TRAVIS' REVIEWS: FALL 2023 through SPRING 2024  


FAT HAM at Geffen Playhouse

I have to say even the thought of yet another contemporary adaptation of one of the plays of William Shakespeare makes me want to make a master’s mercy bid to run away and say goodnight ‘til it may be morrow. 

I’ve seen Romeo and Juliet placed in a mental institution for balletic teens, Macbeth set amid the turmoil of World War II, Twelfth Night rip roarin’ through the old A’murkin west, and then there’s that famous musical featuring juvenile delinquents with greased hair and tight pants dancing around New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in an effort to establish gang territory.

Except for the Taper’s brilliant take on Julius Caesar years back which was compete with skinheads, helicopters, and TV monitors picking up the assassination in a cramped backstage hallway, I must say I usually think the Bard should be left alone.

I first heard about James Ijames’ modern 2021 adaptation of Hamlet reset in a North Carolina backyard during a family barbecue in its initial run in Philadelphia even before it’s off-Broadway and then Broadway runs. Frankly, I didn’t harbor much conscious thought about following its progress. Curmudgeonly of me, I know.

When Fat Ham was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2022 and subsequently took the Big Apple by storm, first off-Broadway and then in its five-time Tony-nominated Broadway debut, my interest was piqued—but even as I journeyed to the Geffen to see its west coast debut featuring the original New York cast, I still must confess I did so with some reluctance.

Man, was I wrong. Fat Ham is the best thing to hit LA stages running this year and maybe for a few years. Without a doubt, Ijames’ meditation on toxic masculinity and how one African American gay man chooses to rise above it and find value in himself despite some overpowering odds is absolutely scintillating. I’ll bet ol’ Will himself would be thrilled.

Juicy (Marcel Spears) is a prince of his own domain, even if it’s only his family’s barbecued pork restaurant and their modest home in the rural south rather than the darkly austere Elsinore Castle in the late Middle Ages. As hard as he tries to not let his lot in life lead him to thoughts of self-harm or to listen to his father’s ghost (Billy Eugene Jones) demanding he avenge his death by murdering his uncle Rev (also Jones) on the day of his marriage to his mother, his environment and the way he was raised keep dragging him back down into the darkest of thoughts.

Ijames has brilliantly updated the 1599 classic without losing any of the themes presented, even craftily slipping in two of the Prince’s most notable soliloquies during the title character’s semester break from studying Human Resources online from University of Phoenix as Juicy “goes to school on his cellphone.”

His mother Tedra (Nikki Crawford) doesn’t see her late husband’s ghost occasionally popping up—one time from the billowing smoke generated from their industrial-strength outdoor meat smoker—nor does she believe her late husband's brother and new love set the guy up to be shanked in prison with an electric toothbrush on his way to the mess hall. Tedra wants to be loved at any cost, even if it means letting Rev talk her into using Juicy’s tuition money to remodel their bathroom.

Shakespeare’s Polonius is transformed into Juicy’s bible-thumping and former Tallahassee stripper Aunt Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas) and her children Ophelia and Laertes are now the eye-rolling goth Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) and Larry (Matthew Elijah Webb), a stiff-backed Marine on leave with both PTSD and a secret crush on his cousin.

Through all the outrageous behavior and continuous putting-down of Juicy, someone his late father calls a pansy and his uncle refers to as a “girly-ass puddle of shit,” he struggles not to tumble headfirst into the noxious maelstrom of the typical inherent belligerence of mankind—especially as it manifests in the male of our species.

His only real ally is the perpetually stoned Tio (Chris Herbie Holland), who like the original Horatio is loyal to his friend to a fault and believes there’s blood on the pulled pork. All of his childhood friend’s problems come from some kind of debilitating inherited trauma, he believes, having been raised in “pig guts and bad choices.”

“Your Pap went to jail,” he explains to Juicy, “and his Pap went to jail, and his Pap went to jail, and his Pap went to jail.” And what was before that, he asks? “Slavery.”

Juicy actually contemplates slitting his uncle’s throat, you see, even if it’s only to honor the father who was disgusted by his very presence as an overweight queer mama’s boy with little interest in learning how to slaughter a pig and take over the family business.

“Is this what grown up feels like?” Juicy asks us in one of the play’s frequent audience asides. “If so, it’s lonely and confusing and ghetto as hell.”

Still, the real heart of Fat Ham is the sweetly tentative relationship between Juicy and Larry, who are tortured in their hammered-in cultural edicts that keep them from exploring their feelings for one another.

Initially, Larry only speaks in respectful single syllable responses to his mother and the others, partially from being conditioned to be a dutiful son and partially from hard lessons in what it means to be a man perhaps learned from some terminally macho asshole of a drill sergeant.

When finally the two find themselves alone on the family porch, Larry sweetly, clumsily proclaims his love for his cousin, whose physical “softness’” most others would find repulsive but he finds intoxicating. It is a testament to the difficulties of overcoming the pressures of just being a man and of surviving the accepted cycle of male violence in our society, whether it be in a military situation or drowning under the constant judgment of others telling us all who we can or cannot be.

All of Ijames’ characters are richly multifaceted and must be a real joyride to perform—and playing them since even before Broadway has made this ensemble tight as a drum. Spears is quietly riveting as Juicy, especially when his lines suddenly segue from Ijames’ gentle ebonic-laced pronouncements into Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man” speech.

He leads a dynamic tightknit troupe that could easily become the ensemble cast of the year in what could possibly prove be the play of the year for me. All aspects of design are excellent, with particular kudos to Skylar Fox’s magic tricks and Maruti Evan’s set, which transforms at the end of the play from a simple back porch to… well… you’ve gotta see it for yourself.

Director Saheem Ali’s original Tony-nominated staging is here recreated by Sideeq Heard and for me there’s the rub—and I’m not talking about barbecue sauce. As much as Spears was praised in New York, his performance seems a little undercooked at the Geffen, especially noticeable in his scenes with Jones as Pap, who could in turn take it down a tad. I’d bet this only comes from how long these actors have been playing these roles but one would think, as the play opens in an important new city, somebody would have been around to offer an easily actualized directorial note.

Still, this is a minor druther and nothing could dim James Ijames’ worthiness to have joined O’Neill, Albee, Williams, Kushner, Kaufman and Hart, Wilder, Saroyan, Miller, Inge, Cristofer, Letts, Shepard, Sondheim and Lapine, Wilson, Wasserman, Foote, Lindsay-Abaire, Nottage, Guirgis, Parks, and so many other great dramatists in the ranks of Pulitzer Prize for Drama recipients, an honor given to a distinguished play by an American playwright, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.

Perhaps calling Fat Ham original in its source might technically be a stretch, but how Ijames has taken one of the world’s most time-honored 400-year-old classics and fashioned it into a morality play that could not be more appropriate for our times is an artistic masterstroke of pure genius.

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NORA at Antaeus Theatre Company

It’s a given that anything offered by the venerable Antaeus Theatre Company will be the crème de la crème of any intimate theatrical presentation in Los Angeles.

From the most imposing design and creative team elements delivered anywhere to the talented troupe of member/actors who tread the boards of the Kiki and David Gindler Performing Arts Center, the state-of-the-art playing space created especially for them, everyone involved with Antaeus does so with passion and a true dedication to the artform.

The current tenant at the Gindler is Swedish filmmaker icon Ingmar Bergman’s Nora, his 1989 one-act adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s groundbreaking late 19th-century three-act masterwork A Doll’s House.

Bergman’s intention was to expose the contemporary import of the powerful but austere classic that changed the world when it debuted in Copenhagen in 1879, an era when its previously unthinkable pro-feminist message rocked the social mores of the time—even causing one theatre where it was mounted way back then to be burned to the ground by horrified and massively offended patrons.

Set in a small Norwegian town at a time when women had no individual rights, to say it emerged within a drastically male-dominated society would be a major understatement. A Doll’s House was immediately a most controversial shocker, depicting the plight of a typically obedient wife who grows a set and ends up standing up to her controlling husband, eventually walking out on her family in an effort to find herself and her own self-worth.

As Nora slammed the door of the Helmer household behind her, theatrical literature was metamorphosed forever after.

Ibsen’s most famous work is still to this day one of the most frequently performed theatrical classics of all time—and how desperately I wish Antaeus had instead chosen to present the original rather than Bergman’s CliffsNotes version that does such a disservice to the play.

By leaving the actors and director Cameron Watson only a truncated 90 intermissionless minutes to tell the tale and delve into Ibsen’s rich and fascinating characters is a most unfortunate choice and, sadly, it shows.

Nora’s original coming of age saga, which follows her personal journey from being only her husband’s worry-free pet into a strong-willed and determined person no longer willing to be treated like a possession, takes all three acts to tell. Here, the brilliant Jocelyn Towne has only those aforementioned 90 minutes to make her difficult transformation.

That said, Towne is triumphant making this happen, beginning playing Nora as a total Spring Byington and ending up with a jarringly impressive monologue worthy of Liv Ullmann herself. It is an astounding performance that very few actors could so perfectly navigate and her work singlehandedly saves the production from descending into total telenovela status.

Brian Tichnell has a more uphill task realistically bringing Nora’s husband Torvald to life. At least in the original, the actor playing the role has time to slowly unveil the news about what a total dick the character is.

Much of Bergman’s updating involves modernizing the dialogue to a point where it quickly begins to seem downright silly—and a majority of it is delivered by Torvald, who besides from referring to his little porcelain doll of a wife as his “little songbird,” also spouts such almost funny endearments as “My sweet little Nora,” “My dear little Nora,” and my favorite, “My happy little lark.” Anyone would have left this Torvald long before, making Tichnell’s task in this adaptation nearly insurmountable.

As for the other supporting players, Michael Kirby as Krogstad, Mildred Marie Langford as Mrs. Linde, and Peter James Smith as Dr. Rank could all be so interesting if only they were less restricted in the creation of their roles. As is, Bergman turns them into caricatures of Ibsen’s characters, only allowed to perform perfunctory service to the play’s central relationship and theme.

It’s clear from the work of Kirby and Langford that it would be fascinating to see how their personal connection would have evolved if they were actually doing A Doll’s House and Smith’s lovely interpretation of Dr. Rank deserves a more respectful opportunity to explore his character’s bittersweet side story.

Watson is a long-proven director with a stellar track record of interpreting classic plays with great imagination and fiercely individual style. He too is hampered here by the restrictions of time, something he has valiantly attempted to overcome with boldly contemporary staging, wildly dramatic lighting by Jared A. Sayeg that accentuates the prison-like loneliness of Nora’s existence, and especially a hauntingly evocative sound design and romantic original musical interludes contributed by Jeff Gardner and Ellen Mandel, respectively.

How I would love to see all this talent reunited for a more rewarding mounting of A Doll’s House. An adaptation of an already perfect work of art must offer something deserving of being said in a new way; Ingmar Bergman’s Nora is not in any way better than the original, just shorter.

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THE BODY'S MIDNIGHT at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center

A recently retired Californian couple embark on a “long zombie crawl” roadtrip across America in Tira Palmquist’s The Body’s Midnight, now world premiering at the Boston Court in association with IAMA Theatre Company.

The ultimate goal of Anne and David (Keliher Walsh and Jonathan Nichols-Navarro) is to visit all those places that live in her early childhood memories and eventually end up in St. Paul, Minnesota, where their daughter is about to give birth to their first grandchild.

The couple has reached that unnerving point in their lives where they’ve realized the clock is ticking faster for them all the time and suddenly “everyone is younger than us,” part of the reason she has insisted on making the trip by camper instead of hopping a plane, something David has reluctantly agreed to undertake despite some major misgivings.

This trip also worries the heck out of their very pregnant daughter Katie (Sonal Shah), especially since her father has shared with her the secret that Anne has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and, presumably, eventually Alzheimer’s.

As Anne struggles to find long-familiar words and begins to feel the approaching fog that will eventually consume her life and her cherished memories, the loyal and loving David does his best to calm and reassure her despite her frequent resistance, asking her to “let me be here to admire you, to look at you, as if it were my job.”

Palmquist’s well-meant and occasionally beautifully poetic play could have so much to say and her characters should be people we quickly come to care about—and with whom so many of us at a certain age can identify—but unfortunately, somewhere it completely and glaringly misses its mark.

Although Jessica Kubzansky, one of our town’s most treasured and continuously impressive directors, makes a yeoman’s effort to lift The Body’s Midnight out of its rather insipid cliche-ridden status, not even her talents or Palmquist’s often elegiac dialogue save it from becoming trite—like, would anyone suspect for a moment that by the end Anne wouldn’t be tenderly holding her newborn granddaughter as her other family members look on lovingly?

The most inexplicable thing about this production is the talent that came together to bring it to fruition. The production values are excellent, particularly John Zalewski’s remarkably redolent sound design, Benedict Conran’s evocative lighting wizardry, and David Murakami’s sweeping projections of passing Americana as the couple visits the Grand Canyon and other postcard points of interest.

As Katie and her husband Wolf, as well as playing myriad other various park rangers and other eclectic characters the couple meet along the way—prompting a running scripted joke about how they all look alike, something both my outdoor educator partner Hugh and every Huell Howser episode ever shot easily verifies—Shah and Ryan Garcia are the best thing about this production, even when their characters are suddenly bathed in rosy lighting effects to spout mystical quasi-Eastern philosophical affirmations about the nature of our existence on this troubled planet or warning about how Anne needs to approach her future.

These supporting performances only accentuate the most obvious problem with the production: the peculiarly one-dimensional performances of their usually sturdy and dependable costars.

Nichols-Navarro does his best to bring his soap opera-ish hero to life, but the go-nowhere state of David’s journey as written limits him at every turn, as does partnering with the surprisingly depthless Walsh, who spends so much time superficially telegraphing her Anne as internally needy that she leaves herself little room to show her love or appreciation for her adoring life partner.

What’s missing most in Walsh’s performance is any kind of character arc. Her Anne is merely scared and fearful of the future throughout the play when that should only be one color; she never exhibits even a hint of ballsiness or inner strength that could make us root for her.

Every aspect of The Body’s Midnight, with all the long-proven talents collaborating to breathe life into its creation, should prove it to be a winner, including the welcoming hints of lyricism in Tira Palmquist’s dialogue that’s continuously done in by the disappointing predictability of her script and the performance of Walsh in its most pivotal role, which only indicates a real person below the pretend emotions she expresses.

As is, its promise in this first pass is more a pitch for a future movie on the Hallmark Channel than it's indicative of what we’ve come to expect from either the Boston Court or IAMA Theatre Company.

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MONSTERS OF THE AMERICAN CINEMA from Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre

May I begin by saying I have enormous respect for the Rogue Machine Theatre Company and its founding artistic director John Perrin Flynn, recipient of the LA Drama Critics Circle Warfield Best Season Award for 2023, as well as being number one of my Best Production TicketHolders Award winners for their sterling production of Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which also won top honors for Will Arbery as Best Playwright, Samual Garnett as Best Supporting Actor, and was runner-up for Best Ensemble.

That said, the current offering from Rogue Machine, the Los Angeles debut of Christian St. Croix’s Monsters of the American Cinema directed by Flynn, is a major disappointment and, for me, even bordered on being offensive.

Keeping in mind that critiquing any art form is incredibly subjective and almost every review of this production from other LA reviewers so far has been quite positive, my response to the production is definitely a minority opinion.

Perhaps my reaction is due to my own personal experience. St. Croix’s extremely topical two-hander deals with the relationship between a gay man who has taken over raising the typically conflicted testosterone-sparking teenage son of his late husband.

As someone who raised my own son under very similar circumstances, all I can say is if I had reacted to David by rolling my eyes with both hands placed petulantly on my hips, or if I had raided his room and looked through his personal items to search for evidence of what made him tick, he would have been on a greyhound bus booking it back to his maternal grandmother’s home in about 20 minutes flat.

Now that I’ve made that disclaimer, here are all the reasons I disliked Monsters that I don’t think has anything to do with my unique personal history.

First and foremost, I thought it to be a badly constructed and often confusing clunker of a play that couldn’t possibly be more predictable, with a continuous series of monologues played directly to the audience that droned on with tired exposition that did nothing to make me care a whit about either character—both of whom should be infinitely relatable.

Although I have often admired Flynn’s talents both as a producer and as a director, not to mention last year his skills as an actor, I felt bewildered and saddened he didn’t appear to understand the nature of the complex relationship between Remy and his charge Pup (played with admirable commitment by Kevin Daniels and Logan Leonardo Arditty).

Flynn’s oddly clumsy staging is even more of a puzzlement, especially when both actors deliver their generally wistful competing monologues, each stopping for sections of the other’s thoughts while seated on complete opposite sides of the Matrix’s notoriously wide and shallow stage, thus forcing audience members to face possible whiplash as though spectators at a rousing game of ping-pong.

Ironically, one early scene depicts both characters in the same space existing at different times and so not seeing one another, which is then never further explored. With that time-warping fantasy already established, it would have been the perfect solution for both actors to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder as they deliver their individual monologues at the same time, thus eliminating the need for audience members to later need a neck massage.

The obviously talented Daniels resorts to every possible stereotype of an older gay male, especially evident when he rushes into their home’s main room from his bedroom wearing a bathrobe and an animal-print plastic shower cap—itself an inexplicable choice considering that Daniels is totally bald. Trying to hide the fact that he has a hot trick rinsing off in the shower, the moment comes off more as a slapstick and slightly homophobic scene from La Cage aux Folles than something that belongs in this production.

As Pup, the theatrical debut of Arditty, who at 19 has only been acting for the last year, signals what hopefully will be a prestigious career. His natural aptitude as a promising young actor is obvious, his intelligence and understanding of his character are a given, but he needs some judicious training in stage technique to bring his talents to their fullest fruition.

The device of enabling Remy and Pup’s mutual passion for bad 1950s horror movies is a wonderful and endearing way to solidify the bond between the drive-in movie owner and his grieving lost boy, but when Pup’s dreams and fantasies creep into real life, it becomes confusing, which is then made worse by the last scene where what is really monstrous and what is not is difficult to follow.

I wanted so much to love Monsters of the American Cinema but unfortunately, I did not. Instead I found it remarkably unsurprising, glaringly formulaic when it could have been so inventive, and potentially disrespectful to anyone who has ever faced forging ahead in a similar relationship.

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A FROGGY BECOMES from Open Fist at the Atwater Village Theatre

Lordie, I needed this. Unlike so many new plays these days, the world premiere of Becky Wahlstrom’s delightfully silly A Froggy Becomes from Open Fist doesn’t bombard us with weighty reminders of the massive trials and insurmountable inequities plaguing our fuckedup world, yet it still manages to covertly have something uplifting to say while leaving us laughing ‘til it hurts.

The conceit of Froggy is that it’s meant to be presented as children’s theatre but it’s not—although any potty-humor-loving 12-year-old would be rolling in the aisles when the giant puppet depicting the leading character’s obnoxious tighty-whitey-clad father starts belching his Coors and lifting one massive leg to pass a loud crescendoing trumpet call of gas.

Bumpy Diggs (Sandra Kate Burck) is a typically overdramatic and traumatized puberty-challenged seventh grader who struggles at home with that ogre of a dad (Peter Breitmayer in Joe Seely’s phenomenal 8-ft. beer-guzzling, ball-scratching puppet costume) and a mousy mother who’s secretly schtupping their equally mousy parish priest (the hilarious Johanna McKay and Michael Lanahan), while at school she’s teased relentlessly and ignored by her dreamy first crush (a geewillikers-y Tom Sys, playing the role as though lifted directly from an Andy Hardy movie).

Remember the seventh grade? Everything a kid experiences in that difficult, awkward period of adolescence is always magnified a hundredfold and seems as though each daily ordeal is marking the end of our lives, but despite all the drama that descends on Bumpy, she is a feisty little thing and refuses to let it stop her from surviving.

Under the leadership of Pat Towne, whose own signature humor and precision comic timing permeates the entire production, his cast is uniformly committed to the material and thankfully devoid of concern about going too far. The actors playing the 12-year-olds are especially successful finding that age and behavior within themselves, led by the sweetly gawky and endearing performance of Burck and the growth-spurting Sys, as well as Kyra Grace, Kyle Tomlin, Bradley Sharper, Jeremy Guskin, Deandra Bernardo, Ana Id, and especially the ever-apologizing Carmella Jenkins as Bumpy’s sufficiently melodramatic friends and schoolmates.

Nothing ever goes right for Bumpy Diggs, from a nagging science class project that fails horribly to the heartbreaking aftermath of her first kiss, but what makes this contemporary fairytale hybrid such a refreshing and uplifting experience—not to mention offering an irreverent humor that permeates the tale and the performances—is Wahlstrom's forward-looking peek at the inherent resilience of the human spirit.

Although all but one of the poor doomed tadpoles don’t make it through Bumpy’s ambitious school project, that single scrappy amphibian escapee has hopefully hopped away to a better future—or at least an adventure or two before it croaks (pun intended). The road ahead can often be quite Bumpy for us all, but with a little steadfastness and determination there’s hope about what any froggy can become.

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FUNNY GIRL at the Ahmanson Theatre

Everything is top drawer about this elegant, snazzy revival of the classic Broadway musical Funny Girl that began its rollercoaster ride on Broadway two years ago and along the way featured a well-documented musical chair selection of Fanny Brices before closing last September.

This precisely cloned national tour is once again impressively helmed by Michael Mayer, Tony winner for the revival of Spring Awakening and director of one of my favorite mostly overlooked films of all time, 2004’s A Home at the End of the World.

Still, even with a much-heralded reworking of the original 1964 warhorse that made Barbra Streisand an instant superstar, including a revamping of Isobel Lennart‘s flawed book by Harvey Fierstein, nothing much has really changed except who’s playing the title character, singing and dancing and emoting for all her worth dressed to the nines in Susan Hilferty’s spectacular costuming suitable for any diva.

So what makes this old funny girl funnier than ever before? Simply put, Katerina McCrimmon is absolutely the best Fanny Brice I’ve ever seen—and I’m old enough to have seen the original star-making turn of Babs herself before the film version cleaned her up a tad. Evoking Edith Piaf with a belt voice, McCrimmon is a revelation and might even have a surplus of those infamous “six expressions more than all them Barrymores put together.” Why, wonder of wonders, she even survives the musical’s dreaded Act Two.

There’s nothing in any vintage musical quite as charming and snappy as what’s delivered in the first act of Funny Girl and it’s especially exciting watching McCrimmon bring her own fresh spin on composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill's indelible classics such as “I’m the Greatest Star,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” and of course “People,” accompanied by a knockout and suitably leggy dancing ensemble choreographed by Ellennore Scott.

As the early life of the great vaudeville star Fanny Brice is explored, from her teenage years living with her single saloon keeper mother (Grammy-winning singer-songstress Melissa Manchester) in the Hungarian Jewish ghetto of Manhattan’s Lower East Side to her beginnings in burlesque before becoming the biggest draw of any for megamaster entrepreneur Florenz Ziegfeld (Walter Coppage), McCrimmon is seldom offstage, confidently commanding the stage as though she’s already the major star I suspect she will become.

I had hoped since Fierstein refreshed the material, Act Two would be less of a slog, but even he couldn’t quite make that happen. Not even a few judiciously placed production numbers can keep Funny Girl from descending into Histrionic Girl as the story evolves from Brice’s unlikely meteoric success into the sad personal decline of her first marriage to gambler and almost Trump-sized conman Nick Arnstein (Stephen Mark Lukas).

The production is also greatly enhanced by the work of two of my favorite people on the planet: Manchester as Fanny’s mother Mrs. Brice and LA theatrical heroine Eileen T’Kaye as her friend Mrs. Strakosh.

I’ve known Melissa from the early days when, as Talent Coordinator for the Troubadour clubs both here and in San Francisco, I brought Bette Midler to appear at both venues in 1972 on her first west coast tour, with Barry Manilow as her accompanist and Melissa along for the historic engagement as one of her iconic backup singers, the Harlettes.

The following year as her solo recording career began to take off and the Troubadour North became the Boarding House, one of my first bookings at the newly renamed hotspot was Melissa appearing with my lategreat friend and disco diva Sylvester and, in 1975, she returned again for a wonderfully eclectic matchup with another “newcomer” named Tom Waits.

I believe the first time I saw Eileen T’Kaye onstage was as Adelaide in the classic Guys and Dolls at the Colony Theatre’s original Silverlake location, a company where she was a prominent member for several years.

In 2003, with her equally impressive producer hat firmly in place, she became founding producing director of the Boston Court Performing Arts Center, where as project manager she oversaw the creation of the complex from digging a hole in a former parking lot to the emergence of one of America’s most prestigious and smartly appointed regional theatres.

As an actor, it was there the following year that I had the privilege to play opposite Eileen in the Boston Court’s second production, the groundbreaking west coast premiere of Charles Mee’s Summertime directed by Michael Michetti, a production that led the way for T@BC’s sterling two-decade reputation for taking no prisoners and avoiding what's safe at all costs.

Every moment Manchester and T’Kaye are onstage, along with Cindy Chang in tow in the less flashy role of the characters’ equally nosy neighbor and poker buddy Mrs. Meeker, is a delight. From their early introduction in “When a Girl Isn’t Pretty,” it’s a treat every time they bring their classic Yiddish theatre and sweetly well-meaning yenta personas to the storyline and especially the musical numbers.

Manchester also quickly manifests her who-knew? acting chops in her “I’m the Greatest Star” reprise with McCrimmon and in a showstopping “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?” with Iziah Montaque Harris as Fanny’s first mentor and lifelong friend Eddie Ryan.

Harris is also a charmer as Eddie, particularly when he starts to tap dance in two showstopping turns performing Ayodele Casel’s Drama Desk-nominated Gregory Hines-esque tribute choreography.

Despite some naysayers surprised to see Ziegfeld played by an African American actor, it’s takes about 30 seconds for that to fall away as Coppage quickly makes the role his own, once again proving the now established determination to make colorblind casting part of theatrical history could not be a more welcome augmentation to how art can positively impact the world.

Lukas makes a yeomen’s effort trying to bring the role of Fanny’s nemesis husband Nick to life but, despite a dynamic voice and smooth stage persona, it’s this role that always drags this musical into the realm of Hallmark Channel melodrama.

Anyone who can google images of the real Nick Arnstein might begin to wonder why the role is always played by a handsome, terminally dapper actor. Granted, in Lennart’s book Brice continuously refers to how “gorgeous” her first great love is but I have always wondered whose decision it originally was to concentrate on a sugarcoated version of the couple’s troubled romance, which to me is the major flaw that drags a potentially great musical down into the maudlin.

While googling those images of the couple, it’s not a stretch to realize that truly, as Merrill’s lyric tells us, the "groom was prettier than the bride,” but considering the actual physical appearance of Brice, that’s surely only in comparison—something that could be even more poignant and comedic if she is the only person who sees her suitor as a heartthrob.

It’s nearly impossible as written for Nick to be as smarmy and out for no good as the character should be presented, something somehow Sydney Chaplin persuasively aced way back in 1964 when the musical debuted but no one I have ever seen play the role since has managed to execute.

I was excited to see Fierstein was revitalizing the musical’s dated book and it’s not hard to potentially pick out when his signature humor surfaces, as when Fanny realizes how limiting her physical appearance might be in establishing her career and sincerely laments to Eddie, “Do you think beautiful girls will stay in style forever?” or when she revels in her first standing ovation even though it’s from one single guy in the balcony wearing a trenchcoat: “Today a trenchcoat, tomorrow wearing pants!”

I’ve never done Funny Girl and am not an expert on the script so I could be wrong, but I’m purdy sure those lines are part of what Fierstein brought to the party, but I wish it could have been more. Making Arnstein a role that could be less raffish and debonair could deliver a more captivating musical and might even save the second act from obliterating the excitement and promise of the first.

Still, this splashy new mounting of Funny Girl is a grand effort all around and the introduction to the enormous gifts of Katerina McCrimmon in what could have been yet another imitation of the first now-iconic performer to create the role, makes it something not to miss. Without a doubt, just like the day in 1908 when the 16-year-old Fanny Brice dropped out of school to begin working in a burlesque revue, a star is definitely born here.

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FAITHLESS at the Victory Theatre Center

In the world premiere of the award-winning Jon Klein’s newest play Faithless, two adult siblings are called to the home of their stepfather to discuss what he sees as a family crisis. Their discomfort is obvious, especially when they realize the issue involves a drastic life-altering decision being considered by their teenage stepsister.

It’s been only a couple of years since Claire and Calvin (Melissa Ortiz and Jon Sprik) lost their mother to COVID, so there’s naturally some discomfort being thrust back into the world of her second husband and recent cancer survivor Gus (John Idakitis) and Rosie (Josee Guardine), the daughter the couple adopted late in life.

This is Klein’s fifth play to be presented in collaboration with the Victory Theatre Center since its inception in 1979, particularly poignant since the role of Gus was written for the complex’s late founder and co-artistic director Tom Ormeny, a dear personal friend and a giant in our scrappy little LA theatre community we lost last July after a valiant personal battle with brain cancer.

This is the first production brought to fruition by Ormeny’s widow and co-artistic director Maria Gobetti since Tom’s death and, as she readily admits, the journey to make it happen without her life and producing partner of 54 years by her side was not an easy one.

Not only is Faithless meticulously produced and smartly designed by the production’s co-producer and another longtime Victory collaborator Evan Bartoletti, under the precision directorial expertise of Gobetti, who keeps things moving at warpspeed when Klein’s subject matter could easily become bogged down in its own fascinating but long-winded rhetoric, it’s an impressive milestone in both her much-honored career and that of the theatre complex she and Tom so lovingly created and nurtured.

Faithless is a play about navigating family relationships in a family where no one is on the same page when it comes to religion. Calvin is a Presbyterian minister, Claire is a high school teacher who has a degree in comparative religion but has developed sincere doubts about her own beliefs, and Gus is a confirmed atheist who’s not afraid to tell his stepchildren why.

The reason the adult siblings have been summoned by Gus is a mystery, although Claire is purdy sure Rosie has been knocked up by one of her students, a lad she not so professionally refers to as “that little creep.”

When Rosie instead delivers the news that she has decided to convert to Catholicism and become a nun, her sister begs her to tell her she’s pregnant instead as that would be so much better. As she warns her, “It’s not all singing and escaping Nazis.”

Klein explores whether or not organized religion at this moment in the world’s evolution is something we really need or, as Gus (and I) believe, it’s been the cause of most of the world’s problems over the last 2000-plus years. “Faith and force,” as the otherwise deluded Ayn Rand once wrote, “are the destroyers of mankind.”

Although Klein infuses his sufficiently thought-provoking work with an abundant supply of much-needed topical humor, under less skillful leadership than that of Gobetti, long established as one of the best directors working in our town, quite honestly this could have been a dry and potentially difficult slog.

Clearly, the most obvious ally she had to work alongside to bring Faithless to life is Ortiz, whose performance as Claire, landing somewhere between the warmly compassionate delivery of Marian Seldes and the acerbic asides made famous by Eve Arden, is the anchor of this production.

Guardine makes a lovely LA intimate theatre debut as Rosie, spunky and real and completely endearing. Still, as much as I loved the women in the cast, I found the performances of both Sprik and Idakitis less successful.

Perhaps hampered the afternoon we attended by Sprik’s trials trying to get the theatre through the barricades and street closures of the LA Marathon that gave him about 20 seconds to get into costume and be thrust onstage, I have to admit I found his performance a major distraction.

Projecting as though trying to reach the far back bleacher seats while performing Shakespeare at some grand outdoor venue when the Victory is in no need of such blustery augmentation, while telegraphing Calvin’s reactions by employing continuous eye-rolling and biting his knuckles to show his character’s vexation, proved antithetical to the emotions he was assigned to convey.

Like Sprik, Idakitis understands his character’s journey intellectually but he simply just works too dang hard. And by beginning as ornery and irascible and grumbly as he could possibly muster, way too often pointing an angry finger at his dissenting family members I might myself have been inclined to bite off, he leaves himself with nowhere to go when Gus has even more reason to vent his frustrations.

Still, the efforts of Gobetti to set a fire under Klein’s compelling yet craftily neutral treatise on the nature of faith as something more than a flawed and rigidly demanding effort to “sell death insurance” at the expense of human connection with the world around us, is a remarkable achievement. I left the theatre with a lot of things to ponder about my own life and what could be better than when art makes us think about our own personal odyssey.

As much as I admire the notable achievement brought to fruition here by the partnership of Klein and Gobetti, who obviously share a palpable mutual trust for one another that infuses most everything about this production, forgive me if I feel the need to deliver a general rant about something that has been brewing within me for quite awhile—something that should not be considered a detriment to the appreciation for this beautifully mounted world premiere.

Granted, I attend a lot of theatre and all things theatrical have been my passion and my life for my seven-plus decades careening around this planet. As a critic, I do my best to keep my mind open and evaluate things as objectively as possible, to see things unencumbered by my own history and personal knowledge of the many other plays with similar themes that have come before it.

That said, I sure wish there could be some kind of moratorium on dramatic literature dealing with dysfunctional families bumping heads over their divergent beliefs and insisting on telling one another how they should live their lives.

Granted, veteran and much-awarded wordsmith Jon Klein’s newest play is well written, often achingly funny, and ultimately quite touching. It is beautifully constructed and sharply directed by the incredibly gifted Maria Gobetti, but there isn’t a lot new here to contemplate. It took me about two minutes to surmise by final curtain poor ol’ Gus would be in an urn being toasted by his surviving family members vowing to work at trying to better understand one another.

Again, as exceptional a production as the world premiere of Faithless definitely is, if the play’s themes were new and fresh to me, I might have been a lot more engaged by it. This surely might be my own world-weary perspective; if I hadn’t seen this kind of family conflict tale presented on a regular basis for most of my life, I might have been considerably more moved. Call it an occupational hazard, one that shouldn’t stop you from making up your own minds. There’s a lot of compelling themes introduced here for someone who won’t automatically see it as familiar and instantly predictable.

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THREE at the LA LGBT Center's Davidson/Valentini Theatre

As many times over the years the plays of Shakespeare have been relocated to places such as Matthew Bourne’s mental institution for troubled teens, smackdab in the turmoil of World War II, rip roarin’ through the old A’murkin west, or featuring juvenile delinquents with greased hair and tight pants dancing around New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in an effort to establish their turf, perhaps the classics of no other playwright in history have been adapted more often than the angst-ridden inhabitants of that great late-19th century Russian dramatist whose work inspired the term “Chekhovian.”

From theatrical transformations such as Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird and Life Sucks, Tennessee Williams’ The Notebook of Trigorin, Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor, and Halley Feiffer’s Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow to Christian Carmago’s 2013 film Days and Nights and Louis Malle’s 1994 Vanya on 42nd Street, reimagining the seven plays and many short stories from the creative mind of ol ’ Anton remain among the most often rewritten.

It must take a bit of an artistic deathwish and a rather enlarged set of cajones to attempt to once again reinvent Chekhov and find something fresh to focus upon, but this new version of The Three Sisters, created by one of LA’s most enduringly prolific actor-playwrights, manages to thrill us and give us something contemporary and uniquely cutting-edged to ponder.

Three, written by Nick Salamone and presented as a co-production between Playwrights’ Arena and the Los Angeles LGBT Center, overcomes far more than the overexposure of the original source material: it transcends the Center’s cramped Davidson/Valentini Theatre, one of LA’s most limited and unwieldy places to create art—especially anything as inherently epic as anything reconstructed from the crowded framework of a play by Anton Chekhov.

Don’t get me wrong. Many successful productions have graced this same space and, for something intimate and raw, it could not provide a more perfect wellspring for promoting theatrical innovation and creativity.

Thanks to Jon Lawrence Rivera, the unstoppable and ridiculously prolific founder and artistic director of Playwrights’ Arena, who directs here and has assembled a dropdead aggregation of some of our town’s best performers and designers, Three surpasses all the odds stacked against it—and then some.

This isn’t the first time Salamone—with whom I’ve had the intense pleasure of sharing a stage playing two 1930s Chicago Fascistic mob bosses in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for Classical Theatre Lab and as Shelley Levene opposite his fiery Ricky Roma in Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross—has taken on Chekhov.

His unforgettable Gulls, which he turned into a dynamic musical version of The Seagull with composer Maury McIntyre set in 1959 Greenwich Village and Hollywood, debuted at the Boston Court under the equally inspired direction of Jessica Kubzansky and became one of the most talked about artistic achievements of 2008.

As with that production, which brought all the passion and longing and unrequited dreams of the original story into the 20th century, Three becomes a “queer meditation” of the more recent but clearly similar soul-searching challenges we face today in the twisted times which all living creatures on our mess of a planet strive to navigate.

And if such daunting challenges aren’t enough, the dexterously masochistic Salamone has given himself one more by setting each of the four acts of his play in four distinct and groundbreaking eras over the last 78 years of life in our country while his characters themselves age no more than five years.

Beginning at the end of WWII in 1946, then moving to 1982 and the beginning of the AIDS crisis during the Reagan years, Three then finds the play’s four lost siblings dealing personally with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 before concluding in our present day post-pandemic and still shell-shocked America.

Salamone explains: “Firstly, I wanted the audience to see themselves in the characters in a direct way. I made an effort to adapt Chekhov’s characters with a concern for the diversity of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity that I hope will reflect our audience.

“Secondly, I wanted the adaptation to live in the world of the last century of American life in a meaningful and resonant way… I tried very hard to find analogs to the very intentions of Chekhov’s characters and the obstacles and conflicts that exist between and among them that would root my characters in these seminal American touchstones.”

Mission accomplished—bigtime. Salamone’s courageous quest finds its quintessential partner in his longtime collaborator Rivera, who has focused his whole career in championing diversity and equal rights and does so with a fierce commitment to bring the too-often overlooked art of outsiders to a more universal audience.

Here he not only furthers those efforts majestically, he has managed to also seamlessly choreograph the large cast of 10 to move around one another in an impossibly small and inhospitable playing space where even the audience members have to take their lives into their hands to settle into their seats.

Likewise, the show’s designers, especially Matt Richter’s lighting and Jesse Mandapat’s sound, work alongside Rivera devotedly and smoothly complement his clever staging.

None of this would have worked so well without this incredibly committed and trusting cast of noteworthy players however, each of whom manages to persuasively deliver their individual stories in a uniformly deferential classic playing style while still breathing real contemporary honesty into their individual characterizations.

As the sisters, Rachel Sorsa as Masha, Hayden Bishop as Irina, and Emily Kuroda as Olga are the heartbroken hearts of the production, as is James Liebman as their tortured brother and Alberto Isaac as their beloved pensive uncle who watches the drama unfold from an unsought-after ringside seat.

Rebecca Metz is, as always, a standout as the sisters’ nasty racist sister-in-law, as is Tracey A. Leigh as Masha’s torrid military love interest. Robert Almodovar, Eric B. Anthony, and Clay Storseth hold their own as the family’s various friends and lovers, helping to make this cast an early formidable candidate for Best Ensemble honors at the end of the year.

Still, nothing about Three could be this exemplary without the strikingly intelligent wordsmithery of Salamone, who doesn’t shy away from poking some sneaky fun at his own ambitious efforts along the way.

“This has been the longest night of my life,” Masha proclaims at one point as characters enter covered in dust and debris from helping out after the Oklahoma City disaster. “It’s like one of those 100-year-old Russian plays where so much goes on offstage in the third act you think it would be a fucking melodrama if anything actually happened.”

If at first the barebones elements of this production and the playing space it inhabits begin to overpower the tale, it doesn’t take long for the Homeric nature of Nick Salamone’s script and the brilliance of Jon Lawrence Rivera’s direction, exceptional ensemble cast, and design team make the Davidson/Valentini feel as though Three could be playing at the Ahmanson—which I hope someday it actually will.

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SWEENEY TODD at A Noise Within

The invitation to “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” has always greeted me with some apprehension. Not that I don’t love the eight-time Tony winning Best Musical of 1979—to the contrary, it could arguably be my favorite musical of all time—but because of my adoration for Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s bloody-good groundbreaking achievement, I might be overly critical when others try to recreate its original wonder.

It seems a synopsis of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is purdy unnecessary, as I think anyone who is reading this is surely aware of the storyline, which Sondheim and his bookwriter Wheeler based on Christopher Bond’s 1970 play, which itself was based on the penny dreadful People’s Periodical’s 1846 serialized yarn The String of Pearls: A Romance. This in turn spawned George Dibdin Pitt’s play the following year and subsequently two silent film versions in the 1920s and later George King’s 1936 feature film.

In a CliffsNotes rundown, former Fleet Street barber Benjamin Barker, driven stark raving mad when imprisoned for life on a trumped-up charge by the evil Judge Turpin (Jeremy Rabb) so he could put the moves on his wife, escapes and returns to the scene of the crime as Sweeney Todd (played by ANW founder and co-artistic director Geoff Elliott).

Joining forces with the lusty Mrs. Lovett (Cassandra Marie Murphy), who owns the failing meat pie shop under his former barber shop known for delivering "The Worst Pies in London," Sweeney vows to dispatch all of his enemies, as well as anyone else who gets in his way, with his trusty straight razors kept by the proprietress in the unlikely event Benjamin Barker ever returned.

Not sure how to dispose of the bodies of his soon stockpiling assemblage of victims, Mrs. Lovett sees an opportunity to improve the quality and quantity of the meat she bakes into her pies—after all, as she admits, “them pussycats is quick.”

What is especially notable about director and ANW’s co-founder and co-producing director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott’s strikingly inventive vision for their 324-seat three-sided theatre’s production of Sweeney is how she has scaled-down the grandeur and pomp of the musical.

By casting only seventeen actors to make up its ensemble, most of the castmembers, particularly after their newly shaven throats are sliced under the sharpened blades of Sweeney’s gleaming silver-handled “old friends,” return as dwellers of the dank and dangerous nightmarish seaport ‘hood. Most of the action takes place on a nearly bare stage, with tall ladders and beds and blood-soaked sheets rolled in and out of the action by the performers themselves.

Presenting Sweeney this way, the emphasis is more on Sondheim’s haunted and haunting score, as well as his intensely evocative and often cleverly tongue-in-cheek lyrics passionately performed by the generally impressively-voiced cast and utilizing only three onstage musicians under the spirited leadership of musical director Rod Bagheri.

Perhaps Rodriguez-Elliott and her snap design team—featuring Francois-Pierre Couture’s brilliantly minimal set, Angela Balogh Calin’s raggedy costuming, Jeff Gardner’s eerily strident industrial sound, and Ken Booth’s sometimes shadowy, sometimes glaringly bright lighting—spent too much time on the concept and not enough on character development.

The ensemble members all look sufficiently threatening, but there’s never much of a deviation in that to show the fear and desperation of people mired in poverty and stuck in a blighted existence with no way out.

Geoff Elliott plays the creepiness of Sweeney with all he’s got, but his work often comes off more as an angry old man resembling Clint Eastwood telling the kids to get off his damn lawn than a once-noble creature descending into total madness.

And although Murphy is quite appropriately broad, delightfully juicy and quintessentially comedic, her scenes with Elliott don’t quite match. As hard as she works to make her Lovett appear a little like a blowsy reformed music hall entertainer in the Hermione Baddelay tradition, she also plays her less brassy than previous actresses in the role, something that clashes with Elliott’s grandiloquence.

I have liked the director's co-founder and husband in many roles at ANW, particularly annually as the grumbling Ebenezer Scrooge and years ago as a pitch-perfect Shannon in A Night of the Iguana where his usual theatricality was right on the money, but too often Elliott descends into the overly dramatic. Maybe if he would one day be directed by someone other than his wife, he might be called out on his penchant for leaning toward melodrama—and to so often pull focus onstage even when his character is not meant to be the center of the audience’s attention.

Act Two of Sweeney never works quite as seamlessly as the first, its inherent sluggishness usually energized by those grisly tricked-out murders that here don’t have the same punch. What should keep it flowing and leave the audience on the edge of their seats is to watch this batshit-crazy barber and all the other inhabitants of Fleet Street slowly tumble deeper and deeper into the pit of demented darkness.

With the exception of the hilarious Kasey Mahaffy as Sweeney’s doomed competitor Pirelli and the chillingly operatic Amber Liekhus in the pivotal role of the Beggar Woman, Elliott and most of the others miss an important connection, playing their roles as just as peevish and brooding throughout, thus missing the golden opportunity to explore their characters’ ever-increasing specter of paranoia and psychosis fueled by the societal circumstances in which they’re thrust.

Sweeney Todd explores a world as out of balance in 1840s London as it is today, but despite Calin’s exceptional costuming, which definitely reflects the squalor of life for the underdogs of Victorian England and although every performer has been coached by Andrea Odinov to sound like cockney characters straight out of Great Expectations, this could be a 21st-century retelling portraying the plight of the unhoused population of Los Angeles “gathered to give warning about what happens when people in power abuse the poor."

What Rodriguez-Elliott and her team have accomplished is to offer one of Sondheim’s most impressive achievements as an intimate chamber opera instead of a production sometimes overpowered by deep-pocketed Broadway razzle-dazzle. I have to admit I did miss the outrageousness of the classic Sweeney Todd’s blood-splattered machinations, but I was floored by how much of the story came through without the grand excess so familiar to its audiences over the past 45 years since it revolutionized what a Broadway musical could be all about.

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HIGHWAY 1, USA and THE DWARF from the LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Perhaps one of the most impressive things about the already impressive Los Angeles Opera is the company’s ambitious and groundbreaking Recovered Voices Initiative, which champions the seldom-acknowledged work of lesser-known composers whose achievements were suppressed over the years due to racial ideology or systematic oppression.

Such is the case with both of the fascinating one-act operas Highway 1, USA and The Dwarf, now being presented by LAO at the Chandler conducted by the brilliant James Conlon.

Created in 1941 from the original libretto by his future wife Verna Arvey, African-American composer William Grant Still’s continuously rejected Highway 1, USA, here in its LAO debut, was not presented anywhere until 1963, his unique voice silenced by the twisted ugliness of Jim Crow and racial segregation.

Depicting life in a rural New Mexico-like smalltown lived by a hard-working couple (Nicole Heaston and Norman Garrett) who run a small gas station and attempt to grab just a little corner of the American dream, Sills’ score is haunting, both lovely and lyrical and yet occasionally jarringly strident.

Beautifully staged by Kaneza Schaal on Christopher Myers’ impressionistic set representing the station’s neon arches on one side and a billboard featuring a man pointing defiantly at the sky above the dusty Highway 1 on the other, Still’s morality play offers a simple but potentially tragic tale of a changing time when the promise of success and independence for African-Americans was barely on the horizon.

Heaston’s clear soprano and Garrett’s rich baritone blend together perfectly as Mary and Bob, who fight hard for freedom and self-reliance but are thwarted by his determination to fulfill his mother’s dying wish for him to watch over and support his brother Nate (Chaz’men Williams-Ali), financing the ne'er-do-well's higher education despite the guy’s total disregard for their struggles—and his lecherous designs on his sister-in-law’s affections.

From the perspective of what has changed and mutated in our society over the last several decades, Highway 1, USA inadvertently signals the inequities that plagued the hopes and dreams of the American middle-class at the time it was written, especially for people of color.

Despite the drastic differences between the worlds these two operas depicts, Alexander Zemlinsky’s 1922 one-act opera The Dwarf (Der Zwerg), with a Mahler-esque score and sweepingly poetic libretto by Georg C. Klaren, is similar in how it deals with relationships and the struggles of life on our planet—and is also similar in how the work was originally suppressed, here due to the Third Reich and the limitations propounded by the Austrian composer’s Judaism.

Directed by the Tony-winning Darko Tresnjak with tenor Rodrick Dixon reprising the title role he first performed at LAO in 2008, Zemlinsky’s retelling of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 short story for children The Birthday of the Infanta is drastically different from its companion piece but equally fascinating in how it presents the inequities of the human condition.

Offered as an 18th birthday gift for a spoiled Spanish princess (Erica Petrocelli) sent by a sultan, a physically misshapen young singer from another empire, described as a “dark shadow in a colorful silken carpet,” is presented to the court and immediately falls in love with her beauty.

The dwarf has never seen his own image and has no idea how he looks, causing the servants and members of Donna Clara’s retinue to cover all the mirrors before his arrival. As the smitten entertainer sings his love for the princess and she cruelly toys with his affections, all those gathered cruelly laugh at his misunderstanding of the situation, something he sees as a happy reaction to his music.

“Only a fool would mistake sarcasm for love,” she says as an aside, leading to a tragic conclusion as, alone after her attendant (Emily Magee) brings him a looking glass to finally see his own image, he dies of a broken heart.

Dixon is magnificent in his signature role, especially moving as in his abject sorrow he “sings a song the sun would sing when dying in the sea.”

One unique benefit from sitting out the intermission between the two operas was watching the incredibly complex set change before The Dwarf unfolded, something I’ve never before seen achieved without a curtain to camouflage the effort.

As Myers’ rolling set pieces were rolled away and the cavernous Chandler stage was exposed and stripped literally down to the concrete back wall, the elaborate sections of Ralph Funicello’s massive royal court of the Spanish palace appear from the wings and, before my enchanted eyes, began to join together in an almost magical transformation. The experience is definitely worth skipping intermission sipping chardonnay in the Chandler lobby, I promise you.

The LA Opera is to be commended for so gloriously bringing both William Grant Still’s Highway 1, USA and Alexander Zemlinsky’s The Dwarf to our attention, two historic pieces crying out for the recognition they’ve been robbed from achieving and so richly deserve.

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MIDDLE OF THE WORLD from Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre

When a young Manhattan banking executive jumps into his Uber one fine Fall afternoon, the last thing he expects is that his driver was once—and not that long before—the President of Ecuador.

In the west coast premiere of Juan Jose Alfonso’s Middle of the World, transferring from Boise Contemporary Theatre where it was developed to the Matrix presented by Rogue Machine, Glenn (Christian Telesmar) is at first put off by the sharply opinionated Victoria (Cheryl Umana), who has a decidedly condescending attitude about what he does for a living.

“Did you have breakfast with Karl Marx?” he asks half-jokingly, also wondering if someone can actually give a driver a rating below a zero. Not long after, however, he finds himself intrigued by Victoria's direct and straightforward attitude, leading him to offer her a permanent job as his personal driver—all before he learns she was the leader of her country ousted in a huge political controversy.

He also realizes his interest in the woman, despite a rather significant age difference between them, isn’t completely professional (although I do think that could come across by trusting Umana’s formidable talent without over-spraying her hair with uneven globs of silver Streaks ‘N Tips).

As their personal relationship tentatively blossoms, it starts to mess with Glenn’s demanding work performance, while Victoria simultaneously tries desperately to be granted permission to return to her country and reunite with her estranged son.

Alfonso’s ambitious tale is part political drama, part less-than typical love story. The writer’s greatest gift is how he has breathed life into two conflicted and restless characters whose lives are not where either want them to be, something one would assume would be secondary to the headier themes of social injustice and political retribution.

What emerges strongest is the connection between these two characters and, especially interesting to me personally as the December in an 11-year relationship with an amazing May, how it defies the odds. Early on as things begin to develop, Victoria tries to fight off her feelings by gently lecturing Glenn that he is confusing his admiration for her with thinking he’s in love.

How well I understood that argument, which made it so gratifying that by the end of the play, it’s obvious how much Victoria’s tutelage has changed her younger lover’s life, how it is she by example who gave him the courage to pursue his own dreams and not settle for profitable but dubious success that has left him unfulfilled and feeling inauthentic.

What’s most remarkable about MOTW, aside from maybe attracting some visionary filmmakers who would definitely find a worthy project to turn into a screenplay, remains the hauntingly honest performances of Umana and Telesmar, whose work together is a testament to fine ensemble acting that probably matured and grew during the play’s tale of two cities. Never once do the bumps and potholes in their knotty relationship feel forced or in any way spurious; their ability to portray the challenges and rewards of falling in love is simple, sweet, and ultimately quite moving.

The play’s trio of supporting actors, Dan Lin as Glenn’s soon alienated childhood friend, Leandro Cano as a Victoria’s CIA operative-ish nemesis, and Jennifer Pollono as her frustrated and equally unrequited lawyer, are perfectly cast in their supporting roles—particularly Cano, who has the ability to twirl his metaphoric villainous mustache while oozing charm and phony trustworthiness.

The problem is these peripheral characters, although necessary to further the plot, are also severely underwritten and their presence is completely subservient to the starcrossed lovers. In the capable hands of director Guillermo Cienfuegos leading three veteran performers, finding ways to make their roles multi-dimensional is something to be admired.

Alfonso’s script must have been unwieldy to direct, as it’s composed of a series of short filmic scenes that would be more identifiable as that aforementioned screenplay than as something written for the stage. As hard as Cienfuegos works to camouflage the cinematic conscience of the piece, one almost suspects someone will yell “CUT!” between scenes.

His inspiration surely was to choreograph the scene changes to bring out the play’s theatricality and stifle the overpowering notion that Middle of the World was conceived first to be a film, but instead the constant rush of these five actors moving chairs and beds and tables in blue light as giant panels are rotated by hand to create new environments—something made far better by scenic artist Mark Mendelson’s striking impressionistic interpretations of New York City as the seasons change—unfortunately the well-meaning devise has the opposite effect, quickly becoming clunky and distracting.

Perhaps this staging is an echo of the original production in Boise last October, also directed by Cienfuegos and featuring four of these five actors, and the dimensions of the stage there necessitated decisions that stayed with the piece when it transferred here.

This misstep is particularly puzzling since the Matrix stage is unusually wide rather than deep, something that has proven difficult to work around in many other productions in this space over the years. Here, it could be perfectly utilized if the various set pieces needed for all those short scenes stayed stationary onstage throughout and the scenes could be isolated by lighting instead of making the audience endure endless dimly lit traffic jams that take the viewer right out of the action.

Still, a little judicious tweaking and Middle of the World could be something quite special. In the meantime, the promise of Juan Jose Alfonso’s writing and the dynamic performances of five actors at the top of their game are alone worthy of attention.

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MERCURY at Road Theatre Company

When Mercury is in retrograde, those omnipresent pseudoscientists warn us, things on our already visibly bruised and battered planet are even more fucked than usual. It’s said that people during these periods in time are prone to misunderstanding one another, engage in conflicts, experience depression and anxiety, or simply become more irritable and unable to focus.

This possible earthly phenomenon provides the perfect literary petri dish for playwright Steve Yockey, whose deliciously dark and twisted humor could not be more fascinating to watch culture in his new pitch-black comedy. Mercury, now in its west coast premiere presented by the fearless folks at the Road, begins the new year with a most welcome jolt of counterculture artistry, cleverly intertwining three at first seemingly unrelated stories dealing with seven diverse people—none of whom could ever be mistaken for heroes.

We’re first introduced to Pamela (Meeghan Holaway), an obviously miserable middleaged Portland housewife seated with a large tumbler of scotch at her kitchen table contemplating the arrangement of a group of tiny Home Depot checkout-sized cacti she rescued from homelessness after her heart went out to them.

“There they were,” she explains to her uninvited next door neighbor Heather (Andrea Flowers), looking so sadly “like a field of anti-social tombstones” that they prompted her on impulse to put them all in her basket, the prickly little guys perhaps reminding her of how lonely and lost she's been since her unwanted guest recently unceremoniously ended their hot and heavy clandestine romance.

Heather has used her own key to enter Pamela’s home, supposedly on a quest to find her missing Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, suspecting that her former paramour might be hiding him from her for spite. It’s not until later in the scene that, tipped off by Pamela, Heather is led to the horribly mutilated body of poor Mr. Bundles buried under a mound of freshly turned soil near the lovely butterfly bush that so meaningfully divides their properties.

As Katrina Coulourides’ impressive set revolves from Pamela’s suburban kitchen to become a cramped and mysterious curiosity shop run by the annoyingly cheerful Alicia (Gloria Ines), it’s difficult to imagine a connection between the proprietress and her quirky customer Olive (Christina Carlisi, who appears to be channeling the late Sandy Dennis) and Yockey’s unlikely lovers from the first scene.

This confusion is further exacerbated by the denizens of the next scene, feuding couple Nick and Brian (Justin Lawrence Barnes and Danny Lee Gomez) who can’t agree on whether or not their move from downtown Portland to the boonies to care for Nick’s ailing mother was a game changer—especially since Brian encountered a bear grubbing through their trash staring at him through the windshield of his car as he sat frozen in terror staring back.

Coulourides’ La Ronde-gone-awry revolve holds yet another revelation, however, as the connection between Pamela and Heather, Alicia and Olive, and Nick and Brian is made clear under projection designer Ben Rock’s fiery sun and shrinking Mercury images that ominously shine down upon the starkly Godot-like working space of Alicia’s partner Sam (Billy Barker), a shadowy figure who rules his “threshing floor” covered in blood and clad only in a leather apron that accentuates his nicely pert naked behind.

Though not human—but then, are any of these other people totally human?—there eventually appears an eighth character, shockingly embodied by a remarkable giant puppet designed for Mercury’s debut at the Salt Lake Acting Company in 2017. I don’t want to reveal much more about its surprising eleventh-hour cameo appearance but, let me just say, not even Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator could match the gory innovation of its bloody good gothic versatility.

A play about not-so nice people destroying one another (and one poor Cavaliar King Charles Spaniel) in the nastiest and most violent way possible would not usually be fodder for a cheery evening out, but this is Steve Yockey. What would normally be too warped for general consumption is instead amazingly entertaining thanks to his signature ability to find a skewed humor in his work that hides the true subterranean message of the piece beneath the fun of it.

Yockey’s hilarious yet arrestingly disturbing Mercury is a tale of revenge at its most outrageous, full of imagery and dialogue that camouflages the author’s feelings about how we as a species have, through the religiously-fueled savagely brutal ages, lost our originally innate ability to communicate with one another rather than blame others for our own failings.

As Sam tells Pamela, “You’re much more about the power of accomplishing than the satisfaction of having,” something akin to Ayn Rand calling out our collective penchant for living as “second-handers,” for being satisfied with how society perceives us to be rather than to be who we are.

Director Ann Hearn Tobolowsky and her exceptional ensemble cast understand the writer’s intent completely. This may be the first production of many to open in LA in 2024, but I doubt if by the end of the year it will be forgotten at awards time. There is not one performer who doesn’t “get” and honor what Yockey has to say and each actor says it with the same jarringly successful uniform blend of excess and subtlety.

Tobolowsky’s staging is perfect, to the point where some choices that initially could seem odd make perfect sense at the culmination when the Mercury rises to the boiling point.

Whether worked around or intentional, even the clumsiness of Ines and Carlisi trying to maneuver the spatial restrictions of Alicia’s crowded shop is exaggerated instead of ignored as the pair quite dramatically attempts not bump into one another.

Such is also the case in Tobolowsky’s crafty decision to let the diminutive Ines struggle in full view of the audience to single-handedly handle the job of making the cumbersome stage revolve from one scene to another. And if anyone still doesn’t see that this difficult task visually accentuates the plight of Alicia, continuously subservient to her Manson-esque master Sam, the director has even staged the actor’s curtain call to drive the point home.

Above it all, the Road’s continuing commitment to bravely champion often less-than PC material created by brilliant new writers is the most impressive thing about this production because Steve Yockey is truly a master of what he does. His star is rising quickly and the Road takes no prisoners presenting and celebrating such innovative future theatrical superstars.

Under the veiling layers of topical humor, Yockey reminds us that no matter how desperately we all hang onto what society tells us is proper to help us reinforce our doubts that what we think of as the prodigious human condition is something to behold and even glorify, in the last analysis we are nothing more than animals ourselves and not as evolved as we’d like to think we are.

In Mercury, Brian’s sighting of a neighborly but soon doomed bear rooting through the trash is not so far away from how we treat life—and ultimately one another.

 *  *  *

BRUSHSTROKE at the Odyssey Theatre

It’s 1956 on the pre-upmarketed Lower East Side of Manhattan in a messy paint-splattered artist’s studio a couple of blocks from the flat where Trotsky once lived and where the one neighborhood art house is showing a movie from Japan. These are both random factoids that amaze a business-suited novice art patron (Malcolm Barrett) who has journeyed through the dangerous alleys and dank hallways to find a difficult budding expressionist painter and offer to become his patron.

In John Ross Bowie’s beguiling new comedy Brushstroke, however, now in its world premiere at the Odyssey, nothing is simple and nothing is as it seems. The eccentric artist (James Urbaniak) has his share of secrets and so does his guest, who admits he is the mouthpiece for the clandestine and possibly federally funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organization possibly intent on throwing a metaphorical wrench into the blossoming liberal-by-nature New York art scene.

Bowie teases us by describing his inspiration as a story “so crazy it has to be a little bit true.” He admits there was actually such a shadowy and suspiciously funded organization but admits his labyrinthine tale of espionage meets abstract expressionism in the quirky age of Pollack and deKooning is a fictional telling of what might have been.

His ability to, through dense and often poetic dialogue spouted by his unexpectedly logical but ultra-quirky characters, weave the emerging American art scene of the time with the political paranoia of the Cold War era is quite captivating, smoothly able to invoke an era encompassing both the “country of John Wayne but also the country of Miles Davis.”

The production is impressively designed, from Keith Mitchell’s art-filled crowded set with a surprise of its own to Soran Schwartz and Hayden Kirschbaum's moody lighting, and featuring a jazz-themed sound design by Marc Antonio Pritchett highlighting some haunting and reminiscent period music that made me go home and ask my obedient friend Alexa to play 1950s jazz standards for several days to follow.

Unfortunately, for all the potential Bowie’s play has to offer and despite the production’s excellent design elements, the performance I attended was all but defeated by what seemed to be surprisingly ubiquitous staging from director Casey Stangl, who appears to have choreographed every movement of her cast so tightly there’s simply no room left for any kind of individual interpretation or spontaneity in their work.

The exception to this is Evangeline Edwards, who deftly manages to transcend this glaringly obvious heavy-handedness successfully and bring a believability to the role of the artist’s free-spirited sister that her three costars struggle to achieve.

That said, let me say the Sunday matinee I attended was in direct competition with some odd synergistic infatuation with something called the Super Bowl and it’s never easy to give one’s all and not push when there’s no one out there in the void except about a dozen mostly embalmed audience members. It’s hard not to go into remote control when there’s cavernous silence in response to energize your efforts.

This alone could definitely account for why everything that unfolded in John Ross Bowie’s otherwise extremely promising Brushstroke that afternoon seemed so inauthentic and by-the-numbers to me. Still, Bowie has given birth to a fascinating and fresh new play deserving both an audience and a definite future.

 *  *  *

KATE at Pasadena Playhouse

Twenty-something years ago, my friend and Toronto publicist supreme John Wimbs was working here and, since he and I share a passion for kitsch, we were thrilled to hear Nancy Sinatra would be appearing at the Hollywood Roosevelt.

We gleefully made plans to see her rare nightclub performance, anticipating a silly throwback evening of “Sugar Shack,” “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” “Love Eyes,” and, of course, a few sequined costume changes that would include several versions of vinyl go-go boots made for walkin’.

What happened instead was Ol’ Blue Eye’s daughter presented an entire performance built around the saddest and most painful memories of her miserable childhood trying to live on the shadow of her neglectful ultra-famous father, all with enormous photos of them together projected behind her band and a smattering of both their hit songs thrown in between sobs.

We left the Cinegrill feeling we had been chosen as the singer’s captive substitute for some vitally needed group therapy rather than a night out laughing at the vapidity of the Swingin’ Sixties at their kitschiest.

A few minutes into Kate Berlant’s one-person Kate, now making its west coast debut at Pasadena Playhouse after celebrated runs in London and New York, I had the feeling I was reliving my evening with Miss Sinatra and had found myself in a hostage situation once again as the comedian launched into the tragic tale of her childhood in Santa Monica growing up in the thrall of a verbally abusive immigrant Irish mother and a father who suddenly abandoned his little girl, leaving her only one lone reminder of his love: a video camera.

Berlant continues her sad tale admitting how much that treasured camera had meant to her and how it influenced what would become her career trajectory—that is until in a fit of anger her shrew of a mother smashed it in front of her.

It’s all very uncomfortably overdramatic, as though John Steinbeck came back to life and started writing for a daytime soap opera. Just as I was beginning to wonder if I drove all the way to Pasadena for another depressing evening of self-induced psychotherapy and started to check out how close we were to one of the side exits, it became apparent this Day of Kate’s Life was meant as a parody of the very genre into which it was making a rapid descent and it was definitely not something meant to be cried over.

“I can see the terror in your eyes” Berlant addressed mostly hushed and wary audience, “but I had to go this big to contrast the subtle nuances later.

“And don’t forget… you heard this was good.”

My first reaction to the news that a solo show, even one that did well as Kate has done in other cities, seemed to be a risky choice to fill the austere and cavernous 600-seat Playhouse. To say that Berlant and her director Bo Burnham had it covered would be a major understatement. Even walking from across the street toward the historic 2023 regional Tony-winning venue, Berlant’s presence is everywhere—including huge block letters spelling out her name brightly projected on the side of the Playhouse Annex tower behind the building (where I studied nearly 60 years ago when the State Theater of California was still a college).

Everywhere one looks from the patio to the auditorium itself, there is a plethora of Kate iconography on display, from giant black-and-white photos of Berlant caught in various poses to a virtual army of volunteers wearing t-shirts and ball caps with her name emblazoned on them greeting you wherever you go, as well as stickers slapped on every surface in sight—light switches, exit signs, urinals, even on the theatre’s spotlit fire extinguishers.

In the lobby, seated on a stool behind traffic ropes was the totally dead serious Berlant herself, staring blankly behind dark sunglasses at patrons entered the theatre, a sign around her neck reading: “Ignore Me.” It’s as though Shia LaBeouf changed his name and gender and got even more precious than ever.

And… that’s the joke. That’s the commitment. We're walking directly into a grandly detailed send-up of the entire genre of trendy theatricalized performance art and this is a massive celebration of just such tongue-in-cheek superficiality.

On the darkened stage looms an oversized 20-foot video screen flashing more photos and videos of Berlant, alternating with titles proclaiming: “Kate Will Begin in Five Minutes,” “Kate Will Begin in Three Minutes,” “Kate Will Begin in One Minute,” “Kate Will Begin in Thirty Seconds,” interspersed with shots of her resume and photos of her agent and manager smiling their best Hollywood smiles above their contact numbers.

After this Beckett-inspired countdown, lights come up on Berlant sitting crosslegged at the edge of the stage puffing on what I presume to be one of my favorite funny cigarettes. Behind her, that enormous screen announces the setting is “Porch.” This again proves Berlant and Burnham’s innovative minimalist spirit, as such proclamations glowing at the rear of the darkened stage, including projections reading “Kitchen,” “Jazz Club,” “Casting Office,” even “Theatre,” are the extent of any scenic design throughout the performance.

Out there staring up at the stars, Berlant relates how this porch provided respite from her mother’s constant putdowns and gave her a private time to get lost in her dreams about becoming an actor, something initially sparked by her dad’s beloved parting gift. She videos herself alone in her room in front of the camera until her mother discovers her folly and turns into Annie Wilkes to laugh at the idea that her daughter could possibly have a career as a performer.

Berlant eventually escapes her unhappy home life for New York but even though she finds work on small “waiver” stages when she isn’t making lattes and frappuccinos in some Starbucks clone, she can’t ever seem to succeed in auditioning for film as all the CDs chastise that her oncamera efforts are too broad and melodramatic.

This dilemma delivers the show’s best moments, as Berlant uses a camcorder placed downstage right and, throughout the performance, relives lost auditions and self-tapes with her huge face projected on the screen behind as she makes outrageous faces into the camera.

It seems nearly every role for which she reads requires crying on cue and the continuously recurring bit of her trying to squeeze out a tear is pure comic genius. It’s hilariously over the top, causing me to laugh out loud until I cried (instead of her) while her face morphs 20 feet high into a vision of Charlie Chaplin channeling Franny Brice.

Working for film stays an obsession for her, especially because she doesn’t just believe people think theatre is dead, “they don’t even think there is a theatre” in the first place. This downer limiting her career is exacerbated by the fact that, after kudos for Kate in London and New York, Berlant laments that she finds herself booked in Pasadena, a place “no one in LA ever heard of.” One can only hope that’s part of the humor.

I have heard some people saying the mugging is too much and goes on too long but to me, that’s the funniest part of the entire evening. I’ve also heard criticism that Kate is itself pretentious and superficial but that’s the point, isn’t it? Berlant is spoofing the very kind of performance she presents. Come on, folks; a sense of humor is a terrible thing to waste.

Everything she tries to accomplish is echoed beautifully by Burnham and their design team, making one wonder how much comes from their collaborative efforts and how much is them letting Berlant’s Robin Williams flag unfurl along the way and simply support her in the most professional way possible as they try to keep up. Either way, Kate heralds the advent of a brilliant new star with a future I can’t wait to watch unfold.

SPOILER ALERT: Near the end of Berlant’s breakneck and continuously frantic Kate, she’s obviously proud of how she draws us in, taking a final moment to admit her father had not actually abandoned his family and her mother wasn’t an Emerald Isle version of Madame Thenardier but a sweet and highly supportive parent. Why, she wasn’t even Irish; our crafty storyteller chose the Martin McDonough accent to add “emotional texture.”

The thing is, Kate Berlant will do just about anything to—returning to the vernacular of Nancy Sinatra and the ‘60s—blow our collective minds. Whatever you do, don't ignore her.

*  *  *


As often as the 20th-century choreography of George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp, and Alvin Alley is painstakingly recreated to this day, in the future I’m certain the rule-shattering creations of legendary and multi-award-winning British choreographer/director Sir Matthew Bourne will be equally honored.

From his notorious all-male version of Swan Lake to The Car Man, an inventive retelling of the opera Carmen set in an automotive garage and featuring pirouetting car mechanics, no one has ever so successfully reinvented a classic artform with imagination and humor as this man. 

Now Bourne returns to LA and his frequent home-away-from-home at the Ahmanson with a most welcome modern interpretation of another classic: Sergei Prokofiev’s 1940 ballet Romeo and Juliet. 

As usual, Sir Matthew has updated the piece completely, with Olivier-winning composer Terry Davies given free rein to provide gloriously innovative new orchestrations for Prokofiev’s celebrated score and, by setting the story in the “not-too-distant future” in a stark white subway-tiled hospital/prison-like facility presumably used to house troubled teenagers, his inspiration gives his longtime Tony and Olivier Award-winning design collaborator Lez Brotherston a chance to create simple but eerily sterile sets and overly-bleached white uniforms worn by the dynamic troupe of dancers appearing as the incarcerated youth. 

As always, the members of Bourne’s New Adventures company are uniformly splendid, willing to poke fun at themselves at their leader’s command yet still able to contort and soar into the air with incredible athletic prowess. Everyone on the Ahmanson stage is an individual standout, each infused with their leader’s well-established sense of humor—especially when assaying his ever-present hint of an unmistakably homoerotic subplot with a generous full-bodied wink.

Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of Bourne’s unstoppable creative brashness is the gender fluidity of the production. Although at either side of the Institute’s antiseptic public central room are two barred doors clearly marked “BOYS” and “GIRLS,” when the residents march out from their segregated dorms to meet in this collective space and break into pairs to dance their sexual frustrations away, they don’t necessarily aim for a partner of the opposite sex.

There is obviously a flirtation that seems to go beyond the dance stage between Cameron Flynn as the kilt-wearing Mercutio and Jackson Fisch as his enamored Balthasar. When the charming clown-like Mercutio suffers his usual fate, Fisch is given an empty stage to dance a heartbreakingly beautiful pas seul to mourn his lost lover.

There are also two company members who use the pronoun “they” whose characters seem to possibly be assigned to the wrong dorms, something offered without a second’s regard for ballet tradition. And when anyone is as lovely as Dance Captain (and alternate Juliet) Bryony Pennington or as exotically sensual as the Capucine-esque Eve Ngbokota is included onstage, sign me up for whichever dorm includes one of them.

Monique Jonas is mesmerizing as a world-weary but proud Juliet, truly a prisoner as she is continuously being sexually brutalized by a sadistic guard named Tybalt (a powerful turn by Adam Galbraith) until she meets her Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick) and soon they discover a reason to want to escape the disappointments and injustices demonizing their young lives.

Together, Jonas and Fitzpatrick are even more phenomenal, especially in a lengthy Grand pas de deux that happens at about the same point in the story when Romeo and his Juliet finally are able to make love. It is performed in the traditional five distinct parts: a tentative entree followed by a breathtaking adagio, then two variations danced by one and then the other, and the perfect coda as the lovers fall into bed and turn out the light. It is the highlight of the entire performance, a moment in time that I suspect will stay with me forever.

As Romeo, Fitzpatrick is nothing short of brilliant throughout, giving a haunting and richly multifaceted performance that could become one for the dance history books. It was a personal thrill to see this well-deserved honor for Fitzpatrick to be cast in such an important role in such a prominent production as he was my annual TicketHolder Award’s New Discovery pick in 2017 when he made his American debut in Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures at the Wallis.

I wrote about his work then: "Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about this resurrection is the introduction to American audiences of the knockout 21-year-old Paris Fitzpatrick, a finalist in BBC’s Young Dancer Ballet Category in 2015 who has the charisma of a youthful Baryshnikov and the faux-clumsy charm of Charlie Chaplin. He assays the woes of the one left-out kid desperately trying to join in the fun with sweetness and clarity, almost disguising the fact that he is an amazing dancer until the viewer begins to catch on. Fitzpatrick, with the face of a 1960s French starlet and the lanky physicality of Buddy Epsen, who at 15 looked like a gawky kid but danced like Nijinsky, is clearly the breakout star here."

Was I right or was I right?

Galbraith is a major standout as the love-crazed but vile Tybalt, especially since he has been a mainstay in many previous New Adventure productions since 1999, including playing Luca in the original cast of The Car Man and appearing here at the Ahmanson in Cinderella.

It’s also a treat to see another notable veteran Bourne alum Alan Vincent who, among many other roles, was the leading Swan/Stranger in the original revolutionary all-male Swan Lake in 1996 and currently serves as resident director of this production while also appearing as Romeo’s distracted father and one of the Institute’s guards. Anyone who thinks dancers’ careers are over by their mid-30s better think again; I’ll bet Galbraith and Vincent will be squeezing into their tights for a long time to come.

Everything about any work by Sir Matthew Bourne is pure magic; his angular, Nijinsky-inspired choreography is almost tribal in its individuality, heralding a new rule-breaking form of artistic communication almost primitive in nature. His hilariously inventive take on the story of the world’s most famous starcrossed lovers could easily be compared to watching a documentary about one of those indigenous ethnic tribes, long hidden in the planet’s last bastions of remaining wilderness, performing their own self-evolved consanguineous raindances passed down from generation to generation—just as Bourne’s work should also be passed down. 

His unique take on Prokofiev’s popular ballet and one of William Shakespeare’s most enduring works is what we need right now as we navigate this impossibly twisted world around us. Spend a couple of hours swept into his arrestingly grand vision of Romeo and Juliet and you might just forget everything else happening around the globe that has made a fortune for the drug cartels and pharmaceutical companies alike. 

It’s well worth taking a much-needed vicarious leap into the air along with the exceptionally talented members of New Adventures rather than considering performing that other more permanent kind of leap—you know, the one off the top of the “O” of the Hollywood Sign.

 *  *  *

POTUS at the Geffen Playhouse

Oxford Languages defines farce as a “comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterizations and ludicrously improbable situations.”

For any of us who have the distinct feeling that American politics has descending at warpspeed headfirst into the realm of farce at its most outrageous, Selina Fillinger’s POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive is just the ticket.

Set in the White House at a period of time when, Fillinger assures us, is not meant to conjure the current (or more pointedly just past) administration but employs “broad strokes of past leaders combined with stress dreams of future ones,” POTUS begins in crisis as the current leader of the free world has just publicly addressed an official gathering by accusing his First Lady of being “cunty.”

This sends Chief of Staff Harriet (Shannon Cochran) into a panic, especially since he’s about to meet with a group of world leaders and his uber-stresscase “menopausal toddler” secretary Stephanie (Lauren Blumenfeld) has arrived with the news that the leader of Bahrain is deeply offended by his use of the most vilified word in the English language.

“He’s offended?” Harriet responds with more than a dollop of incredulity. “What? Did he take a break from imprisoning journalists?” As with any good farce, this seemingly insurmountable crisis is only the tip of the Presidential seal.

With the help of his uniformly acerbic all-female team, POTUS, who’s never seen onstage except his lower legs and feet clad in shoes that appear to be better quality than anything ever worn by the most obvious real life once again candidate (talk about farce) the character resembles, is trying to conceal a painful anal abscess caused by some rough play at the hands of a ditzy Gen-Z refugee named Dusty (Jane Levy), who of course arrives at the most inopportune time to announce she’s carrying the President’s child.

This is obviously not the first such delicate condition endured by the long-suffering First Lady Margaret (Alexandra Billings), who greets the Other Woman more like a comrade than an adversary.

As the play’s typically farcical door-slamming antics only become more impossibly twisted, Dusty gains more respect from those gathered—the ranks of whom also include his Press Secretary Jean (Celeste Den) and her on-again-off-again drug dealing lover Bernadette (Deirdre Lovejoy), also the recently incarcerated sister of POTUS himself—when the Presidential mistress agrees to blow a couple of Secret Servicemen to keep them occupied as the others deal with the most improbable of world-class improbable situations.

She proudly boasts she can keep them from coming (if you’ll excuse the expression) for 40 minutes, but when Harriet surmises they’ll need at least 45 so the team can dump a rather conspicuous and inconvenient body, she assures them that won’t be a problem. “I’ll ask them about video games.”

Fillinger’s seventh character is a nosy White House reporter named Chris (Ito Aghayere), who moves from interested newsperson to active participant in the play’s ridiculously far-fetched antics when she hurls a marble bust of suffragette Alice Paul into the Oval Office with disastrous results.

Fillinger’s play is frantic, hilarious, and non-stop, something akin to a two-act SNL sketch (you remember: one of the good ones) fueled by massive doses of Adderall, a distinction only accentuated by the rapidfire delivery and visual hijinks guided by director Jennifer Chambers, obviously with more than a little help from fight director Julie Ouellette.

On Brett J. Banakis’ ingenious revolving Presidential-portrait festooned set, the actors careen from one wildly implausible situation to the next like characters from Advise and Consent played by women and hurled into a production of Noises Off.  The stage so bursts with dizzying visual buffoonery that Chambers lets it all spill out into the audience—particularly effective when the blood-soaked, inner tube wearing, American flag waving Blumenfeld runs in a crazed frenzy down one aisle and up the other on Stephanie’s drug-induced hallucinogenic flight from reality.

Chambers has assembled an exceptional team of actors from whom she manages to coax some solid comic chops, particularly Aghayere as the constantly breast-pumping new mother Chris and Billings as the Eve Arden-like First Lady, although the latter performer could benefit from an old-fashioned standard Betty Ford-Hillary Clinton-style coiffure to look more in character. As is, when Cochran’s Harriet, recipient of a running gag about the manliness of her haircut, is told she resembles Ronald Reagan, it’s difficult not to wonder why that distinction would not be better delivered to Billings.

The only problem that hangs over POTUS on its Los Angeles premiere’s opening night is this obviously dynamic cast has been so drilled to honor Chambers’ suitably over-the-top shenanigans and keep the play’s pace careening forward at breakneck speed that their performances suffer.

They all work so hard to honor Fillinger’s incredibly promising comedic genius that they forget to imbue their characters with something to like about them. With the exception of Aghayere’s reporter unwillingly thrust into the chaos, as much as I enjoyed the play, I didn’t in general much believe any of their reactions to the crazily bizarre events unfolding around them.

This is something that falls squarely on the shoulders of Chambers who, I suspect, had to devote more of her time and energies to the accelerated momentum and staging of the piece rather than concentrating on the acting. I believe with all my instincts, however, that after the first few performances all that will come to fruition; this ensemble is far too gifted not to find their way to make this work more successfully.

Still, man, would I love to see what Tim Robbins and his unstoppably rule-breaking cohorts at the Actors' Gang could do with this script.

Despite the aforementioned elephant in the (press)room, however, there’s no doubt Selina Fillinger’s POTUS is a completely worthwhile comedic thrill ride in its present incarnation at the Geffen, filled with delightfully foul-mouthed humor and probably, despite its broadness and penchant for topping itself, not too far off when it comes to how our country is run behind the scenes—or at least was run when the Tangerine Traitor Tot was donning those impossibly demanding shoes that fit him like Cinderella's stepsisters.

 *  *  *

MESSAGE IN A  BOTTLE at the Pantages Theatre

The U.S. Premiere of Message in a Bottle, directed and choreographed by multi-award-winning Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells Artistic Associate Kate Prince (MBE) and featuring the indelible songs of 17-time Grammy-winning musical superstar Sting, has overtaken the Pantages for a limited one-week, seven performance run through this Sunday, Feb. 11.

The good news is, it’s phenomenal; the bad news is, it’s somehow only booked here for seven performances.

The groundbreaking ballet-meets-hip hop-meets-the world’s best rock score had its world premiere at Sadler’s Wells in London’s West End three years ago this month and, after rave reviews both there and on tour internationally ever since, it has kicked off its North American tour with this too-brief engagement, defying our record rainstorms to create an atmospheric river all its own. 

The world situation we’re currently facing collides with Sting’s breathtaking music and Prince’s otherworldly genre-defying choreography in a moving story of humanity and hope, evoking a small village where the inhabitants’ idyllic lives are suddenly upended by the horrors of war.

Three young siblings, separated from their parents, set out on their own individual extraordinary adventures that celebrate the resilience of the human spirit—if one refuses to never stop trusting one another in the search for peace and love.

The soundtrack includes 28 of the great master’s most memorable songs energized by arresting new vocals by Sting, arrangements by Grammy and Tony-winner Alex Lacamoire (Hamilton, The Greatest Showman), and featuring guest vocals from award-winning British actress/singer Beverley Knight and Lynval Golding of The Specials. 

To paraphrase the obvious, every little thing about this production is magic, including an incredibly versatile minimalist set by Ben Stones complimenting Andzej Goulding’s wildly creative video projections, striking lighting by Natasha Chivers, gossamer costuming by Anna Fleischle, and sound by David McEwan so dynamic you can feel it through the floor.

Still, all of this pays well-deserved deference to Prince, whose choreography here is some of the best I have ever witnessed and is perfectly interpreted by one of the most outstandingly athletic and fiercely committed dance ensembles ever assembled: Oliver Andrews, Lindon Barr, Deavion Brown, David Cottle, Harrison Dowzell, Nestor Garcia Gonzalez, Natasha Gooden, Lizzie Gough, Anna Holström, Megan Ingram, Ajani Johnson-Goffe, Charlotte Lee, Daniella May, Dylan Mayoral, Serena McCall, Lukas McFarlane, Robbie Ordona, Lara Renaud, Hannah Sandilands, Jessey Stol, Steven Thompson, Gavin Vincent, and Malachi Welch.

I can’t plead enough. Message in a Bottle is only here through Sunday. Battle your way through our inclement weather any way you can. Row, swim, or snorkel if you have to but don’t miss this remarkable experience that will almost instantly remind you how art can heal the world.

 *  *  *

MJ -- THE MUSICAL at the Pantages Theatre

With direction and Tony-winning choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, a book by two-time Pulitzer honoree Lynn Nottage, and produced with the blessings of the estate of Michael Jackson, the west coast premiere of MJ — The Musical is indeed the perfect treat for us seasonal cheer-challenged Angelenos.

Opening just before Crissmiss at the always festive Pantages, MJ plays through the end of January and could not be a better way to kick off the new year.

Set in a LA rehearsal studio in 1992 just prior to his lengthy $100 million-grossing Dangerous World Tour, King of Pop (played in a striking feat of physical resurrection by Roman Banks) is at his most demanding and exacting in his pursuit of perfection, much to the frustration of his tour manager Rob (Devin Bowles) and business manager Dave (Matt Loehr).

When a new and ridiculously expensive opening for the show comes to him in a dream, Jackson insists on implementing it despite his team’s protests of physical danger and the need for a massive amount of funds the star doesn’t have. Still, if they don’t use it, he tells them, “God will give it to Prince.”

As the troupe is overworked to the point of exhaustion, an ambitious young reporter and her cameraman (Mary Kate Moore and Da’Von T. Moody) worm their way into the closed studio in an attempt to interview Jackson. Despite Rob’s efforts to thwart her mission, she manages to get close to and somewhat win over the notoriously moody and quicksilver star, who during breaks in rehearsal sits with her and recounts stories of his troubled childhood under the abusive tutelage of his father Joe (also played by Bowles) and on to his early days at Motown and its resultant superstardom.

These memories open MJ from the confines of the Dangerous Tour rehearsal space to the colorfully grandiose world of Jackson on Derek McLane’s remarkably transformable set, taking us along on a journey through some of the star’s biggest breakout performances.

The production numbers, featuring such familiar hits as “Beat It,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Dancing Machine,” “Billie Jean,” and of course “Thriller”—a recreation of the original video that literally brings the house down and opening night elicited a spontaneous mid-show standing ovation—are at the heart of this knockout musical thanks to the glorious choreography of Wheeldon and a phenomenal ensemble of precision dancers.

Bowles is a standout as the put-upon Rob, especially as he instantly transforms into the gravely-voiced, continuously villainous Joe Jackson, while Loehr, Moore, and Moody all surprise when their more dramatic characters join the dancers and hold their own beautifully.

Still, it is the work of the three dynamic actors playing Michael Jackson in various stages of his life who energize every moment of the production, particularly in the many musical numbers.

Banks is uncanny as the adult King in movement, in vocal dexterity, and in recreating the guy’s well-documented quirks and neuroses.

As the teenage and young adult version of Jackson, Brandon Lee Harris seamlessly takes on Banks’ same qualities, surely a testament not only to the actor but to Wheeldon, who as director must have had to double as overseer to ensure the remarkable continuity.

As Little Michael, Josiah Benson (alternating with Ethan Joseph) delivers one of those star-is-born performances—you know, the kind that made Berry Gordy (here played by J. Daughtry) pick the 11-year-old Michael out of the Jackson 5 and send him on his way.

I kept thinking how perfect MJ would be ensconced for a long and surely profitable run in one of Las Vegas’ most glitzy hotel/casinos. It’s traditional for Broadway hits taking up residency on the Strip to be trimmed down into an intermissionless 90-minute format and here, this particular musical would work like gangbusters.

As interesting as is Nottage’s book and as well performed as the show’s many quiet ballad moments are, it’s definitely the grand and incredibly brilliant production numbers that make MJ — The Musical so totally spectacular. Wheeldon earned his Tony for choreography like no one has since perhaps Bob Fosse and, with the abundance of talent displayed on this tour to assay his vision, it could—and should—play on forever.

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INHERIT THE WIND at Pasadena Playhouse

There’s no doubt that Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s multiple Tony winner and Pulitzer finalist Inherit the Wind is in many ways glaringly dated and old fashioned, yet despite the fact that it's now been nearly 70 years since it first rocked the very foundations of theatrical history, it has in no way deterred Pasadena Playhouse's unstoppable artistic director Danny Feldman and the west coast’s most visionary director Michael Michetti from delivering it anew as one of the most impressive—and above all relevant—productions to grace a stage in our parched cultural climes this season.

Lawrence and Lee noted in 1986, “Every performance of this play should feel like an opening night, happening NOW on your stage for the first time, pertinent to this hour and this day.”

Mission accomplished, Mr. Michetti. Bigtime.

Although the classic is still set in 1925, everything about this production defies time and place, delivering it on a totally bare stage—quite a bold choice at the also nearly hundred-year-old Playhouse, which opened to the public that same year nearly a century ago.

As incredibly detailed, brilliantly multi-leveled, and period-perfect as was Peter Larkin’s Tony-winning 1955 Broadway set, Michetti and designer Brad Enlow have here stripped the austere Playhouse stage down to its original back wall, with ancient brick peeking through the crumbling plaster and a view of the towering riggings and pulleys stage right.

And on the other side of the massive space, bleachers have been placed to actualize the crafty decision to substitute audience members for ITW’s huge ensemble of AEA-draining townspeople and, as former castmember K Callan (who appeared in the first pre-Broadway production directed by Margot Jones in Dallas) called them opening night at the Playhouse, “spear-carriers” sporting signs declaring their fundamentalist religious zealousy.

Dominating center stage is the omnipresent banner that remains an integral part of the tale admonishing everyone onstage and in observance to “READ YOUR BIBLE.”

Sara Ryung Clement’s costuming is contemporary—well, shall I say rural contemporary—and even the jury box housing “twelve gentlemen” is placed downstage in front of the audience and is populated by patrons of both sexes.

Although the play’s every cultural and social reference remains steadfastly intact, the uniformly phenomenal cast is multiracial and even age-defiant, as Michetti’s brazen and rather courageous vision forces the audience to crank up their own imagination and call on their ability to suspend belief in an effort to focus on how thin the thread is between members of our mess of a species a hundred years apart.

Of course, Inherit the Wind was inspired by an actual event, the notorious 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial, where the State of Tennessee accused schoolteacher John T. Scopes of violating the state’s Butler Act, which had ruled that it was illegal for Darwin’s theory of human evolution be taught in any state-funded school.

The trial became a major cause celebre a century ago, resulting in reporters from all over the country descending on the tiny burg of Dayton, Tennessee to watch the clash of ideas and ideals between publicity-whore, former Secretary of State, and three-time presidential candidate Williams Jennings Bryan prosecuting the case and arguing against Clarence Darrow, leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union and outspoken advocate for Georgist economic reform.

The clash was clear: the war between the Modernist belief that the wonders of evolution could exist alongside the fictional but still worthy teachings of conservative Christianity, and those unmovable “clockstoppers,” as they are so appropriately called in ITW, who believed with every fiber of their being that their Bible was the literal word of their God and had to take precedence over the ever-developing facts of science and human knowledge.

At a time when our newly elected evangelical Speaker of the House, who when asked what his stance is on the critical issues of our time told reporters to pick up a Bible as “that’s my worldview,” could revisiting the Scopes trial as seen through the text of Inherit the Wind be more urgently important?

Michetti’s production is dazzling in a quiet, far more introspective way than the original production offered and in this regard, may I humbly say there is probably no one more able to speak of this theatrical divide than I am, possibly one of last remaining members of the original Broadway cast.

I joined the company in early 1956 at age 10 to take over the role of Howard Blair, the young kid from the class of defendant Bertram Cates (played here at the Playhouse in a strikingly heartfelt performance by Abubakr Ali) who takes the witness stand to tell the court how the teachings of Darwin have or have not warped his impressionable young mind.

I arrived just in time to briefly work opposite Paul Muni, one of the greatest American actors of all time who, although towards me he was rather gruff and exceedingly unfriendly, as the William Jennings Bryan-clone Matthew Harrison Brady delivered one of the most iconic performances of any actor on any stage in the last century.

One of my most indelible memories of playing Howard was that Mr. Muni scared the living crap out of me, surely the most perfect tool a yet untrained yung’un could tap into to help realistically create a character. There was not a performance whenever he grilled me on the witness stand before Melvyn Douglas assumed the role that tears did not flow for me—something the critics found impressive but I knew came from something far deeper than hereditary skill.

In the Playhouse’s new mounting of ITW, Brady is innovatively played by African-American master technician John Douglas Thompson, who brings a whole new and far less declaratory take on the classic role, which for the last 68 years has always seemed to me to be played by an actor imitating the bluster and grand style of Muni or later by equally amazing actors such as Frederic March in the 1960 film version and George C. Scott in the 1996 Broadway revival.

Thompson has a one-of-a-kind theatrical nourishment afforded him by having the coveted opportunity to play opposite the unearthly gifts of Alfred Molina in the Clarence Darrow role of Henry Drummond, and once again he unobtrusively dominates the stage with a brilliantly understated performance that turns Darrow’s usual string of bombastic one-liners into delightfully simple throwaways the audience must intently listen for to pick up on and appreciate.

Here again is where my unique position and history with this play can offer a perspective perhaps no one else can appreciate as completely. In the original production, the clashes, both in the courtroom and off, between Brady and Darrow (played by the lategreat but always bombastic Ed Begley Sr.) are the most representative of how actors were praised for delivering worldclass scenery chewing 70 years ago.

Here, the relationship between these two dynamic characters becomes a quintessential example of how the art of acting has itself evolved over the past seven decades. These two unearthly gifted performers deliver Lawrence and Lee’s thought-provoking text with a far more realistic, far more accessible delivery, ultimately making the work about the ideas introduced rather than about the demonstrative and declarative nature of two great actors’ celebrated performances.

This doesn’t in any way detract from the “old ways,” which were thrilling to watch and helped encourage the confidence and building blocks to create our now more introspective and even more thrilling universal performing technique, only that in the hands of Thompson and Molina led by Michetti, the insight offered is the payoff rather than stylistic hyperbole.

This oratorical playing style is still slyly echoed in the exceptional performance of David Aaron Baker delivering his punishing, wonderfully unconstrained, and surely exhausting sermon as the Reverend Jeremiah Brown, which highlights the polar opposite work of the two leading actors.

Michael Kostroff also has some charmingly over-the-top moments as the town’s milquetoast mayor and virtually every ensemble member flawlessly contributes their own rich individual interpretations of the town’s adamantly deluded and horrified residents, all particularly impressive managing to periodically move downstage believably to deliver fine renditions of “Give Me That Old-Time Religion” and other such homespun old hymnals.

As much as I just praised Thompson and Molina for their restrained and more temperate performances, Abbott Elementary’s Chris Perfetti brings a far more theatrical spin to cynical big-city editorial journalist E. K. Hornbeck, a role that jumpstarted the career of Tony Randall back when his work was still far more subdued than either misters Muni or Begley.

Perfetti drops the world-weary Hornbeck’s frequent anti-religious epistles of sarcasm with what appears to be a self-satisfied relish for each wisecrack, moving with a Fosse-esque physicality that is as baroque as Randall’s interpretation was uncharacteristically subdued—and when he literally offers the Reverend’s daughter Rachel (Rachel Hilson) a bite of his apple, it’s not hard to grock what Michetti had in mind.

I was slightly less taken with Bilson, who is obviously a talented actor but whose hesitant, occasionally terrified delivery makes it hard to imagine the decision the character makes at the end of the play. Rachel Brown has been raised within the constrictive confines of her father and the community’s skewed religious fanaticism but if earlier on she doesn’t show a hint of a backbone, the rest of her story seems highly unlikely.

For me, although I anticipated a wave of nostalgia and a reminder of the shockingly quick passage of time would overtake me, I didn’t realize the extent of how much I would be moved. As soon as the lights first came up on the delightfully endearing Matt Gomez Hidaka in the role in which I first stepped barefoot onto a Broadway stage some 67 years ago, sporting my homemade fishing pole and a tin can for bait retrieval, I felt an unexpected catch in my ability to breath normally.

As Hidaka held up Howard’s trophy, a big fat juicy earthworm to taunt his young admirer Melinda (here sweetly played by Gabriella Pizzigoni), I nearly delivered his line right along with this new stand o’ cotton: “What’re yuh skeered of? You was a worm once.” I’ve attended many other performances of plays in which I once appeared, but none has struck me quite as dramatically as this long, long ago moment in time as this one did.

In an era where we are all potentially drowning in a sea of backward thinking in our country and much of the world, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s dated but still insightful and groundbreaking masterwork is desperately ready to be revived once again on an even grander scale. In a perfect world, Michael Michetti’s gobsmack of a rethinking should travel on from Pasadena back to New York in its shatteringly germane present incarnation.

Inherit the Wind caused a heap of controversy and its share of shocked viewers way back in 1955 but we, as artists unafraid to tackle the inequities of twisted values and the absurdity of our society from Euripides to Moliere to Tennessee Williams, are the entity of change most overlooked in the history of our species’ existence. This production made me leave the Playhouse almost unable to speak simply because how much it renewed my faith in what so many of us stand for and champion at all costs in our sometimes questionably Quixote-like existence spinning out of control on the doomed surface of our troubled planet.

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DOG MAN: THE MUSICAL at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

The nutso and totally irreverent comic book world of Dav Pilkey’s insanely popular adventures of a butt-sniffing, face-licking, leg-lifting crime fighter who is half human and half canine comes to wonderful life on the Kirk Douglas stage.

There’s nothing actually Crissmussy or holiday-centric about Dog Man: The Musical but you could have fooled me. Turned into a raucous, delightfully nonsensical musical by Kevin Del Aguila, Dog Man sure put old bah-humbuggy me in the holiday spirit. Aguila and composer Brad Alexander have created a fast moving 90-minute colorfully visual and over-the-top adaptation of Pilkey’s beloved characters that had the majorly excited kids in the audience jumping in their seats. Literally.

The original comic series, which was launched in 2016 and has since sold more than 60 million copies and has been translated into 45 languages, is geared for ages 6 to 11, something the production adheres to but let me tell you, adults will be equally—if probably less demonstratively—seduced.

As established by the groundbreaking Pee-Wee’s Playhouse some 40-plus years ago, there are surely some crafty moments Del Aguila meant to be appreciated by the adults in the room that would go directly over the kiddies’ heads, such as when the army of Beastly Buildings metamorphosed by Petey, the World’s Most Evil Cat’s futuresque 80-HD machine, to destroy the world in the “most theatrical fashion,” they descend zombie-like to do their worst while chanting, “Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble, one of us, one of us!”

Alexander’s score is infectious, especially with local wonder Gregory Nabours serving as the production's musical director, and the eager ensemble cast, under the leadership and encouragement to pull out all the silly-stops by director/choreographer Jen Wineman, could not be more dedicated to the goofiness of the source material.

Marcus Phillips and Max Torres set the tone perfectly as George and Harold, two seventh grade comic book writers trying desperately to finish creating the musical in George’s all-cardboard, all-primary colored basement before his mother calls them for lunch.

“It was the best of scenes, it was the first of scenes,” they begin and soon Timothy R. Mackabee’s cartoon-like set magically transforms into the storyline’s various locations, including the lab where a cop with a head destroyed in the line of duty and his trusty dog with a destroyed body are conjoined into the title character, played with intensely graceful yet cumbersome canine-ity and constantly lolling tongue by Brian Owen.

Bryan Daniel Porter is deliciously and lovingly evil as Petey, as is L.R. Davidson as Li’l Petey, the clone he conjures of himself with his 80-HD power so his dastardly deeds will have a future. “I love me!” Porter croons in villainous ecstasy as his still innocent but malleable protégé comes to life. “Me is always on my mind!”

Chadae Nichol dynamically completes the cast as Flippy, George’s mutant cyborg pet fish who becomes demonic when fed too much brain food rather than a few flakes of TetraMin.

There is nothing but fun offered in Dog Man, a production basically devoid of any real message besides to tell you to give the world’s troubles a much-needed break, to laugh your dang head off, and to go ahead and bounce in your seat as though you’re still young enough to have no idea what’s coming next as your body gets all grown up.

Or as the characters in Dog Man: the Musical tell us, “Spread the peanut butter all the way to the end” of the bread and you’ll have the perfect sandwich to energize your journey ahead.

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A CHRISTMAS STORY at the Ahmanson Theatre

Having a bit of a problem feeling that elusive holiday spirit? I guess that’s just about universal this year.

Well, here’s something that might help: a trip downtown to immerse yourselves in the splendiferous twinkling lights of the LA Music Center Plaza for a nostalgic trip back to 1940 Indiana and a far more simple memory lane of a Crissmiss, a place where the most troublesome kind of problem is whether the Old Man’s shattered “Major Award” can be put back together again long before the invention of Gorilla Glue or if Ralphie Parker gets his wish that an official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle BB gun shows up under the tree.

You know, the kind with the compass in the stock and that thing that tells time?

Playwright Joseph Robinette and Dear Evan Hansen composers Benji Pasek and Justin Paul have adapted the 1983 holiday film classic A Christmas Story into a charming and even more fanciful triple Tony-nominated musical, both versions based on humorist Jean Shepherd’s 1966 semi-autobiographical memoir In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.

Shepherd himself appears as a character here, played in a suitably wry delivery by Chris Carsten in the role originated by Dan Lauria on Broadway in 2012. Carsten narrates the story as he physically moves through the action, introducing the strikingly confident Kai Edgar as his nine-year-old self, Eric Petersen and Sabrina Sloan as his lovably less-than perfect parents, and the totally precocious Henry Witcher as his little brother Randy.

Robinette’s book and Pasek and Paul’s score, both nominated for Tonys, are exceptional achievements, adding many grandly produced fantasy scenes concocted in Ralphie’s fertile imagination brought to glorious life by Warren Carlyle’s spritely choreography and direction by Matt Lenz based on the original staging of John Rando.

Peterson is sensational, commanding his every scene as he offers a well-honed Jackie Gleason deadpan and a unique ability to deliver the Old Man’s nonsensical “tapestry of profanity” with consummate skill, as well as acing impressive vocals and exhibiting a surprising physical agility in the madly frantic production numbers. Truly, if this guy had been around 40 years ago to play the role in the film version, I might be more inclined to watch it again every December as it leads the holiday assault of holiday viewing options dominating television screens everywhere.

Sloan is lovely as the quintessential ever-patient mom and Shelley Regner has a showstopping turn as Raphie’s demanding teacher Miss Shields, who morphs into something of of vixen in his richly wild dream life. Still, although the adult supporting cast populating this version of A Christmas Story is uniformly noteworthy, it’s all about the kids.

Edgar and Witcher are both totally adorable as the personality-loaded Parker brothers and the multitalented ensemble of triple-threat child actors playing their friends and enemies and schoolmates—all, might I add, local hires—elevate this production from notable to sensational.

Because they so richly deserve it, they are: Zeke Bernier, Addalie Burns, Jack Casey, Jordan Coates, Greta Rebecca Kleinman, Kayden Alexander Koshelev, Emilie Ong, Jacob Pham, Izzy Pike and, last but hardly least, the continuously scene-stealing Charlie Stover.

Nothing puts us world-weary jaded adults in seasonal mode better than seeing Crissmiss through the eyes of a child, right? Give us a stage full of yung’uns who can easily hold their own among their veteran costars, knock an already impressive series of unstoppably fresh and imaginative production numbers into the stratisphere, and dance like junior Savion Glovers and Chita Riveras, and this golden and brilliantly mood-elevating mounting of A Christmas Story, the Musical would be welcome back here every year. I, for one, would be right there ready to eagerly soak up a huge dose of desperately needed holiday cheer.

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WHITE (ALBUM) CHRISTMAS at the Colony Theatre

The only thing worse than the war on Christmas, we’re told at the beginning of White (Album) Christmas, the Troubadour Theater Company’s latest commedia dell’arte-inspired and gleefully irreverent assault on the holiday season, “is this first act.”

Au contraire, Troubies.

For the last 21 years, Matt Walker’s much-loved company of zanies has kicked off the holiday season in our too-often unfestive reclaimed desert climes like a talented and far less annoying Mariah Carey. For 2023, they have gratefully returning to the future-challenged Colony Theatre for a second year to present their newest original sidesplitting off-centered spoof of traditional holiday tales set to the music of popular contemporary composers. 

Since its inception in 1995, Walker has adapted and directed well over 40 such productions, one more delightfully ridiculous than the next. Former holiday titles have included It’s a Stevie Wonderful Life, Little Drummer Bowie, A Christmas Carole King, The First Joel, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rein-Doors, Die Heart, and Frosty and Snow-Manilow, so just the titles should give you a clue if you’re not already a confirmed and fiercely loyal fan—as I am.

I don’t think a Crissmiss has gone by since 2002 when I was home in LA that whatever these guys presented didn’t kick off my wavering sense of holiday cheer. Walker and his adoring disciples knock their performances into the stratosphere year after year, selling out every show they conjure. 

To meld the popular classic 1954 film White Christmas with the Beatles’ White Album could not be a more inspired match-up. Veteran Troubie Philip McNiven and the company’s co-founder Rick Batalla take on the roles of Phil Davis and Bob Wallace originated by Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby, while Walker is their gruff but lovable former commandant now struggling to keep his rural Vermont inn from failing in a winter without snow.

Batalla, as always, sets the rules here, delivering not only a nearly perfect vocal recreation of der Bingle’s ba-ba-boo-ing and dry delivery but also offering a nonstop string of adlibs that has become a major part of what makes any Troubie performance something not to be missed. 

Cloie Wyatt Taylor and Suzanne Jolie Narbonne are perfect choices to play the boys’ love interests the Haynes Sisters, complete with a joke about underwear brands and taking full advantage of the bravely non-PC opportunity for the African-American Taylor as Betty Haynes to tell Bob in the middle of her conflict with him that she doesn’t think she’s the right choice to sing “White Christmas.”

The Troubies unleash their usual rapidfire barrage of quips skewering everyone from Ruth Buzzi to Shields & Yarnell (you had to have been there) to taking a quick swipe at Danny Kaye’s infamously questionable sexuality to Phil admitting he’s not the marrying kind but is “more like the Pete Davidson kind."

There are well-placed jabs at Lauren Boebert’s inappropriate groping during Bettlejuice the Musical to gripes about traffic woes on the 101 and a mention of the SAG-AFTRA strike. “What can I tell you?” Batalla challenges the audience. “We wrote this in August and we were too lazy to change it.”

It’s all set to the familiar tunes of the still-Fab Four, of course, showcased by the smoothly rocking Troubadorchestra led by musical director Ryan Whyman on keyboards. 

I do miss some of the company’s usual Pee-Wee’s Christmas Special-esque set pieces and colorfully outrageous costuming when earlier storylines were more about elves and snowmen and the North Pole but after two decades, I imagine there aren’t as many of those tales left to spoof. Still, as much as that brand of more fanciful holiday cheer might be missing with the company’s less glittery Die Heart and White (Album) Christmas, one part of all those former productions remains intact for yet another year: a special annual appearance of the Troubie’s beloved Winter Warlock.

Since he/she/they (another running joke) first appeared in 2004’s Santa Claus is Coming to Motown, the character has been performed in every Troubadour holiday show by the hilarious Beth Kennedy, another co-founder of the company. Whenever he/she/they totters onstage on stilts hidden below a flowing white robe, delivering one-liners in a voice reminiscent of Mark Rylance in Don't Look Up, he/she/they brings the house down and elicits standing ovations as enthusiastic as if Taylor Swift just walked out onto the stage at SOFI Stadium. 

This time out, Kennedy is also cast in White (Album) Christmas as Martha My Dear, the nosy housekeeper of General Waverly’s inn originally played in the film by Mary Wickes, so the Winter Warlock makes his/her/their much-anticipated yearly cameo almost at the end of the show, prompting Walker to note from the stage that it was a great relief as he sensed an unease in the audience that might have soon turned into a riot.

For the past 32 years, my annual TicketHolder Awards have traditionally been announced somewhere between Crissmiss Day and New Year’s Eve, but I’m going to take a prompt from the folks who run the Oscars, who announce their special honorees before the standard award winners are decided.

For 2023, the TicketHolders will include its own special winner: Beth Kennedy is the first ever recipient of the Goddess of the Standing Ovation Award for her gloriously memorable two decades as the Troubie’s enduring superstar, the now iconic Winter Warlock.

It may be incredibly difficult to still snag tickets for White (Album) Christmas but let me tell you, folks, it would be well worth the effort to give it a try—or at least mark your calendar for 2024 to be the first in line for the coveted Troubadour Theater Company’s own version of Mr. Wonka's Golden Ticket.

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JUST FOR US at the Mark Taper Forum

Standup comedian Alex Edelman is one of the most distinct and unique voices to emerge on the scene since the late Robin Williams.

In the special engagement in the shuttered Mark Taper Forum, presented as part of Center Theatre Group’s CTG:FWD, a new initiative created by Artistic Director Snehal Desai and funded in part by special artistic discretionary funds that were raised to be used on special programming, Edelman's hilarious and perfectly timed Obie-winning and New York Times Critics’ Pick solo show Just for Us, that timing nearly cost him the opportunity to share it with us thanks to the current crisis in the Middle East.

There were serious discussions about postponing the LA resident’s two-week run here considering the tensions and humanitarian horrors weighing on everyone’s mind right now, Edelman admits at the start on his opening night here. “Lucky me,” he quips with more than a soupçon of sardonicism.

Still, the words of John Updike, who once noted that “sometimes the work you do can find itself in conversation with the times you live in,” helped Edelman and CTG to decide to move forward—albeit with security guards and walk-through metal detectors stationed outside the Taper’s entrance.

See, as a secular Jew, most of Edelman’s humor revolves around his upbringing in a very conservative family in Boston, a place where rampant racism while he was growing up was the norm and being anything but white for anyone wasn’t easy there “between the 15th century and 1981.”

Raised in a particularly ethnic and racially-intolerant area of Boston (“called Boston,” he adds), his family worked hard to help their three sons understand the history of their ancestral struggles, but not without also teaching empathy. This was something that led his mother, despite his father’s vehement objections, to one year create a Christmas celebration for a non-Jewish friend left alone in the world that opened Edelman’s young mind to a whole new set of traditions he never knew existed.

This is perhaps what first fostered his curiosity that one day, during his time living in Manhattan, made him decide to take his inquisitiveness one step too far. When he found a string of antisemitic rants crowding his social media feed after a post meant to promote the opposite reaction, he decided to accept an invitation inviting new members to attend a white supremacist “nerf nazi” support group meeting.

Despite a good friend’s dire warning that he might be taking his life in his hands, Edelman decided to head to the event—not in “Arkanssippi,” mind you, but in Queens, New York.

I personally identified with his need to understand why he was hated without much basis besides blame for the death of a fantasy deity over 2,000 years ago, although for me, as someone growing up with a small Danish nose and a shock of blond hair, I was privy to many ugly comments made against Jews in my presence that as a kid always encouraged the scrappy side of me to raise an index finger and say, “Excuse me, but…”

Edelman’s bravery humbles me, especially after last month when I made the decision, as global conflicts escalate and university campuses reveal their long-suppressed bigotry, to leave my ever-present Star of David pendant at home in a drawer while traveling to teach in Spain. I like my head right where it sits, you see.

Still, sitting in rapt attention listening to Edelman’s tale, my own choice to go into minor hiding bothered me greatly, a feeling exacerbated by the storyteller as he recounted climbing those potentially ominous stairs to a nondescript third floor apartment and soon finding irony in snacking on “whites-only” muffins.

His memories of that night—which indeed ended up a tad more than scary—are the basis for Just for Us, but his “overmedicated ADHD generation” stream-of-consciousness performance takes many side trips along the way, all fueled by his frenzied energy and constant, seemingly exhausting physicality that leaves him jumping around the Taper stage like a jackrabbit on speed.

Several times, Edelman evokes the memory of the lategreat Robin Williams, including the fact that when ASL-savvy Koko the gorilla was told of the comedian’s passing in 2014, he signed to his handlers that he was genuinely sad. If Koko could “cross the species barrier,” Edelman conjectures, why shouldn’t a “distinctly unfamous” comedian try to connect and try to understand the motives of this Queens-based band of deluded good ol’ boys?

It’s interesting that Edelman should mention Williams and wax nostalgic about the comic legend’s signature genius, because there’s something very similar about what we see unfold on the Taper stage. Not that Edelman’s work is anything directly conjuring his idol’s, only that his delivery is as totally unique and individual to him as Williams’ was to him.

Under the direction of his late decade-long creative partner Adam Brace, who passed away suddenly a few weeks before Just for Us debuted on Broadway, Edelman navigates and almost instantly commands the stage as his own from early on, almost turning cartwheels in excitement on a manic mission to make us all buy into his quirky delivery and understand his passionate, hilarious spin on life. He tells us he was someone who, as a kid, was tested for autism numerous times and how it shocked his mother when doctors found nothing wrong with him.

If ever I felt I was experiencing the first sparks of what will surely be a long and celebrated career, sitting in the audience of Just for Us gave me the sense that theatrical history was in the making before my very eyes.

“Bringing up politics changes the vibe,” he warns us, and although the laughs here are nonstop, the message is crystal clear: without each of us trying to empathize with and be compassionate towards one another in this terrifyingly confusing and brutal world, we’re basically all fucked. This is of course a traditional Jewish concept that, aside from the aggressively twisted machinations of the monster currently leading the state of Israel, is desperately needed right about now.

“As a Los Angeles resident,” Edelman notes, “it’s special that I get to do this show in the place where it was incubated. I performed the show in public for the first time at a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant, Âu Lạc LA, just a two-minute walk away from the Taper, and so to be able to elevate the show from that little café space to the best performing space in Los Angeles is really beautiful to me.”

And it’s an unexpected and incredibly rare treat for us too, to have Just for Us here—although sadly only for such a short run when everyone in our community should see it, both to relieve the tension of our current world situation and to be able to laugh at ourselves and our concerned but too often helpless place in it all.

Alex Edelman definitely feels the love, offering humble thanks to the enthusiastic opening night crowd for coming out and enduring the metal detectors to see him work. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it,” he writes in his program notes, as he relishes the serendipitous opportunity to perform his solo show in a place surrounded by a moat.

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JUST FOR US at the Mark Taper Forum - a second opinion by H.A. Eaglehart

I am in no way a credentialed theatre reviewer like my life partner Travis, although my interest in all things theatrical goes all the way back to college where I majored in theatre and experiential education, the latter of which I can attest to being extremely qualified.

Experiential education is the modern result of men like Viktor Frankl and Kurt Hahn, both of whom used challenge courses and empathy education after World War II to foster outdoor classrooms capable of impacting individuals on a large enough scale to attempt curing society of fascism.

Simon Wiesenthal once said that civilization shall never rid itself of evil but for this reason must educate ourselves and most importantly our children so when fascism raises its ugly head all of us have the intellect to stomp it back into the ground.

Cal State Northridge, City of LA Recreation and Parks, American Jewish University, the Shalom Institute, Camp Ramah, the Santa Barbara Boys and Girls Club's Camp Whittier, San Juan College and Fulcrum Learning Systems all utilize my expertise in one thing: empathy education. British publishing house Incunabula Media is shortly releasing my autobiography Urban Native: The Musings of a Queer Navajo Cowboy in Hollywood, where I attempt to put this life mission into words and next year, Horse Illustrated Magazine will be doing an article about my years of equine therapy work in Griffith Park.

Being part of making experiential education mainstream here in the States has put me on the front of the Woke Wave, an exciting and amazing place to be where I and other professionals are helping define where the woke movement takes us as a species from here. Not only is my work educational for school-age students but is used in law enforcement and military applications dealing with various issues from PTSD to sensitivity training.

Needless to say I cannot tell you how many Friday evenings it has taken great restraint to keep from throwing things at the television listening to Bill Maher deliver derogatory and ugly conjecture about my generation, Millennials, the woke movement, modern education in relation to discipline and grading, and a whole list of other issues for which Maher has zero conceptual pragmatism yet pretends via lots of hot air to be an expert.

Alex Edelman’s Just for Us is a breath of fresh air for me, signifying the coming of age for my generation as millennials are finally old enough to be stepping into pivotal roles governing our society in diverse roles from empathy educators… to comedians. Edelman, who is exactly my own age, performs with a passionate zeal communicating what it's like to be a millennial and it's an energy I know only too well.

From politics to autism, every aspect of Just for Us encourages me with the profound message that there are others like me out there, others who do not use politics to make good things, including the woke movement and empathy education, appear evil, others who don’t take the truth and twist it into something beneficial for themselves.

Alex Edelman stands onstage with nothing except the truth and it gives me hope knowing his message is reaching a global audience.

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EL ULTIMO SUENO DE FRIDA Y DIEGO from the Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

The world has long been fascinated by the bohemian and tumultuous relationship between legendary Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and her lifelong love and nemesis Diego Rivera. There have been numerous books and films detailing their fiery romance and unapologetically non-PC love affair that began with their first meeting in 1928 and ended with her death in 1954. Theirs was an explosive, tumultuous bond that survived many incarnations but remained intact though fraught with rampant much-publicized infidelities and continuous violent confrontations.

“I went to other bodies,” Kahlo explains in this current work to her often distant and notably womanizing husband, “to find you in other arms.” Still, their personal emotional fetters always emerged triumphant not only because of their wildly ardent feelings for each other but could certainly be attributed to their intense respect for one another’s art.

Instead of offering the usual biographical chronicling of the pair’s noisy quarter-century May-December love affair and fervently left-wing political sensibilities, however, Grammy-winning classical composer Gabriela Lena Frank and playwright Nilo Cruz (Pulitzer Prize-honored for Anna and the Tropics) have joined together in their gorgeous and bold equally counterculture opera El último sueño de Frida y Diego (The Last Dream of Frida and Diego) to deliver a passionate, magical, brilliantly colorful retelling of their story.

Initially unfolding during an all-too mortal but grandly depicted Dia de Los Muertos celebration that travels from a flower and skull strewn graveyard on to a folklore-inspired presentment of the Aztec conception of the underworld called Mictlan, their inspired vision is a kind of reverse Orpheus and Eurydice tale as the terminally ill Rivera (celebrated Mexican baritone Alfredo Daza) begs the skeletal La Catrina, Keeper of the Dead (Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez) to let his late wife return for one single night to help him inspire his blocked ability to create his art.

Frida (Argentinian mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack) has other ideas. It’s said the 47-year-old Kahlo’s real last thoughts written in her diary just before she died were that she “happily awaits the exit and hopes to never return again,” which has inspired Cruz to mirror those sentiments as the opera’s heroine insists she has no interest in returning to the trauma and disappointments of our physical plane. “How do I create my absence?” she plaintively asks Catrina. “How do I return and let my feet create the world?”

There is nothing about this brave and unexpectedly breakaway opera that doesn’t reflect the lives and rule-defying nature of the lives of its celebrated celebrants, from Frank’s astringent and continually thrilling score that evokes a little Bartok, a bit of Benjamin Britten, a hint of Miguel del Aguila, and perhaps even an occasional echo of Elmer Bernstein, to Cruz’s intensely poetic and gossamer libretto, and on to the artistry of the phenomenal design team energizing the production.

Jorge Balina’s many fanciful deep blue and brilliantly orange ever-changing sets burst with color and familiar Mexican folk-art images beautifully lit by Victor Zapatero, while costumer Eloise Kazan provides the production’s most excitingly imaginative and whimsical designs. In one unforgettably scene, several different living versions of Kahlo’s own well-known tortured self-portraits appear onstage in their own oversized frames underneath five brightly decorated hearts, complete with bloody arrows piercing the chest of one and another encased in twisting and confining vines. “Do they still call me the painter with the brush of agony?” Frida asks her husband at one point and this striking visual tableaux seems to serve as her wordless answer.

The visual splendor of is El último sueño undeniable, sweepingly accentuated by equally innovative director Lorena Maza’s fiercely kinetic staging of the ensemble populated by the dynamic 26-member La Opera Chorus under the direction of Jeremy Frank.

Lina Gonzalez-Granados conducts the LAO Orchestra with the same intense passion and reverence for the material, commanding the musicians and performers as though everyone involved in the production is under the otherworldly spell of two of the 21st century’s most important and controversial visual artists.

Mack, Daza, and Martinez couldn’t be more impressive as gifted worldclass opera singers and also for their deeply conjured performances as actors, as is the appearance of countertenor Key’mon W. Murrah who as a deceased crossdressing actor with a special worship for Greta Garbo, brings an extraordinary seven-octave vocal sorcery to the role that falls somewhere between Yma Sumac and Sylvester.

As a longtime aficionado of the incredible body of work gifted to our culturally deprived reclaimed desert climes by the Los Angeles Opera, I have to say El último sueño de Frida y Diego might be my favorite production I’ve ever seen presented by the prestigious and prolific company.

The intense lyricism blended with blatant stridency of the composition created by Gabriela Lena Frank immediately signals watching as her career soars to what I believe will be astronomical heights, combining sinuous solos and complicated orchestrations written for flutes, piccolos, and even the marimba. Still, although the multi-award-winning composer takes risks never before taken even in contemporary opera, it's Nino Cruz’s expressive and yet accessible libretto that ultimately might be the most fascinating thing of all here.

Without opera’s usual repetitive lyrics utilized to serve the music, Cruz manages to compliment the score while creating a thought-provoking treatise on the fragility of life as we know it, particularly as Kahlo and Rivera’s lives are juxtaposed with the ever-present oppressed townspeople and peasants played by the massive LAO chorus. “The poor are created by disdain,” Cruz notes. “They are invisible... like the dead.” Even beyond this unique accomplishment, the great modern dramatist movingly explores the ephemeral nature of art and how often our creative output is influenced and brought to life by our emotional state—especially by love and by the specter of loss.

You know, the human stuff artists throughout time have desperately attempted to share in an effort to make sense of it all.

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LIFE SUCKS.  from Interact Theatre Company at the Broadwater

Over the past couple of decades, Aaron Posner has been recipient of nearly every award a theatremaker could possibly receive except, oddly, those illusive New York honors. He first burst into the American regional theatre scene as a director but his true calling has proven to be his work as a dramatist—and in that role, he will one day soon be recognized as one of the greatest playwrights of our time.

From his notable adaptations of Chaim Potok’s novels The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev to his brilliant reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, retitled District Merchants: An Uneasy Comedy and set in Washington DC post-Civil War during the Reconstruction period, Posner is a master at finding the throughline between great period literature and our current mess of an era.

Nowhere has the quirky signature genius of Posner been more on display, however, then in his rethinking of the enduring work of that brooding late-19th century master Anton Chekhov, who chronicled the communal angst and often ridiculous introspections of fickle, somewhat aimless upperclass gentry desperately trying to navigate the “new order” then rapidly transforming post-Czarist Russia.

It is said when Chekhov’s first play The Seagull premiered at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1898, two years after the former short story writer renounced the theatre in general due to the critical reception he received when it debuted elsewhere, he stormed out of the theatre in disgust because he felt the audience and its director, Konstantin Stanislavsky himself, didn’t get his humor. By the time he wrote his last play, The Cherry Orchard, in 1903, he insisted adding A Comedy in Four Acts below the title.

Chekhov was disheartened when people saw his works as tragedies rather than finding the subtle but biting humor, whereas Posner’s reworkings of three of his four classic plays present just the opposite: audiences are charmed and laugh openly at the silly, deluded characters and their mostly self-inflicted contemporary weltschmerz. It’s only on the drive home where the author’s message detailing of the sadness of unrequited love, the avoidable calamity of self-hatred, and the universal despair we all feel in an impossibly dysfunctional time where societal redemption might at this point never come, hits you right upside the head.

This is especially true of his 2015 adaptation of Uncle Vanya, the appropriately titled Life Sucks., which won the Theatre Alliance Award for Best Play in 2020 and has finally reached our parched desert climes in a sparkling, worldclass production from Interact Theatre Company now playing at the Broadwater.

As with the playwright’s companion pair of equally cleverly evocative Chekhovian updates, 2013’s Stupid Fucking Bird (The Seagull) and 2017’s No Sisters (Three Sisters), his mini-epic Life Sucks. features a woebegone group of semi-related adults wandering aimlessly around a big old house (on Evan A. Bartoletti’s wonderfully evocative yet sufficiently breezy set) ruminating about “Life, life, life” and wondering what their place and purpose in it might be.

As director Barry Heins’ stellar troupe of veteran actors enter and stand in a line facing the audience in a traditionally Posner-esque direct address, the Professor (Steve Vinovich) lays it all out for us, explaining that the play “transpires in four distinct acts, just like Chekhov’s original far superior play.” After some pushback from the others about that distinction, his young trophy wife Ella (Erin Pineda), described as the world’s sexiest ocelot, adds, “Most of it is going to be about love and longing.”

His niece Sonia (Olivia Castanho) disagrees that’s all the play will have to say but her Uncle Vanya (John Ross Bowie) chimes in. “Pretty much,” he tells us, “so you can’t say you haven’t been warned.”

After some further bantering and disagreement, the Professor elaborates: “It’s also about the audacious, ludicrous, and protean nature of the obstreperous and always-feckless human heart.”

“Well,” family friend Dr. Aster (Marc Valera) sighs, “this is off to a lovely start.”

And so it goes in Posner’s delightfully skewed world, a place perhaps even scarily familiar to many of us as we still work diligently to try to crawl out unscathed from under our individual pandemic-flattened rocks where assimilating back into our fragile society and find a satisfying place to exist and prosper in it can still be a challenge.

The seven individuals stuck together in the grand old house passed down to Sonia by her mother and ex-wife of the Professor, ramble around and whine incessantly to each other and to us about their miserable lot in life, something in lesser hands than those of Posner (or ol’ Anton) could be stupefying or even numbing.

Thankfully, the writer’s quick wit and unique ability to offer continuous self-deprecating wise-assed jokes and to smoothly link the elements of Chekhov’s timeless themes and express them with nonstop contemporary references, has just the opposite effect: never once does the piece descend into the tedious. World-weariness here is immensely entertaining.

There are also a welcome pair of characters who, although facing their own trials and tribulations, provide some well-needed respite from the perpetual ennui pouring from the mouths of their five castmates.

Anne Gee Byrd provides a breather from the dark clouds of agony expressed by the others as Babs, a potter and former friend of Sonia’s late mother who, like so many Chekhovian characters, seems to have moved into the house lock, stock, and pottery wheel while Lily Rains as the also ever-present and uncharacteristically sunny family friend Pickles, who lives above the garage, proves that even her own passion for Ella, the object of most everyone else’s carnal desires, can somehow be refreshing in its hopelessness.

Quite simply, this dynamic cast joins the ranks of the many, many others who have so amazingly energized some of the demanding material delivered on stages across the Southland this year—particularly in the last few months—and they have easily jumped to the very top of my list of ongoing Best Ensemble candidates in my annual TicketHolder Awards at the end of the year.

Surely this is due to the incredible talent serendipitously assembled by Heins and the folks at the prolific 31-year-old Interact but, quite honestly, their success here must also be attributed to Posner’s consummate ability to create dialogue that would make any actor eager to just plain be there to say his words.

As a grateful member of the Ovation-honored ensemble cast of the LA debut of his Stupid Fucking Bird at the Boston Court in 2014, I must admit this arrestingly gifted wordsmith’s ability to create speeches that flow rhythmically, dispute their own natural halts and grabs at proper wordage, is a dream for anyone cast as one of his characters.

This is not said to diminish the cast of Life Sucks., by any means, just that Posner creates the perfect environment for performers to be brilliant, as they are here bigtime.

Early on, Pickles ruminates about the continuous jumble of issues stuffed into the first 20 minutes of the piece’s playtime. “You do know this play is called Life Sucks., right?” she reminds Sonia. “Do you think that’s right?”

“Oh, Pickles,” her hostess replies, “it’s not even the end of Act One.”

The play runs long, a usually ominous two-and-a-half hours, but I defy you to find anyone in the audience looking at their watch or caught having a little darkened theatre nod-out. Aaron Posner’s incredibly crafty deference to the original source material and his continuous rush of fascinating and often insightful conversations and periodic soliloquies delivered by virtually every character in Life Sucks., might ironically leave you wishing for another hour of Chekhovian-inspired self-inflicted pain and suffering.

Life, life, life, right?

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THE BARBER OF SEVILLE from the Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

I felt a little guilty—not to mention pedestrian—that the first image that popped into my mind when invited to the opening of LA Opera’s mounting of Gioachino Rossini’s enduring 207-year-old masterwork The Barber of Seville was that of Bugs Bunny shaving Elmer Fudd.

Imagine my relief opening the program to see conductor Louis Lohraseb’s production notes begin by mentioning just that, Warner Brothers’ famous 1950 Looney Tunes short Rabbit of Seville—as well as evoking the image of Robin Williams singing Figaro’s first aria “Largo al factotum” in Mrs. Doubtfire or opera great Robert Merrill pretending to be an ordinary barber on an old Candid Camera.

The point is, Rossini’s 1816 opera buffa remains one of the most well-known of any composition in his massive body of work, not only for its magnificent score but for being one of the funniest classic operas of all time.

Based on the 1775 French comedy Le Barbier de Seville by Pierre Beaumarchais, the opera’s original premiere at Teatro Argentina in Rome was a total fiasco. Fueled by an audience partially consisting of supporters of a rival of Rossini who believed the work was plagiarized from his own, the jeers and boos, compounded by a series of onstage accidents, made the opening a total disaster.

Like the initial reaction to Beaumarchais’ French play, however, Rossini’s version quickly turned the tide, soon becoming a huge success and through the years one of the most popular staples in the world’s most beloved operatic repertoire.

This current mounting of librettist Cesare Serbini’s delightfully comedic romantic romp, full of mistaken identities and inopportune entrances, has a pedigree fitting LA Opera, one of the nation’s largest and prestigious opera companies. Staged by Tony and Olivier-winner Ron Ashford (director of hits including Frozen, Evita, and many more Broadway hits) and conducted by Lohraseb, an exciting young talent whose energetic and spirited physicality is as much fun to watch as the goings-on onstage, the pedigree could not be more impressive here and the principal cast is uniformly golden.

Baritone Joshua Hopkins is a delight as Figaro, the wheeling-dealing barber in question who also doubles as a valet, a doctor, a matchmaker and, judging from his entourage of adoring young maidens of the court who follow him around, is obviously also a most successful cocksman himself.

Tenor Edgardo Rocha is impressive as Figaro’s dashing master, the noble Count Almaviva, a man who’s willing to do anything, including donning various disguises, to win the hand of the lovely Rosina, a role splendidly sung and acted by noted mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard.

Rosina is the charge of stuffy old Dr. Bartolo, who is keeping her all but prisoner in his villa until she comes of age and he can marry her himself. As played by international bass-baritone bel canto and opera buffo specialist Paolo Bordogna, the role proves the most hilarious contributor of all to this wonderful Barber. There’s a little Fellini clown and a lot of Commedia dell’arte master in the work of Bordogna, who brings down the house with his physical comedy and expert mustache-twirling villainy.

Soprano Kathleen O’Mara is a major standout as Berta, Dr. Bartolo’s maid who observes the household’s behavior with the eye of an amazed and slightly bemused observer, while bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni is hilarious as Rosina’s tutor Don Basilio, who I’d love to see cast as Ichabod in Robert Milne’s up-and-coming 2009 American opera reinvention of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Everything about this production is grandly mounted, from costumes by multiple Tony-winner Catherine Zuber and gorgeously atmospheric and eventually stormy lighting by Pablo Santiago based on Howard Harrison’s original design.

Still, for me personally, since I was still literally suffering from jet lag on opening night from my recent whirlwind teaching tour of Madrid and Barcelona, Scott Pask’s evocative set design was one of the most impressive highlights of the production, with towering Spanish arches and delicate wrought iron accents that immediately transported me directly back to my unforgettable time in Espana.

We Angelenos could not be more fortunate to have an entity as dynamic and dedicated to the arts as the LA Opera working and thriving in our culture-challenged former desert climes and this worldclass presentation of Rossini’s indelible The Barber of Seville, the current tenant of the majestic Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, could not be a more perfect example of their inestimable worth to us all.

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HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING from Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre

For the sake of my mental health and blood pressure, I have made a conscious effort to eliminate from my life those rabid rightwing conservatives in general and frighteningly clueless Trump supporters in particular, so the concept of sitting captive in a darkened theatre listening to such deluded folks rant and rave initially kept me from responding to cover the LA premiere of Heroes of the Fourth Turning at the Matrix.

The stunned positive reaction to the production, along with the fact that Will Arbery’s play was a Pulitzer finalist and that it’s being presented by the ever-courageous Rogue Machine directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos made me reconsider, albeit not without a heap of trepidation.

I’m too old, too damn tired, and constantly feeling defeated after a long life spent fiercely fighting for justice and equality, especially when the election of an IQ-challenged, ego-driven conman as the leader of the western world made me snap awake to how blind I’d been for years living in our insular left-coast bubble and not realizing how many Morlocks are still crawling out of the primordial ooze in the parts of A’murka I basically only fly over.

It’s a major understatement to say my disappointment with the current backsliding state of our species has made me more intolerant than I’m proud to admit, so putting myself through two intermissionless hours forced to listen to ultra-conservative blatter onstage wasn’t easy for me. Thankfully I did, however, as Arbery’s bold and unbending Heroes is one of the most important and intriguing productions to be mounted in LA this year, hopefully soaring to the top of every list when it comes to award consideration at the end of the year.

Featuring a knockout cast appearing as a group of longtime friends and graduates of a small conservative Catholic college in a town of 7,000 in western Wyoming who gather in a backyard to celebrate the inauguration of the mother of one of them as the school’s new president (played by the phenomenal Roxanne Hart), the play’s opening scene immediately warns its audience it might become even more difficult to sit through than already anticipated.

As Justin (the Marlboro Man-like Stephen Tyler Howell, who could follow Toby Keith as spokesperson for the Wounded Warrior Project) sits silently alone on the back porch of his rustic cabin, a rustling in the woods makes him stealthily grab his hunting rifle and fire on a huge buck, the subsequent scene proving to possibly be even more disturbing than the teenage girls’ emotionless dispatching of a feral cat in the Douglas’ current Our Dear Dead Drug Lord that made more than one patron admit to nearly bolting for the exit.

It’s as though Arbery is saying, “If you think this is hard to watch, just wait,” and honestly, when the lights come up on the second scene, it doesn’t take long to wonder who the real monster is in his tale of people whose deeply held beliefs are even more upsetting than something that could make any animal lover squirm.

The time is August, 2017, a week after the notorious Charlottesville riots that should have better alerted us what to expect some three years later when the same misled asswipes tarnished the image of democracy forever.

Teresa (Evangeline Edwards), the seemingly put-together alpha of the group, is elated and emboldened by believing her like-minded troglodytes are ready to take up arms for their cause, something suggested in William Strauss and Neil Howe’s 1997 book The Fourth Turning, which chronicles the authors’ belief that, over the past four centuries, we have gone through four definite cyclic generational transformations.

Strauss and Howe propounded the culminating fourth shift would happen from 2005 to 2020 and would send our country into a secular crisis that only “heroes” like Teresa—and her personal guru Steve Bannon, who championed the book—could make right again, even if it meant going to war to bring western civilization back to following the conservative Christian ideals they always mistakenly insist our country was founded upon.

“We’re in danger of being culturally lobotomized,” Teresa sermonizes early on in the proceedings, and she believes Donald Trump has “come to save us all,” a statement so full of triggers that, after several previous performances, Edwards and her costars have learned to pause and wait for the delayed reaction of their gobsmacked audience.

The skewed ideology of Arbery’s characters would be impossible to buy if delivered by five lesser actors. This striking ensemble, under Cienfuego’s sturdy and obviously uncompromising direction, rises above and deftly overcomes the script’s stereotypical behavior that could be deadly in less talented hands.

Teresa is the scariest of the five comrades, resembling an intelligent Lauren Boebert who‘s surprised that being called Machiavellian was “said like it’s a bad thing.” Edwards gives a creepily convincing performance that’s chilling to behold—chilling that she can smoothly make us accept someone so bright could actually buy into the twisted things she expounds.

The most memorable moments in Heroes come from the volatile clash between Edwards as Teresa and the remarkable Hart as Gina, the nurturing lifelong academic who, although a straight-on immobile conservative, slowly realizes how shocking and dangerous her former student’s views have become. She eventually loses her professional cool and shocks herself when she accuses Teresa of “whoring yourself to popular opinion.” Gina is written with a quickly evolving character shift that Hart delivers with dazzling expertise.

Emily James is heartbreaking as her bedridden daughter, whose frailty does not stop her from expressing her disapproval of Teresa’s nonstop vitriol, her arguments leading her uber-confident sparring partner to lament that “Nobody knows how to debate anymore”—that is to say if the other person isn’t listening to and agreeing with her.

Howell is so convincing, so quietly compelling as a stiff-backed countrified redneck that it’s hard to imagine what a gifted actor he must be to play such a standard manly good ol’ boy-in-training until Justin’s stoic exterior begins to unravel and it’s clear he has sincere doubts about what’s being sermonized to those gathered.

The most arresting performance comes from Samuel Garnett as the friends’ weakest link, the lost and troubled Kevin, someone Teresa continues to tease is “just a pale American soy boy.”

As a guy with loser written all over him who woefully observes, “Everything’s so nice it’s stressful!” and finds his own lack of personal commitment so grim he drinks himself into tossing his lunch into the campfire, Garnett is simply astounding. He delivers an incredibly brave, jaw-droppingly quirky and risky turn that heralds a truly original actor whose career it'll be interesting to watch emerge.

Still, with all this talent from a cast sure to win awards, led by a brilliant director and with the contribution of a crew of dynamic designers, it’s Will Arbery’s fascinating and alarming script that steals the show, delivering a treatise as only someone himself raised by conservative Catholic educators who taught in a similar school in Wyoming and held the same persuasive yet wretched viewpoint could. He’s had Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign jingle stuck in his head since childhood and felt the need to explore and sort out the “poetic, passionate, and nuanced” beliefs his family pounded into his head—and to do it with empathy.

“Isn’t the stage a platform for its characters, and isn’t a platform a tacit endorsement?” he asks, “or is my play somehow a condemnation? Where do I end and the characters begin? I can call this a fly-on-the-wall experience, or an exercise in patience, or a symposium. But to be honest, I think I’m after something a little more dangerous.”

Dangerous indeed is Heroes of the Fourth Turning—dangerous, disquieting, and incredibly thought-provoking. Like Trump, Bannon, Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and their zombie army, the coolly treacherous Teresa is the most frightening self-proclaimed hero of this particular fourth turning, someone so sure of her drastically backward convictions that the rest of us are all in continuous potential peril.

When Emily tells Teresa she’s sorry about her mother going off on her, she cheerfully answers, “Don’t be… that was fun.” It seems the true thinkers in our society are the people who sometimes reconsider and wonder if they should reexamine their opinions and beliefs. It’s the zealots who are convinced they are right and are without question the chosen people.

But be reassured: by the end of Will Arbery’s outstanding but unnerving Heroes of the Fourth Turning, each and every character—even Teresa—realizes he or she has no real emotional connection with any of the others.

That’s the consequences of hate, I guess.

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BISEXUAL SADNESS at the Road Theatre Company

The first production of the Road Theatre Company’s 33rd season is something special for a myriad of reasons, particularly since India Kotis’ Bisexual Sadness was developed over the last several years within the company’s ambitious playwright development program called Under Construction.

Kotis writes she “deeply believes in people’s ability to understand each other. I will die on that hill every time. Such understanding takes time, trust, effort, and imagination. It involves risk. It takes courage. Contexts of our material world are always a factor and sometimes stuff gets in the way.”

I’ve been reviewing theatre for 36 years and I could easily spend my time here criticizing a production that, despite its obvious most heartfelt and admirable intentions, is not quite ready for primetime. Kotis’ play, though potentially incredibly important, still has its rough edges yet also introduces an arresting new voice in today’s rather anemic and too often intensely preachy American theatre.

Kotis addresses something never before dealt with onstage as far as I know: the thorny issue of how someone who had been in a same-sex relationship deals with the world around them when suddenly finding love with someone of the opposite sex.

I know from personal experience how difficult such a development can be and how unforgiving friends and comrades in the queer community often become when faced with such a change in another person’s direction. It’s a kind of reverse prejudice that to me always seemed bizarre from people who have spent so many lifetimes suffering themselves under the thumb of discrimination and injustice.

In Bisexual Sadness, a young doctor named Faye (Liz Faning, alternating with Tiffany Wolff in this double-cast production) feels such discomfort, but much of it is self-inflicted, feeling as though she’s losing her identity and the acceptance she has cherished from the lesbian community. As she plans for her upcoming marriage to Alex, a great guy (Philip Smithey, alternating with Brian Graves) who as written is something of a milquetoast, she is torn between her love for him and the cultural electricity she enjoyed from her former relationship with another woman (Bex Taylor-Klaus / Alaska Jackson).

The trouble here is that Kotis’ story, although topical and intensely thought-provoking, doesn’t really go anywhere. Nothing is resolved, really, especially for the peripheral characters of Faye’s bigger-than-life neurotic sister (Amy Tolsky / Karrie King) and her angst-ridden teenage daughter (Naomi Rubin / Gloria Ines), someone facing a major identity crisis of her own. These characters could easily spawn a new play of their own that hopefully could unravel their own issues more satisfactorily.

And when it comes to the future of Faye’s relationship with Alex as the play wraps up far too neatly, after everything that has happened, I wanted to yell out to him from the darkened house, “RUN!”,  so I must have been at least somewhat engaged.

Now, despite these rather considerable druthers, Kotis is a master at writing fluid and believable dialogue, yet her ability to present more fully dimensional and less stereotypical characters, as well as create reasonable character arcs for them that the actors and director Carlyle King can sink their talents into, is still to come. I have no doubt, however, that this will happen; Kotis is a writer with a definite future as her work seasons and matures.

Beyond everything not living up to its potential here, the playwright’s message is still effective. My partner Hugh (who writes professionally as H.A. Eaglehart) works with children and teens in experiential education and is continuously faced with young people who, in our stepped-up and always evolving society, are dealing with discovering who they are and how to navigate the mess of a world in which we live.

Hugh was moved by Bisexual Sadness in a unique way that others may not have experienced:

“The true story here would be the Road having the courage to give the power of voice to this play,” he wrote. “Being heard changes everything because the power of validation is profound. Bisexual Sadness remains true to its name throughout the entire 80 minutes with no intermission. Kotis truly captures the chaos of modernity descending into the sadness of post-colonialism to the point you wonder if there's a reason behind everything on stage, including life. Focusing on the lines you can't keep from being touched hearing the youngest character in the play who has recently claimed ‘they/them’ as their pronouns. They share their realization with the audience about nobody on stage being truly happy. They wishes someone were to allow them an opportunity to aspire towards joy.

“I'm in a unique position where I get to work with hundreds of thousands of kids every year. Talk about keeping one’s culture alive through walking instead of talking. Traditional ancient Navajo men were considered fathers to all children not just their biological offspring. Maybe we would care a lot more about this planet if more people were like Navajo. One of the many unheard voices this play champions is the chaos of sexual complexity. There are parents across this country struggling with the chaos of modernity and this play attempts to tell a bit of their story as well. I will say as somewhat of a professional in early human development, unconditional love goes a long way in a complex world no longer held back by the toxic simplicities of religiously dominated societies.

“You realize after curtaincall this play wasn't written to please the sometimes pretentious nature of theatre. Kotis thanks the Road for giving her highly intelligent voice a platform to tell a story about a new height in human awareness. Navajo have accepted sexual complexity for hundreds of years, which is why it is important for our culture to remain alive. Ancient Navajo treated Two Spirit people with respect yet today it is beyond people’s ability to get pronouns correct let alone including respect when they are said. This lack of communal uniformity explains so many of the problems both on and off stage. Navajo have a lot to offer modernity's infancy, especially kids like the youngest character whose mother never can get their pronoun correct though not out of a lacking in parental love but simply as an exhausted mother reeling from divorce and a collapsing planet attempting to understand an aspect of ourselves not allowed to exist in North America since before European colonialism.

“Kotis clearly understands kids today because many lines in the play truly captured things I hear kids saying every day. The youthful despair in the unanimous sadness on stage is a story this world needs to see and reflect upon. All children deserve family. American family is quite literally being destroyed by our festering hate evaporating all love from our baking planet."

India Kotis writes in the program for the Road’s world premiere of her intriguing new play, “When push comes to shove, I believe that a huge part of the human project is to stand in the muck and struggle to see each other as we really are. That is the labor—maybe the labor of love.”

Here lies the true grit and wonder of Bisexual Sadness—not to mention the realization that we can all experience being present at the very beginning of what will surely be a most impressive career.

[Oh, and speaking of impressive new writing careers, my partner Hugh's second book, Urban Native: The Musings of a Queer Navajo Cowboy in Hollywood, will be available from my own publisher,, in the next few weeks.]

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THE TRAVELERS from the Latino Theater Company at the LATC

Entering the Los Angeles Theatre Center for the LA premiere of Luis Alfaro’s The Travelers, Tanya Orellana’s starkly surreal set, featuring candlelit mounds of dirt, delicate twinkling chandeliers, as well as a rust-stained bathtub and matching toilet, all accompanied by Joan Osato’s arresting nature-oriented rear projections, immediately lets you know you’re in for a ride.

True to its title, The Travelers debuted last winter at San Francisco’s gloriously prolific Magic Theatre and, after a celebrated run there, has now been remounted at LATC under the auspices of the Latino Theatre Company featuring the original cast and creative team.

The first thing to know about any play by Alfaro, whose indissolubly Chicano-centric work falls somewhere between Beckett and Steinbeck with a little Bukowski thrown in, is that the guy doesn’t let you sit back and enjoy that aforementioned ride; you have to sit up, keep your hands at 10 and 2, and stay sharply focused.

Developed within the auspices of the Magic’s Campo Santo performance group and written with these particular actors in mind, The Travelers is a haunting, richly evocative journey of discovery about the inequities of religious devotion, about the complex vulnerabilities of our fragile species and, created by Alfaro during the height of the pandemic, about how isolation can permanently alter and even destroy the human spirit.

Predatory birds soar and giant coyotes prowl in the brush on Osato ‘s omnipresent projections as a nearly naked young man (Ogie Zulueta), who has been lying motionless behind the tub from the moment the audience is let into LATC’s cavernous, naturally musty, equally surreal Tom Bradley Theatre, is lowered into the bathtub and four shadowy figures move into place at the front of the stage.

As if in a ritualistic dance, under director Catherine Castellanos’ intensely collaborative stylistic staging, the players (Daniel Duque-Estrada, Guillermo Yiyo Orneles, Kinan Valdez, and Sean San Jose) strip off their street clothes and don tattered monastic robes, cinching them with rope belts, lifting their hoods over their heads to limn anonymity and, finally, fingering long wooden rosary beads in perfect unison.

Suddenly, the quiet and lyrical dreamscape accented by Grisel Torres’ chimerical lighting and Christopher Sauceda’s atmospheric sound plot is shattered by the offstage screams of a terrified intruder (Juan Manual Amador) who intrudes upon their meditative state bleeding profusely and in obvious pain.

The unexpected guest has been shot but never once does that interfere with the hospitality of Brother Santo (San Jose, who has also restaged the play for LA audiences), the leader of their mysterious band whose actions are guided by the convictions of his tiny 936-year-old Carthusian Order despite the fact that their Archdiocese has cut the monks off both financially and spiritually.

The other three Brothers are less willing to take the man in, especially when their own resources have been so drastically reduced in their dilapidated monastery in Grangeville, California on the Central Coast, a desolate place populated mostly by itinerant farm workers with a population in the 2020 census of 324—obviously not exactly a cornucopia of agricultural abundance. 

Juan quickly becomes Brother Juan and reluctantly joins their order, never quite content with his new lifestyle nor comfortable with having to take a shit on the onstage toilet with Brother Ogie looking on from his forever home in that excessively unappealing-looking bathtub.

Ogie, it seems, lives fulltime there since he has no use of his lower extremities and has been stuck there for his entire life, the origins of his sad existence unraveled as the story progresses. He blithely accepts his diminished capacities to the point where, when the poop-challenged Juan calls him disabled, he is puzzled because he’s never heard that word before.

This dedicated Bay Area team is almost completely uniformly astonishing, with the exception of one overly theatricalized and presentational performance that could be easily subdued with a little cautionary guidance from someone not distracted by his own performance, impressive as that itself might be.

Everyone involved is clearly willing to walk through hot coals and follow Alfaro wherever he chooses to lead them, with particular nods to Valdez as the fiery Brother Nacho and Zulueta as the highly breakable Ogie, a quietly indispensable character who is recognizably the spokesperson for delivering Alfaro’s most reassuring message.

These are heartbreakingly lonely, emotionally unavailable, confused individuals, men whose personal crises of both religious faith and ideological doubts about what this silly life means have overpowered their lives. Yet just when you think Alfaro has terminally erased any hope for the future of mankind, the naive and sheltered Ogie, lifelong resident of his filthy old clawfoot tub, delivers a brilliantly gossamer and lyrical monologue explaining from his perspective the nature of human emotion and the profundity of love.

Like Alfaro, at least one of his characters never quite gives up hope.

I do think this jarringly honest, otherwise nearly perfect production is hampered by staging Amador's uncomfortable attempt to sit on the toilet with his (onstage) audience of one looking on without dropping his pants or by costuming Zulueta in black swimtrunks rather than presenting the character as naked and bold as the play's themes and dialogue demand, both things that for me were glaring distractions that undermine the courage and raw artistry found everywhere else in the production.

The impressive and highly stylistic body of work created by the Pico-Union born and bred playwright, a true LA treasure whose plays such as the classically inspired Electricidad and Oedipus El Rey have been performed extensively here and all over the country, are intensely idiosyncratic and unapologetically theatrical, something in the hands of less gifted artists could be difficult for an audience to grasp. Alfaro's hands-on participation in the creative process from the first rehearsals at the Magic to this current incarnation at LATC looms over the play like a seventh character.

In fact, in Alfaro’s near-daily addictive online journals chronicling his daily life accessible to people such as Yours Truly who are proud to call him a friend, he mentioned the day of the play’s opening here in its second city that he was still doing a Tennessee Williams and rewriting the piece right up to curtain time.

“It’s been an amazing week,” he admitted. “Wrestling with ideas. Making changes. Shifting rhythms. New lines. New intentions. Pure transformation. Moving as an ensemble. Breathing together.”

How I wish Luis would add a wandering geriatric non-Spanish-speaking Danish Jew to his work sometime in the future before I croak, as I’d give my left you-know-what to be a fly on the wall and watch an amazing work of art such as The Travelers leap from the page to such glorious fruition on opening night.

Seeing it materialize and ripen into performance level must be the experience of a lifetime, which is why artists as brave and visionary as Castellanos, San Jose, and folks at the Magic and Latino Theater Company, as well as this dynamic cast whose characters are respectfully baptized with their own names, are drawn to the project with such obvious reverence and unswerving faith in its McArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship Award-honored creator.

In a fair world, Luis Alfaro, who has unswervingly shared with the world so much of his culture, his dreams, and his disappointments in his prolific career, will one day be recognized as the poetic protégé of Federico Garcia-Lorca and our current generation’s most August Wilson-like chronicler of the modernday Chicano experience in America.

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MEASURE STILL FOR MEASURE at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center

In my 36 years writing theatre criticism I’ve praised directors many, many times, but I don’t think I ever began a review with a testimonial to one.

It was 20 years ago when, as still a member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, we awarded Jessica Kubzansky with the Margaret Harford Lifetime Achievement Award for Sustained Excellence in Theatre. At the podium, Kubzansky was sufficiently humble accepting her honor, but also quipped that it was a little concerning to her that she should be recognized for lifetime achievement at such an early stage of what she hoped would be a long and healthy association with creating theatre.

Kubzansky is today renowned as one of the best American directors working in our theatrically-challenged times, as well as being a stalwart leader in keeping the faith as Artistic Director of the Boston Court Performing Arts Center in Pasadena—also for the past 20 years.

I have been fortunate enough to be cast at B/C several times over the years, including in Charles Mee’s gloriously audacious Summertime, which helped kick off their courageously adventurous debut season and establish that the place would be taking no prisoners.

Nowhere I’ve ever worked has been more supportive to actors and other collaborators than B/C, a gracious artistic home where Kubzansky and her original co-Artistic Director Michael Michetti made it clear from the very beginning that their Quixote-esque mission would be to herald daring new plays and playwrights and not pander to what would guarantee to sell tickets.

Full circle: As the grand finale of the Boston Court’s 20th season of taking no prisoners and presenting a staggering 38 world premieres, not only is Jessica Kubzansky the director of the outlandishly risky site-specific interactive Measure STILL for Measure, it also marks her auspicious debut as author of her first full-length play.

Based on Shakespeare’s… well, you know… Measure STILL for Measure is a unique and spectacularly innovative production, sweeping us all into the backstage drama of a cast in rehearsal for the original #METOO classic as the audience follows the actors into various areas of the wonderfully appointed B/C complex, from the lobby to the parking lot to the 80-seat rehearsal/black box/music space to the dressing and green rooms, finally leading us to the main stage to watch the company rehearse a day before their first designer run.

Kubzansky’s remarkable play craftily mirrors its original 420-year-old inspiration, a classic work which has always been categorized mainly as one of the Bard’s comedies typically rife with disguise and substitution as plot devices. Still, I’ve always felt there was a deeper and more important message foreshadowed in the play that was far more serious, something that MS4M’s “play-within-the-play” addresses without facing the ominous ever-present political and bureaucratic scrutiny Shakespeare had to stealthily avoid during his time.

Just as her counterpart Isabella, Bukola Ogunmola as Donna, the actor playing the role in an upcoming production of Measure for Measure, is faced with a moral and spiritual crisis, struggling to keep her honor intact while dealing with her brilliant but subtly opportunistic and sexually inappropriate director (Rob Beitzel).

Switching from playwright to director, Kubzansky does a phenomenal job moving her actors around the Boston Court complex as though they were pawns on a giant chessboard, a skill that could not require a more disciplined artistic vision. Having worked myself in such an environmental presentation, playing Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula: House of Besarab at the cavernous deco-gothic Hollywood American Legion Hall in Hollywood, the place where the similar interactive and groundbreaking Tamara held court for 11 years, I have an enormous respect for anyone who can manage to keep such a production gliding along without a hitch.

In this case, the audience is divided into the Blue Group and the Red Group who, after the initial scenes played all around them in the theatre’s lobby and parking lot, go their separate ways to hear different actors deliver their own version of what’s happening in the rehearsal process.

Certainly, Kubzansky is blessed with a precision veteran cast, each actor manifestly able to keep the timing and action of the piece flowing perfectly. On opening night, some of the performers were slightly more successful than others at visually “painting within the lines,” so to speak, as the company navigates the crowded lobby (without the best acoustics for such a task) to individually relate their portion of the tale with a natural ease and without pushing just a tad too far.

Leo Marks as Sam and Dinah Lenney as Mary, the actors rehearsing to play the dastardly Angelo and the noble Escalus, respectively, as well as Desiree Mee Jung as the production’s suitably hop-to-it stage manager, prove best at smoothly overcoming the space and dealing with the proximity of the audience members packed around them, never conveying the sense that they are performing but instead simply living their roles.

That’s not to say the others are not capable of settling into such a comfortable spot as easily as they do when the play transfers to the main stage, only that it might take a little longer to be totally comfortable in their characters’ skins as patrons sip their Aperol Spritzes and chomp down on their chocolate chip cookies only inches from their conversations.

There’s nothing more exciting than creating new theatre from scratch—especially a work as challenging and open for interpretation as MS4M—and there’s simply nothing better than being right smackdab in the middle of a highly electrified rehearsal process. Unless they’re paying me the big bucks and/or sending me off to incredible places to visit, I personally tend to find the biggest thrill is watching the elements of a great play magically come together. Theatre and film history have shown that audiences are always eager to experience for themselves the backstage drama and machinations of bringing a play or other work of art to glorious life, which alone makes this heartfelt and idiosyncratic production something not to be missed.

So, was the LADCC hasty in honoring Jessica Kubzansky with a lifetime achievement award 20 years ago? Looking back at her unstoppably passionate subsequent two decades creating brilliant and thought-provoking theatre, proving herself instrumental in leading the Boston Court into becoming one of the premier regional theatres in the country, and now adding in the world premiere of her mesmerizing Measure STILL for Measure, I believe the honor to have been more prophetic than premature.

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THE SOUND INSIDE at Pasadena Playhouse

The never quite healthy world of live theatre in Los Angeles and, indeed, the country, has been in a deeper crisis than ever before since our society pulled up the welcome mat and began to isolate in place three years ago—and it’s a cryin’ shame.

Our local stages are alive this season with an oversaturation of ambitious and thought-provoking theatre, more than I personally can cover, which sadly has forced me to miss some amazing productions helmed by people I admire and love.

I’m not sure what can be done to get people to feel safe and step out of their comfort zones once again but if anything should, it’s work as startlingly fresh and gorgeously mounted as the Tony-nominated and 2020 Outer Critics Circle-winning The Sound Inside at Pasadena Playhouse.

There’s a palpable dreamlike quality inherent in Adam Rapp’s intrinsically poetic, sweepingly elegiac treatise on loneliness, the need of all of us to connect with one another no matter how autonomous we believe ourselves to be and, singularly, how the intellectual appreciation of great literature can both energize and isolate.

Guided by the elegant yet often minimalist direction of Cameron Watson, a guy who always knows how to create a mood like no other, Amy Brenneman stars as Bella, a longtime Yale creative writing professor functioning on remote control as she tries to starve down her discouragement with life and her own unsuccessful career aspirations as a writer.

Brenneman enters from the darkness through set designer Tesshi Nakagawa’s evocative network of huge gossamer curtains resembling oversized pages of discarded books, stopping directly downstage center to immediately begin telling us why we’re all here. Bella narrates her own story and, from the moment she begins speaking, we are in it with her bigtime:

“A middle-aged professor of undergraduate creative writing at a prestigious Ivy League college stands before an audience of strangers,” she acknowledges. “She can’t quite see them but she knows they’re out there. She can feel them. They’re as certain as old trees, gently creaking in the heavy autumn air.”

Our fascination with Bella’s introduction is partially due to Brenneman’s confident but somehow mysterious stage presence, so full and rich it leaves us quickly wondering what is making this whip-smart woman appear so lost in the darkness which surrounds her. It’s almost as though, if she steps out of her isolated spotlight, Bella would vanish forever into the folds of those giant pages that have dominated her life.

Still, even with an actor as riveting as Brenneman, our instant engagement would not be accomplished here without the lyrical, arrestingly evocative wordsmithery of Mr. Rapp, who is truly a modern master of the spoken word. He questions the basics of our tenuous existence crashing through space spinning around on our troubled planet, a state that, even for someone as successful and outwardly put-together as Bella, is in the end as uncertain and ultimately frightening for her as it is for the rest of us.

In the midst of her lengthy monologue rife with clever exposition and hinting at a deeply tragic secret backstory, Bella simply walks through a shifting curtain to a small desk and begins practicing her daily professorial chores. Her solitude is jarringly interrupted by an arrogant but obviously promising young student named Christopher (Anders Keith), who shuns her protestations that he cannot crash her campus office without making an appointment online, telling her that using the internet gives him “digital chlamydia.”

The initially bristling relationship between the two turns to intrigue, a fragile mutual respect, and an unexpected physical chemistry that seems somehow alarming to them both. The newly bonded pair shares many things, especially a passion for great literature and soon they are sparring to see who has the most definitive knowledge of Dostoyevsky and their mutual favorite novel, Crime and Punishment.

Christopher begins to visit his professor on a daily basis—each time steadfastly refusing to make an appointment—but her fascination with his mind and, perhaps, her highly inappropriate attraction to his bold yet dangerous demeanor, keeps her from kicking him out. He begins each visit by telling her about a novel he is working on, something he insists is writing itself as he goes along. It’s a kind of psychological thriller about a student in a tony Ivy League college who meets a sketchy stranger and eventually bashes his head in with a Statue of Liberty paperweight—itself very Dostoyevsky, don’t you see.

For some reason, this doesn’t signal dread in Bella, who continues to grow closer to her student until an awkward physical touch between them sends him, someone who has described himself as about as sexually inclined as a parking meter (his relationship with his ex-girlfriend was all about playing chess and watching MST 3000), running for the hills.

Still, when Bella learns she has Stage 2 cancer and her oncologist gives her a generous 20-percent chance for survival, she seeks out Christopher in an all-new way that leads to the mutation of their bond into a far scarier direction.

Rapp’s script is fascinating but, like two other incredible productions of Pulitzer-nominated plays gracing LA stages right now, without the innovative yet clearly disciplined creativity of Watson at the helm and a pair of absolutely astounding performances, The Sound Inside could easily stay inside.

Watson’s consummate taste and style permeates his ability to connect with the playwright’s sometimes thickly grandiloquent and even occasionally pretentious prose, while both Brenneman and Keith are putty in his hands. Both worldclass actors deliver Rapp’s dialogue with easy accessibility and highly mesmerizing craftsmanship. Brenneman is radiant as the conflicted Bella while Keith, a local kid from South Pasadena making his LA professional stage debut, shows us he’s simply a major star at the beginning of what will be an intriguing career to follow.

They overcome one thing in the writing that, again, takes true artistry. Even in the work of my great idol Tennessee Williams, sometimes it bothers me when characters share the same signature rhythm and phasing as their creator, mimicking how the writer speaks rather than each one having their own individual way of talking.

Although this could appear to be overcome because of the talent interpreting the script here, Rapp also gets a pass if one considers that the physical presence of Christopher might be originating in the head of Bella as she relives her journey with us.

There’s much here to unpack and stay with you, lingering long after the final curtain like the shadowy otherworld of a not fully realized dream that refuses to leave even after a second mug of strong hot coffee.

This final unresolved denouement can particularly hit a nerve for an older cancerous professor who also once fell in love with one of his most brilliant students, but luckily not all of us having lived through such an experience have been forced to tumble so uncontrollably into the ominous and bewildering rabbit hole so arrestingly opened up in Adam Rapp’s exceptional future classic.

And unlike poor Bella and Christopher, actually, The Sound Inside can prove wonderfully reassuring since at least two once lost souls, some 11 years later, can still be there for one another, steadfastly keeping each other from falling headlong into the abyss. 

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LES MISERABLES at the Pantages Theatre and Segerstrom Center for the Arts

The 9,486th return to the Southland of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil’s celebrated musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic 1862 novel Les Misérables might simply on reflex generate a few world-weary eye-rolls when so many other newer theatrical events are currently desperately struggling to find an audience.

The return of Les Miz, winner of eight Tony Awards and more international honors than could be listed without running out of space here, is still an event to equal no other mainly due to Schonberg’s indelible, sweeping score honoring one of the most iconic literary works of the 19th century.

The production first opened in 1980 in Paris before its English translation by producer Cameron Mackintosh, featuring lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and directed by Trevor Nunn, began its record breaking run in London in 1985–today recognized as the longest running production ever to play the West End.

It subsequently opened on Broadway two years later, playing 6,680 performances and, at the time of its final curtain in 2003, was recognized as the second longest running musical in the world after the original off-Broadway mounting of The Fantasticks. Soon after its opening in New York, Les Miz prompted three simultaneous national tours and has since been seen by a staggering 130 million theatregoers worldwide in 53 countries and in 22 languages.

Mackintosh created this newly staged and updated revival in 2009 directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell to celebrate the musical’s 25th anniversary. It has since played to sold-out houses throughout North America, Australia, Japan, Korea, France, and Spain, is back onstage in London, currently on tour in the Netherlands and Belgium, and there's a new tour of Japan scheduled for 2024.

Says Mackintosh: “The phenomenon of Les Misérables never fails to astound me. No show in history has been able to continually reinvent itself and remain a contemporary musical attracting new generations of brilliant new talent, many of whom go on to international stardom. No show in the world has ever demonstrated the survival of the human spirit better… and it's time to let the people sing again.”

When the current run at the Pantages was first announced, I wondered for a hot minute if I wanted to see Les Miz performed for perhaps the eighth or ninth time when so many new projects are being presented in LA but man, am I glad I did. This is more than the usual tired long-touring roadshow featuring somewhat stale or uninspired performances and set pieces that wobble and seem frayed at the edges. The production is absolutely magnificent.

Visually, perhaps the only previously unavailable aspect energizing—and streamlining—the 43-year-old theatrical warhorse today is the addition of arresting images created by set designer by Matt Kinley based on Victor Hugo’s own paintings. Brought to life by Finn Ross and Fifty-Nine Productions’ massive video projections, this contemporary theatrical device was of course not yet invented when the show first emerged and, although sometimes such innovations can be more distracting than advantageous, the projections here are dark and moody and incredibly evocative.

Mick Potter’s sound is also majorly impressive, especially as it so completely fills and electrifies the sometimes tricky Pantages auditorium not originally intended as a venue to present live entertainment. It glorifies Stephen Metcalf, Christopher Jahnke, and Stephen Booker’s new orchestrations and highlights what is perhaps the most impressive thing about this reinvented Les Miz under the baton of musical director Brian Eades: an ensemble chockfull of some of the most formidable vocal performances in the show’s illustrious history.

Nick Cartell proves himself to be the quintessential Jean Valjean, from the character’s first tortured “Soliloquy” to the classics “Who Am I?” and “Bring Him Home.” Haley Dortch as Fantine delivers an exceptional “I Dreamed a Dream,” Gregory Lee Rodriguez breaks hearts as Marius lamenting his lost comrades with “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and Preston Truman Boyd as Javert and Devon Archer as Enjolras both deliver standouts performances.

The diminutive Vivian Atencio (alternating with Cora Jane Messer) as Little Cosette offers a lovely “Castle on a Cloud” and 11-year-old phenom Henry Kirk (alternating with Milo Maharlika) is the tiniest, feistiest, most scene-stealing Gavroche since Nick Jonas first raised a defiant fist.

Addie Morales holds her own in the decidedly underwritten role of the resident ingenue Cosette but hey, she hits that famous C-above-high-C when needed so who’s complaining. I did find Matt Crowle and Christina Rose Hall a little disappointing compared to the other performances as the musical’s resident comic relief team the Thenardiers, perhaps victims of that dreaded roadshow-itis mentioned earlier more than it has infected their fellow castmembers.

Still, it is Christine Heesun Hwang as the lovelorn Eponine who gives the most memorable performance of all, bringing the house down with a show-stopping rendition of the musical’s best ballad, “On My Own.” 

Truly, the star of this welcome return of Les Misérables is the dynamic ensemble gathered for it, all blessed with a vocal dexterity that seems almost unheard of empowering one production. Anyone who might think they’ve seen Valjean and his cohorts suffer enough and Javert take his final leap one too many times should certainly reconsider.

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GETTING THERE! at the Hudson Guild Theatre

Rebecca O’Brien’s Getting There!  was named Best Solo Show out of 150 entries in its much talked-about debut at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, as well as being singled out as one of five nominees selected for Top of Fringe honors and as the recipient of both HFF’s first ever Platinum Award and their Producers Encore Award.

Why has it taken me all this time to see it, in this case Rebecca’s 11th encore performance at the Hudson? Well, besides the fact that by policy I don’t cover the Fringe because it’s basically just me here at THLA and, with so many friends and colleagues mounting a phenomenal barrage of over 300-plus shows each June playing from early afternoon to late at night, in the past I’ve had far too many people pissed at me for reviewing other performances and not theirs.

Still, to be painfully honest, that’s not the main reason it took me this long to attend Getting There!  I was unsure if I wanted to put myself through the trauma of Rebecca’s four-year struggle with the Big C. There are very few places I’m reluctant to revisit, but Cancerland is definitely not one of my favorite topics as it usually churns up all the fears and discomforts and memories I try to repress in my own history as a five-time survivor.

Getting There!  is literally about getting there, about a single person living alone having to navigate long periods of intense treatments without family and close friends around to accompany her frequent treks to the hospital for chemo and radiation and potassium drips. It didn’t take long for Rebecca to realize it was “going to be a long four years.”

There aren’t many people as strong or amazingly resilient as this incredibly talented comedienne, however, whose courageously unfiltered theatrical memoir chronicles the period between 2016 to 2019 when she hit the oncologist’s office almost on a daily basis—by public transportation.

Told by her “16-year-old junior in high school” doctor that she would need to start assembling her “team” to help her through her treatments, Rebecca realized that although she has a heap of loving friends, she was basically on her own except for the constant companionship of her beloved pup Stella, who traveled along to her appointments inside a duffel bag and here makes a joyous guest appearance at the conclusion of her show.

There are several things Rebecca is anxious to hit on as quickly as possible, including in an early promise to her audience that she wouldn’t be bringing up cancer quite as much from that point on—a promise that proves impossible to keep. She also slips quickly past discussing her rapidly dwindling family back home in Tennessee, which she likens to playing an “old sweet song that shouldn’t get much airplay on the Southern stations.”

There’s just her mother there these days and, even without her hearing problems that make phone calls difficult, after asking if her daughter is still battling cancer, she seems more than ready to hang up.

Although the majority of Getting There! is a loving and often puzzling remembrance of a continuous stream of eclectic strangers she encountered on the Metro and while waiting at the bus stop on her way to Cedars and back, Rebecca doesn’t miss the opportunity to poke self-deprecating fun at herself, from talking about the less-than soothing cream she was prescribed for her burning vagina that makes her walk sideways like a human-sized crab or noting that her left “girl” is still quite perky but its counterpart tends these days to flirt with people on her right.

The narrative is brutally honest and often sadly insightful, such as noting that in LA it’s worse to admit you’re broke than saying you have cancer, but what makes it work so spectacularly is Rebecca’s unearthly gift to wrap her audience in her warm and generous embrace.

Surely encouraged and with material mined from the depths of her experience by a godsend collaboration with LA director extraordinaire Cameron Watson, Getting There! is a quintessential evocation of how we as a species fight to ride out the herculean bad patches that we are forced to persevere through along the way—that is if one has a tenacious will to conquer adversity and the obvious zest for life of Rebecca O’Brien, a true warrior titan gratefully also possessed of a worldclass sense of humor.

And on a personal note if I may, I left the Hudson with a renewed appreciation for my own team captain, my miraculous life partner Hugh, who at the height of the pandemic squired me to my own oncologist daily for many months, someone without whose love and support I might not still be around to write this.