TRAVIS' REVIEWS:  Winter 2023 to... ?  


ON FILM:  THE ASSEMBLY from Hershey Felder Presents

The pandemic has proven quite a ride for my dear friend, actor/playwright/scholar/director/pianist Hershey Felder, whose career traveling the world for the past two-and-a-half decades performing in his highly acclaimed solo shows, appearing as some of the world’s most famous and historic composers, was purdy much grounded.

Although his main residence in Florence, Italy was hardly a bad place to be stuck during lockdown, it’s hard to keep a creative genius with the passion of Hershey Felder from… well… creating.

In 2020, he began producing filmed versions of his repertoire to share with the world, partially created as a benefit for our own Wallis Center for the Performing Arts and a dozen other such venues to which he has performed to continually sold-out audiences over the years.

The first live-streaming event featured his celebrated performance in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, which was shot in the grand villa looming above his cherished adopted city that he shares with his wife of 25 years, former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell.

Offered to view from home by his own production company, Hershey Felder Presents, the immediate success of his filmed performance spawned several other recreations of his stage shows, including his performances as Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Puccini, and the piece on Rachmaninoff he was preparing as his next touring show before the world pulled in the welcome mat.

These projects then began to gradually evolve into full-on motion pictures, complete with actors and costumes and breathtaking actual settings that would make Rick Steves jealous. In an impossibly short period of time, HFP began offering full seasons in their catalog of an entirely new line of musical storytelling, all written, directed and starring Hershey, including the full-length films Dante and Beatrice in Florence, Mozart and Figaro in Vienna, Chopin and Liszt in Paris, and featuring Hershey as Shalom Aleichem in Before Fiddler.

It was the latter project that I believe further encouraged Hershey’s ever-deepening passion to delve into his own rich personal heritage, resulting earlier this year with the release of his magical documentary Musical Tales of the Venetian Jewish Ghetto, detailing the remarkable story of how for 500 years the Jews have been kept safe on an island all their own.

Not only is the extent of Hershey’s talents staggering to contemplate, the artistic components that come together under his direction are even more amazing. At the end of November, the guy proved his ability to grow and expand his horizons in his newly explored medium is something almost unearthly. Hershey’s latest film, The Assembly, is hands-down the crowning achievement of everything he's produced to this point.

So much was crammed into his newest effort, it was released in two parts and the result is incredibly moving—and something every person with a concern for the future of our species should watch.

It began with his admiration for a nonagenarian Holocaust survivor named Eva Libitzky, who spent her post-war life in America traveling to schools across the country sharing her personal story to one generation after another of young people whose knowledge of the horrors of the Nazi's concentration camps too often was close to zero.

During one such visit at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, eight grateful students who met with Libitzky in turn treated her to a gathering where they showed their appreciation by sharing their own art. If the talent these young artists exhibit in The Assembly, which features clips of each performing showtunes—alternating with talking about their diverse individual backgrounds, their hopes, their dreams—were the only thing filmed, it would still be remarkably inspiriting.

Originally envisioned as a stage musical to be performed at their school, The Assembly at first seemed to be a lost cause after the pandemic knocked plans to workshop the project came to a grinding halt. Luckily, Hershey’s ever-spinning imagination took it one step further, getting the bright idea, as the Covid clouds began to clear, to offer these bright young people the golden opportunity to travel with Libitzky to Poland, the country from which she fled, to hear the horrific tales of her incarceration unfold where it actually happened.

Unfortunately, Libitzky suddenly passed away last May at age 97, but that didn’t deter Hershey. In collaboration with their school, last October the students were brought to Warsaw for the experience of their lives, a trip that will surely stay embedded in their minds for the rest of their lives.

Making the journey to visit the remains of Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, then to tour Auschwitz and Lodz, the students were accompanied by Hershey, his wife Kim, Libitzky’s son Moses, and actress-singer Eleanor Reissa, introduced to us in Musical Tales of the Venetian Jewish Ghetto, who here appears both as herself and in sections appearing as Lipitzky reading passages from her 2010 autobiography, Out on a Ledge: Enduring the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Beyond.

As they tour the grim horrors of the Holocaust firsthand, we are privy to the knowledge they absorb and feel as though we’re right there ourselves as members of the group express their emotions along the way and we, like them, receive an all-new appreciation for life and a magnificent lesson about the resiliency of the human animal.

All is not sad here, however, as between these passages we are treated with the glorious music of the Jewish ghetto during that era that has survived in joyous song and dance celebrating life and community. Hershey, Reissa, and the students then join to create yet another indelible moment caught forever on film as they visit the Jewish cemetery in Lodz where Moses Libitzky recites the Kaddish and Hershey sings “El Maleh Rachamim,” both poignant Jewish prayers for the departed.

Near the end of the second part, the group discusses what has been learned and how it gives each participant a fresh new resolve to face life, to make a difference, and to be sure no one ever forgets what happened.

For me, The Assembly was haunting and inspiring in a very palpable way. These gifted kids gave me a much-needed dose of hope for the future in our miserably disppointing world and, even more then that, it reminded me once again of how art can heal and how it can change the world.

Every classroom in the world—make that every person—should experience the importance of what the unstoppably creative Mr. Hershey Felder continues to share with us all. Simply, I was gobsmacked by his latest masterpiece, encouraged in a way I thought I was past experiencing, and I am humbled to call this brilliant artist and world-class storyteller my friend.

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THE SECRET GARDEN at the Ahmanson Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What a nerve-racking experience it must have been bringing Act One of the lategreat Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant but hardly musical theatre formulaic Sunday in the Park with George to a small but scrappy off-Broadway playhouse for its first viewing in 1983.

That first courageously audacious peek at the first act of the groundbreaking classic ran for a mere 25 performances back then at Playwrights Horizons, only tenuously adding a still workshopping Act Two for the final three shows.

With the encouragement and praise of Leonard Bernstein and other American theatre luminaries, Sondheim and his longtime collaborator, director James Lapine, brought Sunday in the Park to Broadway’s majestic Booth Theatre the following April and, although still unsure of its success and stung by mixed reviews from the critics, the musical went on to win two Tony Awards (albeit only for design); eight New York Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding Musical, Sondheim’s lyrics, and Lapine’s book and direction; and finally the ultimate honor: the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—one of only 10 musicals in history to be so honored.

A lot was at stake for Sondheim, who after the crushing failure of his Merrily We Roll Along in 1981 had announced to the world he was done with musical theatre.

It was Lapine who persuaded him to change his mind after the two had found inspiration anew from viewing George Seurat’s sweeping century-old neoimpressionist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which magnificently commands an entire gallery wall at the Art Institute of Chicago where it has been on view since 1924.

Sondheim and Lapine returned to the museum several days in a row to study the painting, which introduced Seurat’s invention of pointillism to a then-skeptical art world. Such obsessive behavior sparked by A Sunday Afternoon is a concept I personally understand only too well—but more on that later. Maybe.

As they sat enthralled by the familiar group of working-class citizens caught in a moment of time enjoying the view from across the Seine from a humble and hardly fashionable bucolic park on the outskirts of Paris that provided respite from the urban madness of the City of Lights, they wondered just who the people portrayed were and fantasized about the lives they lived before the artist gave them such celebrated artistic mortality.

Lapine commented aloud that the only thing missing from the stiff-backed Parisians frozen in time on Seurat’s canvas was an image of the creator himself—and soon the pair was collaborating on a fictionalized history of the backstory featuring the artist as the leading character and, surely inspired by the recent failure and struggles of Sondheim himself, breathed life into a piece that forever changed the future of musical theatre.

Sunday in the Park is nowhere near the sweet and simple entertainment previously offered by works contemplating corn as high as an elephant’s eye or real good clambakes. The imagined lifestyle and personal demons haunting any artist as he or she navigates the murky waters of commercial success, of their place on their community, of the emotional connection between creation and appreciation, are all poetically explored without ever considering how to solve a problem like Maria.

Thankfully, the venerable Pasadena Playhouse, my alma mater from it long run as a college of the theatre arts and our State Theatre of California since 1937, has initiated a season-long tribute to Sondheim, who left us in 2021 after over six decades of turning the world of musical theatre on its proverbial ear.

This production inaugurates that effort spectacularly with a full production of the highly acclaimed limited-run 2017 New York revival brilliantly directed by Lapine’s niece Sarna Lapine and starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford as Seurat and his fictional mistress Dot, roles that made even bigger stars of the already celebrated Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters when the show first debuted.

What Pasadena Playhouse and Miss Lapine have managed to create here is an enormously well-appointed effort featuring a large and gifted cast, Alison Solomon’s smoothly fluid choreography, and exquisite production designs including Clint Ramos’ glorious costuming and Tal Yarden’s impressive projections depicting gigantic renderings of Seurat’s canvas in various stages of completion. Every aspect is further enhanced by a glorious 14-piece orchestra under the award-worthy leadership of orchestrator and musical director Andy Einhorn.

It’s hard to imagine, in this era where the traditionally struggling world of live theatre is so drastically grappling with post-pandemic apathy, that the Playhouse has pulled off this massive production when not even Broadway productions these austere days manage this kind of stateliness.

At the end of the first act, while the ensemble sings the triumphant “Sunday” as they assume the positions and costuming of the figures in Seurat’s painting, great art inventively honors great art and the result is electrifying. Yet, although I never saw the original production except as it was filmed on video in 1986 and presented on TV’s American Playhouse, every other mounting I have seen over the years featured some of the figures in the classic tableaux represented by cardboard cutouts carried onto the stage and set in place.

In Sarna Lapine’s staging, each of the figures is assumed by living, breathing actors—a 22-person troupe of veteran performers all with the voices approved by the gods. The effect is staggering and the emotion it evokes literally brings tears to the eyes of even the most hardened world-weary theatregoer—including yours truly.

As the title character who is seldom offstage during the two-and-a-half hour run time, former Good Wife series regular Graham Phillips is a major revelation, completely unrecognizable to this reviewer who only was familiar with him as put-together ivy-leaguer Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Geffen last season. Graham is possessed of a commanding voice that easily rivals Patinkin’s—and that’s saying a lot.

His performance is appropriately the heart of the production both as Seurat and in the second act as his great-grandson namesake also slammed by the insecurities and inequities of a career as an artist. As the engineer of his electronic art installations tells him as he quits live performance to return to his former job at NASA, "This work is too stressful."

Phillips' leading lady is played by the clearly talented Krystina Alabado, who brings a brand new but not for me always successful take to the role of Dot. She is less comedic, more serious as she wears her troubles on her sleeve rather than showing us how she represses them, and above all without the coquettish throw of the head and period cabaret hall swagger that in the past has given the character her edge of streetwise survivor.

Along with a bit of whimsy and geriatric puckishness that has always characterized the role of Marie, Dot’s 98-year-old granddaughter who has inherited her mother’s strength and resilience and is portrayed by the same actress, Alabado doesn’t quite match the passion Phillips emotes—and her well-trained theatrical emphasis on hitting her final consonants gets in the way of what the character could be.

The ensemble is populated by performers whose collective gratitude at being given the opportunity to honor the genius of Sondheim is palpable, with particular mention of the delightfully tongue-in-cheek performances of Alexandra Melrose and Jimmy Smagula as a pair of stateside tourists who prove the term Ugly American wasn’t necessarily coined in modern times, Jennie Greenberry as a nurse whose towering Mahalia Jackson-esque voice rings like a bell over all others in the group numbers, and Emily Tyra as a 19th-century castmember of The Real Housewives of Paris, France.

Liz Larsen is also a standout as George’s crusty mother, bringing great pathos to the haunting balled “Beautiful” as she laments all the changes going on around her in the name of progress, including the clearing of a lovely old grove of mature trees to build “towers”—in this case, a particularly distinctive one being erected by Gustave Eiffel.

Even with a production as reverent and praiseworthy as this in almost every precision detail, from the staging and design to the performances by actors obviously enthralled interpreting the complex melodies and uniquely insightful lyrics of a master, and with the most sincere gratitude to Pasadena Playhouse for making such an auspicious event (and season) happen, everything is eclipsed by Sondheim’s parnassian meditation on the painful challenges and the loneliness of creating art in a society that never seems to understand nor appreciate the personal cost of doing so.

Children and art, we’re told on Sunday in the Park, are all we have to leave behind us. There’s no doubt Sondheim wrote his finest and most elaborate score while questioning his own journey as an artist, gamely offering a rationale for his own sacrifices he hoped sounded logical enough to eventually be recognized as truths.

Remember I mentioned earlier my personal connection to this pioneering musical? As a very young boy I would accompany my mother while she was teaching classes at the Art Institute and later performing at the adjacent Goodman Theatre. While she worked, when I wasn’t sitting under my monumental bronze lion, one of the majestic pair that guard the entrance of the great museum (a flippant gift from her to me once that at my young age I chose to take quite seriously), I would wander throughout the halls of worldclass art.

Wherever I roamed in the historic 1893 Beaux Arts structure, I always ended up sitting quietly for hours and hours on the cold marble bench placed directly in front of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, appreciating the many minuscule points of color that, like Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s A Sunday in the Park with George, joined together "bit by bit" to make a whole.

That experience sparked my imagination and changed the very direction of my life, giving me courage to go on when someone as steadfast and unshakable as George Seurat could give difficult birth to such an enduring work of art despite that fact that he died at age 31 having never sold a painting in his life.

My own journey, as with any artist or person dedicated to the creation and appreciation of art beyond all else, has not always been an easy one. Still, a large part of my decision to keep going from early on has always been the magical soul-stirring memory of an unforgettable work of art initially constructed in a vacuum that, despite being misunderstood and faced with indifference in its time, will move and inspire generations to come for as long as our species still exists on our fragile planet.

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THE LION KING at the Pantages Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NIMROD at Theatre of NOTE

My Lord, what fools these nimrods be… and as dysfunctional as the dastardly pus-blossoms who in 2016 somehow managed to grab power in our poor maligned country may be, Phinneas Kiyomura’s outrageous farcical spin on the antics of our last presidential administration takes it one step further.

The wake-up call jarring us somnambulant former freedom fighters back into action seven years ago was all too real—and the Traitor Tot and his self-serving minions are living cartoons without needing to be reinvented as caricatures without much effort. Still, although the precariously disastrous tailspin into madness that drastically maligned the history of America seems anything but funny, thanks to Theatre of NOTE’s world premiere of Nimrod, Kiyomura’s commedia dell’arte-inspired ability to find humor in the Trump years is more than welcome.

Written in “tragical comedic” Shakespearean verse and grandly played as though A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s rude mechanicals have been taken over by Pee-Wee Herman’s Playhouse gang, Nimrod finds the lighter side of our dimwitted tangerine-hued nightmare-in-chief and the 30,573 documented lies he foisted upon the public in his destructive four-year reign—not to mention and the horror of contemplating his current bloviated run for reelection.

In true well-honed NOTE fashion, Nimrod begins with Hiwa Chow Elms writhing in ecstasy as she squats on the face of Edward Moravcsik as her trusty hunk of a bodyguard, the guy who provides the satisfaction her weenily-endowed husband cannot. Even though she only speaks with a heavy Slovakian accent while being interviewed by the press, there’s little doubt who the character represents. Yet when after she climaxes she rises to don a fuchsia satin robe with the phrase “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO YOU?” emblazoned on the back, there’s no doubt where Kiyomura and his team are going.

The unhappy First Lady laments to her personal cunning linguist that her husband-in-name-only’s decision to run again goes against his promise in a prenup signed at the beginning of his campaign that he would quit after one term, a deal that would net her $20 million in a divorce settlement after his political appropriation of all things decent has ended.

The dialogue is wonderfully silly and delightfully off-color, brought to life by a game and all-too willing ensemble cast that, although individually somewhat uneven in their expertise to handle such over-the-top comedy, proves it matters not—in fact, the wildly divergent playing styles of the performers make the goings-on somehow more endearing, something director Alina Phelan has shrewdly embraced with a wink and a sly smile.

As much fun as everyone involved is having here, obviously encouraged by Phelan to pull out every stop, no one is having more fun than the nearly unrecognizable Kirsten Vangsness in her title role as A’murka’s halfwit former Celebrity Appresident.

Sporting random smears of orange Texas Dirt makeup and a cheesy blond wig that appears to have been salvaged from a dumpster behind a Hollywood Bouleverd cosmotology school augmenting her familiar character’s continuous look of having undergone a prefrontal lobotomy, Vangsness rants nonsense speeches that veer even further into gibberish, drools over a towering plateful of Quarter Pounders, proudly and gleefully farts like Pantalone, and rapaciously schtupps a radioactive giant hog arriving in a giant crate as a gift from his best buddy, the president of Russia.

Vangsness is simply uproariously funny and absolutely priceless throughout without a single stop left for her to pull out.

There’s something quite satisfying watching Dotard Donnie portrayed as the total buffoon he is, a guy who becomes confused when he catches himself using bigly words he doesn’t understand and has never used before—words like “Sorry"—and a clown whose expertise and familiarity with the intricacies of managing the complexities of war came solely from a bout with chlamydia in 1972.

It seems to me Phinneas Kiyomura’s refreshingly rollercoaster of a theatrical ride, scheduled to run at NOTE only through mid-March, could play on far longer, especially considering that the absurdity of the Republican party’s descent continues with all-new daily episodes added to the burlesque.

With the playwright in attendance opening weekend and, considering his long association with the company he will probably continue to be, an obviously well-placed recently added joke about weather balloons proved a perfect addendum to his sharply topical satire.

Although currently Nimrod has a very satisfying and most Shakespearean conclusion, a consummation devotedly to be wished involving one of the most drastic natural shocks that flesh is heir to, since NOTE’s plucky, gallant, and often hilariously crossdressing cast is clearly willing to continue to go wherever Kiyomura and Phelan want them to go, could a quick rewrite and an appearance by a pregnant Rihanna suspended from a platform be far behind?

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MEAN GIRLS at the Pantages Theatre and Segerstrom Center for the Arts

I have never before been in midst of such a committed jumble of eclectic superfans: a huge crowd of single middle-aged women all dressed in early 21st-century pink finery and wearing Lindsay Lohan t-shirts that must have actually fit 19 years ago.

I quickly realized I was perhaps one of three people in the jampacked opening night audience of the musical adaptation of the popular 2004 film Mean Girls at the Pantages who has never seen—or become obsessed—with the original movie. The minute lights came up on the characters of Damian Hubbard and Janis Sarkisian (Eric Huffman and Lindsay Heather Pearce) and the house went totally crazy, I knew I was in trouble.

Luckily, even without any prior introduction to the movie’s conflicted teenaged protagonist Cady Heron (English Bernhardt) and the clique-heavy high school cabal she tries to infiltrate at any cost upon her move from Kenya to Evanston, Illinois, once the phenomenon of prolonged cheers and applause died down emanating from people to whom these particular actors are totally unknown, the musical version stands up beautifully on its own.

With a plot that could come off as predictable and formulaic in the shadow of one of those wildly popular angst-ridden John Hughes epic 80s teen movies, the book by Tina Fey based on her original screenplay never panders to political correctness, her characters far more randy and sexually informed—you know, like real life.

The musical version, directed and choreographed by the current reigning Broadway magicmaker Casey Nicholaw with an infectious score by composer Jeff Richmond and featuring clever innuendo-rich lyrics by Nell Benjamin, is extremely entertaining without falling into the snapping jaws of contemporary musical theatre created more as cash cows than as art.

Of course, as produced by Fey’s longtime SNL boss Lorne Michaels, the Broadway pedigree is still clear and present here, with charmingly colorful costuming by Gregg Barnes, lighting by Kenneth Posner, and a remarkably versatile set by Scott Pask which can be instantaneously and dynamically transformed with frequent cinematic scene changes created by video designers Finn Ross and Adam Young. It’s no wonder Mean Girls was nominated for a bang-up 12 Tony Awards in 2018; the only surprise is that it didn’t win any.

None of this theatrical splendor would be worth the glitz without this excellent ensemble of young (though sometimes hardly teenaged) actors, led by delightful performances from Bernhardt, Huffman and Pearce, and featuring a plethora of knockout performances by the entire cast, from the many featured characters each gifted with their own solo number to the contagiously energetic troupe of dancers uniformly committed to interpreting Nicholaw’s often surprisingly goofy choreography that seems inspired by the signature loose-limbed movements of Ray Bolger.

As the meanest of the mean girls, Nadina Hassan’s scarily entitled Regina George, Jasmine Rogers as the conflicted Gretchen Wieners, and particularly Morgan Ashley Bryant as the lovably ditzy Karen Smith, are all golden. And talking about versatile, Heather Ayers acing three highly diverse adult characters that took three different actors (including Fey) to deliver on film, is to be commended bigtime.

It’s quite amazing that all these performers are possessed of voices that could lead worldclass rock bands, surely augmented by Brian Ronan’s incredible sound design in a venue known for challenging acoustics.

I expected this presentation to be big and bold but suffering from more guaranteed commercial viability than heart, but this sparkling production has both. I may even go out and buy myself a vintage pink Mean Girls t-shirt, size extra-small.

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