THE BONEYARD  

TRAVIS' REVIEWS:  Fall 2017 to Winter 2018 

LUZIA by Cirque du Soleil at Dodgers Stadium

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?

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A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center

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 sure if he were still with us today, he'd 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.

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ALLEGIANCE from East West Players and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center

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.”

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JACKIE UNVEILED at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

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.

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WATER BY THE SPOONFUL at the Mark Taper Forum

It’s not difficult to understand why Quiara Alegria Hudes was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer for Drama for her arresting drama Water by the Spoonful, although it might be speculated that part of the decision could certainly have been influenced by the fact that the play is a third in the author’s interlinked epic American chronicle depicting the struggles of one majorly fucked-up family trying to negotiate life in our equally fucked-up contemporary society.

Luckily for Angelenos, we are currently able to immerse ourselves in the story of Elliot, a severely damaged Iraqi vet, whose journey to hell and back and then back to hell again when he returns home, is the backbone of saga. The first of the trilogy, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, is also onstage right now at CTG’s Kirk Douglas Theatre (only through Feb. 25) and the last, The Happiest Song Plays Last, opens Feb 22 at LA Theatre Center.

Explains the playwright of her inspiration: “I am marrow-deep grateful to [real life transplanted LA actor] Elliot Ruiz—my cousin, my muse, my inspiration. When he returned from Iraq, that boyish sparkle in his eye had changed, ever so slightly. As his life story continued to unfold, I continued to write and Elliot gave me his blessing and took my creative license in stride.”

Hudes’ middle child, Water by the Spoonful, details the return home from The Sandbox of Elliot (here played by Sean Carajal) and the recent death of the aunt who raised him after he was snatched as a kid from of the grasp of his crack-addicted mother Odessa (Luna Lauren Velez), who could indirectly be blamed for the death of his kid sister. As he and his extremely close cousin Yazmin (Keren Lugo) plan for his aunt’s burial and compare horror stories of how they let her down while she was dying, Odessa tries valiantly to put her life back together, hanging onto her fragile abstinence by acting as the site administrator for a chat group made up of former crack babies also attempting to stay clean.

In their chatroom, Odessa acts as mother hen to Chutes&Ladders (Bernard K. Addison) and Orangutan (Sylvia Kwan), doing her best to ease tensions when a new member who dubs himself Fountainhead (Josh Braaten) starts to log on as he begins his own shaky climb to sobriety.

The first wonder of Hudes’ script is how it weaves back and forth ala Michael Cristofer’s also Pulitzer-winning 1977 play The Shadow Box, as all these diverse people, some connected by genetics, some merely by need of human contact, struggle to hang onto their humanity despite the odds. This is anchored by the playwright’s evocative storytelling and uncanny ability to turn descriptions of the ugliness overpowering the world to which Elliot has returned into lyrically poetic Williams-esque dialogue.

Unfortunately, under the direction of Lilena Blain-Cruz, it’s somehow hard to care about Hudes’ characters as passionately as she intended and that her play demands. Some intimate dramas can work well on the Mark Taper stage—including the original production of the aforementioned The Shadow Box—but only if the director and designers are able to overcome the size of the stage itself. Water by the Spoonful simply does not.

Except for a few brief blessedly promising moments, everything and everyone on Adam Rigg’s two-level set seems isolated and cut off from everyone else, both physically and emotionally, and even this truly exceptional cast simply cannot make that massively important leap of faith here from solo-show pontificating to connecting with one another. It’s not hard to see what a vital, inspiring, even historic play Water by the Spoonful is and will be for decades to come, I suspect, but here those flashes of brilliance live only in the shadows of this well-meaning but sadly unsuccessful presentation.

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SOMETHING ROTTEN! at the Ahmanson Theatre

Here I am on my holiday break and I have to write two ROTTEN reviews of totally ROTTEN productions just opening in time for the holidays. Luckily for me, both Jon Brittain’s Olivier-winning Rotterdam at the Skylight and Something Rotten! at the Ahmanson, the Kirkpatrick Brothers’ outrageously in-your-face and wildly entertaining musical send-up of all things Shakespeare, are two of the very best things to hit LA stages this year.

Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick straight away transport us directly to Elizabethan England in the enormous production number which begins Something Rotten!, with the enormously talented and obviously wired company performing “Welcome to the Renaissance,” a place where “everything is new” and that ol’ popstar William Shakespeare (a punked out, leather-clad Adam Pascal), the man who put the “I in iambic petameter,” rules London like Jay-Z on steroids… er, maybe on more steroids.

This doesn’t sit well with rival playwright Nick Bottom (Rob McClure) and his meek but gifted brother Nigel (Josh Grisetti), who can’t quite understand why ol’ Will is the only one known as The Bard when, as he points out, they’re “all Bards.” Times are not easy for Nick, whose wife Bea (a tiny powerhouse of a dynamo named Maggie Lakis) dons men’s clothing to go out and find work laying brick and carrying lumber to support the family—believing with all her heart that, since it’s the 90s, women will surely be recognized as equals by 1600.

Nick finally in desperation turns to a soothsayer named Thomas Nostradamus (Blake Hammond), nephew of that other famous teller of the future. Nick wants to know what the next big thing in theatre will be and Nostradamus immediately assures him that it will be musical comedy, which he explains is a play where, while an actor is in the middle of saying his lines, out of the blue he just starts singing. Nick of course finds the concept totally absurd, but warms up to the idea when he is convinced rhyming couplets are “so 1580s” as the soothsayer and the entire company launch into Something Rotten!’s showstopping art deco-y glitz and glitter production number, “A Musical.”

It’s an interesting turn that “A Musical,” which could not come off more like a finale than “One,” was chosen to be performed in the middle of the first act. The conceit pays off bigtime, however, as the wildly cheering Ahmanson opening night audience stayed applauding for a good 6 minutes, nearly eliciting a full standing ovation if the usual dour Stuffy Ones hadn’t probably deemed that bad form.

And speaking of “One,” for fans of A Chorus Line and virtually every musical in Broadway history from Oklahoma! to Phantom of the Opera to Rent to Cats, no previous hit show has been spared its individual 15 minutes in this raucously funny, delightfully corny production where anything goes… and oh, yeah, that one too.

The score by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell is both infectious and goofy, especially as performed by this exceptionally gifted and superhumanly energetic and charismatic ensemble, who collectively and individually defy the reputation for walking through the material dogging many companies out on tour. With titles such as “The Black Death” and “Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top,” the songs are wonderfully silly to showcase both the cast and the choreographic whimsy of director Casey Nicholaw.

All the principals are perfectly cast as they belt their own special numbers, such as Nick’s “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” Bea’s “Right Hand Man,” and Will’s “Hard to Be the Bard,” but it is the band of longer-in-tooth character actors in smaller but memorable cameos who steal the show.

Hammond is delicious as the dotty Nostradamus, who fortells that Will’s biggest hit will be a musical called Omelette, where he gleans somewhere in the future-fog a prince seems to be eating a danish for some mysterious reason, while Jeff Brooks as Shylock, who must finance Nick’s show in secret since moneylending is the only job Jews are allowed to do in 1590, and Scott Cote as Brother Jeremiah, the straight-laced Puritan trying to close the show and destroy the blasphemous genre of theatre but unable to make a statement that doesn’t sound like a gay double-entendre, are the best part of the production.

Nicholaw directs with tongue firmly in cheek at every moment on Scott Pask’s versatile Pee-Wee’s Playhouse of a Renaissance set, while Gregg Barnes elaborately oversized and clunky Elizabethan costuming is so hilarious that one purple-hued ostrich-plumed outfit gets a huge laugh just by having the actor wearing it walk onstage.

But hey, as Shylock advises Nick, “Don’t listen to critics—they’re ferkakta.” That may be true but boy, am I glad I got to see Something Rotten! and hope to enjoy it many more times before it takes up permanent residence in some grand Las Vegas hotel in the future. And no, that’s not gossip, just a far better prediction than Nostradamus’ vision of Omelette—the Musical.”

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ROTTERDAM at the Skylight Theatre

It’s New Year’s Eve in Rotterdam in the west coast premiere of Jon Brittain’s arresting Olivier-winning new play and there are a lot of changes about to rock the comfortably nontraditional lives of a hip young couple trying to ease themselves into a return to England after 7 years living and working in the Netherlands.

Alice (Miranda Wynne) tries desperately to compose an email to her parents trying to explain that she’s been in a solid and happy same-sex relationship with Fiona (Ashley Romans) during the period they’ve been living and working in their adopted country, but it isn’t coming easy. When she reads the next-to-final draft, it moves Fiona more than she expected, leading to a startling and brave confession of her own: that she’s felt all her life she was meant to be born a man and intends to start transitioning from Fiona to Adrian in the coming new year.

Brittain has written an urgently important play, intelligently exploring territory which other writers haven’t yet really touched with such understanding, humor, and an overwhelmingly sense of humanity. As Fiona becomes more and more committed to the transformation she, now he, realizes everything that didn’t seem right in his life was finally beginning to add up (“like the end of The Sixth Sense”), while for Alice, this all comes as a great shock and completely blindsides her, making it a challenge to maintain her feelings for her partner as they were before the startling confession.

Director Michael A. Shepperd does a masterful job keeping the play’s many filmic scene changes crisp and even interesting, something that can be the death of more productions than need be. Here the actors schlep the furniture around to set new scenes, handing each other's props and wardrobe accessories and greeting one another at the start of each scene with choreographed moves. Under Shepperd’s impeccable care, his castmembers never break character, paying unique homage to the courageous lives of people willing to eschew society’s ridiculously constrictive rules and honoring the struggles of all those brave cultural warriors who shuck the religiously-based dogma that limits our lives.

Romans is brilliant as Fiona, becoming Adrian gradually in the first act before returning after intermission four months later when the change is nearly complete. Wynne is a wonderful compliment to her work in a less-flashy role and, although there are times we lose the connection with the character as written, Wynne and her director do wonders to keep Alice just sympathetic enough so the viewer may identify with wary compassion and without too much judgment of her reaction to her lover’s ordeal.

Audrey Cain is a wonderful relief from the heaviness of the story as Lelani, Alice’s randy and openly smitten Dutch coworker, who in her wonderfully wide-eyed European way does not quite understand what the big deal is, while Ryan Brophy, in his professional debut as Fiona’s brother Josh, turns in a remarkable performance as a somewhat forgotten guy who always seem to get the raw end of the deal.

Personally, I have always been asked how I have maintained a relationship with one person for the past 48 years, the answer to which is easy for me: we have both accepted change in the other no matter what is at stake. Too often, when people find that person they’re sure is their soulmate, they immediately employ every emotional tool they have been taught by their parents and our fucked-up society to try to make their partner change to suit their own idea of who they want that person to be.

What a mistake.

And that’s truly the message of Jon Brittain and his incredibly timely play Rotterdam, which Shepperd and his incredibly gifted team strive so subtly to convey, cajoling us all to work our asses off to keep a relationship alive no matter how difficult that may sometimes be. Love is precious, you know—however it is given, however it is received.

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HOW THE PRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS from Troubadour Theater Company

Like Macy’s windows in Manhattan or Barbara Stanwyck in Connecticut, nothing says holiday time in El Lay more than the Troubadour Theater Company, who annually take the most recognizable music of a pop icon and meld it with a classic Christmas story into a hilarious blend of outrageous comedy and deliciously skewed social commentary.

In the past, there have been such classics as Little Drummer Bowie, A Christmas Carole King, It’s a Stevie Wonderful Life, and Santa Claus is Coming to Motown, but for this year’s festive offering, How the Princh Stole Christmas, artistic director Matt Walker and his the unstoppable Troubies have taken on a whole new challenge. After many years presenting their always immediately sold-out holiday run at the 130-seat Falcon (now Garry Marshall) Theatre, the Troubies have moved to the El Portal, giving them the possibly heart-stopping task of putting 360 holiday-fueled butts in the seats for each performance.

It was a challenge met quickly by sprightly ticket sales and, once again, within days there were very few tickets to be had for their usual quick 11-day run. As of this writing, there are only five performances left and looking them up online, it seems basically there are at this point only 14 seats left for their closing New Year’s Eve spectacular at $100 a seat.

Walker himself plays the Princh who, although furry and purple, still is recognizable as evoking another media-saturated character, spending time in his cave with his loyal but hardly adoring pup Max (Troubie stalwart Beth Kennedy), tweeting his nights away with his tiny, tiny hands (check the photo). As he plans to ruin Christmas for the How clan (in an epic attempt to not get sued by the Geisel estate), including their Mayor Focker (Ron Batalla) and his lovely daughter Applephonia (Maegan McConnell), for whom he has a yen from afar, the cheerfully cheesy community sings and dances to familiar Prince classics with the lyrics altered just enough to avoid the wrath of yet another set of lawyers.

Prince theme song “Purple Rain” here features a stanza about Michael Caine, for instance (“Michael Caine, Michael Caine / He made Jaws 4 / Can’t Explain”) and leaves wide-open spaces to showcase some wonderfully spirited choreography by Nadine Ellis and costumer Halei Parker’s sensational Pee-Wee’s Playhouse-inspired primary-colored finery. No one in the current climate of ho-ho-harrassment is spared either, as folks named Weinstein, Franken, C.K., Spacey, and others are nailed to the walls of How Square.

And speaking of Christopher Scott Murillo’s ingeniously cardboard-y set, which features a brand new store called How High Dispensary (opening on January 1), even when one of the huge company-manipulated Suessian trees break in half, it gives Walker just one other chance to adlib on the spot: “Those nasty pine beetles are terrible this year.”

The great charisma between Walker and Kennedy is indispensable for any Troubie production, as are the quick and acerbic sides from Batalla, another veteran of many presentations past. And of course, as in any Troubie holiday treat, there’s a guest appearance by the 15-ft Winter Warlock (Kennedy again and always), who brings the house down just by floating onstage, prompting Walker to quip, “Anybody who’s never seen us before is thinking, ‘What the [BLEEP] is going on?”

And truly, if you’ve never seen the Troubies rock the house during the holidays, grab a couple of those remaining seats and start a tradition many of us would not miss for the world. How the Princh Stole Christmas is a perfect introduction to a new destination for holiday cheer in a world where this year there is little. Maybe if that fucker Dotard Donnie used his own tiny little hands and clicked on the link for tickets, even he might go the Ebenezer route and lighten up before he blows us all to bits. That prize turkey is still in the butcher shop window, but not for long.

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MIRACLE ON 34th STREET at Pasadena Playhouse

In a community currently lit by raging wildfires and a country where our reincarnated Caligula is intent on banishing his enemies, a little dose of holiday cheer isn’t an easy thing to conjure as this year crashes to a clumsy close.

Thankfully, there’s an undeniable timeless charm to Valentine Davies’ beloved Christmas favorite Miracle on 34th Street, which suggests “peace on earth, goodwill to man” is a concept that might really be achieved in our time—well, it was 1947—and the easiest way to transform your Bah Humbugging to Ho-Ho-Ho-ing for the last tortured gasps of 2017 is to head to Pasadena Playhouse. There, one of LA’s hottest emerging directors, Cameron Watson, leads an exceptional team of artists to recreate Davies’ Oscar-winning tale of the loonytunes old gent greeting kiddies as Santa Claus at Macy’s Department Store in New York who believes himself to be the real deal.

Of course, the 1947 film is aired at the end of each year more than all the versions of Dickens ever made, starring every aging icon who has ever asked that precocious little urchin boy if the prize turkey is still in the shop window around the corner. Ironically, in a twist of Hollywood timeline rules, it was seven months after the original 20th Century-Fox classic won an Oscar or three that Davies’ radio adaptation of the script was broadcast nationwide on Lux Radio Theater featuring the film’s cast, including Edmund Gwenn, who won that coveted golden trophy for Best Supporting Actor only a few months before.

Pasadena Playhouse’s welcome resurrection of Miracle on 34th Street is subtitled A Live Radio Play and, luckily for us holiday cheer-deprived Angelenos, we get to see the performance unfold as listeners some 70 years ago never got to enjoy, including some of our town’s finest actors holding their scripts at standup microphones and featuring live foley artistry created on the spot by one of LA’s best sound designers Jeff Gardner—who also ain’t chopped liver himself when he steps into the action to play a gung-ho office boy or a hardened New Yorker newspaper distributor with an idea sure to further the story into orbit.

Augmented by the original Lux Soap commercials between acts, interspersed with wonderfully nostalgic Christmas songs interpreted beautifully by Yvette Cason with accompaniment by pianist Ryan Johnson—both of whom also occasionally assume the slouch and prance around Terpsichore on her brocade couch—Davies’ 70-year-old miracle is miraculously warm and fuzzy once again and the performers who bring it to life are obviously having a wonderful time sharing their holiday with us.

As Kris Kringle, the venerable Alfred Molina is as stupendously watchable and yet simple in his choices as ever, bringing a less… well, hammy… spin to the role than the iconic Mr. Gwenn. He never wavers for a moment, except when a fellow actor cracks him up, in mining both the kindliness and reassuring confidence in magic that has made the role so enduring. Peri Gilpin does a masterful job as the hardnosed working mother trying to protect her daughter (a sweet debut for munchkin Cecilia Witt) from the brutal truths of the world, as does Larry Poindexter as the principled young (well, it is radio, after all) lawyer who is as much to thank for breaking through her stiff-backed guard as Mr. Kringle.

In multiple roles, veteran character actors Beth Grant and Michael Chieffo make each new character come to life gloriously and with total commitment to the task, while Jim Rash, a noted voice actor when he isn’t winning Oscars for his screenplays, steals the show over and again taking on everyone from R.H. Macy himself to Macy’s odious little store lay psychologist Mr. Sawyer—at one point even playing both characters simultaneously in one conversation, racing from microphone to microphone with lightning speed.

Speaking of stealing the show, the charmingly festive and quite elaborate video projections created obviously for this production by Hana Sooyeon Kim and the knockout period costuming by Kate Bergh have to be noted here. Without their inclusion and with kudos to whomever devised a way to make it snow in the audience for the show’s finale, this heartwarming recreation of Miracle on 34th Street would not be as unexpectedly polished as it turned out to be.

And oh, yeah: let’s raise a glass of holiday cheer to the unstoppable imagination, the visual alacrity, and consummate skill of Cameron Watson, without whom none of this would be happening. Christmas comes to Pasadena this season and not even watching with horror as Dotard Donnie turns our country into a sinkhole can dampen the experience.

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THE SECRET IN THE WINGS from Coeurage Theatre Company

As a kid raised in a Danish household, very few of us survived without forever remembering those questionable words learned to help us understand our bestemor’s phone conversations, craving freshly baked klejner during the holidays for the rest of our lives, and having a bizarrely skewed relationship with the wildly twisted ancient folk tales of our ancestors.

There was nothing remotely age-appropriate in the frightening world of Hans Christian Andersen, who in his lifetime created 3381 fairy tales that, though beloved and thoroughly entertaining, could usually scare the living bejesus out of a kid of 6—not that such a concern stopped my family from sharing his stories with me. Andersen, who was from Odense, the same region as my grandparents, was something of a hero in my household and his prolific body of work definitely helped ignite in me the first spark of becoming an artist and storyteller myself, my interest in such things germinating in his fanciful but ever-whimsical yarns about orphaned matchgirls, little mermaids, ugly ducklings, and emperors parading around without clothes. 

Now the incredibly imaginative Mary Zimmerman of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, Tony Award winner in 2002 for directing her celebrated adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses performed in and around a stage-sized pool of water, has now reworked some of the fables left behind by Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, among others. She has inventively taken some of history’s darkest, most terrifying, and most obscure fairy tales—though I’ll bet any saturated and perhaps once fabulistically-abused Danish grown-ups might remember a couple of them—and has spun them all together into The Secret in the Wings with her signature imagination and wit.

No producing entity in El Lay could be a better choice to present Zimmerman’s newest fantasy than the unstoppably courageous folks at the Coeurage Theatre Company, especially under the leadership of director Joseph V. Calarco, recipient of my TicketHolder Award in 2015 for his amazing interpretation of The Sparrow.

Zimmerman’s Secret performs those basically unknown fairy tales linked together by a central story, that of a young girl (Audrey Flegel) left by her parents in the care of their friendly neighborhood ogre (Leon Russom), a rather ominous figure who not only qualifies for ogre-status from his facial expression alone but, since he also sports a real-life bony tail sweeping the floor behind him, Audrey’s fear and revulsion are not hard to understand.

This is especially true because Audrey’s babysitter-from-hell (possibly literally) keeps intreating her to marry him and, with each horrified rejection, he launches into another of his many scary fairy tales from the book he carries at his side. The fables are all about such fodder as three blinded mothers left banished in the woods forced to eat their own newborns, a mirthless princesses who send 500-plus suitors off to be beheaded--here by a chainsaw in the wings—when they cannot successfully make her smile, and a poor waif dogged by her own father in his pursuit to marry her. You know. Disney stuff.

With the help of his gifted and highly committed cast (especially Russom, who induces his share of delightfully creepy goosebumps as the ogre), Calarco does a masterful job staging his graceful scenarios on designer JR Bruce’s minimalist set piled high with junk and bathed in the atmospheric glow of old table lamps stacked everywhere as lighting designer Brandon Baruch. Kamie Asai and Bob Beuth’s strikingly eerie masks heighten the dreamlike mood created by Calarco, as does the haunting original music by Surrija.

Still, interestingly, it is the sound design by Calarco that dominates the evening, perhaps the first time in my memory that a sound plot stands out as the most memorable aspect of a production. And although The Secret in the Wings is a little hampered by pacing, primarily because the cast of nine spends far too much time meandering too slowly in tight groups on and off the stage—when they could instead be seated throughout the performance among the piles of rubble on either side when not in a scene and make any costume changes right there for all to see—this is a magical evening.

Though perhaps the grisly nature of some of these folk tales is anything but kid-friendly in our contemporary society’s narrow view, let’s face it: Bambi's mother bleeds to death and Tinkerbell almost O.D.s, right? A little exposure to the Brothers Grimm and ol’ Hans never hurt me in my formative years, I don’t think…unless you know something I’m always sure I hide so successfully.

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THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD at the Wallis Annenberg Center

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s imaginative retelling of the classic tale of Robin Hood and his not-so merry men made an enormous splash when it premiered in London in 2011—and that’s not even mentioning the splash that happens occasionally when some performer or another dives into the moss-covered onstage pond and sprays the first rows of the Wallis’ Bram Goldsmith stage in a unique attempt to bring the audience into the act.

David Farr’s blatantly skewed The Heart of Robin Hood offers a new wrinkle to the enduring legend, the suggestion that Robin (here played with athletic prowess by Luke Forbes) was not the altruistic do-gooder he has always been sung to be in ballads dating back to the late 1300s. From the earliest of the many accounts passed down through the ages, the dashing Mr. Hood’s celebrated partisanship toward the lower classes was a given; in Farr’s adaptation, however, Robin and his boyos are a band of thugs and it’s the positive influence of Maid Marion (Christina Bennett Lind) that makes them turn philanthropic.

Under the incredibly inventive direction of Gisli Orn Gardarsson and Selma Bjornsdottir, this family-friendly production, which has won high praise and numerous awards in its journey across the globe since its RSC debut, sweeps into town complete with gymnastic stunts, astonishing acrobatic aerial flying, awe-inspiring fight choreography by Joe Bostic, and performers able to slide and climb scenic designer Borkur Jonsson’s omnipresent moss-covered vertical wall as though they were rehearsing to join the company of Cirque du Soleil’s KA at the MGM Grand in Vegas.

The wonderfully game ensemble cast succeeds with a broad, nearly vaudevillian sort of style, honoring Farr’s often tongue-in-cheeky script with obvious enjoyment, the breakneck pacing of the action throughout augmented periodically by Icelandic pop princess Salka Sol Eyfeld, who knocks it out performing her own score of impressive contemporary folk music with an energetic band of four gifted musicians.

Lind is a special standout as Marion, who smoothly—and sometimes almost instantaneously—doubles as a Robin’s male rival for woodland thievery honors Martin of Sherwood Forest, as is Sarah Hunt as her marriage-hungry, empty-brained sister Alice. The voluminously velvet-clad Daniel Franzese is ever-watchable as our heroine’s loyal manservant Pierre, pleasingly playing him as something of a cross between Alan Hale Sr. and Dom DeLuise. Local theatre stalwart Leonard Kelly-Young is an asset as usual as the doomed loyal Makepeace—a character who tries to do just that—and another LA put-in, Gavin Lewis as brave 12-year-old hero-in-training Jethro Summers, is a true charmer with a guaranteed career in his future if fickle old Terpsichore allows.

So, see, let’s face it: this isn’t Shakespeare, but then what is? What it is instead is a fast-paced, rollicking, visually jaw-dropping revision that sets a great classic on its ear and let’s us enjoy a unique little Renaissance-infused dose of Luzia-itis without coughing up $7 for a hotdog or trying to park at Dodger Stadium. Truly, The Heart of Robin Hood is a great way to enjoy a little festive evening on the town without even a hint of holiday cheer past the majestic Christmas tree in the Wallis’ grand marbled lobby. For some of us, that’s definitely a plus as our world descends into madness around us.

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STUPID KID at Road Theatre Company 

Poor Chick Ford. The kid not only looks like he would hands-down be voted as the Person Least Likely to Succeed in any contest and against all odds imaginable, but after 14 years in prison for a murder he may or may not have committed, not only does he arrive home to his parents’ shabby clapboard shack on the eastern plains of Colorado to discover his room has been rented out and his mother threw out his Frankenstein statue and Iron Maiden figurines, he is not even physically recognizable to them after all those years.

Of course, GiGi and Eddie Ford (Taylor Gilbert and Joe Hart) haven’t seen their son (Ben Theobald) since, at age 14, he admitted in open court that he had killed his girlfriend and was sentenced to life in prison. DNA evidence, however, has recently surfaced that questions the verdict and so, playwright Sharr White’s Stupid Kid hoists his garbage bag full of chewing gum and a few pair of tightey-whiteys over his shoulder and nervously treks back to the only place he has even called home.

For his pain pill-addicted father, who carries his meds in the pocket of his filthy bathrobe and pops ‘em like Reece’s Pieces, Chickie may just be a stranger “tryin’ to get us to let our guard down so you can steal our stuff,” though considering the condition and resale value of their stuff this would be highly unlikely. Seeing his abrasive mother for the first time isn’t any better, her reaction, after asking how he got there, is to observe to her mate that’s what’s wrong with this country: “They let people like him ride buses.”

GiGi’s reaction comes from the fact that her son’s conviction has made them pariahs in their small rural community, to the point where she lost her job at the local “Bird ‘n Turd” fast food outlet and her husband screwed up his back lifting their Buick LeSabre off the railroad tracks in just the nick of time after discovering his despondent wife trying to end it all. Why, even their mentally-deficient neighbor Franny Hawker (Michelle Gillette) didn’t speak to them for years, the breakthrough in their relationship beginning when she started flipping them off between the slats of her front window blinds.

There to offer advice is GiGi’s brother Unclemike (Rob Nagle), the town’s blustery former sheriff who engineered his nephew’s original confession and is trying to cash in on the monetary compensation Chickie might be entitled to if they decide to sue the state for false imprisonment. Unclemike (not a typo; blame the playwright) rents a room in the Fords’ home as a place he can bring his little chickadees in an effort to forget his wife is undergoing a sex change and would rather be called George than Georgette. This time out, Unclemike announces he’s moving in his reluctant companion Hazel (Allison Blaize), whom he cheerfully treats as his personal sex slave after getting the court to award him custody when she’s convicted for a drug offense.

Unclemike is oozing with a false charm that barely conceals his ominous power-hungry Trumpian streak of sadism and, as much as GiGi and Eddie want the guy out of their house, they’re so impoverished they would have trouble surviving without his $300 monthly rent payment, not to mention the bags of chips and junk foods and diarrhea-inducing cuts of frozen meats he barks at Hazel to bring in from his car with Simon Legree-style glee. Without him life would be nearly impossible, as GiGi’s oven hasn’t worked in six years and she feeds Eddie mostly dry cereal with powdered milk she gets from the local church’s charity bank. “Eat up them lumps, Eddie,” she snaps at her mate. “All the nutrition’s in them lumps.”

Gilbert, co-artistic director of the Road, has contributed some remarkable performances over the years but her GiGi rises directly to the top of the list, alternately as loud and shrewish as any sandpapery Jerry Springer guest and then suddenly soft and heartbreakingly touching, a severely broken woman whose treatment of her own son is obviously and tragically conflicted. Hart is a wonderful foil to Gilbert as the father who has all but given up and Theobald, though occasionally coming off a tad more Appalachian than Coloradan, wins us over as the lost kid who only wants to put his sordid past behind him and regain his life and parents’ love.

Blaize contributes some quietly arresting moments as the zombie-like and horribly abused Hazel, while Gillette, sitting nearby the action on a folding lawn chair greedily chompin’ on her bag of Doritos and enjoying the family’s dysfunction as though she’s watching a reality show falling somewhere between Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, is pure comedy gold as the most annoying neighbor since Zac Efron moved in next to Seth Rogan.

As usual, Nagle is one of those actors it’s hard to take one’s eyes off of, if you’ll excuse the intentionally bad but emphatic grammar. He steals the show in his every scene, his monstrous, oily, physically imposing Unclemike so goddam creepy I asked the actor after the show if he was having any trouble sleeping while playing this role. The fact that he said no with a wide Unclemike grin, relating that he’s been sleeping like a baby these days, may make me a little more apprehensive when greeting the guy at any future point in time, even if he is madly in love with a beloved ancient pug named Roosevelt.

Sharr White is quickly becoming one of my personal favorite emerging playwrights, proving himself to be adept at creating outrageously inappropriate comedies that alternately make the audience roar with laughter and then, like the narrative rollercoaster ride they promise, send their cars careening off the side at a moment’s notice. His Annapurna, in its debut starring Megan Mullaly and Nick Offerman at the Odyssey, was my TicketHolders Award Best Play of 2013 and The Other Place, also starring the amazing Gilbert at the Road, was one of my Top Ten Plays of 2015.

Now with Stupid Kid, White gets even more respect from me with this knockout world premiere which, under the masterful leadership of director Cameron Watson, is simply the best production so far opening in LA this season in a year overflowing with incredible new plays. There are a few holes in White’s script which could easily be filled with a little dab of theatrical Spackle, but quite simply, it could never soar to these heights without Watson and his amazing cast of six brilliant actors at the top of their game. 

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KING CHARLES III at Pasadena Playhouse

Playwright Mike Bartlett has taken on a monster, not only speculating outrageously and with bold detail about the destiny of the British monarchy, but doing so in verse while obviously paying homage to the sweepingly huge plays of William Shakespeare himself. King Charles III begins at a time in the near future, with the British court mourning the recent death of Queen Elizabeth and the Royal family preparing for the coronation of Charles (Jim Abele), who will finally assume his long-awaited role as King of England.

Not only does Bartlett strive to show us the intensely private and highly protected world of the Windsors, he does so entirely in iambic pentameter, spoken in perfect present—and future—speak. Where the Bard wrote poetic passages about the delicacy of the rose and the formidably destructive character of a bare bodkin, Bartlett’s bedazzled and leather bomber-jacketed Royals speak of Doritos and Botox with equally lyrical splendor.

All is status quo for everything on the surface as this major transition of power in the world begins to unfold until, for the first time in his life, Charles suddenly realizes he is now in control and lets his opinion—and power—surface. Since he cannot persuade his Prime Minister (J. Paul Boehmer) to take a second look at a bill the new King finds unconscionable, restricting the press from freely printing news that does not paint the Crown in a positive light, he boldly dusts off and exercises the English King’s long-unused ability to dissolve Parliament entirely and start from scratch.

What results is total chaos, requiring tanks surrounding Buckingham Palace to protect the new monarch and creating a division in the family that could totally change the course of world history. Although there are some major flaws in Bartlett’s play, including his inability to offer most of these well-known real-life characters more than the one dimension we already know, this ultimately is also a fascinating, epic effort, one that could never be presented successfully without the signature visually stunning perspective of a director as innovative as Michael Michetti.

Utilizing his dynamic cast of 16, Michetti, along with an amazing design team dominated by the incredibly detailed 100-plus costumes crafted by Alex Jaeger, manages to create a whole empire before us, filling the cavernous Pasadena Playhouse stage with constant movement and brilliantly conjured tricks in staging that keep the implausibility of the storyline from getting in the way of the vision.

Abele does a masterful job of bringing his Charles to life despite not being a physical match, but the playwright lets him down a tad, never giving the actor a chance to really step out of his character’s infamous stuffiness and get swept into what we are asked to believe is Charles’ newly minted social conscience. If we were given a chance to explore the reasons why he and the other increasingly more greed-fueled Royals behave as they do, the play would ultimately be more exciting.

Still as is, Bartlett’s uncanny ability to write gloriously evocative—albeit often implausible—speeches and monologues, lifts his play to a level it may not actually deserve in hindsight, leaving us with more smoke and mirrors than substance. It’s never really made clear how Kate (Meghan Andrews) can deliver an impassioned plea for equality for women one minute and become a ruthless usurper of Trumpian proportions the next, while the potentially explosive ending never satisfactorily crescendos to balance the grandness and audacity that energizes the rest of the highly speculative tale.

It’s interesting, however, that nothing unfolding in King Charles III is as much of a surprise as it might have been a little over a year ago. As the world devolves into some horrifyingly bad reality show around us, I fear we are all collectively reaching that dreaded point where, as Tennessee Williams noted in Small Craft Warnings, we will never again be able with a sense of wonder to proclaim “Oh, God” instead of just “Oh, well,” as we are stripped daily of our capacity for being surprised by much of anything these sad days as our species marches dutifully forth to extinction.

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ROSOLVING HEDDA at the Victory Theatre Center

It’s become a cottage industry for wily contemporary playwrights to invent sly and often outrageous adaptations of our major theatrical classics. From Aaron Posner’s amazing Stupid Fucking Bird to Tom Jacobson’s inventive The Orange Grove, which memorably transformed, respectively, The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard into brilliantly skewed modern retellings, groundbreaking but sometimes stuffy dramatists like Anton Chekhov must be doing a little spinning in their otherwise well-tended graves—unless, of course, they’re laughing their skeletal asses off right along with the rest of us.

Now noted playwright Jon Klein, first brought to the attention of west coast audiences with the presentation of his HBO Playwrights USA Award-winner T-Bone ‘N Weasel many years ago, championed by Maria Gobetti and Tom Ormeny at their long-prolific Victory Theatre Center, returns home to world premiere his latest comedy Resolving Hedda—which immediately joins the ranks of the brilliant wordsmiths before him determined to turn great literary works of dramatic art on their proverbial ear.

Klein begins by presenting us with that traditionally tragic heroine Hedda Gabler herself (Kimberly Alexander), who tries to directly convince those gathered that she deserves better than to once again be the victim of Henrik Ibsen, that damned Norwegian misogynistic “serial killer” of independent woman at the end of the 19th century. It seems she’s struggled on the sidelines as her story has been told and retold in “over 10,000 performances of this fucking play” since it debuted to shocked audiences way back in 1891.

So once again, Hedda’s story unfolds before us, but not without running commentary from Mrs. Tesman herself, who talks so much she’s getting dry-mouthed from the monologuing and borrows the program from someone in the front row to check out the bio of the actress playing her.

Like a scene from Bill Murray’s Groudhog Day, Hedda watches and then jumps into her own role as once again old Aunt Julia (Alyce Heath) arrives at the Tesmans’ home to welcome the couple back from their honeymoon, only to find the lady of the house has given the maid Berta a personal day since she’s not essential to the plot. “This is the 19th century,” she tells her shocked visitor, “and we can defrost our own dinners.” Besides, she is obliged to show her husband’s sweet little old aunt that she’s hard and wicked and perverse, at least according to Wikipedia. At the same time she tries to defend herself to us, saying maybe she’s not really a bad person but is just written that way.

You get the picture, right? On Evan Bartoletti’s elaborately-appointed set and graced with opulent costuming by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg—although one outfit is assigned to each character, explained specifically in Klein’s constantly tongue-in-cheek text by someone noting they’re all just too busy to change—Gobetti directs a stage full of Ibsen’s well-known supporting characters, from Marisa Van Den Borre as the blank-headed Thea, Chad Coe as a silent movie-starry eyebrow-twitchy Eilert, Ormeny as a wonderfully lecherous Judge Brock, and featuring a rich yet understated turn by Ben Atkinson as Mr. Milquetoast himself, Hedda’s mousey new terminally academic hubby George Tesman.

Then there’s one new character onstage, a hapless stage manager (Sean Spencer) who, by forgetting to put out punch and unable find an outlet when he delivers a paper-shredder to destroy Eilert’s infamous manuscript, is threatened by Hedda to get with it or she will either kill him or turn him in to Equity.

Alexander is a powerhouse as Hedda, although she appears to occasionally be having a hard time knowing how to differentiate her narrations to the audience with the times she’s a part of the action. In general, the supporting players also do seem to be struggling to find a uniform style to solidify their journey as they give Resolving Hedda a try, but all are exceptional players I suspect have since settled into their roles more confidently.

At one point Hedda does assure us that she’s trying to get Ibsen’s play down to two acts and indeed she does. Still, there’s a little more judicious snipping needed to perhaps trim Klein’s refreshing and often hilarious play into a more modern intermission-less single act and not feel obligated to touch on every clumsy plotpoint presented in the original. If someone took a little Cliff Note-ian pruning to Resolving Hedda and gave this splendid cast a wee bit more time to settle into an ensemble performance, a delightfully clever modern classic can surely emerge.

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BRIGHT STAR at the Ahmanson Theatre

Either I’m mellowing with age or my ol’ pal Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s journey into the genre of musical theatre defies my personal aversion to sappy American musicals. Although I considered avoiding reviewing—or at least donning a necklace of garlic and borrowing a crucifix from one of the handful of Christians I still know—Bright Star proved me wrong, overcoming my elitist pretensions that usually make me run for the hills long before encountering any real good clambakes or corn as high as an elephant’s eye.

Let me start by saying Martin and Brickell’s plot is about as predictable as Dotard Donnie’s reaction to criticism (“Sad!”), but still their bluegrass-tinged music is gloriously infectious, while Walter Bobbie’s direction is extraordinarily fluid and the simple but effective design elements in the production could not be more impressive. Add to this a wonderful ensemble cast, particularly Carmen Cusack, A.J. Shively,  Jeff Blumenkrantz, and Stephen Lee Anderson all reprising their original Broadway performances, and a worldclass band led by musical director/keyboardist Anthony DeAngelis—showcasing the dynamic George Guthrie on banjo and Martha McDonnell on violin—and even the script’s most predictable and improbable themes can be forgiven. 

The potentially sad tale of Alice Murphy (Cusack) unfolds as it travels back and forth through time and in two locations, first presenting her as a spirited teenager in the 1920s growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and then again in 1945 in the “big city” of Ashville, NC, where Alice has become the crusty, humorless editor of a literary magazine called the Ashville Southern Journal.

It begins just after World War II when Billy Cane (Shively) returns home to find his mother has died, prompting a predictably-timed duet with his father (David Atkinson) called appropriately “She’s Gone,” which features a song lead-in almost as clumsy as when Alan Jones first serenaded Dolores Del Rio in Flying Down to Rio. Of course, Billy also finds his childhood chum and current town librarian Margo (Maddie Shea Baldwin) has blossomed into anything but the feisty tomboy he remembered, but of course it takes until near the end of the musical before he makes his long-overdue move.

Billy’s dream is to become a writer and so, after a turn saying so in the musical’s lovely title ballad, he travels to Ashville to peddle his wares to Murphy’s publication. He’s almost sent packin’ right off the bat by Daryl (Blumenkrantz), Miss Murphy’s delightfully acerbic assistant, but Billy persists until, for some unlikely serendipitous reason, he finds himself standing uncomfortably in front of the boss’ desk who notes, with a world-weary sigh, that it would be easier to blast the face of Abraham Lincoln off of Mt. Rushmore than to get “home” out of the heart of a Southern writer.

The twists and turns in the storyline are, frankly, preposterous and I would be surprised if anyone in attendance didn’t see the outcome looming in about the first 20 minutes of the first act. Still, as I say, the music will set yer toes a’tappin’ and the players, especially Cusack and Blumenkrantz, make you quickly not care much that the dialogue would make Granny Clampett appear to have a degree in English from Harvard.

As designer Eugene Lee’s sparse countrified set pieces travel seamlessly under Bobbie’s leadership, anchored by a moveable barn-like pavilion that houses DeAngelis and his orchestra, this Bright new Star will win you over, especially with songs such as Cusack’s star-making opening number “If You Knew My Story” and later, in my particular favorite tune, “Sun Is Gonna Shine,” in a knockout duet with the magnificently-voiced Alison Briner-Dardenne, sadly underused as her mother.

For me, I’d have to officially admit there’s an added wrinkle to me deciding to review Bright Star that, although hopefully not, might have tested my personal objectivity. See, way back some quickly-moving 47 years ago, I gave Steve Martin his first professional job during my era as Talent Coordinator of the infamous Troubadour folk-rock club here in WeHo and later the Boarding House in San Francisco. There are many things I’m proud to have accomplished in my years swimming through the shark-infested waters of the music industry in that golden age of music and entertainment, but helping to launch the amazingly prolific career of this remarkable, always humble, always grateful friend is right at the top of the list. 

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THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME at the Ahmanson

There’s nothing more challenging than trying to depict what lurks inside someone else’s head, especially if the head belongs to someone with issues most of us have been fortunate enough to not experience personally. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time examines, through incredibly imaginative visual devices, the inside of someone’s brain obviously living precariously with some unnamed condition falling within the crowded autism spectrum. I kept thinking of all those old movies that attempted to depict the use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs which, from my own spectacularly knowledgeable personal worldview, I always felt proved to be grossly inaccurate.

Adapted wondrously by Simon Stephens from the international best-selling novel by Mark Haddon, it’s not hard to understand why The Curious Incident… won seven Olivier Awards in the West End and five Tony Awards on Broadway, including in both contests Best Play, Best Director honors for Marianne Elliott, and Best Choreography for Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett.

On Broadway, Alex Sharp won the Best Actor Tony for his first professional production in the exhaustive tour de force role of that conflicted young man, the classically nerdy 15-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone, a character who never leaves the stage during the show’s breakneck two-and-a-half hour playing time. Christopher is now being played in the west coast debut at the Ahmanson by Adam Langdon, a classmate of Sharp’s at Juilliard who alternates at some performances with Benjamin Wheelwright, whom I understand is also amazing. It’s hard to imagine anyone could be better than Langdon—kudos he must share with the committed and fiercely talented members of Elliott’s precision ensemble cast.

Christopher is a quirky mathematical genius with an aversion to being touched and a puzzlement over all things related to the human condition, something exacerbated when late one night he enters his neighbor’s yard to say goodnight to her dog Wellington, a friend he can more easily understand than the people in his life. Poor Wellington, however, is lying dead on the lawn, a huge “yard fork” protruding from his side.

Although initially Christopher is blamed for the murder, his sweet and honest disposition soon makes the local authorities aware of his innocence. But this is not enough for the boy, who goes on a personal investigation to unearth the real culprit who so brutally ended the life of his canine companion—the tile of Haddon’s novel taken from a quote by that master sleuth Sherlock Holmes himself.

Christopher’s father (Gene Gillette) doesn’t want him to continue his quest for justice, continuously telling his son to keep his nose out of everyone else’s business and warning him to try to stay out of trouble, to which the boy earnestly replies, “But I didn’t know I was going to get into trouble.”

Christopher’s adventures are chronicled Jonathan Safron Foer-style from the boy’s unique viewpoint as he careens through a world that he not only doesn’t understand but continuously terrifies him around every turn. And here’s where the innovation of Elliott (previous Tony winner for directing the unforgettably theatrical and uber-magical War Horse) takes over, turning the massive Ahmanson stage, with the spectacular contribution of Finn Ross’ jaw-dropping projections, into a fascinating largescale Fantastic Voyage-esque E-ticket ride inside the mind of our complicated young hero.

Elliott’s visionary, highly ingenious direction is the true star of this show, something made more palpable by Graham and Hoggett’s spectacular choreography and the contribution of some of the theatre’s most sought-after designers. Recalling the tightly-crowded movements of the townspeople in the original production of Evita, Elliott, Graham, and Hoggett even manage to create an amazing illusion as Langdon is lifted over the heads of a clustered group of ensemble members, transported horizontally across the walls of the stage as though “walking” through the unknown and scary streets of London while searching for his missing mother, the street below his horizontal body moving before him.

There is nothing but praise to heap onto A Curious Incident…, from those indelible first moments entering the auditorium, where Wellington’s body lies sadly lifeless under a spotlight in the middle of the huge playing area—made slightly surreal as the Ahmanson’s usual well-heeled donors and opening night patrons, who typically stand in the front rows air-kissing one another and exchanging animated pleasantries, this time out do so seemingly oblivious to the highly realistic dead dog prop lying behind them with a pitchfork protruding from its side—to the incredibly inventive special treat which unfolds after the final curtaincall, literally stopping the audience in their tracks as they begin to file out the exits.

It always amazes me that I can be so notably inarticulate in person, especially after a performance, and yet, when I write, I create 200-word complex sentences that drive journalistic purists crazy. Leaving the theatre after Langdon’s remarkable post-curtain rant, confetti not yet even brushed off my shoulders, I turned to my friend Michael Michetti seated behind us and all that came out of my mouth was, “I just love art.”

“I just love art”?

What I meant to convey is how privileged I feel to be in a place where I can regularly appreciate the creation of art as innovative and important as what we’d just experienced, not to mention having the honor and responsibility of considering myself to be a dedicated creator of the best art I can conjure. I am often impressed with the ingenuity, imagination, and determination needed to bring a story like this to fruition as a performance piece, but A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time goes far beyond that. This is the stuff that keeps me waking up, switching on the coffee, and facing another day in a world rapidly going to shit around us.

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HEAD OF PASSES at the Mark Taper Forum

The meteoric career of Tarell Alvin McCraney is ascending like a rocket. From his incredible “Brothers/Sisters” trilogy—The Brothers Size, In the Red and Brown Water, and Marcus: or the Secret of the Sweet—to his Oscar for Adapted Screenplay for last year’s Best Picture Moonlight, based on his partially autobiographical play In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, McCraney is spoken as his generation’s August Wilson even more often than Dotard Donnie says “very, very.”

His newest play, Head of Passes, is not as dynamic or as universally accessible as his previous works, but as presented at the Taper featuring the Lucille Lortel Award-winning performance of Phylicia Rashad as its pivotal character and reprising the exceptional direction of Tina Landau, it is elevated to classic status. Maybe not Wilson-style classic status, but classic status all the same.

Shelah (Rashad) is a dying, overly-pious Louisiana family matriarch who rules her house with one iron fist raised to Jesus and a bible clasped tightly in the other hand. She doesn’t approve of much naturally-flawed human behavior and talks to her god as though the guy were hovering right above the vast patio of her bayou home where the Mississippi meets the Gulf. Even the term “deviled” eggs is forbidden in her presence, making it difficult for her patient family to organize their outdoor family get-together in her honor—especially with this day made even more difficult by the approach of a major storm.

Shelah has raised three adult children, her two own boys Aubrey and Spencer (Francois Battiste and J. Bernard Calloway), and the troubled Cookie (in a phenomenal too-brief turn by Alana Arenas), the drug-addicted illegitimate daughter of her late husband. Shelah adores Cookie so fiercely that she doesn’t seem to see or is willing to admit what a total mess the girl is—that is, unless the horrific family secret she’s buried so deeply has simply clouded her judgment.

Rashad is certainly a force of nature, although the only even vaguely uncluttered place left for her to explore is littered with McCraney’s continuous clichés. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve purdy much had my fill of preachy religious-themed plays chockful of good god-fearin’ born-again Christians closing their eyes and lifting their palms to the heavens while constantly telling others how to live their lives. Landau, however, makes it all move gracefully, leading her startlingly gifted ensemble—some of whom, though, are often hard to understand, at least in the Taper’s dead spot—and the no-holds-barred performance of Rashad, who by the end has to carry the entire second act almost singlehandedly, is miraculous and, I’m sure, will prove hard to forget.

Along with one other star performance, that of G.W. Mercier’s unbelievably jaw-dropping Transformer of a set, Head of Passes brings something truly memorable to LA’s grateful audiences that overshadows its inherent limitations: the performance of a lifetime from one Miss Phylicia Rashad. As one legend of the golden age of television comedy falls from grace, his once less-touted costar lifts her already admirable stature to a level higher than ever before.

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RUNAWAY HOME at the Fountain Theatre

At a critical time when massive storms have devastated Texas, Florida, and now Puerto Rico while that monstrous destroyer of the free world Dotard Donnie assures us his soulless administration’s efforts for recovery are going “really, really well,” the world premiere of Jeremy J. Kamps’ Runaway Home could not possibly be more urgently important.

If Houston, Key West or San Juan seem too far away to draw you in to the struggles of those caught directly in the middle of a major national emergency, Kemps puts an all-too human face on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and what the flood waters left behind: people marginalized by their race whose lives will never be the same and who are, to this very day, still festering unhealed wounds inflicted by our government’s inefficiency and blatant apathy toward their plight.

The play unfolds through this gifted emerging writer’s individualized lens of his own personalized vision while working as a volunteer for the clean-up in New Orleans’ warzone-looking Ninth Ward—why, I might have even known him as we all anonymously donned our hazmat suits and pulled weeds with roots that smelled like human vomit from devastated properties before their displaced owners lost their land to the city for not keeping it neat and tidy. Kamps’ fascinatingly gritty and yet uplifting morality tale has here been raised to remarkable artistic heights by director Shirley Jo Finney, who takes Kamps’ insightful depiction of a young lost teenaged girl from the Lower Ninth and her downtrodden, beaten mother and brings their world into sharp and dynamic focus.

The play takes place three years after the wrath of Katrina hit the Crescent City and Maya Lynne Robinson plays Eunice, the mother who has returned to the shell of a modest shack in the Lower Ninth she, her aged mother, and young fatherless daughter shared before what locals there simply call The Storm turned their lives into a living nightmare. Robinson contributes a breathtaking tour de force performance as Eunice, who back in August of 2005 watched her frail mom die in her arms in a rescue boat, her body then pitched unceremoniously over the side into the murky waters of the Gulf to make room for others.

Despite the growing animosity fostered by the tragedy of their lives between she and her daughter Kali (Camille Spirlin), Eunice forges on, courageously trying to hold her head high despite the hopelessness she sees as the possible end to her situation. When her temper gets out of control and she slugs the disrespectful Kali, the girl runs away from home, leaving Eunice is in a state of torment—but without a thought about stopping trying to find a way to survive her situation and make a better life for herself and her ungrateful kid.

Spirlin is a whirlwind as the spirited Kali, who has learned to lie and steal and con everyone around her just to stay alive, although it would be a boon to her performance if she starts to feel confident and trust her own voice, which she seems to think needs to be projected to the back bleacher nosebleed seats of the Hollywood Bowl without amplification rather than adapting her vocal instrument to the intimate low-ceilinged Fountain space.

Featured players Leith Burke as Eunice’s returning dog of a former boyfriend who left the family alone as the flood waters rose, Karen Malina White as her steadfast but adversarial friend and neighbor, and Armando Rey as a small general store proprietor stuck in the middle of a bad situation, all provide exceptional support for Robinson and Spirlin.

Despite being written skirting every stereotype of a well-meaning white privileged youth butting into a crusade others think should stay their own, Brian Tichnell does his best as Lone Wolf, who has come to volunteer and stays to spout a little minor rehearsed anarchy into the already saturated air. Still, it is Jeris Poindexter as Mr. Dee, the eccentric geriatric neighbor who probably survived Katrina floating around on a living room couch humming Robert Johnson blues, who brings the true flavor of the denizens of disaster to indelible life.

Runaway Home is a tale that will make you angry and frustrated more than change your worldview. Kamps never really offers a glimmer of hope or a possible cure for what ails these people or our faltering country in its current fascist state, but he brings the desperate world of Eunice and Kali to life with rich depictions of the troubles and inequities faced by so many others in similar situations, be they environmental or societal. No climate change, you say, Dotard Donnie? Drop dead, will you, and take your uncaring zombie appointees with you. We want our country back.

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THE RED SHOES at the Ahmanson

It might be a tad difficult to follow the storyline of Matthew Bourne’s newest dance extravaganza The Red Shoes, currently taking our collective breath away at the Ahmanson, unless one’s familiar with the 1948 classic film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger or, as it is with me, was raised in a Danish household proud of its ancestor Hans Christian Andersen and grew up regaled by his amazing collection of bizarrely twisted fairy tales.

Don’t worry if this is the case. It doesn’t matter very much at all once you get caught up in the incredible skills exhibited by this striking ensemble of New Adventures dancers, featuring production values that could rival any in the world and, above all, enjoying the magical, whimsical direction and choreography of the brilliant Sir Matthew.

Told as though being performed in an early silent Hollywood movie and featuring a dynamic score from that master film composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, Psycho, The Day the Earth Stood Still, North by Northwest), sweepingly grand yet simple 1940s-influenced set and costume designs by Lez Brotherston, and uber-dramatic lighting by Paule Constable, Bourne’s always mindboggling vision would grab you even if the plot was an episode of something on the Food Network.

The omnipresent raison d'être for this production to have blossomed to fruition is the staging and choreography gifted us by its genius creator, a man who I swear must be part Michel Fokine, part Bob Fosse, a little Mandy Moore, and a lotta just plain Sir Matthew Bourne. No one before him has ever taken the perfection and rigidity of classic ballet and morphed it so successfully with a haunting art deco-angular sensibility and, above all, his signature sense of humor that infuses everything he touches. It’s as though sometime in another life, Bourne was movement coach for Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy—that is when not coaching Vaslav Nijinsky himself.  

On opening night, the lead character of Victoria Price, a young dancer obsessed by a pair of red toe shoes, and her own personal Diaghilev, impresario Boris Lermontov, were gorgeously danced by Ashley Shaw and Sam Archer, while her romantic pas de deux with Dominic North proved show-stopping every time. Still, it was Liam Mower, who won the Olivier Award as the title character in the original production of Billy Elliott the Musical in London, who left the most indelible impression as the Ballet Lermontov’s leading dancer Ivan Boleslawsky.

I’m personally convinced Matthew Bourne is one of our most important figures today in the world of dance and, as such, the guy could choreograph a musical version of Baywatch and still make it mesmerizing.

And hey… there’s a thought, right? The challenge is on.

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WALKING TO BUCHENWALD at Atwater Village Theatre

Soon to be married same-sex couple Schiller and Arjay embark on a European vacation they’ve arranged for Schiller’s aging Oklahoman parents’ 50th anniversary in the newest ultra-personal theatrical exploration by LA wunderkind playwright Tom Jacobson. Now in its world premiere from Open Fist at the Atwater Village Theatre, what begins like a wry comedic travelogue for PBS by Hal and Halla Linker turns shockingly ominous in Walking to Buchenwald, brilliantly staged and performed under the capable leadership of director Roderick Menzies.

As in most of this writer’s work, the play is purposefully incumbered by an all-new and personalized narrative challenge, a conceit that weaves through this amazing man’s plays so consistently that one day, in a fair and just world, similarly bold artistic potential foot-shooting might be known as Jacobsonian. “Theatre is a mutable thing,” he explains with a nod to his definitive Charles Mee-esque aesthetic, “which is what makes it living and unique.”   

His prolific body of work includes Bunbury, where never-seen characters in classic plays band together to change any tragic ending in all dramatic literature; Oroboros, which tells its tale played in a series of scenes that one night is played forward and the next backward; The Orange Grove, an adaptation of The Cherry Orchard set in the author’s own financially-strapped church written in three columns so multiple characters continuously talk at once; and The Twentieth-Century Way, where two modern actors sitting in a waiting room for an audition magically transform into various characters from the play itself. Clearly, Jacobson insists on always covering ground no one with a mission to succeed solely for commercial recognition would dare to traverse, something I am convinced will one day lift him into a prominent position as one of America’s greatest contemporary playwrights.   

Here Jacobson has created the characters of Schiller and Arjay as fluid enough to be played by either two men or two women—something achieved under Menzies’ stewardship with fascinating results. At some performances, the couple in love is played by Mandy Schneider and Amielynn Abellera, while for others, the same roles are assayed by Christopher Cappiello and Justin Huen. Not one word of dialogue needs changing with the alternating casts, nor is the plight of these bravely new world-pioneering lovers in any way in need of alteration.

Again, as is so prevalent in Jacobson’s plays, the premise germinates from his own uniquely personal experiences, this time around based on the time when he and his longtime partner Ramone Munoz treated the writer’s own parents to the same journey. Like Schiller (Schneider in the performance we attended), Jacobson’s day job at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum makes the character based on him the time-conscious tour guide of the expedition determined to show his folks Europe for the first time, a trait that results in Schiller being referred to by the others as the Travel Nazi.

On Richard Hoover’s simple but versatile set, consisting mainly of large depictions of museum display cases, the quartet travel from Ireland to England to France to Germany, where Schiller’s father (Ben Martin) is hesitant to want to take in the horrors of Buchenwald. “Going to Germany and not visiting a concentration camp,” his offspring chirps cheerfully, “is like going to LA and not going to Disneyland.”

Still, this is Tom Jacobson, right? The early comic freshness of Walking to Buchenwald soon takes a darker curve on the desolate road to Ettersberg Hill, from his parents’ failing health to Schiller and Arjay bickering about the unbalanced nature of their relationship—Arjay feeling like a token buffer along only to step between the family’s differences and to provide support in the task of telling Mildred and Roger the younger couple is planning to get married.

Beyond that, however, there’s a still darker cloud hanging over the quartet’s fateful trip. Although Jacobson wrote the play long ago—he and Munoz are pioneers in so many ways, having themselves married against the odds way back in the less-tolerant 2003—he has taken his manuscript out of the desk drawer, dusted it off, and rewritten a major theme of the play to reflect our current national crisis.

It’s a pleasure to see actors of a “certain age” like Martin and Laura James given a chance to play older people without the usual stereotypically underwritten obstacles. Both veteran performers are absolutely splendid as characters who, though long-in-tooth, still have epiphanies that help them grow up a little as they travel to a faraway mysterious land where they oddly feel freer than they ever did in their own country. Abellera finds wonderful warmth, patience, and inner resilience as Arjay, but unfortunately Schneider simply works too hard, eventually making her one-dimensional Schiller more annoying than endearing.

Perfectly rounding out the cast is Will Bradley, dynamic in a continuing series of supporting characters. Starting outside the theatre before the show greeting guests, whether Bradley is playing a charming little leprechaun tourist guide, a naked statue in a museum who holds a conversation with Roger as fluently as that frog in the cartoons who only talks to one guy, or a disgusted and emotionally-charged Weimer bus driver spitting out the details of the play’s horrific conclusion in German, Bradley is a wonderfully committed storyteller.

Long ago when I was but a boy, the term Ugly American was coined to describe rude and entitled American tourists trampling the world in their Bermuda shorts with ankle socks, loud Hawaiian camp shirts, and ever-present fannypacks, leaving a cultureless footprint behind wherever they traveled. But today, the stakes are infinitely higher. Suddenly, Walking to Buchenwald has taken on a new dilemma: what it means to be an American in a time when, under the “leadership” of our vile, society-destroying anti-christ Dotard Donnie, we are no longer admired in the world but reviled—and sadly but appropriately feared.

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ARSENIC AND OLD LACE at the Odyssey

I’m sure it was long before 1941 when the term “madcap comedy” was coined, but perhaps at no time in 20th-century theatrical history was there a better choice for that tag then when it was attached to Joseph Kesselring’s enduring old warhorse Arsenic and Old Lace.

Based on the infamous real-life case of Connecticut landlady Amy Archer-Gilligan, who took elderly and chronically ill boarders into her home and poisoned them for their pensions, the delightfully dotty yet murderous Brewster sisters and their certifiable family members took New York by storm in those dark days when another atrociously evil fascist monster was busy screwing up the world and ran for a record 1,400-plus performances.

Despite many topical references that only old-timers like me might get—and even then only by reference, not from actually being there at the time, thank you—Arsenic and Old Lace simply never gets old. There may be lines about the sisters’ world being a little like Strindberg writing Hellzapoppin’ or their evil nephew telling his aunties to get out of their period mourning dresses because they look like Judith Anderson, but still younger audiences will be equally charmed and entertained by one of the silliest farces of all time.

As directed with a huge dose of suitably Marx Brothers-esque humor by Elina de Santos, the Odyssey has portioned out a healthy dose of Arsenic with consummate skill. On a jaw-droppingly detailed two-story set by Bruce Goodrich, complete with the perfect staircase for the sisters’ deluded nephew Teddy (in a wonderfully wacky turn by Alex Elliott-Funk) to scale as he repeatedly charges up San Juan Hill, this is perhaps the most engagingly reverent mounting of a true American classic to hit LA stages in quite some time.

The early black comedy at first gently introduces us to the endearing Brewster family, with ancestors descended from the Mayflower, as the sisters lovingly care for Teddy, who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt during his years as President. 0n the side they advertise for lonely old men to come to them as potential lodgers then poison them with their homemade elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and just a pinch of cyanide.

Unlike the real Miss Archer-Gilligan, however, the sisters don’t off their “gentlemen” for their money; instead, they see it as a Christian act to end their pain that charitably  culminates in giving them a decent burial service in their basement in the graves Teddy digs believing them to be locks on the Panama Canal. See, Abby and Martha Brewster (LA newcomer Sheelagh Cullen and stalwart local theatrical mainstay Jacque Lynn Colton) are just your average American homicidal maniacs next door.

The hero of the story and the one seemingly sane family member is their nephew Mortimer (J.B. Waterman), who actually must be a little off too since he works as a drama critic for an unnamed New York newspaper despite hating the theatre and believing it can’t last much longer. “Don’t think bad things about Mortimer because he’s a dramatic critic,” Martha tells the father of their nephew’s fiancée. “Somebody’s has to do those things.”

Mortimer is all ready to marry Elaine before he finds the body of poor Mr. Hoskins in the living room window box and, after the sisters cheerfully confess to having a dozen others of their “gentlemen” interred in the cellar, in his frantic state to let everything sink in, he debates whether to go through with his promise to marry since everyone in his family is obviously destined to madness. This includes their third long-estranged evil brother Jonathan (Gera Hermann), who arrives unexpectedly with his sidekick Dr. Einstein (Ron Bottitta), a rather sketchy plastic surgeon based on real-life gangland surgeon Joseph Moran, who has just altered his boss’ face for the third time—albeit in a drunken state right after he saw the newest Boris Karloff movie.

Jonathan goes into a rage when people continuously tell him he resembles Karloff, originally a sly in-joke since the horror star himself made his stage debut in the role on Broadway. Jonathan and Einstein arrive with a “stiff” of their own, one Mr. Spinalzo, and when they try to dump the body in the window box, they find Mr. Hoskins is already in repose there and soon the Brewsters are involved in a debate as to who has the most kills under their knickers, Jonathan or his aunts.

Waterman is hilarious as Mortimer, although the worldclass deadpan performance of Cary Grant in the classic movie has always been a hard act to follow. When Grant in his confusion and shock answers the phone when the doorbell rings or states to his editor that he is “feeling a little Pirandello” (ask your elders, whippersnappers), nothing has ever been funnier, but Waterman works hard to come in a close second.

Liesel Kapp as his intended Elaine also does her best with a role that rollercoasters from ingenue to Martha Raye-like on a moment’s notice, culminating perfectly when she decides to dump Mortimer and exits with the personally home-hitting line, “You… you…critic!”  Hermann and Bottitta do wonders as Jonathan and Einstein, gratefully avoiding the trap of getting lost in Karloffville and Peter Lorreland.

Alan Abelew has a trio charming turns as Elaine’s father, the head of the nuthouse where the Brewsters may all end their days, and especially as one of their potential victims saved by Mortimer in the nick of time. As various cops who put up with the Brewsters’ eccentricities and hilariously miss every under-their-noses clue about their friends’ murderous exploits, Yusef Lambert, Darius De La Cruz, and Mat Hayes are perfectly cast, but it is Michael Antosy, the cop who stays the night to persuade the tied-up Mortimer to collaborate on his potential play script, who steals the latterday-Keystone men-in-blue sweepstakes.

And of course, that leaves Colton and Cullen as Martha and Abby to consider. One thing that, even as a kid, made me first fall totally in love with the film version of Kesselring’s madhouse masterpiece was the work of Jean Adair and Josephine Hull, who originated the roles of the Brewster sisters (Karloff, who had a financial stake in the New York production, turned down reprising his turn as Jonathan in the film version since he knew he was the biggest draw on Broadway). Adair and Hull had a chemistry as the sisters that translated beautifully to film and made them the highlight of the movie, even for me eclipsing the smoothly vaudevillian pratfalls of the otherwise suave Mr. Grant.

Colton and Cullen, miraculously, have found that sweetly goofy chemistry like gangbusters, their time whenever they are onstage sure to make anyone smile from ear to ear. Explaining to Mortimer their mission to help poor lonely old creatures find their peace is hysterically funny in its abject seriousness, like two aged homicidal Mother Theresas proudly proclaiming all the good they’ve done and all the lepers they’ve healed.

These two incredible veteran performers often seem to be moving or speaking as one, almost finishing each other’s sentences and nodding conspiratorially whenever the other makes a point. Colton and Cullen could honestly have been living together in the old Brewster homestead for years. Like Adair and Hull, their performances are the heart of this Arsenic and Old Lace and make it one of the premier theatrical events in a rather parched season.

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BILLY BOY from Playwrights' Arena

As with so many of his previous plays, the world premiere of Nick Salamone’s Billy Boy, his newest quantum leap into another knockout bout of personal soul-searching, is arrestingly brave, unflinchingly honest, and unapologetically sentimental.

Michael (Salamone), clad only in his tighty-whiteys, at first appears to be a kind of ominous low-rent motel room, sharing his bed with his two deeply missed ex-lovers: first getting off with his high school sweetheart Emma (Rachel Sorsa) and then shagging his best friend David (Matt Pascua), the person who should have been his sweetheart high school—and later was.

In both scenes, Michael’s pair of steamy onetime romances are rekindled with highly-charged sexual reunions after which, post-coitus, each turns into a series of accusations and reminders of conduct which cannot be forgiven. Soon, however, it becomes clear these are not concrete encounters grounded in reality and, even though Michael might instead be lost in some sort of Super-8 purgatory, it’s hinted that the meetings might be a return to his childhood “night-mirrors.” See, it appears perhaps both Emma and David are actually dead—or at least that’s what Michael tells each about the fate of the other.

Any question about this is dispelled in the play’s third scene, when Michael’s late mother (Sorsa again) materializes to the child he once was (still Salamone) to coerce her traumatized son out of bed so they might attend the funeral of his developmentally-challenged cousin Billy Boy. Eventually all of Michael’s phantom scene partners, it’s explained to him, are “just three loves trapped in amber inside your soul.”

Salamone’s writing is, as ever, gorgeously poetic yet accessible in a kinda Tennessee Williams-y way and so deeply personal, dealing with the demons of the author’s own rigid Catholic upbringing and acceptance of his homosexuality that it is almost difficult to watch it unfold—especially with the guy himself in the leading role. Fortunately, Nick Salamone is a magnificent actor, able to shuck off the bounds of introversion and possible reluctance to put details of his life, though fictionalized, out there for the world to see. Not even his body is off-limits, which is where this particular actor-playwright-reviewer would personally have had to draw the line in fear of becoming a factor in the visual pollution of the environment.

Pascua is perfect, both as Michael’s adoring lover and later when David morphs into his most fierce Grand Inquisitor, but it is Sorsa who knocks her dual turns as Emma and Michael’s mother out of the proverbial ballpark. Although both women have a tendency to have shared the same dry Eve Arden-esque caustic sense of humor, it’s as his first love, who may or may not have become a psychiatrist after losing Michael following an early personal crisis, who is the most indelible of all four characters. “I’ve had a lot of therapy,” Michael admits to her when he finds out what her calling in life became. “I could tell,” she returns. “You’re so full of shit.”

Almost another character in Billy Boy is the remarkably inobtrusive but always present staging by longtime Salamone collaborator Jon Lawrence Rivera, who takes a very static, potentially very talky play and fuses it with a constant fluid sense of palpable tension, while the comfort in the close physical relationships between the haunted Michael and his randy but accusatory visitors are a testament to the confidence and assurance players receive only from inspired directorial leadership.

The intimacy between his performers is obviously intensely trusting and always amazingly realistic, as is the torment that permeates Michael’s life as a great playwright attempts once again to exorcise the shadows of his own demons—those lingering demons that, no matter how we try to lose them, never seem to totally go away.

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE GYNECOLOGIC ONCOLOGY UNIT AT MEMORIAL SLOAN KETTERING CANCER CENTER OF NEW YORK CITY at Geffen Playhouse

At the beginning of Halley Feiffer’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, now making its west coast debut at the Geffen Playhouse after an acclaimed off-Broadway run at Manhattan Theatre Club, Karla sits in attendance at the bedside of her cancer-stricken mother in a typically faux-cheerful but blindingly sterile hospital room.

As her mother (JoBeth Williams) sleeps, Karla (playwright Feiffer) tries out her newest routine in her attempt to build a career as a stand-up comic, aiming her best Silverman at the room’s adjoining curtained bed. Delivering lines such as “I’ve been single so long I’ve actually started having sex dreams about my vibrator,” she really doesn’t worry about her mother’s equally-stricken roommate (Eileen T’Kaye), since it seems the poor dying woman is in a vegetative state and can’t hear her enough to be offended.

But also paying his respects to his own mother behind that curtain on the other side of the room is Don (Jason Butler Harner), who has heard just about enough of her off-color oneliners and at first politely asks Karla to keep it down. This of course leads to a confrontation, the two children of the comatose sick women screaming at one another while their respective parents only stir slightly in their medicated fog.

Karla and Don eventually agree to a truce, of course, and although she says she has never understood her own “charming and dark” sense of humor, anyone who knows Feiffer’s pedigree should have no trouble figgurin’ it out at all. The daughter of the wonderfully twisted cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer (Little Murders, Feiffer’s People, and the screenplay for Carnal Knowledge), the delightfully askew familial view of the world is easy to spot.

Although the role was originally played at MMC by Beth Behrs, it would be quite difficult to imagine the author wrote the role for anyone to play but herself. Feiffer has a gentler but equally quirky Woody Allen-inspired delivery that only seems to weave through the dialogue of that one character, with the two remaining speaking actors (that’s another story I will not be getting into) not sharing the vocal rhythms of the woebegone Karla.

Recreating his original New York direction on Lauren Halpern’s almost too realistically generic and anticseptic hospital setting—making one feel as though instead of entering the Geffen you’re off to visit your great-aunt at Cedars—Trip Cullman does a fantastic job keeping the stark stillness and the physical limits of the playing space fluid. His cast is adept at mining the fun out of the play’s unfunny core situation, especially Williams, who barks out lines about her disappointment with her daughter, telling Don she’s always had a bleak worldview. “I’d say go to bed,” Marcie snaps in an attempt to explain the pair’s contentious relationship, “and she’d think I said, ‘Nobody loves you.’”

Marcie and her comatose roomie Geena hear a lot more than they let on, it seems, both waking up long enough to complain to one another about their kiddies’ conduct when Karla and Don bury the hachet enough to stumble off into their bathroom to find other things to bury bent over the porcelain sink. The moms share how appalled they are by this noisy impropriety before it triggers an all-new direction for the play, but Marcie makes a bigger stink to Don over her daughter’s behavior. “Now she’s really trying to cash in on cancer jokes.”

And there’s the rub. Some people will obviously be deeply offended by Feiffer’s twisted sense of inherited humor, but anyone who has ever faced a long hospital stay or dealt with catastrophic illness personally or caring for a loved one—or if you’ve worked in a hospital where gallows humor runs rampant to erase the tensions and potential heartache—will enjoy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit… with an appreciation and understanding others cannot. And as the civilized world crumples and burns around us, a little bit of Feiffer’s off-kilter and wacky yet sophisticated Duck Soupian humor could not be more welcome.

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ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS / Trans Chorus of Los Angeles at the Renberg

It’s been almost 18 months since the amazing David Bowie left us and, as someone whose work I adored and friendship I cherished for a mere 45 years, I have to admit I signed on to see the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles in concert at the Renberg interpreting his The Rise and Fall of ZIggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars mainly out of curiosity. I left, however, deeply moved and bolstered by their courage and talent—especially on the very day when our sick racist Asswipe-In-Chief's need for power and attention led him to sign the backward-moving order to ban transgender Americans from the military.

It was 1972 when I first met David. I had brought Bette Midler to the west coast for her first west coast appearance and, one night while performing at the Boarding House in San Francisco, into our late show walked David clad in his complete Ziggy regalia—bright purple overall shorts, red-orange hair shocked into submission, high silver platform shoes that made him taller than me, face covered in pink glitter. He arrived unannounced directly after knocking out his own performance on his Ziggy world tour at Winterland and, well, sold out or not, who could turn him away?

It was Bette’s birthday and after the show, the two of us took David and his boytoy dancing until the wee hours of the morning. He and his friend argued in an amphetamine-fueled haze throughout the evening’s revelry until finally the guy stormed off into the night and left us with a sobbing and severely stoned superstar on our hands. By dawn’s early light, we pouring the totally wasted Bowie into a cab, clumsily carried him into his hotel, and literally tucked him into bed. He and I remained friends from that night on, connecting whenever we could and whenever he and Iman—whom he met through our mutual friend and haircutter, the also late-great Teddy Antolin who died only a few days after David, were in town.

So, this was my major connection going to see the Trans Chorus of LA perform Ziggy, although I will admit I had also heard they were something not only unique but spectacular. And I heard right. Under the precision musical direction of the troupe’s dedicated and obviously passionate artistic director Lindsey Deaton, the 30 or so members of TCLA began the performance all dressed in dull future drab for The Rise: “Five Years,” “Space Oddity,” “All the Young Dudes,” and “Star Man, among other classics. Bringing on Dali-esque props and performing choreography by Billy Rugh and Michelle Benton, the Chorus instantly won my heart, showing themselves to be far more than a novelty but serious performers whose vocal blend, interpreting the complex arrangements by Jerome Kurtenbach and Tim Sarsany, not only conquered the material but energized it anew.

For the second part, labeled The Fall, the chorusmembers stripped off their Tatooine-wear to reveal brightly glittery par-TAY finery below, knocking out Bowie’s best with gusto and gobs of talent: “Rebel Rebel,” “Star,” Life On Mars?,” the title song, of course, and finally the all-defining “Suffragette City.”

To say it was a magical experience is a major understatement. These are not only courageous, pioneering individuals willing to show us all how passionate they are to embrace life and become an equal part of our society, but these are folks with extraordinary individual talents, as well as wildly self-deprecating tongue-in-cheek senses of humor. With the support of the combo’s leader and keyboardist Joe Lawrence—and including an uber-sexy electric guitarist named Benjamin Fortin who is sure to make any beating heart flutter—this Ziggy would without the shadow of a beard… er, I mean doubt, make David proud if he were only around to see them breath wonderful new life into his musical genius.

Ending the evening with an encore sure to not leave a dry eye in the house, Trevor Project’s heartrending theme song “It Gets Better,” letting all disenfranchised or suicidal youth realize they have our support and are never ever alone in this fucked-up world of ours, made this crusty old critic cry and, unusual for this place in time when we wake up each day wondering what new horror our insane “leader” has forced upon our population and the world, personally giving me a boost of hope for the future that just came to me in the nick of time.

Check for future concerts and engagements at www.transchorusla.org—and please do consider making a donation to keep them opening minds and making our world better despite the Orange Hitler and his soulless minions at www.transchorusla.org/donate.

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LEVI KREIS at the Renberg Theatre

It’s not usual for me to write about shows that have closed or, in this case, one-night events. Still, seeing Levi Kreis in concert at the Renberg has to be shouted to the rooftops, even if it won’t resurrect an evening of pure magic. And then, too, you can go out and buy his new CD, also titled Broadway at the Keys, something which I would wholeheartedly recommend.

Singer/songwriter Kreis was born in the backwater town of Oliver Springs, Tennessee, a place where his ultra-Christian family saw southern Baptists as liberals and, in a high school graduating class of five males, he was named perhaps the only class valedictorian in history who maintained a solid C average. Of course, despite his parents’ horror at his choice to pursue musical theatre as a career, he left for LA soon after, the Devil’s Playground if there ever was one, then went on to achieve Broadway legend status and a Tony Award for his astounding turn playing Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet.

Through the years, Kreis has continued to write and record his own dynamic music, gifting his adoring fans with five albums since 2005, many of which were shared in this too-brief local concert appearance. It wasn’t easy for a kid from such a restrictive family situation to succeed in such an unusual career choice, especially considering one of the themes in his own music is his homosexuality, something which led to a riff between him and his mother despite his growing fame—or perhaps because of it. Calling to tell her one of his first albums was trending third in the country, right behind Byonce and Mariah Carey, her steely response was, “Why must you air your dirty laundry in public?”

The love between his family members eventually prevailed, even progressing to the point where, during a visit home to introduce the love of his life to his parents, his father invited his partner to go hunting with him—a simple but monumental moment that did not go unappreciated by my own boyfriend, raised on a farm in Aztec, New Mexico, who instantly knew what a defining milestone that was.

As a songwriter, Kreis is arrestingly poetic, truly inspirational, and deeply, courageously personal—and yet, with his Yma Sumac vocal range, he is also a gloriously entertaining performer. This somehow leads one to wonder if indeed his whole familial story is fabricated and in truth he is the improbable secret lovechild of Peter Allen and Laura Nyro.

Whether he is singing his own heartfelt material or paying homage to the personal heroes who inspired his life and work, from Stephen Sondheim (“Nothing’s Going to Harm You” from Sweeney Todd, the first musical he ever saw) to Carole King, Ray Charles, and of course Jerry Lee Lewis, his performance is mesmerizing and, miraculously, somehow able to help erase all the other shit in the world that’s unfolding daily before us these days.

The evolution of his music, he tells us with his wide, warm grim that seems to be directed to each and every one of us looking back at him in the dark, clarified for the young Leviticus Kreis that being different, being unique, is not a liability but an honor, as it's artists such as he who help change the opinions and the perspectives of the naysayers who try so hard to tell the rest of us how we should act and who we should be.

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GREY NOMAD from the Australian Theatre Company

Australian playwright Dan Lee has chronicled an unusual phenomenon for retirees who inhabit the world’s largest island in the world premiere of his Grey Nomad, a term used to describe his country’s many boomer couples who sell their homes and give up all their earthly possessions to circumvent the country in RVs searching for a bit of “adventure without dementia.”

Lee explains: “I first came into contact with the free-range baby boomers…a couple of years ago when I was living in Broome. Every year in the dry season, they would stream into town in their RVs and camp trailers [and] the town would go from 15,000 to 50,000 in a couple of weeks. They’re a very funny and interesting bunch,” he notes of the eclectic aging adventurers who choose to dedicate the rest of their lives to traveling in loops around the country.

Helen and Jim (Ros Gentle and David Ross Paterson) are just such a couple, deciding to sell their house before any more of their grown children try to move back in. They take to the open road but they’re not as blissfully happy as they expected to be, beginning to feel as though they’re constantly “trying to turn left when we’re actually parked.” Their oddly incongruent sense of motorhome-inspired claustrophobia is especially heightened as they attempt to dodge an extroverted, obnoxious nomadic couple who seem to be haunting them in their travels wherever they land.

As Helen stifles a recurring dream that she croaks while on the road and Jim just opens the passenger door and kicks her out onto the highway with all the other similarly deceased worn out wives and husbands, their stalkers, Val and Tim (Wendy Hammers and Paul Tassone) indeed do show up, stark naked and ready to par-TAY just as Jim is settling into his folding beach chair to watch the sun set over the ocean in long-earned peace and quiet.

It’s quickly clear Val and Tim are hiding their own boredom and exhaustion with putting up with one another in a confined space. No matter how Tim aims to show Helen and Jim how youthfully healthy and physically flexible he is in the most graphic way possible, downward dog included—thank Terpsichore staged facing upstage toward his costars—he and Val are harboring a dark secret they’re running from, along with their fleeting youth,

Under the surprisingly kinetic direction of Iain Sinclair on Se Oh’s sparsely empty set that serves as every beach or wet t-shirt competition party on the island, Lee’s script sings, albeit with a mighty old-fashioned song. It’s not entirely necessary for every play produced to have some deep premise to make it worthy of presentation, but here the pickins’, although fun, are also fairly slight. His storyline is akin to one of those classic sitcoms from the golden age of television, long before it was Shameless-ly Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a throwback to a simpler time when Marlo Thomas was still flying kites in Central Park and Lucy had some ‘splainin’ to do.

What especially makes Grey Nomad palpable, however, besides Lee’s sharply quirky dialogue and insight into the process of growing older despite ourselves, are these veteran performers able to make it all work. This is especially true of Gentle, with whom we fall in love in her turn as the curious, frustrated, ever-patient Helen in the first minutes. Every subtly pained expression, every moment of closing her fluttering eyelids to regain her composure, is golden, something that proves even more endearing when Val’s more outrageous free behavior begins to rub off on her infinitely more conservative protégée.

Hammer and Tassone are wonderful foils for their reticent targets, although I do wonder if manscaping is still to be discovered in Australia, something that would improve Tassone’s entrance considerably. After a rather annoyingly broad first act delivery—not to mention prompting non-Australians to long for supertitles to help us get all his dialogue—Paterson grows on you as the typical clueless husband endlessly cloned on film and in TV commercials all our lives.

No, Grey Nomad will not change the world, but it will give you a laugh from way deep down in that place when the world seemed easier to navigate than it does in 2017. And that’s saying something good.

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HONKY TONK LAUNDRY at the Hudson

Producer-director-bookwriter Roger Bean has an amazing track record, with his breakthrough creation The Marvelous Wonderettes springing off from its LA debut into a well-received off-Broadway hit and spawning over a thousand hugely successful productions throughout the world performed in five languages, as well as birthing several cashcow Wonderette-inspired sequels. His second even more inventive musical compilation, Life Could Be a Dream, received LADCC, LA Weekly, and Garland Awards for Best Musical.

That said, maybe it’s me, because Bean’s newest effort, Honky Tonk Laundry, is something of a washout. Keeping in mind I love listening to Wonderette’s nostalgic 1950s pop tunes and Dream’s 1960s doo-wop score, I personally sorta run for the hills when it comes to country music, probably because the father I couldn’t stand listened to it nonstop whenever I was home on a break from my own career. Although I can listen to Willie Nelson or Patsy Cline all day long, most of the genre’s repetitive tunes about standing by one’s man, fallin’ ta pieces, and making your boots go a’walkin’ away from all them rednecks with all them cheatin’ hearts, make me non-Cline-like crazy.

Honky Tonk Laundry is surely an acquired taste. Both the music and the script, featuring two good ol’ big-haired country girls singing their backwoods lungs out while Lana Mae Hopkins (Bets Malone) and her dysfunctional employee Katie Lane Murphy (Misty Cotton) fold endless loads of clothes, slurp Big Gulps, and spout those eye-rolling Hee-Haw-esque pearls of country wisdom, gets really, really old in about the first 20 minutes.

Now, there’s no doubt that Malone and Cotton are two of the most impressive musical theatre veterans gracing us with their considerable gifts on the west coast and both knock the songs they’re given right out onto the street in front of Lana Mae’s Wishy Washy Washateria, but I for one could have used a little less twang and one less intermission (of one).

They say all art is imitation, but there’s not much new in Bean’s slim tale written simply to link together the song cycle of country standards. Lana Mae’s husband and Katie’s boyfriend are of course both doin’ the nasty with some cheap floozy, which somehow leads them to decide to produce a concert at the Wishy Washy—and thus justify the second act.

Even though they’re “cuter than two insects goin’ ta’ the June Bug Ball in July”—yes, you heard me right—even the infectious talents and incredibly powerful voices of Malone and Cotton can’t save this Laundry from puttin’ out the CLOSED sign. As wonderful as it always is to hear both of them sing, having only their two voices to listen to, hugely and inexplicably overamplified overpowering the tiny Hudson’s sound system, eventually makes the evening a two-Ibuprofen event.

Somewhere deep in Honky Tonk Laundry, Lana Mae tells Katie that everyone’s got a good story and “that’s why they invented country music.” Well, for some of us, that’s just not enough. So if you’re able to sit through the CMT Awards on TV or Miranda Lambert in concert, by all means head to the Hudson and stomp those feet of yours until they hurt. You probably haven’t had so much fun since the pigs et yer little sister.

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EMILIE:  LA MARQUISE DU CHATELET DEFENDS HER LIFE TONIGHT  at the Greenway Court

It is a given that physics also promotes circular behavior, the late controversial figure of the French Enlightenment era Émilie du Châtelet tells the audience as she gets used to being dead while jumping consciousnesses to relive her past exploits right before our very eyes. “And so, here I go again.”

Lauren Gunderson’s intellectually challenging new play Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight quickly shows itself to be a little Aaron Posner, a tad bit Charles Mee, and a lot Tom Stoppard; this could easily have been written by Stoppard somewhere smackdab between the creation of Hapgood and Arcadia.

Our title heroine flashes back and forth through her adult life trying to put together the pieces of her lusty and passionately inquisitive former days on terra firma trying to figure out how balance the quicksilver notions of love and science, both of which obsess her. “Damn the love!” she shouts, showing off her best Jeanne d’Arc on the battlefield at Orléans stance. “And long live the mind!”

In Coeurage Theatre Company’s typically arresting and gorgeously designed production energized by inspired and sweepingly fluid staging of director Julianne Donelle, Sammi Smith assays the demanding role of La Marquise with extraordinary skill, making the difficult journey for any audience member a lot more grounded by her warmth and robust sexuality. This is especially evident considering the uppercrusty manner-driven world of the real life pioneering physicist and mathematician who was, among other things, the married mistress of François-Marie Arouet, the great French poet and political sabre-rattler better known by his nom de plume Voltaire (here played by Marc Forget).

In 1733, to avoid arrest after publication of his anti-government Letters, Voltaire took refuge at La Marquise’s château at Cirey-sur-Blaise, where they cavorted shamelessly under the nose of Emilie’s husband, the Marquis du Châtelet (Nardeep Khurmi), who sometimes left their neglected three children home in Paris and stayed at the château with his wife and her lover.

The relationship between Emilie and her “V” didn’t just revolve around hot and sorted sex, although it seems, in Gunderson’s view, there was indeed plenty of that. But more than only linked in their carnality, the shameless lovers (“The minute I left Paris and go to the country,” Emilie tells us, “is when I go from being an eccentric to being a rebel”) collected over 21,000 books, an enormous number for the time. Together, they studied these books and performed experiments in the natural sciences, including collaborating on an attempt to determine the nature of fire.

Their relationship was fierce: unquenchably sensual and, at times, explosively volatile. “Don’t worry,” Emilie tells the audience, “we fight in English so you won’t miss a thing.” Their conclusions, as their research intensifies, are not a match by any means, especially with La Marquise fighting the perception that women at the time should not be going beyond learning to curtsy and properly unfurl their lace fans, while Voltaire’s stubbornness and high regard for himself intrudes continuously. His paramour scalds his massive ego by snapping at him that he’s like a poet dressed up as a scholar and stating that she’d never met a humble poet. Soon their relationship—but not their deep-rooted respect for one another—is being dashed on the rocks below their chateau.

The production is simply lovely. Donelle’s direction is precise and wonderfully imaginative and the designers weigh heavily in the success of the piece—particularly the incredible sound design by Joseph V. Calarco, which weaves period chamber music in with crescendoing electronic jolts as Emilie goes periodically from live to dead. The game supporting cast is splendidly in on the style, although Forget’s turn as Voltaire—resisting the urge here to make a pun about his surname—is basically competent but too casual and contemporary, too vocally flat, and above all, not remotely sexy. 

The masterpiece of this Emilie is this Emilie. Smith never once leaves the stage, but continuously compels her audience’s attention at every moment despite the actress’ subtle attempts to occasionally let her costars shine a bit and have their own moments. Simply put, Smith gives an indelible tour de force performance, at once magical, boldly sturdy, yet ever-accessible to seduce us to love her character despite La Marquise’s blatant flaws and selfish, self-destructive behavior.

Coeurage’s mounting of Gunderson’s Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight is not to be missed, for an introduction to an amazing new playwright, as a nod to this company’s commitment to create innovative and thought-provoking theatre at every turn, and for the unearthly and stalwart performance of Sammi Smith in the title role.

“Happiness may not be having all the answers,” Smith’s Emilie surmises. “It might be having the time and space… to wonder.” If I take no other lesson away from this sparkling production, it will be that and, I suspect, it will be something that stays with me for some time to come.

Fucking critics...