TRAVIS' REVIEWS:  Spring to Summer 2019 

Painting of Deidrie Henry as Billie Holiday by Travis Michael Holder

LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL at the Garry Marshall Theatre

It’s the spring of 1959 as we enter the Garry Marshall Theatre and find ourselves surrounded by an atmospheric old long-gone nightspot, site of Lanie Robertson’s flawless 1984 Outer Critics Award-winning theatrical masterpiece Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.

Emerson’s was hardly Billie Holiday’s first choice as the proper venue to display her legendary wares, something she is quick to point out with a stink-eyed sideward glance to her last accompanist-slash-manager-slash-reluctant caregiver Jimmy Powers seated at his piano waiting nervously for her to sing. “There’s heaven and hell,” she admits to us, the ghosts of her original meager audience gathered in the second smaller playing space of the seedy little jazz club, “and then there’s Philly.”

The glory days of Holiday were sadly long gone by the time she appeared at Emerson’s. As played here by that miraculous theatrical chameleon Deidrie Henry, her body is hunched and broken and, although between songs she seems obsessed to spill out to us, her captive audience, all the horrifying pain and nearly insurmountable trials of her difficult life, her memories are dulled and her voice trails off into a raspy growl thanks to her many years of drug and alcohol abuse.

Unlike the seven people in attendance her first night performing at the real Emerson’s Tavern at 15th and Bainbridge in South Philly so long ago, we are privy 60 years later to the fact that this appearance in a club she had always loved to play before her fame and noteriety—and where she now appears despite losing her cabaret license as a convicted felon—was one of her last. Holiday would be dead of cirrhosis of the liver from her rampant alcohol abuse only four months later at the age of 44.

Under the keen direction of Gregg T. Daniel and featuring the incredible Henry backed by award-winning musical director Abdul Hamid Royal on keyboards (also perfectly doubling as Powers) and James Leary on bass, Lanie Robertson’s brilliant 1987 Outer Critics Circle Award-winning Lady Day  shines with matchless production values—although Tanya Orellana’s gorgeously appointed nightclub space, which includes several onstage cabaret tables to put us in the mood, is way, way too upscale for the room as it really looked back in The Day when Holiday’s troubles and addictions kept her from basking in her former glory, a time when she once went to an arraignment for drug charges in a limo and clad in furs directly from her appearance at Carnegie Hall.

Beyond everything, however, Robertson’s script is riveting, craftily incorporating some of the most memorable Holiday standards, including many of the songs she composed herself such as “God Bless the Child,” “Good Morning, Heartache,” “Strange Fruit,” and my personal favorite, “Don’t Explain.” Yet, as we sit captivated listening to some of the best jazz and blues standards ever written or performed, we are also given a vivid, shocking history lesson about how black artists were treated in Holiday’s day, especially in the South.

Despite Powers' efforts to drown out her narrative with his insistent piano introductions, between songs she wanders around the stage sipping gin as she recalls the drug-soaked and twisted story of her life, including her year in a West Virginian prison which, she quips, "is double redundant.” Robertson, a master of creating art around the lives of historical figures, deftly captures the spirit of the tortured, angry, brutalized jazz diva stricken by the lesser offense of someone recently referring to her in print as Lady Yesterday  and wondering aloud if in her life she’s have been better off if she’d “moved on her pocketbook" rather than her feelings.

Initially coaxed onstage by Powers after her initial protests from behind the curtains that she can’t do it, the reception from the tiny audience for a time energizes the frail and teetering former star who, despite briefly finding her sea-legs and insisting she’s “good” to us and to Powers, eventually breaks down. Henry by this point has so won us over that it’s heartbreaking when Holiday stops her performance mid-set to stagger offstage and shoot up, then returns totally out of her head, nearly tumbling off the stage and nodding off between lyrics.

I have been privileged to see three amazing actors appear in Lady Day  over the years, the first time many years ago right here at the now long-shuttered Hollywood Playhouse starring S. Epatha Merkerson, who won awards in the role way back during her Reba the Mail Lady days, as did Audra McDonald, who received her sixth Tony Award when the play was revived on Broadway in 2014. I suspect Henry will not be far behind in honors for her turn as Holiday.

Although any critic worth his salt tries desperately to be objective, the fact that Lanie Robertson is a treasured friend and also author of Nasty Little Secrets,  the play in which I appeared and won a staggering number of awards and honors nearly 20 years ago playing Joe Orton’s lover-executioner Kenneth Halliwell, does not make me as biased as one might expect since I first praised the amazing Lady Day  a decade or so before he came into my life personally.

This questionable objectivity might also seem true of my personal connection with Deidrie Henry. Again, I proudly count her as a close friend and my costar in 2013 when she played Antoinette K-Doe opposite me in the west coast premiere of Hurricane Katrina Comedy Fest,  Rob Florence’s fascinating chronicle of five real-life survivors who lived through what folks in New Orleans refer to only as “The Storm.”

Luckily, again, I was praising the gifts of Henry to the rafters long before I worked with her or knew her personally, first introduced to her 14 years ago when, as member (and former Best Actor winner) of the LA Drama Critics Circle, I had the privilege to present her with Best Actress honors for her memorable turn in Yellowman  at the Fountain—which also won her top Ovation, Garland, LA Weekly, and my own TicketHolder Award in 2005.

I have never heard Deidrie sing, however, and was knocked out by yet another of her endless talents. Her haunting and evocative voice offers the suggestion of Lady Day’s unearthly vocal stylings and unique phrasing, lingering just long enough on certain words and smoothly dipping into the vast emotional well of sorrow that has kept Holiday’s sound compelling to this day.

Billie Holiday is a legend and, as such, is a hard act to follow. Deidrie Henry, however, with the precision directorial guidance of Gregg T. Daniel and both of them paying deference to Lanie Robertson’s uncanny ability to bring Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill  back to life, does far more than follow: she creates an indelible, mesmeric portrait of one of the greatest figures in American musical history.

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THE JUDAS KISS at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center

Late in 1897, only months following his release from prison after two years spent at hard labor serving out his conviction for gross indecency, the great Irish poet and dramatist Oscar Wilde shared a dilapidated, rat-infested villa in Naples with Lord Alfred Douglas, the socially-privileged lover who got him into trouble in the first place.

As the second act of Sir David Hare’s overlooked masterpiece The Judas Kiss begins, Oscar (Rob Nagle) is seated in a padded wing-backed chair sipping brandy on the patio of the villa, a place from which he hasn’t moved in the span of one full day. “As you know,” he later tells his concerned old friend and visiting former lover Robbie Ross (Darius De La Cruz), “I’ve always distained unnecessary motion.”

As David Hernandez’ evocative and potentially award-winning lighting reveals more of Se Hyundai Oh’s starkly embellished set on the chameleon-like stage of the Boston Court, we see Lord Alfred (Colin Bates) naked on a Victorian chaise lounge cuddling the equally naked body of a young Italian fisherboy (Kurt Kanazawa) ironically named Galileo—a crafty theatrical device that allows Sir David to be able to give the sharp-witted Oscar plenty of double entendres about Bosie seeing stars to add to the festivities.

Although Wilde isn’t adverse to appreciating Galileo’s beauty, something that the disgraced literary giant says has made his ordeal bearable and his life less troublesome, it’s not hard to see how hurt and abandoned he feels underneath as he watches his lover spooning with someone else right next to him—especially when Galileo asks him in Italian if he would leave them alone so he could bugger his boyfriend one more time.

When The Judas Kiss transferred from London’s West End to The Great White Way in 1998, it took a beating from critics who couldn’t get past how physically miscast Liam Neeson and Tom Hollander were as Oscar and Bosie. Personally, I was in the minority there; Neeson and Hollander knocked me out. I immediately fell in love with the play and, once again, the wise yet gorgeously lyrical wordsmithery of Sir David Hare.

Still, the first thing I remember about that original Broadway production at the austere 1,150-seat Broadhurst Theatre was Bob Crowley’s magnificently massive set, including an expansive, glittering ocean view in the aforementioned second act and a two-story tufted red velvet headboard framed by lush crimson drapery at the play’s opening, the bed occupied at lights-up by a naked, gleamingly white-skinned young hotel valet named Arthur as he goes down on an ecstatic chambermaid standing spread-eagled against the headboard.

The long overdue LA debut of The Judas Kiss is in the best of hands under the inventive leadership of our town’s wunderkind director and the Boston Court’s co-artistic director Michael Michetti, who keeps things far simpler than the original with a backdrop of basic black curtains, properly ornate furnishings scattered about the otherwise bare playing space, and exposed metal poles holding theatrical lighting fixtures unapologetically visible on either side of the stage.

This leaves room for Sir David’s remarkable script to take over instead of letting the original grandness of the design overshadow the production, a flaw I clearly remember from my view seated in the Broadhurst’s nosebleed seats where the actors resembled tiny figures moving around Colleen Moore’s dollhouse at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry—something which also made the voyeuristic side benefit of appreciating some exotic naked beauty a daunting task.

The Judas Kiss works far better in this powerfully simple and more intimate setting, where even the rising sun over the Gulf of Naples featuring prominently in Oscar’s dialogue in the second act is startlingly evoked with minimal lighting effects projected on a huge and completely blank rear panel.

The incredible Nagle is at his best as Wilde, a role written chockfull of traps to easily plunge into headfirst. As the crushed man desperately tries to appear brave and dispassionate, the actor playing him must still successfully land a continuous barrage of thrown-away Wildian bon mots, which Nagle utters with a dry comic timing so perfect it would amaze Chaplin himself.

And a sad clown he is, this Oscar Wilde. The character pontificates throughout the play about life, love, honor, courage, trust—and the courage to trust—with the entire audience privy to the tragic facts about his impending doom. Only an actor as smooth and honest as Nagle could possibly pull this off; in lesser hands, the entire production would fall flat.

Michetti certainly knows this and, in the signature style of his visionary gifts, stages the action around Nagle as the frightened, failing Oscar. All other actors at one time or another converse with the character keeping their backs directly to the audience, carefully and stealthily blocked to stand near the theatre’s aisles to not obstruct anyone’s view of Nagle’s uncanny ability to assay both stoicism and despair at the same time.

One thing I missed was a hint of dissipation and fragility when Oscar appears post-incarceration at the beginning of Act Two, returning a broken man both physically and emotionally after two years in a dank cell suffering the censure of the entire world. Even losing stylist Shannon Hutchins’ beautifully styled wig from the first act, which takes place two years before on the eve of Wilde’s arrest, would help, as the writer’s well-known locks were sheared off during his time in Reading Gaol and, at this point, had not yet grown back.

Bates offers fine support as the self-serving, cold-hearted Bosie, who exhibits not a moment of decency as he throws his lover to the lions mainly in an effort to hurt his father, the Marquess of Queensberry, and later to save his own damaged reputation.

His best work comes at the end, however, as Bosie awards his lover the title kiss before leaving him despondent and alone. In contrast, Bates’ first scenes are played too frantic, when keeping his uppercrust British composure would let Hare’s dialogue stand on its own to expose Lord Alfred’s selfishness and insidiously evil nature without the actor having to work so hard to convey it.

De La Cruz is touching as Robbie, the man’s lingering love for and devotion to his ex heartrending to observe, although in his final scene, I missed what I believe to be a necessary approaching sense of giving up on Wilde as his friend stubbornly continues to sabotage himself.

Matthew Campbell Dowling as Arthur, the randy Cadogan Hotel valet who doesn’t seem to discriminate by gender, and Will Dixon as Mr. Moffitt, his superior who has a very special activity in mind to punish the lad for his dalliance with the compromised chambermaid, are both perfectly cast, able to maintain their professionalism as servants while never losing their humanity and genuinely caring for their celebrated, demanding charge.

Mara Klein is a scene-stealer as the cockney maid Phoebe, unsure whether Arthur and Moffitt’s generosity in refusing Wilde’s excessive tip is a stance she wishes to share and, as Galileo, Kanazawa is nice to look at without him feeling the need to scratch and pose and make puzzled faces to tempt anyone to look his way when turning his back to the audience is more than enough to pull focus.

Let me point out, as was true with the original production, the extensive nudity and graphic sexual imagery are not just gratuitous here. Hare’s point is that, while members of the lower classes back then were shagging each other with great abandon on a regular basis regardless of gender, and while Sir Alfred’s behavior was protected by his family’s nobility, the prominent Irish intellectual and social butterfly Oscar Wilde was systematically raked through the proverbial coals strictly because of his celebrity and bold denial of popular hypocritical Christian-based morality.

You know... like today.

This is the quintessential mounting of a magnificent, long-buried potential future classic which heralds one of our time’s greatest playwrights, whose ability to evoke Oscar Wilde’s genius with words seems as though he is channeling the man himself. The production is both lavish and austere, the simplicity of it exquisite as it allows a world-class ensemble and director to shine through at every moment, something accentuated by Diane Graebner’s lavish, lovely period costuming.

So, here’s the thing. Not only do Oscar Wilde and I share the same birthday 100 years apart, I have played the great dramatist several times over the years and have won some major honors doing so, most notably in a 75-minute monologue as the dying Wilde in the premiere of the lategreat Leon Katz’ incredible Beds in 2000 and soon after in the debut of C. Robert Holloway’s Oscar & Speranza in Washington, DC.

In 2001, after seeing Liam Neeson and Tom Hollander reprise their London performances on Broadway in 1998, then playing the role myself in a workshop production opposite Christian Martin as Bosie at the Egyptian Arena, Jer Adrianne Lelliott and I tried to get the rights to bring Sir David’s masterwork to El Lay for the first time. We were turned down then because they were holding out to see it produced at a larger house like the Taper or South Coast Rep, which for some reason never happened.

Aside from the fact that Jer is no longer the same gender, Wilde died at age 46 and I am now 72. How agonizing is it to realize one is too old to play a role that means so much to him? Not easy—that is unless the role is being assayed by an actor as gifted, as magical, as absolutely perfect and heartbreaking as LA treasure Rob Nagle.

If someone else had been cast who was not as breathtakingly brilliant as he, I would have been grinding my teeth and ready to scream out in my seat. As it is, instead I was transported. I was more than content; I was mesmerized by his golden, gossamer portrayal of poor Oscar.

In all honesty, as I age into acting obscurity, here’s something I’ve never said before: I was actually glad it was Rob Nagle up there moving us all to tears and not me. His is a performance I will never forget.

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JULIUS WEEZER at the El Portal Theatre

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

With each piece revolving around the songbook of one well-beloved international 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 and Snow-Manilow.  Just the titles alone should give you a clue of what the Troubies are all about even if you’re not already as much of a confirmed diehard fan as I am. See, not a December has gone by when I was stuck here in the decidedly non-festive El Lay that whatever these guys presented that year was not a part of my furtive attempt to conjure some sundrenched seasonal cheer.

Walker and his adoring, KoolAid-engorged disciples knocked their performances out onto Riverside Drive year after year, selling out every show until the company finally outgrew the 130-seat former Falcon Theatre in 2016, the longtime home where their late-great supreme mentor Garry Marshall gave them free reign to be as outrageous and goofy as they wanted to be.

Now housed for the last two seasons on the 360-seat Debbie Reynolds Stage at the historic (and appropriately, former vaudeville house) the El Portal, where both How the Princh Stole Christmas and A Year Without a Santana Claus were also sellouts even in the larger space, soon the Troubies will have to bump whatever Nutcracker has been booked into the Dorothy Chandler to accommodate all the worshipful fans who want to sample their unique and unstoppably silly holiday wares.

Although non-seasonal presentations from the Troubies have been mounted prior to this, their new world premiere presentation Julius Weezer, melding ol’ Will Shakespeare with the work of the enduring funk-rock iconic band Weezer, is an all-new event for me personally. Leaving my holiday finery and ugly Christmas sweaters packed in cedar chips under my bed for another 7 months or so, I was curious to see what these unfiltered zanies would come up with leaving their own giant snowman costumes and colorful balls—no pun intended—in storage as they prepared to open the troupe’s 25th anniversary season.

Julius Weezer does not disappoint. Rome circa 44 B.C. has never been this radiantly-adorned, especially on Christopher Scott Murillo’s versatile two-level set that features Derick Finely’s live five-piece band peeking out from behind the action, while Halei Parker’s colorful tunics and plastic CVS armor prompted one of that notorious emperor’s assassins  Metellus (stalwart Troubie veteran and the show’s co-producer Beth Kennedy, who also plays Calpurnia in a dead-on Cher ) to quip: “We murdered Julius Caesar and spent a lot of money at Joann’s Fabrics.”

Such asides are peppered throughout all Troubie shows, but there’s something even funnier when they are interspersed with the familiar classic speeches created by the Bard himself, such as Cinna (heralding the welcome return of way too-long absent company member Morgan Rusler) commenting as he tries to escape that he hears Pacoima is a sanctuary city or the injured Decius (local treasure Rick Batalla) taking himself to Kaiser Temporary for treatment since it’ll be years before it will be called Kaiser Permanente.

As always, the ensemble could not be better, from Walker himself as Cassius and Jersey Boys’  veteran Frankie Valli, Joseph Leo Bwarie, as a fan-dancing Octavius Caesar—neither immune to roasting as they’re described, respectively, as looking like Schneider from One Day at a Time and a Sephora makeup-wearing Burt Reynolds touring in The Mikado.

The production is greatly enriched by the appearance of LA’s resident intimate theatre god Rob Nagle as a Brutus who, in his too-short toga and Prince Valiant wig, might just be the long-sought secret lovechild of Moe and  Curly of The Three Stooges. He is well complemented by Victoria Hoffman making an auspicious Troubie debut as his faithful wife Portia, offering a song that might surprise anyone who has never heard her sing (something to which I was privy back a few thousand years ago when she was one of the White Wash chorines backing my warbling Chicago gangster Givola in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui  at Classic Theatre Lab).

Batalla is especially notable doubling as Decius and as Brutus’ limp-wristed servant Lucius—which he insists must be pronounced “Luscious”—morphing between characters so fast that he tells us he must look down at his shoes to know which character voice to use. As Marc Antony, the crew-cutted Matt Merchant takes the role a bit too seriously, missing some juicy opportunities to have fun sending up the traditionally heroic role, but while his acting is, intentionally or not, reminiscent of David Hasslehoff without the red speedos, his singing is much, much better.

Each member of the committed supporting cast provides eager and worthy Troubiality, including Cloie Wyatt Taylor as Cleopatra; Mike Sulprizio (surprised onstage in the middle of his death scene to honor his 50th birthday) as Casca; Suzanne Jolie Narbonne as various servant girls and cupbearers; and an ever-exasperated David C. Wright as Trebonius, a character with a name so difficult to remember his reaction becomes a running gag.

Still, it’s quite a treat to see veteran actor Andy Robinson, with his 50-plus-year career including mostly dramatic roles—or, as he proclaims in his program bio, “all varieties of saints and sinners classic and modern”—in the title role. He obviously has a swell time hamming it up, which he does in such a spritely and energetic fashion that it’s quite impressive to behold, especially for one of the few people left standing who is even more long-in-tooth than I am.

When first warned by the Soothsayer (a wonderfully deadpanned Rusler) to beware the Ides of March, Robinson’s Caesar proclaims he is unfazed. “Naw, I’m old,” he poo-poos, “I’ve seen some shit,” a line with which I can definitely relate.

When Caesar’s famous demise is depicted—cleverly, of course, again with a nod to costumer Parker’s ingenuity—at the end of Act One, it’s rather disappointing to wonder if Robinson’s time onstage has ended until he returns frequently as an unsettled spirit, prompting various castmembers the opportunity to intone, “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” on a regular basis and the actor himself to joke about retuning to the Green Room for another rest between his spectral homages to Shakespearean apparitions.

I have to admit, as much as I enjoyed and highly recommend Julius Weezer, I did miss the Troubie’s gigantic Christmas tree headdresses and candy cane-adorned set pieces that gave the company permission to pull out every stop, particularly since the show’s frequent mention of its two-hour, two-act length (“This is a sleepy time,” one character prophetically notes) accurately reflected my own thoughts.

It was amazing to hear some of the original play’s more infamous 420-year-old speeches, especially when delivered by actors such as Nagle, who is uncannily able to switch between comedic and dramatic delivery on a dime, but I do think things could be tightened considerably. This includes the music of Weezer which, although uniformly excellent, does have a tendency to be a tad slow in the tempo department, leaving the ensemble to stand around looking for something to do as others sing the band’s most popular ballads.

Speaking of nostalgia, when Walker announced at curtain call that the audience should stay seated for a special guest performance, I was hoping it would be Kennedy making her umpteenth cameo appearance as the stilt-walking, Streisand-nailed Snowy the Winter Warlock peeking through the curtain intoning her familiar “Helllloooo!” It’s a role Kennedy has played so many times in Troubadour shows past that she admits she finds herself talking in her character voice in her daily life and it seems Snowy should be part of any rule-defying Troubie presentation at this point regardless of season or setting.

However, the actual special guest performance did make up somewhat for the lack of our Snowy, since the curtain opened to reveal Weezer’s legendary bass guitarist Scott Shriner, who treated the grateful opening night audience with an impromptu min-concert that was in itself worth the price of admission.

Still, even without an authentic original bandmember willing to overlook that fact that the Troubadours have lifted their material and created new lyrics without permission (prompting Walker to quip he was glad Shriner wasn’t there to slap them with a Cease and Desist notice), Julius Weezer is a joy.

As Beach Blanket Babylon became the voice of a signature homegrown humor in San Francisco for the last 45 years, the Troubadour Theater Company needs more than holiday specials and short spring runs in Los Angeles. These inventive folks need their own friggin’ theatre if you ask me.

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FALSETTOS at the Ahmanson Theatre

As far as chronicling an era in the evolution of our last century in America, William Finn and James Lapine’s trailblazing musical Falsettos is just about perfect. Now masterfully revived 27 years after its multi-award-winning New York debut, it still has the celebratory, self-effacing brilliance and all the pathos of the original production—and ironically still has the ability to move anyone to tears even though today, the outcome of the tale is no longer much of a surprise.

Falsettos, of course, is the hybrid of Finn and Lapine’s “Marvin Trilogy,” which began in 1979 with Finn’s celebrated one-act In Trousers before Lapine came onboard and the second installment of the saga, their collaborative March of the Falsettos, debuted at Playwrights Horizons two years later. Their final effort was Falsettoland, which opened off-Broadway at Playwrights in 1990 before moving to the Lortel for a healthy run. Falsettoland was, indeed, a new direction for the team, making their beloved characters deal with something new and tragic that a few years earlier would be an unthinkable twist: the AIDS crisis.

Soon after, bolstered by the trilogy’s enormous cult following and continued success, someone had the bright idea to join Finn and Lapine’s two brilliant one-acts into one full-length musical and in the spring of 1992, Falsettos opened to much fanfare at the Golden. Perhaps because of the sensitivity of where the story ended in its third installment, the incredibly rich and heartfelt production didn’t enjoy a long run but still managed to find itself nominated for nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, going home with honors for Best Book of a Musical and Best Score.

Now its sparkling 2016 revival has arrived at the Ahmanson and Lapine again directs Falsettos with the same slickness as he did over a quarter-century ago, this time out aided by one of our time’s most brilliant choreographers, Spencer Liff, who manages to bring more joy and whimsy into his work (especially in the recent New York casualty Head Over Heels) than almost anyone besides Matthew Bourne.

The story follows Marvin (Max von Essen), a neurotic Manhattanite who leaves his wife and 11-year-old son (Eden Espinosa and Thatcher Jacobs, who alternates in the role of Jason with Jonah Mussolino) for another man (Nick Adams). No relationship in Falsettos is easy, but Lapine’s superior cast makes each character endearing despite their many flaws, including the unrepentant promiscuity of Marvin’s boyfriend Whizzer (this takes place in 1979 still, remember) and Marvin’s continuously frustratingly skewed sense of personal entitlement and inability to get along with just about everybody.

It took me until Act Two to warm up to von Essen and Adams in the roles, but Espinosa caught me immediately, bringing the house down in Trina’s consistently showstopping “I’m Breaking Down,” one number whose message is even more on topic than ever in our country’s current crisis of political and cause-divided turmoil. She again soars in “Trina’s Song,” while von Essen and Adams are both exemplary in their characters’ individual 11th-hour ballads, “What More Can I Say?” and “You Gotta Die Sometime,” respectively.

Nick Blaemire is a wonderful asset as Marvin’s conflicted psychiatrist Mendel who ends up marrying his ex, while Bryonha Marie Parham and Audrey Cardwell are welcome additions to Act Two as Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia, Marvin’s sweet and loving “lesbians next door”—particularly when Charlotte delivers the heartbreaking “Something Bad is Happening” as she begins to realize the potential devastation of the then-new “gay plague.”

As Jason, young Master Jacobs steals the show, from his first awkward marionette moves in “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” through his plaintively lost “Miracle of Judaism.” Although I would love to return to see the work of Mussolino, his alternate in the role, it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect Jason than this exceptionally talented new find.

One of the innovations of this revival is the sparse but clever set design by David Rockwell which, with the simple shadow of the Manhattan skyline loaming above the stage, features nothing but a nuetral-colored pile of foam-filled blocks and shapes the cast than moves around to become doorways and tables and set pieces indicating a living room as the story continues.

The concept is clear, as obviously the point is that the characters seem desperate to make their lives tidy and echo something of the home they are trying to make for themselves and each other, but the repeated manipulation of the bouncy blocks becomes a distraction, a one-trick pony that ultimately takes away from the storyline itself.

Here, although in general I think Lapine’s staging of his players is smooth and quietly striking, especially when deciding which scenes the other actors will be left onstage watching the action from their perches elsewhere on the Ahmanson’s cavernous playing space, I would have responded to the tale more without the conceptualized staging hitting me over the head between every scene and every song. Finn and Lapine’s hauntingly beautiful and intelligent score, for me, could stand on its own without any gimmicks.

In 1984, interviewed for a publication as I was reprising my role in the musical Hair after appearing in the original 17 years earlier, I was asked how I felt about the plethora of reviews for the revival saying the piece was hopelessly dated. My answer was, “Wait another 20 years and it will be relevant again, if only as a historical curiosity.” I feel much the same way about Falsettos.

So many of the themes that were groundbreaking 27 years ago in the musical are more of a given now. Whizzer’s promiscuity is the kind of behavior from most gay men that today is a thing of the past, AIDS is not over by any means but is no longer a death sentence, and the definition of what constitutes a family—at least everywhere but in backward Trumpster country—is far more widely accepted.

Still, although I doubt if I’ll be around to see it, give Falsettos another 20 years and I guarantee you, no matter what has happened politically and culturally in our society, it will be there to make an important point all over again.

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THE END OF SEX at the Victory Theatre Center

“Doctor,” that infamous old line from my cradle days goes, “my wife (or husband) doesn’t understand me”—and in our current age of fast-tracked communications and the explosion of social media dominating our lives, I’m sure that sentiment is even more prevalent than back when I was a young’un and the dinosaurs still roamed the earth.

Having shared my life with someone for 50 years next November, for many years everyone we knew referred to us as their perfect example of a happily married couple. I began to tire of the label and started admitting to people who saw us as posterchildren for marital bliss that, although we remained committed to one another, we had lived in separate bedrooms since 1981. Soon after, many others in my life came clean to me about the unspoken lack of intimacy haunting their own relationships.

It became apparent to me that the majority of couples I knew did not have the idyllic, sexually insatiable relationship they all professed to have. As Ayn Rand once observed, most people in the world live as “second-handers." They live for how others perceive them to be rather than for who they are—and what a terrible waste of time such societally-driven deception is.

If there’s any place where people strive for stiff-upperlippedness and work incredibly hard to keep their dirty little secrets to themselves, it’s within the family situation. Uncharacteristically, however, for the family members in the world premiere of Gay Walch’s The End of Sex, those dastardly secrets come spilling out in a series of epic confessions as they gather to celebrate their earthmother matriarch’s birthday.

Heather and her husband Ryan (Austin Highsmith and Chad Coe) show up at her parents’ San Fernando Valley home already snapping at each other over his decision to make dinner reservations later than she thinks acceptable, but it soon becomes obvious to them that the coolness emanating in waves between her folks Nancy and Ken (Sara Botsford and Tom Ormeny) signal a far bigger problem brewing than what time the appetizer will arrive at their table.

And like the younger couple’s silly quarrel over dinnertime, Heather’s parents’ situation was triggered by another insidiously grating pea under her mother’s emotional mattress: the fact that Ken arrived home with a bunch of birthday flowers grabbed on the run at Von’s Lakeside Plaza, wrapped in that telltale cellophane and including two fading blooms already on the way to the trashcan.

These issues escalate into a series of late night confessionals reminiscent of a slightly less violent modernday version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Although the situations faced by these people are much less “sad, sad, sad” then the lives of Martha and George and their own conflicted houseguests, their troubles are equally as capable of ending a relationship or two, especially in the faster and more stepped-up media-dominated world of 2019.

As the evening progresses, we learn that Ryan has lost interest in sex with Heather, mainly because her impending success has so completely overshadowed his own attempts to build a career. Yet it is Nancy and Ken who are in the most trouble, since right before the “kids” arrived she has informed her husband of 36 years that she no longer wants to have sex with him.

Fueled by anger and revulsion at his wife's desire for total and final abstinence, the revelation beginning with Nancy admitting she has hidden his Little Blue Pills in the depths of her purse, in frustration Ken brings up the subject of her drastic decision in front of Heather and Ryan, much to his wife's embarrassment and shock that he would want to discuss their sex lives in front of their daughter.

Still, Nancy is soon telling those gathered how she feels, admitting she has looked back at her life and has realized she has too many times agreed to too many things despite her lingering deep-downs. "Why don't you go to one of those doctors," she rails at Ken, "and find out why your sex drive is so annoying."

Damn those wilted supermarket flowers... how could  Ken have been so horribly insensitive?  Oops. Sorry. I guess my closet misogyny is showing.

Walch’s writing is smart and often riveting, especially in the two-character scenes between each of the sexually troubled couples that so perfectly explain why they find themselves in the trouble they’re in. Under the Victory’s venerable co-artistic director Maria Gobetti’s ever-razorsharp and insightful leadership, her dynamic cast helps make the dialogue soar.

Botsford is the quintessential foil for Ormeny’s exceptional portrait of a man often in denial, his quietly wicked comic timing giving us, the audience, some well-needed moments of relief from the growing tensions between Walch’s downward-spiraling family in crisis.

Highsmith also serves her character well, yet it is the eerily calm and collected Coe, often offering thrown-away oneliners from the sidelines, who provides the evening’s most indelible performance—particularly when everything Ryan is going through leads to meltdown and potential tragedy.

There is room for some improvement in Walch’s otherwise exceptional script, especially in the opening scene where Botsford and Ormeny are forced to deliver so much clunky exposition that it’s a surprise when her story soon after evolves into such a  compelling view of contemporary marriage.

There could also be a few easy tweaks to the storyline that could make it more probable considering this particular cast, the age of the actors playing the parents a bit off as they discuss Nancy’s menopause and remember how they met as college students 36 years earlier.

This doesn’t mean Botsford and Ormeny are not worthy choices to assay these complex roles, only that some minor accommodations to Walch’s timeline could make their relationship more believable since they’d perhaps be better depicted meeting as young college professors rather than students living in a dorm.

One of the most desirable attainments for any drama is its ability to make us think, to create a dialogue between people that lingers far beyond the final curtain. Surely, The End of Sex is a fine example of this, as I left the theatre feeling frustrated and vexed by what I felt was intensely myopic and self-centered behavior from both Nancy and her daughter.

In the play’s final scene, in which a 19-year-old previously unseen houseguest (Lianna Liew) returns unexpectedly to retrieve something she and her boyfriend left behind, Nancy delivers what is, to me, a majorly inappropriate and unsolicited parental lecture telling the girl how to live her life as she tries desperately to escape. Were it me, I would have grabbed my property, told the woman to mind her own fucking business, and disappeared from her abrasive ranting as fast as my little feet could carry me.

In discussing this on our ride home, I found my boyfriend, he of a decidedly different generation than I am, had felt exactly the opposite from me, that to him it was Ken and Ryan who were the selfish and insensitive culprits creating the problems, not their mates. Great dramatic literature throughout time provokes such conversation and helps us look at ourselves and reevaluate our own personal attitudes.

In the case of Gay Walch’s startlingly honest and most contemporary new play, mounted spectacularly by Gobetti and her crackerjack team of actors and designers, The End of Sex is gripping and most welcome in our communal attempt as artists to leave behind a chronicle of who we are, particularly as it simultaneously heralds the advent of a clear, fresh, distinctive new voice in American theatre.

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NATIVE SON at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

The third and final presentation from Center Theatre Group featured at their annual spring Block Party: Celebrating Los Angeles Theatre is Nambi E. Kelley’s ambitious adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son, originally presented last fall at Antaeus Theatre Company’s sparkling new space in Glendale.

My personal history with Wright’s controversial classic 1940 novel goes back to about age 11 when I first read it. It made my head explode. I lived a very dichotomous existence at the time, much of it spent as a working kid traversing a harsh urban existence in the middle of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen—something for which my mother took a lot of heat from my family—and the other part trying to fit into a bucolic suburban existence in the western suburbs of Chicago, a place where the local newspaper once featured an above-the-fold photo of a boy with a bandaged hand standing next to his bicycle with the banner headline: BOY CUTS FINGER.

Although I was advised to keep my professional life to myself whenever back in Elmhurst, Illinois to avoid getting the shit beat out of me after school, the contrasts between my own personal Tale of Two Cities was hard to put into some reasonable perspective. In Manhattan, I was surrounded by all kinds of people living all kinds of lives, while at home in Elmhurst, African-American and Hispanic domestic workers had to be sure to be on their way back to Chicago by dusk if they wanted to keep from being shagged or worse by the cops—one of which my own racist monster of a father.

Discovering Native Son explained so much to me at 11 and it was a lesson I never forgot. The horrors of Bigger Thomas’ existence in the southside ghettos of Chicago in the 1930s was truly a nightmare and the realization of how that ruled and often destroyed the lives of so many African-Americans, living under the massive cloud of slavery in our country’s stubbornly backward post-Jim Crow consciousness, changed my young life forever.

Adapting Wright’s raw and often abrasive epic for the stage was a concept I never expected could happen, but Nambi E. Kelley has done just that and Antaeus, our town’s most prolific and courageous classical theatre company, has taken it on without hesitation. It is certainly a worthy effort, an exceptional production with some startlingly effective design elements and a troupe of committed—if somewhat uneven for Antaeus—players working hard to interpret a major contemporary literary masterpiece as a theatrical drama.

“No American Negro exists,” James Baldwin once said, “who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.” The book was a groundbreaking bestseller when it debuted nearly 80 years ago and has since been required reading in most high school programs through the ensuing years, but Wright was also publicly criticized by Baldwin and others as ultimately exacerbating the image of the American black male as a stereotype and not as a real person, rubbing even more salt into our country’s massive societal wounds.

That said, some of Kelley’s best intended choices in this transformation to the stage are even more puzzling, particularly the addition of a new character called The Black Rat (Noel Arthur), who becomes the physical embodiment of Bigger’s running narrative alter-ego without much explanation of why this approach was chosen.

Early on, Bigger (Jon Chaffin) brutally smashes a large rat with a kitchen skillet in his family’s horribly uninhabitable southside hovel, an analogy to how he sees his life as a black man and as an American, a theme and image which surfaces time and again throughout the novel. Here the theatrical device somehow falls flat, especially since Arthur is given so little to do to make his inclusion relevant.

Chaffin, however, does a yoeman’s job as Bigger, never once leaving the stage as his character is made to literally run for his life throughout most of the play’s 90-minute running time. He is perfectly supported by Victoria Pratt, Brandon Rachal, and especially Mildred Marie Langford as his mother and siblings, Langford once again touching our hearts as Bigger’s scared and sadly naïve girlfriend Bessie.

Gigi Birmingham and Ellis Greer are also excellent as Bigger’s wealthy, well-meaning employer and her clueness, drunken flirt of a daughter Mary, but both Matthew Grondin as Mary’s “commie” boyfriend and Ned Mochel as the detective trying to sort out her disappearance unfortunately contribute distractingly cartoonish performances in their roles. Grondin is felled by completely disconnected physical gestures which belie his character’s passions, while Mochel is so sneering and dastardly he does everything but twirl a villainous moustache.

Much of the unevenness here must fall on the shoulders of director Andi Chapman, who also has adapted the production from Antaeus’ more intimate Glendale home space to the larger Douglas with some difficulty. A lot of time is spent here with people running around and through Edward E. Haynes Jr.’s towering raw wood scaffolding set and, despite the splendor of Andrew Schmedake’s strident lighting, Jeff Gardner’s grinding sound plot, and Adam R. Macias’ impressive projection designs, Native Son is here often left looking like a giant board game come to life.

Still, it must have been difficult to try to transfer Native Son to this larger venue and at the same time to still condense the classic novel into such a restrictive running time. This gives the entire production a lingering feeling of being a CliffsNotes guide sadly lacking a totally comprehensive explanation of what occurs, making it nearly impossible for Kelley, Chapman, and their team to help its audience understand the societal corner into which Bigger has been forced in his life and missing the novel’s clear justification of how Bigger’s world devolves into such horrendous violence and how his murderous choices become almost understandable considering his circumstances.

There was a recently released HBO film adaptation of Native Son directed by Rashid Johnson with a reworked screenplay by none other than Suzan-Lori Parks, one of our time’s most gifted dramatists and Pulitzer Prize-winner for her brilliant Topdog/Underdog. Parks’ new version is set in modernday Chicago, making one thing glaringly apparent: nothing much has changed in our country’s race relations over the last eight decades since the novel first became such a national cause celebre, something made infinitely more frustrating with the rise of our ugly racist Traitor Tot and his braindead sycophants ruling as Commander-in-Chief and his soulless (no pun intended, but if the shoe fits) minions.

Speaking of difficult adaptations, when I first wrote about this year’s Block Party, I commented that maybe I could retell one of my favorite Hollywood stories of all time. The late-great actor David Dukes was so passionate about Native Son that he went into debt to buy the rights to the novel and began to tirelessly shop it around town in an effort to get a film version of Wright’s masterpiece off the ground.

David was met with nothing but defeat over and over again, everyone peddling to keep their heads above the waterline on the Hollywood power-grid shutting the door on him without much conversation, all believing such a controversial and racially-charged book could never be made into a movie.

David was shocked to finally find a glimmer of hope in the future of the project from a major Hollywood entity like Paramount and he soon was in long and difficult talks with the studio about creating a screenplay of the book. After a long silent period where he wondered if they had lost interest, David was called and summonsed into a private meeting with Paramount’s high-profile, high-maintenance former Head of Production, Robert Evans.

He was led into a massive office, a space so grand David said he at first had trouble seeing the Industry giant looking small and dwarfed behind a carved oversized desk surrounded by a plethora of bobbleheading Suits standing around him. Evans immediately opened a folder of notes and began to tell David all he felt needed to be changed in the story, including eliminating a major character he felt was “superfluous,” combining another, and demanding that the ending must be altered considerably, something in David’s opinion was totally and mindbogglingly unconscionable.

Finally, unable to keep his frustrations under control, David lost it and let his mouth lead him into trouble. “Mr. Evans,” he interrupted the man in mid-sentence, “I’m sorry, but none of what you’re suggesting makes any sense whatsoever. I mean, I’m sorry to be disrespectful, sir, but… have you even read the book?”

Without missing a beat, Evans answered, “Well, of course, not personally.”

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FOR THE LOVE OF (OR, THE ROLLER DERBY PLAY) at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

Center Theatre Group started something cool in 2017, each spring transferring a trio of some of the year’s best LA intimate theatre offerings to the Kirk Douglas Theatre for their aptly-named Block Party: Celebrating Los Angeles Theatre.

In the last two seasons, three stunning productions each were lovingly remounted each year at the Douglas, featuring knockout work originally presented by Coeurage Theatre, the Fountain, Echo Theatre Company, Playwrights Arena, Critical Mass Performance Group, and the Celebration.

This year, CTG’s Block Party returns to their Culver City jewelbox for a third time, again paying homage to some more of our town’s best and bravest intimate theatre companies with another well-deserved look at Theatre of NOTE’s west coast premiere of Gina Femia’s For The Love Of (or, the roller derby play), the Skylight Theatre Company’s LADCC-winning Rotterdam by Jon Brittain, and Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son from Antaeus.

Inaugurating the fest this time out with For The Love Of proved to be a perfect choice, as the celebratory and raucous nature of the piece, brilliantly staged and choreographed by Rhonda Kohl, had CTG’s opening night audience shouting and cheering wildly before granting the hard-working cast with a highly deserved final standing O.

Femia’s in-your-face For The Love Of chronicles the story of longtime lovers Joy and Michelle (Briana Price and Elinor Gunn), whose once-passionate relationship has become safe and complacent over the years rather than exciting as they struggle to pay the rent, look for better jobs, and have detailed conversations about which of them forgot to buy a bag of frozen peas.

Then Joy becomes Joy Ride, venturing from the couple’s modest life in the suburbs of New Jersey to join an all-girl roller derby team called the Brooklyn Scallywags. Not only does she find a passion for the dangerous and demanding sport, she becomes intrigued by her derby crush Lizzie Lightning (Tania Verafield), a tough and streetwise survivor with the vocabulary of a longshoreman.

The lovers’ relationship begins to unravel as Joy’s feelings for Lizzie become more conflicted, a tale told along with chronicling the daily lives not only of our heroine but of her fellow teammates in Femia’s promising but sometimes rambling script—something saved by the sheer imagination of director Kohl and her crackerjack design team.

The play’s short filmic scenes switch from one location to another in rapid succession, a hurdle the production not only handles with aplomb but accentuates as the castmembers roll around Eli Smith’s cleverly minimal set pieces under the starkly evocative lighting by Rose Malone, creating Evita-like tableaux evoking signature roller derby game and practice moves performed in tightly rehearsed circles.

I am not sure whether this concept is part of the playwright’s vision or was conjured by Kohl to help make it move, but the result is quite dramatic and exciting, thanks to an amazing ensemble of actors sure to end up with just as many bruises by Mar. 17 as the characters they play might experience all in a day’s work.

Possibly Femia has taken on a bit too much as she gives each of the Scallywag teammates a moment to show their own story, but the device sure does give a dynamic group of actors a moment in the sun. Liesel Hanson is a standout as the once meek and mild Squeaky Mouse, as are the play’s two “more mature” veterans: Yolanda Snowball as Anna-Stecia and Lynn Odell as Hot Flash, the first shown in her day job as a nurse caring for an elderly patient and the other as a wife and mom picking up after her family.

NOTE stalwart Alina Phelan is a major standout as the team’s manager Andrea the Vagiant, whose abrasive demands for perfection from her charges hides a vulnerability that ultimately makes her endearing—especially in a sweet, uncharacteristically quiet little eleventh-hour scene with Price that becomes one of the most indelible.

The many inventive aspects of Theatre of NOTE’s production lift it to its current status—and makes one wonder how all this was originally accomplished on NOTE’s tiny stage in their longtime home at Cahuenga and Sunset. Actually, I could not help but wonder if the play worked even better there, without the size and acoustics of the Douglas swallowing it up and reducing Smith’s modular set pieces to dollhouse-size.

Also easily lost would be the decision to spend time before the start of each act to read “shout-out” notes scribbled to castmembers and to one another written on cards in the lobby before the show. Perhaps the list of people to acknowledge and thank profusely will lessen after opening night with the playwright, director, producers, and benefactors in attendance but, for me, adding an extra half-hour onto the piece as said “shout-outs” are screamed into a headache-producing hand-held microphone tuned way too high, was more than I could handle—especially while hoping to hit El Coyote before they stopped serving at 11pm.

For The Love Of is still impressive, incredibly inventive theatre and I am pleased to have caught it in its current incarnation, a production by my own former beloved theatre company which, for some reason, I missed when it premiered last April at NOTE’s Hollywood location within walking distance to my home.

Fortunately, although I will be in New Orleans for the opening of an exhibit of my Tennessee Williams portraits and French Quarter paintings at Off the Beaten Way Gallery in conjunction with the 33rd annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival when Rotterdam takes the Kirk Douglas stage Mar. 28 to Apr. 7, I did review the outstanding production during its initial run at the Skylight, recognizing it as one of the Top Ten plays of 2017 in my 26th TicketHolder Awards.

I will definitely be home from the wars and at the Douglas with bells on to cheer on the final presentation of CTG’s Block Party 2019, Antaeus’ much heralded adaptation of Native Son, playing Apr. 18 to 28. Hey—I might even get to retell one of my favorite Hollywood stories in the process, about late friend David Dukes trying to peddle the film rights of the classic groundbreaking novel around town many years ago. It’s a doozy.

Congratulations to all the wonderfully committed El Lay theatre companies honored so far with exceptionally reverent remountings at the Douglas. Obviously, despite Actors' Equity Association’s ugly self-inflicted assault last year on intimate theatre on the west coast, our phenomenally creative and prolific community is still alive and well in our City of Angels. Suck on that, AEA!

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HYPE MAN at the Fountain Theatre

Things are heating up for a young white rapper calling himself Pinnacle who, along with his trusty backup hype man Verb, have been booked to perform on a major national latenight talk show. It’s a major milestone in the lives of the longtime friends who have been making music together since they were kids struggling to survive their rough urban environment.

Still, every play needs a crisis and for Pinnacle and Verb it comes early on in Idris Goodwin’s third “break beat” play Hype Man, now in its west coast premiere at the Fountain.

News of yet another unnecessary police execution of an unarmed black teenager takes over the thoughts of Verb (Matthew Hancock), who makes an emotional plea to address the issue directly as the pair and their trusty beatmaker Peep One (Clarissa Thibeaux) prepare for their upcoming potential star-making appearance on The Tonight Show.

Pinnacle (Chad Addison) understands his black friend’s outrage, but doesn’t want to fuck with the rapidly-rising trajectory of their blossoming career at such an important yet fragile juncture in time. The mixed-race Peep is caught in the middle as the old pals fight to passionately express their differing points of view.

And fight they do, right out of the gate in the opening moments of Goodwin’s interesting but predictable exploration into racial identity, social injustice, misplaced ambition, and the loyalties of friendship. There’s not much new offered here, even though Goodwin offers it with such a promising ability to create characters who can make highly evocative arguments.

The heated confrontations and nonstop yelling starts early on and never lets up until the play’s final equally predictable scene, making it hard to care much what happens to Pinnacle and Verb. And although Peep is right there to react for us as her collaborators literally get in one another’s faces over and again, she’s never given the tools to step out from behind her equipment—or go beyond Cliff Notes status to make an effective case for the inclusion of female talent in the hip-hop industry. 

Under director Deena Selenow’s leadership and highly kinetic staging, however, perfectly tapping into the Fountain’s usual excellent production values, the LA debut of Hype Man luckily overshadows the play’s inherent limitations. Hancock brings Verb to life with his usual ability to tap into the depths of the character and then add so much of his own humor and personality, while Thibeaux does wonders in her severely underwritten role.

Addison has great instincts and exudes a palpable confidence as Pinnacle, especially in the production’s dynamic knockout musical interludes that, with the help of real-life beatmaker Romero Mosley and sound designer Malik Allen, bring the evening’s most exciting and memorable moments. Still, the actor never seems completely comfortable with the close proximity of the audience in the Fountain’s intimate space and his swaggering, stiff-armed stance and exaggerated chicken-necking ice-ice-baby-ish body language get old fast. 

There’s a hint of intriguing future promise in the work of Idris Goodwin, but unfortunately his Hype Man is only skipping stones over the surface of important issues needing more in-depth and less cookie-cutter scrutiny.

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THE OLD MAN AND THE OLD MOON at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

In a world on the brink of disaster in so many arenas, there’s a reassuring if fleeting bit of respite from global warming and the antics of Traitor Tot currently available to ease the pain at the Wallis: the LA debut of the nomadic PigPen Theatre Company and their magical one-of-a-kind creation The Old Man and the Old Moon.

Featuring an incredibly infectious Pogues-like musical score created by the members of the company themselves performing on Lydia Fine’s sweeping yet roughhewn multilevel playing space, the seven members of PigPen take on multiple characters with an impressively fierce commitment, bringing their delightfully old-fashioned original folk fable to glorious life.

With the aid of flashlights, whimsical backlit shadow puppetry, and clever props made from standard household items—my favorites being a dog puppet fashioned from what looks like old shag carpeting with a water bottle for a snout and fish being pulled from the sea represented by shoe stretchers—The Old Man and the Old Moon is a truly worthy hybrid of the late-great Paul Sills' Story Theatre at its most innovative.

The Old Man (Ryan Melia, who seems to be channeling Dick Van Dyke in his early years) has a vitally important job to do, climbing a ladder to the skies each night to fill the moon with light. When his wife (Alex Falberg) heads out in a small boat to find the origins of a song melody she cannot place, the Old Man follows her literally all around the world, leading him to encounter a myriad of adventures and adventurers along the way while not immediately realizing the repercussions of leaving the moon to go dark and to eventually disappear over the earth.

Under the leadership of Stuart Carden, credited for directing the production along with the members of the company themselves,  the energy and excitement of the tale could not be more electric to observe. In the pivotal and never-offstage title role, Melia has an energy to make anyone watching him exhausted, as do all of his cohorts—particularly Dan Weschler, who seems to be the leader of the musical interludes, and Ben Ferguson, whose understated delivery reveals a perfect sense of comic timing.

Aside from all the other wonders conjured in The Old Man and the Old Moon, the indelible indie-folk musical score composed by the collected members of the obviously multitalented PigPen Theatre Co. (those previously mentioned along with the equally talented Curtis Gillen,  Arya Shahi, and narrator Matt Nuernberger) is alone enough to head to the Wallis for an experience sure to lift the lowest of spirits. I have always wondered how two people can compose music together, but seven? O, to be a fly on the wall during one of their creative sessions.

In the late 60s and early 70s, as Talent Coordinator of the legendary Troubadour folk-rock nightclubs both here and in San Francisco, I would regularly receive about 100 tapes a week (remember tapes?) from some amazingly talented musicians and singer-songwriters who would sell their grandmother for an opportunity to play the club.

What I looked for in those tapes, beyond undeniable musicianship, was something fresh and new and startlingly original that other artists did not communicate in their music. From that resource, as well as our Monday open-mike Hootenannies and traveling about to scout early appearances at McCabe’s, the Lighthouse, and other venues, I helped begin the careers of many, many now world-famous musical superstars.

If the members of the PigPen Theatre had been around way back then, I would have opened the doors for them in any way possible. Now, nearly a half-century later, when all those record company executives I used to alert about some incredible act playing the Troub are either retired or dead, all I can do is tell you to brave the storms and head to the Wallis for The Old Man and the Old Moon;  it will be an evening out I promise you will never regret—or forget.

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CATS at the Pantages Theatre / Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Now returned to LA and the Pantages in yet another national tour, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s groundbreaking musical CATS has been around longer than any of its resident felines’ nine lives.

Opening in London in 1981 and New York the following year, CATS has earned over $350 million in the ensuing years and, before finally shuttering on Broadway in 2000 after nearly 7,500 performances, it reigned as the longest running musical in the history of the Great White Way before another of Lord Andrew’s borrowed literary classics beat it out in 2006 with its own infamous music of the night.

Based on Nobel Prize-winning poet T.S. Eliot’s 1939 Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the composer’s childhood affection for the book led to one of his greatest successes in his long and storied career that, when I was doing press for Toronto’s LiveEnt and his Really Useful Group in 1993, was then reportedly netting him a mere $1.25 million—a week. Of course, that staggering figure has only increased over the past 27 years and I doubt if its recipient, with a reported net worth of $1.04 billion in 2018, is having any trouble paying his bills.

Translated in over 20 languages and playing all over the world in the past four decades, there have been many changes to CATS along the way, including the reinvention and subsequent reinstatement of the character Rum Tum Tugger (notably assayed in the current tour by the dynamic McGee Maddox) from rockstar heartthrob to mild-mannered kitten and back again to stud status, and newly reworked choreography by Hamilton’s three-time Tony recipient Andy Blankenbuehler.

In been lotsa years since I revisited the musical myself and, if I wasn’t sharing my theatrical history with someone who wasn’t even born until 8 years after the show first debuted, I might have passed on it once again. I couldn’t be more pleased I didn’t, as this latest incarnation of this charming old warhorse brings back an energy and excitement that clearly helped the original succeed.

So many similar musicals dragged out on tour only to make a quick buck once again appear tired and tattered and are often performed on visual shorthand, but the ensemble here could not be more committed, particularly in the crispness and precision quality of the show’s pivotal dancing. I suspect the inclusion of Blankenbuehler’s massive talent is the key to this, offering something modern and fresh while paying obvious homage to CATS’ brilliant original choreographer Dame Gillian Lynne, who passed away last year at age 92.

In an era when most grandly-aspected Broadway musicals have been aided immeasurably by the advent of wildly inventive video projections—especially handy when a show hits the road—John Napier’s scenic designs have survived intact, as well as his fanciful and now familiar makeup and costume designs. And without a doubt, Trevor Nunn’s original direction is also honored here, as well as his contributions to the text, including the lyrics to the show’s signature and most enduring song “Memory,” which he based on Eliot’s poem Rhapsody on a Windy Night, the only number in the musical not directly taken from the poet’s original verse.

From the truly exceptional ensemble, Dan Hoy sets the mood perfectly as the Jellicle tribe’s charming alpha male Munkustrap, while Caitlin Bond, so limber she could move from this tour directly into a production by Cirque du Soleil, is a standout from the start as Victoria, the balletic white cat.

In the role made memorable by Sir John Mills in Lord Andrew’s 1998 film version, Timothy Gulan is sweetly endearing as that old yarn-spinner Gus the Theatre Cat as he tells the story of playing the poor doomed plank-walking pirate Growltiger, and Tion Gaston brings the house down in “Magical Mister Mistoffelees,” a number today augmented, albeit unnecessarily, by the inclusion of LED technology.

As Grizabella, the ancient former “glamour cat” whose mortal coil-shuffling ascension up to the Heaviside Layer provides the show’s most poignant moments, Kerr Rene Fuller, as anyone cast in role, has a tough act to follow living in the Gentleman Caller-sized shadow of Elaine Page in the original West End cast and the aforementioned film version and, of course, the legendary Betty Buckley, whose career will always be identified with her indelible Tony-winning starmaking turn on Broadway.

Fuller certainly has the golden pipes anyone needs to deliver the tearjerking “Memory,” but it seems no one will ever surpass Buckley, a one-of-a-kind artist whose incredible acting chops rose above even that goosebump-inducing D-flat major climax—and if you doubt me, simply Google her performance of it on the 1983 Tony telecast. Sorry, Miss Fuller, it’s not you, but as the specter of Buckley lingers on at the Pantages after her recent triumph there in the sparkling national tour of Hello, Dolly!, the comparison is inevitable.

At 72, I rather imagine the current revival of Lord Andrew’s pop phenomenon might prove to be my last time seeing it presented but, if our poor planet manages to survive the attack of the Traitor Tot and his scary band of Republican shapeshifters currently making a stinking mess of our national litterbox (me-ow), I suspect I won’t be the only old duffer in history anxious to introduce the enduring magic of CATS to yet another generation or two. Or nine.

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HIR at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble 

It’s a tough slog for Isaac Connor, a young Marine coming home from the Sand Box, dishonorably discharged after being caught snorting coke up his butthole through a tube. His life is hard enough to maneuver as it is, but in Taylor Mac’s outrageously dark-to-pitchblack comedy Hir, making its LA debut as the first production of the prolific Odyssey’s 50th season, what he finds when he arrives back at his parents’ doublewide in California’s Central Valley is nothing but pure chaos. 

Isaac (Zack Gearing) expected to be greeted with a banner upon his return from three years in a warzone—a banner and cookies, too, maybe—but what he finds instead is that his mother (Cynthia Kania) has given up any conventional attempt at daily life, saying her existence is “all about the metaphor now,” as his sister Maxine has transformed into his brother Max (Puppett), and both of them forgot to tell him his father (Ron Bottitta) had a debilitating stroke the year before that has left him blubbering gibberish and drooling incessantly while plopped in the corner wearing only a woman’s nightgown and make-up that could have been designed for Divine if she’d lived to play the title character in It.  

Mac’s downward spiral of a story not only chronicles a horrifyingly difficult journey for Isaac, but offers a bit of a cultural lesson for all of us as his mother explains, with the welcome visual aid of a homemade chart scribbled on cardboard, all the various gender classifications there are these days beyond simple LGBTQ-ology, which is why Max wants to be referred to as ze rather than he or she and hir instead of him or her.

It’s not easy his mother to explain, especially for someone still so desperately seeking approval for her own transition from dutiful homemaker to rule-defying rebel refusing to eat normal meals, defiantly unwilling to lose the Christmas lights snaking over her kitchen cabinets, or pick up the clothes and debris piled high all over the house looking like a scene from Hoarders most dysfunctional episode. “Max!” she finally yells to the bedroom in frustration. “Get out here and explain your ambiguities to your brother!”  

Poor Isaac is still sufficiently perplexed by it all, seeming to be so distraught he pukes in the kitchen sink every time his mother starts the blender to make his father’s estrogen-laced daily Shaky-Shake—that is until he explains that everyone who worked with him in the Mortuary Affairs division cleaning up body parts vomits a lot. “It’s kinda what we get instead of medals,” he tells his mom with a complacent shrug.  

Isaac tries his best to return the family’s environment back to the home he knew, especially when he realizes his mother is treating his dad like shit intentionally and trying to emasculate him every chance she gets (he sleeps in a cardboard box on the floor) in revenge for what a chauvinistic monster he has been toward her all their lives. That, as well as working overtime trying to accept his new brother, leaves Isaac on the verge of doing something rash.  

Mac’s constant jam of nonstop one-liners are suitably outrageous and hilariously on-track in their assault on the hypocrisy surrounding our treatment of the current administration’s “base” as they shuffle dutifully along in place, as well as the typically ravaged condition of those old-too-young brainwashed drones returning from war, but although his dialogue is richly thought-provoking and often poetic, it must be very difficult to work to make flow.  

Under Bart DeLorenzo’s always delightfully skewed direction, Gearing is wonderfully affective and touching as Isaac, leaping over those verbal traps in Mac’s dialogue that tend to occasionally trip up Kania and Puppett, both of whom on opening night appear to not yet be completely comfortable with the play’s gothic playing style. The scene-stealing Bottitta has an easier time with only grunts and groans and an occasional expletive to spout, allowing him to concentrate at masturbating under his Baby Huey diapers and lurk around in corners seeming to be quite content with his wife’s cruelty and need to humiliate him at any opportunity. 

Still, through the humor and shock value that blasts through Hir at full gallop, what energizes Taylor Mac’s signature vision more than anything else is its blistering indictment of the ways our society has marginalized the folks struggling to navigate and understand our existence in these troubling time, an era when many of us are edging closer and closer to the kitchen sink to cough up all the bile Tweeted by our inglorious “leader” on a daily basis as those around him ignore all the Isaacs trying their damnedest to come home. 

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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.

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BORN TO WIN at the Celebration Theatre

It’s a fight to the finish for four-year-old beauty pageant contestants Chevrolet Corningfield and Puddles Jackson, the perfectly lovely little angels whose mothers Pinky and Marge believe with all their hearts are both Born to Win.

And as the girls push on from one regional contest after another on the way to the cherished Supreme Queen competition, the initially friendly and supportive relationship between the mothers begins to get dangerous—particularly since Chevy has never in all her four years lost a pageant title before and that friggin’ Puddles keeps taking home the gold show after show.

In the LA premiere of Matthew Wilkas and Mark Setlock’s outrageously zany adventure, everything conspires for a great evening out of deliciously decadent diversion. As most of everything mounted at the pint-sized but defiantly scrappy Celebration Theatre, the production values, from Michael Matthews’ clever and visually fearless direction to Stephen Gifford’s minimal yet strikingly whimsical set design and Allison Dillard’s colorful Pee-Wee's Playhouse costuming choices, are top drawer.

As Pinky and Marge, Julianne Chidi Hill and Daiva Deupree, respectively, are perfectly cast as the sparing pageant moms, with Deupree also doing yeoman’s work appearing in flashback as Pinky’s equally driven Norma Desmond of a stage mother—turban and all.

Still, it's that unstoppable uber-campy cult favorite Drew Droege (who played the title character in the Celebration's Die Mommie Die!) and cowriter Wilkas (so memorable last season in The Pride at the Wallis) who steal the show as flaming Texas pageant specialists Bobby and Bob, the gung-ho coaching team ready to transform poor overworked little Puddles into a star with the help of diet pills, glittering sequined gowns, a spray tan potent enough to make her smell like a coconut for a week, and choreography so cutesy (with a nod to Janet Roston) it could make Richard Simmons look like Arthur Murray.

“It’s tough love,” the boys tell the skeptical Marge with their patented sweet smile. “Puddles’ll be better for it.”

With the proprietors of Touch the Sky Finesse Coaching also doing double duty as the ladies’ less-than desirable “better” halves—Droege as Marge’s Buddy, a Duck Dynasty-esque good ol’ boy incarcerated for beating the crap out of her, and Wilkas as Pinky’s adoring wealthy cowboy husband Gunnar, who made his fortune manufacturing toothpicks—the farcical nature of the action, complete with two convenient doors at the rear ready for slamming at a moment’s notice and a multitude of wigs and hats for the performers to switch into between characters, is often pure Marx Brothers.

Still, as promising as all this is, after the first half-hour of thinly-veiled double entendres, breakneck comedic performances, and truly promising situations to explore, the humor gets a little thin. This is perhaps a case of opening night-itis here, especially since the Celebration audiences are a discerning lot and often not an easy bunch to keep entertained.

The spirited laughs and quick-witted one-liners quickly begin to flatten out and, as Born to Win starts to lose a tad of its early mojo, the performers naturally feel the need to compensate for the suddenly less raucous response, working harder than they should have to considering everything Wilkas and Setlock’s smartly dexterous comedy and Matthews’ tongue-in-cheek staging have given them.

Sometimes the cleverness simply stops being clever, such as the delightfully goofy premise that the tiny beauty queens Puddles and Chevrolet are played by childfree pageant gowns directly off the rack that are tossed through doors and around the stage or hugged to their mothers’ bosoms without real live child actors overemoting inside them. Again, it is a great idea and an early treat, especially considering Dillard’s brightly over-the-top child pageantwear one never gets tired of appreciating, but it does get old fast.

One can only throw a dress offstage so many times, even with a line such as, “Chevrolet, go get your American Girl doll—we’re going home,” or squeeze the chiffon tooling tight while earnestly observing that one’s daughter keeps so quiet sometimes it’s like she isn’t even there.  This by no means suggests Born to Win doesn’t have a potentially knockout future ahead; a little more tweaking and it could be the next Ruthless. As for now, however, a rewrite—or at least some judicious pruning—is essential to lift it to the next level.

One idea might be to replace the lifeless clothing and cast willing, dead serious gender-insignificant adults as poor Pud and Chevy, complete with adult-sized versions of the same dresses. And why is it my mind instantly goes to Jacqueline Wright or Jessica Pennington Quinn as Puddles and the Celebration’s own Michael A. Shepperd as Chevrolet? The playwrights wouldn’t even have to write in any lines for the new costars; their presence would surely be enough to hold our attention. Now there’s a twist that I suspect would never get old.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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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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