"Critics are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors."   ~ Ernest Hemingway 




Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992  

Photo by Craig Schwartz 

Mark Taper Forum

It’s been 30 years since Anna Deavere Smith’s award-winning solo play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 debuted here in its sold-out world premiere at the Taper before going off to a much-acclaimed run in New York at the Public and later be nominated for two Tonys when it transferred to Broadway. Subsequently, the show traveled the country on a national tour mounted by Berkeley Rep and also enjoyed transferring to film in partnership with PBS.

Now Twilight has returned to the Taper where it was originally commissioned by Center Theatre Group, championed by CTG’s lategreat founder and artistic director Gordon Davidson, after the horrors of the notorious 1991 savage attack on Rodney King and the acquittal the following year of the assholian LAPD officers who beat him into a coma—an incident which of course resulted in the LA riots that left 58 people dead and 2,383 people injured, clocked in 7,000 fire responses, 12,111 arrests, and left 3,100 businesses damaged.

Smith originally conducted personal interviews with many Angelenos affected by the riots, including professors and scholars, leaders of the Black Panther party and other prominent African-American activists, targeted Korean shopkeepers whose livelihoods were destroyed, even one of the cops responsible for the event which shocked LA and the country to the core.

Smith performed her distillation of those interviews in her creation, playing every one of those individuals and doing so brilliantly. Now however, she has adapted her original script to be performed by five actors, the result of which actually makes Twilight even more riveting as it centers on the events and removes the overpowering focus on what, granted, was truly a memorable performance by its author.

Smith developed this reconceptualized version of Twilight in 2021 off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre, a presentation New York Magazine noted proved that there was a “moral thrill in the work that will never fade,” while the New York Times named a Critic’s Pick and said the production remained “as necessary now as when Los Angeles was actively smoldering.”

It’s said of our species that we never seem to learn from our mistakes but now that Smith’s masterwork has returned to where it began, it couldn’t be more obvious that it’s an even more timely and urgently important work than ever—if only this time someone listens to its message and does something to change things that have remained glaringly stagnant over the last three decades.

The Taper has made a major contribution to the play’s greatness, hiring the incredible Gregg T. Daniels to direct and assembling some of the most impressive performers and designers working today in our oft-maligned desert climes.

Daniels smoothly, deftly keeps the piece moving and fluid, clearly honoring the material as his main concern rather than letting the piece too easily become a showcase of the otherworldly artistry of his cast and design team, all of whom are able to stand on their own without needing any well-meant dramatic embellishment.

“The work was never meant to be restricted to a one person show format,” Smith has commented about her new revision. “I wanted all of my works to be done by groups of actors, especially in schools and universities, or in communities where discussion might follow. Democracy is all about a variety of individuals working towards a goal. The cast of a play can exemplify that.”

The Taper’s cast of five is absolutely breathtaking, from Lovensky Jean-Baptiste’s take on an angry activist and an even angrier defendant in the trial against the monsters who pulled innocent trucker Reginald Denny out of his truck and beat him unmercifully, to Sabina Zuniga Varela’s poignant turn as a possibly undocumented teen trying to fit what happened into her life and a turn as a male Chicano artist willing to fight for his freedom and the safety of his family at any cost.

Lisa Renee Pitts is equally comfortable as Rodney King’s loving but socially challenged aunt and especially as Elaine Brown, the world-weary former chairwoman of the Panthers sick to the core having to repeatedly state the same reasons why simply taking to the streets to protest is not nearly enough to force the drastically necessary change our country so desperately needs.

Still, it is the work of LA theatrical treasures Jeanne Sakata and Hugo Armstrong who shine the brightest here.

With a flip of a string of pearls or the donning of a jacket, Sakata is instantly able to transform from portraying anthropologist and Asian-American scholar Dorinne Kondo to Yong Hee, a sweet Korean immigrant struggling with her broken English and mourning the death of her personal American Dream when her innocent husband was shot in the face by the rioters as he sat in his car trying to maneuver the chaotic traffic.

And when the diminutive actor suddenly slips into the swaggering persona of Charlton Heston, Mr. “Cold Dead Hands” himself, it becomes apparent Sakata can do just about anything—not that such a thing is anything this particular admirer (and former costar) didn’t already know.

Armstrong is also able to morph instantaneously from portraying one of the cops accused to the entitled but scrappy board president of the LA Police Commission, a man who walked directly into the fray, to a typical film industry talent agent who discusses how his power lunch was interrupted by news of the riots.

Nearly all of the performers further solidify their versatility by each assuming the identity of the late Beverly Hills realtor-to-the-stars Elaine Young, whose interview focuses more on the dastardly results of her many plastic surgeries than about the riots, something she survived among a handful of other clueless westside dilettantes hunkered together in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Perhaps Smith’s cleverest rethinking comes in Act Two in a new segment called “The Table” where castmembers wheel in a long banquet table overflowing with food and all five actors sit down together to share a compilation of the play’s most interesting and diverse interviews, from Pitts’ world-weary Black Panther leader to Varela’s take on LA Times Pulitzer-winning reporter Hector Tobar to Sakata’s lowly Korean shop owner, breaking bread together in an attempt to foster some kind of community. The effort only confirms how different we all are and how frustrating it is to try to get us all on the same page.

Jeff Gardner’s arresting sound design, incorporating Tru’s original score, is perfection, as is Brandon Baruch’s accompanying lighting plot and the often nondescript but easily identifiable costuming by Samantha C. Jones that helps the actors switch from one character to another with lightning speed.

Efren Delgadillo’s set is simple but impressive, able to become a blank slate to celebrate Yee Eun Nam’s dynamic video projections that almost become a sixth character. There’s an overhead opera-style supertitles screen stage-center that flashes welcome announcements of who the interviewees depicted are and what they represent—and when the huge screen suddenly features the entire video of the King beating and later the attack on Reginald Denny, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the Taper become so eerily silent save for scattered sobs and shocked intakes of breath of those in attendance who probably only saw them unfold on a small screen.

There’s no doubt that what’s addressed once again in this reinvention of a groundbreaking classic is certainly appreciated at this time and place when we are still reeling from the death of George Floyd and so many others murdered at the hands of racist out-of-control cops and as we try to return to normal after the administration of our dangerously deranged former Celebrity Appresident gave the Morlocks license to crawl out from below their rocks and almost destroy our country.

Add in the current national climate where our Asian-American community in America is being ostracized and threatened more than ever before and one can only wish this time out, someone will heed the warnings and join the fight to make serious changes in how we can, as Rodney King himself once prophetically put it, “all just get along.”

I was extremely pleased to see how many young students were invited to attend the opening night of Twilight, many clearly identifiable as theatre students, many possibly from LACHSA considering their excitable energy and extroverted conduct, not to mention the cornucopia of Wicked and Mean Girls t-shirts on view throughout the auditorium. Not only have they been given an opportunity to experience the wonders of true ensemble performance at its finest, they can experience firsthand how clearly, with commitment and selflessness, art can potentially inspire and make a difference in a too often uncaring world.

Thirty years ago, I had hoped young people in general and theatre students in particular would get to see the original mounting of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and I now wonder if anyone ever did, considering how little has changed in this vile and still blatantly inequitable society of ours.

Please listen, our desperately indispensable next generation. Please, please listen to these forever immortalized American citizens interviewed by Anna Deavere Smith thirty years ago and do a better job changing the world than we have, won't you? The future of our planet is in your hands.

THROUGH APR. 9: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

*** Tickets to Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and 75+ additional productions starting at $20 are available now during LA Theatre Week through April 2.  https://www.theatreweek.com/los-angeles

The Lonely Few  

Photo by Jeff Lorch 

 Geffen Playhouse

It’s rather a phenomenon that a brand new untried musical in development for the last five years can debut in a 114-seat Los Angeles black-box theatre and not only sell out almost immediately, but soon after find the theatre announcing an extension even before opening night.

Such is the case with the brassy and in-your-face rock musical The Lonely Few, created by playwright Rachel Bonds and composer Zoe Sarnak, now in its much talked about world premiere in the Geffen Playhouse’s second space, the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre.

Perhaps its unheard of advance sale came partially from Robert Ito’s splashy pre-opening feature in the New York Times or the announcement that the cast would include three substantially buzzed-about young Broadway superstars on the rise, but whatever the reason, one can only hope it extends a few more times so more people will be able to see it before it moves on to what is surely to be a spectacular future.

Set in a small neighborhood Palomino-style bar in rural Kentucky, directors Trip Cullman and Ellenore Scott with the invaluable inclusion of Sibyl Wickerheimer, one of our town’s most creative set designers, have impressively transformed the Geffen’s more intimate theatre into an immersive rustic two-level playing space.

Here many of the audience members are seated at tables and chairs or placed on barstools that line two sides of the house as the band delivers a surprisingly welcome ear-splitting score from a roughhewn raw wood stage placed smack-dab in the middle of neon signs and a fully stocked bar. It’s a place where magic happens.

What makes The Lonely Few nearly unstoppable is Sarnak’s brilliant score, delivered by a cast of worldclass performers with jaw-dropping vocal skills (save one) who, appearing as the play’s in-house band, also provide most of their own musical accompaniment—with more musicians led by musical director Myrna Conn hidden just behind the back wall accompanying songs not meant to be performed by the onstage band members.

This production is a breath of fresh air in the current landscape of potentially groundbreaking musical theatrical offerings as it centers around the romance sparking between two gifted female band singers (Lauren Patten and Ciara Renee) as each wrestles to find their place in the music scene—one as a backup singer clawing her way up and the other as someone desperately trying to keep from being smothered by the dead end of her Old Kentucky Home, a far more dismal place than Stephen Foster ever imagined.

Patten, the hot-hot Broadway phenom who in 2019 took the town by storm with her Tony, Grammy, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Award-winning performance as Jo Taylor in the Alanis Morissette-Diablo Cody musical Jagged Little Pill, is absolutely showstopping once again as Lila, the country girl stuck in Dogpatch working as a clerk at the local Save-a-Lot discount mart while caring for her useless and perpetually drunk brother Adam (Joshua Close, the “save one” as the only non-singer in the cast of six).

From the minute Patten hits the stage impressively delivering Sarnak’s haunting “Always Wait for You,” followed by the rocking “God of Nowhere” performed at the local wateringhole and introducing the members of her band The Lonely Few (Damon Daunno, Helen J Shen, and Thomas Silcott), it’s not difficult to surmise one is in the presence of a huge future Broadway musical lioness equally adept at quiet introspection and Joplin-like brassiness.

As hard as it is to imagine a costar able to keep from being overshadowed by the performance of Patten, Ciara Renee, also a talent on the radar from her New York turns as Jenna in Waitress and as the first African-American actress to portray Elsa in Disney’s Frozen, seamlessly bounces off and compliments the five-star talent of her love interest.

Dauanno, nominated for both a Tony and a Grammy as Curley in the dastardly 2019 revival of Oklahoma!, is also a standout on his own as Lila’s restless boss and bandmate Dylan, as is Shen as their sweetly ambitious keyboardist JJ and Silcott as the band’s drummer and the laidback owner of the bar.

Almost everything here is top-drawer, from the dynamic yet relatable performances, to Cullman and Scott’s clever environmental staging, to Wickershimer’s innovative set, Nick Kourtides’ loudly provocative sound, and Adam Honore’s moody lighting design—which not only is appropriately flashy when needed but is also able to identify two separate playing spaces with the actors performing in a duet while standing directly next to one another.

Over and above everything is Sarnak’s indelible score, which leaves us with the feeling of attending a rock concert more than experiencing a new work of musical theatre. Ironically, it works.

Unfortunately, there’s one glaring Achilles’ heel in the ongoing development of The Lonely Few and that’s the well meaning but unfortunately inadequate book, something it’s impressive to see these dynamic artists able to rise above. 

Bond’s thin, uninspired, achingly predictable TV soap opera of a script pulls the entire production down. It’s not without merit nor something that needs to be totally scrapped, but it definitely needs some major, major reworking before the show heads off to it’s next well-deserved incarnation.

I don’t know if such a plan could generate enough income to employ such a dynamic cast and artistic team, but would I love to see this incredible new piece play in clubs, such as my old stompin’ grounds the Troubadour or the Chat Noir in New Orleans or the Bitter End in New York. It could become the quintessential amalgam between the theatrical community and the music business.

If I still had the contacts I had during my long tenure as Talent Coordinator of the Troub during its heyday in the so-called Golden Age, I’d have been on the phone first thing this morning. Even despite its ho-hum book to drag it down, The Lonely Few is a winner in every other regard.

THROUGH APR. 30: Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Av., Westwood. 310.208.2028 or www.GeffenPlayhouse.org

Love and Information  

Photo by Jenny Graham 

Antaeus Theatre Company

It’s a given that our courageous Antaeus Theatre Company doesn't brake for a challenge, something especially true as they tackle Caryl Churchill’s seldom produced 2012 play Love and Information, a dense and complex reflection on, among other prevalent Churchillian themes, the fragility of the human memory and how that fallibility has been influenced—and exacerbated—by the advent of the digital age.

Author of such daring and universally acclaimed experimental works as Top Girls and Cloud Nine, both of which not so coincidentally have been previously produced by Antaeus, Churchill is considered one of our time's most important leading-edge playwrights. At age 84, she still brings a sharply tuned poetic spin on contemporary sexual politics and unrelentingly explores the thorny issue of the social forces which, try as we may to avoid such an outcome, cannot help but affect our daily lives.

Consisting of a 90-minute collection of 50-some short basically two-character scenes performed by eight game actors uncannily able to tap into a kind of professional schizophrenia, Love and Information is perhaps Churchill’s most opaque play, written without stage directions, devoid of any character breakdowns, and not offering any guidance to help decide how it might be staged. This leaves the outcome and even the message of the play totally subjective, dependent on how the director designated to take the lead orchestrates the goings-on.

Antaeus has confidently bestowed that task to Emily Chase, who helms this fascinating take on the play with tremendous success on Frederica Nascimento’s austere and nearly nonexistent set, keeping each short scenario constantly fluid and yet simultaneously grounded, something which is without a shadow of a doubt a monumental achievement in itself.

Still, although I understand the desire to make the piece accessible to American audiences, I do think something is lost in translation here performing the piece without its archetypal English accents since Churchill’s script is devoid of grammatical contractions and spouts words such as “proper” in a way only the British utilize.

Luckily, Chase has been gifted with a brilliant company of performers who are all seamlessly capable of switching from one of the play’s diverse 100-plus characters to the next with lightning speed, leaving us dazzled and even somewhat dizzy in their collective ability to sort out the meaning of Churchill’s often fragmented situations and pinpoint the discernible humanity in each that we surely all recognize and experience in our personal lives.

This includes a poignant, thought-provoking, somehow unsettling scene where the ensemble joins together to sit and watch old home movies together, prompting one of the participants to observe that her memory of the events are limited only to the things that happen on the video. It brought to mind how little I remember of the mother I lost when I was only 18 until I dig out the old photo albums that help invaluably to evoke her image and presence once again.

Two of Antaeus’ most impressively prolific artists, Anne Gee Byrd and John Apicella, lead the knockout ensemble on to flesh out the meaning of each vignette, inspiring the other actors to be as brave and fearless as they are in the creation their own individual interpretations. The veteran duo is especially memorable in one scene as a wife deals with a longtime mate no longer able to recognize her, something I’m sure will hit home with many audience members besides yours truly.

It’s rather ironic that Churchill wrote Love and Information almost a dozen years ago and yet was somehow able to see clearly into the future and understand how technology would further both compliment and complicate our lives, how it would energize our existence and bring us together in our infinite electronic cyberland, and how often it would leave us more lonely and swamped by the scattered complexities of contemporary life than ever.

THROUGH APR. 3: Antaeus Theatre Company, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale. 818.506.1983 or Antaeus.org

*** NOTICE: Tickets to Love and Information and 75-plus additional productions currently playing starting at $20 are now available during LA Theatre Week through Apr. 2 at:   https://www.theatreweek.com/los-angeles/

The Secret Garden 

Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade 

Ahmanson Theatre

What a treat. After having the golden opportunity to be in the opening night audience of the splendid revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Sunday in the Park with George last Sunday at Pasadena Playhouse, to be graced a week later with this luscious and gorgeously appointed revival of Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s 1992 Tony and Drama Desk-winning The Secret Garden is almost too much for a sentimental old duffer like me to handle.

With an eye on a New York run, multi-award-winning Broadway director and choreographer Warren Carlyle has, with Norman's blessing, trimmed and visually reinvented this classic musical—and has done so beautifully. The Secret Garden has not been performed often in the past three decades since its initial success primarily because of how difficult and expensive it would be to mount as it was originally presented.

Besides some judicious pruning to Norman’s Tony-winning book, Carlyle and his veteran gang of notable New York theatre artists have streamlined the show's elaborate set and, by virtually eliminating the many scene changes, have made it far more accessible. This was something I looked upon with some trepidation but I found myself pleasantly surprised.

With the help of The Secret Garden's new world-class design team, headed by scenic designer Jason Sherwood and including Ann Hould-Ward‘s elegant costuming, Ken Billington and Brian Monahan's strikingly atmospheric lighting, and Dan Moses Schreier‘s emotive sound design, Carlyle adds true magic to Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved 1911 novel.

With the contribution of musical supervision and new arrangements by Rob Berman and orchestrations by Danny Troob, Dan Redfeld conducts an excellent and highly committed orchestra performing the recently deceased Simon's ethereal score which, akin to most of the compositions left behind by Sondheim, is unabashedly more operatic than anything created for commercial musical theatre in its time.

Burnett's charming English children's story could not have been an easy story to adapt, but Norman's ability to capture the original superlunary ambience of the book was always impressive and here, that undertaking has been morphed once more into something innovative and visually haunting.

Twelve-year-old Emily Jewel Hoder, arriving to this production directly from the successful revival of The Music Man on Broadway, handles the demanding role of the novel's orphaned heroine Mary Lennox with great professionalism, especially since the character is seldom offstage.

Although she nicely handles the demeanor of her lonely character, described as a “child who's never stood so still or looked so old,” occasionally Hoder's work seems to register as more theatrical than heartfelt, something that, with her obvious talent, is sure to fall more solidly into place after what must be a scary prospect: the very first night appearing in the taxing leading role of an established musical—a character that 31 years ago made Daisy Egan the youngest Featured Actress in a Musical Tony winner in history.

Derrick Davis is impressive as her tortured Uncle Archibald, as is Sierra Boggess as the earthbound spirit of his late wife Lily. Their gossamer duet of Simon's lovely ballad "How Could I Ever Know" is one of the highlights of the evening, as is Davis' duet "Lily's Eyes" with Aaron Lazar as his scheming brother Neville, surely the most unforgettable song in Simon and Norman's Grammy-honored score.

Showstopping numbers are legion in this secret garden, including those assigned to the puckish John-Michael Lyles as Dickon, a free-spirited sprite devoted to maintaining the overgrown moors surrounding Archibald's austere Misselthwaite Manor, and likewise Julia Lester as his spunky housemaid sister Martha. Susan Denaker is also a major standout as the manor's housekeeper Mrs. Medlock, as is Mark Capri as the trusted groundskeeper of Archibald's late wife.

“Old houses like this,” we are told, “possess more spirits than there are us,” and here Carlyle has craftily envisioned Mary’s parents (Ali Ewoldt and John Krause) and their household of devoted servants who cared for the family's needs in India before they were all wiped out by cholera, as ghosts still lingering throughout the play to watch over Mary, the sole survivor of the epidemic.

Perhaps the most memorable performance comes from Reese Levine as Mary’s bedridden 10-year-old cousin Colin, the doomed young lad she saves from the dastardly intentions of his Uncle Neville. Levine is incredibly feisty as the sweet but mistreated son of Archibald and Lily who survived the childbirth that ended his mother’s life.

I remember being sufficiently taken by the original New York production, but what has stayed with me more than anything over the years has been Heidi Landesman’s incredibly lavish set, Theoni V. Aldredge’s lovely costuming, and the performances of Mandy Patinkin as Achibald and John Cameron Mitchell as Dickon. Granted, that was a long time ago but honestly, the rest of it is definitely foggy.

I came away from this revamped and refreshed version with an appreciation for something I’m amazed didn’t floor me the first time: an enormous appreciation for Lucy Simon’s majestic score and Marsha Norman’s redolent, ambrosial lyrics. By ingeniously scaling down and simplifying the musical, Warren Carlyle has created a quintessential homage to the musical genius that brought it all to fruition the first time.

“I heard someone crying,” Mary Lennox sings. “Maybe it was me.” Or perhaps Norman was channeling a future image of me leaving the Ahmanson on opening night of this breathtaking return to The Secret Garden.

THROUGH MAR. 26: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

*** NOTICE: Tickets to The Secret Garden and 75-plus additional productions currently playing starting at $20 are now available during LA Theatre Week through Apr. 2 at:   https://www.theatreweek.com/los-angeles/

On TV:  The Last of Us — Episode 3  

No doubt this much talked about HBO miniseries is an exceptional effort for a fairly formulaic apocalyptic video game-adapted tale of survivors fighting zombie-like formerly human fungal virus blossoms—albeit with commendable acting, phenomenal special effects, and especially knockout art direction. I must admit, though, the first two installments did leave me itching a tad as I was trying to go to sleep.

But then along comes Episode Three, when suddenly the storyline veers off into a brilliantly written and hauntingly poignant single-viewing mini-movie that will surely leave Emmy Award voters in a quandary next year—unless they decide the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series honor can be split two ways between Murray Bartlett and my incredibly talented friend and former evidEnce Room compatriot Nick Offerman.

I mean, really, guys.

Some of the best and most heartfelt work I’ve ever seen on television.

  The Lion King

Photos courtesy of Broadway in Hollywood 

Pantages Theatre

Sometimes a showbiz match is made in theatrical heaven. Certainly that is the case for whomever at Disney suggested Roger Allers and my friend Irene Mecchi’s brilliant stage musical adaptation of their original 1994 animated version of The Lion King make its Los Angeles debut at the Pantages Theatre back in 2000—where the Nederlanders would partner with the legendary studio and spend $10 million to restore one of our town’s most magnificent former 1930s movie palaces to its original glory for the production.

Not only was the Pantages’ elaborate art deco ornamentation brought back to life by hand-painting every inch with new gold and silver leafing, the baldachin of the theatre’s entrance, long covered by a false ceiling, was revealed to be just as richly adorned as the rest of the place. The result was The Lion King stayed on at the Pantages for almost two years and clocked in nearly 1,000 performances.

Now, after 20 years touring North America, and with productions worldwide making it the top-grossing title in theatrical history, grossing $8.1 billion, the King has returned to its SoCal throne.

Beyond the architectural and design splendor of the Pantages, there is no more imaginative spectacle than The Lion King as experienced live, especially considering director Julie Taymor’s screamingly colorful and whimsical costuming, the mask and puppetry designs she developed with Michael Curry (the guy also responsible for the gigantic creatures crawling around Cirque du Soleil’s KA in Las Vegas), Richard Hudson sweepingly and impressively motile set, and Donald Holder's starkly velvety lighting—all of which were recognized among the production's six Tony Awards. 

There is a palpable magic still inherent in this uniquely lavish and charmingly uplifting production as the huge spectacle arrives back home at the Pantages—and as it continues to wow audiences on Broadway, clocking in a staggering 9,000 performances and grossing over $1 billion for the company that famous mouse built.

I was personally honored to be in the audience for the show’s original Broadway opening at the New Amsterdam in 1997, where it held court until transferring to the Minskoff in 2006, as well as working with the PR team at Radio City Music Hall in 1998 when it won those six Tonys, including for Garth Fagan's dynamic choreography and as Best Musical and Best Director of a Musical for Taymor, her win making history as the first woman to be so recognized.

The Lion King is a perfectly unique blend of fine art and ultimate theatricality, sweeping anyone in the audience, no matter how jaded, into a world unlike anything anyone has ever experienced before. As “children” of all ages sit gape-jawed in the audience, there’s such a continuous display of ingenuity and dramatic grandeur that even the world-weariest of viewers will not fail to be impressed. 

As most everyone probably knows by now, the miracles begin when the cast accompanies a full-sized elephant as it lumbers up the aisle to the stage through the audience, sending young children into the protective arms of their elders and leaving the adults equally breathless without such nurturing elder supervision to shelter them. 

Soon, the baboon shaman Rafiki, impressively played here by Gugwana Dlamini costumed in the character’s now well-known vibrant fur with what looks like a tambourine for a tail, her feet dominated by gigantic toenails and her face painted in a dazzling rainbow of shades, leads the enormous troupe in the familiar opening production number, “Circle of Life,” and quickly succeeds in making the iconic role her own. 

Actors portraying antelopes sprint by like cyclists across the massive playing space, followed by a herd of delicate giraffes moving silently on long and elegant stilts, while bright splashes of cloth at the ends of sticks become birds streaking across a jungle sky and company members in cane skirts and grass headdresses actually become the stage’s jungle floor. 

Of course, even considering the innovation of all this show’s celebrated wonders, it would be nowhere without the basics: Allers and Mecchi’s finely-tuned and often decidedly tongue-in-cheek book adapted from their screenplay and featuring the instantly recognizable score by Tim Rice and Sir Elton John. Fagan’s angular choreography is well represented and recreated by this energetic and committed touring ensemble, and the leading performances—Gerald Ramsey as Mustafa, Peter Hargrove as Scar, Scarlett London Diviney as the young Nala, and Darian Sanders and Khalifa White as the adult Simba and Nala—are all worldclass.

The show’s delightful periodic doses of comic relief and often topical double entendre-spouting dialogue are brought to life behind Curry's remarkable puppets by Nick LaMedica as the high-strung and finely-feathered valet Zazu, Nick Cordileone and John E. Brady as those sweetly goofy buffoons Timon and Pumbaa, and Robbie Swift as Ed, the hungry predator with a mind of his own. 

Still, it is the 13-year-old Jaylen Lyndon Hunter (alternating with Jordan Pendleton) as the young Simba who is the beating heart of this massive production, bringing an energy and natural graceful athleticism to the pivotal role that leaves one thinking there is a definite hope for the future. Hunter’s is a performance that can inspire every wide-eyed kid in the audience to strive for his character’s spirit and courage as Simba learns some of the hardest yet most edifying lessons in each of our own circles of life.

The Lion King has regally rediscovered its former home at the Pantages, where I suspect it could once again have reigned supreme for many, many years if it could have been ensconced here again for a longer run—but that would rob us grateful Angelenos of the incredible season the Nederlander’s Broadway in Hollywood has assembled to shake up our too often culturally deprived city. 

While it’s stopped here, don't miss an experience unequalled in what it has to offer: theatrical innovation, a wizardry only Disney can conjure, and a reminder of the spirit and determination of all living creatures attempting to bravely survive on our often inequitable planet.

THROUGH MAR. 26: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 800.982.2787 or broadwayinhollywood


  Ubu the King

Photo by Ashley Randall

Actors’ Gang

What a treat to relive something that began so inauspiciously 40 years ago and has since morphed into a true treasure for LA theatregoers.

The very first Actors’ Gang production in 1982 was a reinvention of Alfred Jarry’s revolutionary 1896 masterpiece Ubu Roi, which originally debuted in Paris at the Noveau-Theatre for one night only. Jarry’s Ubu the King baffled and shocked the audience with its rude and offensive humor that took on all cultural rules and traditions, opening the door to 20th-century modernism, dadaism, surrealism, and the Theatre of the Absurd.

Jarry was only 23 when he wrote Ubu, the same age as the Gang’s founding and still artistic director Tim Robbins was when he discovered the work while a student at UCLA and presenting it there. It was the production that birthed the Gang after moving it to the long-lost Pilot Theatre in Hollywood.

“When I first read it… I loved it,” Robbins admits. “It was a different world, a play of invented words and primal behavior, a twisted children’s playground, a funhouse of bad behavior.”

Of course, over the past four decades, Robbins’ Gang has been a tireless champion of some of the best counterculture theatre ever produced in America, including 150 plays presented right here in LA, and the company has toured 40 states and across five continents, including London, Milan, Bucharest, Athens, Madrid, Barcelona, Bogota, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Buenos Aries, and most recently Santiago and Conception, Chili.

Add in rehabilitation projects in 14 California state prisons and LA County probation camps, as well as the Gang’s education department which has reached thousands of children in LA public schools, and it’s clear Robbins and his troupe are major artistic overachievers. It a wonder the guy had time to go about tending to his distinguished Oscar-winning film career.

Now Ubu has been remounted as a 40th anniversary revival for the Gang, once again directed by Robbins and in no way tamed by the ensuing years or our ever-disintegrating national willingness to accept criticism for how we see the world and our ever-devolving place in it. The farts and exaggerated carnality and outrageously outspoken blasts aimed directly at the heart of authoritarian domination are still right in time as we try to pick ourselves up after nearly three years in isolation and figure out who the heck we are now in these dark days.

The play—and the outrageous style which blends unstoppably over-the-top humor and the 16th-century tenets of Italy’s Commedia dell’arte—has brilliantly survived the years and the cast is as eager and unfiltered as any energizing the Gang since its inception.

Chas Harvey perfectly leads the way as Ubu, complete with an enormous padded costume designed by Rynn Vogel that makes his rolls in the hay with Dora Kiss as Ma Ubu even more hilarious or his pained squats to deliver loud anal eruptions even more delightfully ridiculous than simply the loud prolonged bursts of sound alone.

The entire ensemble is equally willing to pull out the stops but it is the Gang’s most cherished and prolific member, Bob Turton—who should be enjoying the career recognition of Chaplin or Keaton or Robin Williams or Jim Carrey—who is the true highlight of the production as Captain MacNure, especially when he is feeding num-nums to his beloved collection of Ken dolls.

Those omnipresent Kens and the production’s impressive collection of puppets designed by Mary Eileen O’Donnell and Elif Sezgin, most of whom suffer their terribly brutal demise at the hands of the ambitious Ubu as he forcibly and gleefully takes over rule of the kingdom, are nearly as much fun to watch as the wildly committed actors themselves.

Ubu the King has lost none of its power or punch, offered once again in the guise of delectably scandalous and boisterously unconstrained humor that no one can ace better than these folks, making this one of the most irrepressible and enjoyable evenings out this busy season celebrating the welcome return of signature creativity delivered by our town’s ambitious theatre community.

Still, the fun is not without warning: “I’ve been thinking about the time we first did the play in 1982,” says the Actors’ Gang’s creatively ebullient leader Tim Robbins, “and whether the churlishness and danger of the Reagan years might have been a mild prequel to current loss of all good sense mega meta disaster movie we are living through today.”

THROUGH APR. 1: Actors’ Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Venice. 310.838.4264 or theactorsgang.com

The Beatles' LOVE at the Mirage, Las Vegas 

For a critic, keeping an open mind and looking at the familiar with a fresh eye for the unexpected is what it’s all about. The Beatles’ LOVE, the long-running Cirque du Soleil extravaganza that has successfully metamorphosed the Mirage Hotel from being all about overmarketed white tigers into becoming the host one of the most groundbreaking musical collaborations of all time, has recently been “updated”—sometimes a dirty word in Las Vegas.

I returned to see LOVE for the umteenth time with some trepidation, since I have what I’d like to think is a personal history with the show. When it first premiered back in 2006, I was given access to the machinations of creating the show. I was in groupie heaven, able to hang around backstage watching rehearsals and getting to know the artists. I spoke with two amazing “Sirs,” the Beatles’ producer George Martin and, on opening night, Paul McCartney himself.

In awe, I observed the down-to-the-wire refining of Philippe Guillotel’s now-famous period-shouting costuming, then interviewed prop goddess Patricia Ruhl and puppet mastermind Michael Curry (also responsible for the magical creatures in the Cirque’s magnificent KA down the street at the MGM Grand and The Lion King on Broadway). Why, I even got to enjoy a memorable “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” experience with an unearthly beautiful server named Levi I met at the opening night party.

The reworked current version of LOVE is in many ways simplified, which is surprisingly not a bad thing. It now seems less about the spectacle and more about the music and what is evokes in us. For some reason, I heard the gossamer lyrics of John and Paul as clearly this time as if they were onstage reciting their game-changing urban poetry and, oddly, the signature wonders of the Cirque took a respectful backseat for me to what these guys had to say about the world from the perspective of a half-century past. Prophetic, so much of it—and sadly, so little has been heeded or has changed about our fucked-up species since they first introduced their inspirational classic tunes.

Granted, I have been a Beatles fan since my friend brought the White Album over to my house in the fall of 1968 after standing in line overnight waiting for it to be released, an event that stretched from one “enhanced” morning into the next and made me fall deeply in thrall with the Fab Four and their ever-evolving music for the first time as the fireplace in my living room melted onto the floor.

Now, all these years later, watching the wonders of LOVE for the first time, it was like dropping acid again. Close. Really close. For me, however, what it made me recall even stronger was that opening night in the summer of 2006 when it all unfolded before me for the first time. Truly, though 17 years ago, I saw it all so vividly it felt like it had all happened about 18 months ago.

During that week dragging myself through the sweltering Vegas summer, my first glimpse into what would become a legendary production took place in the bowels of the Mirage where Siegfried and Roy once housed their lions and tigers before and after performances. It was complete with ominous scratch marks remaining along the hallway and remnants of the bolts that once fastened their cages in place still visible on the walls, but now acrobats soared to the high ceiling of the room on long vertical ropes while rehearsing for the much-anticipated opening of Cirque’s fifth permanent Vegas attraction.

Unlike those overly trained and obviously unhappy white-striped beasts of yore, helpless to say whether they wanted to be there or not all those years, these newly arrived airborne human artisans had been rehearsing for months—and not just to learn how to soar like Lucy in the Sky. In keeping with the “Here Comes the Sun” number, the performers honored a song written when the Beatles were into their metaphysical-transcendental stage by fiercely researching and diligently studying a mix of yoga techniques and Eastern Indian dance. Whether or not they tried a couple of tabs of Clear Light to understand the mood and atmosphere of that colorful era lost in time, they didn’t say.

Let’s just say commitment among the huge cast, as well as the multitude of backstage artists and technicians pushing the LOVE payroll to about 200, was a given—and obviously still is 17 years later. Bowing at every turn to the Beatles’ groundbreaking sound, the Cirque and MGM International joined forces with Apple Music to stage this still magical mystery tour, miraculously engineering new life into some of the 20th century’s most enduring music—and still keeping it alive and well all these years later.

In the process, they shaped a musical revolution of sorts by bringing together the brilliance of the most imaginative and successful composers of the last century with the most innovative troupe of performance artists working anywhere today, a formula that subsequently did them well with Viva Elvis, which opened the Aria there in 2010, and Michael Jackson ONE, currently playing still at Mandalay Bay. It’s a given that the Cirque reinvented this bizarre town over the past quarter-century since Mystere took the infamous desert oasis by storm in 1993. Wayne Newton has never been the same.

The original opening festivities were overshadowed by the presence of Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, as well as Sir Paul, who answered all questions rather dourly and barely venturing past one syllable, and his only other remaining bandmate, the newly elevated Sir Ringo Starr. Still, the most incredible part of covering the event was meeting and talking to the late-great George Martin, the then-octogenarian producer of all the Beatles’ albums and co-musical director of LOVE with his son Giles.

Working for two years on this project, Sir George admitted that night it was thrilling even for him. Not content with creating a retrospective or tribute show, the Martins insisted instead on bringing to each of the 2,013 audience members the personal experience of being in a small recording studio listening to the music for the first time.

In their sound studio high above the stage, an exact replica of Abbey Road Studios (“So much so we felt like laboratory hamsters whenever we moved something,” he admitted), the Martins practiced their signature sorcery. “Our mission was to try and achieve the same intimacy we get when listening to the master tapes at the studio,” he proudly explained. “The songs sound so alive. A lot of people listen to the Beatles in a conventional way—radio, MP3 player or car, for example—but never in such a space as this.”

Creating a kind of directional panoramic mode in the theatre-in-the-round by embedding two speakers in the back of every seat, the sounds of LOVE engulf and envelope the audience, achieving, as Sir George believed, “a real sense of drama with the music, [making] the audience feel as though they are actually in the room with the band.”

This is made more unique since the master tapes utilized were not designed for a record, not mined from the old classic albums or concert performances, but cut during the boys’ stints in the studio making small promotional films. Often featuring improvised quips as they goofed off and joked casually with one another, the final mix offers, as Sir George reasoned to me with infectious, childlike enthusiasm, “such an immediate sound… not ‘muffly’ like with so many shows in rooms this size.”

And today even more than before, unlike any Cirque du Soleil production before it, LOVE is a spirited and colorful homage of the era in which The Beatles soared—and the designers and creators did everything in their power (and they have a lot of resources from which to draw) to revive that global phenomenon known in my lost youth as Beatlemania. Beginning with real live Nowhere Men shuffling alone onto the stage to reluctantly visit a modest “Nowhere Land,” four scrim-obscured sides of the 360-degree experience soon lift grandly into a brave new world.

Acrobats scale ropes leading from a deep smoking pit around the stage to the riggings high above, twirling around the dismal scene of WWII-torn Liverpool, the exact time when John Lennon was born during the last Blitz. As brick walls burst and four small mop-topped children cower in their beds, the chillingly omniscient voices of the Beatles fill the enormous space to harmonize their glorious a cappella classic tune “Because.” Many of the Beatles’ characters are present onstage, including Eleonor Rigby, Father McKenzie, Sgt. Pepper, Lady Madonna, Mr. Kite, and the Walrus, as the chronology of the Beatles’ music journeys from the early eager goofy enthusiasm, through the drug-enhanced and meditation eras, and on to a spectacular finale of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

The 90-minute ride is like nothing anyone has ever seen before, thanks to the creators’ ability to make it all alternately imposing yet surprisingly intimate. Populated not only with typical Cirque aerialists and gymnasts but with street performers, ballet artists, hip-hoppers, tap and break dancers, some originally pulled right off the curb who’d never been onstage show before, there could not be a greater or more devoted homage to the colossal talents of the Beatles than LOVE.

Theatre and set designer Jean Rabesse was given a totally blank blueprint schematic of the former Siegfried and Roy stage and told to do whatever he wanted—a designer’s dream. Like the Martins, Rabesse wanted to go, he told me in 2006, inside the "universe of the 1960s" beginning in the lobby itself, and thought the idea of creating a black box recording studio feeling “was a natural” to put the audience in the studio with the band. A lot of what he created was conjured in computerized 3-D: “Other shows work with models and drawings,” he explained, “but this one had to be seen as a POV from every seat and all angles.” This result, he suggested, is that one needs to come back “four to 10 times to see everything,” bringing a hint of the original three-ring roots of the circus to mind—again, thankfully, without imprisoning and domesticating wild animals.

Augmenting the inspiration of LOVE’s conceptual creator Guy Laliberte, who first conjured the idea for the production while hanging with his bud, the late-great Saint George (Harrison) himself, are incredible video projections fabricated by Francis Laporte, who admitted to me behind the scenes in his own studio that a scant two years ago he never would have had the tools to achieve the heights of visual wonder he did with LOVE. Utilizing mostly unearthed promotional films featuring the Beatles at their most relaxed, his aim was to be as timeless as possible. This is apparent in a spectacular mounting of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” as projected letters of the alphabet float down, projected across screens from above. “We wanted the feeling of words falling,” explained Laporte, “like a dream falling apart.”

Asked about the inclusion of four children depicted without faces wearing plastic Beatles mob-headed helmets reminiscent of Devo, director-writer Dominic Champagne’s ability to conjure a personal connection with the bandmembers becomes apparent. “Remember, John Lennon was the most famous man on the planet after Jesus Christ back then,” he explained just before opening night.

The Beatles were back then as puzzled by their own rampant fame as anyone else, making them feel almost invisible within the claustrophobic confines of their own celebrity. This emphasis is also visible in the presence of one lost Chaplin-like Nowhere Man, whose presence is meant to reflect the loss of freedom and personal space Lennon was experiencing when he referred to himself as a ‘nowhere man.’ “You know, for any of us,” said Champagne with a grin, “all we need is love.”

The scariest thing for me sitting among the first people to see LOVE was the audience dotted with ancient gray and white heads reminiscent of a group of subscribers gathered for opening night of some old musical warhorse at La Mirada Civic. My immediate thought, as the walls themselves came alive with the sound of Beatles’ music cranked to full volume, was that the usual Vegas audiences might not appreciate the decibel level.

And not much has changed. Footlong margaritas still in hand and wearing what Rita Rudner once quipped to me where clothes that make her want to go up to them and say, “Excuse me, but what are you thinking?,” the minute the sounds of John, Paul, Ringo and John’s vocals filled the huge auditorium, all those gray and white heads came alive, bopping and weaving like psychedelicized flower children just as we did 50 years ago. Those ancient heads, you see, were my contemporaries, something that made me want to go back to my suite, melt into the pillowtop mattress, and pull the covers over my own rapidly-graying head.

But after partying the night away at that original opening bash, toe-to-toe with the performers and artisans of LOVE break dancing ‘til nearly dawn, I realized back then what a remarkable impact my generation has made on the world in general and the future of music in particular.

As my students used to continually quiz me about my days touring in Hair, booking the Troubadour in its artistic heyday, or working for Jim Morrison and The Doors, their adoration for my era is obvious, not like when we Boomers were kids, listening with moderate curiosity as our parents waxed nostalgic about swinging to Tommy Dorsey or listening to Rosemary Clooney warbling about the cost of doggies in the window.

There was nothing wrong with those simpler days that also bravely paved the way for my generation's own historic musical emergence, but it was nothing like what we accomplished in the late 60s and early 70s before disco strip-mined the experience, bringing with us sounds that laid the groundwork for the unstoppable musical freedom of today.

For all those yung'uns who worship our Boomer-years youth, you should; there was nothing like it for those of us who somehow managed to survive it. And in the last 17 years, there’s still nowhere to absorb that experience better than by heading to the Mirage to let your mind soar and your body groove to the wonder of the Beatles as though discovering them for the first time, reverently recreated and celebrated in LOVE, the best Cirque du Soleil production in their amazing 38-year career revolutionizing entertainment as we once knew it.

PLAYS INDEFINITELY: Mirage Hotel & Casino, 3400 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas. 702.761.7111 or www.cirquedusoleil.com

 Tournament of Kings, Excalibur, Las Vegas

Photo by Travis Michael Holder 


Nelson Tsosie is the name of a cowboy forever seared into my memory. We shared many similar attributes, be it as members of the Navajo Tribe, growing up in the same hometown where rodeo was a huge part of our native culture, and we both graduated high school in 2005. Tsosie became the International Indian Finals Rodeo bareback champion that same year and would later become the first Navajo to compete in the PBR.

He rode professional circuit meaning one thing: Las Vegas, staging grounds for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the PBR, the Las Vegas National Horse Show, and Excalibur's Tournament of Kings. Tsosie inspired many including me and during a summer break from college, I competed in amateur circuit rodeo simply to participate with my friends cheering on Tsosie.

I returned to school in the fall but the experience of rodeo forever left me with an appreciation for the smell of a tilled arena, masterful horsemanship, and a fully engaged cheering audience ranging in age from newborns to great grandparents. Thanks to horses, my impression of Las Vegas has always been about good sportsmanship, community, family, and horses, attributes all summing-up one of the longest running Vegas shows, Tournament of Kings at Excalibur.

I have been a family man since before I even had a family. In college, despite sharing a dorm with NYU students the most exciting thing I did outside of class was visit museums and stroll through Central Park. Perhaps this is why today I review live theatre in Los Angeles. I grew up in an inclusive culture where events are meant to allow everyone to participate and have fun.

Anytime I am in Las Vegas it’s always to see the shows, be it Cirque du Soleil, magic, or horses and kings charging at each other armed with exploding-tip lances.

Tournament of Kings is an absolute must-see for anyone vacationing in Sin City and is the reason Las Vegas is an amazing vacation destination for families. I'll never forget descending the stairs behind the flickering arcade lights for the first time and entering the giant coliseum-styled dirt arena with gorgeous stained glass windows overlooking King Arthur's Arena.

The audience is designated cheering sections around the arena for the Kings of Europe competing in the tournament and my partner Travis and I wound up cheering for Austria. It's interesting to note this show has been running since 1990 but early in 2022, a notable change was made in replacing the King of Russia with the King of Romania.

The most important part of any rodeo experience on the Navajo Nation is the food, which is always delicious and usually meant to be eaten by hand—food you can drop when both hands suddenly need to be free for clapping.
Everything about rodeo is meant to be engaging like the Colosseum of ancient Rome and Tournament of Kings is brilliant in capturing all the subtle nuances that absolutely would have been part of any jousting event in medieval Europe. This devotion to authentic detail provides a real-life learning opportunity for yung’uns in love with knights and fire-breathing dragons to step back in time as kids in King Arthur's Court.

Dinner is served by staff dressed as serfs and wenches in costuming on par with Hollywood level brilliance. Wonderful tin platters serve whole Cornish hens, the most amazing sweet potato you'll ever have, corn on the cob, a complimentary Christmas cookie (sadly just during the holidays), and for me Sierra Mist in a fancy mug.

I studied stunt choreography for four years in college, trained mustangs rescued in Nevada for adoption to forever families in Los Angeles, and can say without a doubt Tournament of Kings has some of the best horses and riders in the country.

I tip my hat to all the equestrian performers and wranglers behind the scenes in charge of training horses for this spectacular medieval show which easily would become Buffalo Bill's Wild West show with a different wardrobe. Compliments to the sword and fight choreography and performers exhibiting a show so well rehearsed the delivery appears instantaneous and adventurous to the audience.

The choreography, the dancers, Merlin the Wizard complete with a pointed hat and staff, King Arthur and all his jesters, steal the show by playing the pivotal role of maintaining the crowd's heightened state of excitement allowing horses and kings time to reset.

The production team also needs to be celebrated because the investment in everything from mobile flamethrowers to the rockets flying overhead at the end are an experience seldom witnessed in today's world of HD screens of all sizes.

Tournament of Kings is so much more than a show in the modern sense because, just like at the Navajo Rodeo in my birthplace of Shiprock, NM, the audience truly plays the most important part in the whole show.

I say this as someone with a little experience in being one of the performers out in the tilled arena. There were times I was only able to hang on to hard bucking roughstock because of just how loud the audience was cheering my name. Never have I felt closer to my community and at Tournament of Kings, I could see this same energy feeding the Kings' performances.

It’s easy to see this is a fun show to be lucky enough to play a role. It’s a communal experience families visiting Vegas absolutely must see because at Excalibur, everyone gets to participate in creating lifelong memories.

PLAYS INDEFINITELY: Excalibur Hotel & Casino, 3850 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas. 866.306.0942 or excalibur.mgmresorts.com


See? I'm an Angel!