TRAVIS' REVIEWS:  Winter 2019 to...? 


DEAR EVAN HANSEN at the Ahmanson Theatre

I did know there had to have been a good reason why Dear Evan Hansen was nominated for nine Tony Awards in 2016 and won six, including Best Musical and Best Score. For some reason, it stayed off my radar despite my lingering curiosity, but I’ve gotta tell ya: when Peter Marks of the Washington Post referred to the production’s pre-Broadway run at D.C.’s Arena Stage as “one of the most remarkable shows in musical theater history,” he wasn’t just being grandiose.

With a wonderfully insightful and intelligent book by Steven Levenson and a breathtaking score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dogfight, A Christmas Story: the Musical, The Greatest Showman, and the Oscar and Golden Globe-winning composers of La La Land), to simply say experiencing Dear Evan Hansen provides an amazing journey of the heart and soul is a terrible understatement. I have been involved in musical theatre since I first got hooked singing about carrots and per’taters in a tour of Oklahoma! at age 6 and I can truly say without a puff on my omnipresent peacepipe that DEH, as its creators call it, immediately goes directly into my personal top ten list of my favorite musicals of all time.

Poor nerdy 17-year-old Evan (LA’s own Ben Levi Ross, the heart and soul of this production) is grappling with extreme and well-medicated anxiety issues as he struggles through high school, so painfully shy he often goes hungry rather than order dinner for himself at home—even online, as he’d have to deal with delivery people and the awkward silence that inevitably ensues while the driver counts out his change.

Evan’s mother Heidi (the also dynamic Jessica Phillips) is struggling as well, trying to raise a difficult kid on her own while holding down a grueling job at a hospital where layoffs are becoming all too frequent and also taking classes to better her situation as a single parent by becoming a paralegal. She agonizes that she has so little time with her son, overcompensating for her prolonged absences from their home by printing out scholarship writing contests that might enable Evan to go to college.

The lonely Evan’s therapist suggests he create letters addressed to himself between visits explaining his feelings, since the boy is a far better writer than a conversationalist. At school, where he exists in a perpetual state of staring at the pavement and hanging his head low so he won’t have to interact with anyone else, he prints out one of those letters in the computer lab. When his letter is commandeered by a miserable, perpetually angry goth student named Connor (Marrick Smith), creeped out because it mentions Evan’s massive crush on his sister Zoey (Maggie McKenna), Evan is mortified.

His mortification turns to horror when he several days later he is called into the principal’s office and is met by Connor’s parents (Aaron Lazar and Jekyll and Hyde’s memorable Christiane Noll) with his letter in hand and demanding an explanation. Beginning as instructed by his therapist with “Dear Evan Hansen,” the Murphys believe Connor actually was the one who wrote the letter to him and that their uncommunicative and troubled offspring actually had a secret friend about whom they knew nothing. This is important to them not only because Connor never seemed to have friends, but because the day before they discovered the letter in his jacket pocket, the kid had taken his own life.

With the help of his sarcastic “family friend” Jared Kleinman (Jared Goldsmith), Evan creates a whole story behind the friendship that never was in a series of fake emails an effort to help the family heal—and get to know Zoey, the object of his teenaged worship, a little better. The lie compounds into other lies until soon, the Murphys start treating him as if he’s their son, Zoey puts out for her brother’s bestie, and Evan is forced to give a dreaded speech about his lost “friend” at a school memorial for Connor organized by his fellow outcast classmate Alana (Phoebe Koyabe).

His speech begins with Evan painfully stammering and stuttering as he fumbles through a jumble of 3 x 5 index cards held in front of his face, but then quickly goes viral on social media when he breaks down during the talk and ends up delivering an impassioned plea for acceptance that reaches all angst-ridden marginalized teenagers everywhere. Some $50,000 is subsequently raised to take an abandoned apple orchard he has fabricated into the place where he and Connor would meet, turning it into a community park called the Connor Murphy Memorial Gardens.

Of course, Evan’s elaborate fantasy has to unravel or there would be no story and so it does—bigtime. The results are emotionally catastrophic for both the kid and the Ahmanson’s by-now sobbing sea of audience members dreading the inevitable as they watch Evan’s new happy, finally fulfilled, xanax-free world crumble. Still, as Kleenex-inducing as all this is and as somber and serious are the themes of teenaged alienation and suicide may be, Levenson’s brilliant book is anything but a downer; it is somehow uplifting and, honestly, often hilariously funny in a skewed bedside humor kinda way.

And as perfect as director Michael Greif’s staging proves to be and as impressive as is the work of the production’s top-drawer design team, there’s no conceivable way Dear Evan Hansen could possibly succeed without two things: a knockout young actor as incredibly charismatic as Ross—who gives the musical theatre performance of the year in LA—and the indelible, sweeping, incredibly complex and evocative score by Pasek and Paul that is simply one for the ages.

Though Ross never leaves the stage for a moment (so exhausting it explains why Stephen Christopher Anthony plays the role four times a week), the supporting cast is uniformly magnificent, each possessed of a voice that could individually rock any concert stage in the world. Ross is especially exciting early on in the musical with his showstopping solo “For Forever,” which generated so much response from the audience the show had to halt for a spell while the clapping subsided, while Phillips’ heartbreaking eleventh-hour ballad “So Big/So Small” later challenged it on the applause meter. My personal favorite number, however, is “Just Us,” the gossamer, haunting duet expressing the blossoming romance between Evan and Zoey which just might become my favorite love song ever.

It was interesting to see how liberally the usual opening night Ahmanson audience was peppered with teenaged boys accompanying one parent or the other. After seeing it all unfold, I assume the reason for this influx of youthful testosterone was due to people familiar with the production’s history and acclaim who have read that, although dealing with serious issues so vitally important to young people as our country and world gets booted into the shitcan of history, they are handled not only with grace but with a joyful and positive this-too-shall-pass message.

Dear Evan Hansen offers the kind of message capable of changing a life if heard at a time such as this, a time when it’s so desperately needed to help encourage and empower the children of today and aid in the survival of this next generation sure to soon to be challenged in ways we cannot possibly imagine.

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LOVE ACTUALLY LIVE at the Wallis Annenberg Center

Described as a live multimedia concert celebration of the soundtrack for the hit 2003 holiday movie Love Actually, LA’s award-winning production team For the Record has come to peddle their festive wares at the Wallis and it’s a match made in heaven, bringing together the ingenuity and imagination of their original concept and the classy opulence and resources of their new venue partners.

For the Record began in 2010 in the 60-seat Cabaret Kathie’s in Los Feliz, where the creators, Shane Scheel and Anderson Davis, hatched the idea of honoring the work of treasured films by bringing their soundtracks to life as a musical entertainment accompanied by clips from the films themselves.

Eight years later, their glitzy hybrid, Love Actually Live, could not be any more spectacular as it settles into the Wallis’ 500-seat Bram Goldsmith Theatre, with a cast of 19 accompanied by a precision 15-piece orchestra. On Matthew Steinbrenner’s jaw-dropping two-story set, with most musicians upstage behind the action flanking a giant Christmas tree—who knew the Goldsmith was so deep?—and orchestra leader/musical supervisor/arranger Jesse Vargas in the pit in front of the stage leading the string section, a dynamic cast brilliantly brings the original film into breathtaking new life.

As one of the three people on the planet who has never seen the film, all this was new to me, but thanks to Steinbrenner’s smoothly gliding panels and Aaron Rhyne’s oversized videos, I think I’ve got it now. Though a tad too long, under Davis’ kinetic and ever-moving direction, his adaptation still zings to life and is guaranteed to send anyone grumbling “Bah, Humbug” out to buy the Cratchits their Christmas goose.

From the exceptional ensemble, there are several standouts uniquely interpreting everything from the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” to several gorgeous orchestrations of Joni Mitchell classics, including Hollywood royal heir Rumer Willis, Once the Musical’s Tony-winning Steve Kazee, and Wicked’s Carrie Manolakos.

There’s an indelible, show-stopping turn by Grammy-nominee B. Slade in perhaps the best reworking of Berlin’s “White Christmas” since der Bingle crooned through the original and an auspicious LA debut for Cairo McGee, who would have graced the cover of the now-defunct Teen Beat Magazine in an earlier incarnation as Daniel’s lovestruck 11-year-old Sam as he plaintively yet powerfully knocks Paul Anka’s “Puppy Love” right out onto Santa Monica Boulevard.

And speaking of Teen Beat, former rocker Rex Smith plays former rocker Billy Mack, proving he still has the moves, the voice, and the chops to take on the music in a raucously over-the-top performance, although his days of coming onstage for the finale wearing nothing but tiny gold lame short-shorts are long, long since past.

Of course, by the time the entire troupe joins for the final spirited reprise of Reg Presely’s infectious “Christmas is All Around,” accompanied by a live snowstorm in the Wallis to put everyone in the holiday spirit, everyone in attendance has been transported to a magical place. I can only hope Love Actually Live begins an annual collaboration each December between For the Record and the Wallis; after all, there are so many holiday classic movies and these talented folks are sure to be the ones to make them fresh and exciting once again.

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DIXIE'S TUPPERWARE PARTY at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

It wasn't long after I worked opposite a gifted young actor at the Stella Adler Theatre in a production of Martin Sherman’s classic shocker Bent—where Kris Andersson’s fine young naked derrière in the show’s ads and accompanying reviews did more to sell us out and extend a couple of times than yours truly in a bustier and pink satin bloomers singing about the doomed post-Kristallnacht “Streets of Berlin”—that Kris’ roommate hosted a prophetic Tupperware party at their West Hollywood home.

Of course, from the beginning of recorded time, most every member of that nomadic tribe called actors spends a lotta time trying figure out how to keep the Top Ramen from running out between bookings and here Kris was nothing if not enterprising on a worldclass scale. Deciding to take on the mantle of Tupper was his first life-changing decision, but it was a friend daring him to host the parties dressed as a hostess that opened the doors to fame and (hopefully) fortune.

From the humble beginnings of selling plastic self-sealing bowls and brightly-colored food storage containers in drag in his living room, traveling saleswoman extraordinaire Dixie Longate was born. Now, nearly 15 years later, long after its theatrical debut as a solo play at the New York Fringe Festival in 2004 and being nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance in 2007 when the restructured show transferred to off-Broadway, Dixie’s Tupperware Party is still at it.

A mere 11 years since our Alabama-bred trailer park-proud heroine started pedaling her wares at Ars Nova in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, Kris... er, Dixie... is still donning her shiny red Joan-Crawford-come-fuck-me stilettos and treading the boards all over the world, going on to play over 1,300 performances and, in the process, with Dixie becoming Tupperware’s highest producing sales representative in both the U.S. and Canada. “I've shown my bowls in five countries since this tour started in 2008,” Kris… dang!... Dixie… proclaims proudly, “but I haven't stopped there.”

Yes, Dixie is still hawking her products on a surprisingly large scale, the stage of the Kirk Douglas Theatre currently featuring a long collapsible holiday-festooned table piled high with merchandise guaranteed to make the kitchen-obsessed among us get wet in the panties and each seat tastefully adorned with the current Tupperware catalog, an order form, and even a ballpoint pen so audience members can circle their choices as they simultaneously laugh their heads off.

See, Dixie isn’t only amongst us to sell us Tupperware, thank goodness for people like me for whom the kitchen is a foreign country and already have a set of hermetically-sealed containers to keep our weed fresh and fragrant. Don’t get me wrong: Dixie’s Tupperware Party is, first and foremost, absolutely hilarious. It is uniquely energized by Our Miss Longate’s unearthly manic energy, blasting through an hour-and-a-half informercial like Bette Midler on uppers (been there) and throwing out a plethora of cleverly off-color innuendos tumbling from her ruby-red lips.

It’s really quite amazing that no one in her audience appeared to be offended—that is, of course, with the exception of the Thalians-esque westside diva seated next to us who looked as though her face had been permanently frozen in a severe windstorm and sported a diamond the size of my head, making me unsure if her horrified expressions were because she was deeply shocked by the performance or if the anesthetic was just beginning to wear off.

By first drawing us in by passing hard candy through the audience as she gifts us with her sweetly cuddly persona peeking out from the hard diner-waitress exterior and terminal blue eyeshadow, Dixie next reassures everyone present that, with Tupperware, “it’s okay to be retarded.”

I’m sure she sells a busload of Tupperware, considering the size of the nearly full Douglas Theatre last Saturday night or the Geffen Playhouse, where the show last played our reclaimed desert climes in 2014. Along the way, she makes friends with people from the audience, identifying them by nametags handed out in the lobby, occasionally making cracks about the lesbian couple seated on one side of the stage on a couch or, as she relates her most sketchy behavior through the years, asking the continually hysterical woman on the other couch, “Remember?”

Dixie brings other poor unsuspecting audience members onstage as well, on whom she also hurls a well-meant string of XXX-rated verbal abuse, getting one guy to demonstrate her company’s reinvented can opener which, she says, along with Cher and cockroaches will outlive a nuclear disaster.

Still, as wonderfully funny as all this is and as amazing is the non-stop, rapid string of dialogue Dixie spouts with a Southern drawl so thick it could also open the can of cranberries her guest is awarded as a booby prize for finally getting the trick to it, none of this is really what this Party is all about.

Along the way, while the single mother of three (Winona, DeWayne, and little Absorbine) explains she started selling her bounty after being gifted by a plastic faux-crystal bowl by her parole officer, which she still displays for us and holds tightly to her red-checkered bosom as she speaks. Soon she’s telling us the story of Brownie Wise, another socially-marginalized single mother who in the early 1950s created the ingenious and previously unheard-of idea for housewife-hosted home parties where Tupperware would only be available to the select few gathered rather than languishing without explanation of use on the dusty, overlooked shelves of retail stores.

Of course, Wise’s was a success story to rival Dixie’s own, something she reminds her audience frequently while staring reverently up at a projected image of her hero and mentor she never met or as she sits down on the edge of a coffee table to relate the story of her ex Hector, who tried to assault her by throwing her faux-crystal bowl at her orange beehived head. The bowl—and Dixie Longate—both survived unscathed, clearly making the point that lurking below all this silliness, no one should ever feel passed over, that anyone can rise from whatever conditions they feel are smothering them and turn those plastic bowls in our lives into symbols of our independence.

Above anything that could be said for Dixie… er, Kris’ clever, delightfully in-your-face, self-deprecating, and surely ever-evolving script, is the guy’s lightning-fast ability to improv his character’s perfect responses, especially in a segment where the audience is prompted to throw out questions “or Tuppermonials,” which he runs with as though he were onstage at Chicago’s Second City. His performance as his title character is astounding and even exhausting to watch. As I texted him later the night we attended, whatever he is “on,” I want some.

Although the idea of drag performers has surely become more mainstream since Kris first hit the road as his Dixie 11 years ago, this performance is so very much more. It’s not about crossdressing or imitating womanhood here and, within the show’s first 15 minutes, I’ll bet 98% of those in attendance have totally forgotten that underneath Dixie’s Hee-Haw-inspired regalia and Dolly Parton hairdo, is a person who knows firsthand that Dicks Elongate. His eyerolls are not Ru Paul-exaggerated but still easy to pick up on and his voice, though high-pitched, never once suggests a bad parody of Bette Davis in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

Kris Andersson is a remarkable talent and his never-ending Party will surely rival the longevity of Cher, all those insufferable cockroaches, and that one damnable can opener. As Dixie Longate tells the world, “For anyone who has ever felt like they don’t matter, Dixie’s Tupperware Party is a Southern tale of empowerment that leaves your heart a little bigger and your food a little fresher.”

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A YEAR WITHOUT SANTANA CLAUS from the Troubadour Theater Company at the El Portal Theatre

Since its inception in 1995, the Troubadour Theater Company’s “ringmaster” Matt Walker has adapted and directed over 40 original mostly holiday-themed productions, one more outrageous and delightfully ridiculous than the next.

With each piece revolving around the music of one popstar, former productions have included It’s a Stevie Wonderful Life, Little Drummer Bowie, A Christmas Carole King, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rein-Doors, and Frosty the Snow-Manilow, so just the titles alone should give you a clue if you’re not already a confirmed diehard fan of the Troubies.

See, I am. I don’t think there's been a Christmas spent here in El Lay for me over the last couple of decades when these guys were not part of my holiday cheer. Walker and his adoring disciples launch their performances into the stratosphere year after year, selling out every show until they finally outgrew the Falcon, their longtime home where the company’s late-great supreme mentor Garry Marshall gave them free reign to pull out all the plugs.

Now in their second season at the 360-seat El Portal, the Troubies conspire once more to bring us their newest treat, A Year Without a Santana Claus. Simply, of the many productions of theirs I’ve seen—and I’ve seen most of them—this one may be my favorite. Not only is Walker’s vision typically and wonderfully inventive, this time out these guys have some of the most infectious and stirring music of my generation to partner with and energize them even further.

After a tour de force performance last year as the mean-man Trump-like title role in How the Princh Stole Christmas, Walker here plays a series of silly Marx Brother-y supporting characters, leaving the pivotal role of Santana Claus to his longtime collaborator and sidekick supreme Ron Batalla. Set in the 1970s, the era of the original cartoon, the Troubies now bring us back to the year when a weary Santa decided to skip delivering toys—only in this version, Santa is overworked thanks to the closing of Toys R Us and plans to open a storefront in Silverlake only selling gluten.

From asides about the lack of parking on Lankershim to how much money patrons are saving by not going to Dear Evan Hansen instead, Batalla is at his best as the not-so jolly old elf, turning him into quite the rocker when he takes up his electric guitar to deliver a little well-placed Carlos. And when he leaves the red suit behind to perform as Dustin Hoffman’s deadpan character in Rainman (“I have to be home by 11,” he warns before he starts dancing) in a huge production number rendition of “Evil Ways” alongside  the amazingly talented ensemble, it’s a moment that will make you laugh until you cry.

Stalwart Troubie Beth Kennedy is gratefully back again for the 30th time, first as a goofy gender-neutral elf named Jingles who’s striving to save Christmas alongside her cohort Jangles (Isaac Robinson-Smith), then making her umpteenth annual cameo appearance as the stilt-walking, Streisand-nailed Snowy the Winter Warlock, a role she’s played so many times she admits she finds herself talking in her character voice in her daily life. And when Kennedy repeatedly gets a delayed rimshot to accent her punchlines from drummer Nick Stone, she grumbles, “All I ask for is a little semi-professional support here.”

The big-voiced Giana Bommarito is a standout as Mrs. Claus, with the perfect pipes to sing Santana’s music, as is Chelle Denton as Mrs. Thistlewhistle and Dave C. Wright as her son Iggy, who with their family’s patriarch played by Walker run the town’s local pot dispensary. Watch that herbal tea.

Everyone involved, including the four-piece combo that rocks Santana’s timeless music to the El Portal’s historic rafters, is so onboard here it’s kinda staggering, a tribute to Walker’s leadership and some precision choreography by Nadine Ellis that keeps her dancers, some resembling wooden soldiers and others dressed as reindeer, super in-sync even as they’re performing to “Oye Como Va” or “Black Magic Woman.”

There is simply nothing like the Troubadour Theater Company and A Year Without a Santana Claus is pure Troubie, from Lisa Valenzuela’s audience warm-up to the “water-based non-toxic” snow that falls on the first four rows of the audience at the end. As Walker grins wildly at the snowcapped patrons sitting directly before him, he quips, “First time seeing a Troubie show, right? And here you thought snagging seats in the front row was a good thing!”

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BODIES at the Tropicana, Las Vegas, 2007  /  Photo by T.M. Holder