Photo courtesy of the Wallis Annenberg Center

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

In the world premiere of Tom Dugan’s intriguing solo play Jackie Unveiled, Saffron Burrows as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis looks into the eyes of those gathered at the Wallis’ intimate Lovelace Theatre and offers a confession to the “kind, understanding faces of the future” sitting in the dark before her. Between gulping down handfuls of pills with massive quantities of the finest scotch, which she confides to hating because it tastes like tragedy, Jackie indeed has a lot to say. “I can’t do another sunrise,” she admits to us. “They’re too hopeful.”

It’s June 6, 1968 and, with her young children Caroline and John-John asleep nearby in their rooms, the former First Lady takes the constantly ringing phone off its cradle and calmly begins to implement the steps necessary to commit suicide. Although she jokes that if she’d married a plumber she would have off-ed herself long before, the latest assault against her is proving impossible to bear, having just watched the assassination of her sometimes-lover Bobby Kennedy—there’s a revelation for you—unfold live on television. “I never realized how brutal this world is,” she says through her haze of obvious pain, “until Jack died.”

Jackie had learned a lot of life lessons through the years spent in her gold-gilded fishbowl, beginning with dealing with her lecherous and demanding father-in-law Joseph Kennedy, who makes it clear early on that if she’s going to be part of the Kennedy clan, she’d better understand to him presentation is everything. Her brutish, Trumpian father-in-law inspects her like a prize racehorse and later laughs when she’s touched by Richard Nixon’s tears at the bedside of her husband following back surgery. “Don’t be naïve, Jackie,” Joe barks. “He just smells blood.”

Burrows is sensational as Jackie, who wonders if she, like her aunt and cousin Big and Little Edie Beale, will eventually end up wandering around her own personal Grey Gardens as mad as they became. With an uncanny (onstage) resemblance and adopting a nifty American accent that recalls all the signature vocal intonations without resorting to the usual breathy bad imitation, Burrows grabs us from the start with a strength and resiliency few other actors successfully realize.

By the second act, which takes place in the early 90s in her austere yet lavish Fifth Avenue apartment (with acknowledgement to Francois-Pierre Couture’s impressively detailed set), the previously unstoppable survivor fights her final courageous battle with cancer. Here Burrows’ Jackie has aged gracefully, matured with an obvious steel-like outer shield forged from years suffering firmly in place against the world around her.

She continues to surprise us with personal information never before offered in such detail, from the recollection of a young Hillary Clinton trying to squeeze into a swimsuit on Ari’s yacht wondering with dread if she’ll need a personal stylist to make her presentable if she becomes First Lady, to Jackie’s mother quipping that the only thing the Kennedy White House had in common with Camelot was that Jack came a lot. And when she chillingly starts to detail the assassination of her husband, something that Mrs. Kennedy always insisted she could not remember, the moment is riveting. “After the first shot,” she delivers in an almost hypnotic trance, “Jack turned to me with a quizzical look, as if to say, ‘I thought we had more time.’”

From the exquisitely subtle yet kinetic direction of Jenny Sullivan, who manages to lead one performer roaming aimlessly around one stationary room on her journey without ever fighting for our attention, to the brilliantly poetic and absorbing script by Dugan, to the lovely design contributions (particularly Randall Robert Tico's evocative sound plot), this production and its star do one great service to the community.

See, Jackie Unveiled gratefully exorcises the soulless one-note delivery of Natalie Portman in last year’s otherwise exceptional movie Jackie, which proved that the star, although a fine technician, is capable of conjuring about as much heart and emotional profundity as Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole—both Oscar-nominated performances, by the way, if anyone needs reinforcement that Hollywood today has about as much depth as a retired coke mirror.

With true appreciation for Dugan, Sullivan, and Burrows, this new vision of Jackie O is exceptional, revealing more than ever before about this great American icon who lived before our nation devolved into a bad reality show. Jackie Unveiled indelibly chronicles the life of a true queen of denial—an acquired trait Dugan’s heroine admits to relishing because she’s so damn good at it.

THROUGH MAR. 18: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Bl., Beverly Hills. 310.746.4000


Photo by Darrett Sanders

Circle X and Echo Theater Company 

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Plays dealing with dysfunctional families are suffering from major overkill these days, but plays delving into the sexual abuse scandals running rampant in the Catholic Church are quickly inching up to become a close second.

An Undivided Heart by Yusuf Toropov, world premiering as a joint effort between Circle X and Echo Theater Company, is one of those latter plays and, although Toropov tries valiantly to break through with a few new wrinkles added to the theme of creepy abhorrent priests and the now-adult sullied altarboys who pursue them in an effort to exorcise their own demons, he only confuses things rather than offering anything new.

Ironically, the best scene in the entire play is the first, where Tim Wright as the ever-searching brother of one of those crusading formerly-fucked acolytes (Matthew Gallenstein) meets a miserable pregnant clerk running a local town dump (the bravely quirky Alana Dietze), who so blisteringly verbally abuses him that it sends her into labor. It is a scene of great promise—but that’s before the play turns into a scattered epic-in-training without a clear destination in sight.

The puzzle is why Toropov felt the need to add in everything but the kitchen sink to tell his story, but his lack of focus robs us of what might be an interesting journey and leaves us disinterested in anybody. From the church hiding the behavior of erring priests from the public to a never totally explored offshoot about the toxic drinking water scandal in Massachusetts in the early 90s, An Undivided Heart would seem to want to talk about people burying the truth to save their souls—if you’ll excuse the reference—but never successfully resolves much of anything.

Instead, the tale becomes diluted by excess, wandering off into a blossoming romance, as well as scenes between the young priest and a ghostly spirit of a young child (Ann’Jewel Lee), who spouts poetic riddles for him to unravel, and the appearance of a beneficent Zen master (Tracy A. Leigh), who answers every query with a serene smile and yet another unanswered question.

The play is simply populated with too many characters and storylines, when if it concentrated on the crisis in the church or Dietze and her relationship with the new guy she might actually be able to trust and the mother who thinks they have to go through their trials together because “that’s what God made families for,” there might not be need for an intermission.

Even the hilarious performance of Michael Sturgis as the Cardinal’s bizarrely quirky assistant, who belts songs and does everything but cartwheels to entertain Gallenstein’s character whenever he shows up for hand slap and ring kiss with his boss, makes no sense to the story, obviously included more for comic relief than for any real purpose.

Gallenstein has some truly fine moments, but his simple, straightforward, and touchingly heartfelt delivery is oddly hampered by his habit of, after finishing each important line, adding some needless extraneous pained facial expression with such repetition that it begins to feel like a self-inflicted editorial on his own work.

Dietze and the venerable John Getz, appearing only in two brief scenes as a smooth but slippery Cardinal trying to keep the young priest from publishing his obligatory tell-all book, offer the best moments in the play, showing what a treat it would be if the playwright had scaled down his storyline and not tried to branch off into so many subplots that all of them get lost in the shuffle.

Alison Martin contributes a poignant turn as Dietze’s dying mother desperately trying to keep her daughter from leaving town or committing suicide, but the rest of the ensemble is glaringly uneven, from the brilliance of Dietze, Getz, and Sturgis to the nearly unwatchable mugging and fluttering body movements of Jeff Alan-Lee as the ultra-icky priest who likes to take compromising photos of underage parishioners. Like Sturgis’ character, Wright as Dietze’s savior and Paul Eiding as yet another obligatory world-weary priest are basically unnecessary as they slog through their terribly underwritten roles.

Although Lee is extremely talented and suitably feisty, her underdeveloped youthful voice is nearly impossible to understand except in one scene when she doubles as a real live girl. Would that director Chris Fields had tried putting her dialogue in the fantasy scenes on tape; since they take place in a dreamstate, there’s no reason her mouth needs to be moving and then audience members would not be collectively craning their necks forward in their seats in an effort to hear her mysterious verse.

The production itself is beautifully designed, especially Cricket Myers’ evocative sound plot and Amanda Knehans’ minimal but arresting all-red Rothko-inspired set. Still, considering a playing space this size, which runs the length of the converted warehouse, surely Fields could have utilized Rose Malone’s talent for lighting design, keeping all the furniture in one place throughout and avoiding so many clunky scene changes. When the action and actors meld from one scene into the next without forcing them to double as Bekins movers, it works like gangbusters.

What could be a fascinating journey for An Undivided Heart is instead a mishmash, further exacerbated by Toporov’s indulgent and not-too subtle preaching about religion and the differences between the conflicts of Catholicism and the serenity of Buddhism. Even if meant to be the overlying point here, it would be easier to take if Toropov didn’t insist on tackling the issue as though offering a preliminary starter course in Zen 101.

THROUGH APR. 22: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Av., LA. 310.307.3753 or www.EchoTheaterCompany.com



Photo by Tim Sullins

Victory Theatre Center

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

There’s no doubt that LA playwright Wendy Graf has a wonderful way with words. Although usually presenting quirky dramatic storylines with an ever-present hint of political awareness, prior to the world premiere of her newest play, Unemployed Elephants—A Love Story at the Victory, the sharply provocative work of Graf has never before focused on the genre of romantic comedy.

Strangers Jane and Alex (Brea Bee and Marshall McCabe) find themselves plopped in adjoining chairs in the waiting room of an airport and it’s immediately a bristly, contentious first encounter. They disagree on most everything right from the start, quickly agreeing not to even share their given names with one another. Of course, both conflicted lone travelers are conveniently about to depart to the same exotic “Buddha Disneyland” destination, so what will become of their relationship over the course of 90-minutes is hardly a surprise. This is a romcom, after all, so the outcome is a given—if the play’s subtitle wasn’t enough of a hint.

Alex says he is off to Myanmar to do a story for Animal Planet on the collectively depressed elephants displaced by the banning of logging in the country’s depleted rainforests, while Jane is embarking solo on what was to be her honeymoon trip until her intended dumped her right before the wedding. These two wary, badly wounded people quickly decide to travel together and even share a hotel room, which is the first rather clumsy attitude change that forces these two gifted actors and their equally gifted director Maria Gobetti to have to work really, really hard.

The production values, as everything beautifully produced over the years at the venerable Victory, are top drawer, especially Evan Bartoletti’s simple but effective Southeast Asian-inspired design touches augmented by breathtaking views of the region delivered in Nick Santiago’s evocative projections. Still, the journey is hampered by frequent set changes made by the two actors, dragging down the action considerably when, perhaps, if the furniture remained in one place while the lighting and projections conjured the places the pair visits, the result would be less distracting.

The dialogue is continuously spiky and the characters, though clearly linked for no reason except to illicit a happy ending, are suitably charming. There’s no doubt Unemployed Elephants is funny and entertaining, but the biggest problem is that, like in the good ol’ Golden Era of film and television, the story itself is easy to second guess.

There was a time when this kind of romantic sparring was refreshing onstage, particularly if accompanied by such crisp and clever wordsmithery as that created by Graf, but that was before television comedies offered much better and less formulaic writing than during the restrictive family-oriented sitcom days of yore. Hollywood is a place where topical comedic magic happens on a fairly regular basis these days on the small screen without potential audience members having to abandon the comfort of their couches.

Still, in a perfect world, someone in attendance might realize that Unemployed Elephants could easily be turned into yet another popcorn-selling vehicle for Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman. So if Wendy Graf set out to prove how perfectly hirable she could be in our omnipresent “Industry” town, this should do the trick. Personally, I hope in the future she sticks to political non-correctness.

THROUGH APR. 15: Victory Theatre, 3324 W. Victory Blvd, Burbank. 818.841.5421 or thevictorytheatrecenter.org


Photo by Matthew Murphy

East West Players and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

So much heart, so much talent, so many urgent things to say in the LA premiere of Allegiance, the brave but basically non-cheery musical dealing with the sickeningly-skewed mandatory internment of 125,000 innocent Japanese-American citizens during World War Two, 80,000 of them second-generation “Niseii” born in the United States and citizens from birth.

With its noble beginnings in 2012 at the Old Globe in San Diego and through its three-month run on Broadway in 2015, Allegiance has suffered mixed reviews for the material in its artistic travels prior to arriving here, back where it belongs. This is partially just because it’s hardly a subject to warm the hearts of the typical fan of musical theatre seeking escape from life rather than wanting to go out to the theatre and be kicked in the head with our country’s shameful history during that period.

Granted, there isn’t much cheer offered here, something that sinks many contenders in its genre. With the exception of Next to Normal and Fun Home, serious subjects usually are far less well-received in the world of musical theatre than corn as high as an elephant’s eye, real good clambakes, and the problem of Maria. What makes this one worthy is the importance of its message and the spirited performances of the uniformly knockout cast assembled here for its debut at the amazing Aratani Theatre in downtown LA.

The effort also marks the auspicious debut of composer Jay Kuo, whose incredibly non-theatrical dayjob is as an appellate litigator and member of the US Supreme Court Bar. His music is gorgeous, lyrical and hauntingly delicate at times before bursting into bigassed musical extravaganzas such as “Wishes on the Wind,” the first giant production number that foretells of what might be great things to come.

As beautiful as are the many ballads by Kuo that weave throughout Allegiance, however, there are indeed way too many of them and soon they all start to sound alike. By the end of the hour-and-a-half first act, we’re all ballad-ed out. We’ve become glazed over by the onslaught of heartfelt solos sung by characters gazing wistfully over the audience’s heads as they painfully ask the cosmos for a better life.

The book by Kuo, Marc Acito, and Lorenzo Thione has some exceptional moments too but again, it desperately needs condensing. The dueling plots are interesting and the characters likable, but by final curtain we’ve been hit over the noggin a few too many times by the horrors of the situation forced upon these people, without enough of the fun the writers try to squeeze in with a few period Big Band numbers recalling a little Glenn Miller and a lot Cab Calloway.

Under the direction of East West’s artistic director Snehal Desai, the ensemble here is what is most inspirational in this production, all supremely talented performers who give everything they’ve got to make Allegiance work. Ethan Le Phong and Elena Wang as the tale’s major players, brother and sister Sammy and Kei Kimura, both have voices that could fill the Albert Hall and exhibit the kind of dynamic musical theatre chops which cannot be overlooked.

Although the production boasts the venerable George Takei’s name above the title, the former Mr. Sulu actually only has a supporting role, but it’s a distinction from which he transcends easily. As the warm and wise ojii-chan (grandfather) of the musical’s estranged siblings portrayed by Le Phong and Wang, the 80-year-old force of nature steals the show even if most of his singing is designed to be drowned out by huge choral accompaniment.

Doubling as Le Phong’s role when the story dips back to current times, Takei is a charmer as the elderly Sam Kimura, now a bitter old man donning his army uniform on Pearl Harbor Day when, as he grumbles, they “trot me out to prove I’m still alive.” Early warnings in this script guarantee a sappy, teary-eyed conclusion but again, Takei transcends the inevitable and tugs firmly at the heartstrings of even this crusty old reviewer. 

The message courageously shouted out in Allegiance is still vital and clear: Why indeed were these beleaguered loyal Americans asked to fight for their country while they and their families were subject to intolerable conditions in near-secret homegrown concentration camps, places without proper sanitation, privacy, medications, protection from horrendous weather conditions and, above all, some semblance of human decency?

It’s a question that today could not be more timely as our own cherished nation is being dragged into a dictatorship by an out-of-control bigoted madman edging toward his own Third Reich with the help of his shockingly soulless minions.

It’s also a great reason to support Allegiance which, despite its flaws, will leave you with a whole new appreciation for what we need to battle against with every fiber of decency left in us so nothing like this can ever, ever again happen in our country. Although those involved creating and performing here might be preaching to the choir, the opening number for Act Two says it all in its title alone: “Resist.”

THROUGH APR. 1: Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles. www.AllegianceMusical.com


Photo by Jeff Lorch

Boston Court Performing Arts Center

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Three weeks ago in New Orleans, we spent an amazing afternoon visiting Kenneth Holditch, one of our times’ most respected Tennessee Williams scholars, a cherished old friend who, at 84, is recuperating from major health issues in his museum-like home on Frenchman Street. When I mentioned how much I was looking forward to Michael Michetti’s reinvention of A Streetcar Named Desire, which just opened last Saturday at the unstoppably courageous Boston Court, Dr. Ken made a face that looked as though he was participating in the Lemon Challenge.

“I don’t appreciate anyone updating classics,” he grumbled—and in many ways, I agree with him. I could do without Shakespeare set in the Old West and other such flights of fancy usually implemented more as a gimmick than to make a statement, but when someone successfully adapts the timeless humanity of Chekhov to show how little has changed for our troubled species in the last 100 years or resets Romeo and Juliet as a turfwar between the Jets and Sharks in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, I am onboard bigtime.

More than that, long before I played the father of Tessa Thompson in Charles Mee’s overlooked treasure Summertime at this same theatre, also directed by the Boston Court’s co-artistic director Michetti during their first year of operation, I have been a great supporter of colorblind casting. It usually takes about two minutes for me to forget what race the performers are—especially when you have actors and a visionary director leading them to new heights as brilliant as the team assembled here.

This electrifying new Streetcar, now set in contemporary N’awlins and featuring African-American actors as Stanley and Stella, a Caucasian Blanche, a Nicaraguan Mitch, and even a transgendered Eunice, is a bold and risky undertaking, one that surely gave Michetti a few grey hairs along the way. Boy, has the latest of many precarious artistic decisions implemented by one of our town’s most innovative directors ever paid off. Michetti’s Streetcar is simply remarkable, the most memorable and courageous reinvention of a great classic I can remember experiencing in my looooong life as a theatre whore and major Williams freak.

More than just the rarified casting choices, however, Tenn’s most famous masterwork, here performed without altering one single word of the original script, works astonishing well. It still glorifies the indelible timelessness of the best play of the 20th century as it perfectly honors Williams’ still hauntingly poetic dialogue, while simultaneously addressing his recurrent themes of class entitlement and identity that today create as big a wedge between people as it did way back when Streetcar was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948.

On Efren Delgadillo Jr’s all but transparent two-leveled, open-framed steel gridwork set, with audience hovering like theatrical voyeurs on three sides of the action, the production begins with sound designer Sam Sewell seated in front of a portable sound board in one corner of the stage. There in our privileged view she conjures the Vieux Carre’s ever-present sirens and street noise, the plaintive whine of foghorns breaking through the night air from the adjacent mighty Mississippi, and the eerie sound of St. Louis Cathedral’s richly resonant bells (which Blanche notes as the only “clean thing in the Quarter”), the same bells that last month lulled my boyfriend and me to sleep nightly from our garret at the Place d’Armes facing the Cathedral’s spires looming above the Presbytere.

Added to this auditory magic, Sewell then adds in an eclectic mix of musical choices that would make any aficionado of the Big Easy’s rich heritage proud. As she rocks out to her own sound design, she is joined by Paul Outlaw, addressing the audience as an androgynous Jackson Square street chanteuse with a showstopping rendition of my late-great friend Wardell (The Creole Beethoven) Quezergue’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” with brand new lyrics Outlaw himself has written which turns another great classic into a contemporary rap song. Wardell, I know, would be more than thrilled; I can just hear him intone “Whhhaaaat?” in his sorely-missed signature style.

Outlaw only warms things up for what is about to unfold. It’s a brave new world as Stella (Maya Lynne Robinson) shows Blanche (Jaimi Paige) the photo of her uniformed husband on her cellphone and the couple’s meager Ikea-reject furnishings look as though purchased at a post-Katrina garage sale in the Ninth Ward. Why, even Blanche's doomed radio is tuned into WWOZ.

With two translucent plastic shower curtains separating the Elysian Field flat’s two rooms to make the living conditions between the Kowalskis and Sister Blanche even more of a powerkeg than ever, as well as an open view of Eunice and Steve (Mariana Marroquin and Joma Saenz) dirty dancing in their flat right above their heads, the tenuous world of Streetcar emerges with surprising new clarity.

As their unwelcomed guest Blanche starts melodiously ordering her little sister on endless errands, asking her to go out the drugstore to fetch her a lemon coke or calls out for her to bring her a fresh towel as she commanders the bathroom and languishes in her hot tub for hours, the relationship between the uber-white alpha and her long-accommodating black sibling offers a brand new twist. “I love waiting on you, Blanche,” Stella tells her at one point, here played with more than a passing hint of irony. “It makes it feel more like home.”

And fairly late in the journey, when Stanley (Desean Kevin Terry, winner last year of my Best Actor TicketHolder Award for his unforgettable performance in Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs) gets inches from his sister-in-law’s face right before the infamous rape scene to spit out to her he’s not a Polock and that people from Poland are Poles, it doesn’t take a big flight of the imagination to know just what the guy is saying. The word coming out of his mouth might be Polock, but the intention is without a doubt inferring the dreaded “N-word.”

What Terry does is a revelation. Without the usual pit-scratching imitation of Marlon Brando, Terry finds a kinder, smarter, gentler Stanley, which makes the moments when he blows his top even scarier than ever before. And as Blanche, Paige is also transcendent, accompanying her sparring partner under Michetti’s leadership to avoid the many traps into which most actors fall directly when playing these characters.

At the beginning of the evening, Paige’s Blanche is just as syrupy-sweet and dripping with Southern lady-charm every actress before her adopts, but by the time she tells Mitch (the pitch-perfect Luis Kelly-Duarte) about the death of her first love or later as her thin veneer of civilized behavior begins to strip away and her eccentricities devolve into insanity, Paige goes deeper, becoming more intense and quieter than anyone who has come before her in the familiar role.

Robinson’s performance, however, is ultimately the most changed and artistically inspiring. She infuses her often terminally mousy and broken Stella with a knockout new spirit, refusing to fade away and be the dutiful little wifey who puts up with a monster just because she feels she must. Stella’s innuendos about Stanley’s sexual prowess and hints that maybe she’s rather turned on by his overtly masculine brutishness are explored more directly and successfully than ever before and—again without changing a word of dialogue—Robinson’s final moments as Stella confronts her husband, their newborn in her arms, leaves us with an all new idea of what might have happened if Williams had ever been compelled to write a sequel.

There’s not much I would change about this production, save one glaring omission. Somehow for me, this Streetcar needs the inclusion of a sense of New Orleans’ stifling heat to add to the milieu. Even when the white plastic desk fan is turned on and off, it doesn’t seem to lessen the claustrophobia of the Kowalskis’ flat or change the disposition of its inhabitants. Even Michael Michetti’s unearthly reworking of the story needs the city’s inherent dampness, a chance to let these trapped people wipe away sweat, fan themselves for relief, and occasionally droop from the oppressive temperature that’s part of life along the banks of the muddy Mississip.

Aside from that, this production, for lovers of Williams, can absolutely not be missed. Since Tenn was never satisfied with his work and never during his lifetime stopped rewriting even his most well-known plays, I’m quite sure if he were still with us today, he would be hoisting a Sazerac or three in honor of this jarringly fresh and captivating new take on A Streetcar Named Desire—and toasting Michael Michetti’s singular perception of the universal truths and fragile nature of huminty that Tenn was attempting to communicate to audiences 71 years ago.

THROUGH APR. 1: Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 Mentor Av., Pasadena. 626.683.6883 or bostoncourt@com


Photo by Ashley Randall

Actors’ Gang Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Save for 12 battered old suitcases scattered around the stage floor, the massive playing space that houses the Actors’ Gang’s Theatre, that dank brick-walled reclaimed municipal substation, is totally barren at the beginning of The New Colossus. This is the Gang's newest bravely off-centered attack on the inequities of our society—so urgently timely considering our current abhorrent administration is crazily busy tearing down everything decent people hold dear.

In a workshop which began over two years ago led by the troupe’s fiercely committed artistic director Tim Robbins, he and members of the Gang, all descendants of former refugees from all over the world, attempted to explore their own individual familial roots. These are the proud stories we’ve all heard told sometime in our own lives, the kind of courageous personal tales that once made us proud to be called Americans.

With ancestors who immigrated here from the Soviet Union, China, Viet Nam, Turkey, Malaysia, Iran, Mexico, Yugoslavia, Finland, Hungary, Austria, and Germany—as well as one former slave running for her life from Tensus Parish, Louisiana—the dozen performers play family members and others from all different social strata and different periods of time. This is clearly meant to show that oppression and the lack of humanity from so many in power throughout history never seems to vanish entirely in the tainted saga of our troubled species.

Directed by Robbins, with writing attributed to him along with the other members of his ensemble, this is a fascinating though not always easy performance to endure from either side of the footlights. After each tells us his or her name and age, these 12 extremely effective performers break into a cacophony of world languages, sometimes individually, sometimes at the same time, sometimes—though not often—accompanied by supertitles on the back wall.

The point here is not what these people say; the point is that they all have experienced the same painful experience of being uprooted from their comfortable existence and forced to run for their lives through horrifying and dehumanizing conditions, be it weather related, a lack of food, or inhumane brutal treatment forced upon them by their oppressors. It’s frankly not easy to watch, a little Beckett-like as we observe them all with tortured expressions fleeing for their lives in endless circles around the stage, a repetitious detail that, also like Beckett, might be meant to make its audience pray it soon ends and some dialogue or interaction between the character ensues.

Sometimes The New Colossus feels a little as though we’re sitting in on the troupe’s aforementioned workshop evenings, with lengthy and extended periods of actors bounding from one side of the stage to the other or running as a collective, tightly structured group to depict the pain and suffering their exodus to freedom was. Still, it is a moving, indelibly affecting performance, especially as it concludes with each actor introducing themselves and explaining their personal connection with the characters they developed.

This is followed by Robbins, who comes before the audience to ask about their own personal roots, asking those gathered to shout out where their own family members had originally immigrated from and what their ancestors’ journeys had been to find that now-flickering and endangered lamp beside our golden door. It’s humbling to hear what brought us all to the place we are today—and hopefully this piece will make everyone in attendance return home with a new intensity to fight the indignities of our time and work tirelessly to stop the soulless and greedy monsters currently trying to tell us what to do and how to live.

The title of The New Colossus was chosen based on the poem of the same title by Emma Lazarus, written in 1883 to accompany an exhibit initially set up to raise money to fund the pedestal which was installed under the Statue of Liberty three years later. Though not originally intended as such, the poem—and the statue—quickly became a rallying cry for the many outcasts from political oppression who once found America to be a haven for the disenfranchised as we welcomed needy refugees into our comforting arms. You know, the days before Donald Trump and his greedy enablers started destroying our country and blatantly began abolishing each and every one of our hard-won freedoms for their own immoral gain.

It is, of course, the last four lines of Lazarus’ poem that are today most familiar, but the entire work is more than worthy of sharing here and everywhere it might make a difference:

The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

THROUGH MAY 12: Actors’ Gang Theatre, 9070 Venice Blvd., Venice. 310.838.4264 or theactorsgang.com.


Photo by Ed Krieger

Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

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 MAY 7: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Av., LA. 323.663.1525 or www.fountaintheatre.com



Photo by Deen Van Meer

Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Of course, the best way to see Disney’s outrageously grand live stage recreation of their popular animated 1992 feature film Aladdin is to bring along a 12-year-old as your plus-one. Seeing it unfold through the eyes of a kid must be the ultimate thrill, although for adults, there’s a lot here to offer as well.

Reminiscent of an episode of the old Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, innuendos and slightly un-Disney-like references in the script that only adults (hopefully) will grasp abound, including when Jafar and Iago (Jonathan Weir and Reggie de Leon) herald Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) as the Chosen One and he immediately replies, “No, I think that’s a few hundred miles to the west.” There are also a couple of well-placed Trumpian digs I appreciated most eagerly and a few local references thrown in as well, as when the Genie (Michael James Scott) reaches in his sequined robe and pulls out one of those Hollywood Boulevard tourist trap Oscar replicas instead of his trusty lamp. “Oops,” he quips, “I did a little shopping before the show.”

As anything touched by the magic of Disney, this is a massive production with an undeniable pedigree, led by the sweeping and ever-tongue-in-cheek imagination of director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw (Book of Mormon, Something Rotten!, The Drowsy Chaperone) and complete with jaw-dropping illusions designed by Jim Steinmeyer and special effects by Jeremy Chernick, both worthy of David Copperfield at his best. Also adding to the wonder are towering Moorish art-inspired sets designed by that theatrical genie Bob Crowley and Gregg Barnes’ costuming is almost hallucinogenic in its colorful, glittering splendor—although Scott’s disdainful Tituss Burgess-esque Genie does rag on the pre-royal Aladdin’s Shriner-esque beggar-garb as “So third-century.”

From the opening extravaganza “Arabian Nights,” there are a lot of deliciously sly side references here, as Al’s trusty cohorts-in-crime Babkak, Omar, and Kassim (Zach Bencal, Philippe Arroyo, and Mike Longo, respectively) sing about what an amazement it is that so many of the citizens of the fictional Arabian city of Agrabah are so able to sing and dance. The large ensemble is fresh and energetic, although the fact that the setting offers a break for the male chorusmembers to not to have to shave their chests is, for me, a definite personal deterrent to the overall slick visual landscape.

Jacobs is a perfectly Disney choice for the title role, especially with his athletic prowess and exceptional voice, exhibited early on belting Alan Menken and Tim Rice’s lovely ballad to the character’s dead mother, “Proud of Your Boy.” His love interest Isabelle McCalla is a gifted singer as well and proves just feisty enough to make her Jasmine heroic, bringing the house down when she sarcastically snaps at her father the Sultan (JC Montgomery) what an outrageous idea it is that a woman could rule a kingdom. Where was her Jasmine last year when we needed her to run against our own real-life slimy orange-haired Jafar-clone?

Weir and Montgomery both contribute richly operatic turns, bringing weight and wonder to their otherwise cartoon characters actually lifted directly from a cartoon. The pintsized de Leon is a charmer as Iago, his raspy-voiced delivery falling somewhere between a dastardly but lovable Power Ranger meanie and Herve Villechaize pointing out “Da plane! Da plane!” to his boss Mr. Roarke. As Al’s besties, Bencal, Arroyo, and Longo are also great assets to the proceedings, making me wish someone would mount a revival of On the Town just for them.

Of course, the star-turn in the show is the not-terribly demure Scott as the hilariously light-in-the-curled-toe-slippered Genie, truly offering one the most physically exhausting performances I have seen in years from someone who looks more as though he should be playing Lennie Small. And despite anything Disney could bring to the table to glitz this production up, including impressive instant magical onstage costume changes and a “A Whole New World” delivered while our starcrossed lovers glide overhead on a real flying carpet, it is Scott and the entire company performing “Friend Like Me” in Crowley’s huge and astounding gold-dripping cave, complete with fireworks and lines of flashily-sparkling tapdancers, that literally stops the show.

Still, above anything else here delivered, none of this would be possible without Menken’s indelible multi-award-winning score, augmented by lyrics to which nearly everyone in attendance seemed able to sing along by Rice, Howard Ashman, and Chad Beguelin, and including on this national tour spirited musical direction by Brent-Alan Huffman.

Now, I understand Aladdin’s Tony-nominated book by Beguelin follows the original animated classic basically scene by scene and word for word, but for someone new to the experience, I couldn’t help wonder if the adult-ifying of the script was new to the Broadway version, as the familiar and predictable storyline itself made me want to run for the exit before the show even began. No matter, though, because everything thrown upon the also visually-stunning Pantages stage by Disney’s imagineers is most welcome, quickly transcending the expectations of even the crustiest of ancient and world-weary critics.

THROUGH MAR. 31: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. pantagestheatre.box-officetickets.com or 800.840.9227.



Photo by Travis Michael Holder

Wynn Hotel, Las Vegas

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

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.


Photo by Heather Burdette

Luxor Hotel, Las Vegas

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

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 a 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 sensoe 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

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

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.  


Cirque du Soleil at Dodgers Stadium

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Cirque du Soleil’s breathtaking 38th production since 1984 is billed as “A Waking Dream of Mexico.” And so it is. More vibrant, more lively, more joyous, more curiously intimate than any Cirque touring show past, Luzia does not disappoint for an instant, assaulting the senses with a nonstop collage of blazingly colorful shamanistic images that almost surpass the acrobatic artistry of the Cirque’s usual band of ultra-talented performers from around the world—and possibly from other planets as well, if their individual skillsets are any indication. 

Starting with sadsack Dutch clown Eric Fool Koller, who descends in skydiving gear as though freefalling from the highest point of the Grand Chapiteau to begin the aforementioned dream state, the uniquely imagined images of Luzia—the title itself an amalgam of luz, the Spanish word for light, fused with lluvia, the word for rain—spring onto Eugenio Caballero’s Wizard of Oz-meets-Pee-Wee’s Playhouse of a set in rapid succession.

As our bewildered guide turns a giant steampunk-ian key located within the enveloping field of yellow marigolds which have softened his 62-foot fall from the tent’s highest mast, the wonders of his trip through Day of the Dead-inspired folk-psychedelica come to life as the sounds of Simon Carpentier’s almost mystically poetic musical score, a perfect amalgam of traditional Mexican music and modern rock interpretations, fills the tent from all directions.

Under the visionary direction of Luzia’s creator Daniele Finzi Pasca and featuring incredible costuming by Giovanna Buzzi and jaw-dropping puppets of indigenous insects and lizards designed by Max Humphries, what unfolds will possibly even make you forget about Dotard Donnie and Roy Moore in about an instant—at least until you tune in the news on your car radio on the way home and are reminded this is still America in 2017.

The word lluvia evokes to the quenching spirit of rain here and water is a main theme in Luzia, magically cascading from the highest point at times in the performance to augment the traditional trapeze and cyr wheel acts, as well as at one point creating astounding huge Mexican folk cut paper-like designs appearing in the flow from above and reinventing how we welcome in the admirably animal-free circus bigtop in the teens of our troubled new millennium.

The beauty and power of water is also a major force in the performance’s most emotionally evocative and lyrical scene, as Canadian god-in-training Benjamin Courtenay whips his nipple-length mane of blond hair across his glistening chiseled chest through a gently cascading waterfall. He gracefully transforms the familiar circus aerial strap act into a gorgeously wet and hotly erotic pas de deux danced alongside a lifesized jaguar puppet, a mythological figure in Mexican culture, as the show’s resident cantante, Majo Cornejo, channels Linda Rondsadt delivering Carpentier’s most haunting ballad, “Tlaloc.”

There are, of course, jugglers and adagio dancers and vertical pole acrobats (oh my!), not to mention a young and unbelievably boneless Russian contortionist/dislocation artist named Aleksei Goloborodko, who is able to touch the back of his head with his pelvis yet, unlike his fellow countryman who performs a similar act in Zumanity at New York-New York in Vegas, somehow manages to keep from making our skin crawl as he twists and turns. And yes, for the record, since you’re most probably wondering, I’m sure he can.

I’ve seen and covered a heap of Cirque du Soleil productions over the years and have attended some of the most incredibly memorable all-night opening night bashes in the history of such affairs both here and in Vegas. Heck, I even dated one of the most agile of Cirque performers for a magical several months about 20 years ago, so I do consider myself a Cirque vet in so many ways.

Sometimes, however, I must admit I personally am slightly less amazed than I would be if it what was unfolding before me, amazing though it may be, was all new to me. But there’s something truly fresh and incredibly special about Luzia as it celebrates the rich and vibrant traditions of our usurped neighbors of the south, something long overdue as we assimilate their signature culture in everything we do and touch in the Southland.

Beyond those familiar acrobatics and aerial splendors native to any of Cirque du Soleil’s previous 37 productions, the point made this time out is that the mysterious and inexplicable spirit of the nature, here depicted evoking the lush jungles of Mexico’s often still primitive interior, still has the ability to both energize and soothe the human spirit in a world gone totally mad around us. Luzia is a most welcome relief from reality right now and, after all, isn’t that what Cirque du Soleil is all about?

THROUGH FEB. 11: Dodger Stadium, 1000 Vin Scully, LA.

FEB. 21 THROUGH MAR. 25: Orange County Fair &Event Center, Costa Mesa


  See?  I'm an angel.