EVERYBODY'S GOT ONE 

CURRENT THEATRE REVIEWS by TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER 

 

NOWHERE ON THE BORDER 

Photo by Brian M. Cole

Road Theatre Ensemble

On the parched and merciless desert wasteland between Mexico and the U.S., a worried father searches for the daughter who disappeared trying to cross into our country to join the husband who left to try to earn some much-needed money three years earlier and never returned.

In Carlos Lacamara’s play Nowhere on the Border,  recently reworked since its original production which played here at the Hayworth in 2005, Roberto (Jonathan Nichols) is holding vigil while waiting for the Border Patrol to arrive, respectfully guarding the badly decomposing body of another young woman whose dangerous and arduous journey ended as tragically as so many do. After all, it could have been his own child.

Lacamara’s well-meaning play is a sobering reminder of the personal humanity that too often gets lost in the grander scheme of things as the issue of illegal immigration between our two countries invariably is examined as more political than altruistic.

Unfortunately, although the Road’s usual production values are exemplary as always and the play has its moments, Lacamara’s language often bordering on the beautifully poetic, Nowhere on the Border  indeed goes nowhere that isn’t achingly predictable.

Roberto’s pivotal encounter with Gary (Chet Grissom), a heavily geared-up, camo-wearing good ol’ boy volunteer from Pennsylvania who wants to keep all’a them criminal and rapist illegals from overtaking our cherished A’murka, provides the most memorable moments as the two grieving fathers begin to find an unexpected respect for one another as events over a rather tedious 90 minutes evolve. What a surprise, eh?

Granted, there are some admirable things this production has going for it, including a cleverly barren set designed by Paul Dufresne, appearing to have been constructed from industrial carpeting, complimented by the gorgeously painted sky of Derrick McDaniel’s lighting and Nick Santiago’s moody projections.

Although it would be nice if his inclusion was more integral to the play and not utilized simply as a scene change device, there's also lovely, euphonious guitar accompaniment provided throughout by Mackenzie Redvers Bryce, who sits on a rather uncomfortable looking faux-rock at the sidelines and makes us wish he had an opportunity to stretch his legs at least once.

There are two absolutely majestic performances here from Nichols, who is heartbreaking as the wise and weary Roberto, and Leandro Cano, who manges to find great nobility as Jesus, the sweetly protective stiff-limbed vaquero who in flashbacks is seen accompanying Roberto’s daughter Pilar (Natalie Llerena) on her tragic migration to what she hopes would be a better life.

Grissom, whose work I’ve seen and appreciated many times over the years, does his best with the role of Gary, but is so weighed down by stereotypical dialogue and behavior it’s amazing he comes out as unscathed as he does.

The performances are not uniformly as successful, unfortunately. What director Stewart J. Zully was thinking by not working more closely with Llerena, whose entire performance is dominated by one pained and suffering expression, or the dazzlingly less-than organic Diana DeLaCruz as Montoya, Pilar and Jesus’ almost mustache-twirling coyote guide, is a conundrum.

The brief single-scene role of Don Rey (played in the performance I attended by alternate castmember Juan Pope in for Thom Rivera) could be eliminated altogether or the scene could easily be assigned to the character of Montoya. The clear implication by showing the smoothly deceitful pitch of a slick solicitor working for the cartel arranging illegal passage as something akin to watching a TV lawyer hawking service for accident victims is a given, but the obvious point could easily be sacrificed rather than making the poor actor assigned to play him drive to the theatre every night for three minutes onstage.

Is all lost here? Hardly. Lacamara has a fine gift for writing melodious, gracefully evocative dialogue and certainly the tale told in Nowhere on the Border  desperately needs to be told—yet sometime soon it needs be told with less conspicuously foreseeable denouement. Another reworking and he might just have it. Third time’s a charm, it’s said.

THROUGH MAR. 8: Road Theatre Ensemble, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., NoHo. 818.761.8838 or RoadTheatre.org

THE LAST SHIP 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Ahmanson Theatre

Anyone who knows me probably knows I avoid writing reviews of most conventional musicals like the proverbial plague. The popular happy-sappy formula that puts butts in the seats drives me a wee bit nuts. This is the reason I loved The Last Ship  so much—and why many traditional musical theatre aficionados might not.

Granted, the original book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, reworked by director Lorne Campbell after the production’s initial mounting faced less than glowing critical reaction, flirts with standard musical themes such as star-crossed lovers and one typically feisty disillusioned teenager who along the way has the usual proper epiphany.

Still the theme, set in 1986 as a Northern England village inhabited by a team of scruffy shipbuilders valiantly fight unemployment and obsolescence with the phasing out of industrialization at the hands of Margaret Thatcher, quickly transcends real good clambakes and the problem of Maria.

The book is slim for sure, but this production, something akin to Billy Elliot  meets Once, still manages to overcome its limitations. This is mostly thanks to the hauntingly evocative score composed by none other than rock legend Sting, complemented by a troupe of gloriously-voiced, passionately earnest performers and featuring exquisite design elements throughout. Bareboned theatre this ain't.

Sting is, of course, the reason for the season behind The Last Ship, which was inspired by his 1991 album The Soul Cages  and based on memories of his own childhood growing up in the Northeastern English shipbuilding seaport of Wallsend, where he witnessed the demise of the real life Swan Hunter shipyard. It features several songs from that album, including “Island of Souls” and “All This Time,” as well as “When We Danced” from his 1994 Fields of Gold  anthology collection.

May I admit I am a massive diehard fan of Sting and have been throughout his amazing career, so that’s where my objectivity could be at risk and my judgment a tad cloudy. Nonetheless his score for The Last Ship  completely swept me away and left my spirits soaring in a time when our entire nation’s spirits are at the lowest ebb in my lifetime.

Coupled with the moody steel-beamed set and incredibly provocative stormy seaside projections by 59 Productions, as well as Matt Daw’s dramatic lighting design and Molly Locascio’s suitably drab monochromatic costuming, and I was hooked, to the point where I could almost smell the crisp salt air.

Although The Last Ship’s  ill-fated debut on Broadway in 2014, directed by Joe Mantello and still featuring Logan and Yorkey’s original book, was roundly panned by critics and only played the Great White Way for slightly less than three months, it was nominated for well-deserved Tony Awards for both Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations.

As he did at the end of that brief and surely personally disappointing run, in an effort to boost its appeal and keep the faith, Sting has joined the cast of his daring windmill quest here at the Ahmanson during the musical’s national tour. With great humility he plays Jackie White, the supervisor of the doomed shipyard fighting desperately and heroically to keep the yard open despite the rapid onset of mesothelioma that will end his life if not addressed in judicious time.

At first Sting seems nervous and stiff, standing uncomfortably onstage with both hands tightly clinging for dear life to the lapels of his tweedy jacket. As the show unfolds, however, his performance settles in with quite impressive results and by the second act, his performance blossoms and becomes quite movingly realized.

Jackie Morrison as his long-suffering wife Peggy is surely part of what puts Sting at ease, as does the rest of this obviously committed ensemble, while Frances McNamee is a standout as local bar owner Meg Dawson, as is Sophie Reid as Ellen, the daughter Meg bore out of wedlock who has now grown into one of those familiar classic highly independent teens.

In a uniformly wonderful cast, Joseph Peacock has some lovely moments early on as the younger version of Gideon, the boy who never knew about Meg’s situation since he left the small town 17 years earlier for a more adventurous life at sea before knowing she was pregnant. All four of these actors are gifted with lovely solo numbers, particularly McNamee’s spirited “August Winds” and Morrison’s plaintive eleventh-hour ballad “Show Some Respect.”

Although Sting’s daring foray into musical theatre could easily be more playable by losing about 20 or 30 minutes of the show’s  overlong running time—some of which could be trimmed by completely eliminating the character of one annoying villager with a penchant for spouting literary quotations—all is not lost along with the demise of the sadly discarded once-majestic sailing vessel lamented in the musical’s very title.

There’s no doubt the book is rather clumsy and sometimes the setups in the tale were obviously created only to wrap around songs that were already created, but considering those dynamic and unique tunes were composed by one of our time’s most brilliant musical icons, any limitations can be easily forgiven.

Heck, The Last Ship  could be mounted simply in a concert version, devoid of most of the storyline and all of the impressive design elements, and I’d still be there—especially if performed by this spectacular group of actor/singers, all lovingly enhanced as sound designer Sebastian Frost and musical director Richard John impressively honor the unearthly talents of Sting and his music supervisor/orchestrator Rob Mathes.

And oh yeah: throw in an indelibly heartfelt and rare personal appearance in a pivotal role by the former Mr. Gordon Sumner of Wallsend, Tyne and Wear, and in a perfect world the experience should sail directly into the annals of theatre history. I know it will stay afloat in mine for a long time to come.

THROUGH FEB. 16: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

Cirque du Soleil's VOLTA 

Photo by Benoit Z. Leroux

Dodger Stadium

The Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil first came to LA in 1987 when their Cirque Reinvente  made all of our jaws drop to Right About There. Reinvent the traditional circus they did, bigtime. No sawdust, no animals, just worldclass acrobatics, thrilling aerial performances, incredibly grand visuals, and dazzlingly inventive costuming.

Gratefully, the Cirque has once again returned here to the first city they ever played in the US, opening VOLTA, their 15th big top show and 22nd production to hit our shores in the past 33 years since we first obviously made them feel right at home.

Every production created by the Cirque is unique in its own way but VOLTA  is quite a departure from the usual formula for their touring shows. Subtitled as “Find Your Free,” the theme is crystal clear, inspired by urban street sports and BMX stunts as a young man nicknamed Waz (sweetly played by Canadian ballet dancer Joey Arrigo) learns that being different in this judgmental ol’ world of ours is anything but a bad thing.

What is most glaringly different this time out, however, is the austerity of the performance. Although Zaldy Goco’s costumes are just as astounding and colorful (and sexy!) as ever, in general the production is nowhere near as technically dazzling as previous Cirque touring shows. The set is fairly simple, with only one double projection screen visible at the back of the three-sided thrust stage.

The hydraulics are at a minimum and gone are any pyrotechnics or fireworks or set pieces that look like the surface of an alien planet. Instead, the emphasis is on the performances and what these unearthly limber and courageously gravity-defying daredevils are able to accomplish without all the technical augmentation.

Although two people I talked to said they felt VOLTA  was a disappointment as it is too stripped down for a Cirque presentation, I disagree wholeheartedly. It was a treat to see the inhabitants of VOLTA  still create magic without the firepits and elaborate machinery.

Along his journey of self-discovery, Waz is greeted by performers who can accomplish wondrous things, all performed to the atmospheric musical landscape composed by Anthony Gonzalez. His shyness gradually disappears as he sees most of the show’s male performers boast the same wildly spiked blue hair that is the major source of his self-consciousness (although in LA it seems just about right to me).

There of course are favorites. From roller skaters to unicyclists to bungee dancers to rope skippers to people who defy gravity on a trampoline that propel them on and off the very top of an onstage wall, the more typical acts are performed with the usual incredible skill.

There are occasional breaks from Waz’ journey, including Russian clown Andrey Kislitsin dealing with broken washing machines and beach bullies, while Brazil’s Vanessa Ferreira Calado turns yoga into performance art while suspended high above the stage—from her hair.

I particularly loved the emphasis on dance in the performance, including “Arco Lamp,” where Polish aerialist Pawel Walczweski creates gracefully flowing moves hanging from a stained glass lampshade and near the end of the performance when Waz makes his final “Breakthrough,” expressing his new happiness and sense of self-worth in dance.

There are two spectacular acts featuring BMX trickery, the first early on with “Daydreaming,” a solo flatland biking performance from Japan’s Nao Yoshida, and later in VOLTA’s  grand finale, where an entire BMX park is assembled directly in front of the first rows of the audience as a spirited troupe of riders deliver a raucous nonstop display of acrobatics on wheels, crisscrossing one another and spinning their bikes in midair.

Still, for me perhaps the most memorable performance is less fast and furious, as Walczewski, well matched with American gymnast Darrin Trull, join in a graceful homoerotically charged pas de deux  while soaring high above our heads on aerial straps. Their performance, quite reminiscent of Patrick and Johann’s landlocked but equally provocative “Two Men” in the original Zumanity,  rises beyond the predictable as they perhaps evoke the moment when Waz comes of age and embraces his worth as though contemplating his own image in a mirror.

VOLTA is not one of Cirque du Soleil’s permanent Vegas extravaganzas by any means, devoid of the grandness of the water-themed “O”  or the spectacular pyrotechnics of KA, but it is as fascinating as of any of their permanent productions as it celebrates the unstoppable nature of the human spirit and what our fragile species can accomplish whenever we realize how few limitations we have when we have faith in ourselves.

THROUGH MAR. 8: Dodger Stadium, 1000 Vin Scully Av., Los Angeles. CirqueDuSoleil.com/Volta

MAR. 18 THROUGH APR. 19: Orange County Fair and Event Center, 88 Fair Dr., Costa Mesa. CirqueDuSoleil.com/Volta

RED INK 

Photo by Kelly Stuart

Playwrights’ Arena at Atwater Village Theatre

After over 21 years as Theatre Editor for Entertainment Today, its demise—along with LA Reader, Beverly Hills Post, West Hollywood Weekly, LA Theatre, Salon City, Gorgeous, and Boulevard  magazines for which I also wrote through the years—was capped for me when I was told by my editor at BackStage that they were dumping all of us longtime theatre critics and stopping reviews of live theatre on both coasts. This from a New York City-based publication called BackStage, for Terpsichore’s sake.

The reason BackStage theatre coverage was scrapped? Well, of course, it was simply a corporate decision. Theatres didn’t “support the page,” we were told.  In other words, the fuckers didn’t advertise—as though small theatres have the budget to run ads, right?

There was a small community weekly in those days that openly told people they would review their productions, but only if the producers in turn bought an ad to run with it. The publication and its resident critic were widely criticized and ostracized for such a blatantly unethical demand yet, less than a decade later, even such venerable institutions such as Wall Street Journal  routinely charge for content.

In our current world overtaken by clickbait journalism, where most small privately-owned local publications around the country have been buried alive by cutthroat corporate takeovers, the only thing at issue is today how to promote ad revenue. Reporting the news be damned today and so nothing is the same for journalists, particularly those committed to promoting the arts. Like ET  and my other onetime outlets mentioned above, our town’s onetime king of the undergrounds, LA Weekly, met such a fate several years ago.

The choking out of theatre coverage in the Weekly  ended the longtime tenure there of Steven Leigh Morris, who as Theatre Editor had helped put LA theatre on the map. The guy lived through the vivisection of the popular print edition of the Weekly  when it was sold in a corporate merger and, unlike some of us, he even survived the disappearance of print journalism in our online world.

Entering the Atwater Village Theatre for the world premiere of Red Ink, Morris’ timely and sharply satirical new play mourning the death of print journalism, the playwright said he hoped I would enjoy his homage to “our once noble profession.”

Luckily, Morris’ insightful and imaginative ability to find the humor in our situation saves the day and keeps Red Ink from descending into a sense of hopelessness. Jerome, clearly his alter-ego in the piece, has not been as lucky as its creator. Where Morris has gone on to many other successful endeavors, including the well-received online Stage Raw covering LA’s too-often maligned but ever-scrappy theatrical community and a Distinguished Contribution Award from the LA Drama Critics Circle, poor Jerome has been committed to the nuthouse.

As part of his therapy, it seems, he is encouraged to reenact the details of his departure from the job he loved by utilizing his fellow inmates to take on the roles playing his suffering coworkers and soulless corporate archenemies. It’s akin to Front Page  morphed with Marat/Sade  in a script created by Woody Allen.

Morris’ crafty tale winds in and out of these two realities, giving director Nike Doukas and her gifted troupe of beloved LA actors a wonderful opportunity to pull out all the proverbial stops.

As Jerome, Leo Marks assays the very definition of a tour de force performance, never once having the luxury of leaving the stage as his character relives the journey and then alternately observes the dastardly details of his career’s downward spiral.

All other actors play multiple roles as the people haunting Jerome’s life, including Tracey A. Leigh as both a doomed coworker and his long-suffering wife; Steven Culp as one of the facility’s orderlies, a difficult news reporter about to get the ax, and an imaginary entrepreneur only Jerome can see; while recent Stella Adler Art of Acting Studio graduate Michelle Bonebright-Carter makes an impressive appearance in several roles, including Jerome’s concerned and loving daughter.

Jocelyn Towne winds through the action as a completely incongruous ballerina in moves nicely choreographed by Cate Caplin, also credited for creating a sensual tango performed by Towne and Marks as she periodically transforms into the dastardly new publisher’s ruthless henchman whose job title includes seducing Jerome to get him onboard with the company’s policies.

As Murray, that Harvey Weinstein-y bossman who could give a shit about the news as long as he has enough income to sit at the beach in Maui fanned by nubile young handmaidens and sipping pina coladas, Peter Van Norden’s performance is priceless, especially when he returns to being Murray, a Lennie Small-esque lumbering fellow inmate with a penchant for JuJuBes.

None of the pieces of this wildly absurdist puzzle could possibly fit together without the skill of Doukas, however, who brilliantly and innovatively stages the rapidfire action of Morris’ firecracker of a play on this tiny playing space with audience placed on three sides just to add to Jerome’s suitably claustrophobic situation.

Sad and frustrating as the subject may be, feeling even more disillusioned with humanity than ever before, especially for anyone who has personally crawled through the muck of it and has come out the other side, is the greatest danger here, but Steven Leigh Morris’ Red Ink  is beyond simply a biting, often hilarious, on-the-money treatise laying bare the immorality of corporate greed. It echoes everything wrong as our society and its “leaders” step over us all while cavalierly destroying everything we should be desperately holding dear.

We need such courageous and thought-provoking artistic expression more than ever if we are going to get through this discouraging period in our existence. James Baldwin said the precise role of an artist is to “illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”

THROUGH FEB. 24: Playwrights’ Arena at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Av., LA. 800.838.3006 or playwrightsarena.org  

WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME 

Photo by Joan Marcus

Mark Taper Forum

Reviewed for TicketHoldersLA  by H.A. EAGLEHART

There could have been no better way to kick off the 2020 season of LA theatre than attending the Taper for the national touring production of What the Constitution Means to Me.

The current climate in both politics and the climate itself should not be the only reasons for attending this nearly one-woman show, because aside from being a finalist in 2019 for the Pulitzer Prize this paramount play was also in contention for Best Play at the Tony Awards, as well as receiving a nomination for the performance of playwright Heidi Schreck in the role she originated. No discussion could be more imperative at this point in human history than one focused upon the oldest living constitution in the world.

What the Constitution Means to Me  has departed Broadway for a 40-week tour kicking off here in the Great City of Angels. Although Schreck graced the stage of the Helen Hayes Theater in the leading role playing herself, she is open to performing Constitution  for small-town audiences during the length of this tour but decided to skip the larger venue stops like Los Angeles to prioritize the other many other irons stoking the fire fueled by her incredible talent as an artist.

After two years on Broadway telling this personal life story of a woman defending a constitution that doesn’t protect women thanks to men such as Justice Scalia in the 2005 case of Castle Rock v. Gonzales, Schreck revealed to the LA Times  about this stint at the Taper that “I need a little break.”

I imagine the only task more difficult than being part of the audience watching Schreck onstage making her case for the public to acknowledge the true state of America’s culture which tolerates systemic abuse against women would be without a doubt attempting to fill Schreck’s shoes, which is exactly the task Tony-nominee Maria Dizzia not only attempts but knocks out of the park. Her performance as Schreck in this decades-defying adaptation is well worth the price of admission.

In an interview with the New Yorker,  Schreck reveals that while on Broadway she wrote herself this stage direction on the actual script: “HEIDI releases any last remnants of the buoyant, performative girlishness that is one of her lifelong coping mechanisms.” Personally, being a career professional in early human development is the only way I, a male audience member, was able to comprehend the often disregarded truths Constitution  is attempting to share with America and the world.

The dynamic transformation of womanhood demanded by this role is one Dizzia captures through not telling Schreck’s story by playing a victim. She doesn’t only successfully play someone weaving in and out of a 15-year-old version of herself, but by sharing the stories of four generations of women in Schreck’s family as if they were victims, along the way discovering the true Heidi Schreck on a journey that makes the loose-knit debate unfolding onstage worth the ninety-minute running time.

On the day of the Kavanaugh hearings Schreck told Sara Holden of New York Magazine, “Stories hold our cure.” Dizzia’s simplistic choices as a storyteller are the power behind Constitution,  becoming the play’s genuine portrayal of that electric charge forever sizzling within those on a stage set for public debate, something which I remember well from my college days.

Situation of circumstances is why Schreck’s friend of many years and fellow feminist activist Oliver Butler took on the role as director. Aside from being an Obie Award recipient for The Open House  in 2014, Butler also brings a dynamic to the production Schreck believes is important in building this play up from the ground.

In a 2018 Rolling Stone  interview Schreck explains, “It’s helpful to have [Butler’s] voice… as a white, heterosexual… I think we’ve both transformed each other’s thinking about a lot of things.” Successful art in an ensemble effort falls flat unless everyone involved brings their amazing talents to the table, which is what makes Constitution  an incredible start for 2020 whether you are a weekly reviewer or someone who frequents theatre once in a bright full moon.

Mike Iveson plays the perfect caricature of what I might imagine an American Legion debate facilitator to be in Schreck’s small town in rural Washington State circa 1989, beginning by telling the audience—already instructed by Dizzia that we should all imagine ourselves to be male American Legionnaires—to “turn off those alarm-type watches and any of those pager-type things and refrain from smoking except between the speeches.”

Iveson’s role is not the easiest considering his only task for portions of the play requires simply to sit on the sidelines with nothing to do. He holds his space well despite the cavernous depths of the Taper and ultimately compliments the story he’s attempting to tell when he strips his illustrious American Legion VA hat and transforms back into his actual self and, like Schreck, tells the audience his own personal experiences as a LGBTQ man in modern America.

The brightest star onstage no doubt all involved would agree is New York high school sophomore Rosdely Ciprian (alternating in the role here with LA-based freshman Jocelyn Shek), who comes onstage near the end to debate Schreck, the latter of whom has concluded, and I quote Schreck from a New York Times  interview, “I’ve realized I just don’t care about the Founding Fathers… I’m tired of their stories… I want to hear other people’s stories.”

There is no doubt in my mind that Ciprian’s story is the one Constitution  lifts high above the others and onto a pedestal from which the entire nation should learn. One of the many great lines Schreck has in the play is of her realizing children are the light shining back, revealing the way for her and all adults to keep moving forward. I can tell you the secret source of my own personal strength in this dire time in history has been my work with children as an early human development facilitator, which exposes me to literally thousands of young peoples’ stories every year.

True personal stories are in dire need of being heard in 2020, which is Schreck’s greatest triumph. In a hopeful world, her brilliant storytelling and the unique wonder of What the Constitution Means to Me  could help to inspire our nation to finally act before the wicked web Trump continues to spin on Twitter finally brings the whole kit and caboodle crashing down once and for all.

THROUGH FEB. 28: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

FROZEN 

Photo by Deen van Meer

Pantages Theatre

Well, I may be one of six people on the planet who’s never seen the animated feature musical Frozen  and, considering my usual reflex action that keeps me clear of anything emerging from Disney’s cashcow Gooey Goodie Department, I left for the Pantages planning to hate the stage version of the popular movie no matter how spectacular the special effects were guaranteed to be.

Okay, so I loved it. Maybe I have a higher tolerance for Gooey Goodie this close to the holidays, but I found Frozen  more than visually dazzling—which indeed it is. It features a charming book by Jennifer Lee that compliments the disneyfication of the Pantages for the production and makes it far more palpable than Miss Poppins’ spoonful of sugar or that annoying genie singing that I ain’t never had a friend like him.

Yeah, and now the dazzling part. Good Goddess Terpsichore, is there anything the folks at Disney Theatrical Group can’t conjure live right before our eyes?

In 2005 when   opened at the MGM Grand in Vegas, the good people at Cirque du Soleil let me hang out backstage during the week of the show’s grand premiere and at one point, I interviewed costume designer Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt, who waxed nostalgic about the beginning of her career designing for a tiny but fierce underground storefront theatre company in Montreal.

She obviously missed those days but appreciated one similarity: the creative freedom she had back then working with that small avantgarde troupe and the carte blanche she also enjoyed designing for the Cirque. I asked her what the biggest difference was between the two experiences and her reply was immediate: “Budget.” Working on KÀ,  Marie-Chantale could do and spend whatever she wanted, no matter how outrageous her demands.

This theatrical adaptation of Disney’s megahit Frozen  went through two directors, two set designers, two actresses in the lead role of Elsa, and three choreographers before it had its first tryout in the summer of 2017 in Denver—at the cost of some $30 million.

And every penny shows. The most courageous decision might have been to eventually hire Red’s  brilliant Tony-winning director Michael Grandage to the helm the evolution of the production before it hit New York despite the fact it would be his first assignment directing a musical. The risk has paid off splendidly.

Christopher Oram’s enormous massive set pieces glide in and out like an attraction at Disney World, beautifully complimented by Natasha Katz’ lighting, Peter Hylenski’s sound, Finn Ross’ sparkling video design, insane special effects by Jeremy Chernick, and Oram’s colorful and goofy costuming. Oram must especially be credited for finding a clever and humorous way to present a chorusline of villagers emerging from an outdoor sauna in “Hygge,” with only bundles of synchronized birch whisks strategically placed to hide their decidedly non-Disney faux-nakedness.

The production is further glorified by Tony-winner Rob Ashford’s spirited choreography and incredibly inventive puppetry created by Michael Curry, designer of The Lion King  and another person with whom I had the privilege to hang as he put the final touches on the sea creatures in   that still astound patrons nightly 15 years later.

Frozen's  signature snowman, the collectible product-heavy Olaf, is brought to life as a three-quarter-lifesized marionette appearing, as did the meerkat Timon in Curry’s design for Lion King,  operated by the infectious F. Michael Haynie, who provides the character’s voice and movements as he stands behind the puppet in clear view of the audience. Still it’s the appearance of the movie’s resident reindeer Sven, trusted companion of ice harvester Kristoff, who surely was the most difficult to duplicate, so much so that at first Disney thought to cut the character altogether from the stage production.

Thanks to Curry’s intervention and a few unsuccessful attempts to create Sven using two actors housed within his frame to do the deed, the puppetmaster came up with a way for one agile actor to be pretzeled inside the 8-foot frame of the reindeer’s shaggy body. Played here by Collin Baja on opening night, who alternates in what must be a tough assignment with Evan Strand, Sven moves hyper-realistically, blinking his round Disney eyes while realistically moving, bobbing his head, even pawing the ground ala Warhorse.

The entire cast of this Frozen  is hot enough to melt ice. The ensemble players are filled with energy and excitement, Austin Colby is perfectly cast as the duplicitous Prince Hans, Mason Reeves makes a lovable Kristoff, and Michael Milkanin has a great time in his one scene as Oaken, the merchant gleefully making a fortune as the Kingdom of Arondelle goes into its deep freeze.

But of course it’s the actresses cast in the pivotal leading roles of the mysteriously separated princesses Elsa and Anna who must carry the show and that’s exactly what Caroline Bowman and Caroline Innerbichler skillfully accomplish.

Bowman is glorious as the magic-challenged Elsa, her grief and shame always believable and she is especially dynamic belting Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s Oscar-winning “Let It Go” at the conclusion of Act One, while Innerbichler proves to be a delightful comedienne, a little Carol Burnett, a little Billie Burke, and ultimately the most charismatic performer on the stage.

Concluding with dousing the wildly cheering audience with a rather thick snowfall that patrons carry with them out onto Hollywood Boulevard, there’s nothing about Frozen  that can’t warm the cold heart of anyone lucky enough to join in the fun and the wonder of it. It’s a super way to kick off the holiday season, especially if you have kiddies to cart along who would be sure to remember the magical experience for the rest of their lives.

THROUGH FEB. 2: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 800.840.9227 or pantagestheatre.box-officetickets.com

 

See? I'm an Angel!