THE BONEYARD

TRAVIS' REVIEWS:  Spring through Fall 2018 

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Theatre has been a major part of my life since I was old enough to stay still in a darkened auditorium and willing to stand sturdily on a stage bleating loudly about carrots and pertaters where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain. In these past 348 years succumbing to this theatrical addiction of mine, I have attended my share of fine and not-so fine productions of the enduring American classic Long Day's Journey Into Night, for which Eugene O'Neill was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1957.

Although written in 1941 to exorcise some of the lingering personal demons that haunted O'Neill's life because of his majorly fucked-up Irish-American family, he did not want it published or performed for 25 years after he’d shuffled off his mortal coil. His widow Carlotta, however, believed it needed to be shared with the world earlier than that and so, despite his wishes and the disapproval of his representatives, Long Day’s Journey... was published by Yale Press in 1956.

I saw the original New York production starring Fredric March and Florence Eldridge when I was 10 or 11 and, although it took Uta Hagen in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a couple of years later to make my world explode as I began to realize I wanted to be a real actor, not just a cute and excessively prococious kid who earned good money belting out showtunes, I do remember the experience vividly. I have a crystalline memory of production, especially the work of a young unknown named Jason Robards Jr., making his Broadway debut as the Tyrones’ elder son Jamie after gaining attention earlier the same year off-Broadway in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, both productions directed by none other than Jose Quintero.

Through the years, I have seen many James Tyrones whine and rant and compulsively demand everyone turn out the lights in his cramped New London, Connecticut cottage, including the venerable Sir Laurence Olivier, as well as both Stacy Keach and the glorious Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Jamie. Still, it is the transcendent performances of the many world-class celebrities eager to take on the role of James’ drug-addled wife Mary who have lodged themselves firmly in my overcrowded memory-banks forever.

It would be impossible to forget Katherine Hepburn appearing opposite Ralph Richardson in the 1962 film version or the credible but too-classy Deborah Kerr drowning in an interminably flat mounting here at the Ahmanson in 1977 opposite Charlton Heston in a line-challenged performance so wooden one could have knocked on him for good luck. Other heralded Marys past, four of whom I have been fortunate enough to have seen personally, include Zoe Caldwell and Colleen Dewhurst (both opposite Robards in his later years as the senior Tyrone), Geraldine Fitzgerald, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Lange, and my beloved paladin Ruby Dee in the 1982 all-African American TV-movie adaptation.

My favorite Mary of all for many years, however, was a luminous turn by the late Sylvia Sidney passing through Chicago with a repertory company—that is until now. As the American theatre’s most challenging 20th-century anti-heroine, that distinction is now afforded to Lesley Manville, currently gracing the Wallis in a truly stellar transplanted Bristol Old Vic production under the inspired direction of Richard Eyre and featuring her adroitly bouncing off the towering Jeremy Irons as James.

Manville gives the performance of the year—if not the decade—as Mary, mesmerizing her audience with every entrance and making the complex character’s verbose morphine-induced ramblings credible without resorting to most actors’ usual tricks aimed at conveying the outward signs of addiction. Manville turns on a dime depending on Mary’s state of euphoria, morphing from delicate 1912 hothouse flower to Mother Machree to Amanda Winfield to that other infamous New England housewife, Albee’s sad, sad, sad Martha, never for a moment falling into the traps inherent in O’Neill’s tormented memories of the mother he both adored and loathed.

Aside from acing American accents and gracefully gliding over the play’s clunky first act exposition, there is a palpable, jaw-dropping chemistry between Manville and Irons, who also gives a masterful performance as her long-suffering husband. Irons never allows himself to get swallowed up in the character’s bluster but finds a unique, previously hidden heart and an almost sweet tenderness no actor before him has attained. And when James gets nostalgic about his earlier years as a promising young actor before success reduced him into what he fears is something of a joke, the 69-year-old Irons suddenly become a passionate, hopeful 20-year-old right before our very eyes. He exudes a wonderful childlike quality in James’ most sincere and evocative monologue, only deflating back to approaching 70 as he concludes with the realization that “only the past, when you were happy, is real.”

Rory Keenan has moments as their drunken and desperately unhappy son Jamie, but he is overshadowed by the work of Manville, Irons, and Matthew Beard as the Tyrone’s consumptive younger son Edmund, the autobiographical role into which the playwright poured his heart yet left his “observer” clearly underwritten. This is the play’s toughest character to assay but Beard gamely holds his own against his world-class costars. I can truly say, however, although I have been impressed with many Jamies through the years, no one ever came close to the memory of Bradford Dillman in the play’s Broadway debut some 60-plus years ago—I only wish I had seen Alan Bates make his mark as Edmund in the original West End production in 1958.

Of course, when O’Neill’s suppressed masterpiece surfaced 72 years ago, Long Day’s Journey… was a perfect candidate for the Pulitzer, which honors distinctive American art and journalism as it reflects our culture and chronicles the social conditions in which we live. Running almost three-and-a-half hours as the Tyrones explain their heartsicknesses, confess their sins, and continuously attack one another, sometimes with some modicum of love, sometimes not, from the beginning one gets the sense that no matter how this family tries to understand and lift one another up, in O’Neill’s world it was never going to happen.

While Mary Tyrone mourns never having a “real home” and living her life spent alone in second-rate hotel rooms as her frugal husband travels in his own theatre company, the progressively-more alienated character of Edmund begins his own personal journey into lifelong depression and addiction. The spectre of the playwright himself, who died of complications of alcoholism and Parkinson’s disease in a Boston hotel in 1953, looms large in his most autobiographical work, reminding me of the pessimism that haunted the great writer’s life and ended it with his last dying grumble: “I knew it… I knew it… Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.”

It’s a bleak and haunted world O’Neill recalls here and, something akin to our current national dilemma, there doesn’t seem to be a glimmer of hope to glean from the story of the desperate Tyrones, not a spark of resolution nor a hint of a happy ending even for the most ardent pollyanna. It’s not difficult to find oneself getting pulled into the vortex of the family’s despair, especially since the play’s exhaustive running time makes it quite a task for any director and cast to keep the material from getting stagnant and, often, well…boring—especially when as actor as dreary as Moses the Stoneface is miscast in the role of James Tyrone.

Luckily, this revival not only has Irons and Manville, it has Eyre in charge, who has done a remarkable job choreographing the movements of the Tyrones on a playing space as deep and wide as the Wallis mainstage. Never are the far sides of the stage or the far upstage entrance ignored, yet the modest summer home feels as cramped and intimate as the O’Neill’s real-life Monte Cristo Cottage in New London. And never does Eyre’s subtle and crafty staging seem contrived, something complimented by Rob Howell’s amazing set, which evokes an omnipresent, lavender-scented old-timeliness and sleek industrial modernity at the same time.

Add in Peter Mumford’s moody lighting, a redolent sound plot by John Leonard featuring plaintive foghorns and the diminishing cawing of seagulls flying away when the family’s maid Cathleen shouts out the cottage door (a charming cameo by Jessica Regan proving that old agade about “no small parts”), and ultimately it would be hard to feel your relatively short stay as a fly on the wall of the Tyrone’s unsettled home had been too long. One might only wish someone would have been around to help the cast adjust to the accoustics in the Wallis’ 500-seat Goldsmith Theatre, which was designed in 2013 to make it so that actors did not have to belt their lines as though they were trying to reach the back rows at Stratford.

As dismal and disheartening as Long Day’s Journey Into Night can often be, something overshadowed by the sheer power of this production and performances, there is still much to reap from the genius of O’Neill’s tormented family life so bravely conjured here. “The past is not just the past,” James tells his troubled son. “It is also the present. And the future. And we can’t lie ourselves out of that.” Would that the voters of America might benefit from that lesson come November and in 2020 but I, like Eugene O’Neill, have purdy much given up on humanity.

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HEAD OVER HEELS at the Curran Theatre, San Francisco

Set to premiere in New York at the Hudson Theatre on July 26, the much-anticipated pre-Broadway tryout of Jeff Whitty’s unique but risky musical Head Over Heels at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, featuring a score honoring the classic punk-pop standards of the Go-Go’s, proved itself to be not at all what might be expected.

Considering my well-known predilection to brake for anything emanating from the traditionally sugar-soaked American songbook weighed down by corn as high as an elephant’s eye and real good clambakes, in my twilight years it seems I am only able to stomach musicals focusing on mothers addicted to psychotropics, grinding people into meat pies, celebrating sweet transvestites, or dealing with an entire town’s citizenry not being allowed to pee.

Keeping this in mind, I faced Head Over Heels with more than a little trepidation. O, Great and Good Terpsichore, was I pleasantly surprised. How many people besides director Michael Mayer could stage a chorusline of performers in full Elizabethan finery doing the Cool Jerk and make it work? I tell ya, these magical folks certainly got the beat.

Sir Philip Sidney’s great work of prose, The Arcadia, was first published in 1585 and through the centuries, it has been rewritten and reinterpreted several times. Jeff Whitty (Tony winner for Avenue Q) conceived and wrote the original book for this musical, which was then adapted by James Magruder as a celebration of the music of those groundbreaking punk-rock icons Charlotte Caffey, Belinda Carlisle, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, and Jane Wiedlin.

In Sir Philip’s original tale, Basilus, the Duke of a fictional Grecian kingdom called Arcadia, journeys to see the Oracle at Delphos and receives the bleak prediction that his daughters will be stolen by undesirable suitors, he will be cuckolded by his wife, and his throne will be usurped by a foreign state. Hoping to preempt this fate, Basilius entrusts the Arcadian government to his second in command and retires to a pastoral lodge with his wife, Gynecia and their daughters, Pamela and Philoclea.

Along the way there’s a plethora of mistaken identity and those typical mournful wails issuing from three sets of unrequited Shakespearean-like lovers all told in verse and iambic pentameter, something which, in less talented hands, could have resulted in a confused mash-up of Pippin and Twelfth Night.  It’s always puzzling in such tales how few people are able to recognize their potential or even current beloveds when all the person does is don clothes of the opposite sex, but that seems to be just part of the genre—or maybe it was just harder to test for 20/20 vision until after the Renaissance. Either way, we are asked to suspend all belief in such epics if we want to hear the story told.

In this adaptation, which debuted in the summer of 2016 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, instead of going into hiding Basilus (Jeremy Kushnier) takes all the citizens of his community on the road with him, the Oracle telling him if he loses his throne, his subjects will also lose their… guess what? Yup. That. And after the massive opening number featuring the Go-Go’s most popular hit tune, seeing these gifted Arcadians unable to access their beloved beat would be tragic for everyone on both sides of the footlights. 

This clever communal trek through Julian Crouch’s gloriously detailed ever-changing pastoral and palatial sets offers a perfect opportunity to feature an all-singing, all-dancing ensemble of loyal subjects conveniently ready to go along for the ride—and these particular chorusmembers are more than able to ace the wonderfully spirited and brazenly athletic choreography created by Spencer Liff.

Of course, the borrowed plot here still borders on the terminally sappy, just as thin and predictable as anyone might expect, but what has been built from the fanciful premise is genius. Magruder’s dialogue makes wonderful tongue-in-cheek fun of the limitations inherent in its own reliance on verse and the direction by Mayer, the guy who breathed glorious life into Spring Awakening, American Idiot, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is stunningly brilliant throughout.

His cast is also worthy of the task, especially Bonnie Milligan as the plus-size Princess Pamela, who seems to have conked her head on an exercise machine ala Amy Schumer to find a pleasing image smiling back at her in her looking glass, and Broadway legend Rachel York as her mother Gynecia, who has a chance to do some impressive Joplin-tinged rockin’ out of her own before the final curtain.

Alexandra Socha steps out from Philoclea’s quiet shadow in the more obscure Go-Go's ballad “Here You Are” and, as her love interest Musidorus, Andrew Durand, with a Chaplin-esque comic timing and the voice of an angel (especially in “Mad About You,” his lovely love song to Socha), handily steals the show when his lowly mooning shepherd boy dons Wonder Women gear to disguise himself as a warrior amazon to protect the caravan and be close to his beloved.   

In another brazen twist, the Oracle of Delphos, here known as Pythio, is played by Peppermint, a well-known non-binary contestant in the 9th season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Although the songstress is not the most polished actor in the stellar ensemble, this casting is more than a clever stunt, offering a glamourous rush of personality and attitude that easily makes up for any line-reading deficiency.

As much as there is to mention here, including Arianne Phillips’ Cirque du Soleil-inspired costuming shimmering in Kevin Adams’ gorgeous lighting and a knockout all-female band led by musical director Kimberly Grigsby, the true wonder of Head Over Heels is in its message. With a not-too thinly-veiled reference or two to the “huuuuuge” abuse of power practiced by an out-of-step leader that can bring down a kingdom, Magruder’s script takes on a new wave of sexual identity issues sandwiched between its wink-wink-nudge-nudge Midsummer Night’s Dream-y slapstick humor.

Musidorus seems to enjoy his crossdressing idylls a little too much, while Pythio, who insists on being referred to as “they” by his subjects, has some gender-bending surprises of her own. And although wearily searching throughout for her prince charming, as Pamela composes a poem detailing her quest for perfection she is puzzled trying to conjure words to rhyme with “wit,” “China,” and “runt,” eventually leading to find her true love with her handmaiden Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones, who also serves as the story’s incredulous narrator).

Nope, my lips simply cannot be sealed. Whomever thought of melding The Arcadia and its Olde Worldly setting with the still joyous and highly infectious 1980s music of the Go-Go’s should get special commendation. It is, pure and simple, a match made in theatrical heaven.

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YELLOW FACE at Beverly Hills Playhouse

Remounted from its award-winning 2016 run at San Francisco’s Firescape Theatre, director Robert Zimmerman’s barebones recreation of David Henry Hwang’s 2007 Obie-winning Pulitzer Prize candidate Yellow Face is a welcome traveler this season to the usually more diverse Los Angeles cultural scene.

Premiering here at the Mark Taper Forum 11 years ago, Yellow Face proved Hwang has no filter when it comes to throwing himself under that proverbial bus—something continuing to this day with his brilliant new musical Soft Power, which debuted at the Ahmanson several months ago before making the Hwang loop to the Firescape’s hometown, that equally diverse City by the Bay.

“No one uses their real name,” Yellow Face leading character DHH notes with indignation, fuming at the bizarre notion that he write himself in as a character in his own play. “It’s self-indulgent.” DHH, of course, are the initials of Hwang and, as in Soft Power (featuring a future-classic score by Jeanine Tesori and now sniffing out a Broadway run), the playwright is not only depicted onstage as a central figure in the tale, but is presented as an egotistical, deeply flawed individual struggling mightily to find his own identity.

Hwang’s two-act no-holds-barred confession deals with the author’s own legendary faux pas when, in the early ‘90s and directly after making worldwide news by passionately protesting the casting of Jonathan Pryce to reprise his West End turn as an Eurasian in the Broadway run of Miss Saigon, he accidentally casts a Caucasian actor in the lead of his new play.

Rubbing salt into the rawness of Hwang’s wounds was the theme of the play itself, since the point of Face Value was to skewer the concept of white actors in “yellow face” always getting hired, like Mickey Rooney as that infamous buck-teethed racial cartoon Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or casting David Carradine over Bruce Lee as Kwai Chang Caine in TV’s Kung Fu series. The play, following Hwang’s soaring acclaim after winning the Tony and many other honors for his 1988 blockbuster M. Butterfly, was a disaster, lasting on Broadway for only 10 performances.

Jeffrey Sun gives a tour de force performance as DHH, seamlessly finding the man’s humanity and exposing his shortcomings with equal alacrity and, even though the actor is required to never sit out even one scene, never once does Sun lose touch with the honesty, intelligence, or most importantly Hwang’s self-deprecating sense of humor.

He is a perfect foil for the work of Roman Moretti as DHH’s nemesis Marcus Gee, the non-Asian actor fired from Face Value who then continues to falsely sell himself as a “Siberian Jewish” Eurasian—a quick fib conjured by Hwang himself while trying to save his own ass after he’s realized his casting nightmare. Gee propels that negative experience into a successful career touring the world in the lead role in The King and I—and I don’t mean playing the I—much to the consternation of Hwang, who feels he has created a monster by breathing life into this “ethnic tourist” who shows up wherever he goes just to drive him crazy.

Although slightly raw around the edges, Moretti is a wonderful new talent who could enjoy a major career as soon as he learns to trust his instincts and not feel the need to show us his character’s emotional state when everything is already right there in the words. We get it, see; Hwang’s dialogue is rich, evocative, and exceedingly clever without any actor having to work so hard to deliver it.

This tendency to overexplain is true in the work of most of Yellow Face’s supporting players even though, when one gets used to the playing style, it can still be said they all do an exceptional job instantly transforming from one character to the next as they step into the action from the simple row of wooden chairs comprising their playing space

Dennis Nollette is a standout as producer Stuart Ostrow and others, particularly offering a knockout imitation of Frank Rich, while both Jennifer Vo Le and Lisagaye Tomlinson do a yoeman’s job bringing every rather underwritten woman in DHH’s life to fruition. Vo Le is especially heartrending as the writer’s ex Leah Anne, while Tomlinson has great wicked fun assaying the role of a flirtatious Jane Krakowski.

As Hwang’s bigger-than-life banker father, Alfonso Faustino has some touching moments but his performance throughout is the most indulgent—something that could easily be perfected by the actor not overconfidently taking centerstage to deliver almost every line of every character directly out front to the audience as though suddenly performing in his own one-man show.

For most of the performance, John Pendergast has little to do, standing on the sidelines at a lectern announcing the play’s place and time, but in Act Two he comes into his own as a real life reporter whose name is continually replaced by an inserted audio tape of him saying “Name Withheld On Advice of Counsel.” Although an 11th hour scene depicting an interview between Hwang and NWOAOC is one of the most direct and real moments in the play, someone should definitely help both Pendergast and Moretti adjust their booming vocal projection to better relate to the size of the intimate Beverly Hills Playhouse.

Zimmerman does a masterful job navigating the action around the restrictive playing style without detracting from the storyline, the inventiveness of his staging actually adding to the magic of the theatrical experience. Still, it is the rule-defying work of David Henry Hwang, a guy who obviously never feels the need to color inside the lines, that emerges as the most memorable aspect of Yellow Face.

Until the final moments when a major twist is revealed, this particular reviewer, who also teaches History of 20th-century Theatre for a living, couldn’t wait for final curtain to Google an important aspect of the story I didn’t already know and was causing my poor ol’ used-and-abused brain to explode with frustration.

Dirty trick, Mr. Hwang; you and your friend Marcus Gee got me good.

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CABARET at the Celebration Theatre

I’m not sure the number of times the groundbreaking 1966 musical Cabaret has been remounted in the world since its Broadway debut 46 years ago, but I would suspect it might surpass most other candidates for Ripley status.

My own affection for the story goes back to my early teens, about the time when I started discovering writers who made my head explode, forever changing my life and sparking my understanding of my place in the world. I dived voraciously into works by Jack Kerouac, Tennessee Williams, Jean Genet, James Baldwin, Ayn Rand (sorry), William F. Burroughs, and especially Christopher Isherwood, whose 1939 highly personal novella Goodbye to Berlin, part of The Berlin Stories, was subsequently the basis for John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera and, ultimately, for Cabaret.

Full disclosure here: I have always loved the notoriously juicy Kander and Ebb score, yet have also harbored a frustrating underlying disappointment in Joe Masterhoff’s musical adaptation. Under the gloriously rich and clever leadership of director Michael Matthews, however, the Celebration Theatre’s brand new mounting of Cabaret is gorgeously fresh and suitably decedent.

Stephen Gifford’s intimate set design recreates an environmental version of the Kit Kat Club at the pintsized Lex, complete with crystal chandeliers sparkling over the heads of the audience and gilt mirrors and sexy renaissance paintings festooned to the walls. The minute one enters the theatre, we are transported back to 1929 Berlin, where dancers languish in sexy poses in Michael Mullen’s glittery period finery around the stage and a handful of lucky patrons sit at café tables being served by the ensemble while Matthew Brian Denman’s strident and moody lighting plot is accentuated by strings of arcing carnival lights.

The production’s single playing space transforms from the club into the train station where Cliff prophetically first meets his nemesis Ernst, and then morphs into the parlor of Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house with little set changes beyond lighting and sound cues. The dramatic scenes unfold in this shared area, although it’s always exciting to return periodically to the Kit Kat, where the grandly sensuous production numbers choreographed by Janet Roston are the true wonder of this excellent and surprisingly fresh revival.

As the Emcee, Alex Nee is near-perfect as he leads the club’s world-weary performers in some of the best renditions of Cabaret’s infectious ensemble spectacles with consummate skill and just enough gravel in his voice to make his turn in the familiar role truly unique. Talisa Friedman seems not completely comfortable yet allowing herself to totally inhabit the skin of the multi-faceted Sally, but if her rendition of “Maybe This Time” is any indication, I’m quite sure she’s gonna find her sea-legs purdy durn quick as she lives with this hauntingly complex character 24/7 over the coming weeks.

June Carryl is a rock as Fraulein Schneider, delivering the landlady’s two showstopping but thematically diverse ballads, “So What?” and “What Would You Do?”, with phenomenal success. Her scenes with Matthew Henerson as poor doomed Herr Schultz are also golden, but whenever Friedman or any of these other characters have to interact with Christopher Maikish as Cliff, the production flatlines. There’s little chemistry between his Cliff and her Sally, and even less with Tanner Rampton as Bobby, Cliff’s former paramour whose presence makes the guy run to Sally despite the odds.

John Colella has some promising moments as Ernst, but mining a bit deeper into the divide between the man’s friendly demeanor when meeting Cliff and the later reality of what his character represents could be accentuated. It’s fun to see the rather pregnant Katherine Tokarz pose suggestively around her baby-bump as the usually more licentious and intemperate Fraulein Kost, and although she could use a little help with her makeup to keep her from looking so well-scrubbed and healthy, her comedic delivery shines.

The highlight of this Cabaret is the commitment and talent of the out-there eclectic ensemble Matthews has guided to enormous success despite consisting of only six dancers. Although it’s clear this gamely willing team could make the MeToo movement look as though it has failed miserably, it’s a treat whenever Rampton, Jasmine Ejan, Tristan McIntyre, Sarah Mullis, Nicole Stouffer, and Mary Ann Welshans take the stage. None of this could have worked in this limited playing space without the extraordinary vision of this director and his equally extraordinary choreographer, who seems to have a knack for creating vertical movements rather than cramping her dancers' mobility.

Now, my personal druthers. Although I have never performed in a production of the musical myself, I did play the Clifford Bradshaw character, actually still named Christopher Isherwood in Van Druten’s script, about 40 years ago in I Am a Camera opposite two sorely-missed actors, Eileen Brennan as Sally Bowles and Frances Bay as Frau Schneider. Never a big success, the original Broadway production made a star of Julie Harris as Sally yet is most famous for a quote from Walter Kerr’s original review in the New York Times: “Me no Leica.”

I have always preferred the play over the musical, which somehow misses the point of Sally Bowles. I do understand why many people had trouble, when I Am a Camera first debuted in 1951, buying that anyone as outrageously nuts as Sally could really have existed. Obviously, they didn’t grow up in the theatre.

Still, nestled in the nurturing wings of Chris himself and his beloved Don in my early 20s when I first escaped to LA, the great yet most accessible writer assured me his account of Berlin in the Weimar era and the ominous impending disaster soon-to-be inflicted upon Germany and Europe by the Nazi regime was real. And, he assured me, Sally was as just as real as she was bigger than life.

Although Cabaret loudly trumpets the behavior of Sally, making her the wild character we all love, a passage from the original story has always stayed with me: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Yet the reality of Sally, to me, goes far beyond her conduct. In the novella and the play, she is the broadly-sketched embodiment of what hampers the lives of so many people who spend their entire lives continuously trying to be what they think other people believe them to be rather than living for who they are. Ayn Rand (sorry again) called it “Living as second-handers.”

Perhaps if the inherent darkness that overtakes Cabaret still included that warning, something that shows us how easily we as ordinary decent conformist-by-nature citizens can suddenly find ourselves joining Ernst and Kost at the end of Act One for a rousing though chilling march-tempo encore of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” maybe the musical would be even more brilliant—and cautionary—than it already is.

As Schultz tells Cliff during what will surely be his last goodbye, “Mazel—it’s what we all need.” With the world in urgent risk of crumbling around us at the hands of another insane monster bizarrely granted carte blanche to facilitate our inhumane downfall, more than any time before in my long lifetime, I can only hope it’s not already too late to fight the darkness that could smother us all once again like an evil enveloping shroud.

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JEWS, CHRISTIANS AND SCREWING STALIN at the Matrix Theatre

Well, the title is provocative, the premise heralds something special, and personally I’d love to sit around the living room listening to cowriter/director Mark Lonow reminiscing about growing up in his eccentric Trotskyite grandparents’ home in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 60s. Unfortunately, that pedigree and promise does not add up to a successful transformation to the stage in Lonow and wife Jo Anne Astrow’s Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin, now world premiering at the Matrix.

It’s not difficult to see the affection Lonow has for his transplanted Russian zeyde and bobe, the former already dead but joining his family onstage to narrate the story, the other still glancing at the heavens to evoke his name or declare an occasional “Oy” as she continues to command the family’s Brighton Beach boardinghouse with an iron fist and inedible meals.

The problem is, the highly traditional Murray Grazonsky (John Pleshette) didn’t will the property to his hard-working wife Minka (Cathy Ladman); he instead followed his culture’s lead to leave the house to his LA actor-hopeful grandson Joey (Hunter Milano) rather than someone of the fairer sex. And so when Joey—sorry, Bubby, Joseph—arrives to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with his surprise shiksa fiancée Caitlin (Sammi-Jack Martincak) at his side, the fear is his ice-queen grandmother will freak, possibly in Lizzie Bordenish fashion. Not only is Caitlin half-Irish, you see, she’s also half-German, a fact that causes Minka to react like a leftist Pavlov’s dog by raising her highly convenient butcher knife to ominous heights.

Of course Minka has a surprise for her grandson as well, having also invited his estranged and long-absent loser of a dad (Travis York), a guy who can easily still chip the ice off his mother even as he is begging for a loan of $10,000 to put into his latest scheme and keep The Boys from breaking his legs, all the while downing his sorrows in a massive amount of her well-stocked bar of alcoholic beverages.

Pleshette begins the performance from his spot in purgatory, promising the audience that this will be a light comedy with no McCarthy hearings, no Holocaust, no heartache—amending that with “Well, maybe a little heartache.” As always, Pleshette works wonders with his sorely underwritten character as he continues throughout to appear occasionally to comment on the story’s developments with yet another exotic umbrella-adorned cocktail in hand, surely another indulgent nod to the drinking habits of Lonow’s own grandfather.

As the play continues, however, the ghost of his beloved Zeyde has less and less to do and makes even less comment concerning the unfolding drama as the family’s dilemmas unfold. And although Lonow and Astrow’s band of supporting characters are all fun to meet, none of them is blessed with much of a character arc. Without much difficulty, Caitlin wins over her future bubby-in-law, who even confesses to her that she once schtupped Stalin and most of the Russian army disposing the czar before fleeing to America, Joey suddenly gives up half of his inheritance—possibly bolstered by getting a role on an episode of Ironside—and his dad agrees to stop drinking without so much as a blink of the eye or a pledge to ol' Bill W.

Even the presumably inexplicable reason York’s character weaves in and out a Southern accent is dealt with in Act Two by having someone simply say he “just does that sometimes,” making one wonder if that was a quick fix by the authors backstage during intermission on opening night, another tool to wrap things up with a bright but way-too enormous bow.

Along the way, we are also introduced to several of the boardinghouse’s bizarrely eclectic roomers, including the nosy Lillie Feinstein (Laura Julian), who periodically sweeps in from her room dressed as various movie stars to spill her latest overheard family secret; the stooped-over Mr. Goldman (Marty Ross), who can only see the floor in his ancient gaze, causing the others gathered to bend over to speak with him the one time he appears onstage; and Miss Koppelson (Sally Schaub), who in her only appearance crosses from the front door to her upstairs room loudly passing gas like a guard dog in a baked bean factory.

Yup, the story is interesting, but the play is not. It’s obvious Feinstein, Goldman, and Koppelson are probably based on real boarders at the home of Lonow’s grandparents when he was a kid, but as arbitrarily added to this play and with little to do but wait in the dressing room for curtaincall after their brief time onstage, one must wonder what made them give up their fall evenings to be a part of this tremendous waste of time and talent.

There’s humor, yes, but not much of it is worth sharing, especially when the playwrights resort to a plethora of unfunny jokes about farts, Feinstein’s vocal sucking in of snot, Koppelman’s bowel issues, Minka's youthful sexual randiness, and the Milton Berle-esque dimensions of Murray Grazonsky’s massive schlong. And considering the continuous name-dropping about fading icons from Harpo Marx and Maureen O’Sullivan to Margaret Hamilton, one would have to be the age of most of the firstnighters recruited for the opening night performance of Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin, all of whom seemed to know the authors and one another and were ready to laugh it up for those reviewers present, to make this work.

It didn’t work.

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MARIAN, OR THE TRUE TALE OF ROBIN HOOD at Theatre of NOTE

Specializing in premiering wildly off-centered original theatrical delights, almost everything presented by the prolific and courageous Theatre of NOTE in its 37-year history is worthy of praise. NOTE has tackled some of the most fascinating new material in the annals of the scrappy El Lay intimate theatre community, instantly making the promise of Adam Szymkowicz’ outrageous Marian, Or the True Tale of Robin Hood a given.

Szymkowicz’ retelling of the familiar classic tale, featuring a distinct twist of repressed sexual curiosity and rampant genderbending happening in and around that infamous Forest of Sherwood, is a perfect concept for our times—and what should have been the quintessential project for this particular company to take on. Unfortunately, the writer’s clever barrage of cultural slings and arrows nearly miss their targets entirely in this mounting, stumbling clumsily under the bewildering directorial choices of Christopher Johnson.

From first entering the theatre, with the spirited residents of Nottingham joined together to sing ancient folksongs and greet patrons in rhyming couplets as they locate their seats, bad decision making runs rampant. The musical prologue would have been a fine idea if perhaps it had been a tad more rehearsed; as is, after silencing the audience with their attention-grabbing antics, there are uncomfortable sections of nothingness where all the castmembers do is converse quietly with one another in small groups while those gathered to watch wait for something to happen.

As is usual for NOTE, the ensemble is golden, especially the performance of the indominable Kirsten Vangsness in the title role—er, roles, as Mr. Hood is indeed Marian in disguise in this version—and Joel Sher as a bejeweled Paul Lyndian Prince John, who can’t keep from screaming out the name of his exiled brother Richard whenever he releases his royal seed into the honeypot his favorite court concubine.

Szymkowicz’ script might be better than it comes off here, but what he has to say is so buried in the bizarrely misfired staging by Johnson that it’s hard to tell. Written almost like a screenplay, with the action flashing from one multi-gendered couple falling in love to another in short filmic takes, these pairings could have been staged with much smoother transitions, melded from one to the next with theatrical fluidity rather than having one set of characters leave the stage totally empty for an extended period of time after they rush off to copulate and before the next couple wanders on and into place to deliver their lines.

There are also many, many stage fights and battles staged by Jen Albert, all of which also look like great fun to perform but less fun to watch. Not only does the sparring go on too long and happen too often, Albert’s suitably impressive and scrappy choreography was not quite ready for an audience, it seemed on opening night, with too many stumbles and awkwardly under-rehearsed moments that made patrons sitting in the proximity of the action in NOTE’s tightly-intimate first row cringe and duck whenever the swords and staffs came dangerously close to their heads. Personally, I would have been gone—but then, if anyone onstage was able to foresee the future and visualize this review, perhaps I wouldn’t have had time to break that ol’ proverbial fourth wall and rush for the exit.

Despite the fact that everyone involved in this production oozes with talent and energy, Marian, Or the True Tale of Robin Hood has a palpable ungainly and graceless air of let’s-find-us-a-barn-and-put-on-a-show-itis. That surely can be forgiven but not overlooked considering NOTE’s body of work, but it is surprising to discover even the amazing artists who support and stay so fiercely loyal to Theatre of NOTE are human, too. Hopefully next time, all those missed-shot arrows will find their mark once again.

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WAITRESS at the Pantages Theatre

As someone who has whined incessantly through the years about how much he hates to sit through most sappy-gooey apple-pie A’murkin musical theatre offerings, Jessie Nelson and Sara Bareilles’ Waitress, currently filling the Pantages with their brightly slick and surprisingly fresh national tour, presents quite a conundrum.

See, you can’t get too much more apple-pie sappy than this, actually set in a friggin’ pie shop located deep in the twangiestly twangy and most terminally rural backwoods of the A’murkin South. Why, even the theatre itself smells of tantalizing baked goods as still-warm mini-pies are sold in the lobby. Never let it be said that Barry and Fran Weissler ever missed an opportunity for a little extra judicious marketing.

Our heroine Jenna (Desi Oakley) is a hard-working waitress who, when not serving customers in her literally blue-collared frock worn throughout the show, toils away making pies from morning to night in the kitchen at Joe’s Diner—pies so good she is encouraged wherever she turns to enter a big national pie-baking contest offering enough of a payout to be able to leave her abusive loudmouthed husband Earl (Nick Bailey) once and for all.

Jenna dreams of a better life and, luckily for her, she gets to dream lost in Bareilles’ lovely landmark score. A little Carole King, a little Roberta Flack, and a lot Dolly Parton, the six-time Grammy nominated singer-songwriter makes an auspicious debut here as a Broadway composer with a rich, evocatively ballad-heavy folk-rock score that is the real star of the musical.

Based on the late Adrienne Shelly’s 2006 indie classic film of the same name, bookwriter Jessie Nelson finds the heart of the original story as she gently guides us to understand the plight of someone like Jenna, stuck in the mud in a nowhere town, in a nowhere job, and in a nowhere marriage—something exacerbated early on when she abandons her tables to pee on a stick in Joe’s restroom and realizes she’s now stuck even deeper in the muck of ya’ll-ain’t-goin’-nowheres-ness.

Under the fluid, incredibly free and inventive direction of Diane Paulus, Oakley is a star in the making, somehow reminiscent of Betty Hutton and Ann Sothern rolled into one and possessed of a voice loaded with confidence and ‘bout the size of all outdoors. This is especially evident in Act Two when Jenna steps out of the action to deliver the musical’s show-stopping solo “She Used to Be Mine,” destined to be the “I Am What I Am” or “I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” of Bareilles’ first musical.

Thanks to the generosity of the composer and Nelson, most of the principal characters get their own turn in the spotlight, including Lenne Klingaman and Charity Angel Dawson as Jenna’s stalwart friends and equally-frustrated coworkers Dawn and Becky, both of whom knock their big production numbers “When He Sees Me” and “I Didn’t Plan It,” respectively, right out onto Hollywood Blvd.

In our easily compromised #MeToo era of entertainment, the men still fare well too, including Bailey, who contritely mouths “I’m sorry” at curtaincall, as Jenna’s obnoxious husband-from-hell Earl; Bryan Fenkart as Dr. Pomatter, her married gynecologist who quickly abandons professional restraint to give his patient a lot more than a clinical examination; Jeremy Morse as Dawn’s online-conjured intended and the show’s resident Red Skelton-clone Ogie; and Ryan G. Dunkin as the perpetually put-upon bear of a shortorder cook Cal.

Perhaps the most indelible supporting turn comes from Larry Marshall as Joe, the diner’s curmudgeonly but lovably randy owner, who shuffles in each day for breakfast and befriends Jenna when she needs someone on her side more than ever before. His obligatory ballad “Take It From an Old Man” is the most sweetly poignant geriatrically-delivered number in musical theatre history since Arvide Abernathy first serenaded his granddaughter at the ol’ Save-a-Soul Mission almost seven decades ago.

Having not seen the film version, I can’t help wondering if the characters in Shelly’s movie were quite as broadly-drawn as they are in Nelson’s stage adaptation. Jenna emerges as the one person in Waitress who isn’t a clear and somewhat cartoonish stereotype, although the antics of the people in her life—especially the equally awkward and deliciously quirky Dawn, Dr. Pomatter, and Ogie—are almost necessary to keep things from getting too Les Miz in the middle of Meredith Willsonland.

I did find it interesting to see Waitress wasn’t more unsettling to others who have led a less adventurous and more traditionally judgmental life than I, since the script makes the adulterous relationships of two pairs of couples so easily forgiven. Usually when people in such tales stray, they must eventually be punished rather than become as unrepentant and ultimately identifiable to others as are Jenna and her erring gynecologist, something echoed in the dalliances of the also-married Becky and Cal, who copulate noisily amongst the pots and pans and all those juicy fresh pies in the diner’s kitchen.

Nonetheless, I adored Waitress and, thanks to Shelly, Nelson, and particularly the uber-talented Barreilles, I left the Pantages for once in a long time without the weight of the world and the antics of our Celebrity Appresident ruining my mood for at least a couple of hours—not an easy task these days. If only life in 2018 A’murka ended up as apple-pie simple and easily resolved as it is here for Jenna, I might be able to believe in the decision-making abilities of so many of my fellow members of our conflicted species once again.

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BEETHOVEN at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

It was nearly two decades ago when I first saw the world premiere of Hershey Felder’s George Gershwin Alone, the pianist-actor-playwright-composer-producer-director’s first groundbreaking creation in his “Composer Sonata” series of one-man shows. I was instantly swept into Felderfan-itis that night as the immensely talented sextet-threat took to the stage of the Geffen Playhouse to tell the story of the greatest American composer’s life as no one had ever attempted before.

Aside from successfully donning the skin of Gershwin in a script he himself penned after exhaustive research, when Felder sat down at the bench in front of the man’s own personal Steinway (the same bench where I used sit and contemplate in awe while waiting for Rosemary Clooney, who bought Gershwin’s house and lived in it until her death, to be ready to leave for some event) and launched into a breathtaking rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue” in its complete nearly nine-minute splendor, I was hooked for life.

Since that first introduction to the wonder of Hershey Felder, an event which went from little old El Lay to New York and has since been performed to great acclaim all over the world, he has loyally returned to our much-maligned reclaimed desert climes again and again through the years to bring us his signature tales of some of the world’s greatest musical geniuses, again successfully donning the skins of such notables as Fryderyk Chopin, Franz Liszt, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and even Abraham Lincoln in an odd little side journey accompanied by the music that influenced 16th’s life and the times in which he lived.

Now Felder returns to us once again with Beethoven, his second-to-last (he says) presentation based on Aus dem Schwarzspanierhaus, the memoir of the great Ludwig V’s lifelong admirer Gerhard von Breuning, a Viennese doctor who had spent his boyhood at the eccentric man’s side as the son of his best friend. Beginning at the Maestro’s graveside, Felder as von Breuning pleads to the Viennese council to not intur Beethoven’s remains but keep them housed aboveground as he had wished, anxious to keep what was left of him around to aid future researchers more able to explain what caused his debilitating deafness.

Still, although Felder mostly plays von Bruning and other figures in the story and only transforms into Beethoven in brief sections, as an actor he is mesmerizing. Under the eagle eye of director and frequent collaborator Joel Zwick, he slips from one character to the next with lightning speed, especially amazing when he sits down to play one of those famous compositions and his whole visage alters and ages—or visa-versa—before our very eyes depending on the era in which the piece was written and the emotional rollercoaster ride that was the man's existence.

Over the course of the too-quick 90-minute show, we are treated to Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto,” his 5th and 9th Symphonies, several keyboard sonatas, and some of the man’s most enduring chamber music offerings. And as Felder plays the inevitable “Quasi una fantasia,” the Piano Sonata #14 in C-flat minor completed in 1801 and dedicated to his pupil Countess Giulietta Guicciadi, as the composer Felder complains how much he didn’t care for its fame—especially since the Countess subsequently disavowed even remembering who he was and exascerbated when one rather pretentious critic wrote, “One can see the moonlight in the undulating waves” of the music, resulting in the piece becoming forever known as the “Moonlight Sonata.”

It's a fascinating, educational, uplifting evening as we’re made privy to moments such as when the  young Beethoven was introduced to the most prestigious resident of their town, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, so well-known there we're told that, in Vienna "even the coffee smells like Mozart." Upon hearing Beethoven play, Mozart dismisses him until he defiantly returns and replays the same passage with anger and vigor. “That, young man, was musical invention,” Mozart tells him. “That’s what being a musician is all about.”

Of course, as appreciation for Beethoven and his artistry grows, there’s also an overwhelming sense of sadness that envelops the viewer as we begin to see what the lonely, almost delusional little man endured. Tormented by his drunken father and compromised by his less-than loving brothers, even as he was rejected by potential lovers and then began to lose his hearing at age 31, he still continued to compose some the world’s most historic and intricately beautiful music despite the fact that he could never himself hear it performed.

The equally remarkable Mr. Felder does not just play the selections chosen; he accompanies them with a play-by-play of what was going on in the man’s life as he was creating it, making us able to understand the sorrow, the sweetness, the anger, the frustrations of the man as his thoughts and crushed dreams became part of musical history forever. As Beethoven continues to stubbornly fight “against the inevitable with all his might,” Felder notes, as he plays the “Sonata Pathetique,” you can almost hear the man crying out in pain during some of the piece’s most familiar passages.

Beethoven is simply magnificent and not to be missed, especially since, after next year’s promised concluding chapter of Felder’s “Composer Sonata,” depicting the life and music of Claude Dubussy (scheduled to debut at the Wallis next March), we may never again see any of his creations revived on a stage again. Unlike other similar pieces birthed by other artists, it’s hard to imagine anyone else able to bring this work to life with such consummate skill as an actor, a playwright, here even as a set designer (septet-threat?), yet still be someone possessed of Felder’s unique mastery as an accomplished concert pianist.

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THE HUMANS at the Ahmanson Theatre

It's not a surprise the landmark American musical Hamilton won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama a couple of seasons back, but it sure is a shame there wasn't a separate category instituted that year for a non-musical play, because Stephen Karam's The Humans, a finalist for that honor and that year's Tony winner for Best Play, is also one of the most significant—and wickedly funny—in modern theatrical history.

Karam's Sons of the Prophet, which debuted here at the Blank Theatre in 2015, was one of my top picks for Best Play in my annual Ticketholders Award honors and is still my very favorite work by one of our time's most important emerging dramatists, but there is no doubt The Humans deserves every accolade it has garnered, including additional Tonys for both Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell, both of whom currently reprise their much-heralded and indelible performances in the play's premiere at the Ahmanson.

With its original New York direction also recreated here by the dynamic Joe Mantello, The Humans is quite a conundrum. Karam's humor is as contemporary and sharp as a tack, but the story of the Blake family, gathering for the family's annual Thanksgiving Day dinner in the dingy new lower-eastside Manhattan flat of their younger daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Rich (Nick Mills) as they wait for their furniture to be delived, is at its core as tragic as that of those notoriously dysfunctional Tyrones, the Lomans, or the Westons of Osage County.

On David Zinn’s evocative two-story set, Mantello does a masterful job moving the Blakes around both floors of Brigid and Nick's noisy, electricity-challenged, and rather depressingly claustrophobic apartment, not the ideal spot for a homey family holiday gathering or a warm fuzzy dinner on paper plates with wine offered in paper cups. Even the family's Alzheimer's afflicted matriarch “Momo” (Lauren Klein) must be taken outside into the hall to deliver her wheelchair by elevator to the bottom basement floor while the knee-challenged Weight Watcher write-off Deidre (Houdyshell) and her cancer-stricken elder daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck) must frequently trudge up and down the clanking metal spiral staircase to use the john.

As this typically conflicted modern 'Merkin brood—professed by Aimee to admit to a “lot of stoic silence” rather than acknowledging the obvious need for some intense therapy—goes through the machinations of initiating one of those mythical Rockwellian over the river and through the woodsy family holiday dinners, complete with ritualistic wishing games and an uplifting Irish ballad passed down through the generations, it's not hard to see the radiating waves of pain emanating below the surface from each and every one of those gathered.

As Barbara Fordham observes in that infamous and equally dysfunctional funereal dinner hosted by the recently widowed Violet Weston, if our species could see our own future, we might never get out of bed. Here, listening to Brigid and Rich's zombified Generation Y efforts to eat and live healthy, the clan's quietly curmudgeonly patriarch Eric (Birney) echoes this more accurate than dystopian edict describing the rapidly disintegrating American middleclass, wondering why, when everyone seems so miserable, we're always trying to find ways to live forever.

Birney is breathtakingly simple as Eric, from the earliest moments appearing alone silhouetted in the harsh light of an open doorway, able to convey a man in deep torment who is doing everything in his power to hide it. Houdyshell could not be a better partner as his long-suffering, transparently bossy but lovable wife, especially as she deals with sharing a deeply troubling secret the couple feels they must share with the family before they head home to Philly.

Together, these two remarkably talented actors are clearly in tune with one another, especially after all this time to bounce off each other's characters, proving the Tony committee certainly knew what they were doing when they considered all the exceptional work presented on Broadway in 2016 and chose to honor them. The rest of this original New York ensemble, also bolstered by the experience of working together for so long to collectively develop and further explore Karam's subtly complex characters, is equally and uniquely brilliant, each proficient in the art of talking over each another with just as much familiarly as all families and panelmembers on The View exhibit whenever they get together.

Beck and Steele are also wonderful as the Blakes' loving but desperately unhappy daughters, Aimee mourning the death of her relationship while facing the probable end of her career as she faces major surgery for her debilitating illness and Brigid frustrated that her own career as a composer seems destined to be stillborn. And in the play's pair of less spotlit roles, Klein is a definite asset in a non-verbal role that only takes shape with occasional outbursts of geriatric dementia-fueled gibberish, while Mills holds his own as the play's most unresolved character, a guy more sketched than written and mostly defined in his stereotypical millennial nerd behavior such as posting one of many lists on the fridge promoting "Ways to have fun."

Even more than offering some of the most sensational ensemble work of the year, Karam’s masterpiece features unspoken seventh and eighth characters: Mantello's exquisitely fluid, almost filmic staging in a difficult space and the production's incredibly participatory design team. Zinn's creepy Chinatown flat, coupled with Justin Townsend's eerie ever-diminishing lighting effects and Fitz Patton's bump-in-the-nighty sound plot featuring creaking floorboards, neighbors banging on the ceiling above so hard the entire audience jumps in their seats, and the oppressive whine of trash compactors and laundry room spin cycles, is as ominously nightmarish as the sleep-depriving dreams haunting Eric’s existence.

The only glaring negative here is not the material or the performances but the venue, which despite everything can’t help flatten the play out somewhat. The Humans should have been booked into the Taper or the Douglas or the Geffen, but the Ahmanson is simply too massive and austere to house such an intimate and intentionally claustrophobic play. Still, the production could be seen as even more impressive as it defies the choice of theatre.

I would also love to have the truncated nature of the family feast explained. No sooner do the Blakes get seated for dinner than it's suddenly over; there's barely enough time to finish the cranberry sauce before they're clearing the table and calling for a car to bring the folks home. I realize this is still a play and not real life, but surely a writer as clever as Karam could devise a good reason to make the time spent eating dinner more than the CliffsNotes version of the story.

Karam’s troubled Blake family is the quintessential descendant of those aforementioned classic American theatrical families, those created in the fertile minds of misters O'Neill, Miller, and Letts. The Humans’ contribution to theatrical history was a perfect choice for Pulitzer consideration because the play chronicles exactly who we are in this country at this particular juncture in time: a people more and more disenfranchised and discouraged with our crumpling society and the death of the proverbial "American Dream."

If we all aren't eradicated by the current insanity being forced upon us every day, future generations of Americans and world citizens will be able to study and see The Humans performed to help them comprehend the origins of what a fucked-up mess we've made of our advantages at this juncture in the evolution of our ridiculously flawed species.

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SOFT POWER at the Ahmanson Theatre, LA and Curran Theatre, San Francisco

Let me say one thing about David Henry Hwang’s magnificent Soft Power, world premiering first at the Ahmanson Theatre in LA before traveling to the majesticly reinvented Curran Theatre in San Francisco and, in a fair world, soon off to New York to rock the Great White Way:  I promise you, never will you see another musical like it.

Billed as “A Play with a Musical,” nothing could be as accurate in describing the unique experience—one that prompted one of our time’s most noteworthy playwrights to stop me in the lobby opening night to ask, “What did I just see? Can you tell me?” Frankly, I couldn’t, as I was as dizzy as she was. “I’ll have to go home and ruminate over it before I can answer that question,” I responded, although “...and before I write my review,” was the subtext.

Perfectly complimented by music composed by the versatile genre-hopping Jeanine Tesori (Tony-winning for her equally memorable score for Fun Home), Hwang has created something truly groundbreaking. Writing himself in as a character in the story, the play opens in a Hollywood production office just before the 2016 election as DHH (Francis Jue) pitches the concept for a TV sitcom set in Shanghai to a slick Chinese film producer (Conrad Ricamora). The clearly westernized Xue Xing is all for a project created by the most famous and successful Chinese playwright in America, but is concerned how a contemporary comedy depicting the citizens of Beijing as characters created by Darren Star would survive their government’s censoring anything less than perfectly politically correct material.

Xing is also not at all convinced the people of China would accept an Asian Carrie Bradshaw dealing openly and honesty with modern living and relationships. This is especially personal to him since he seems stuck in a bad marriage himself, admitting he’s “happy…enough” but remains forced by familial duty to accept what he’s been taught about the institution from his highly traditional father: “You must stick with your mistakes.”

That same night, he brings his American mistress Zoe (Alyse Alan Lewis) to a Hillary Clinton fundraising performance of The King & I right next door at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. There, though confliucted about the inappropriate Asian stereotypes running rampant through the classic R&H musical, he is bolstered by meeting the sure-to-win (right) Presidential candidate after the show, where he praises her for being so friendly and respectful to his oft-misunderstood country. "She believes we can learn a thing or two from China,” he tells Zoe and DHH, “and I replied that China believes in global warming because we believe in science.”

After the subsequent shocking and depressing conclusion of the Presidential election, DHH begins to wonder if Xing was right in an earlier conversation about the abject failure of the democratic system in America, a place where “they voted for the guy who promised to hold back the future.” On his way home to Brooklyn that night, he is randomly stabbed in the neck on the street, presumably by some previously-timid fly-by-state racist Trump supporter encouraged by the Orange Nightmare’s “Make America Great Again” campaign—sadly mirroring a real-life incident that happened to Hwang at the time.

DHH is rushed to a hospital where, simply, he hallucinates a musical called Soft Power—the title recalling the first conversation where Xing remarked how culture and media influence the world in which we live. In the imagined musical, America has gone even more drastically to shit than it has the last 17 months of insanely destructive totalitarian rule, but the tale is told in a wildly colorful, incredibly glitzy Broadway style, Tesori’s brilliant score, director Leigh Silverman’s inventive staging, and Sam Pinkleton’s wonderfully silly over-the-top choreography helping immensely to make it all work.

As DHH—the character, obviously—dies from his wounds, Xing becomes the hero of the writer’s hallucination, based on all the stuff that occurred before the attack. The producer again travels to America, but this time is greeted by a totally lawless society where bigotry is the norm and gun-tottin’ punks, played by the musical’s mostly Asian cast in elaborate blond wigs and wearing Anita Yavich’s hilarious hip-hopping Brittany Spears-ware, rule the streets.

Again, Xing meets Mrs. Clinton (also played by Lewis), who is licking her wounds in self-imposed solitary confinement, sitting alone in a room spreading Ben & Jerry’s on take-out pizza and belting one of Tesori’s best ballads. This time, however, Xing falls for his Hillary and the two begin a romance in the well-appointed high-end restaurant that McDonald’s has become—complete with short-shorts-wearing servers on rollerskates and statues with chandeliers on their heads holding oversized containers of french fries.  

As Act Two opens, Hwang’s mindblowing twists continue, so grab your seats, strap in, and hold on tight. Now set in the 22nd century, the hallucinated musical-within-a-play is now a great American classic, although it has become part of the new culture at a time where China is clearly recognized as the premier world power. And as experts from the future discuss its importance to the evolution of society and art, just like with all great themes, philosophies, and religions throughout human history, each sees the value of it from their own individual viewpoint and caring only about how it affects them personally.

The twists and turns and innovative Charles Mee-esque situations invented by Hwang and implemented by his fellow creative believers are brilliant and nonstop, perfectly realized in this exquisite production. David Zinn's design is both sweeping and at its heart reverent, yet whimsically echoing traditional Asian minimalist simplicity.

The cast is throughout impressive and all blessed with spectacular voices, possessing a uniform knack for “getting” Hwang’s outrageous satirical overview, while the exceptional individual performances of Ricamora, Louis, and Jue, as well as Kendyl Ito as Xing’s neglected young daughter, are the stuff of which musical legends are born.

There’s inevitably a Pulitzer Prize in Hwang’s future for this, I suspect, as this project checks off all the requisites, and Tesori’s score is one for the ages and perhaps her finest yet. The production also benefits immeasurably from the inclusion of LA’s own gifted and driven composer-musical director David O, who conducts the precision orchestra with gusto and a visceral understanding of the emotional complexities of the score.

When this visionary effort hits New York, there’ll surely be many comparisons made between Hwang and Tesori’s incredible contemporary masterpiece and Hamilton, another rule-defying, groundbreaking musical that dazzles the senses yet clearly slips in its political morality message while telling its story in the most entertaining way imaginable. Those comparisons will be valid and, unless I’ve totally lost my perspective, Soft Power, like its namesake musical within the play, is destined to become a future American classic.

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THE COLOR PURPLE at the Pantages Theatre and Segerstrom Center

It must be a nearly insurmountable task to try to adapt a beloved well-known Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and a highly successful 11-time Oscar-nominated movie into a stage musical. Still, with the inclusion of its breathtaking, genre-hopping score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, in 2005 the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s classic The Color Purple was itself nominated for 11 Tony Awards and ran for over two years in New York to sold-out crowds.

Then in 2013, noted Scottish director John Doyle helmed a boldly scaled-down minimalist revival of the musical on the West End to critical praise, going on to win Tonys for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Actress in a Musical for Cynthia Arivo as the story’s abused heroine Celie when the production took Broadway by the balls once again in 2015. Despite the odds, Doyle’s inventive rethinking of The Color Purple stood on its own beautifully; simply put, it is more magnificent and evocative than ever before.

Featuring one massive, roughhewn barn-plank set designed by Doyle himself, featuring an eclectic collection of simple wooden chairs attached to create wildly divergent shadows emanating from Jane Cox’ bright and purposefully unflattering lighting, the tight ensemble enters en masse, standing concert-style in a simple line staring at the audience and becoming sentinels to the action as Marsha Norman’s adaptation of Walker’s familiar story unfolds on a series of descending platforms.

With each performer assigned their own spindly-looking wooden chair to carry around and stand on at times to create jarring and intentionally discordant tableaux, Doyle tells the tale with uncanny all-new vision, playing homage not only to Walker’s original novel but this time out highlighting Russell, Willis, and Bray’s indelible future classic score with an admiration and respect it hasn’t been awarded before.

As Celie, Adrianna Hicks is brilliant. Though occasionally getting a little low and mumbly when her character is on the ropes, she is possessed of a singing voice that grabs throughout then soars to the Pantages’ deco-dripping ceiling with Celie’s final showstopping ballad “I’m Here.” And speaking of show-stopping solos, almost all the leading characters have one, including Carla R. Stewart’s wonderful rendition of the musical’s haunting title song and Gavin Gregory who brings the house down with Mister’s arresting “Celie’s Curse.”

Stewart also knocks it onto Hollywood Blvd. with her raucous “Push da Button” and Carrie Compere and J. Daughtry as Sophia and Harpo wow the audience with their hilariously eroticized “Any Little Thing,” Compere proving instantly you don’t have to be a size 4 to be a major hottie. Still, the entire ensemble provides the stuff for which awards are given, as does Darryl Achibald leading the tour’s exceptionally tight orchestra.

The revival of The Color Purple, which could have easily relied on the tried and true elements that contributed to its success, is instead rich and vibrant and fresh, making it one of the major highlights of the year for Los Angeles theatre.

And frankly, it’s hard to imagine why Russell, Willis, and Bray’s majestic, towering score has itself not won any major awards since the musical debuted 15 years ago and now, glorified as it is by Doyle’s daring and adventurous rule-breaking staging. To me, this score and the world-class artists who created it should enter the realm of the great compositions and composers of all time as our generation’s entry to the pedestal upon which forever sits Gershwin’s classic Porgy and Bess.

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FOREVER BOUND at the Atwater Village Theatre

Poor Edmund. This nebbishy agoraphobic book scout is really on the ropes. Flat broke despite having sold his beloved classic comic book collection, he’s still forced to live on raman noodles while fearing the next phone call will be one of those incessant bill collectors instead of a potential customer.

After trying to convince his skeptical landlord there are cockroaches scampering all over his tiny LA apartment, at the suggestion of his best friend Shep he has begun to capture the critters in mid-crawl by scotch-taping them to the wall to struggle and twitch and die the same slow death as he himself seems to be experiencing. This odd behavior is hard for Edmund to discuss, quipping to Shep that he probably should stop mixing cocaine and meth but then again, it does give him less teeth to brush. But whatever the origins of his roach-taping obsession might be, it really doesn’t matter much anyway now since the guy has just delivered Edmund’s final eviction notice.

When Shep hatches an unexpected plan to steal a rare first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass from the home of a dour and unfriendly collector he met in a bookstore and followed home, Edmund is conflicted. Interested, yes, but conflicted. In the world premiere of Steve Apostolina’s Forever Bound at the Atwater Village Theatre, no bumbling amateur thieves have been as endearingly watchable since Donny and Teach first enlisted Bobby as their accomplice.

And what could have possibly been a better one-of-a-kind choice than to cast French Stewart as Edmund, an actor who has devoted his entire career to playing quirky, modernday Walter Mitty-esque losers? Although Stewart has certainly veered over the years from his days as the otherworldly (literally) Harry Solomon, native of the barred-spiral galaxy on the Cepheus-Draco border—you know, the “One with the Transmitter in his Head”—it’s a pleasure to see an echo of his signature bizarre behavior we all grew to love.

Not only does Stewart possess the most fluid timing of any comedian working today, under the precision guidance of director Ann Hearn Tobolowsky, his lovably dysfunctional Edmund is fully able to suddenly tumble into emotionally-poignant dramatic moments without a hint of a seam.

Playwright Apostolina is also well-cast as Shep, a role he probably wrote for himself, ironically running with the least fully-realized role in his own play while giving way for Tobolowsky’s other three actors to shine. Still, he manages to mine a wonderful dark humor in the depths of his Shep as more and more details of the roughhewn guy’s questionable former life are exposed—to Edmund’s shock and awe.

As the play’s other two at first unrelated characters, Emily Goss as the troubled Rosalind and Rob Nagle as her mentor Thomas, another pair of gifted veteran El Lay theatre performers hold their own as well. Goss is incredibly moving as a girl who deserves more than life has had to offer her and, through the course of the play, gradually discovers a brave new world around her. Goss is exceptionally believable as the revelations begin to unfold.

As Thomas, well… without giving too much away, let me just say that Nagle even surpasses his several previous turns playing some of the creepiest Hannibal Lector-clone villains to ever step before an audience. In one scene and with his character at a considerable physical disadvantage, Nagle’s subtle eyerolls and quietly amused facial expressions as the Laurel and Hardy of criminals try to solidify their plans, are perfection.

Apostolina’s sharp humor is amazingly topical in a clever subterranean way. As our country goes to shit at the hands of a mentally-challenged madman and we are all collectively questioning and redefining our morality on a daily basis, though the laughs are frequent in Forever Bound, we are ultimately left with a reason to contemplate what is moral and what actions are truly acceptable in the world today.

In this messed-up era when kids are killing other kids at school on a regular basis and the rights of others to live however and wherever they desire is in question, Forever Bound offers unsettling food for thought and, probably, can generate a few sleepless nights as well. Quite an accomplishment for such a razor-edged comedy.

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SLAUGHTER CITY from the Coeurage Theatre Company at the Lankershim Arts Center

For one of the badly mistreated workers toiling in the trimming room of a nightmarish slaughterhouse at some unspecified period in time, this seems like a good life. The daily routine of “waking, working, shitting, sleeping” makes her very happy, she says, although whether she is trying to convince herself of that depends on how you interpret the character. Yet, for most of the trapped inhabitants of Naomi Wallace’s Slaughter City, life is anything but that.

In a time-shifting fantasia leaping from infamous industrial tragedies of the past to more contemporary real-life disasters befalling our country’s disposable bluecollar class, each linked together by the figure of a Victorian-clad pregnant textile worker (Candace Hammer) soon to be lost in the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, appears a curious androgynous instigator named Cod (Elspeth Weingarten) trying to nudge the victims into action and take a stand for more competent unionization.

There’s a weirdly uncomfortable, disjointed quality about Wallace’s 1996 play, which anchors itself mostly in a latterday factory run by an obnoxious, oddly huffing boss named Baquin (Ilia Volok) and his groveling yesman assistant Tuck (Eric Ruff). Nothing is what it seems, however, and when the Sausage Man (Ted Barton), the facility’s Brechtian former owner, visits to stir things up when his cohort Cod gets sidetracked by the forbidden hint of romance with his coworker Maggot (Katelyn Gault), all hell—perhaps literally—breaks loose.

As Baquin (as in bacon, get it?) slowly morphs into one of the creatures he’s butchering, as the Sausage Man loses his German accent and gentle consolatory attitude, and as Cod reveals he has quite an impressive rack bound tightly below his grubby overalls, to say things are not what they seem would be a tremendous understatement. Still, through the play’s almost dreamlike passages, visionary director Jer Adrianne Lelliott manages to corral all the puzzling goings-on without trying to explain them—surely adhering with deference to the playwright’s intention.

Wallace’s evocative, startlingly poetic wordsmithery is truly the star here, accented by three ethnically-diverse dancers entering between scenes (Donna Eshelman, Tasheena Medina, and Diane Shigekawa), possibly suggesting they are the lingering spirits of dead and badly abused workers past. Under Eshelman’s Isadora Duncan-inspired choreography, they and the actors portraying the workers occasionally break into industrial yet graceful balletic movements as they turn their recently-deceased pig and cow carcasses into meat cuts ready to be shipped to us eager consumers.

Through the bizarre goings-on, there are a pair of subplots dealing with that old familiar human emotion as two the factory’s solitary loners to try to take on love, with Maggot and her childhood friend Roach (Tarina Pouncy) both entering into unchartered territory, Maggot with Cod and Roach with a younger hot-loined fellow meatcutter Brandon (Jamie H. Jung). This is almost a distraction to what Slaughter City is really about: labor conditions, dysfunctional unions, and the disposable nature of unskilled workers, making it even more of a statement today than when the play first surfaced 12 years ago.

Barton is especially noteworthy as the creepy Sausage Man, morphing from dear little old man to evil incarnate on a dime, while Gault’s ever-searching Maggot and Pouncy’s hardnosed survivor trying to navigate life with as little trouble as she can are also standouts. Weingarten has some impressive moments when not trying so hard to conjure the masculine side of the character, especially impressive in one haunting eleventh-hour monologue that’s sure to bring a tear to one’s eye.

Others in the cast were more uneven in their opening night performance but, like that proverbial fine wine, I suspect their work will mature nicely as the run progresses. Most could benefit from trusting the power and lyricism of Wallace’s dialogue, which right now seems still in the throes of finding a rhythm. Just saying the words and more stoically swallowing their characters’ pain rather than wallowing in it will surely be the outcome of a little further seasoning into the roles, something that might even be worthy of a return visit from me later in the run.

Maggot admits to Roach that as a kid, she had trouble sleeping because she constantly thought about death but now, after a lifetime of disillusionment and one disappointment after another, she thinks about croaking the same way she contemplates a bowl of morning cereal. “Now,” she admits, “I could take it or leave it.”

I wish I could consider that line with some empathy for Maggot but instead, as our country and the world goes to shit as we watch helplessly from the sidelines, I personally know that feeling these days only too well—and I can’t help wondering how Wallace would update her riveting Slaughter City for our even more conflicted 2018 audience.

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ANGELS, DEVILS AND OTHER THINGS at the Actors’ Gang Theatre

Most theatre companies traditionally conjure their own annual one-act play festival to give all those hardworking ticket-taking and toilet-scrubbing members a chance to let their freak flags fly. As might be expected, however, the Actors’ Gang takes the concept a giant step further.

First of all, most of the performers filling the Gang’s Ivy Substation space for their summer end-of-the-season treat Angels, Devils and Other Things will be welcoming familiar faces to anyone obsessed by the Gang's prolific body of work. These dedicated artists work hard and regularly at the Gang, surely despite the fact that this kind of brave experimental theatre ain't a'gonna pay nobody’s dang rent.

Beyond the fact that this slightly mad veteran troupe of dedicated crazies has for 37 years been encouraged by founder and artistic director Tim Robbins to be unwaveringly creative, at their leader’s behest this time out they were asked to write—then eventually direct and appear in—their own original 10-minute plays.

Explains Robbins: “When I asked the company to all write plays last year I had no idea that we had such talented playwrights within the company. What was doubly impressive though, was how much the plays had in common: themes of life and death, judgment and the afterlife, the anxiety and struggle of everyday survival, all written with intelligence and humor.”

Starting with the premise that Robbins wanted the evening to be a “tour of the human landscape,” 11 of the short plays workshopped were chosen to produce under the guidance of longtime Gang member Brian T. Finney. As in any such one-act fest, some of the offerings are better than others, but unlike many similar self-generated collections, although a few of the short plays could have benefitted from a little more rehearsal time and a bit of judicious rewriting, not one of those chosen should have been eliminated.

Among the most memorable are Will McFadden’s See Bots Chat, directed by Jason Ryan Lovett, where two robots (Tess Vidal and Ethan Corn) find out what it is to be human when they discover a passion for one another; the Vidal-directed James Play, as writer-performer James Bane III bravely tries to sort out the penchant for suicide initiated by his predecessors James Sr. and Jr.; and Delia Saba and Chas Harvy appearing in their own A Cat’s Play, where a man and his smartassed feline struggle to deal with one another without abandoning their own personal dreams.

Just Be Worthy is also a standout, as a group of recently deceased travelers wake up to find Judgment Day isn’t exactly what they expected. Under the direction of Pierre Adeli, Dora Kiss’ short play is crisply written and full of wonderful one-liners, as when one of those gathered is sent back for a second chance, leading the Devil (Bob Turton) to grumble that the invention of the defibrillator has ruined all his fun. Turton’s sparring with his ol’ buddy Jesus (triple-threat Adam Bennett, also serving as director of A Cat’s Play and hilarious as a befuddled researcher in See Bots Chat) is a comedic highlight of the evening—and whomever fashioned Lucifer’s multiple dildo-infused costuming is due special kudos as well.

With Turton as director, Bennett also explores a similar theme as author of The Gardeners, where the newly-dead are promised their next life—unlike this one we’re all trying to maneuver—will be “accessible and bearable.”

With Ethan Corn as director, Turton also excels as the writer of Clean Slate, where a woman (Julia Finch) wakes up each morning to a new world devoid of memories, although she is told her daily fresh take on things offers the “promise of absolute freedom of choice.” She soon realizes, however, that her freedom from life’s guilts and pressures is more restrictive than celebratory. 

Perhaps the most entertaining pair of plays are Lynde Houck’s A Perfect World, where under Will McFadden’s direction, Lee Margaret Hanson and Adam J. Jefferis don commedia dell’arte-inspired masks (designed, one might guess, by Erhard Stiefel, whose artistry so energized the Gang’s Harlequino last season), bringing to hilarious life an elderly couple as they simply live another day, seemingly thrilled and totally content with their boring and repetitive lives that Houck hints is a substitute for purgatory right here on earth.

In Mashka Wolfe’s Have You Even Done This Before?, director Bronwyn Leland Watson leads Hanson and Finch in an adult-themed feminist Will Farrell-John C. Reilly pairing about a newly separated housewife and the hooker she hires—leading to a place where the arrival of an expected voyeur promises that nothing much will turn out to be as it originally seemed.

The entire ensemble begins Angels, Devils and Other Things appearing together in Finney’s fluid movement exercise The Futurist Manifesto, which not only introduces the cast but ushers in one thing I especially loved about the entire collaboration. As a critic who often grumbles about excessive and unnecessary set changes, here the frequent intervals between the pieces are choreographed with fascinating precision.

Never does one person remove a chair or two people bring on a table. Instead, the entire company, including one guy relentlessly circling the wagons in a motorized wheelchair, floods the stage as several performers gather around the designated movers in tight Evita-esque movable tableaux, again emphasizing one impressive detail about any unique Actors’ Gang production: these folks clearly reinforce the idea that great art succeeds best when created in a collaboration with other exceptionally committed and ego-free artists.

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SCHOOL OF ROCK at the Pantages Theatre and Segerstrom Center

As one of the five human beings on the planet who has never seen the film School of Rock, I came to the west coast opening of the musical at the Pantages with a totally blank slate—save, of course, the spirited ensemble of yung’ins who hit the stage for the Tony Awards ceremony a couple of years ago when Jullian Fellowes’ clever theatrical adaptation first showed up on Broadway.

Of course, it’s not hard to imagine Jack Black in the never-resting leading role of Dewey, the slovenly couch-hopping moocher who assumes his current mooch-ee’s identity to commandeer a well-paying substitute teaching gig at a stuffy private grade school. Luckily for this production, Rob Colletti has all but channeled Black’s familiar lovable slacker routine, which is great for telling this story but does make one wonder it the actor was directed by Laurence Connor to mimic his famous predecessor or if his stoner-dude persona is something he can call his own.

Either way, it works gangbusters. Colletti leads a gamely vigorous cast of adults, with a particular nod to his costar Lexie Dorsett Sharp, who steals the thunder when her rigid stick-up-the-assy schoolmarm Rosalie hoists a few afterschool brews and let’s her hair down—literally—with the show’s most notable ballad and her showstopper solo, “Where Did the Rock Go?”

The second biggest surprise for this production is the raucous, rockin’ all-electronic score by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, who proves he still has a wild side in that increasingly more tame demeanor of his—and after soaking in his gorgeous and richly resonant near-opera score for his Phantom sequel Love Never Dies at the same theatre last month, I am thoroughly impressed once again.

From his gorgeously lyrical and evocative Aspects of Love to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to Jesus Christ Superstar to Evita to Cats and beyond, no matter the criticisms over the years—so many have a problem with monumental success, it seems—this guy is truly one of our time’s most obvious musical geniuses.

Still, I did say his achievement was the second biggest surprise to me, didn’t I? The first? Surely something that benefited the most from the aforementioned second surprise. Although Dewey admits early on his class at Horace Green Middle School gives him flashbacks to Lord of the Flies, the production's knockout ensemble of teeny-tiny 10-years-old-ish kiddies eagerly and energetically prove they can friggin’ rock out with the best of ‘em.

Playing their own instruments onstage under the able and surely patient leadership of musical director Martyn Axe, who admits in his program bio he’s “very happy to be touring with the youngest and best rock band in America,” this gifted band of brilliantly-cast children are all breakout stars, both in the music industry and as promising young actors.

From the uniformly jaw-dropping ranks of major minors come several wonderful featured performances, particularly Iara Nemirovsky as the annoying perfect but soon transformed Summer, who goes on to bring the house down with Lord Andrew’s infectious “Time to Play.”

Theodora Silverman is a standout as the sutone-faced Gene Simmons-tongued bassist Katie and Theo Mitchell-Penner, as the band’s nerdy keyboardist Lawrence, morphs from socially-tortured introvert to posturing rockstar in glittery superhero spandex as Dewey comments he’s “seen salads better dressed than that.”

Huxley Westemeier gives the bravest and most smoothly committed performance of the evening as the light-loafered Billy, who clearly telegraphs the writing on the wall since he would rather sew elaborate costumes than perform.  

Yet of all the youthful dynamos taking the well-traveled Pantages stage hostage with their talent and their musicality, the most memorable turn comes from pintsized carrot-top Vincent Molden, beginning as a meek little tyke anyone could take home for Thanksgiving and be sure he'd say "please" and "thank you" in all the right places, into worldclass hip-gyrating Steven Tyler status. If the goddess Terpsichore plays fair here, this kid is a musical protégé guaranteed a career as he grows into his teenybopper years and beyond.

This national tour of School of Rock simply rocks, more crisp and full-out than most productions that have been on the road awhile. This was perhaps energized by the surprising attendance of Lord Andrew himself on opening night, posing in the lobby with tongue stuck forward and flashing the Devil’s Horn right alongside his junior ensemble. This guy, it seems, is experiencing a welcome second coming and I, for one, will gladly add this score to the top of the list of his many accomplishments.

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THE NEW COLOSSUS at the Actors’ Gang Theatre

Save for 12 battered old suitcases scattered around the stage floor, the massive playing space that houses the Actors’ Gang’s Theatre, that dank brick-walled reclaimed municipal substation, is totally barren at the beginning of The New Colossus. This is the Gang's newest bravely off-centered attack on the inequities of our society—so urgently timely considering our current abhorrent administration is crazily busy tearing down everything decent people hold dear.

In a workshop which began over two years ago led by the troupe’s fiercely committed artistic director Tim Robbins, he and members of the Gang, all descendants of former refugees from all over the world, attempted to explore their own individual familial roots. These are the proud stories we’ve all heard told sometime in our own lives, the kind of courageous personal tales that once made us proud to be called Americans.

With ancestors who immigrated here from the Soviet Union, China, Viet Nam, Turkey, Malaysia, Iran, Mexico, Yugoslavia, Finland, Hungary, Austria, and Germany—as well as one former slave running for her life from Tensus Parish, Louisiana—the dozen performers play family members and others from all different social strata and different periods of time. This is clearly meant to show that oppression and the lack of humanity from so many in power throughout history never seems to vanish entirely in the tainted saga of our troubled species.

Directed by Robbins, with writing attributed to him along with the other members of his ensemble, this is a fascinating though not always easy performance to endure from either side of the footlights. After each tells us his or her name and age, these 12 extremely effective performers break into a cacophony of world languages, sometimes individually, sometimes at the same time, sometimes—though not often—accompanied by supertitles on the back wall.

The point here is not what these people say; the point is that they all have experienced the same painful experience of being uprooted from their comfortable existence and forced to run for their lives through horrifying and dehumanizing conditions, be it weather related, a lack of food, or inhumane brutal treatment forced upon them by their oppressors. It’s frankly not easy to watch, a little Beckett-like as we observe them all with tortured expressions fleeing for their lives in endless circles around the stage, a repetitious detail that, also like Beckett, might be meant to make its audience pray it soon ends and some dialogue or interaction between the character ensues.

Sometimes The New Colossus feels a little as though we’re sitting in on the troupe’s aforementioned workshop evenings, with lengthy and extended periods of actors bounding from one side of the stage to the other or running as a collective, tightly structured group to depict the pain and suffering their exodus to freedom was. Still, it is a moving, indelibly affecting performance, especially as it concludes with each actor introducing themselves and explaining their personal connection with the characters they developed.

This is followed by Robbins, who comes before the audience to ask about their own personal roots, asking those gathered to shout out where their own family members had originally immigrated from and what their ancestors’ journeys had been to find that now-flickering and endangered lamp beside our golden door. It’s humbling to hear what brought us all to the place we are today—and hopefully this piece will make everyone in attendance return home with a new intensity to fight the indignities of our time and work tirelessly to stop the soulless and greedy monsters currently trying to tell us what to do and how to live.

The title of The New Colossus was chosen based on the poem of the same title by Emma Lazarus, written in 1883 to accompany an exhibit initially set up to raise money to fund the pedestal which was installed under the Statue of Liberty three years later. Though not originally intended as such, the poem—and the statue—quickly became a rallying cry for the many outcasts from political oppression who once found America to be a haven for the disenfranchised as we welcomed needy refugees into our comforting arms. You know, the days before Donald Trump and his greedy enablers started destroying our country and blatantly began abolishing each and every one of our hard-won freedoms for their own immoral gain.

It is, of course, the last four lines of Lazarus’ poem that are today most familiar, but the entire work is more than worthy of sharing here and everywhere it might make a difference:

The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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WIESENTHAL at Theatre 40

In Tom Dugan's riveting solo show Wiesenthal, unrelenting Nazi war criminal hunter Simon Wiesenthal packs up his cluttered office at Vienna's Jewish Documentation Center for the last time. At age 94, it's time to stop and go home to his patient wife Cyla, who has been waiting for her husband’s personal World War II to end for the past 58 years.

It's a tough day for the great man, someone who proved you don't need to be son of Zeus and carry a big stone hammer or wear tights and a cape to be a hero; some are soft-spoken ancient old men with an obsessive mission to right some of the catastrophic wrongs foisted on our world in the name of humanity. "I have been called the Jewish James Bond," Wiesenthal quips to the audience with a signature glint in his eye. "Must be my sex appeal."

Dugan's Wiesenthal, directed as it has been from the start by LA treasure Jenny Sullivan and with the playwright appearing as his subject, has currently returned for a limited number of weekday-night performances to Theatre 40, where it originally debuted in 2011.

Since it's quiet but auspicious beginning, Dugan has toured from coast-to-coast in his piece, receiving critical praise and prestigious nominations for both Drama Desk and outer Critics Circle Awards during its off-Broadway debut in 2014-15. Along the way, it has also been seen locally at the Rubicon in Ventura in 2012 and back home to Beverly Hills at the Wallis in 2015 but, due to some unfortunate scheduling conflicts, this is a first for me. How grateful I am to finally have gotten to see it.

Unlike too many other solo writer-performers, Dugan is a facile veteran performer bringing a multi-faceted, clearly difficult, and often humorous man to life with uncanny ease. Facing an imaginary group of American tourists visiting his office for a last fundraising tour, between asking if he's shown us the restroom key and offering grapes in a ziplock bag to folks in the front row, Dugan’s Wiesenthal does his best to joke and lighten the often-heartrending task of discussing his inexhaustible lifelong mission 

As he wanders around his half-packed office stuffing historic documents and bittersweet personal memories into cardboard boxes to be sent to and curated at LA's Museum of Tolerance, he clumsily begins with that terrible old joke about a man declaring to a punk rocker that he once fucked a peacock (Dugan using "made love" in deference either to Wiesenthal or his Theatre 40 audience) and wonders if the kid might be his son. With a long sigh, he then refers to the tale he is about to relate as “Simon Wiesenthal's Greatest Hits,” commenting that people who laugh together sometimes forget to kill one another.

But despite the man's insistence to those gathered that his point in telling his story is not to produce tears but to produce knowledge, there's no way to experience this event without being profoundly moved. Not only did the eager young architectural student endure being “laughed at as one of those filthy subhumans" forced to live in the cramped Jewish ghetto, he then was forced to survive the most horrifying disgrace to humanity of the last century, where between he and his wife they lost every one of their 89 relatives to Hitler's insanity.

Wiesenthal himself was shuttled between four different concentration camps during the Holocaust and personally lived through a death march to Chemnitz, details of which, including being starved and suffering untreated illnesses during his incarceration, are relived for us in painful detail. Existing in half-consciousness close to the brink of death, he remembers lying on a concrete slab staring up at the “stars of justice and tolerance” in the night sky fading away before his weary eyes.

Author of several one-person shows (including the fascinating Jackie Unveiled, which debuted at the Wallis recently also directed by the brilliant Sullivan), after all these years touring in this piece, Dugan still fits comfortably in the aged skin of the heavy Austrian-accented Wiesenthal, yet keeps his mission surprisingly fresh, remarkably able to navigate morphing into other characters in the man's long life with lightning quick alacrity.

Perhaps the most haunting moments come when the fragile and burned-out old man--Wiesenthal would die only two years after this point in his journey—extracts a tattered piece of yellowing paper out of his wallet and tenderly unfolds it to reveal a note left in a discarded bible by an 11-year-old boy before he was carted away by the stormtroopers and, surely, to his untimely death.

The boy asks only to be remembered, writing, "Now that you've read this, I am no longer dead," adding that he begs the reader to keep his memory alive. "I trust you," the young man named Albert declares and, through Simon Wiesenthal’s tireless years of scouring the world to bring all those hidden Nazis to justice, he never forgot—and now, he tells us, he believes the boy will always be a part of us, too.

Though we might occasionally squirm in our seats while hearing about this legendary man's courageous struggle, there's special meaning today in the midst of our current political debacle, something that had not yet reared its ugly head and embarked on its soulless mission to destroy our country and its integrity back in 2011 when Wiesenthal first debuted. We are reminded by Tom Dugan's improbable hero that if we don't try to talk about how this atrocity was allowed to happen some 75 years ago, "it can happen again now."

Amen to that.

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THE CHOSEN at the Fountain Theatre

It was 1967 when I first read what people back then called the Jewish Catcher in the Rye, Chaim Potok’s best-selling novel The Chosen, which sparked and influenced a significant period of my personal development: it encouraged me to embrace Judaism for the first time in my life.

Still, even considering the 50th anniversary of the classic’s publication and taking in that rising playwright Aaron Posner recently updated his brilliant Potok-blessed 1999 stage adaptation, presenting The Chosen at this particular period in time seemed risky. Luckily for the Los Angeles theatrical community, however, the Fountain Theatre is not a producing entity that avoids taking risks.

In an era where a dangerously unhinged and dishonest conman was elected to lead us, where the slimiest of politics is practiced by both major parties, where our country’s long-buried or at least ignored racism has once again been unearthed, I wondered if perhaps the human decency and intelligent gentility of Potok’s story might be overshadowed by the collective depression of its potential audience—you know, smart people.

Under the passionate leadership of director Simon Levy, this resurrection of The Chosen is welcome indeed. Nothing is lost from the beauty and simple truths revealed as two observant Brooklyn teenage boys navigate their future and their faith in the shadow of the Second World War, as Europe is being lit by massive firebombs and six million Jews are systematically being eliminated.

Although Reuven and Danny (Sam Mendel and Dor Gvirtsman) have been raised only five blocks apart in the days before Williamsburg succumbed to Starbuck’s and Whole Foods, they have never known one another until their rival yeshivas pit them against one another in a sandlot baseball game. From a rocky beginning of their friendship, the two become steadfast friends, even though Danny is Hasidic and is being groomed to one day lead his congregation and replace his ultra-Orthodox rabbi father Reb Saunders (Alan Blumenfeld), while Reuven is being raised by a liberal college professor and political activist (Jonathan Arkin) as a secular Jew.

As the boys mature through the bond they find in one another’s differences, each faces a personal crisis of faith that leads them into surprisingly opposite directions. While Reuven’s dad offers him continuous pearls of wisdom about how he believes his son should take on his future, Danny is frustratingly alone, his father having chosen to keep a bond of total silence between them except during the periods when they are discussing the scriptures and rabbinical interpretation.

The fiercely held beliefs of the fathers causes Reb Saunders to angrily insist his son never again associate with Reuven, a painful development that, fascinatingly, leads to the boys’ individual decisions about their drastically different and unexpected futures.

On DeAnne Millais’ striking bookcase-dominated set, with both the Malter and the Saunders households separated by a neutral area featuring the type of steel understructure that could easily recall the J Street Station, Levy manages to cleverly keep the action surprisingly fluid, aided by Donny Jackson’s creamy, atmospheric lighting and energized by the dynamic sound design of Peter Bayne.

All four actors are perfectly cast, although the ease and ability to immediately sweep the audience into their arms and hold on tight for uber-talented veteran troopers Blumenfeld and Arkin overshadows the initially less-confident delivery of Mandel and Gvirtsman, who both begin the performance far less comfortable than they when they let themselves get caught up in Potok’s humanity and Posner’s magnificent wordsmithery.

This could be partially true because of the intimacy of the Fountain and the playwright’s penchant for having his characters address the audience right from the start. Surely by the third of forth performance, most of the early mannerisms and physical clumsiness from the younger less-seasoned players will get lost in the glories of Chaim Potok, whose honesty and insight chronicling the cherished traditions of Jewish values can not only elevate the nature of art and artists, but change lives.

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LOVE NEVER DIES at the Pantages Theatre and Segerstrom Center 

A decade after the ominous Opera Ghost lost his musical protégée Christine to his rival Raoul within the bowels of the Paris Opera House, Erik reemerges in New York City in Andrew Webber’s Love Never Dies, the much tried-out sequel to his enduring hit musical adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1890s gothic novel The Phantom of the Opera.

Also based on a novel, Frederick Forsyth’s The Phantom of Manhattan, itself a sequel to the original gothic tale, Love Never Dies finds our kinder, gentler, less-monstrous antihero (Icelandic opera tenor Gardar Thor Cortes, fresh from his extended turn in the role in Hamburg) thriving in the emerging electronically-charged 20th century environment and now running a theatre called the Phantasma amid the sideshow freaks and rickety rollercoasters on Coney Island.

When Christine (Meghan Picerno) travels from Paris with her now-husband Raoul and the couple’s 10-year-old son Gustave (Casey Lyons, who alternates with Jake Heston Miller) to perform in concert at Oscar Hammerstein Sr.’s new opera house, poor disfigured Erik goes a little batshit again—although this time without hanging stagehands from the grid or unleashing massive chandeliers to crash down on his thrilled audience.

Yes, this is a less frightening Erik and, as a result, a far less scary Phantom II. Although it’s easy to explain that, on the Coney Island of 1910, a shadowy guy could wear a mask 24/7 and lurk around corners in a long black cape without attracting unwanted attention, the first thing to miss here is the horrifying and eerie aspect of the familiar storyline.

Erik has civilized himself over the ensuing years with the help of his mentor and savior Madame Giry (Broadway legend Karen Mason), but turning the classic murderous O.G. created in the original silent film by Lon Chaney so many years ago into a fairly mild lovestruck businessman-entrepreneur doesn’t really seem the way to go when we’re all just sitting in the majesty of the darkened Pantages waiting for a chandelier to almost beam us on the noggin.

That aside, this production is absolutely gorgeous and Lord Andrew’s gossamer score, a little Bizet, a little Romberg, and far less Jimmy Page than its predecessor, is without a doubt his loveliest and most lyrical work since the too-often ignored genius of Aspects of Love. Dazzlingly complemented by the extraordinary, incredibly evocative Cirque du Soleil-esque sets and costuming by Gabriela Tylesova, whatever disappoints here—mainly the rather predictable and even soap opera-ish book by Ben Elton—gets swept away in the sheer beauty of the music and visual wonders filling the stage.

The score requires more vocal chops than previously demanded in any Webber musical, perhaps because he no longer has to pander to the insubstantial abilities of his marginally talented ex-wife. Here, Webber’s orchestrations are a textbook case of true sky’s the limitless-ness, which is why Cortes and Picerno, both coerced from the challenging world of grand opera, are so important to the production. Picerno is better finding the theatrical comfort zone between her classical training and the demands of the musical theatre stage than Cortes, who tends to use quirky, exaggerated body language to assay his role when trusting his richly magnificent voice would surely be enough.

Mason offers the finest performance of the evening, channeling her best Norma Desmond as she steals her every scene, seething with smoldering anger as the mournful Madame, while Mary Michael Patterson straddles a difficult track as her daughter Meg, who must transform from the Phantasma’s resident vaudevillian “it” girl in grand knockout production numbers to suddenly become an obsessed spurned lover on a destructive mission.

This marks an impressive debut for young Master Lyons, the Gustave the night we attended, who has a sweet natural charisma and the voice of an angel. How I would love to hear Lyons, before his clear boy soprano changes forever, join Cortes and Picerno to tackle the complex “Pie Jesu” in a full concert revival of Webber’s arrestingly brilliant Requiem Mass.

Director Simon Phillips does an impressive job moving the spirited eclectic ensemble of circus geeks and others around Tylesova’s massive, constantly moving set pieces, while choreographer Graeme Murphy Ao manages to create strikingly discordant tableaus amidst the wildly askew feathers and voluminous satins of the designer's whimsical costumes. Music director/conductor Dale Rieling also deserves kudos leading his impressive orchestra, while Mick Potter’s sound and Nick Schlieper’s lighting contribute immeasurably to the final product as well.

Although I would have welcomed more thrills and chills and visual joyrides in this much-anticipated journey, as well as a less melodramatic book, which in Elton’s adaptation has lost many characters and is severely truncated from Forsyth’s original novel, just to sit in the historic deco splendor of the Pantages Theatre listening to dynamic opera-trained artists ace Lord Andrew’s exquisitely complex, lingeringly haunting  (if you’ll excuse the expression) score, is more than enough.

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DISNEY'S ALADDIN at the Pantages Theatre

Of course, the best way to see Disney’s outrageously grand live stage recreation of their popular animated 1992 feature film Aladdin is to bring along a 12-year-old as your plus-one. Seeing it unfold through the eyes of a kid must be the ultimate thrill, although for adults, there’s a lot here to offer as well.

Reminiscent of an episode of the old Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, innuendos and slightly un-Disney-like references in the script that only adults (hopefully) will grasp abound, including when Jafar and Iago (Jonathan Weir and Reggie de Leon) herald Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) as the Chosen One and he immediately replies, “No, I think that’s a few hundred miles to the west.” There are also a couple of well-placed Trumpian digs I appreciated most eagerly and a few local references thrown in as well, as when the Genie (Michael James Scott) reaches in his sequined robe and pulls out one of those Hollywood Boulevard tourist trap Oscar replicas instead of his trusty lamp. “Oops,” he quips, “I did a little shopping before the show.”

As anything touched by the magic of Disney, this is a massive production with an undeniable pedigree, led by the sweeping and ever-tongue-in-cheek imagination of director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw (Book of Mormon, Something Rotten!, The Drowsy Chaperone) and complete with jaw-dropping illusions designed by Jim Steinmeyer and special effects by Jeremy Chernick, both worthy of David Copperfield at his best. Also adding to the wonder are towering Moorish art-inspired sets designed by that theatrical genie Bob Crowley and Gregg Barnes’ costuming is almost hallucinogenic in its colorful, glittering splendor—although Scott’s disdainful Tituss Burgess-esque Genie does rag on the pre-royal Aladdin’s Shriner-esque beggar-garb as “So third-century.”

From the opening extravaganza “Arabian Nights,” there are a lot of deliciously sly side references here, as Al’s trusty cohorts-in-crime Babkak, Omar, and Kassim (Zach Bencal, Philippe Arroyo, and Mike Longo, respectively) sing about what an amazement it is that so many of the citizens of the fictional Arabian city of Agrabah are so able to sing and dance. The large ensemble is fresh and energetic, although the fact that the setting offers a break for the male chorusmembers to not to have to shave their chests is, for me, a definite personal deterrent to the overall slick visual landscape.

Jacobs is a perfectly Disney choice for the title role, especially with his athletic prowess and exceptional voice, exhibited early on belting Alan Menken and Tim Rice’s lovely ballad to the character’s dead mother, “Proud of Your Boy.” His love interest Isabelle McCalla is a gifted singer as well and proves just feisty enough to make her Jasmine heroic, bringing the house down when she sarcastically snaps at her father the Sultan (JC Montgomery) what an outrageous idea it is that a woman could rule a kingdom. Where was her Jasmine last year when we needed her to run against our own real-life slimy orange-haired Jafar-clone?

Weir and Montgomery both contribute richly operatic turns, bringing weight and wonder to their otherwise cartoon characters actually lifted directly from a cartoon. The pintsized de Leon is a charmer as Iago, his raspy-voiced delivery falling somewhere between a dastardly but lovable Power Ranger meanie and Herve Villechaize pointing out “Da plane! Da plane!” to his boss Mr. Roarke. As Al’s besties, Bencal, Arroyo, and Longo are also great assets to the proceedings, making me wish someone would mount a revival of On the Town just for them.

Of course, the star-turn in the show is the not-terribly demure Scott as the hilariously light-in-the-curled-toe-slippered Genie, truly offering one the most physically exhausting performances I have seen in years from someone who looks more as though he should be playing Lennie Small. And despite anything Disney could bring to the table to glitz this production up, including impressive instant magical onstage costume changes and a “A Whole New World” delivered while our starcrossed lovers glide overhead on a real flying carpet, it is Scott and the entire company performing “Friend Like Me” in Crowley’s huge and astounding gold-dripping cave, complete with fireworks and lines of flashily-sparkling tapdancers, that literally stops the show.

Still, above anything else here delivered, none of this would be possible without Menken’s indelible multi-award-winning score, augmented by lyrics to which nearly everyone in attendance seemed able to sing along by Rice, Howard Ashman, and Chad Beguelin, and including on this national tour spirited musical direction by Brent-Alan Huffman.

Now, I understand Aladdin’s Tony-nominated book by Beguelin follows the original animated classic basically scene by scene and word for word, but for someone new to the experience, I couldn’t help wonder if the adult-ifying of the script was new to the Broadway version, as the familiar and predictable storyline itself made me want to run for the exit before the show even began. No matter, though, because everything thrown upon the also visually-stunning Pantages stage by Disney’s imagineers is most welcome, quickly transcending the expectations of even the crustiest of ancient and world-weary critics.

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El Niño from Rogue Machine

In his 1987 novel Misery, Stephen King’s central character was a writer kidnapped by a deranged fan after a car accident and forced to write a new book despite his massive pain-enhanced writer’s block.

Through the imprisoned Paul Sheldon, King described vegging out for hours in front of a blank sheet of paper in his typewriter, staring into the center of that abyss until a tiny hole would eventually peek through the blinding white page. As his mind whirred, the hole slowly got bigger and bigger, finally morphing into a sentence, then a paragraph, and finally locking into becoming the tortured inspiration for a new book.

In his long overdue dark comedy El Niño, LA’s own theatrical free spirit Justin Tanner returns at the top of his game, creating a similar character to Sheldon in his antiheroine Colleen (Tanner staple Maile Flanagan), a science fiction writer who, in midlife and after some modicum of success, has been relegated to inhabiting the living room couch in her parents’ Highland Park home with a bag of Dorito’s in her sweatpanted lap and a mother (Danielle Kennedy) who berates her in a continuous barrage of insults.

Suffering from chronic back issues and limping around the home nursing plantar fasciitis, Colleen has basically given up on her muse—not unlike the real-life battles which faced Tanner himself, who for an extended period of time suffered his own struggles with the same health issues and experienced a dark period overpowered by questioning his own talent and success. “I lacked the most important ingredient,” Colleen explains to her neighbor and unexpected fan Kevin (Joe Keyes). “Perseverance.”

As in so many of the homegrown playwright’s celebrated early plays which helped put LA on the map as a theatre town with some massive creative chops—including Pot Mom, Oklahomo!, and Zombie Attack, which ran for a record 10 years at the old Cast Theatre on El Centro—Tanner’s humor is sharp as a tack and twice as able to pierce the skin as ever before, albeit a tad more gently. As one character is blasted by another, the guy’s “first form of communication is the filibuster” and everyone in El Niño gets his or her chance to rant and rave to full comedic effect.

This kind of writing would make any actor willing to take a chance, beyond selling tampons on TV or singing about bright golden hazes on the meadow, shit his or her pants to assay and this could not be more evident than with the stable of gifted Tannerites who would crawl through the desert—or even park at Santa Monica Blvd. and Oxford—to say the words written by Tanner.

As such, this cast is uniformly golden, from the mutt-like Flanagan, who could read the evening entertainment news on KCAL and still manage to look miserable, to resident straightman Nick Ullett as her father, who takes his aging mensch of a character from the usual elderly dad ranks of I’m Worried About the Beav, June, to gloriously funny heights with deadpan certainty and more than a little dose of surprisingly agile physical humor.

Kennedy is perfectly droll as his seasoned and caustic mistress of sarcasm wife, especially in a wonderful 11th-hour speech about how surprised she is at her enjoyment when forced into the role of caregiver. Melissa Denton brings life as their other daughter Andrea, who meets a potential beau in a hotel bar in Morocco—a vacation she otherwise hated—a real lothario who belts out his grateful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” when he realizes she’s a fellow ‘Murken in that “godforsaken country.”

Jonathan Palmer is hilarious as Andrea’s new racist-hyphen-misogynist catch Todd, not quite the doctor her mother would have preferred but a veterinarian specializing in euthanasia (“from the Greek word for Good Death” he cheerfully notes), an obvious Republicunt who hates almost everyone except white anglo-saxon native-born Americans and admits if there’s one thing he “doesn’t get” it’s artists.

Yet it is Keyes as the sweet and schluppy Kevin, the neighbor cherishing the last gasps of life emanating from his beloved feline companion Larry, who surfaces as the play’s most lovable character, the only one in the charmingly dysfunctional mix here who seems able to quietly and sweetly save the day.

Director Lisa James does a masterful job wrangling these exceptional actors pulling out all the stops as Tanner’s goofy characters, nicely complemented by John Iocovelli’s brilliantly claustrophobic and terminally homey craftsman living room design, which evokes Colleen’s Edvard Munch-like familial incarceration despite the size of the stage, and aided by Christopher Moscatiello’s crashing storm and Brian Gale’s lightning flashing outside the windows.

It’s great to have Justin Tanner back home where he belongs and I’d praise him endlessly for letting us in on his insight and signature wicked wit once again, but knowing him I’m afraid he’d react with the same attitude as one displayed by his richly entertaining characters sitting out his play’s omnipresent El Niño:

“What do you want from me? Spinal fluid?”

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THE MOUSETRAP at Crown City Theatre 

Dame Agatha Christie’s notorious whodunit The Mouse Trap holds the distinction of being the longest-running stage play in modern history, playing continuously in the West End since 1952 and racking up a staggering 27,000-plus performances. Beginning as a short radio play in 1947, The Mouse Trap follows a group of eccentric travelers stranded together in an old English manor house during a raging snowstorm and, of course, one of them is a murderer—and soon, another of them is a victim.

Among the assembled are the inn’s new owners, a fresh-scrubbed recently married couple (Megan Cochran and Bobby Slaski) who maybe don’t know each other yet as well as they should before tying the knot; an eccentric young architect (Hans Obma) who on the surface seems would rather would rather cook, scare the bejeezus out of people, and appreciate good looking young men rather than design buildings; a typical blustery old military man (Nicholas Cleland) who lurks around behind studying the other guests a bit too suspiciously; and a Gale Sondergaard-y tailored British ex-pat (Annie Liebermann) who lives in Majorca and will only say she’s returned to England to take care of some personal business.

Add in a perpetually lemon-faced, starchy former magistrate (Mouchette van Helsdingen), a Miss Marple-type dowager who complains continuously and would be my first choice to strangle, and a bizarre “foreigner” in full old-age makeup (Michael Mullen), the only unexpected guest who may or may not be present because his car overturned in the blizzard. Then of course there’s the obligatory police inspector (Tavis L. Baker), who arrives on snowshoes to warn the others their lives may be in danger and stays to interrogate everyone when someone in the group becomes the first little mouse caught in the killer’s trap.

On Joanne Lamb’s nicely appointed set and under the direction of Sonny Lara, this is indeed a welcome and delightfully non-thought-provoking divertissement, filled with its traditional slew of Dame Aggie’s typical red herrings and that famous plea, made to audiences of the play during its curtaincall for the past 65 years, to not give away the twist ending and reveal the name of the killer to anyone.

The cast, all of whom are obviously enjoying themselves, work hard to give us a chill, but the performances do suffer from an unfortunate unevenness in style that any director should have caught and made better. Obma creates a wonderfully quirky Christopher Wren, but delivers too many lines directly out front to the audience, which might work if he actually gave the feeling of looking out a window at something beyond the fourth wall rather than just performing for those gathered before him.

Slaski doesn’t say a line or leave the stage without an ominous final double-take reminiscent of a silent movie melodrama while, sending the meter to the completely opposite side of the emotional scale, Baker plays his Detective Sargeant right to the bone as though hired for a guest turn on Law and Order. Only Mullen as the deliciously over-the-top Mr. Paravicini and Liebermann as the somber Miss Caswell understand and embrace the modified gothic style, yet neither goes too far and slealthily avoid turning their roles into cartoons.

Despite any druthers, this is a charming, well-meaning, mostly successful presentation. As it has while holding court in London for all these years, The Mouse Trap can lift away all the crappiness of our current world situation and help us set aside our collective frustration with the trap from which all us American mousies find ourselves squirming to loosen our necks from its deathly grasp. Christie knew how to spin a good yarn and here, the good folks at Crown City are presenting her enduring record-breaking classic directly from their big and prolific hearts.

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LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR at the Garry Marshall Theatre

Boy, is there ever the need for some really, really deep bellylaughs these days, whether emanating from the 1st floor, the 83rd floor, or in this case, the 23rd. The resurrection of Neil Simon’s last coherent play provides welcome respite from the deluge of Tweets spewing from our current Madman-in-Chief that make most people want to go back to bed and pull up the covers. Lovingly remounted at full goofy gallop at the Garry Marshall Theatre, led by the uber-kinetic Marx Brotherly direction of the prolific Michael A. Sheppard, Laughter on the 23rd Floor is truly a joy to behold.

Debuting in 1993, the original Laughter featured Nathan Lane in yet another in a career stuffed with exhaustingly over-the-top performances as Max Prince, a terminally neurotic comic legend written to evoke the late-great Sid Caesar and harkening back to the early 1950s. It was an era when Senator Joseph McCarthy, another monstrous and greedy ego-driven politician reminiscent of our own Celebrity Appresident, was hard at work conspiring to destroy our country at the full throttle of his twisted destructive wrath.

It was also a time when the fresh young Simon and his brother Danny were junior staff writers on Caesar’s weekly TV classic Your Show of Shows and here, his outrageously eclectic characters working together to explore the “cancer zone of humor” clearly reflect the infamous eccentricities of Caesar and his band of merry men. Including characters conjuring future comedy gods Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbert, Mel Tolkin, and Selma Diamond, Laughter was Simon’s theatrical swansong and, to me, remains one of his best and my favorite after the also often overlooked The Gingerbread Lady.

For any actor cast as Max, trying to stay standing in Nathan Lane’s massive wake must be attempted only by a brave soul with absolutely no filter—but then, as Arthur Miller once noted, the best work any artist can achieve is often on the verge of embarrassing him. As Max, Pat Towne should indeed be sufficiently embarrassed if that be true, much to the great and gleeful benefit of those gathered to watch in awe as he pulls out every comedic stop known to man.

Directing a production of Dracula a few hundred years ago and playing the original 1924 stage melodrama as a total farce, I cast a rather stuffy, unintentionally hammy Shakespeare-obsessed actor as Dr. Van Helsing, who at one point stopped rehearsals to yell at me that I was asking him to do everything but drop his pants in an effort to get a laugh. I agreed. He dropped his pants from that day forward to universal acclaim, something for which he was happy to take personal credit.

As Max, guess what Towne does? I can’t help wondering if doing an entire act in his skivvies but still sporting a trenchcoat, tie, and scarf in place over his knickers was a bit sparked in the fertile brain of Towne, his director Sheppard, or if it was written in by Simon. Who knows? It might have been one of Caesar’s many notorious idiosyncrasies.

With only a short respite to relax when Max is on a brief tranquilizer-fueled somnambulant tear, a time when he confesses to have fallen asleep with his eyes open and wondered if perhaps he was dreaming about a ceiling, this role is enough to make one start popping uppers instead of downers. How Towne can do this at every performance at such a breakneck pace is something to puzzle the best of us. Simply, it is a tour de force performance from an actor with the most precision comic timing—and the best Brando “contender” imitation—I’ve seen in a long time.

The other ensemble members, while obviously bowing to the brilliance of their leading performer, all hold up on their own expertly, especially Jeff Campanella as hypochondriac head writer Ira (a send-up of Mel Brooks), who is so annoying to the others he’s told there isn’t a puppy in the pound who would go home with him, and Roland Rusinek as Val (Simon’s Mel Tolkin tribute), a Russian immigrant who learns to pronounce “Fuck you” instead of “FOK you” just to deliver it correctly for once in his coworker’s face.

John Ross Bowie is wonderfully understated but oh-so watchable as Brian, the team’s resident Zeppo, who coughs up some interesting guttural sounds on a regular basis and dreams of leaving the overpowering stress of his job for cushy Hollywood success, eventually coming back from here in LaLaLand to gloat to his buddies about his newfound wealth, his pure cashmere coat, and the fact that he’s now three hours younger in the process.

As the play’s Selma Diamond/Lucille Kallin clone, Lanisa Renee Frederick has many caustic side-talking wisecracking oneliners but gets her real due in the second act when Carol’s uncomfortable pregnancy transforms her physicality from Rosemarie to Lucille Ball. Yet as skilled as this entire cast is, the most hilarious is Jessica Joy as Helen, the typically ditsy dumb blonde secretary with too-tight skirts and a squeaky Billie Dawn voice who longs to be a comedy writer too, but has a difficult time trying to be funny.

Still, the star of the show is Sheppard’s broadly courageous staging, complete with times when characters deliver lines with surprising success directly out front to the audience or trail Max around the staff room in circles like the seven dwarves hi-ho-ing back to work as he taps his ever-present stogie into the coffee cup being offered him by one of his minions. It is a spectacular effort, one that absolutely makes the play’s 2-hour, 15-minute running time zip by at lightning speed as we brush away tears of laughter—although personally, I believe 25 years since its debut, Laughter on the 23rd Floor would better maintain its momentum if it lost its formerly obligatory intermission.

“Jewish jokes, Irish jokes, Italian jokes,” laments Carol at one point. “Hasn’t our country progressed beyond that yet?” The answer is obvious: no sir-y. Not only hasn’t our collective sense of humor gone beyond slipping on banana peels and pants-less men in Brooks Brothers suits, with all the omnipresent shit happening around us on a daily basis, I for one could not be more grateful.

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AN UNDIVIDED HEART from Circle X and Echo Theater Company 

Plays dealing with dysfunctional families are suffering from major overkill these days, but plays delving into the sexual abuse scandals running rampant in the Catholic Church are quickly inching up to become a close second.

An Undivided Heart by Yusuf Toropov, world premiering as a joint effort between Circle X and Echo Theater Company, is one of those latter plays and, although Toropov tries valiantly to break through with a few new wrinkles added to the theme of creepy abhorrent priests and the now-adult sullied altarboys who pursue them in an effort to exorcise their own demons, he only confuses things rather than offering anything new.

Ironically, the best scene in the entire play is the first, where Tim Wright as the ever-searching brother of one of those crusading formerly-fucked acolytes (Matthew Gallenstein) meets a miserable pregnant clerk running a local town dump (the bravely quirky Alana Dietze), who so blisteringly verbally abuses him that it sends her into labor. It is a scene of great promise—but that’s before the play turns into a scattered epic-in-training without a clear destination in sight.

The puzzle is why Toropov felt the need to add in everything but the kitchen sink to tell his story, but his lack of focus robs us of what might be an interesting journey and leaves us disinterested in anybody. From the church hiding the behavior of erring priests from the public to a never totally explored offshoot about the toxic drinking water scandal in Massachusetts in the early 90s, An Undivided Heart would seem to want to talk about people burying the truth to save their souls—if you’ll excuse the reference—but never successfully resolves much of anything.

Instead, the tale becomes diluted by excess, wandering off into a blossoming romance, as well as scenes between the young priest and a ghostly spirit of a young child (Ann’Jewel Lee), who spouts poetic riddles for him to unravel, and the appearance of a beneficent Zen master (Tracy A. Leigh), who answers every query with a serene smile and yet another unanswered question.

The play is simply populated with too many characters and storylines, when if it concentrated on the crisis in the church or Dietze and her relationship with the new guy she might actually be able to trust and the mother who thinks they have to go through their trials together because “that’s what God made families for,” there might not be need for an intermission.

Even the hilarious performance of Michael Sturgis as the Cardinal’s bizarrely quirky assistant, who belts songs and does everything but cartwheels to entertain Gallenstein’s character whenever he shows up for hand slap and ring kiss with his boss, makes no sense to the story, obviously included more for comic relief than for any real purpose.

Gallenstein has some truly fine moments, but his simple, straightforward, and touchingly heartfelt delivery is oddly hampered by his habit of, after finishing each important line, adding some needless extraneous pained facial expression with such repetition that it begins to feel like a self-inflicted editorial on his own work.

Dietze and the venerable John Getz, appearing only in two brief scenes as a smooth but slippery Cardinal trying to keep the young priest from publishing his obligatory tell-all book, offer the best moments in the play, showing what a treat it would be if the playwright had scaled down his storyline and not tried to branch off into so many subplots that all of them get lost in the shuffle.

Alison Martin contributes a poignant turn as Dietze’s dying mother desperately trying to keep her daughter from leaving town or committing suicide, but the rest of the ensemble is glaringly uneven, from the brilliance of Dietze, Getz, and Sturgis to the nearly unwatchable mugging and fluttering body movements of Jeff Alan-Lee as the ultra-icky priest who likes to take compromising photos of underage parishioners. Like Sturgis’ character, Wright as Dietze’s savior and Paul Eiding as yet another obligatory world-weary priest are basically unnecessary as they slog through their terribly underwritten roles.

Although Lee is extremely talented and suitably feisty, her underdeveloped youthful voice is nearly impossible to understand except in one scene when she doubles as a real live girl. Would that director Chris Fields had tried putting her dialogue in the fantasy scenes on tape; since they take place in a dreamstate, there’s no reason her mouth needs to be moving and then audience members would not be collectively craning their necks forward in their seats in an effort to hear her mysterious verse.

The production itself is beautifully designed, especially Cricket Myers’ evocative sound plot and Amanda Knehans’ minimal but arresting all-red Rothko-inspired set. Still, considering a playing space this size, which runs the length of the converted warehouse, surely Fields could have utilized Rose Malone’s talent for lighting design, keeping all the furniture in one place throughout and avoiding so many clunky scene changes. When the action and actors meld from one scene into the next without forcing them to double as Bekins movers, it works like gangbusters.

What could be a fascinating journey for An Undivided Heart is instead a mishmash, further exacerbated by Toporov’s indulgent and not-too subtle preaching about religion and the differences between the conflicts of Catholicism and the serenity of Buddhism. Even if meant to be the overlying point here, it would be easier to take if Toropov didn’t insist on tackling the issue as though offering a preliminary starter course in Zen 101.

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UNEMPLOYED ELEPHANTS at the Victory Theatre Center

There’s no doubt that LA playwright Wendy Graf has a wonderful way with words. Although usually presenting quirky dramatic storylines with an ever-present hint of political awareness, prior to the world premiere of her newest play, Unemployed Elephants—A Love Story at the Victory, the sharply provocative work of Graf has never before focused on the genre of romantic comedy.

Strangers Jane and Alex (Brea Bee and Marshall McCabe) find themselves plopped in adjoining chairs in the waiting room of an airport and it’s immediately a bristly, contentious first encounter. They disagree on most everything right from the start, quickly agreeing not to even share their given names with one another. Of course, both conflicted lone travelers are conveniently about to depart to the same exotic “Buddha Disneyland” destination, so what will become of their relationship over the course of 90-minutes is hardly a surprise. This is a romcom, after all, so the outcome is a given—if the play’s subtitle wasn’t enough of a hint.

Alex says he is off to Myanmar to do a story for Animal Planet on the collectively depressed elephants displaced by the banning of logging in the country’s depleted rainforests, while Jane is embarking solo on what was to be her honeymoon trip until her intended dumped her right before the wedding. These two wary, badly wounded people quickly decide to travel together and even share a hotel room, which is the first rather clumsy attitude change that forces these two gifted actors and their equally gifted director Maria Gobetti to have to work really, really hard.

The production values, as everything beautifully produced over the years at the venerable Victory, are top drawer, especially Evan Bartoletti’s simple but effective Southeast Asian-inspired design touches augmented by breathtaking views of the region delivered in Nick Santiago’s evocative projections. Still, the journey is hampered by frequent set changes made by the two actors, dragging down the action considerably when, perhaps, if the furniture remained in one place while the lighting and projections conjured the places the pair visits, the result would be less distracting.

The dialogue is continuously spiky and the characters, though clearly linked for no reason except to illicit a happy ending, are suitably charming. There’s no doubt Unemployed Elephants is funny and entertaining, but the biggest problem is that, like in the good ol’ Golden Era of film and television, the story itself is easy to second guess.

There was a time when this kind of romantic sparring was refreshing onstage, particularly if accompanied by such crisp and clever wordsmithery as that created by Graf, but that was before television comedies offered much better and less formulaic writing than during the restrictive family-oriented sitcom days of yore. Hollywood is a place where topical comedic magic happens on a fairly regular basis these days on the small screen without potential audience members having to abandon the comfort of their couches.

Still, in a perfect world, someone in attendance might realize that Unemployed Elephants could easily be turned into yet another popcorn-selling vehicle for Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman. So if Wendy Graf set out to prove how perfectly hirable she could be in our omnipresent “Industry” town, this should do the trick. Personally, I hope in the future she sticks to political non-correctness.

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