THE HUMANS 

Photo by Lawrence K. Ho

Ahmanson Theatre

It's not a surprise the landmark American musical Hamilton won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama a couple of seasons back, but it sure is a shame there wasn't a separate category instituted that year for a non-musical play, because Stephen Karam's The Humans, a finalist for that honor and that year's Tony winner for Best Play, is also one of the most significant—and wickedly funny—in modern theatrical history.

Karam's Sons of the Prophet, which debuted here at the Blank Theatre in 2015, was one of my top picks for Best Play in my annual Ticketholders Award honors and is still my very favorite work by one of our time's most important emerging dramatists, but there is no doubt The Humans deserves every accolade it has garnered, including additional Tonys for both Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell, both of whom currently reprise their much-heralded and indelible performances in the play's premiere at the Ahmanson.

With its original New York direction also recreated here by the dynamic Joe Mantello, The Humans is quite a conundrum. Karam's humor is as contemporary and sharp as a tack, but the story of the Blake family, gathering for the family's annual Thanksgiving Day dinner in the dingy new lower-eastside Manhattan flat of their younger daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Rich (Nick Mills) as they wait for their furniture to be delived, is at its core as tragic as that of those notoriously dysfunctional Tyrones, the Lomans, or the Westons of Osage County.

On David Zinn’s evocative two-story set, Mantello does a masterful job moving the Blakes around both floors of Brigid and Nick's noisy, electricity-challenged, and rather depressingly claustrophobic apartment, not the ideal spot for a homey family holiday gathering or a warm fuzzy dinner on paper plates with wine offered in paper cups. Even the family's Alzheimer's afflicted matriarch “Momo” (Lauren Klein) must be taken outside into the hall to deliver her wheelchair by elevator to the bottom basement floor while the knee-challenged Weight Watcher write-off Deidre (Houdyshell) and her cancer-stricken elder daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck) must frequently trudge up and down the clanking metal spiral staircase to use the john.

As this typically conflicted modern 'Merkin brood—professed by Aimee to admit to a “lot of stoic silence” rather than acknowledging the obvious need for some intense therapy—goes through the machinations of initiating one of those mythical Rockwellian over the river and through the woodsy family holiday dinners, complete with ritualistic wishing games and an uplifting Irish ballad passed down through the generations, it's not hard to see the radiating waves of pain emanating below the surface from each and every one of those gathered.

As Barbara Fordham observes in that infamous and equally dysfunctional funereal dinner hosted by the recently widowed Violet Weston, if our species could see our own future, we might never get out of bed. Here, listening to Brigid and Rich's zombified Generation Y efforts to eat and live healthy, the clan's quietly curmudgeonly patriarch Eric (Birney) echoes this more accurate than dystopian edict describing the rapidly disintegrating American middleclass, wondering why, when everyone seems so miserable, we're always trying to find ways to live forever.

Birney is breathtakingly simple as Eric, from the earliest moments appearing alone silhouetted in the harsh light of an open doorway, able to convey a man in deep torment who is doing everything in his power to hide it. Houdyshell could not be a better partner as his long-suffering, transparently bossy but lovable wife, especially as she deals with sharing a deeply troubling secret the couple feels they must share with the family before they head home to Philly.

Together, these two remarkably talented actors are clearly in tune with one another, especially after all this time to bounce off each other's characters, proving the Tony committee certainly knew what they were doing when they considered all the exceptional work presented on Broadway in 2016 and chose to honor them. The rest of this original New York ensemble, also bolstered by the experience of working together for so long to collectively develop and further explore Karam's subtly complex characters, is equally and uniquely brilliant, each proficient in the art of talking over each another with just as much familiarly as all families and panelmembers on The View exhibit whenever they get together.

Beck and Steele are also wonderful as the Blakes' loving but desperately unhappy daughters, Aimee mourning the death of her relationship while facing the probable end of her career as she faces major surgery for her debilitating illness and Brigid frustrated that her own career as a composer seems destined to be stillborn. And in the play's pair of less spotlit roles, Klein is a definite asset in a non-verbal role that only takes shape with occasional outbursts of geriatric dementia-fueled gibberish, while Mills holds his own as the play's most unresolved character, a guy more sketched than written and mostly defined in his stereotypical millennial nerd behavior such as posting one of many lists on the fridge promoting "Ways to have fun."

Even more than offering some of the most sensational ensemble work of the year, Karam’s masterpiece features unspoken seventh and eighth characters: Mantello's exquisitely fluid, almost filmic staging in a difficult space and the production's incredibly participatory design team. Zinn's creepy Chinatown flat, coupled with Justin Townsend's eerie ever-diminishing lighting effects and Fitz Patton's bump-in-the-nighty sound plot featuring creaking floorboards, neighbors banging on the ceiling above so hard the entire audience jumps in their seats, and the oppressive whine of trash compactors and laundry room spin cycles, is as ominously nightmarish as the sleep-depriving dreams haunting Eric’s existence.

The only glaring negative here is not the material or the performances but the venue, which despite everything can’t help flatten the play out somewhat. The Humans should have been booked into the Taper or the Douglas or the Geffen, but the Ahmanson is simply too massive and austere to house such an intimate and intentionally claustrophobic play. Still, the production could be seen as even more impressive as it defies the choice of theatre.

I would also love to have the truncated nature of the family feast explained. No sooner do the Blakes get seated for dinner than it's suddenly over; there's barely enough time to finish the cranberry sauce before they're clearing the table and calling for a car to bring the folks home. I realize this is still a play and not real life, but surely a writer as clever as Karam could devise a good reason to make the time spent eating dinner more than the CliffsNotes version of the story.

Karam’s troubled Blake family is the quintessential descendant of those aforementioned classic American theatrical families, those created in the fertile minds of misters O'Neill, Miller, and Letts. The Humans’ contribution to theatrical history was a perfect choice for Pulitzer consideration because the play chronicles exactly who we are in this country at this particular juncture in time: a people more and more disenfranchised and discouraged with our crumpling society and the death of the proverbial "American Dream."

If we all aren't eradicated by the current insanity being forced upon us every day, future generations of Americans and world citizens will be able to study and see The Humans performed to help them comprehend the origins of what a fucked-up mess we've made of our advantages at this juncture in the evolution of our ridiculously flawed species.

THROUGH JULY 29: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

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 AUG. 5: Celebration Theatre, 6760 Lexington Av., Hollywood. 323.957.1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com

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.

Pantages Theatre: NOW CLOSED

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

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

 

  See?  I'm an angel.