending the meter to the completely opposite side of the emotional scale, Baker plays his Detective Sargeant right to the bone as though hired for a guest turn on Law and Order. Only Mullen as the deliciously over-the-top Mr. Paravicini and Liebermann as the somber Miss Caswell understand and embrace the modified gothic style, yet neither goes too far and slealthily avoid turning their roles into cartoons.

Despite any druthers, this is a charming, well-meaning, mostly successful presentation. As it has while holding court in London for all these years, The Mouse Trap can lift away all the crappiness of our current world situation and help us set aside our collective frustration with the trap from which all us American mousies find ourselves squirming to loosen our necks from its deathly grasp. Christie knew how to spin a good yarn and here, the good folks at Crown City are presenting her enduring record-breaking classic directly from their big and prolific hearts.

THROUGH MAY 27: Crown City Theatre Company, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood. crowncitytheatre.com

THE CHOSEN 

Photo by Ed Krieger

Fountain Theatre

It was 1967 when I first read what people back then called the Jewish Catcher in the Rye, Chaim Potok’s best-selling novel The Chosen, which sparked and influenced a significant period of my personal development: it encouraged me to embrace Judaism for the first time in my life.

Still, even considering the 50th anniversary of the classic’s publication and taking in that rising playwright Aaron Posner recently updated his brilliant Potok-blessed 1999 stage adaptation, presenting The Chosen at this particular period in time seemed risky. Luckily for the Los Angeles theatrical community, however, the Fountain Theatre is not a producing entity that avoids taking risks.

In an era where a dangerously unhinged and dishonest conman was elected to lead us, where the slimiest of politics is practiced by both major parties, where our country’s long-buried or at least ignored racism has once again been unearthed, I wondered if perhaps the human decency and intelligent gentility of Potok’s story might be overshadowed by the collective depression of its potential audience—you know, smart people.

Under the passionate leadership of director Simon Levy, this resurrection of The Chosen is welcome indeed. Nothing is lost from the beauty and simple truths revealed as two observant Brooklyn teenage boys navigate their future and their faith in the shadow of the Second World War, as Europe is being lit by massive firebombs and six million Jews are systematically being eliminated.

Although Reuven and Danny (Sam Mendel and Dor Gvirtsman) have been raised only five blocks apart in the days before Williamsburg succumbed to Starbuck’s and Whole Foods, they have never known one another until their rival yeshivas pit them against one another in a sandlot baseball game. From a rocky beginning of their friendship, the two become steadfast friends, even though Danny is Hasidic and is being groomed to one day lead his congregation and replace his ultra-Orthodox rabbi father Reb Saunders (Alan Blumenfeld), while Reuven is being raised by a liberal college professor and political activist (Jonathan Arkin) as a secular Jew.

As the boys mature through the bond they find in one another’s differences, each faces a personal crisis of faith that leads them into surprisingly opposite directions. While Reuven’s dad offers him continuous pearls of wisdom about how he believes his son should take on his future, Danny is frustratingly alone, his father having chosen to keep a bond of total silence between them except during the periods when they are discussing the scriptures and rabbinical interpretation.

The fiercely held beliefs of the fathers causes Reb Saunders to angrily insist his son never again associate with Reuven, a painful development that, fascinatingly, leads to the boys’ individual decisions about their drastically different and unexpected futures.

On DeAnne Millais’ striking bookcase-dominated set, with both the Malter and the Saunders households separated by a neutral area featuring the type of steel understructure that could easily recall the J Street Station, Levy manages to cleverly keep the action surprisingly fluid, aided by Donny Jackson’s creamy, atmospheric lighting and energized by the dynamic sound design of Peter Bayne.

All four actors are perfectly cast, although the ease and ability to immediately sweep the audience into their arms and hold on tight for uber-talented veteran troopers Blumenfeld and Arkin overshadows the initially less-confident delivery of Mandel and Gvirtsman, who both begin the performance far less comfortable than they when they let themselves get caught up in Potok’s humanity and Posner’s magnificent wordsmithery.

This could be partially true because of the intimacy of the Fountain and the playwright’s penchant for having his characters address the audience right from the start. Surely by the third of forth performance, most of the early mannerisms and physical clumsiness from the younger less-seasoned players will get lost in the glories of Chaim Potok, whose honesty and insight chronicling the cherished traditions of Jewish values can not only elevate the nature of art and artists, but change lives.

THROUGH JUNE 10: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Av., LA. 323.663.1525 or www.fountaintheatre.com

 

LE REVE 

Photo by Travis Michael Holder

Wynn Hotel, Las Vegas

Cirque du Soleil has reinvented the once-dilapidated Las Vegas Strip dramatically over the past quarter-century—and perhaps the chief architect of this monumental change from processed cheese spread to imported brie is Franco Dragone. For many years, this guy was a major creative force behind the Cirque’s astounding rise to international success and in 2005 was celebrated with even more reverence for creating the gorgeously evocative Le Reve, the celebrated permanent long-running resident at the sumptuous Wynn Las Vegas.

Credited with “founding the artistic soul” of Cirque after being recruited by the fledgling Montreal-based troupe in 1985, Dragone began his long tenure with the company working on the aptly named Le Cirque Reinvente. Over the next 15 years, he was almost singlehandedly responsible for creating the Cirque’s amazingly successful touring shows Nouvelle Experience, Saltimbanco, Alegria, Quidam, and La Nouba.

Over the ensuing years, millions of patrons worldwide have entered the brilliant mind of Dragone as brought to life in those unearthly touring shows, but surely nothing will secure him a place in the history of the performing arts more than his work in Vegas. Initially the genius behind Mystere, the company’s first permanent attraction which opened at Treasure Island in 1993, and then with the mesmeric “O” at the Bellagio, opening that groundbreaking former Steve Wynn hotel in 1998, both permanent Dragone productions continue to play on to packed houses to this day.

Still, Dragone longed to create without any limitations and, in 2000, he did the unthinkable, leaving Cirque du Soleil to strike out on his own. Six years later, he became a far more important figure in the artistic evolution of Sin City by inventing two of the grandest presentations to date to energize the Strip: Celine Dion’s original show at Caesars Palace, deemed so spectacular that it inadvertently made its star look even more like an Iowan housewife than usual, and Le Reve, his haunting “small collection of imperfect dreams.”

It wasn’t long after Dragone split from the Cirque that unstoppably prolific hotelier Steve Wynn approached him to create a show to become the flagship for his phenomenal new mega-resort. Housed in a majestic auditorium-sized theatre built at the Wynn entirely for the show, the otherworldly Le Reve (“The Dream”) revolves around a huge 68½-foot pool of water where audience members join the consciousness of a young woman swooning in her sleep in a flowered bier worthy of Sleeping Beauty for a breakneck 90 minutes of aerial and aquatic splendor never before seen on any stage.

Led in a somnambulant state through a series of wild adventures by the wizard-like Dream Master (Didier Antoine, who also designed the original aerial concepts in the show), our sleepwalking ingenue is repeatedly approached by two sensuous suitors, the princelike True Love and the ominous Dark Passion—as well as a couple of comic relief Lancelot Gobbos thrown in for good measure—who haunt her journey through a hallucinogenic dreamstate that defies the bounds of conventional reality.

The original cost of creating this extravaganza and building its own 2,087-seat theatre with no seat farther than 42 feet from the playing space has stealthily not been disclosed, but comparable shows housed permanently on the Strip when it debuted in 2005 averaged around $30 to $40 million. Since this is theatre-in-the-round and no wing or storage space is available offstage to hold elaborate movable set pieces, designer Claude Santerre’s incredibly mammoth hydraulic-controlled pieces mostly either rise from the water or are flown in from above, as are many of the performers themselves.

As live white doves flutter above our heads and the score by longtime Dragone collaborator Benoit Jutras (Mystere, “O,” Quidam) contributes a mixture of a live band and vocals with eerie recorded folk music from Serbia, a series of lifts emerge from below to create a stage when needed, rising and dipping, breaking apart and, for the show’s extraordinary final tableaux, turning into a fountain to rival Bethesda. The almost hallucinatory newly redesigned lighting effects by Koert Vermeulen shimmer off the water’s surface as the jaw-dropping special effects simulate rain, snow, and fire.

Now redesigned since I first saw the show in 2005 and under the innovative direction of Phillip Wm. McKinley and Production Designer Michel Crete, there’s an almost palpable reverence and respect for the water obvious in the work of Le Reve’s unique assemblage of gratefully scantily-clad performers, a collective appreciation amongst the cast for its power and a celebration of its inherent beauty. With brilliantly colorful and gorgeously sensual costuming designed by Claude Renard able to withstand both acrobatic stretching and emersion into water—but still demanding replacement every two weeks due to the rigors of the show—the 86 onstage athletes, gymnasts, Olympic champions, high-divers and world-class swimmers are of course the heart of this ensemble was hand chosen from some of the most amazing artists performing all over the world.

Of course, the name Le Reve came to Wynn in honor of one of his many art treasures, Pablo Picasso’s infamous 1932 portrait of the same name portraying his 22-year-old mistress Marie-Therese Walter—you know, that painting, the one Wynn accidentally stuck an elbow through while showing it off to friends in 2005. It is perfectly honored here, complete with a gossamer hint of Spanish themes weaving through the action, especially the thrilling tangos and paso dobles choreographed by Giuliano Peparini performed around the rim of the stage circle while the swimmers and divers do their thing.

Which brings me to the seating for Le Reve, because I have a new favorite place to view the wonders here. The very back row of the arena is called the Dream Seating section, a well-placed bank of luxurious velvet-covered loungers surrounding the entire stage. Patrons willing to give up a few more of those hard-earned buckaroos watch the show not only from the stage but from their own private video monitors placed right before them.

Shooting the action first in the bowels of the theatre as the cast and dressers and technicians prepare to go onstage, the monitors follow the performers as they take the elevators to the overhead area to strap in for Le Reve’s first human aerial assault from above. The cameras then offer another spectacular and totally unique view underwater during the performance as the artists hook up with 16 scuba divers to utilize air stations and move equipment into place for the next wonder to come.

The next section of seats closer to the stage is called the Golden Circle, which the producers say is the best view of the entire experience, followed by the panoramic Grandview section, offering a sweeping view of both the stage and the entire theatre.

Still, the first two rows of seats closest to the action are called the Poolside Seats and during this, my third time seeing Le Reve, I decided I wanted to check it out from there for the first time. I asked if this meant we should expect to be splashed or if the house handed out raincoats as they do seated close at the Blue Man Group at Monte Carlo, but I was told we might get hit with about five drops, but that was about it—and they were right, except for a little misting we didn’t mind at all.

So here’s the deal: for me, the Poolside Seating was the best placement so far. Not only is it the least expensive section in which to purchase tickets, as it’s thought to have a limited view of the show, it doesn’t. Instead, it delivers an incredible 3-D panorama of worldclass artistry and outrageous feats of skill which happen right directly in front of and high above you. And at the risk of sounding all Harvey Weinstein-y (or in my case, all Kevin Spacey-y), if you’re a connoisseur of gorgeously-toned young bodies costumed in the barest essentials of aerodynamic swimwear emerging from the water dripping wet only a few feet in front of you, Poolside is the perfect place to be.

As much as I have adored repeated viewings of “O” over the past two decades since I attended its indelibly memorable opening night in 1998, from the first time I experienced the sheer wonder of Le Reve, I couldn’t help feeling it makes its illustrious predecessor look a tad anemic in comparison. Maybe it was seeing those same tired sailor clowns in their stained Navy whites plug the same old holes on their sinking house for the umpteenth time that made me want to run for the nearest exit when I last saw “O,” but Le Reve’s bolder incarnation of unique water-based entertainment is a far more adventurous journey.

Tickets for Le Reve are available at the Wynn Las Vegas box office, online at www.wynnlasvegas.com, or by phone at (702) 770-WYNN

MINDFREAK LIVE

Photo by Heather Burdette

Luxor Hotel, Las Vegas

When Believe, Criss Angel’s original collaborative production with Cirque du Soleil, debuted at the Luxor nearly a decade ago, I got myself in a heap of trouble. For once, a critic was seen as criticizing other critics and you’d have thought I was a doctor blackballed for badmouthing other doctors. My colleagues sure could dish it out but not take it and all that. I, in turn, found their distemper rather funny. At least I knew people were reading me.

Still, when Believe opened in 2008, I was part of a definite minority. See, I liked it. Most reviewers were not kind and when I wrote about the experience, I noted for anyone in the business of reviewing theatrical productions—or for anyone attempting to critique anything as illusive and subjective as the creation of any artform—the most important thing is to maintain a perpetual sense of wonder for this miraculous evolution of the inherently intangible. The ability to enter every situation with a blank slate is the key, but since most of us crusty old critics spend our lives dissecting anything mounted for public consumption, it’s easy to get a tad jaded and lose that initial sense of amazement, to somehow gradually compromise our original hushed respect for the creative process.

Keeping this in mind, the reviews for Believe were decidedly mixed. For me, the problem was most of the show’s critics had forgotten to wipe away all those nasty expectations and failed to keep that slate clear as though they’ve never seen a Cirque du Soleil production before. Guaranteed, if this had been the first exposure to the continuously stellar work offered by the Cirque—or, for that matter, a first look at the individual style and signature talents of Criss Angel—those same writers would have been sufficiently awestruck.

This also seemed to be the problem in reverse for a lot of diehard fans who felt Angel’s non-traditional roughhewn sleight-of-hand style was missing and that the artistry of the Cirque’s lyrical dreamlike splendor got in the way, that the show’s balletic rabbits, ethereal musical score, and 20-ton industrial steamrollers had nothing to do with watching their Joe Pesci-voiced heavy-metal-clad cult hero do his thing. See, again: if no one had any preconceptions of what to expect, I’m convinced no one would be disenchanted with Believe for a minute.

As Cirque founder and perpetual guide Guy Laliberte commented at a press conference in the theatre the afternoon of the production’s glittery opening on Halloween night, 2008, “What we’ve concocted together is a blend of the Cirque’s artistic knowledge with the mysteries of what is Criss’ magic.” Don’t let anyone tell you it was anything different: it was a haunting, one-of-a-kind production that truly defied anyone’s expectations, even the creators’ original concepts, I’m sure. But Believe was never the runaway hit that other Cirque shows are in Vegas and so last year, they agreed to let Angel reinvent their long-contracted collaboration. The result is Mindfreak Live, far more evocative of the magician’s once highly-popular cable TV show of the same name and without any Russian acrobats flying over our heads in their skivvies.

Beginning with a wonderfully rocked-out, loud and choppy video montage featuring photos from Angel’s angelic youth and ending with scenes from his TV show, two brazenly Vegas-y assistants, the pintsized Mateo Amieva, who sounds a little like Desi Arnaz on helium, and zoftig Judy Holliday-clone Penny Wiggins (Psychic Tanya in The Amazing Johnathan’s show at the old Sahara), take the stage to attempt magic that of course intentionally doesn’t work. It's a bit of an overkill as they poke fun at Amieva’s stature and broken English, interspersed with slightly offcolor jokes about Wiggins' intelligence and sexual appitite.

It's frankly all rather underwhelming until the bare-chested Mindfreak himself descends from above, his wonders to perform. Angel is amazingly charismatic and, considering the interview I did with him 10 years ago was on the eve of his 40th birthday, one must begin to wonder if he has a portrait of himself locked in a closet somewhere really going to hell. Though quick to point out at any point how legendary he is, modestly slipping in that he's often heralded as the "best magician in the world,"  there's some unbelievably jaw-dropping stuff offered here. These include watching one of his many nubile blonde honeys (who interestingly all look like Holly Madison, his girlfriend when I met him in 2008) sawed in half by an enormous FuManchu-sized buzzsaw, her two wriggling disembodied halves bleeding profusely and looking as though handed down from one of the legion of Sharknado sequels.

Although I could have done without the cheesy old-style assistants (except perhaps one hilarious sight gag as Wiggins tries to explain how she scored comps for the Blue Man Group without realizing she has blue makeup smeared all over her mouth), the singular star of this show is Criss Angel. He immediately dominates the stage with his raucous street performer's delivery, pontificating to his disciples with that familiar Lon-gah Island accent reminiscent of Tony Curtis pointing out “Yondah lies da castle of my fadda," as he makes live doves appear from his studded leather sleeves and dramatically escapes from a straightjacket suspended Houdini-like high overhead.

There’s no doubt the guy aces some mind-blowing magic but surprisingly, Mindfreak Live relies on delivering mostly standard illusions, so there’s not much unexpected here. There are hints of pure brilliance, but this show could be absolute dynamite if it tried a little harder to introduce something new, not just resurrect Angel’s familiar tricks and the rather dated Goth-inspired performance style which first brought him attention back when Paul Stanley still painted a star over his right eye.

Billed as "A New Breed of Magic," it really isn't, exactly. Granted, it is suitably in-your-face, with lots of shimmering glitz, massive fire effects, sensational live musicians, incredible video game-inspired sets, and more than its share of tiny-waisted showgirls with the best abs on the planet. But unlike David Copperfield, whose show down the street always features fresh illusions never before attempted, one could always watch old episodes of Angel's TV show and see the same act.

Criss Angel’s exceptional talent and streetwise charisma are still the heart and soul of Mindfreak Live and for many, just seeing him in person will be more than enough. As for me, I guess I'm one of those world-weary curmudgeonly old critics after all.

Tickets sre available at the Luxor’s box office, online at www.cirquedusoleil.com or www.luxor.com, or by phone at 702.262.4400

Oh, I don't know. Just because. 

The Beatles' LOVE 

Photo by Freddy Maron

Mirage Hotel, Las Vegas

It’s what I recently preached about being a critic, that keeping an open mind and looking at the familiar with a fresh eye for the unexpected is what it’s all about. The Beatles’ LOVE, the long-running Cirque du Soleil extravaganza that has successfully metamorphosed the Mirage Hotel from being all about overmarketed white tigers into becoming the host one of the most groundbreaking musical collaborations of all time, has recently been “updated”—sometimes a dirty word in Las Vegas.

I returned to see LOVE for the third time over the holidays with some trepidation, since I have what I’d like to think is a personal history with the show. When it first premiered back in 2006, I was given access to the machinations of creating the show. I was in groupie heaven, able to hang around backstage watching rehearsals and getting to know the artists. I spoke with two amazing “Sirs,” the Beatles’ producer George Martin and, on opening night, Paul McCartney himself.

In awe, I observed the down-to-the-wire refining of Philippe Guillotel’s now-famous period-shouting costuming, then interviewed prop goddess Patricia Ruhl and puppet mastermind Michael Curry (also responsible for the Cirque’s magnificent KA down the street at the MGM Grand and The Lion King on Broadway). Why, I even got to enjoy a memorable “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” experience with an unearthly beautiful server I met at the opening night party.

The reworked current version of LOVE is in many ways simplified, which is surprisingly not a bad thing. It now seems less about the spectacle and more about the music and what is evokes in us. For some reason, I heard the gossamer lyrics of John and Paul as clearly this time as if they were onstage reciting their game-changing urban poetry and, oddly, the signature wonders of the Cirque took a respectful backseat for me to what these guys had to say about the world from the perspective of a half-century past. Prophetic, so much of it—and sadly, so little has been heeded or has changed about our fucked-up species since they first introduced their inspirational classic tunes.

Granted, I have been a Beatles fan since my friend brought the White Album over to my house in the fall of 1968 after standing in line overnight waiting for it to be released, an event that stretched from one “enhanced” morning into the next and made me fall deeply in thrall with the Fab Four and their ever-evolving music for the first time as the fireplace in my living room melted onto the floor.

Now, all these years later, my partner whispered to me, as he sat open-jawed watching the wonders of LOVE for the first time, “It’s like dropping acid again.” Close. Really close. For me, however, what it made me recall even stronger was that opening night in the summer of 2006 when it all unfolded before me for the first time. Truly, though almost 12 years ago, I saw it all so vividly it Felt like it had all happened about 18 months ago.

During that week dragging myself through the sweltering Vegas summer, my first glimpse into what would become a legendary production took place in the bowels of the Mirage where Siegfried and Roy once housed their lions and tigers before and after performances. It was complete with ominous scratch marks remaining along the hallway and remnants of the bolts that once fastened their cages in place still visible on the walls, but now acrobats soared to the high ceiling of the room on long vertical ropes while rehearsing for the much-anticipated opening of Cirque’s fifth permanent Vegas attraction.

Unlike those overly trained and obviously unhappy white-striped beasts of yore, helpless to say whether they wanted to be there or not all those years, these newly arrived airborne human artisans had been rehearsing for months—and not just to learn how to soar like Lucy in the Sky. In keeping with the “Here Comes the Sun” number, the performers honored a song written when the Beatles were into their metaphysical-transcendental stage by fiercely researching and diligently studying a mix of yoga techniques and Eastern Indian dance. Whether or not they tried a couple of tabs of Clear Light to understand the mood and atmosphere of that colorful era lost in time, they didn’t say.

Let’s just say commitment among the huge cast, as well as the multitude of backstage artists and technicians pushing the LOVE payroll to about 200, was a given—and obviously still is over a decade later. Bowing at every turn to the Beatles’ groundbreaking sound, the Cirque and MGM International joined forces with Apple Music to stage this still magical mystery tour, miraculously engineering new life into some of the 20th century’s most enduring music—and still keeping it alive and well all these years later.

In the process, they shaped a musical revolution of sorts by bringing together the brilliance of the most imaginative and successful composers of the last century with the most innovative troupe of performance artists working anywhere today, a formula that subsequently did them well with Viva Elvis, which opened the Aria there in 2010, and Michael Jackson ONE, currently playing still at Mandalay Bay. It’s a given that the Cirque reinvented this bizarre town over the past quarter-century since Mystere took the infamous desert oasis by storm in 1993. Wayne Newton has never been the same.

The original opening festivities were overshadowed by the presence of Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, as well as Sir Paul, who answered all questions rather dourly and barely venturing past one syllable, and his only other remaining bandmate, the newly elevated Sir Ringo Starr. Still, the most incredible part of covering the event was meeting and talking to the late-great George Martin, the then-octogenarian producer of all the Beatles’ albums and co-musical director of LOVE with his son Giles.

Working for two years on this project, Sir George admitted that night it was thrilling even for him. Not content with creating a retrospective or tribute show, the Martins insisted instead on bringing to each of the 2,013 audience members the personal experience of being in a small recording studio listening to the music for the first time.

In their sound studio high above the stage, an exact replica of Abbey Road Studios (“So much so we felt like laboratory hamsters whenever we moved something,” he admitted), the Martins practiced their signature sorcery. “Our mission was to try and achieve the same intimacy we get when listening to the master tapes at the studio,” he proudly explained. “The songs sound so alive. A lot of people listen to the Beatles in a conventional way—radio, MP3 player or car, for example—but never in such a space as this.”

Creating a kind of directional panoramic mode in the theatre-in-the-round by embedding two speakers in the back of every seat, the sounds of LOVE engulf and envelope the audience, achieving, as Sir George believed, “a real sense of drama with the music, [making] the audience feel as though they are actually in the room with the band.”

This is made more unique since the master tapes utilized were not designed for a record, not mined from the old classic albums or concert performances, but cut during the boys’ stints in the studio making small promotional films. Often featuring improvised quips as they goofed off and joked casually with one another, the final mix offers, as Sir George reasoned to me with infectious, childlike enthusiasm, “such an immediate sound… not ‘muffly’ like with so many shows in rooms this size.”

And today even more than before, unlike any Cirque du Soleil production before it, LOVE is a spirited and colorful homage of the era in which The Beatles soared—and the designers and creators did everything in their power (and they have a lot of resources from which to draw) to revive that global phenomenon known in my lost youth as Beatlemania. Beginning with real live Nowhere Men shuffling alone onto the stage to reluctantly visit a modest “Nowhere Land,” four scrim-obscured sides of the 360-degree experience soon lift grandly into a brave new world.

Acrobats scale ropes leading from a deep smoking pit around the stage to the riggings high above, twirling around the dismal scene of WWII-torn Liverpool, the exact time when John Lennon was born during the last Blitz. As brick walls burst and four small mop-topped children cower in their beds, the chillingly omniscient voices of the Beatles fill the enormous space to harmonize their glorious a cappella classic tune “Because.” Many of the Beatles’ characters are present onstage, including Eleonor Rigby, Father McKenzie, Sgt. Pepper, Lady Madonna, Mr. Kite, and the Walrus, as the chronology of the Beatles’ music journeys from the early eager goofy enthusiasm, through the drug-enhanced and meditation eras, and on to a spectacular finale of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

The 90-minute ride is like nothing anyone has ever seen before, thanks to the creators’ ability to make it all alternately imposing yet surprisingly intimate. Populated not only with typical Cirque aerialists and gymnasts but with street performers, ballet artists, hip-hoppers, tap and break dancers, some originally pulled right off the curb who’d never been onstage show before, there could not be a greater or more devoted homage to the colossal talents of the Beatles than LOVE.

Theatre and set designer Jean Rabesse was given a totally blank blueprint schematic of the former Siegfried and Roy stage and told to do whatever he wanted—a designer’s dream. Like the Martins, Rabesse wanted to go, he told me in 2006, inside the "universe of the 1960s" beginning in the lobby itself, and thought the idea of creating a black box recording studio feeling “was a natural” to put the audience in the studio with the band. A lot of what he created was conjured in computerized 3-D: “Other shows work with models and drawings,” he explained, “but this one had to be seen as a POV from every seat and all angles.” This result, he suggested, is that one needs to come back “four to 10 times to see everything,” bringing a hint of the original three-ring roots of the circus to mind—again, thankfully, without imprisoning and domesticating wild animals.

Augmenting the inspiration of LOVE’s conceptual creator Guy Laliberte, who first conjured the idea for the production while hanging with his bud, the late-great Saint George (Harrison) himself, are incredible video projections fabricated by Francis Laporte, who admitted to me behind the scenes in his own studio that a scant two years ago he never would have had the tools to achieve the heights of visual wonder he did with LOVE. Utilizing mostly unearthed promotional films featuring the Beatles at their most relaxed, his aim was to be as timeless as possible. This is apparent in a spectacular mounting of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” as projected letters of the alphabet float down, projected across screens from above. “We wanted the feeling of words falling,” explained Laporte, “like a dream falling apart.”

Asked about the inclusion of four children depicted without faces wearing plastic Beatles mob-headed helmets reminiscent of Devo, director-writer Dominic Champagne’s ability to conjure a personal connection with the bandmembers becomes apparent. “Remember, John Lennon was the most famous man on the planet after Jesus Christ back then,” he explained just before opening night.

The Beatles were back then as puzzled by their own rampant fame as anyone else, making them feel almost invisible within the claustrophobic confines of their own celebrity. This emphasis is also visible in the presence of one lost Chaplin-like Nowhere Man, whose presence is meant to reflect the loss of freedom and personal space Lennon was experiencing when he referred to himself as a ‘nowhere man.’ “You know, for any of us,” said Champagne with a grin, “all we need is love.”

The scariest thing for me sitting among the first people to see LOVE was the audience dotted with ancient gray and white heads reminiscent of a group of subscribers gathered for opening night of some old musical warhorse at La Mirada Civic. My immediate thought, as the walls themselves came alive with the sound of Beatles’ music cranked to full volume, was that the usual Vegas audiences might not appreciate the decibel level.

And not much has changed. Footlong margaritas still in hand and wearing what Rita Rudner once quipped to me where clothes that make her want to go up to them and say, “Excuse me, but what are you thinking?,” the minute the sounds of John, Paul, Ringo and John’s vocals filled the huge auditorium, all those gray and white heads came alive, bopping and weaving like psychedelicized flower children just as we did 50 years ago. Those ancient heads, you see, were my contemporaries, something that made me want to go back to my suite, melt into the pillowtop mattress, and pull the covers over my own rapidly-graying head.

But after partying the night away at that original opening bash, toe-to-toe with the performers and artisans of LOVE break dancing ‘til nearly dawn, I realized back then what a remarkable impact my generation has made on the world in general and the future of music in particular.

As my students continually quiz me about my days touring in Hair, booking the Troubadour in its artistic heyday, or working for Jim Morrison and The Doors, their adoration for my era is obvious, not like when we Boomers were kids, listening with moderate curiosity as our parents waxed nostalgic about swinging to Tommy Dorsey or listening to Rosemary Clooney warbling about the cost of doggies in the window.

There was nothing wrong with those simpler days that also bravely paved the way for my generation's own historic musical emergence, but it was nothing like what we accomplished in the late 60s and early 70s before disco strip-mined the experience, bringing with us sounds that laid the groundwork for the unstoppable musical freedom of today.

For all those yunguns’ who worship our Boomer-years youth, you should; there was nothing like it for those of us who somehow managed to survive it. And in the last dozen years, there’s still nowhere to absorb that experience better than by heading to the Mirage to let your mind soar and your body groove to the wonder of the Beatles as though discovering them for the first time, reverently recreated and celebrated in LOVE, the best Cirque du Soleil production in their amazing 33-year career revolutionizing entertainment as we once knew it.

Tickets for LOVE are available at The Mirage or any MGM/Mirage box office, online at www.cirquedusoleil.com or www.mirage.com, or by calling (800) 963-9634

  See?  I'm an angel.