EVERYBODY'S GOT ONE 

CURRENT REVIEWS from

TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER 

 

The Beautiful People 

Photo by John Perrin Flynn

Matrix Theatre

In Rogue Machine’s world premiere of Tim Venable’s The Beautiful People, two frighteningly typical disgruntled and emotionally disenfranchised teenagers growing up in the 1990s decide to risk their parents’ panic attack-producing wrath and stay up 'til dawn on a school night in the claustrophobic basement bedroom of one of the boys’ middle-American suburban home.

Here in the dead of night they wrestle to the point of drawing blood, argue endlessly about which female classmate has the biggest boobs, chug sodas, vegg out on MTV and Cool Ranch Doritos, drop trou to compare dick size, and accuse each other of being pussies nonstop as they compete for top positioning in their self-manufactured two-person social order. The boys have a plan, you see, a mission they are determined to implement in the morning that would make it difficult for anyone in on it to sleep.

Venable’s fast-moving intermissionless 80-minute one-act, snapped into eerie corporeality under the skillful direction of Guillermo Ciegfuegos, is startlingly, horrifyingly true to life, providing a not often seen glimpse of how too many of our children have been raised in the toxic environment of contemporary American life.

As the teens, Alex Neher and Justin Preston are both simply astonishing, especially as they struggle to keep the story intimate while audience members are seated all around them, some on old couches and beanbag chairs placed so near the action it must be nearly impossible for the intensely focused actors not to occasionally catch the eye and dropping jaws of their suitably shocked observers.

It’s genius staging to thrust us so brutally near that we have to pull in our feet when the actors get too close or fight the instinct to protect ourselves physically when the two boys begin to violently tussle nearby. I’m not sure if this shrewdly omnipresent staging can be attributed to the wildly creative vision of the playwright, the director, or if it is the brainchild of production designer David Mauer, but it becomes an essential part of the success of The Beautiful People which, if presented as it should be, damn well better make us squirm in our seats because we all deserve it.

Though several plays created by Venable have previously received workshop productions and staged readings, I believe from what I have read and what I know personally since I originally met and championed the playwright when he was barely older than the characters he has created, this is his first work to receive a well-deserved full production, something for which the ever-courageous Rogue Machine must be highly commended.

This is a raw, jarringly disturbing play, a sickening view of what our fucked-up country and its plethora of self-absorbed absentee parents have done to emotionally destroy our own future generations. We as a society have thoughtlessly passed on a culture of misogyny and violence that has dehumanized and robotized our young, from our entertainment options that proudly boast the number of people who are blown away by gun violence to our bloviated and bigoted opinions overheard at the family dinner table (remember the family dinner table?) to our dastardly choice in elected officials, chosen to ensure only that our pockets are full rather than caring about the rest of our less fortunate population or to consider the destiny of our dying planet.

Tim Venable explains of his inspiration for writing The Beautiful People: “I felt like I knew these boys, that my friends and I weren’t that different.” If this is Venable’s perspective of the life of a teenager in the 1990s, just imagine what the teens growing up in the twisted and conflicted world of 2022 are currently thinking—or planning.

Oh wait: You don’t have to imagine. Just turn on the evening news.

Would that our poor beleaguered planet will still be around a few decades from now to shock and dismay and scare people about the dismality of the future all over again. I’ll be long gone so… good luck with that. I did my best.

THROUGH JULY 31: Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Av., LA. 855.585.5185 or roguemachinetheatre.net

Roe 

Photo by Jenny Graham

Fountain Theatre

The Fountain’s “hyper-staged” reading of Lisa Loomer’s Jane Chambers Playwriting and Pen Award-winning play Roe could not possibly be more timely—something that even the complex’s artistic director Stephen Sachs could not have fully anticipated when it was chosen to grace the theatre’s outdoor stage for a way-too brief run through July 10.

“We’re acting quickly and urgently in answer to the upcoming Supreme Court ruling expected to overturn Roe v Wade,” Sachs writes in the program. “We intend to use theater as a vehicle for social and political action. A call to action. Guerrilla-style theater. Actors holding scripts. Simple staging. Lisa has revised her script to bring it up-to-date and we’re lucky to have Vanessa [Stallings], who directed the 2020 production at the Goodman Theatre.”

Kate Middleton has journeyed to LA to reprise her role at the Goodman as Norma McCorvey, the intensely complicated woman who would come to be known to the world as “Jane Roe,” once again playing opposite her Chicago costar Christina Hall as Sarah Weddington, the embattled Texas lawyer who argued the landmark case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Featuring some of LA’s best theatrical stalwarts Rob Nagle, John Achorn, Ed F. Martin, Sufe Bradshaw, Aleisha Force, Xochitl Romero, and introducing local musical theatre child performer Liv Shechter, most of the other incredibly talented and committed castmembers have traveled here from all over the country to perform in this production, most having appeared in Roe elsewhere along its journey from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to Washington DC’s Arena Stage to Berkeley Rep to Goodman.

The celebrated feminist playwright’s latest triumph is a brilliantly conceived, often surprisingly hilarious, sometimes shocking, and more frequently heartbreaking chronicle of the history of the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling which almost 50 years ago changed the course of America and sparked the challenging years following that decision.

As you’d have to be stranded on a tropical island not to know the nearly half-century standing but continually contested law of the land was overturned last week on the play’s opening night by our crumbling country’s severely Trump-compromised high court, believe me when I say experiencing Roe at this point in time could not be more urgent.

Smoothly directed by Stallings on a basically bare stage featuring nothing more than a bunch of folding chairs, two industrial-looking metal tables, and a row of standing microphones meant to overpower the urban open-air venue’s nemesis police helicopter intrusions, the magic of this stunning production is palpable, especially as performed by a dynamic and incredibly versatile cast.

Middleton and Hall are nearly irreplaceable in their roles and there isn’t a false moment from any of the other players. Nagle is especially slimy as the odious “Flip” Benham, the Evangelical Christian minister who to this day still leads the destructive national Operation Save America, the outspoken anti-abortion group that evolved from Operation Rescue, while Susan Lynsky as Weddington’s quirky co-counsel Linda Coffee, Romero as Norma’s badly-treated lover Connie, Pamela Dunlap as her vile and abusive mother, and Kenya Alexander in a moving eleventh-hour appearance as a traumatized audience member, are particular standouts.

Loomer’s masterpiece is as fair-minded as possible as it breathes life into the complicated real-life human beings behind the case and delving beyond their mentions in their Wikipedia bios, while also exploring the polarizing years that followed SCOTUS’ fateful 1973 decision. The irony that the current horrifyingly unbalanced high court only last Friday stripped away a woman’s right to choose and at least one troglodyte justice has since quite vocally begun initiating the process of destroying other established laws guaranteeing equality for all, hangs over this fine production like an enveloping shroud of partisan ignorance.   

Perhaps one of the most noteworthy and historic aspects of the Fountain’s mounting of Roe is the fact that the playwright instantly—and passionately—rewrote the play’s final scene last Friday, updating it to reflect that horrific decision by the Supremes only hours before the Fountain’s first performance.

To say her rewrite (which, according to Nagle was updated with new pages again before Saturday night’s performance) is both tear-jerking and a spirited call to arms for any thinking person in this beleaguered country to fight their asses off and move quickly to again make us whole and equitable again, could not be expressed more adamantly.

It’s time to get angry, Lisa Loomer tells us in metaphorical all caps, something I hope every truly patriotic free-thinking American is contemplating at this very moment when our coming together is desperately needed.

THROUGH JULY 10 ONLY: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Av., LA. 323.663.1525 or fountaintheatre.com

Dear Evan Hansen 

Photo by Evan Zimmerman

Ahmanson Theatre

Once again, Center Theatre Group is welcoming another major pre-pandemic hit back home as the Best Musical Tony-winning Dear Evan Hansen retakes the Ahmanson stage through July. As much as I loved this groundbreaking production in its first stop here in 2018, LA is chockful of theatrical openings and offerings this long hot summer so I will not be returning to the Music Center for another ride. As with the recent return engagement to the venue of Come From Away, however, I was happy to agree to reprint my original review, which went on to become my choice for Best Musical Production in my annual TicketHolders Awards for 2018, as well as honoring Ben Levi Ross as Best Actor, Jessica Phillips as Best Supporting Actress, and receiving nominations for its Score, Book, Direction, Ensemble, Set, Lighting, Sound, Musical Direction, and CGI/Video design.

In other words, I encourage you not to miss the opportunity to catch this nearly perfect musical while it’s back for another joyous run, now featuring Anthony Norman in the title role, Coleen Sexton as his mother, Lili Thomas as Cynthia Murphy, Pablo Laucerica as Jared, Micaela Lamas as Alana, John Hemphill as Larry Murphy, Nikhil Saboo as Connor, and Alaina Anderson as Zoe.

Reprinted from August 20, 2018:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THROUGH JULY 31: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

Pretty Woman 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Dolby Theatre / Segerstrom Center for the Arts

In a time when live theatre is struggling to regain its foothold, it’s understandable why producers are relying on tried and true material to possibly bring butts back in the seats. It’s easy to look down on strictly commercial offerings based on hit movies, but once in awhile, like Sunset Boulevard, Billy Elliott, Kinky Boots, and The Lion King, it even works.

All art is imitation, it’s said, but that doesn’t mean it always should be. Recently, the list of film-to-stage musicals has been legion and most are created with such an obvious emphasis on assuring the producers make money that it can be rather irritating. One great exception to this is The Band’s Visit, which brought its national tour to the Dolby last December with a clear emphasis on keeping it as exceptional it was in its New York debut where it received 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The Dolby was more recently a stop for the national tour of Tootsie, which was clearly mostly razzle-dazzle and glitz to camouflage the scaled-down production values often relied upon when a big Broadway show hits the road. Still, what elevated Tootsie above the rest was the sparkling and delightfully updated Tony-winning book by Robert Horn that rose above the simplified sets and a generally tired and lackluster cast, many of whom needed to have their costumes retailored after too many months away from home consuming nothing but hotel food.

Now to the Dolby comes the touring production of Pretty Woman, a musical adaptation of yet another popular movie that features the opposite: an energetic—though sometimes too energetic—cast and some clever visual choices to keep it moving, not to mention a nicely realized 80s-style score by none other than Grammy-winning rocker Bryan Adams with Jim Vallance. Still, what Pretty Woman does not have is a good book.

Based on the original screenplay by J.F. Lawton collaborating with the film’s late producer-director Garry Marshall, the script is a bit of a dud. In the attempt to keep it true to the 1990 vibe of the movie, it fails miserably with an emphasis on old jokes that once worked but now only elicit a few eye rolls as the musical tries in vain to skirt the built-in misogyny of the film’s dated storyline. 

The cast, however, is game and in general full of life, up for the spirited choreography of director Jerry Mitchell and intent on keeping the material fresh. Olivia Valli brings an interesting toughgirl Jersey Shores-like quality to Vivian, the role that helped solidify Julia Roberts as a superstar, believably shedding her hardened hooker persona into Eliza Doolittle respectability with even a ball to attend to show off her transformation—remember, I did say all art is imitation.

In the Richard Gere role, Adam Pascal shows he still has the major rock ‘n roll chops that helped make Rent such an important part of Broadway musical history. In this performance, however, although I could listen to his exceptional vocal stylings, so perfect for interpreting the songs of Adams and Vallance, on a loop, it doesn’t seem a match for playing the role of Edward Lewis.

Where Gere found a playful sexuality just below the surface of his wealthy business-obsessed real estate shark, Pascal seems too tightassed to ever consider picking up Vivian as she trolls outrageously for tricks on Hollywood Boulevard. Whenever Edward bursts into song, it’s suddenly like Bill Gates morphs into Mick Jagger; there’s not even an inkling of Elon Musk in Pascal’s interpretation to hint at the rascal lurking inside his Armani suit. And when Edward falls in love with Vivian, it seems even more preposterous.

There are some other charming though occasionally too over-the-top performances, yet the overachieving aspect of the supporting actors is quite welcome to keep the sappy romantic chickflickiness of the tale from tanking bigtime.

Jessica Crouch appears to genuinely have fun playing Vivian’s roommate and streetwise bestie Kit DeLuca, while Kyle Taylor Parker is a standout throughout playing the Beverly Wilshire Hotel’s stiff-backed but kindly concierge and several other diverse characters, including a rapping Hollywood Boulevard huckster who starts things rolling with Adams and Vallance’s rousing “Welcome to Hollywood.”

There are also show-stopping turns from the huge-voiced Amma Osei playing Violetta in a surprisingly dynamic aria from La Traviata as the unlikely lovebirds attend the opera and from the animated dancing ensemble comes a youthful future musical theatre star named Trent Soyster, who totally nails his stage time as a goofy wide-eyed Marx Brothers-esque bellboy named Giulio.

Still, despite all its obvious problems, there’s a place for cashcow-minded musical comedy faire such as Pretty Woman—I’d bet after its tour ends, it could play somewhere on the Vegas strip for years to come.

THROUGH JULY 3: Dolby Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 323.308.6300 or broadwayinhollywood.com

JULY 5 THROUGH 17: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. 714.556.2787 or scfta.org

King James 

Photo by Craig Schwartz

Mark Taper Forum

My knowledge of basketball is embarrassingly limited. I know that very tall men in shiny little shorts run from one side of a court to another, that the players tend to do a lot of TV commercials, and many of them get arrested for domestic violence more often than "family value" Republican congressmen get caught in motel rooms with their pants down.

Keeping this in mind, I attended the opening of Rajiv Joseph’s King James at the Taper with some trepidation. What if someone slapped me on the back and bellowed, “What about them Lakers?” or everyone in the audience except me was wearing one of those two-color jerseys bought at The Game that cost more than my car payment?

The saving grace here is this world premiere is being presented in collaboration with Chicago’s prolific Steppenwolf Theatre and was written by Joseph, 2010 Pulitzer Prize nominee for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which also had its debut with Center Theatre Group before Broadway.

My evening was saved. Although the play centers around two rabid Cleveland Cavaliers fans (a term, one of them points out, derived from the word “fanatic”) and considering that King James is played out in four scenes reflecting the quarters of a basketball game, it’s more about loneliness, human need, and the value of friendship to help cultivate one’s growth as a person.

The first section takes place at a chapel-turned-Starbucks-turned-perpetually empty wine bar in Rajiv’s hometown in 2004 just as another local kid, basketball superstar LeBron James, plays his first year with the Cavs at age 19. La Cave du Vin’s miserably frustrated bartender Matt (Chris Perfetti, breakout star of the new series Abbott Elementary) is in a financial hole and forced to sell his ailing father’s treasured annual season tickets to the Cavalier’s games, a torturous decision for him since he grew up watching his favorite team at his otherwise emotionally absent dad’s side.

He is joined by Shawn (Glenn Davis, an artistic director at Steppenwolf), who arrives to hopefully purchase the season package, something he has never been able to afford before in his struggle of a life. The two have a rather thorny start in their relationship since what Matt is asking to pass on the coveted seats is many times more than his customer was prepared to pay.

Over the course of the transaction, however, overshadowed by disagreeing about whether or not the young rookie LeBron will prove a even better player than Michael Jordan (“It’s.. implicational,” Matt argues), the guys begin to find a skewed respect for one another and realize they have more in common than their current roles as amateur negotiators. By the end of the scene, it’s hinted as the bar goes to blackout that maybe Matt will be Shawn’s plus-one for the season.

The second scene takes place in 2010 where it quickly becomes obvious the pair has become fast friends, still sharing those coveted season tickets as well as the usual life experiences yet still finding themselves disagreeing about LeBron as he abandons Cleveland to play with another team in Miami.

Still, they share a knowledge of each other’s dating woes and career disappointments that eclipses their opinions about basketball. Shawn has become close with Matt’s mother as she struggles to keep the family’s upholstery business open while her husband fades away in hospice care, a situation with which Matt is not entirely comfortable before his best and only friend tells him he’s planning to relocate to New York for graduate school in hopes of a future as a writer.

As in the beginning of the play and during one elaborate Act Two scene change, delightfully energized deejay Khloe Janel is set up at the side of the stage during intermission making the generally stuffy opening night crowd bop in their seats like a room full of urban teenagers. This is a welcome diversion before we’re transported to 2014 and to Armand’s, that storefront family business where Shawn is now employed, as Todd Rosenthal's set magically revolves to become what could prove to be the stage design of 2022.

New York appears to have been a bust for Shawn, but he’s encouraged by a proposed trip to Hollywood for some “generals,” a term he has trouble explaining to Matt—while of course the savvy LA firstnighters get it immediately. It’s a new world for Matt too, as he prepares to open his second boutique bar and success has made him able to finance Shawn’s trip west—that is until they again start arguing about LeBron and his return to the Cavs that season. When Matt slips that he thinks the star should have “known his place,” it strikes a sour note with his best friend, who believes his pal’s underlying racism has finally surfaced.

Yes, King James is far more than a play about sports, something only used as a device to explore in-depth the relationship between two lonely and disappointed friends (“See? That’s what’s wrong with America” is Matt’s frequent 12-year mantra). Although Joseph’s celebrated award-winning earlier plays are all about young men at war thrust into political and social conflict, they are actually about the difficulties and triumphs of human interaction and male bonding in historical settings. This brilliant new work is no exception.

Under the leadership of esteemed Tony-winning director Kenny Leon, this is a knockout production sure to be, like Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, destined for a New York run and a myriad of deserved honors. Hopefully, this will happen without the typical commercial-fueled decision to replace Davis and Perfetti with guaranteed starpower. Although a potential theatrical classic, King James must be driven by two spectacular actors to succeed; in lesser hands than these gifted and generous costars, it could be disastrous.

Davis finds surprisingly sweet and heartbreakingly real moments for Shawn to break out of his insecurities and get past the emotional scars of his character’s difficult life, while Perfetti subtly but uncannily transforms as the gawky young introvert matures into more grounded and world-weary adulthood.

“You’re not the only motherfucker around here with dreams,” Shawn blurts out to Matt at one point—or is it the other way around? See, together these actors are two parts of one fascinating and perfectly crafted whole, their intricately interwoven performances soaring as the fellowship between Joseph’s pair of nondescript underdogs bolsters them both to go off into the world with more confidence and the strength to follow their dreams. More than that, they do so with a fine sense of the playwright’s rhythmic signature comedic timing that also delivers many well-deserved laughs to an audience appreciative for the break.

On his deathbed, Matt’s father waxed nostalgically to Shawn the story about building a time machine in the family’s backyard with his son, something the child insisted needed to only travel into the future. When you’re young, the guys surmise, you’re only interested in the dreams of what’s to come while, as time goes by, a person’s thoughts turn instead to the comfort of the past. “That’s the difference being old,” Shawn realizes, and as the friends find their futures possibly not what they hoped, they discover the value of friendship, something that transcends the pipedreams and the guaranteed disappointments of life.

Although Rajiv Joseph’s King James might on first glance appear to be about a pair of diehard basketball buddies and the simultaneous history of one of the game’s most talked about players, it may be unsportsmanlike but to me, it’s far more than that: it’s an inspirational kind of alternative love story, pure and simple—the kind of dream realized that’ too dang easy to take for granted.

THROUGH JULY 3: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

A Terminal Event 

Photo by Tim Sullins

Victory Theatre Center

The venerable Victory Theatre Center, champion of original world premiere plays and one of the most continuously groundbreaking theatrical institutions in Los Angeles, has been sorely missed during our two-plus years spent hiding under our rocks to keep from joining the shocking statistics in the wake of COVID’s wrath.

Walking into the Big Victory after that difficult time in isolation was something akin to coming home from me, particularly since my own first play, Surprise Surprise, debuted there in 1994 and I have taught many New York Film Academy classes in the space, not to mention I've appeared there myself several times over the years and it was on the same enchanted stage where I first met the true love of my life nearly a decade ago.

Yup. I go a long way back with the Victory and have cherished the friendship of co-artistic directors Maria Gobetti and Tom Ormeny for over three decades, so the return to production for the couple with the world premiere of Richard Willett’s A Terminal Event, directed by Gobetti, indeed signals a promising new chapter in the company’s staggeringly successful 43-year history.

Willett’s thought-provoking drama is both an indictment of the profit-driven medical industry and its opposite surrogate option, the world of alternative healing. As an aspiring New York actress (Laura Coover) takes a job as a receptionist in the practice of a Manhattan oncologist, her habit of wearing her heart on her sleeve makes her life even more difficult than the usual rollercoaster ride for acting hopefuls so filled with minor elations and major disappointments.

Soon after beginning her new job working for Dr. Mattin Crossley (understudy John Idakitis in for Ormeny in a role he was born to play), she gets personally involved with two of her employer’s terminally ill patients: a lonely unmarried middle-aged woman named Roberta (Randi Lynne Weidman) and Desmond Forrester (Marshall McCabe), an abrasive advertising executive with a stinging bite of world-weary sarcasm who refuses to be treated for his disease beyond arriving occasionally to renew his pain medications.

Forrester’s forward flirtations with the pretty Katie, which include delivering flowers and gifts to Crossley’s office juxtaposed with personal visits at which he cannot help but poke merciless fun at both of the young hopeful’s careers, leads one to wonder what could possibly make her fall in love for him besides the endless martinis he offers when she visits his apartment to sort out her own nightmare of jumbled medical billings. It’s impossible to not suspect Willett has had some personal dealings with heavy medical issues, as he seems to be able to rant about the state of the profession with a considerable degree of either research—or personal experience.

Having recently lived through my not-so private scary and confusing fifth bout with the Big C and struggling through—and surviving—several other frustrating medical challenges over the past few years, there is much with which I could relate in A Terminal Event, as well as much that wasn’t easy for me to hear dredged up when I always manage to proudly bury my own fears deep within my base of Pollyanna-esque avoidance. Thankfully, the playwright also has a wry sense of humor that keeps things from getting too depressing, although I noticed at the end of the evening there were more people sniffling and wiping their eyes seated around us than there were people laughing or looking refreshed by the experience.

Idakitis, who had very brief notice that he would be going on this weekend, does a yeoman’s job stepping in for such a pivotal role, not missing a beat as he creates an electronically-challenged doctor trying to defend his diagnostic decisions and rudimentary motivation for becoming a doctor as he also strives to adopt new medical advancements bound to put more than a few golden ducats in his personal coffers. For anyone familiar with Ormeny’s prolific body of work, however, it’s not hard to envision him in this role of a kindly but ambitious old curmudgeon who has let his greed overtake his original moral intentions to heal and cure—you know, kinda like a Republican politician—nor is it a stretch to imagine him as someone who along the way gets kicked out of his anger management classes.

Both Coover and McCabe take until the second act to ease into a convincing connection between Katie and Desmond, surely due to the last minute scramble to get an understudy up to speed, which also caused the production to open without the benefit of a single preview. Even with Gobetti’s sturdy and insightful direction, there’s a clumsiness in their performances, even to the point of not realizing they don’t have to project their voices to reach the second balcony of the Ahmanson in the Victory’s intimate and acoustically efficient playing space.

In the first scene, I found it an especially arduous task to believe McCabe, who seems intent on delivering his most important or humorous lines out front into thin air while Coover looks on at his side. I would love to know what exactly exists in the actor’s imaginary fourth wall, because as it is, it appears all that “lives” there is the Victory’s audience. By Act Two, the two actors settle beautifully into a more real and trusting bond that makes the end of the play poignant and ultimately quite heartbreaking.

As the poor doomed Roberta, Weidman is particularly memorable in an eleventh-hour monologue as she opens up to Katie, the only visitor to her hospital room, about living with a colostomy and wondering tearfully if there’s anything in her life that will make her remembered on this earth after she's gone. In the last analysis, it is Weidman who delivers the play’s most affecting and honest performance—although a short uncredited voiceover from the sound booth by Gobetti as the world’s most bored and insensitive casting director since La La Land could possibly rival that honor.

Still, the clear motivation of Richard Willett to chronicle the puzzling and helpless conundrum of being swept into the world of modern medicine without wanting to be anywhere near it is palpable throughout A Terminal Event, which despite some opening night yammie-yammies and obvious growing pains is bound to age with a few more showings like a fine wine, to quote the long-gone Mr. Welles; it just seems to have been thrust before the public a wee bit before it had time to mature into the dynamic experience I suspect it will be with a few more performances to explore the characters and their complex situations.

THROUGH JULY 10: Victory Theatre Center, 3324 W. Victory Blvd, Burbank. 818.841.5421 or thevictorytheatrecenter.org

Hadestown 

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Ahmanson Theatre

What could possibly be said about Anais Mitchell’s celebrated Hadestown, an acheivement so dazzling not even a devastating worldwide pandemic could snuff its light.

Now making its west coast debut at the Ahmanson (and returning to the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa this August), the groundbreaking dystopian musical, which sprung from Mitchell’s 2010 conception album after the singer/songwriter serendipitously met director Rachel Chavkin in 2012, was the winner of the 2019 Tony Award for Best Musical, as well as picking up the coveted and well-deserved trophy for Best Original Score, Best Direction, and five other honors.

Simply, Hadestown moves high in the ranks as one of the three or four best musicals I’ve ever been fortunate enough to experience. With its bluesy, raucous New Orleans-style sensibilities and one of the most inventively envisioned and designed presentations in the history of musical theatre, there’s absolutely nothing I can say about this production except that it gives me great hope for the future of the performing arts so stuck these days on commercial stage versions of every successful film over the past 20 years.

Mitchell’s Hadestown is an imaginative retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, that legendary couple so head over heels in love that Orpheus travels the tortuously difficult journey down to hell itself to rescue his love from the bondage of Hades, who after his wife Persephone has shown her unwillingness to return to the lower depths from her springtime break from fire and brimstone, dazzles Eurydice to join him instead.

The performances here could not be better or more totally committed to Mitchell’s incredible score or Chavkin’s sweepingly innovative staging. As Orpheus, Nicholas Barasch has a several-octave range that somehow is capable of sliding between Jackson Browne and Yma Sumak as he accompanies himself on electric guitar. His performance made even more winning with his sweet, innocent delivery as the young hopeful songwriter who falls in love while cleaning tables in Rachel Hauck’s wildly eclectic Tony-winning Bourbon Street-esque nightclub setting.

The performances are all golden. Morgan Siobhan Green creates a Eurydice anyone would want to protect, while Kevin Morrow and Kimberly Marable are brilliant as Hades and Persephone, giving the feeling they have both been lifted directly from a revival of Gershwin’s equally groundbreaking Porgy and Bess.

As the three weird sisterly chorus of Hades’ persuasive Fates, Belen Moyano, Bex Odorisio, and Shea Renne are creepily persuasive, slinking and hovering ominously as the tale unfolds, while the incredibly gifted ensemble of oppressed lost souls already delivered to Hades’ steampunk factory to toil forever marching repetitiously on Hauck’s smoke-obscured revolving stage, are each sensational as well—particularly a towering triple-threat performer named Will Mann, who looks as though he should be playing Lennie on Of Mice and Men until, despite his considerable size, he begins dancing as gracefully and athletically as any of his cohorts.

Perhaps the most indelible performance, however, comes from the amazing Levi Kreis (Tony-winner as Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet), who totally aces the role of Orpheus’ mentor Hermes as he narrates the story along the way.

Hadestown is far more than musical theatre: it is opera, it is a concert at one of New Orleans’ historic storefront music venues like Tipitina’s or Chickie Wah Wah, it is emotionally jarring, it is pure theatrical magic. Hauck’s set is a masterpiece, especially as it morphs seamlessly from nightclub to Hades’ underworld factory of human misery.

The impressively angular and eerie lighting by Bradley King and monumental sound achievement of Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz also won Tonys, while both Michael Krass’ sultry and often gritty costuming and David Neumann’s mind-blowing choreography received well-deserved nominations.

Still, none of these unearthly achievements could have happened without the world-class, explosively ingenious inspiration of Anais Mitchell’s Grammy-winning score, elevated to life in a collaboration made in theatrical heaven with Rachel Chavkin and tremendously enchanced by keyboardist/musical director Nathan Koci and his onstage orchestra, all of whom play as though they could have been abducted directly from the floor of a dimly-lit club somewhere along NOLA's Frenchmen Street.

A few hundred years from now, if all us downward-spiraling members of our mess of a species aren’t sweating profusely ourselves as we turn endlessly in circles in Hades’ smoky underworld, I suspect Hadestown will still be performed alongside Verdi’s La Traviata, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, George Gershwin’s aforementioned Porgy and Bess, and anything and everything created by Stephen Sondheim to appropriately be heralded alongside those other revolutionary timeless classics that changed the continuously evolving face of music and the performing arts.

NOW CLOSED: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

RETURNING AUG 9 - 21: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. 714.556.2787 or scfta.org

 

See? I’m an angel!