TRAVIS' REVIEWS:  Winter 2019 to...? 


AN INSPECTOR CALLS at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

When J.B. Priestley’s landmark classic An Inspector Calls first debuted in 1945 in the Soviet Union before becoming a major hit in the West End in 1946, it was seen on the surface as an entertaining and harmless little English drawing room melodrama. Below the manners and Agatha Christiality of the piece, however, it has never been difficult to unearth the playwright’s true mission: to send-up the hypocrisies of Victorian and Edwardian society at the time when it is set.

Beyond that mission, the easily-overlooked little play, subsequently performed extensively by community and dinner theatres for decades, is meant to present an even more pointed comparison between political inequities at the beginning of the 20th century and the issues surrounding capitalism vs. socialism in the 1940s—and with a definite spin on the moralistic superiority of Priestley’s own socialist agenda.

In 1992, noted British director Stephen Daldry (The Crown, Billy Elliott) took Priestley’s mission one step further, innovatively blasting apart and reassembling An Inspector Calls into his multiple award-winning revival for the National, a kind of nonrealistic, otherworldly theatrical experience London had never seen before. The masterful retelling won an unprecedented number of awards, including the Olivier in 1993 for Best Revival, something repeated the following year when the production transferred to Broadway and won both Tony and Drama Desk awards in the same category—as well as landing Daltry Best Director trophies.

It’s 1912 and the stuffy, well-to-do Birling family is sitting down in their lavish dining room to celebrate the engagement of their daughter Sheila (Lianne Harvey) to the best possible choice of a young man, someone just as rich and soullessly capitalistic as they are whose own familial connections can bring them all even more wealth and prestige than they already enjoy.

Breaking into their party is the arrival of a crusty, uncharacteristically blunt police detective with the unlikely moniker Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan), who is obsessed with interrogating each of the family members as well as Sheila’s intended Gerald (Andrew Macklin) about the recent death of a young local woman who torturously did herself in by drinking a household disinfectant. Goole’s timing and attitude are infuriating to the overbearing and egotistically-Trumplike family patriarch Arthur Birling (Jeff Harmer), who repeatedly tells the inspector how important he is in the community and how many friends he has on the local police force.

Goole’s motive doesn’t take long to glean as one by one, each of the partygoers is revealed to have a mysterious and shocking connection with the young victim, which is the place where the usual mountings of An Inspector Calls in church basements, middle school auditoriums, and after lukewarm buffet dinners ends and Daltry’s vision takes over. With the invaluable aid of designer Ian MacNeil and a crack team of creative artists, Priestley’s old warhorse is transformed into a vivid, expressionistic theatrical mindfuck, occupied by a desolate, moodily-lit post-Blitz Godot-scape surrounding a kind of out-of-scale claustrophobic doll’s house perked dead center representing the Birling’s richly appointed mansion.

Although the family obviously lives in great comfort, complete with flocked walls, heaps of gold and glass and clinking champagne glasses, at first all we see of them is from the waist down seated at the dinner table through small windows until their loyal servant Edna (Diana Payne-Meyers) opens the walls at the middle of the house to reveal the interior of the room. As the actors move from the high-perched house onto the stage floor to be interviewed by Goole, Daldry adds a ghostly gaggle of 1940s-styled townspeople who stand accusingly but motionlessly nearby in a haze of English fog, as well as a bunch of ragamuffin children who observe from the corners of the stage or, occasionally, stand directly in front of the action with their backs to the audience.

Now returned here to the Wallis, this is still a magical effort, incredibly courageous to try to pull off a quarter of a century ago but surely less of a visionary shock to the more jaded audiences of the new millennium who have benefitted from redefined artistry inspired by earlier productions such as this. The current cast seems to be performing more to-the-bone than falling into the grand and more stylistic excesses I remember from the original 1994 revival (which then played here at the Ahmanson in 1996), a better choice today when the absurdity of real life is more than enough to contemplate on a daily basis.

Brennan is a wonderfully bold and confident Goole, while Harvey as the frivolous, flighty Sheila provides an excellent counterpoint to both him and to Harmer and Christine Kavanagh as her soulless parents. Yet of all the performances, Hamish Riddle is the most impressive as the family’s ne’er-do-well son Eric, who sees the world through a continuous alcoholic blur until his own implication in poor Daisy Renton’s death makes him dissolve into tears to deliver the play’s most important speech, a passionate plea for a more forgiving, more moral, more compassionate society we so desperately need right here right now as our own country—and Daldry’s—both unravel in ignorance, narrowmindedness, greed, and injustice for all.

 *  *  *


As often as the 20th-century choreography of George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp, and Alvin Alley is painstakingly recreated to this day, in the future I’m certain the rule-shattering creations of legendary and multi-award-winning British choreographer/director Sir Matthew Bourne will be equally honored. From his notorious all-male version of Swan Lake to The Car Man, an inventive retelling of the opera Carmen set in an automotive garage and featuring pirouetting car mechanics, no one has ever so successfully reinvented a classic artform with imagination and humor as this man.

Now Bourne returns to LA and his frequent home at the Ahmanson with a most welcome reinvention of a true classic: Sergei Prokofiev’s enduring 1945 ballet Cinderella. As usual, Sir Matthew has updated the piece completely, setting the story in London in the middle of World War II, which of course gives his longtime Tony and Olivier Award-winning design collaborator Lez Brotherston a chance to create gorgeous sets and then demolish them in grand style as the bombs hit London and his elegant Café de Paris—providing a perfect place and a perfect way for any girl to lose her glittering glass slipper.

As always, the dancers of Bourne’s New Adventures company are uniformly splendid, willing to poke fun at themselves at their leader’s command yet still able to contort and soar into the air with incredible athletic prowess. Everyone on the Ahmanson stage is an individual standout, each infused with their leader’s well-established sense of humor—especially when assaying his ever-present hint of an unmistakably homoerotic subplot with a generous full-bodied wink.

Ashley Shaw is indelible as the title character and her lyrical pas de deux with the equally spectacular Andrew Monaghan as Harry, her soldier/prince, could rekindle the notion in the stoniest of hearts that to fall in love is like nothing else we can ever experience in our lives. Liam Mower, who won an Olivier Award as the original Billy in Billy Elliot the Musical in London and has previously appeared here as Angelo in The Car Man, Ivan in The Red Shoes, and the title character in Edward Scissorhands for Bourne at the Ahmanson, is breathtaking as Cinderella’s Angel, garbed in Brotherston’s silver lame wingless tuxedo that miraculously allows him to traverse a grand staircase as though gliding and leaping in the air without ever (presumably) splitting a seam.

It’s also a major treat to see veteran Bourne alum Alan Vincent, who appeared here as Luca in The Car Man in 2001 and was one of the original swans in Swan Lake a quarter-century ago, and Madelaine Brennan, a New Adventures company member since 2003, appear as Cinderella’s parents. Shaw’s strikingly beautiful pax de deux draped across Vincent’s wheelchair, as well as Brennan’s whimsical take throughout on poor Cindy’s evil stepmother, provide some of the evening’s most memorable moments. Anyone who still insists dancers’ careers are over in their mid-30s better think again; I’ll bet these folks will be lacing up their toeshoes and squeezing into their tights for a long time to come.

From the gifted ensemble, a notable standout is the barely-legal Paris Fitzpatrick, with the face of a 1960s French starlet and the lanky physicality of Buddy Epsen, who was my TicketHolder Award “New Discovery 2017” pick when he made his American debut in Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures at the Wallis two seasons back at age 19. Once again, in Cinderella our fine young Paris-ian proves why he is destined to be a breakout star in the world of dance.

Everything about a work by Bourne is pure magic; his angular, Nijinsky-inspired choreography is almost tribal in its individuality, heralding a new rule-breaking form of artistic communication almost primitive in nature. His hilariously inventive take on this familiar old classic could easily be compared to watching those indigenous ethnic tribes, long hidden in the planet’s last bastions of remaining wilderness, performing their own self-evolved consanguineous raindances passed down from generation to generation, as Bourne’s work should also be.

Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella is just what we need right now: a couple of hours to be swept into his magical vision and be able to forget everything else in the world that has made a fortune for the pharmaceutical companies. It’s well worth taking a much-needed vicarious leap into the air along with the members of this company rather than considering performing that other more permanent kind—you know, off the top of the “O” on the Hollywood Sign.

 *  *  *

THE MOUNTAINTOP at the Garry Marshall Theatre

It’s April 3, 1968 and as an ominous storm rages outside, the visitor checked into Room 306 in Memphis’ Lorraine Motel is nursing exhaustion, a bad smoker’s cough, and an even worse case of encroaching disillusionment. Although his powerful oratory skills had so successfully energized his peoples’ struggle for equality and had garnered universal respect, even after his recent historic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, he senses that he’s gradually losing ground in his challenge to change the world—and he also realizes the fight isn’t anywhere near over by any means.

“They can call me Commie King all they like,” he mutters to the empty room, but as long as there are poor and oppressed people, he knows in his heart his mission has just begun. Unfortunately, it was to be a quest that would ironically benefit most of all from his impending absence and martyrdom, as his life would be taken by an assassin’s bullet in a matter of hours.

In-room deliveries at the less-than four-star motel has been suspended for the night, but someone at the front desk, realizing the identity of their honored guest in 306, offers to send up a cup of good strong black coffee. When the overnight chambermaid arrives at the room with the coffee, despite proclaiming it’s the kind of weather “you can’t get Negroes to go out in,” it’s more than a brew that’s strong and black in what she has to deliver and her own difficult mission is eventually revealed to be far more than afterhours room service.

Camae (Carolyn Ratteray) is honored and excited to meet Dr. Martin Luther King (Gilbert Glenn Brown, who has been playing this role in various venues across the country), but that doesn’t stop her from being who she is, a hardened motor-mouthed survivor who, despite her efforts to be suitably respectful toward the Reverend, can’t keep herself from flirting with the guest and slipping in more colorful language than one usually utters in front of clergy, not to mention one of the most important and respected figures in the American civil rights movement.

As Dr. King waits for the return of his traveling companion Ralph Abernathy, whose search for Pall Malls has extended past what’s reasonable, he tries hard to keep Camae from leaving his room right away. Perhaps this is because his loneliness and weariness being away from home has taken its toll, something accentuated by the fear he feels after multiple death threats along the way. Then again, perhaps it’s because he finds Camae so immediately attractive, worthy of more than a simple handshake and a two-dollar tip—Dr. King’s legendary womanizing more than merely hinted at in Katori Hall’s fictional account of this meeting between the great man and the streetwise servant.

As the young woman’s visit extends beyond the limits of most such deliveries, there’s an obvious chemistry that develops between Dr. King and the maid, even after she tells him she’s better at cleaning up other’s people’s mess than she is her own. Suddenly, Hall’s heretofore rather predictable play takes on a surprising new dimension as a spiritual connection between the pair begins to emerge.

This is also where the play segues from reality to fantasy, a fascinating ambition but a hard place to get to when everyone in the audience knows exactly what is about to happen to the central character that will change the world forever. The surprising journey of The Mountaintop is quite dynamic, however, thanks to director Gregg T. Daniel’s kinetic, thoughtful staging; Alex M. Calle’s starkly Motel 8-ish set design able to suddenly transform into a Salvador Dali version of the Purley Gates; and JM Montecalvo’s evocative lighting able to morph from shadowy motel florescence to otherworldly brightness.

Ratteray’s Camae is rich and sturdy, a bit Viola Davis, a bit Tiffany Haddish as she assays a nearly perfect representation of a survivor, someone who’s been through enough to not quite be able to refer to the Fourth of July as Independence Day. Ratteray mines the pain of Camae’s past and the insecurities lurking just below her bizarrely unwieldy mission with ease and consummate skill, yet makes us fall in love with her less-than politically correct spunkiness.

Playing a familiar icon is never easy, but as Dr. King, Brown fiercely grabs hold and fearlessly makes the role his own. He initially defers to his costar’s domination of the storyline while still paying poignant, all-too real and deeply realized homage to Dr. King’s questioning humanity and clear vulnerability. Still, Brown later grabs the reigns as the troubled leader first begs for more time on earth and later accepts his fate, grabbing hard onto the man’s power and stateliness with both fists. His final delivery of one of Dr. King’s most impassioned speeches reveals the kind of artistic honesty and dynamicism from which enduring stars are made.

Hall’s message is still clear—and critical—during our own troubled times. As Dr. King sits on his bed in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, withering from the smell of his own stinky feet and desperately needing companionship and a tobacco fix, he comments to himself how discouraged he is, how much he can’t believe how completely his beloved country is “going to hell.”

Remembering that the events encircling The Mountaintop take place a half-century ago, the lingering reminder about how little we have learned during our time on this risky planet proves once again to be more than a little disconcerting. “Seeing the future,” Camae tells Dr. King as they climb a huge staircase to eternity, “might just break your heart.”

 *  *  *

LINDA VISTA at the Mark Taper Forum

I love Tracy Letts. Bug, Killer Joe, The Minutes, Man from Nebraska, Superior Donuts, and of course, the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County. The man is the playwright of the new century to me.

Once again, with Linda Vista, the guy’s newest opus to our dysfunctional society two decades into the millennium, Letts not only takes no prisoners, but somehow once again manages to make us laugh our fool heads off as we simultaneously wince at what we’re watching unfold before us.

In Linda Vista—both the name for the dreary singles-apartment complex with a “1980s East Berlin vibe” in San Diego the leading character is in the process of occupying as the play opens and, one would presume, a reference to how the title translates into Spanish—Letts presents a stingingly accurate chronicle of a modern-day 50-something recently divorced A’murkin camera repairman named Wheeler (Ian Barford in a performance sure to sweep the awards at the end of the year) as he barrels through repeatedly questionable bad behavior in his quest to get a life.

Under Dexter Bullard’s fluid direction and on Todd Rosenthal’s clever set which, dwarfed by a huge graphic of sillhoueted palm trees and the San Diegan skyline, consists of a revolving unit that evokes one of those giant three-sided hotels on the Vegas Strip, Wheeler’s life turns from one bland environment to another as he shuffles from one playing space to the next in mid-turn. To say Wheeler is a miserable cuss would be like saying Mary Poppins is a nanny; this guy is so negative, so grating and annoying, it’s a wonder anyone, even Letts, could write a play centering around him.

It’s not often a leading character could work painted as such a grotesquely unlikable person and above all this play has to offer, I thought it was fascinating Letts could create such a self-centered shit I usually couldn’t possibly care about and still force me to care to see what happens to him. In Linda Vista’s tad too indulgent playing time—though fun and defining of our anti-hero’s character, I could do without some of the more lengthy film references—Wheeler manages to screw up affairs with two women and we’re left at the end to wonder what could possibly happen in a third.

How this wordsmithery succeeds in this effort is by giving Wheeler a signature skewed sense of humor and a wonderfully curmudgeonly outlook on our world, beginning with a scathing attack on the orange Traitor Tot and his administration that several times moves the audience to applause and continuing with his description of what he wants in a woman: someone not too needy old enough to remember New Coke.

Although it is hardly believable that any of the three women on his perpetually tumescent radar would have any intertest in him—I am personally the worst judge of that, being on the December side of an amazingly solid six-year May-December relationship—thanks to the quick mind and somewhat redeeming sense of ironic humor with which Letts gifts Wheeler (“You’re like a turtle who doesn’t know he’s lost his shell,” one of the infatuated ladies tells him), we are able to become the best of voyeurs and take the rollercoaster ride with the guy without buckling in even if we hope he falls out of the car at the highest point. I have to say though he does manage one 11th-hour surprisingly not self-centered good deed, I did still wish the hint of a happy ending would be scraped, since Wheeler totally deserved to be alone. Still, the playwright and the brilliance of Barford’s performance considerably up the odds to be sympathetic to him.

Then there’s the rest of this amazing cast. Beginning, as all Letts’ plays do, at the unstoppably brilliant Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, I must admit every time I have ever seen a production originating there featuring members of the Steppenwolf’s committed company of players, I wish I’d never left the Windy City at age 18 to become lost in the Woods of Holly. Beginning in 1974 in the basement of a church in Deerfield, Illinois by then-unknown founding members Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry, and Gary Sinise, who soon after recruited, among others, Moira Harris, John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf, Steppenwolf is by far the best and most prolific regional theatre in America.

All but one of the roles in Linda Vista are played by the original Steppenwolf members who created the roles there in the spring of 2017, including Barford, Tim Hopper and Sally Murphy as his best friends not without issues of their own, Caroline Neff as the young coworker at the camera shop who suffers from #metoo-ism on a daily basis, Troy West as their odiously creepy boss, and Cora Vander Broek as the really special girl whose heart he breaks in many pieces.

Broek as Jules, the miserably single life coach who shockingly accepts Wheeler as he is despite her college degree in Happiness, is golden throughout; the scenes between she and Barford, even the graphically sexual moments that could make some of the usual opening night audience members at the Taper have to check their pacemakers, are beautifully human and incredibly memorable. And as Jules lifts herself from victimhood into Rosie the Reviter status, Broek succeeds sublimely in a difficult transition.

Yet, all of this fine ensemble of players, which here includes new castmember Chantal Thuy as the tattooed young waif who predictably throws a wrench into Wheeler’s new relationship when she shows up for refuge on his doorstep in the middle of the night beaten up by her boyfriend, deserve awards. Lots of awards. Perhaps my only small criticisms might be already worked out since opening: the performers need to get used to holding for laughs so what comes next isn’t buried in the audience’s boisterous reactions and, in general, they must find the sealegs to be heard in the Taper’s unique space that tends to often swallow up lines if they’re not projected to the back rows.

“It’s harder than it looks, this being a person,” a character in Linda Vista conjectures, a concept that helps me easily proclaim that this could prove to be the play of the year, offering the quintessential chronicle of many relationships and searches for relationships that haunt and frustrate our media-desensitized times.

The prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Drama is awarded each year for a “distinguished play by an American playwright, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.” Letts already grabbed this great honor in 2005 but, to me, I believe this year Linda Vista could win him his second Pulitzer. As its predecessor and its twisted tale of the outrageously dysfunctional Weston family of Osage County, Oklahoma, this new play doesn’t paint a purdy picture of American life and what messes we all are by any means, but then that would be the point. If one day our species wakes up and magically becomes able to learn from our mistakes, this could be the perfect source material to aid in a transformation devoutly to be wished.

In my classes, I help my students meet, dissect, and respect guys named Anton, Henrik, Eugene, Arthur, and of course, Tennessee. A half-century or so from now, in a fair world—one can only hope—world-weary teachers like me (Marlon… who?) will be filling those empty little heads with the work of Mr. Letts, I would suspect. And if they want to know what kind of maladjusted assholes we were 19 years into the new millennium, no play could serve them better than Linda Vista.

*  *  *


Two years ago, in one of my spirited post-performance conversations with Actors’ Gang founder/artistic director Tim Robbins after the debut of his contemporary Commedia dell’Arte-inspired Harlequino: On to Freedom at their welcoming Ivy Substation home—an epic achievement he wrote, directed, and took on tour to Europe and China where it was censored by government officials—he couldn’t stop talking about how honored he had been to have met the then recently deceased Italian Nobel-laureate playwright Dario Fo while performing the piece in Europe.

As Robbins waxed on about Fo in one of those conversations between us that traditionally seem to last through one (or two) of his ever-present Marlboros, a thought came to me. Considering Tim’s interest in the history and evolution of Commedia, the classic artform once germinated in public squares and makeshift outdoor stages over 500 years ago, as well as the Oscar-winning actor’s well-known and admirable predilection for candid outspoken political activism and possible career-damaging resistance, I thought to myself that the Gang should one day mount Fo’s 1970 internationally recognized masterpiece of both Commedia-triggered farce and boldly courageous political resistance, Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

Well, I got my wish. Although Robbins has trusted the direction of the project to longtime collaborator Will Thomas McFadden, who has been frequently represented as an actor, director, and writer in almost every production mounted by the Gang over the past 8 years, the choice to reboot Accidental Death right now as the Traitor Tot and his merry band of neo-fascists have taken over our country, is a match made in Terpsichorean heaven.

In Accidental Death, Fo created one of the most fascinating antiheroes in modern dramatic literature, a character simply called The Maniac who invades a police station interrogation room where a railway worker wrongly accused of bombing a train station had recently “accidentally” fallen out of a window. It was a scenario Fo based on a real-life incident which had occurred in Italy the year before when a suspected anarchist named Giuseppe Pinelli met the same untimely end in December, 1969.

Italy at the time was rocked by political unrest and turmoil, fueled by the rumor that many of the recent incidents of terrorism across the country were actually engineered by the fascists in power themselves in an effort to discredit leftist reformers trying to change the direction of the country. Through the play’s farcical humor and outrageously broad Commedia-esque delivery, Fo’s message, when the laughter finally subsided, was intensely political and quickly became a cause celebre in Italy, particularly after in debuted in Milan only a few hours after a demonstration to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the bombing of which Pinelli had been falsely accused.

A young university student was killed by tear gas fired by police during the gathering and the next day, 700 participants convened to protest his death. The day after, 3,000 people met and the rapidly growing number of protesters over the next few days and weeks brought the city to a screeching halt with picketing, marches, and demonstrations. And as it did, as many as 500 people were turned away each night from that first mounting of Accidental Death at the city’s Capannone di Via Colletta.

Donning various disguises and voices, the actor playing The Maniac manipulates the maladroit policemen in Fo’s satire into a Marx Brotherly burlesque of truth-inducing hysteria. Under the sturdy and assured leadership of McFadden’s wildly rule-defying pasquinade, the role proves to be a perfect fit for another stalwart Gang veteran, Bob Turton, who obviously has no filter when it comes to creating a comedic tour de force.

Physically evoking an image of Boris Karloff if he had been mentored by Buster Keaton, without a doubt Turton is a comic genius, all the while paying confident reverence to his continuing Gang workshop training—something noted in the current playing script surely added for this production, referring to The Maniac as a theatre teacher on indefinite sick leave who “studied ensemble theatre tactics from a Commedia dell’Arte background.”

McFadden’s committed supporting cast handles the silliness gamely, worshipfully bowing to the jaw-droppingly bizarre antics of Turton, although understudy Guebri VanOver, in for Lynde Houck in the pivotal role of the Police Chief originally written for a man, hasn’t quite yet gotten the rhythms and physical looseness of the others into her bones, something that will surely come with time if she continues to play the role in the huge Actors Gang sandbox with the other performers.

From the ranks and in his Actors Gang mainstage debut, associate member Tom Szymanski, in the usually thankless role of a rather nondescript police lacky that could have easily faded away in the grandness of the play’s playing style—and Margaret Cleary and Cihan Sahin’s sufficiently minimal yet overpoweringly evocative set and projection design—repeatedly steals the show with his marvelously understated deadpanned delivery.

The play itself, which has been done over the years in some 40 countries—including fascist Chile and South Africa during its apartheid years—has here been adapted into English by Jon Laskin and Michael Aquilante, but I suspect many of this production’s current references were culled from the Gang’s well-known workshopping process, including Turton’s many adlibs (“Sounds a bit Joan Crawford, doesn’t it?” he pauses the action to ask the audience) and the raucous moment when the whole cast suddenly breaks into a frenetic megaphone-wielding staging of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

Through the unstoppably satirical humor, Fo’s message is clear: “Scandal is the fertilizer of democracy,” he wrote. “It’s all distraction”—or as Turton’s Maniac notes in this adaptation of a similar scheme being used as a ploy by the Keystone cops he’s so easily manipulating, “Now there’s a Kardashian with a vibrating buttplug.”

The history of Commedia dell’Arte goes back to 16th-century Italy, where the “Comedy of Craft” was rather crudely executed by ball-scratching masked performers originally improvising storylines in the streets based on sketches and convoluted storylines centering on love while craftily criticizing the political incorrectness of the time. Presenting inept upper-class social types, blustering military officials, and politicians who didn’t have any more clue than our own brainless super-clown Celebrity Appresident, the comeuppance they traditionally receive at the hands of their far smarter and deceitfully scheming servants fueled the popularity of the artform as it flourished and also quickly began to madden members of the ruling class. “Fake news!” I can picture them all saying.

The hypocrisy of our conflicted species was soon regularly being satirized right out in the open in town squares all over Europe by roaming nomadic performers, their boldly inflammatory though whimsical political rants challenging the social strata of the times as they spewed out loud insults and bawdy sexual humor—all behind the protective shield of the goofy, cartoonlike masks that successfully hid their real identities.

Still, masks can always be removed, particularly with a Jim Carrey-facile face such as Turton’s; spies can always be sneaky; and the freedom we hold dear has always been risky for courageous political theatre participants who dared to criticize the powers-that-be—a fate some of us are beginning to worry about in the present climate of dogmatic atrocities hurled at us on a daily basis.

 *  *  *

THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN at Anteaus Theatre Company

Long before he made his feature directorial debut with In Bruges, featuring his own incredible screenplay, and even longer before winning multiple awards for writing and directing Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh first found a voice creating two trilogies for the theatre located in and around County Galway on the west coast of Ireland, the place just to the right of the writer’s heart where he spent his childhood vacations and holidays.

In New York for the 1998 Tony Awards, my friend and colleague, publicist extraordinaire John Wimbs, snagged me coveted seats for the U.S. premiere of the first of McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy. Set in a dilapidated cabin of a troubled mother and daughter trudging through daily life in a desolate and terminally rural village on Connemara, The Beauty Queen of Leenane simply knocked me out and, the following week, swept the Tonys with six nominations and four wins. A decade later, I was honored to play ol’ Pato Dooley himself opposite Natalija Nogulich as the “looney” Maureen, a time when I fell even more deeply in love with the wisdom, the whimsy, and the wordsmithery of Martin McDonagh.

The provocative and socially disrespectful Lenaane plays were quickly followed by his second trilogy set across the Aran Islands: The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and the never produced The Banshees of Inisheer  which, although it be hard to imagine, McDonagh insists “isn’t any good.” As if...

As with all of his delightfully skewed and quirky plays, there is not a moment of cultural sensitivity dogging the conversations shared between Inishmaan Islanders in the Anteaus Theatre Company’s heartfelt revival of the 1997 The Cripple of Inishmaan, its glaring political incorrectness clearly evident in the title alone. The title character here is poor orphaned Billy Claven (Matthew Grondin the night we attended), who is referred to as “ugly as a baked brick of shite” and perhaps a little mentally insufficient besides, it’s thought around town, especially noted due to his habit of spending his days endlessly watching cows.

As his nemesis, the brash and ferociously undomesticated Sleepy Helen (Abby Wilde) tells him, “Nobody loves ya, Cripple Billy… you barely love you and you are you.” It’s a tough existence for Billy but the only one he knows—that is until the village gossip Johnnypateenmike (JD Cullum), who travels from household to household with the daily local news bartered for goods and services, comes to tell Billy and his guardian aunties Kate and Eileen Osbourne (Kitty Swink and Mary-Pat Green) that a film crew has descended on the neighboring island of Inishmore and they’re looking at locals to make instant stars.

Helen, considering herself the prettiest thing in the entire Aran Islands, starts to formulate a plan to be discovered, enlisting local fisherman Babbybobby Bennett (Seamus Dever) to take her and her “village idiot” brother Bartley (Joey Millin) to Inishmore in his boat in return for her most coveted kisses. When Billy asks to go along, Helen is particularly cruel, laughing hysterically when he asks her, blurting out that there would be no way a film company would hire someone as deformed as he is when they surely will see her and immediately being her back to Hollywood.

Billy doesn’t give up, however, going directly to Babbybobby himself and, although the guy emphatically tells him having a cripple in his boat would be bad luck, when Billy shows him a letter from Dr. McSharry (Phil Proctor) informing him he has tuberculosis and only three months to live, the quartet is off to Inishmore. In one of the play’s many crafty and unexpected twists and turns, only three of the travelers return home, the fourth off to LaLaLand for potential fame and fortune.

Directed by Steven Robman on a lovely raw-stone walled set designed by John Iocovelli—which I have to say I wish didn’t shimmer and shake flimsily whenever someone comes in or out of the Osbourne sisters’ modest general store—this is a lovely return to simpler times before playwrights and screenwriters had to be concerned about offending some person or group anxiously waiting to be offended.

As with almost all of Anteaus’ impressive mountings of our great classics, the production is what the company calls “partner cast,” so the impressive veteran troupe of world-class actors listed above share each role with another actor—save one. In both companies, notable local treasure Anne Gee Byrd portrays Johnnypateenmike’s 90-year-old mother, someone her son has been trying to keep drunk for decades in an effort to kill her off. Byrd’s performance is simply hilarious; only she could pull off this outrageously over-the-top cross between an Irish Mammy Yokum and a genderbent Popeye.

In this early stage of his success, McDonagh created the most memorable moments with his two-person passages. Byrd’s scenes with the equally brilliant Cullum are the best of the evening in a play that tends to get a little too long and overindulgent. Swink and Green are charming as the tough yet lovable Osbournes, as are Wilde as the wild Helen and Millan as the bullied Bartley—particularly when she is smashing him over the head with actual raw eggs. Grondin’s best work comes in his late night visit to Babbybobby, though powered and quietly dominated by a formidable return to his LA stage roots by the remarkable Mr. Dever.

Grondin is the weakest link in this, the Fripple Frapple cast, never quite getting deeper than woeful and sad as he concentrates a bit too hard on Billy’s physical limitations. I would love to go back again to see Ian Littleworth in the role, especially in scenes opposite the perfectly scrappy Emily Goss as his Helen and John Bobek as Babbybobby. 

It seems serendipitous to me that The Cripple of Inishmaan and the five other plays of Martin McDonagh’s County Galway trilogies surfaced in a time before the current climate where the only way to not offend anyone is to write about trees. Today, without having achieved classic status, there would surely be some group or another outside the Kiki and David Gindler Performing Arts Center carrying signs of protest.

Still, if that ever did happen, all the good folks at Anteaus would need to do is invite them in and offer them seats, for once anyone begins to understand the heart and endearing nature lurking below the crusty surface of ignorant inappropriateness that dogs residents of Inishmaan Island, they will surely abandon their signs and applaud this stellar production along with the rest of us.

 *  *  *

COME FROM AWAY at the Ahmanson Theatre / Segerstrom Center 

After trying to attract a myriad of songwriters about an idea he had for a new musical, Canadian theatre entrepreneur Michael Rubinoff approached composers Irene Sankoff and David Hein, whose work he knew from their 2009 Toronto Fringe musical My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.

The concept Rubinoff pitched to the team was to chronicle the heroic efforts of the residents of the small Newfoundland town called Gander in the week following the Twin Tower attacks of September 11, 2001, a community who banded together to house, feed, and care for nearly 7,000 travelers from 38 flights rerouted to there when America closed its airways for the first time in history.

On the 10th anniversary of the tragedy, Sankoff and Hein traveled to Gander Laramie Project-style to interview the people of Gander and the once-stranded travelers who had returned for a ceremony to honor the event. The result is Come from Away, which features the individual true stories of some of the real people who lived through the event, many—most—of the musical’s characters even named for the actual people themselves.

Come from Away started in a 45-minute workshop version in 2012 at Sheridan College in Ontario, an event so successful the writers scrambled to finish a full-length version which debuted at the school the following year. It has since been seen in Toronto, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and here at La Jolla Playhouse before opening in New York in 2017, where it was nominated for seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, and Best Featured Actress, Christopher Ashley deservedly winning the coveted honor for Best Director.

Every honor that could possibly be awarded to this musical should be. It is a joyous, uplifting tale told in an uncomplicated Story Theatre-esque manner. As the rest of their mates stand behind them or unobtrusively rearrange the row of simple straight-backed wooden chairs which makes up most of the stage furniture available to them, the actors often speak to the audience directly about what happened there 17 years ago in their usually bucolic little backwater called Gander.

And what an amazing ensemble of veteran players this is. Performed without an intermission, each of the 12 actors fills the cavernous Ahmanson stage with breakneck energy and an unearthly collective dynamism, making one wonder if their six standbys are called on more often than usual to spell them from the special rigors of eight-a-week that must go along with this production. Of course, a great deal of the credit must be afforded Ashley, whose imaginative, startlingly bold directorial choices are unceasingly kinetic, as is the spirited choreography of Kelly Devine worthy of a revival of River Dance.

Beyond it all are the charming book and the richly indelible score created by Sankoff and Hein, both of which would at first appear to be suffering from Meredith Willson-itis yet soon redeem themselves by proving to be a lot less sappy than one would expect. The rural, down-to-earth people of Gander are extremely admirable human beings at whom the writers are not afraid to poke a little fun and the musical numbers are enough to make one want to dance in the aisles.

There’s a palpable Irish lilt to the proceedings not only accentuated by the staging and performances, but taken up passionately by keyboardist/musical director Cynthia Kortman Westpahl and her exceptional band, who storm the stage after curtaincalls (I can’t imagine this show ever not getting a standing ovation) to actually encourage the audience to turn the austere Ahmanson into one massive undulating dance venue.

Still, beyond the continuous thread of a Gaelic wink and the bareboned though magically evoked quality of a production created by master craftsmen, the true stars of this fresh new musical are the people of Gander, Newfoundland who, in this current age where destructive conmen remain in power and the ugly return of racism is systematically destroying everything so many of us have tried to conquer in our society, prove there are still good, decent people in this big mess of a world of ours who will in time of crisis band together to hold one another’s hands and make the pain of strangers easier for them to endure.

Just as I was wondering if every ounce of faith in humanity had drained from me into the ugly depths of the daily news reports, Come from Away showed up and, thankfully, has helped me breathe a little lighter again. 

*  *  *

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.

*  *  *

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.

 *  *  *

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.”

 *  *  *

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!”

*  *  *


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