THE BONEYARD 

TRAVIS' REVIEWS: Midsummer 2022 to... ? 

 

EVERYBODY at Antaeus Theatre Company

After seeing Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ wildly inventive and refreshingly entertaining morality tale The Octoroon debut at the Fountain last season, the announcement that the prolific Antaeus Theatre Company would be presenting the LA premiere of the playwright’s 2018 Pulitzer finalist Everybody gave me yet another reason to not so patiently await Fall.

There’s now no doubt whatsoever in my mind that Jacobs-Jenkins is a major artist to watch, someone who, as the New York Times referred to him, has become “one of our country’s most original and illuminating writers.”

Based on the classic medieval morality play Everyman, this is an imaginative new take on the famous allegorical quest as a simple man searches for the explanation of life and its transience, or the “Buddhist-ness at the heart of the story.”

Everybody lobbies for a willing companion to join him on his journey to meet his demise at the wave of a riding crop from Death (played by formidable LA theatrical icon Anne Gee Byrd), something that could not be more timely for me personally at the moment. It’s an unsettling reminder of how precious life is and how urgently important it is to appreciate every moment of it, but it’s also so chockfull of clever absurdities and quirky inventiveness that it can also be bearable—if one hasn’t lost a sense of humor about the subject by age (almost) 76.

Antaeus is known for presenting more traditional classics, but in the hands of this exceptional veteran ensemble cast under the leadership of director Jennifer Chang, Jacob-Jenkins’ fascinating but challenging Everybody could not possibly be a tighter fit.

“Is this real or is this a dream?” a character asks, to which Death responds with an understood duh: “No, it’s theatre.”

As things slowly, painfully return to normal for stage companies everywhere after our globally debilitating pandemic, this has been the Year of the Ensemble Cast in LA. I have been juggling so many choices for that honor as my annual TicketHolder Awards build to conclusion for 2022, but that Antaeus and their production of Everybody has instantly made my decision for me—bar any eleventh-hour upsets—is purdy much a given.

Along with the actor cast as Death (the role now being played by the equally formidable Tony Amendola with Byrd off to Toronto cast as Bob Odenkirk’s mother in a new TV series), three others appear in traditional assigned roles, if you can call characters named Time, Understanding, and Love traditional. In those roles, Dawn Didiwick, Cherish Monique Duke, and Alberto Isaac, respectively, are all perfect.

Duke also has the responsibility of showing the audience to their seats as they enter, then gives a curtain speech that goes way beyond a reminder to turn off cellphones and pointing out exits, morphing directly into the play itself as our friendly usher does double duty as a decidedly ultra-cool Moms Mably-like God.

Then again, is this really God? Is God even real? “Doesn’t that depend on your definition of real?” Jacob-Jenkins asks.

The five remaining actors, Lisa Sanaye Dring, Nicole Erb, Harry Groener, Antonio Jaramillo, and Gerald Joseph, are listed in the program only as playing “Somebody.” That’s because until each performance begins, the actors have no idea who they are playing. Beginning scattered surreptitiously among the unsuspecting audience, they are picked out and called onstage, the contrivance being they have been chosen at random as though they are attending a David Copperfield performance in Vegas.

Isaac as Love also at first appears to be a real audience member trying stealthily to walk out of play who when stopped begrudgingly admits he “usually enjoys everything they do here.”

The other steadfast five are each given a colored ball which, when placed in a lottery spinner, determines which character is theirs for that particular performance. That means this quartet of certifiably masochistic thespians must memorize and know the blocking for every character in the script besides those mentioned above and must be prepared to play any of those roles at any performance, resulting in 120 possible combinations.

With names such as Strength, Beauty, Senses, and Mind, these are the traveling companions of Everybody (the fifth actor) who pleads with them to join him or her on the road to that inevitable appointment with Death.

Of course, as willing to help as each trusty friend initially professes to be, eventually when they learn what the outcome will be, Strength runs out, Beauty fades, Senses get lost, and the Mind goes. You know, like life.

Even though two or three texts from my friend Dawn before I attended stated how terrified her husband Harry was (I call the team of Didiwick and Groener the contemporary Lunt and Fontanne of Los Angeles) before every performance about what part he’d be required to play, I honestly thought she was putting me on and keeping with the artifice of the lottery to see who plays what.

Au contraire. When the ball came up for Harry to play Everybody, just the quick wide-eyed look on his face as he caught his wife’s eye in the audience (before her charming turn as a giggly little girl thrilled to be asked to participate), I instantly knew this was no scripted gimmick.

And lucky for us all seeing this particular performance, I am thrilled I was able to see Mr. Harry Groener in the demanding leading role. His was a tour-de-force performance in an incredibly demanding role and I am all the better for experiencing his take on… well… on me. On you. On Everybody.

Still with the amazing talent both onstage and as part of the Antaeus team of worldclass designers and theatremakers, the above-title wonder here is the skill and talent of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who proves to be a genius at taking on an archaic 15-century morality play and making it blossom into totally watchable, highly enjoyable and relevant theatre for the 21st Century.

I kept thinking of the first time I saw a work by Charles Mee performed, how my head exploded at his welcome irreverence and how I couldn’t wait to see more. I also kept conjuring the image of a playgoer in 1944 walking into the Playhouse Theatre in New York to see opening night of a new work called The Glass Menagerie, then scrambling through the playbill in the dark thinking, “Geebus, who the living heck wrote this?”

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THE INHERITANCE at the Geffen Playhouse

The west coast premiere of Matthew López’s epic two-part The Inheritance is more than just an exciting west coast debut; it is a major event for our city and a huge feather in the cap of the Geffen Playhouse, which after a difficult season deserves our unswerving gratitude for bringing it to our slowly recovering theatrical commonwealth.

Opening in London in 2019, The Inheritance won the coveted Olivier Award there and subsequently garnered the Tony for Best Play when the production transferred to New York, as well as receiving many other well-deserved honors.

As a chronicle of the lives and difficult journey for a group of gay men living in the latter part of the 20th Century and how that unique existence impacted our lives today, it is surely the most important theatrical work dealing with similar themes since Tony Kushner’s equally epic Angels in America debuted over 30 years ago.

While the enveloping shroud of the AIDS epidemic weaves through both plays, it is not what The Inheritance is all about: it is instead the search for the unifying soul of our too often beleaguered community and how that quest evolved into who we all are today.

Inspired by E.M. Forster’s celebrated 1910 novel Howard’s End, López has brilliantly transferred the classic tale of three highly diverse families struggling through the cultural conventions, codes of conduct, and the thorniness of personal relationships in the restrictive environment of turn-of-the-century England, and moved it to contemporary New York.

In Howard’s End, Forster’s intensely capitalistic Wilcox family, the idealistic and more socially adventurous Bloomsbury-esque Schlegel sisters, and the lower-class but humbly heroic Leonard Bast are thrust together in the specter of the societal mores meant to keep them separated.

These familiar characters are represented here by three generations of more liberated members of the gay community in the America of today, but not without direct—and intensely troubling—comparisons to the same economically and religiously fueled prejudices we still face as we continuously battle the indoctrination we have been smothered by from birth.

This is The Inheritance to which López refers, the passing down of the intrepid efforts of the pioneers of gay society who, as one character observes, created a “link in the chain of one man loving another, teaching one another” during the time when, we’re reminded, our country was something akin to the last 30 minutes of Titanic, except it’s running directly into the iceberg.

Director Mike Donahue and scenic designer Jamie Todd have meticulously recreated the original West End and Broadway staging by Tony and Olivier winner Stephen Daldry and fellow nominee Bob Crowley, respectively, glorious work that could not possibly be more in tune with the playwright’s innovative vision.

The Geffen’s intensely committed ensemble cast also could not be better, led by LA theatrical treasure Bill Brochtrup as both Walter Poole, a character integral to the drama, and as Morgan, a kind of a quasi-narrator based on Forster himself and called by his middle name preferred by the author’s most trusted friends and colleagues.

As the lifelong closeted novelist, Brochtrup weaves through the play like a ghostly guardian angel, commenting as the storyline unfolds (his sincere Edwardian gentility making lines such as “Toby starts to enter Eric” the most welcomingly humorous moments of the evening).

Morgan stays on continuous alert, ready to stop the action whenever the boys get a little less than appropriate—that is until he is caught by probing questions about why the author felt the need to keep his great classic 1913 novel of homosexual love Maurice unpublished until after his death in 1970.

As Walter, Brochtrup is the soul of the sweeping saga, the partner of billionaire real estate mogul Henry Wilcox (Tuc Watkins), who explains to his protégée Eric Glass (Adam Kantor) that the emotionally distant lovers’ 36-year relationship began simply because he was the person with whom Henry "was dancing when the music stopped."

Walter’s quiet strength in defying Henry’s selfish wishes during the height of the AIDS epidemic becomes the backbone of The Inheritance, a plotline providing a conclusion to Part One that proves to be one of the most indelibly moving, most openly and conjointly tearful moments in modern drama I have ever experienced. The Geffen should hand out Kleenex with their ticket assignments.

Kantor is exceptional as Eric, as is Juan Castano as his self-destructive and downward-spiraling partner Toby Darling, while Bradley James Tejeda, a member of the original Broadway cast who bravely came in at the last minute to replace the injured Nic Ashe in the role, is perfect as both the comely rich kid Adam and heartbreaking as the lost passed-around rentboy Leo.

In the arresting eleventh-hour role of Margaret Avery, the mother of a young man who died during the height of the plague, an event which forever changes both her life and her opinion of his lifestyle, Tantoo Cardinal brilliantly energizes the final act in the second part.

It is the one scene, one monologue role that won Vanessa Redgrave the Olivier in London and Lois Smith the Tony in New York and, I suspect, the incredibly haunting performance by Cardinal should surely have the same result during LA theatre’s upcoming award season.

This production and its uniformly sensational cast are quintessential examples of how nothing could possibly beat the wonder of live performance; reading the script, although surely still affecting and eloquent, could not possibly be anything as emotionally gripping as seeing it unfold in such talented expert hands.

With The Inheritance, Matthew López (celebrated author of The Legend of Georgia McBride) has created a timeless masterwork that will elevate his career to even higher status. This nearly seven-hour heroic poem of a play, performed in two parts with a total of six scenes and four intermissions, is sure to propel him into the theatrical stratosphere alongside confirmed contemporary geniuses with names such as Kushner, Williams, O’Neill, Albee, Wilson, and Miller. You know—those guys.

And although I’ve never done such a thing before, I’d like to dedicate my review to some long-lost and uber-talented friends who were on my mind and in my heart bigtime as the end of Part One unfolded before us in the darkened Geffen Playhouse:

Peter Allen, Greg Connell, Armando Cosio, Spencer Henderson, Rudolf Nureyev, Jimmy Roddy, Pat Rumrill, Edward Sierle, Robert “Bobby” Smith, Michael Smith, Sylvester (James Jr)… lives tragically cut short before being allowed to share with the world all the wonders they had to give.

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MOULIN ROUGE! THE MUSICAL at the Pantages Theatre and Segerstrom Center for the Arts

It’s not hard to see why Moulin Rouge! The Musical was awarded 10 Tony Awards in 2021. Well, at least nine of them.

Now making its LA debut at the Pantages, the absolutely quintessential venue in SoCal for such a glittery, grand, joyous musical confection, Moulin Rouge!  is indeed a production we all need right now: loud, gloriously flashy, blindingly colorful, and able to divert anyone with a brain wondering what in the living fuck is happening in the world right now.

Based on Baz Luhrmann’s charming and inventive 2001 motion picture, the stage adaptation of Moulin Rouge! could easily have only been developed as a project solely intended to make the producers a potful of money, especially with its Cliff Notes book by John Logan that could have been written with one hand while he was doing his taxes with the other.

But it’s not. It is instead an in-your-face musical extravaganza that instantly recalls a glitzy and visually stunning Cirque du Soleil Vegas Strip spectacle, albeit without the acrobatics and giant inflatable tie-dyed garden creatures.

Luhrmann and the creators of the original film made history by lifting music swiped from many sources rather than rely on one composer and one untried score to either win or lose its appeal. It boldly featured over 160 years worth of familiar music from a myriad of diverse genres, including everything from Offenbach’s “Can-Can” and Georges Van Parys’ “Complainte de la Butte” to the more contemporary “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” “Roxanne,” “Like a Virgin,” “Diamond Dogs,” “Your Song,” and the theme from “The Sound of Music,” all topped by the show’s signature number, Labelle’s 1974 megahit “Lady Marmalade.”

The Broadway adaptation updated that soundtrack further with a handful of recent hit tunes released since the movie premiered 21 years ago, including a show-stopping Act Two opener called “Backstage Romance” featuring a six-minute medley of popular songs from Lady Gaga, Soft Cell, Britney Spears, the White Stripes, and Eurythmics.

I found myself during the action thinking how bravely the producers gambled on this already enormously expensive undertaking without even imagining the cost of the show’s nightly royalties for all these songs, not to mention song references as the actors continuously spout an easily identifiable string of well-trod lyrics as part of their dialogue—something I imagine has proven a successful risk since the audience hoots and applauds at almost every reference.

What the musical version lacks in substance is made up for many times over by Alex Timbers brilliantly dazzling staging, Catherine Zuber’s outstandingly whimsical costuming, Justin Townsend’s startlingly versatile lighting, and Derek McLane’s massive jaw-dropping sets which spill out into the already permanently “decorated” Pantages. Special kudos must be noted for Peter Hylenski’s perfectly clamorous sound design, which had people almost dancing in the aisles as though they were attending a Pointer Sisters concert in the late 1970s. All of these great theatre artists and designers should win honors for their knockout work—oh wait, they already were since each and every one of them won Tonys for this production.

There is no doubt the sharply precision and high energy ensemble dancing up a storm (and occasionally shooting a little glitter and confetti out into the audience) performing the also Tony-honored choreography of Sonya Tayeh, is uniformly astounding and totally infectious in their raucous and sexy delivery.

Still, the principal cast populating this national tour is in general rather disappointing, all fine-voiced and earnest but clearly working by-the-book and not anything as dynamic as their original Broadway counterparts. I was especially surprised by the performance of Conor Reed as Christian, the role that won Aaron Tveit a Tony—although with the slim pickins’ offered in New York that pandemic-ravaged season, he was indeed the only nominee. Let’s just say that as an actor, Reed is a phenomenal singer.

Still. Moulin Rouge!  is a fantastical, gloriously and richly mounted production worth seeing as long as you’re ingesting your gummies and expecting Ovo, not Next to Normal. See, no matter how spectacular and razzle-dazzling as Moulin Rouge! The Musical might be to entertain and distract on a hot summer night… winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical? Thanks, Covid, for making 2021 a mighty meager year in the history of all things theatrical.

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RADIO GOLF at A Noise Within

When August Wilson’s final play Radio Golf debuted at Yale Rep in April, 2005 and at our own Mark Taper Forum that August, it was only two months before the master playwright’s untimely death from cancer at age 60, an unexpected loss that robbed us all of the many incredible things the man might still have had to say.

The last installment of Wilson’s sweeping 10-play American Century Cycle, which covers stories taking place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, each from a different decade from 1904 to 1997, was something unprecedented in American theatre. Each work focuses on major issues confronting African Americans during their particular moment in time and how things evolved through the years—and sadly how things never seem to change.

The only thing not tragic about Wilson’s early departure was that Radio Golf did not come to Broadway until 2007 and its author was not around to be disappointed by its original reception. Although it was honored with the New York Drama Critics Award and a nomination for the Best Play Tony, its reviews were generally lackluster and the production closed after only 64 performances.

Today, Radio Golf is by no means an anticlimactic ending to Wilson’s monumental epic achievement, especially as smartly presented by A Noise Within under the sharply-tuned direction of Wilson-maestro Gregg T. Daniel. Daniel has previously helmed two other plays in the Cycle at ANW, Gem of the Ocean and last season’s dynamic staging of Seven Guitars, as well winning the NAACP Best Director Award in 2016 directing the dramatist’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences at the International City Theatre.

Wilson’s last chapter of the Hills District saga does not provide a director and design team as eclectic and atmospheric a setting to bring to life as the locations of any of the other nine tales, surely making it a particularly difficult piece to stage of ANW’s interesting but oddly-aspected trust stage. Still, Daniels nails it and manages to make Radio Golf as facile and kinetic as he did Seven Guitars.

His co-creators are equally onboard to make Harmond Wilks’ messy campaign office an interesting spot to visit, particularly sound designer Jeff Gardner’s classic smooth jazz-tinged score, Mylette Nora’s period costuming, and Shen Heckel’s prop design. Sibyl Wickensheimer’s set is perfect except for the office’s main door from which so much action centers, obviously devoid of glass and constructed using such flimsy materials that every time it’s opened or closed, the whole wall wobbles and shakes and takes audiences directly out of the magic Daniels and his fine ensemble work to establish.

The cast is uniformly on the money, with Christian Telesmar leading the charge as Wilks, a powerful politician and real estate mogul running for Mayor of Pittsburgh, his campaign centering around a huge mixed-venue redevelopment venture that could greatly improve the profile of the blighted and dilapidated Hill District neighborhood where he—and not-so coincidentally Wilson himself—grew up.

The character of Wilks marks the culmination of Wilson’s efforts to indelibly comment on the societal challenges of Black Americans and the unstoppable rise to acceptance for African American culture in our troubled country. Telesmar does an admirable job traveling the character’s moral rocky road and making it his own as a man who could become his beloved city’s first Black mayor but must first choose between his rise to prominence and his own shaky sense of integrity.

Sydney A. Mason is notable as Mame, Wilkes’ ambitious wife running his campaign and seeped in political bureaucracy, as is DeJuan Christopher as Roosevelt Hicks, Wilks’ equally ambitious business partner. Still, it is Alex Morris and Matt Orduna as the play’s two wildcard resident Hill District loners who steal the show.

Morris could not possibly be better as the charmingly off-centered Elder “Old Joe” Barlow, a wizened local character showing up at the office looking for “some Christian people” to fight for his rights. He’s a simple guy who doesn’t quite get the concept of paying taxes and relinquishing the property he inherited, a dilapidated old last-century house that was sold in default of 12 years back taxes to Wilks and Hicks—and is located smack-dab in the middle of the firm’s Bedford Hills Redevelopment Project.

And as Sterling Johnson, the scrappy, intensely proud neighborhood handyman who champions Barlow and joins the fight not to demolish the former ramshackle old house at 1839 Wylie Avenue in the name of urban development, Orduna is the voice for putting the spin on stopping progress at the expense of decency and working to preserve history.

“You kiss the white man’s ass,” he snaps at the disrespectful Roosevelt who sees himself the better man, “so they think I gotta kiss their ass too.”

There was some early puzzlement of how Wilson’s conclusion to his 100-year saga had come to be named Radio Golf, aside from the fact that Roosevelt’s passion for the sport leads to him becoming the ethnic token face for a Caucasian entrepreneur trying to buy a local radio station at less than market value under the city’s minority tax incentive. On first thought, golf hardly surfaces as a major theme in the play, let alone the Cycle. The only link initially could appear to be the fact that Roosevelt hosts a new on-air show called Radio Golf, but the inclusion of the sport hardly seems a pivotal theme unless one pays extremely close attention.

The connection is definitely there, subtle as it may be to anyone not willing to ponder the deepest meaning of the play. There couldn’t be more waspy and middleclass passion than playing golf, something the denizens of Wilson’s earlier plays would never have considered. It is a symbol of the characters’ assimilation into a culture that had been previously denied them, something associated with country clubs and Harmond and Mame’s upwardly-mobile Ivy-league educations.

The other wonder about this play is how it links back to Wilson’s earlier characters. It soon dawns on us that 1839 Wylie Avenue was the majestic home of Aunt Ester, Gem of the Ocean’s fiery matriarch who claims to be 287-years-old and spends her life trying to navigate the end of the Civil War and the backlash it created for newly-freed former slaves such as her.

Harmond is the descendant of Caesar Wilks, a character in the same play who as a policeman in their brave new world insists on maintaining the letter of the law at all costs. He is the brother of Black Mary Wilks, the beleaguered housekeeper who falls in love with Citizen Barlow, a young rebel from Alabama who comes to Pittsburgh to be “cleansed” by the spiritual powers of Aunt Ester.

A late scene in Radio Golf where Harmond and Old Joe realize they are cousins is not only poignant, but a revealing moment that so completely reinforces everything Wilson had to say about the events of the 20th Century that helped mold who African Americans are today.

Though originally too easily dismissed, Radio Golf is indeed the quintessential and a most consummate conclusion to August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, the reinforcement for what he had to say about the struggle between history and progress, especially as it applies to the African American experience.

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A GREAT WILDERNESS at Rogue Machine

It’s easy to forget along the way that beyond entertaining, one of the most important missions of art is to provoke.

To admit Rogue Machine’s Los Angeles premiere of A Great Wilderness did its best to provoke me would be an understatement. I spent most of the performance irritated and annoyed by Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 reconnaissance into the lives of people on a mission to employ gay conversion therapy as their own ticket to moral redemption. You know: yet another fantasy to help prove Christianity is a champion and not a destroyer of the modern world.

Just as I was about ready to crawl out of the theatre without greeting friends I know in the cast, Hunter hit me with the play’s last line (which for sake of not presenting a spoiler here will go unquoted) and I realized with an actual physical jolt that the crafty Obie-winning playwright had had his way with me. He had manipulated me, he had even angered me, and then he slapped me upside my head and made me realize that had my reaction had been his purpose all along.

Even before I was converted—to the worthiness of the play, not the treatment it explored—the one thing I could say was the cast, under the sturdy direction of Elina deSantos, was exceptional. Why, I wondered, did so many talented people stoop to presenting this play?

There’s even a section where, as the characters wait for news about the fate of a missing troubled teenager just about to begin treatment, the onstage television blares a video on a loop about the benefits of the retirement home into which the facility’s director Walt (played by Rogue Machine’s founding artistic director John Perrin Flynn) is preparing to move, a lovely place that a soothing voice tells us has a pool and “TVs in three places." Simultaneously, the kid’s mother (Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield) takes a pivotal phone call and, at another part of the stage, Walt and his ex-wife Abby (Rachel Sorsa) argue about the future of their “care” facility.

Just as I wondered what deSantos and sound designer Christopher Moscatiello could possibly be thinking, someone onstage yells to turn the video off, promoting a palpable collective sigh of relief to radiate throughout the audience. It was the first hint that I was purposely being manipulated to feel uncomfortable, verified after the performance when a friend in the cast told me the sequence was not only deSantos' intention, but was scripted.

Lordie, I hate to admit when I have been outsmarted.

Flynn takes a brave step out of his usual role as a producer and/or director to give a layered and subtly dynamic performance as Walt, a retirement-aged counselor who has spent the last 30 years trying to help gay kids from falling into a life of sin and depravity—their words, not mine. Sorsa is so believable as his ex-wife and partner in their rustic home-like facility located in the Idaho wilderness that it’s hard not to wish her character would just go away, which is exactly what we should be feeling. If anyone could ever be a posterchild for someone who sees herself as a Christian martyr, it’s Abby.

Jeffrey Delfin makes an impressive debut as Walt’s latest victim… er, recruit… and Schofield is heartbreaking in the role of his mother, who makes a rather sharp turn in the process of grieving when her son goes AWOL in the woods during a forest fire.

Both Tania Verafield as a patient local park ranger and Tony Pasqualini as Abby’s husband Tim do yeomen’s work, offering nicely multifaceted turns in rather utilitarian and sadly underwritten roles, but if there's something other than friendship below the surface brewing between Walt and Tim, Pasqualini could lose a bit of his good-ol’-boy macho-ness to let us in on it.

Perhaps one of the glaring mistakes Rogue Machine has made mounting this presentation is in the program, which correctly details the play’s remote setting but states the time period when the action takes place as the “Present.” A lot has changed in the decade since Hunter’s play was written, hopefully something that has even forced changes in the remotest corners of middle America.

Still, A Great Wilderness did its duty. Although I left the theatre immediately after the performance feeling the piece was too often predictable and dated, it stayed with me for several days doing just what it was meant to do: reminding me how clinging to any faulty premise can destroy everything we hold dear no matter how much we believe in it and, more importantly, making me determined to never hang onto the past or be stubborn about rethinking how I adapt to the inevitable societal changes as the world spins rapidly around us on its fragile axis.

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IN SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE at the Mark Taper Forum

It was 1985 when Jane Wagner’s acclaimed In Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe rocked the Great White Way, winning her the seldom-given New York Drama Critics’ Circle Special Unique Theatrical Experience Award and garnering a Tony for Best Actress in Play for her life partner (now wife) Lily Tomlin’s sensational solo performance playing a dozen wildly diverse yet slyly interconnected characters.

For me, it was a continuation of something I watched germinate over a decade earlier, when Wagner and Tomlin brought new material to try out in front of lucky audiences onstage of The Boarding House in San Francisco (the former Troubadour North).

It was a time when Tomlin could easily sell out massive venues but preferred to test her wares in a more intimate setting. I could brag that I booked her appearance there but truthfully, it was Jane and Lily who initiated the engagement so they could workout without fanfare and too much press.

I would watch Wagner sitting alone at a table in our club’s darkened empty dining room in the late afternoon, scribbling down ideas on post-it notes to add into that night’s performance, ideas germinated earlier in the day when the couple would invade San Francisco to soak in the atmosphere and come up with new content, much of it centering around the machinations of the city itself.

Inside the tattered overcoat of the gravel-voiced Trudy, the certifiable bag lady who believes herself to be the human conduit chosen to advise visiting extraterrestrials about life on earth, Tomlin would peel off those various post-it notes Wagner had created to see if her newly minted musings about the many absurdities of the human condition would fly in front of an audience.

Seeing how that clever device conceived nearly a half-century ago then morphed into The Search for… when it debuted during the 1985-86 Broadway season and later became a feature film in 1991 was a real treat for me.

Now, as Saturday Night Live’s twice Emmy-nominated Cicely Strong peels off those same post-it notes covering the lining of Trudy’s omnipresent overcoat to deliver Wagner’s comedic observations on our ridiculously dysfunctional society to an all-new audience at the Taper thrilled me once again—and made me wonder if it's time for me to start checking out senior living facilities.

Although some of the original material has lost its punch with the passage of time, gratefully Wagner has been around to update and reimagine her comedic but quietly profound vision of the “mystical complications of quantum theory” and show us how the interconnectivity of all living things is still very much the issue here well beyond the laughs.

There are now fresh references to Elon Musk, the iCloud, and swiping right, but still some sections dealing with Transcendental Meditation, Jazzercise, pantyhose packaged in plastic eggs, and the overuse of Aqua Net hairspray surely will go over the heads of any audience member under 60. Luckily, on an opening night at the Taper, most patrons gathered got it. 

Aside from our “guide” Trudy, Strong gives new birth to that indefatigable aerobics instructor Chrissy, two world-weary prostitutes named Brandy and Tina, an angry gothed-out teenage punk rocker, a self-absorbed social climber, and an outspoken feminist, among others. It’s a breakneck 90-minutes of continuous laughter and some tragic moments where Strong must share Wagner’s message that we are all cosmically connected—down to playing the macho hair-gelled sperm donor whose “contribution” brings everyone even closer together.

It’s a massive task for anyone to step into the footsteps of Lily Tomlin, especially daunting when the comic genius herself is seated in the audience seeing it for the first time. Although Strong is a major comic talent with a limitless future and is recognized for the diverse characters she has created on SNL, everyone she slips between here gets jumbled together, making following the journey a difficult task.

This is not to say Strong should attempt to imitate the inimitable Tomlin, which would be something akin to Trevor Noah impersonating Robin Williams, but this In Search of… desperately needs more focus on the many voices and balls-out characterizations of the original perfromer so we don’t get lost trying to keep up with who’s who.

This is not all on Strong, who's certainly capable of more, but is more something that should have been addressed by director Leah Silverman and her design team. More clarity could have come just from better definition in the show’s surprisingly static scenic and lighting design choices.

Nevertheless, there is one unexpected benefit from presenting In Search of… without the unearthly talents of Lily Tomlin on hand to astonish her audience with her ability to successfully pull out all the stops. Led by a perfectly acceptable performance by a skilled but less outrageously (thrillingly) over-the-top comedian, a legendary turn that made this production so successful, nearly 50 years later the true wonder of Jane Wagner’s genius as a writer is able to emerge as the real star of the show. Wagner’s brilliance has too often been overshadowed by her worldclass partner in crime and here, both her comedic mastery and its philosophical underpinnings take center stage.

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GHOSTS at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Henrik Ibsen desperately disliked the English translation Ghosts as the title of what is perhaps his most controversial play. For him it was a misrepresentation of its original Norwegian title Gengangere, translated as The Revenants, which more literally means “The Ones Who Return.”

After being reviled in his native Norway and throughout Scandinavia, his scathing treatise on 19th-century morality was ironically first presented by an amateur Danish touring company at Chicago’s Vorwaerts Turner Hall, a neighborhood athletic club for Scandinavian immigrants.

Ibsen’s contemporaries in Europe found the play shocking and indecent, an attack on religion and the morals of the time. Venereal disease, incest, illegitimacy, free love, and assisted suicide were hardly topics discussed in polite society in those days, let alone publicly onstage.

By the turn of the century, the almost universally banned Ghosts slowly began to be accepted as the groundbreaking classic it is, tentatively mounted in highly criticized presentations in Sweden and Berlin, then in London as a single unlicensed performance for a small subscription audience where it elicited such negative reactions in the press as “wretched, deplorable, a loathsome history,” “revolting, suggestive, and blasphemous,” and a “dirty deed done in public.”

Ghosts came to New York as an invitation-only 1899 production starring Mary Shaw as Mrs. Alving and was subsequently presented in a small room in New York’s Lower East Side featuring recent Russian immigrant Ally Nazimova as its tortured leading lady, but the play still remained the subject of much public controversy wherever it landed.

Said British director and Ibsen aficionado Richard Eyre about the world’s original reaction to Ghosts, “In case we bask in the glow of progress and the delight of feeling ourselves superior to our predecessors, it’s worth remembering that the response to Edward Bond’s Saved in 1965 and Sarah Kane’s Blasted 30 years later was remarkably similar.”

Today we have become desensitized by the equally dark and scandalous subjects explored by Tennessee Williams and more recently writers such as Jeremy O. Harris, so for modern audiences, the play seems infinitely less unworthy of public viewing.

It was 2013 when Eyre debuted his own far more accessible contemporary adaptation of the play in London, winning Olivier Awards for Best Revival of a Play, Best Director for Eyre, and top acting honors for Lesley Manville and Jack Lowden as Ibsen’s eternally doomed mother and son.

Director Bart DeLorenzo is the perfect partner to bring Eyre’s searing downsized one-act take on Ibsen’s play to the Odyssey in a reverently sparse but effective mounting true to the award-winning 2013 British incarnation.

Oddly, all of the play’s original twists and turns and revelations and tragedies are included, yet somehow Eyre’s intermissionless Cliff Notes version of the three-act drama retains its power, even though we are asked to suspend belief that everything is happening at warp-speed. Why it works is because it’s done so well.

On Frederica Nascimento’s equally austere set, the rooms of Helene Elving’s sprawling home are without walls, defined only by familiar white rehearsal tape used to define the spaces. Here the movement of the characters not in the action is clearly viewed so every member of Ibsen’s intertwined storyline stays devoid of any privacy.

Above and behind the action, a wooden dollhouse-esque structure depicting of Mrs. Alving charity orphanage hangs suspended above the stage, appropriately upsidedown, as though it contains an enveloping shroud of secrets and regrets.

DeLorenzo’s cast is onboard in the attempt to keep things palpably tense, moving rapidly from thinly disguised exposition to talk of future plans to the sudden destruction of those plans to the unraveling of the last of the Elving family’s fragile honor—all in 90 minutes.

Although the pivotal opening scene between Mrs. Alving’s ambitious, flirtatious maid Regina and her sauced pig of a father Jacob (Viva Hassis Gentes and J.Stephen Brantley) suggested possibly a rocky road ahead, the entrance of Pamela J. Gray as Mrs. Alving and Barry Del Sherman as the tightassed local clergyman and our heroine’s former lover Reverand Manders immediately raises the stakes. Thankfully the other actors, perhaps at first thrown off by the yammy-yammies of opening night, quickly caught up to their costars.

Recent CalArts graduate Alex Barlas makes an auspicious debut at poor doomed Oswald, the son Mrs. Alving sent away to study in a more urban environment at a young age who has now returned a troubled adult with one of those hacking persistent coughs so familiar in turn-of-the-20th-century dramatic literature.

Still it is the towering, magnificently multifaceted performance of Gray as the proud widow fiercely working to hide the depth of her drunken and brutish late husband’s depravity that lifts Eyre’s all-new take on Ghosts into the theatrical stratosphere.

Her subtle and delicately nuanced work tops itself by the end of the play, as Mrs. Alving’s newfound intention to live out the rest of her life free of restrictive rules and commandments of society and religion turns sour—and she realizes there is a hell after all, not some fantasy afterlife but right here on terra firma.

Henrik Ibsen had a great knack for juggling his era’s hypocrisies in the name of decency and devotion to some vengeful god with what he describes as “dead morals, dead habits, dead values,” and he was also a master at getting some sly jabs in about the nature of greed and the push for political power.

In the gifted hands of Bart DeLorenzo and his band of equally talented droogies, the great master’s Ghosts comes around to haunt us again, leaving the audience spent and Gray, his leading lady, ready to take a long nap.

 *  *  *

OKLAHOMA! at the Ahmanson Theatre

Anyone familiar with my reviews probably knows two things: I dearly love cleverly twisted and dark interpretations of classics if the newly devised transformation is done well—and secondly, I run in the other direction from schmaltzy and maudlin musical theatre.

I was more than excited to finally see Daniel Fish’s reinvention of Rodger and Hammerstein’s venerable 1943 musical Oklahoma!, especially since it was my own first experience as an actor at an age so young it was amazing I wasn’t wheeled onstage in my stroller and my binky taken out of my mouth so I could belt my shrieking cameo solo about carrots and pertaters.

Of course, Oklahoma! was a cultural and critical phenomenon for many reasons, including heralding the beginning of one of the most successful collaborations in musical theatre history and, even more importantly, for the introduction of melding song and dance into a storyline with serious dramatic goals.

It’s true that over the years Oklahoma! has devolved to almost always being presented as a gooey romance focusing mainly on the courtship of Curly and Laurey (here Sean Grandillo and Sasha Hutchings) and the comedic side story of that silly Will Parker perusing the perpetually hot-to-trot Ado Annie (played by transgendered performers Hennessy Winkler and Sis). Over the last nearly eight decades, any nuance of social and political indictment was buried under frilly crinolines and bowlegged cowboys highstepping in tight-fitting jeans.

The kicker intended to seep through Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs was the dangerous Hatfield vs. McCoy competitive rot and distrust of “them other folks” in the Indian Territories in 1906, helping to create an ol’ west portending the unraveling of that fallacy known as the American Dream.

Fish’s intentions are surely admirable, particularly without changing more than a few words in Oscar Hammerstein’s book, but I understand in New York this boldly off-kilter take on the classic, slimmed down for 10 actors and one dancer rather than a cast of 25, was staged in an intimate space with audience on three sides of the action featuring many interactive moments, something obviously lost when the national tour took flight.

Actors in the first act actually cooked onstage as the tale unfolded and at intermission, homemade cornbread and frontier-style chili was shared with audience members sitting at wooden tables adjoining the stage. Gimmicky but tasty.

Whatever innovations that worked well then have been abandoned in the austere 2,000-seat Ahmanson. As imaginative and guileful as Fish’s vision may have been pre-pandemic, he should have been around to somehow rethink his vision for a huge proscenium stage before taking the proverbial show on the road.

For instance, our heroes’ two close encounters with that ominous Jud Fry (played in a fascinating new slacker-boy interpretation by Christopher Bannow) are performed in total blackout with the voices echoing in the darkened auditorium. On a smaller stage with the audience seated closely all around them, I bet it was a chilling effect. At the Ahmanson, I kept waiting for an announcement from the booth to pierce the dialogue telling us they were pausing the show to work out some unwelcome technical difficulties.

Laura Jellinek’s set allows the cast and the (exceptional) band to be placed around the stage sitting at bleached wood chairs and picnic tables, evoking a community center or borrowed high school gym in some rural community. This one is decorated with mounted gun racks and is suitably festooned with brightly glittering mylar banners all ready for the homecoming dance next Friday, right after the hayride.

Unfortunately, this choice on tour plopped down on a more traditional stage helps foster the feeling that this rendition of Oklahoma! is a clunky and unstructured first readthrough of the newest amateur night being presented by the local Claremore Oklahoma Community Players.

Fish’s staging reminded me of our first on-your-feet rehearsal for Hair where we were given the freedom to move wherever we wanted or, if not in a scene, to stay around watching the other actors do the same. Tom O’Horgan’s only direction was, “Find your comfortable spot but don’t bump onto one another.” Again, I bet at Circle in the Square, this approach was exhilarating; here it’s a huge mistake.

This is not to say the cast—and the knockout band mentioned earlier—are not the most professional anyone could find. Bannow is a clear standout, taking the menace out of Jud and replacing it with someone just too creepy to want around. Hutchings is possessed of a voice that instantly lifts the rather dull and drawn out proceedings to a whole new level but aside from her this production was not cast, intentionally I suspect, with an emphasis to find performers with impressive vocal skills.

The hiring of Sis is inspired casting, her big-boned, big-voiced, larger-and-life streetwise delivery as she seductively towers over her prey proves to be hilarious at every turn. Broadway veteran Barbara Walsh is also an asset to the tour, although try as she might to make it work, she still seems more embarrassed to be a part of it all than Barbara Stanwyck playing a lesbian madam in A Walk on the Wild Side.

Credit is given in the program to Agnes deMille’s original rule-breaking 1943 “Dream Ballet” choreography, which literally changed the course of musical theatre history. Presented here with an electric guitar accompaniment I loved,  one game dancer wearing a “DREAM BABY DREAM” t-shirt is forced to follow seemingly unstructured steps created for a beginning dance class. Sad to say John Heginbotham’s homage to the original choreography could get poor Jordan Wynn tossed off So You Think You Can Dance after the first audition and send poor Miss deMille spinning in her grave, albeit gracefully.

I already hear those with an opposite opinion about this Oklahoma! angrily saying those of us who basically hated it are old curmudgeon traditionists who aren’t willing to change their ways and open up to something new. Au contraire, my friends; in my case, I am totally up for drastically clever interpretations of things that need to be seen with a bold look that upends the status quo.

Oh, I so wanted to love this new take on a tired old musical warhorse but simply, I did not. For me, this glaringly pretentious and self-satisfied Oklahoma! was definitely not OK.

 *  *  *

CATS at the Pantages Theatre

Crusty old cynic that I am, I probably would have passed on seeing Cats for the 3,348th time if it had not been for the fact that my partner was one of the four people on the planet earth who had never seen it done onstage. Geebus knows after watching the 2019 film version, Hugh needed to see what made this production become such a phenomenon, opening in London in 1981 and playing nearly 9,000 performances before closing on its 21st anniversary in 2002.

Having been around about as long as Old Deuteronomy himself, I was there to see the show when it first opened on Broadway 40 years ago, debuting in 1982 and featuring what would become legendary performances by a pair of worldclass actors I’m proud to call friends in their iconic Tony-winning and Tony-nominated roles: Betty Buckley as Grizabella and Harry Groener as Munkustrap.

The groundbreaking musical went on to set records, playing 7,500 performances before finally closing in 2000, earning some $388 million in ticket sales and becoming one of the four longest running shows in Broadway history.

Way back in 1997, when Cats overtook A Chorus Line as the longest running production to play the Great White Way, it was recognized as having had a $3.12 billion impact on the economy of New York City and had generated more theatrical jobs than any other production in Broadway history—helping to jumpstart many noteworthy careers along the way, including knockout turns by two other of my cherished friends, Bryan Batt as Munkustrap and Rick Sparks as Rum-Tug-Tugger.

Meticulously recreated for a Broadway revival in 2017 which featured the same Tony-winning design team and Trevor Nunn’s direction, with updated hip-hop and cool jazz choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler based on Gillian Lynne’s celebrated moves, the little show with far more than nine lives played another 600-plus performances.

This is the production now stopped at the Pantages for a too-brief run and, despite my druthers to see it done once again, it is a sparkling, incredibly reverent recreation of the show as I remember first seeing it unfold four decades ago. True to every aspect of the production that initially made it such a great success, it once again completely surpasses the typically grave-robbed score by our time’s most overrated composer, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The ensemble assembled for this tour is full of life and exploding with talent, all clearly paying homage to those who created the roles, while every design aspect is fresh yet impressively respectful to what made Cats such a piece of theatrical history. No tired actors out on the road too long, no tattered sets or fraying costumes here. It’s the real deal.

As always, this clowder of Cats owes what made it such an enduring success to two things: the sweetly imaginative source material, T.S. Elliot’s 1939 collection of feline-based poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and to the late-great Dame Gillian’s incredibly eclectic choreography so lovingly re-envisioned by Blankenbuehler.

If anyone reads my reviews with any regularity and braces for my opinions of sappy musical theatre or of Sir Andrew’s dubious contributions to the genre, my reaction to this umteenth mounting of a classic old warhorse might leave them in shock. Fully aware that I might be in danger of the imminent revocation of my coveted John Simon badge, let me simply say I loved every minute of it.

 *  *  *

THE SECRET WORLD OF ARCHY & MEHITABEL  at the Whitefire Theatre

After being repeatedly conked over the head by Orwell and Ibsen in the last few days—albeit brilliantly—it was a refreshing twist on classic morality tales to just enjoy a fun evening out where neither totalitarianism nor syphilis was the subject of the cautionary message.

That doesn’t say there aren’t social issues addressed in The Secret World of Archy & Mehitabel, now world premiering at the Whitefire, only that it doesn’t make one leave the theatre wondering if our species has managed to totally destroy the planet earth with little hope for survival.

Newspaper columnist Don Marquis crafted a far gentler devise to make his readers think about the future in the early 20th century, speaking his mind about the human condition through stories supposedly conceived by Archy, a failed poet now reincarnated as a cockroach, who at Marquis' desk in the dead of night types his thoughts about the world from his unique view from the “Underside."

Although at first a naturally adversarial relationship, Archy befriends Mehitabel, a sweetly randy former society cat down on her luck, now reduced to check out the tasty garbage can smorgasbord in the alleys of New York with as much dignity as she can muster.

Actor/writer Dan Gilvezan (who also appears onstage as Archy) has done us all a service by introducing folks of several different generations to Marquis’ once highly popular fantasy offspring by adapting some of his most charmingly inventive and surprising topical 100-plus-year-old yarns for the stage, choosing an eclectic collection of Marquis’ most enchanted denizens of the Underside to depict and, in collaboration with director Moosie Drier, inventing clever ways for uninhibited two-legged creatures to turn them into characters that would be a joy for any actor to tackle.

On a nearly bare stage—occupied by The Boss’ desk (a character representing Marquis himself played by the rubber-faced Bill Chott), several wooden black cubes reminiscent of every acting workshop from the beginning of time, and Nick Foran’s colorful rear productions depicting the Manhattan skyline—a totally game and unselfconscious cast makes the Whitefire light up with childlike wonder.

Although the acting styles could be a tad more consistent, every one of the ensemble members is a standout in some way, especially Kelly Stables and Richard Horovitz playing a multitude of lower-species creatures from may flies and bull frogs to moths and spiders. Their balls-out comedic skills reminded me of watching the resident clowns who with great abandon brought the old Pee-Wee’s Playhouse to such gloriously entertaining life.

Still, the true heart of this production is the hilarious. indelibly imaginative turn by Carolyn Hennesy as Mehitabel, whose first long-awaited spotlighted star entrance, accompanied by thunderous applause (the flashing sign tells us to), could rival anything once assayed by Loretta Young. Henessey is both outrageously funny and heartbreakingly poignant as the pampered and perpetually horny feline abandoned to the streets after attacking her family’s new dog. It’s always a pleasure and a privilege to see Hennesy return to her theatrical roots on the LA stage after making the schedule-sucking transition to beloved Daytime Emmy-nominated TV star.

Even as someone raised in the 1950s, Marquis’ characters and the days of their lives are new to me. I vaguely remember Archy, Mehitabel, and their Underside friends from my childhood, but only as cartoon drawings, possibly from one of the many books in my mother’s collection. As I watched it all unfold, I couldn’t help but envision how these fanciful stories must have been received by 1920-ish audiences, many of whom considered Marquis a second Mark Twain and the era’s preeminent humorist.

Gilvezan and his collaborators have something here. The Secret World of Archy & Mehitabel deserves a not-so secret future that includes access for kids of all ages. If some of the material seems a bit too adult for young audiences, never fear. Just as the aforementioned Pee-Wee’s Playhouse did for Saturday morning television viewers in the early 80s, the suggestive stuff will go directly over the kiddies’ heads while their parents can sit there and enjoy the in-jokes in delighted silence.

I already stop to greet and initiate conversation with every cat and dog I encounter but now, thanks to Archy & Mehitabel, I might just give a nod and wish the next cockroach I encounter a nice day.

 *  *  *

LAVENDER MEN from Playwrights' Arena/Skylight Theatre Company

In the 1880s, the Aesthetic Movement was flourishing in British artistic circles, contrasting their inspiring cultivation of beauty and the arts in drastic juxtaposition with the overpowering worship of materialism at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Along the way, when the invention of more advanced synthetic dyes were suddenly able to produce the color lavender, the delicate hue became popular to utilize and wear among people who appreciated beauty. Of course, it didn’t take long for the crass pigeonholers of the era to link “art for art’s sake” with homosexuality, denouncing aesthetes as weak and effeminate—and possibly living with a metaphorical dollop of lavender in their personal lives.

By the 1930s in America, men who were suspected of being gay were derogatorily said to possess a hint of lavender, thanks in a large part to Carl Sandberg’s Pulitzer-winning 1940 biography of Abraham Lincoln in which he described one of Honest Abe’s early male relationships of having a “streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets.”

Now, it wasn’t an issue in Lincoln’s day for a man to wax poetic in letters to their closest male pal about the love they shared, not to mention that sharing sleeping arrangements as "bedfellows" with another bachelor was not in any way verboten. In fact, one biographer wrote that Lincoln and his longtime bestie Joshua Fry Speed regularly shared a bed so narrow that if one changed position, the other was forced to do the same.

Considering the physiology of the male body, who knows what might have popped up?

In the sensational and bravely rule-shattering world premiere of Roger Q. Mason’s Lavender Men, now being presented as part of the prolific collaboration between Playwrights’ Arena and the Skylight Theatre Company, Lincoln’s possibly less-than acceptably presidential predilection is explored, taking place in what the program describes as “Now. Whenever you are watching this. Then: 1860s. Never (what if this never happened—it is only a story). Place: Everywhere you are—and all the places you have yet to see. Honey, it’s a fantasia.”

Signaling that what is about to unfold ain’t Neil Simon, early on one of the characters in Mason’s Lavender-tinged reimagining of history and Lincoln’s romantically ambiguous relationship with a strapping young soldier, the playwright, appearing onstage as their outrageously omnipresent alter-ego Taffeta, explains, “Girl, I told you! This is a fantasia!”

Through the uniquely singular eye of Mason, self-described as a “fabulous queer creation of color,” Taffeta is the playwright’s ebonics-laden conduit to freely riff on our historical image of the heroic and staunchly hetero who became one of our poor fucked country’s most revered Presidents. It is indeed a fantasia, a view so delightfully and imaginatively irreverent that it may be a bit of a shock to the senses, a reaction the playwright/performer obviously considers a consummation devoutly to be wished.

It is a wild and often hilarious view of A’murkin history, but not without its share of pathos. Our country’s familiar caucasian cracker-obsessed backstory is definitely not something with which Mason or Taffeta can identify—and the loneliness of being who they are digs far more deeply into the underbelly of our culture’s well-honed exclusiveness than musing about whom Abraham Lincoln really loved. Yet of this exclusion, Taffeta admits, “There is some beauty being lost in a sea of nothing.”

As the play unfolds, stellar actors Pete Ploszek and Alex Esola appear as Lincoln and Elmer E. Ellsworth, a law clerk who at age 24 became the first Union officer to die in the Civil War, killed as he removed the Confederate flag from a rooftop in Alexandria, Virginia. As their love-that-had-no-name (then) sweetens, Taffeta winds through and around the action on Stephen Gifford’s amazingly versatile set—appearing as everything from a slave named Miss Sadie to Mary Todd Lincoln to a tree possessed of admirable genderless plumage—the characters they’ve created begin to protest the intrusion to their blossoming intimacy. Taffeta, however, is quick to wag a finger and remind them who wrote this shit.

“I think she’s just trying to make things more imaginative this time around,” Esola as Ellsworth surmises, but honey (to adapt the playwright’s distinctive vernacular), Lavender Men reaches far, far beyond that.

I have been proud to call Roger a friend long before he became they  but despite any personal prejudice, I can say without hesitation Lavender Men is groundbreaking in every possible way. Developed in the ambitious combined companies’ resident playwrighting workshop SKYLAB, this 90-minute intermissionless (“Honey, we don’t do them no more,” says Taffeta) poetic and visually stunning assault penned by a fearless and quickly-emerging contemporary wordsmith delivers what the fragile world of theatre has over the past few difficult “woke” years been so diligently itching to produce.

The alienation that has dominated the writer’s life is spewed out with staggeringly heartfelt abandon and how that isolation is viewed as the fictionalized real life historical figures of Lincoln and Ellsworth fall in love can easily move one to tears. Right from the play’s opening beat, nothing is barred from Taffeta/Mason’s often painful but ever-defiant perspective on our world, as evidenced by their opening monologue:

"Fat bitch

Black queen mixed breed mishap round nosed fag ho.

That’s what you think of me

As I walk down the street

My wide hips waddling

My fleshy neck obscuring a too-soft jawline.

I bet that’s what you think of me

With my Black-Irish daddy’s broad shoulders and my Filipina mama’s flat ass.

That must be what you think of me, you blond twink boys

And over-bronzed muscle queens and lonely cubs

And daddies with clean-shaven beards.

As you swipe left, hang up, or turn the other way.

No fats, no femmes, no blacks.

Well kiss my black, fat, femme ass to the red! I am more than that, I think."

Lavender Men is presented with exceptional production values under the sure directorial hand of Mason’s longtime collaborator Lovell Holder and featuring Gifford’s incredibly detailed set lovingly lit by Dan Weingarten, as well as Wendell Carmichael’s exquisite and appropriately grand wardrobe choices that could make Loretta Young go faint.

It is a miraculous and extremely important work that needs to have a huge future, hopefully with everything Los Angeles theatre treasures Jon Lawrence Rivera and Gary Grossman, artistic directors of, respectively, Playwrights’ Arena and the Skylight Theatre Company, have worked so diligently to nurture and bring to such glorious fruition.

And, of course, everywhere it stops along the way, hopefully it will always star Roger Q. Mason, who gives a commanding, courageous, delightfully charismatic performance as Taffeta, a character as rich and worthy of theatrical preservation as the many historically documented quirks of our 16th President.

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LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at the Los Angeles Opera

Although such things don’t always work, I am usually anxious to see modern reinventions of classic theatre. After attending the opening of Oklahoma! destructed to become NO-klahoma! right across the Music Center Plaza only two nights earlier, I was still a little apprehensive attending the ultra-gala opening night of Simon Stone’s reconstructed Lucia di Lammermoor, the first presentation of the LA Opera’s 2022-2023 season.

A coproduction with the Metropolitan Opera, Stone has reset Donizetti’s Italian dramma tragico from Lammermuir Hills in 17th-century Scotland to a derelict urban American neighborhood in the present day which may possibly be Detroit, with the uniform worn by poor doomed auto mechanic Edgardo (LA Opera favorite Arturo Chacon-Cruz) the only clue of the tale’s exact new location.

It’s a world filled with a real pickup truck and several battered junker cars, flashing neon signs, cluttered convenience stores, glowing ATMs, even a massive drive-in movie screen featuring flashes of Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour goofing through the 1947 comedy My Favorite Brunette.

All these signposts of contemporary life crowd Lizzie Clachan’s jaw-dropping scenic design, with buildings and houses and the wall of some kind of rusty desalination plant on the banks of what is maybe is the Detroit River all made to revolve continuously on the imposing Dorothy Chandler stage as the action evolves.

And while the screen above the stage still flashes the Opera’s traditional English supertitles, it also ingeniously follows our rapidly unraveling heroine shot live by a handheld camcorder, also revealing Lucia’s journey in giant blowups of her Facebook texts to the absent Edgardo, and juxtaposing her innermost delusional visions in moody noir-like black-and-white with the far less cheery reality unfolding live just below.

The result is pure magic. Clachan’s artistry is the stuff awards are made for and how Stone skillfully maneuvers his performers—including 50-plus members of the LA Opera Chorus winding through the action as local workers and formally-clad wedding party guests whipping out their iPhones to capture the violence when a brawl breaks out at the celebration—is nothing short of genius.

So perfect for today, even this 198-year-old adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor begins with a street mugging, as Lucia (the return to LAO where her career began of Met star Amanda Woodbury) is jumped from behind near her brother’s dilapidated auto body shop.

When Lucia first premiered in 1835 at the Teatro di San Carlos in Naples, it was at the height of a widespread fascination in Europe for the history and culture of Scotland. The perceived romance and intrigue within its violent wars and familial feuds, as well as the country’s mythologies and folklore, was something akin to our society's obsession with survivors and celebrity housewives..

You know: a mirror image of our lives two centuries later, once again confirming that we as a species have no ability to learn lessons from past atrocities.

This mounting of Lucia is simply magnificent, made even more perfect by its worldclass cast and the auspicious debut of LA Opera’s new Resident Conductor Lina Gonzalez-Granados, warmly welcomed by the organization’s devoted firstnighters both during wildly enthusiastic curtaincalls and afterward at the glittering annual LA Opera Ball on the gorgeously transformed Plaza saluting the venerated organization’s 36th season.

Woodbury and Chacon-Cruz give breathtaking performances as the story’s Romeo and Juliet-like starcrossed lovers destroyed by their warring families, acing Donizetti’s astonishing and difficult arias, beautifully supported by Alexander Birch Elliott as Lucia’s meddlesome brother Enrico and Eric Owens as the kindly family clergyman Raimondo.

It’s quite a feat for Stone and his associates to so brilliantly chronicle the mental decline of their poor bedeviled title character, made even more impressive by the inclusion of the omnipresent ghost of a young girl stabbed to death at the banks of the river who periodically returns embodied by dancer Jessica Gadzinski (alternating with Shauna Davis) performing the angular Nijinsky-esque choreography of my ubertalented friend Kitty McNamee, former artistic director of LA’s groundbreaking Hysterica Dance Company.

Everything about this reawakened Lucia di Lammermoor is impressive, from its soaring performances, Clachan’s glorious set, James Francome’s versatile lighting, Blanca Anon’s whimsical costuming and, especially, the exceptional projections designed by Luke Hall.

There are also more than a few laughs along the bloodsoaked road to operatic misadventure and misfortune, one particular supertitle provoking more than a scattered guffaw from the savvy opening night audience as the pious Raimondo does his best to raise spirits by telling the cursed and bloodied survivors of the ill-fated love story that “God condemns violence.”

I wonder if, way back in 1835, people were gullible enough to find comfort in that.

 *  *  *

JAGGED LITTLE PILL at the Pantages Theatre

So. Next to Normal meets Rent with a score by Alanis Morissette and a book by Diablo Cody. What could be the downside?

Answer: Absolutely nothing.

The opening night of Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill at the Pantages is certainly a fortuitous event for Los Angeles audiences, not only because of her incredible score (created with Glen Ballard with additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth), but because it has no corn as high as an elephant’s eye, rain in Spain, problems with Maria, or real good clambakes. It is raucous, loud, bursting with energy, and still has something important to say.

Considering the Pulitzer Prize for Drama is awarded each year to a work by an American playwright that deals with life in our fuckedup country, it’s surprising Cody’s book, although it did win the Tony for Best Book of a Musical, didn’t at least receive a nod from the committee.

Perhaps due to my own early career spent appearing and touring in sappy and terminally romantic American musicals, give me Fun Home or Caroline or Change or Urinetown or Passion or Company or the aforementioned Next to Normal (which did win the Pulitzer), and I am a happy guy.

Not that there’s anything wrong with classic musical theatre, mind you, which I can still appreciate, but the jolt of seeing contemporary musical theatre generated with some potent societal issue as its focal point and with a point beyond the boy getting the girl by final curtain, makes me stand and cheer—which I did for the west coast debut of Jagged Little Pill. Twice.

Add in incredibly kinetic and wildly inventive direction and choreography by, respectively, Diane Paulis and Sibi Larbi Cherkaoui, augmented by musical director Matt Doebler and his precision and suitably deafening band rocking out on tunes from Morissette’s double-diamond, five-time Grammy-winning 1995 studio album, and nope: no downside whatsoever.

Perhaps it’s because the long awaited Covid-postponed national tour has just kicked off here in LA, but this uniformly dynamic cast is chockfull of energy and excitement, not the often soggy and road-weary troupe that sometimes bogs down long-touring productions.

The ensemble is incredibly joyous and committed to Cody’s clever and topical script focusing on the picture perfect suburban mother raising her perfect children within her perfect nuclear family unit where her paleo breakfast pancakes are served with agave syrup and her annual Christmas letter portrays a life somewhere between Leave It to Beaver and Andy Hardy as captured by Currier and Ives.

The otherwise often deplorable Ayn Rand once said that most people in our society live as “second-handers,” caring only about how they are perceived by others rather than caring about who they really are, something that, as Rand said, “supersedes truth, facts, reason, and logic.”

Such is the downward-spiraling life of Mary Jane Healy (the unearthly talented Heidi Blickenstaff), who below the finely polished Norman Rockwell image seethes as someone desperately trying to keep it all together despite a loveless marriage, a posterchild son with a dastardly secret, an adopted African-American daughter who hates her and wonders if she was only chosen to join the family to show the world just how “woke” they are, and—oh yeah, that: a major addition to oxycontin and fentanyl.

“We all get it,” MJ’s frustrating husband Steve (Chris Hoch) snaps at her after having his fill of her need to be seen as a latterday maternal Mother Teresa, “you’re winning at Candyland.”

Oscar-winning screenwriter Cody has conjured complex characters who must be a joy to portray, especially when the actors get to break into Joplin-perfect song with insightful lyrics by a poet of Morissette's status. Hoch, Lauren Chanel as her angry and confused daughter Frankie, and Dillon Klena as her not-so perfect Harvard-bound son Nick are all exceptional in their roles, as is Allison Sheppard as the kids’ classmate Bella, who becomes dispondent after being raped while unconscious at a class party, and Rishi Golani as Phoenix, the new kid in town whose relationship with Frankie moves a bit too fast than is comfortable for him.

Still, it is Blickenstaff who is the anchor of this jagged Pill, delivering a tour de force performance that could not possibly be more relatable to many people—nor more devastatingly  moving. From the early cheery persona MJ offers for public inspection to her final opiate-fueled onstage overdose, jarringly depicted while wailing Morissette’s Grammy-winning “Uninvited” as she writhes in pain on her living room couch, her agony shadowed by an identically dressed doppelgänger of herself mirroring her every movement, Blickenstaff is transcendent.

Then there is the showstopping performance of Jade McLeod as Jo, Frankie’s adoring girlfriend whose love is tossed to the wayside when her young lover meets Phoenix. Remember I mentioned that this opening night performance triggered two standing ovations? The first is in the middle of Act Two when the heartbroken McLeod powerfully delivers “You Oughta Know,” perhaps the most cogent and compelling moment of the evening.

Truly, though, the entire cast is worthy of accolades. As Alanis Morissette remarked during the opening night curtaincall, when she took to the stage herself along with Cody and Ballard, when Jagged Little Pill opened in New York before being felled—more than once, both before and after—by the pandemic, every production creates its own kind of personality and direction. As good as the Broadway version was purported to be, it would be impossible to imagine a cast as gifted and ferociously committed to the material as this one. If they ended with a impromptu interpretation of “Happy Birthday,” I’ll bet they’d still receive a rapturous standing ovation.

The secondary storyline of Bella’s shame and the unsympathetic community of typically dispassionate suburban high schoolers who eventually rally around her as Frankie gives her all to promote activism and offer diehard support for crucial causes, also begets a message that should be shared with teenagers everywhere.

Among the many protest signs held up by members of the ensemble as they march for justice and equality, one struck me to the bone: "IT TOOK ME 10 YEARS TO STOP BLAMING MYSELF."

Personally, for me such a realization took more than 50 years to sink in. Maybe as a young person jumping into the world without a net, if I’d had Alanis Morissette, Diablo Cody, and the artistic team behind Jagged Little Pill to help me navigate the adult world around me, life might have been infinitely less challenging to maneuver.

 *  *  *

ANIMAL FARM at A Noise Within

Although George Orwell had been a successful British author for many years, it still took him a spell to find anyone willing to publish his 1945 novella Animal Farm: A Fairy Story. There was a fear of offending or even jeopardizing the delicate wartime alliance between Britain and the Soviets. Orwell was a democratic socialist and it didn’t take much to realize the satire reflected the events that led from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the advent of the Soviet Union and the brutal regime of Joseph Stalin.

Britain was tolerant of Stalinism, something that drove Orwell crazy. The result was Animal Farm, a thinly veiled satirical allegory that mirrors the rise of one of history’s most monstrous dictators through the device of a similar revolt initiated by the badly treated animals on the rural Manor Farm against their oppressive owner.

Orwell wrote in a 1946 essay titled Why I Write, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism. Animal Farm was the first book on which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”

His powerful cautionary tale became one of the most successful of the writer’s many books, honored by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most important English-language novels written between 1923 and 2005 and its creator was chosen in 2008 by the New York Times as one of the 50 greatest British authors since 1945.

From this work and, among others, his famous dystopian 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, our popular culture has added such well-known neologisms as “Big Brother,” “thought police,” “memory hole,” “newspeak,” and “double-speak,” and of course any social practice deemed authoritarian is often referred to as “Orwellian.”

It was in 1984 (prophetically) that Sir Peter Hall adapted the classic novel for the stage as a surprising and insanely successful musical, with equally biting Brechtian songs composed by Richard Peaslee with lyrics by Adrian Mitchell.

The production, which initially played all three venues at the British National Theatre, is a brilliantly imaginative piece, very avant-garde in its day and seldom mounted since. Leave it to that wildly innovative visionary director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and her cohorts at A Noise Within to tackle Sir Peter’s epic—and only a few months after presenting Mary Zimmerman’s equally challenging Metamorphoses.

Rodriguez-Elliott and her well cared-for 31-year-old baby ANW prove to be the perfect partners to interpret Sir Peter’s ostentatious and brazenly daring interpretation of an important piece of theatrical literature, succeeding splendidly in delivering yet another highly imaginative and cleverly designed production.

Angela Balogh Calin’s simple yet effective two-story barnyard set and her outrageously grandiose costuming, complimented by Tony Values’ whimsical wigs and makeup and Dillon Nelson’s masks, add perfectly to the wonder, as does Ken Booth’s often eerie lighting and Kate Wecker’s sound design.

The ensemble is first-rate and intensely committed to the material, which turns on a dime from whimsy and childlike humor to become a dark morality tale mirroring the insidious plague of tyranny in a most horrifying way. Their stylized assimilations of the movements and vocalizations of our four-legged brethren are quite impressive and endlessly entertaining.

From the talented ranks, Stanley Andrew Jackson is especially noteworthy as that idealistic young pig Snowball, an early leader of the animals who above anything else wants to transform the farm into a better place where all are equal and willing to work together to make change happen.

Rafael Goldstein and Trisha Miller are both chilling as fellow pigs Napoleon and Squealer, the diabolical architects of the greed-fueled corruption that twists the simple philosophies of the revolutionaries’ Animalism to take total control of the farm and again transform the once oppressed animals back into overworked and underfed workerbees.

Nicole Javier has a delightful turn as the vain valleygirl horse Mollie, a giggly Paris Hiltony filly focused more on the number of colorful ribbons added to her lovely mane than caring about standing up for her rights and the rights of the others—you know, like too many people we all know as we drown in our own current global dilemmas.

Rodriguez-Elliott’s stalwart husband and co-producing director Geoff Elliott, always a considerable presence onstage at ANW, plays the farm’s two kindhearted but doomed inhabitants Old Major, who introduces and inspires the notion that the animals should be free from their human oppressors, and Boxer, an old workhorse (literally) who does his best to contribute to the struggle even though he can’t decide what to believe.

“I always find myself agreeing with the last one who spoke,” Boxer admits, which sadly becomes the Achilles’ heel that eventually sends him off to the glue factory.

Still, as brilliant as Elliott is in so many roles he’s taken on over the years, especially as Scrooge in ANW’s annual mounting of A Christmas Carol and as a memorable Shannon in The Night of the Iguana (which I should know as a member of the original Chicago pre-Broadway cast a few thousand years ago), he can also occasionally go too far.

Part of this is due to his booming bass-baritone voice, an impressive tool for some roles but overworked in others. Here, as Boxer, Elliott becomes a major distraction as he continuously paws the ground while issuing a low vibrating noise that defies explanation.

Since my interaction with horses has been extremely limited in my urban lifetime, I deferred to my partner Hugh, raised on a farm on a New Mexican Navajo reservation. Was it a whinny, I asked? A bray? A neigh? “None of the above,” he answered. “That’s what made it so annoying,” likening the sound constantly emanating over ANW’s state-of-the-art sound system to be more like the moans of a dying pig.

Aside from that one interference, there's little that isn’t quite sensational about this production—and that actually includes Elliott’s rich vocalizations in Peaslee’s quirky Kurt Weill-esque score. I would someday love to see Elliott take on a role in Happy End or The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

Animal Farm was an urgently important topical indictment of our species’ continuous inability (unwillingness?) to recognize the machinations of evil and stop our power-hungry megalomaniacs—you know, those folks like the real-life “practical pig, a pig of few words” who with his own band of deluded squealers almost destroyed our democracy in recent years and is still wallowing around in his expensive pigsty trying to fuck things up even more than he did before.

“We’ve just discovered documents that have only recently been found” that could change the course of the animals’ mission to create an equitable society, a character tells us, something that, considering the recent headlines, elicited an almost uncomfortable chuckle throughout the audience.

As though Orwell wrote Animal Farm today rather than three-quarters of a century ago, the barnyard collective’s original motto, “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL,” is soon perverted to become the power-mad Napoleon’s own ominous mantra: “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.”

Anybody listening out there?

 *  *  *

THE PROM at the Ahmanson Theatre

If you’re going to take some sharp (albeit hilarious) swipes about the state of the American theatre, you’d better darn well be ready to not become the brunt of your own jokes.

In Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin, and composer Matthew Sklar’s hit musical The Prom, it’s a sad day for Broadway when two beloved stars are trashed as reviews start coming in at Sardi’s on opening night. And here Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman (Courtney Balan and Patrick Wetzel) were so sure their new musical Eleanor! was destined to be a smash that they’ve already started talking about later reprising their roles as all-singing, all-dancing Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Eleanor II.

The problem is, Dee Dee’s title character sounds more like Katharine Hepburn with laryngitis and Barry plays the gayest FDR in musical theatre history, at least since Paul Lynde starred in a midwestern bus-and-truck tour of Annie.

On top of that, Ben Brantley of the Times writes that the problem isn’t her voice or him possibly trying to vogue in the presidentiual wheelchair, it’s that both performers are so narcissistic and self-centered they couldn’t play these historic icons if they took classes in humility from Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi themselves.

Deciding they need to do something to change their image in the press as self-absorbed divas, they search for a cause to champion that might turn around public opinion—nothing big or time-consuming, mind you, just something easy that can improve how they're perceived. You know, a movement that could make it look as though they care without too much effort.

They join forces with former TV star-turned-waiter Trent Oliver (Bud Weber) and veteran chorusgirl Angie Dickinson (Emily Borromeo), someone who just quit her gig after 20 years in the ensemble of Chicago since instead of finally casting her as the new replacement Roxie Hart, they chose Tina Louise.

“What?” asks Dee Dee about this news. “Is she still alive?” Angie answers, “Not really.” As much as my lategreat bestie Dawn Wells would have adored that joke, the writers actually could have updated it nicely earlier this year when Pamela Anderson took over that role in real life, if anyone can still call it that.

But I digress.

After the quartet performs a knockout “Changing Lives,” one of Sklar and Beguelin’s best songs in The Prom, they Google “causes” and pass up climate change and world hunger, deciding instead to champion a teenager in Edgewater, Indiana named Emma (Kaden Kearney) whose prom has been canceled by the local PTA due to her insistence she be allowed to bring her girlfriend as her date. It’s a perfect choice, especially since Trent is about to appear nearby in a non-Equity production of Godspell and the newly-minted activists could ride along to the "crossraods of America" in their bus for free.

All this should signal that The Prom will be an instant success in its tenancy at the Ahmanson but unfortunately, although they're all human and easily corrected, the tour has its problems. As clever as Casey Nickolaw’s original direction and spirited choreography may be and as much as I was charmed by the score and hilariously tongue-in-cheek book by Martin and Beguelin, this production suffers from a case of that dreaded malady I call roadshow-itis.

This cast has been out traveling the country for almost a year and sadly, it shows. They arrive here after already playing many other cities, including Paducah, Schenectady, Cleveland, Orlando, and Hershey, Pennsylvania, to name a few, and the production suffers for its longevity. Although Scott Pask's set still sparkles and Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman's costumes have lost none of their sequins (at least from row Q), the show itself is fraying at the seams.

Although most of the principal roles are performed by an exceptionally big-voiced and talented troupe of musical theatre veterans with Broadway and touring credits as long as your arm, simply, they all seem to need a break.

Still, there are a pair of obvious exceptions: Kaylen West as Emma’s steady Allyssa, who brings a heartfelt dynamism to the musical’s haunting balled “Alyssa Greene” and, above anyone and everyone else she so easily overshadows, there's that basic newcomer Kearney, who despite possessing the program's shortest bio delivers a knockout, totally showstopping turn as Emma.

Aside from those otherwise uninspired leading performances which could have been phoned in from the actors’ hotel rooms, however, The Prom features a wonderfully in-joke-laden and constantly self-deprecating book that pokes wicked fun at actors and the machinations of Broadway, as well as featuring Beguelin’s ingenious and award-worthy lyrics. He even takes a jab at himself as Dee Dee marvels how the godawful song Trent composes for them to perform at a rally for Emma (written after Andrew Lloyd Webber refuses to help his least favorite Phantom) rhymes “bigamy” with “big of me.”

Also in high contrast to this sometimes surprisingly remote-controlled incarnation of the heavily Tony-nominated and Drama Desk Best Musical winner, the tour highlights one other ingredient that energizes and lifts it from its tired condition: the yung’uns of the dancing ensemble, none of whom have suffered the fate of the more pivotal performers.

Interpreting Nickolaw’s breakneck and infectious choreography, these are the artists who, along with Kearney and West, make a trip to Emma’s prom worth the effort: Gabrielle Beckford, Ashley Bruce, Maurice Dawkins, Jordan De Leon, James Caleb Grice, Megan Grosso, Marie Gutierrez, Chloe Rae Kehm, Brandon J. Large, Daniel May, Alexa Margo, Christopher McCrewell, Adriana Negron, Lexie Plath, Marcus Phillips, Zoë Brooke Reed, Thad Turner Wilson, and Josh Zacher.

Together they form a remarkably likable ensemble that’s continuously fun to watch in the show’s large production numbers. Nickolaw should be praised for not resorting to casting Broadway’s familiar line of Barbie and Ken clones to play the awkward but eager kids of Edgewater High.

Special mention should be made of the national tour debut of 18-year-old Braden Allen King, a fresh-faced, loose-limbed future star whose every dance move stretches and lifts and reaches just a little higher than any of the others. Even when placed behind other dancers, his cheery personality and individual style reminiscent of the gawky-yet-graceful early Tommy Tune makes him an easy focus.

After excitedly proclaiming to the crowd at their ill-fated event, booked at halftime during a Big Truck rally at the local speedway, that they’re “Liberal democrats from Broadway!”, the displaced Big City folks predicibly bomb bigtime, prompting one of them to make a crack about now knowing how the original cast of Carrie must have felt.

Perhaps a few well-placed buckets of pigs’ blood suspended from the Ahmanson's catwalk to spark a little desperately needed spontaneity into the work of The Prom’s principal castmembers might not be a bad idea.

 *  *  *

THE OLD MAN AND THE POOL at the Mark Taper Forum

It used to be said that life begins at 40. I wonder what Mike Birbiglia would have to say about that.

When I was a yung’un, my primary vision of people in the later stages of life always conjured the image of a bunch of old folks sitting on a bench in front of a retirement home talking endlessly about their gallbladder surgeries and who died that week. As I navigate those same later stages myself, a time when I have socks older than 40, I now understand all too well, as those ailments and surgeries and losses of friends simply become part of life in one’s golden years no matter how much we’d like to ignore that reality.

A great many of the friends we greeted at the Music Center Plaza and the Mark Taper lobby before the opening night performance of The Old Man and the Pool immediately asked how my own seesawing health is at this point or listed their own most recent medical journey.

Now in his mid-40s, standup comedian and storyteller divine Birbiglia is beginning to experience the natural inevitable physical decline of the human body. This is exactly at that time during the onset of middle-age when the hint of future physical challenges starts to let us know none of us are immune to these intrusions—and like Birbiglia we begin to realize that all those bizarre tchotchkes sitting on the counter at our doctors’ offices are more than merely decorative.

The title comes from a haunting memory of early childhood, that of an elderly man who frequented his local YMCA pool, a place which Birbiglia tells us remided him of smelling under a friend’s cast mixed with massive treatments of chlorine to mask the lingering odor of pee. The old man would sit stark naked in full sight rhythmically rubbing talcum power on his dangling giggleberries.

That, along with a child’s first vision of a “jungle of eye-level adult genitalia” in the crowded locker room, kept him away from indoor public swimming facilities for most of his life until in his recent years he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. He was told perhaps he should consult a nutritionist, people he believes know all the same things we do but they “just charge for it.”

Besides the doctor’s suggestion that he might seek out a second opinion (“I thought the first opinion was definitive”), he suggested that if his impatient patient didn’t want to start a rigorous program of daily cardio, maybe he should seek out utilizing the pool at his local Y—five times a week.

“Does anyone use pool therapy five times a week?” Birbiglia wonders but, by the time he describes the next stages of his life as he realizes is body is letting him down, that would be him.

Basically, this is a lengthy solo standup comedy set that would traditionally be played at the Comedy Store or filmed for a cable special, but under the sharply focused direction of Birbiglia’s longtime collaborator Seth Barrish, somehow it works on the Taper stage even if it’s not the venue’s usual kind of presentation.

The same was even more the case with The New One, his first appearance for CTG in 2019 booked into the 2,000-plus seat Ahmanson, while the Taper hosts a little more than 700 patrons. As charismatic as Birbiglia may be, his special kind of performance works far better at the Taper, where the intimacy of the venue allows audience members to feel closer to the guy and actually see his subtle throw-away facial expressions.

Birbiglia is a most unique and infectiously welcoming voice in the self-deprecating traditions of Dave Barry and David Sedaris. He possesses a lovably nondescript physicality and classic nebbishness that quickly gets his audience on his side as they listen in on in his casual and obviously personally therapeutic rant about the continuously overwhelming woes and seemingly infrequent joys of barreling through our lives on this confusing ol' planet.

He’s a one-of-a-kind comedian, oddly evoking the image of an early Wally Cox crossed with the relentlessly manic persona of Robin Williams—albeit without the voices of multiple personalities. He leads us directly into his simple but relatable story, delivering a humble, even self-effacingly neurotic Woody Allen-style monologue that is not at all unlike those pre-show conversations I had outside the theatre before the performance.

He deals with his sufficiently thorny health issues and involuntarily morphs from freewheeling young adult into someone suddenly faced with the nagging realization that aging is a one-way journey no matter how diligently we try to ignore it.

Interestingly, from the stage Birbiglia professes an early fixation with TV talk shows in general and David Letterman in particular. Long before he mentioned that little factoid, I kept seeing such a development in his own future. This guy would be perfect hosting his own late-night show.

Mike Birbiglia’s comedy is all his own and as such, The Old Man and the Pool is a highly unique and refreshing entertainment, making us feel a tad embarrassed to be laughing at his poor-me modernday Little Tramp persona—that is until one considers there’s a strong possibility we're all on the same journey.

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THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE at the 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.

 *  *  *

CHOPIN IN PARIS at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Perhaps my favorite part of maintaining my own handydandy website rather than reviewing for the LA Times or during my many years writing for BackStage and Entertainment Today is that I don’t have to give a hang about conforming to AP Style or being concerned about the rules of journalistic integrity.

Hence, I can cover the lovechild of a dear friend without caring if anyone thinks it’s a conflict of interests. That said, I’m sure there are friends of mine who can attest to the fact that over the years I have bashed their hard work in print despite my love for them and people who are definitely anything but my friends I have praised profusely when it came to their performances.

Such is the case with Hershey Felder in the Los Angeles premiere of Chopin in Paris, just opened at the Wallis, his solo masterpiece and an electrifying addition to his prolific and overachieving “Composer Sonata” touring performances.

Hershey and I have been friends for a few hundred years, you see, ever since he hung out around the corner in the lobby of the Geffen one night to meet me when I arrived, wanting to give me thanks for the many glowing reviews I had given him over the years and proclaiming I was one of those who “got him.”

Since then, we’ve met for a hug and a visit whenever he has been in LA from his idyllic home base in Florence, Italy, and in the last few years we have become… what? Remember penpals? I guess I could say he and I have become the modern equivalent to that: text-pals, not to mention a few years ago he commissioned me to create eight portraits of him in his various brilliant and uncanny onstage incarnations as Gershwin, Beethoven, Lizst, and all the others.

And as satisfying as it is to grouse about and try to solve the world’s multitude of problems over the 6,213 miles on the ‘net, seeing him in person to share a long overdue hug at the Wallis opening last night was a true treat, something akin to greeting a long-lost cousin at a mini-family reunion—albeit with less baggage.

My partner Hugh and I were fortunate to see the west coast debut of Chopin in Paris in the fall of 2019 before the world pulled up the welcome mat (then titled Monsieur Chopin) at the sadly now defunct San Diego Rep and I was knocked out by it even then. Aside from Hershey’s ability to field questions from the audience and answer them with such a plethora of knowledge about the composer’s life, including dates and names and pronunciations in French, Hungarian, and Chopin’s native Polish, he never ceases to amaze how he can then lead the session back to his original script—making one wonder how the lighting and sound operators can keep up with the often freestyle nature of the presentation itself. 

Expertly directed by Joel Zwick, Chopin in Paris explores the romantic story and timeless music of one of the world’s greatest pianist-composers, set in his Paris salon at 9 Square d’Orleans on the afternoon of March 4, 1848, just days after the beginning of his home country’s revolution against the Russians (of course), their monumentally oppressive occupiers. With the conceit that we are the recipients of one of his documented music lessons, as it unfolds Chopin reveals secrets about the art of the piano and composition, as well as secrets about himself.

As always in Hershey's multi-award-winning performances which have toured all over the world, the acclaimed playwright/pianist/actor delves deep into the music and psyche of Chopin himself, considered by his contemporaries, and now by history, as the true “Poet of the Piano.” Featuring and honoring some of the musical genius’ most beautiful and enduring music, it’s quite soul-lifting as another contemporary musical genius entertains and mesmerizes us with his insight and incomparable theatrical style.

What struck me most this time, however, beside how the composer’s memories of the brutal and barbaric Russian invasion of Poland in the 1830s so eerily mirrored what the country is currently doing in the Ukraine, was the many references to the nature of artistic inspiration as Chopin continuously reminds us of shaping any work of art that “If it is to mean anything at all, it must be personal. It must come from your soul. And you must say something.” 

This instantly brought me back to my early years as Talent Coordinator of the legendary Troubadour in the late 60s and early 70s, when each week I received somewhere between 100 and 150 tapes of artists looking to be booked at our career-making venue, not to mention attending sets at smaller clubs and watching over the Troub’s weekly amateur Monday night “Hoot Night”—from which came wannabes Jackson Browne, Cheech and Chong, Steve Martin, Glenn Frye, Tom Waits, and many others. Of all the artists I had to contemplate, many, many were accomplished musicians but what I learned to look for was that little spark of something different, something I had not heard before from all the others, something completely unique to them.

Such is the work of Hershey Felder himself, who creates his magical, gossamer live art while teaching us so much about the world in which his subjects existed and how their life experiences translated into notes on the piano. And because it’s my friggin’ website and I can without an editor stopping me, I am here reprinting the original review of our first look at Chopin in Paris at San Diego Rep, written by my partner as a guest to my website back in the days when I still has a slight resistance to writing glowing notices about people I dearly love: 

Chopin in Paris (then Monsieur Chopin) reviewed September, 2019 by H.A. Eaglehart

Time is the ultimate test of true art, something once again proven by the words written and performed by Hershey Felder in Monsieur Chopin, his solo rendition paying homage to Frederic Chopin.

San Diego Repertory Theatre has graced SoCal once again with one of Hershey’s eight plays bringing great musical composers to life for audiences around the world. Over the course of my six-year immersion into theatre in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, it has been my great privilege to see Hershey breathe life into the great works of Russian composer Tchaikovsky and French composer Debussy at the Wallis, as well as Beethoven at the Geffen.

George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, and Liszt are also composers whom I’ve yet to see arise from the crypt through the keys of Hershey’s mesmerizing talent as an actor, intellectual, and world-class pianist fiercely creating magic on the Steinway piano which travels with him around the nation.

Hershey is one of the greatest intellectuals of our time, successfully reintroducing audiences from all walks of life to the titans who shaped the conscious state of modernity. On his last weekend bringing Monsieur Chopin to San Diego for an extended run, he transformed his rapt audience into students seeking piano classes from the proud Polish composer as he equally conjures the brilliance and bipolarity of the man, who lived in times when his bipolar condition was labeled as “melancholia.”

Recently Hershey was commissioned by my boyfriend to paint all eight composers which he has portrayed over the last 25 years and so I have had the pleasure of seeing his portraits of Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Beethoven, Chopin, Gershwin, Berlin, Bernstein, and Liszt standing side by side, as real as seeing them alive within Hershey, who has indeed shattered the test of time.

He also shatters the fourth wall as Chopin, walking us through his life and the development of his celebrated collected works as he often turns to the audience subbing as students in his Paris salon, demanding we ask questions which are the only a path to artistic development. “You may as well ask questions since you put 20 francs into the box,” Chopin tells us, pointing to a box gracing a table on the stunning set, designed by Hershey, where students in his salon placed their tuition in return for the right to learn from the great composer.

Audience members are challenged to pick at Chopin’s brilliant mind brought to life through Hershey’s incredible scope and uncanny faculty as an artist and intellectual. Experiencing firsthand Travis’ journey bringing these composers embodied within Hershey to life on canvas, I became aware of his acute attention to set lighting, which is an intricate essential in Hershey’s genius as a storyteller. Thanks to the lighting design talents of Erik Barry, Chopin’s internal soul evokes empathy and wonder in our own hearts as we emphasize with the turbulent processes of life we all share.

Throughout the course of the evening we are taught by Chopin that a great artist viscerally paints the aura of being alive through tools like a Steinway, lighting design, and brilliant background projections. My love for Hershey’s work is accelerated by his innate gift for breathing life into immortal stories having withstood the test of time. He bridges the gap between the audience and the greatest musical compositions ever written.

I came to tears last year sitting in the audience at the Wallis witnessing Tchaikovsky take the stage, allowing us to step into the pain of his world as a gay genius in a time even darker than ours of Trump. The most important message in Hershey’s timelessness is to remind us we are not alone and the amazing fact about it all is, like Chopin, the great Hershey Felder only needs a piano to bring us into the story he has to tell.

We watch Chopin fall into the depths of depression as Russia rapes Poland and forces him to flee to Paris where he is a man without a country. I may be slightly paraphrasing but Chopin tells us, his students, “All I had left to fight with was a piano.” Hearing Chopin and Tchaikovsky relate their life stories in spoken word instead of printed words in a book is a transforming experience.

After the 2018 performance of Our Great Tchaikovsky, Hershey announced he would be traveling with it from Beverly Hills to Moscow, the prospect of taking the story of a genius homosexual composer to the capitol of the homophobic dictatorship of Putin, where gay people are brutally murdered and imprisoned, he admitted scared him.

Travis and I had a late dinner with Hershey and his associate director Trevor Hay after the performance. Rarely does anyone get the privilege of being invited to dinner with a true idol and I confess to being starstruck over the avocado dip and a lovely gin and tonic. As we strolled with Hershey through the Gaslamp District of Downtown San Diego back to our rooms at the Grand Horton Hotel, on an empty sidewalk I got the opportunity to ask how well his performance as Tchaikovsky was received in Moscow.

“I never went,” Hershey replied bleakly. “That’s how real the danger is in Russia.” In a world being overran by dictators, we all need to listen more to our artists, because only art will withstand the inequities and ruthlessness of time.

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HADESTOWN at the Ahmanson Theatre / Segerstrom Center for the Arts

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.

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A TERMINAL EVENT at the 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.

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ROE at the 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.

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PRETTY WOMAN at the 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.

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DEAR EVAN HANSEN at the 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. 

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