Arts In LA
Bad Jews
Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Raviv Ullman and Molly Ephraim
Photo by Michael Lamont

In the West Coast debut of Joshua Harmon’s hilariously and savagely discursive Bad Jews, it’s almost uncomfortable being a fly on the wall of millennial brothers Jonah and Liam Haber’s Upper Westside Manhattan studio apartment bought for them by their wealthy parents. When their less-well-off cousin Daphna (“Compared to your family,” she complains, “we’re like the Joneses”) plops down on an air mattress on their floor while in town to lay their beloved concentration camp survivor grandfather to rest, long-smoldering sparks instantly ignite—especially when Liam shows up the evening after the funeral because he lost his cell phone on his skiing trip to Aspen, arriving with his latest in a string of cheerfully vacant shiksa girlfriends on his arm.
   Israel-obsessed rabbinical student Daphna is a terminally whiny, intensely angry, resolutely Jewish-identifying motor-mouth. Liam begs his blonde airhead girlfriend, Melody, not to offer any pertinent information to Daphna, because it is traditionally absorbed, rattles around in her miserably unhappy brain, and then gets spit back with an expert ability to seek and destroy. This is particularly true when she points out to anyone around her the depth of her personally solemn cultural and religious commitment. The brothers don’t seem to share this commitment, and this infuriates her. For Liam, however, Daphna is “about as Israeli as Martin Fucking Van Buran.”

As played by Molly Ephraim with an obvious nod to the discernably accomplished directorial hand of Matt Shakman, Daphna emerges as the fast-paced comedy’s most memorable and even sympathetic character. She is truly a nonstop monster: brusque, frustratingly argumentative, unbelievably annoying, and with a voice that could give anyone a migraine in about two minutes. It’s not usual for such a personality to emerge as someone audiences appreciate or with whom they identify, but the unearthly depth of Ephraim’s creation, fashioning Daphna as somebody who never for a moment relents from her abrasive conduct, but who still subtly lets her character’s monumental sadness, insecurity, and loneliness show through, makes her one of the most multifaceted antiheroes since Charles Laughton assayed Inspector Javert.
   As Liam, who should have checked into a hotel or at least should have downed a handful of valium before greeting his adversarial cousin, Ari Brand is a perfect foil for Ephraim’s sharp verbal thrusts directly to the gut, insisting on calling her by her birth name, Diana, as intently as she spits out his Hebrew name, which unfortunately for him is Schlomo. Lili Fuller, as that stranger in a strange land Melody, is in contrast sweetly dumb yet truly endearing, especially when she innocently takes on Daphna’s wickedly nasty challenge to exhibit her abandoned training as an opera major, delivering the most sidesplitting and unforgettable rendition of “Summertime” ever presented before an audience.

Fuller and Raviv Ullman as Jonah spend a lot of their time trying desperately to stay out of the fight between Daphna and Liam. Even more than their lifelong hatred for each other, this fight centers on inheriting their Poppy’s chai, the religious relic their late grandfather inherited from his exterminated father and wore around his neck all his life, except for his three years in the camps when he kept it hidden under his tongue. Ullman is impressive in the role of the quiet, hapless brother, delivering a wonderfully subtle performance that, without words, provides a conduit for the rest of us to look on as well—and with equal discomfort and horror.
   Perhaps you need to be a bit of a bad Jew to truly appreciate Bad Jews in all its thorny, irreverent splendor—as evidenced by some of the better Jews in attendance for the Geffen’s opening night performance, many of whom sat stone-faced throughout the fast-paced intermissionless 90 minutes, looking as though they wished they could leave, never considering for a moment breaking through with a tiny titter of appreciation. Sadly, what they missed, by focusing only on what could for some be highly offensive language and behavior, is Harmon’s far more valuable message, which cuts through the biting humor like a knife and ultimately is far more universal. Lord, what might be accomplished if members of our muddled species would learn to swallow our pride and join together to embrace our heritages, whatever that may be.

Bad Jews is a play about sanctimonious comportment as it clashes headfirst with egocentricity—and how such behavior trumps the precious and moving history these particular people should be proud to share. The story does not end with a neat reconciliation, leaving us to wonder if these cousins, instead of worrying about who is treating whom the worst, will ever resolve their differences. As with so many families, in all cultures and stations of life regardless of religion, ethnicity, or political differences, it seems as though this generation of the family will be battling and pounding their own chests right through Thanksgiving, on to Passover, and continuing over the next few decades until they are left to bury one another. What we miss in our lives while brooding about the past and lugging around grudges about how we’re treated!

June 21, 2015
 
June 17–July 26. 10886 Le Conte Ave. (parking around the block adjacent to Trader Joe’s). Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. $39–79. (310) 208-5454.

www.geffenplayhouse.com

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Cookie & the Monster
Magnum Players at Theatre of NOTE

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Scott Legget and Jaime Andrews
Photo by Brandon Clark

Most of us had invisible friends when growing up. Some we conjured as furry giant bunnies, others cuddly teddy bears, or, in the case of certain future actor–theater writers, perhaps even a well-spoken talking version of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms who followed him around everywhere, knocking down imaginary brick walls on sour-faced unsuspecting passersby. For our heroine Cookie (a marvelously deadpanning Jaime Andrews), however, her own personal id-incarnate is really a monster, shouting orders at the side of her pigtailed head like a drill sergeant on crack and slyly coercing the poor impressionable child into one disastrous situation after another.
   While Cookie is still an impressionable suburban child living at home with her parents (Perry Daniel and Curt Bonnem), listening to Linda Ronstadt, Chicago, and the Time-Life Christmas Album, her dastardly Monster (Scott Leggett, who plays the role as though he were Oliver Hardy doing a Louis Black impression) begins his lifelong quest to lead her astray with the usual kid stuff, like talking back to her mother’s friends or scaring off potential Barbie Doll–obsessed playmates. But after puberty hits Cookie, Monster’s bad advice becomes infinitely more dangerous: suggesting she hang out with black-lipsticked Goth girls, experiment with a tempting variety of street and psychedelic drugs, and give her high school’s most popular football jocks blowjobs behind the bleachers after the game.

As written by first-time playwright Andrews in what she calls a “fucked-up fact-based fairytale” (there’s even an acknowledgement in the program’s special thanks section to the “actual Scott Pederson,” the name she also gives her horny football hero), Cookie & the Monster,, with its untouchable reminiscences of terminal teenaged angst and one wonderful, arrestingly cheery original song about teenage cutting (“Make a little slice / Doesn’t that feel nice?”), is a quick-witted, delightfully off-centered comedy so black it’s in danger of leaving bruises.
   As embodied by Andrews, Leggett, and a super-uninhibited cast of some of LA’s funniest performers (including, aside from others mentioned, Sunah Bilsted, Peter Fluet, and K.J. Middlebrooks), Cookie’s life becomes an endearing and surprisingly hilarious journey. The Molly Shannon–esque Erin Parks is a special standout in a series of wildly disparate characters, including one of the stone-faced Goth girls and Cookie’s eye-rolling elder sibling who softens her feelings for her younger sister when faced with her own catastrophic illness.
   Guy Picot sits in the booth, delivering “once upon a times” as the disembodied offstage voice of the narrator, Sky Guy (get the sense, judging from the name, that maybe the character was written for him?). But as fun as Picot is to watch, it would be great if his Sky Guy could instead perhaps be Downstage-Left Guy, placed at the side of the stage in a big cushy red leather easy chair with the script in his lap and a nice glass of merlot beside him on an end table.

Through all the raucous, wonderfully inappropriate laughs afforded by Cookie & the Monster, if this was indeed, as Andrews suggests, something akin to what she experienced as she traveled that rocky road from childhood precocity to therapy-inducing post-adolescence to what appears to be moderately well-adjusted adulthood, it’s a wonder she got here at all. It’s impressive how willing and able she is, surely encouraged by the obviously compatible collaboration of director JJ Mayes egging her on, to eagerly and honestly cough up the pain of her early years and turn the sputum into a rich, thick foam of nonstop laughter.

June 12, 2015
 
June 11–25. 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Schedule varies, see website. $15. (818) 640-2662.

hff15.org/2292

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Enron
The Production Company at the Lex Theatre

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz


David Lombard and Skip Pipo

The political satire Enron spells out how one of the largest energy companies in the world toppled in 2001 due to accounting fraud. Employing musical comedy techniques and puppets, writer Lucy Prebble and director August Viverito mix a spoonful of sugar into repulsive subject matter.
   Enron founder Kenneth Lay (Alex Egan) hits a crossroad when he chooses Jeffrey Skilling (Skip Pipo) for the company’s president over Claudia Roe (Ferrell Marshall). While old-school Claudia wants to build power plants in third-world countries so that Enron will control energy worldwide, Skilling wants Enron to evolve into an energy trading company, where no goods are produced, turning the company into a gigantic pyramid scheme. Self-deluded Skilling is a flimflam man, conning the government, his employees, his lawyers, and the heads of his accounting firm into buying the scam.
   Prebble’s script is both funny and angry. She paints no one as mustache-twirling villain. She sees Lay out of his league, someone capable of building an empire but too childlike to understand the consequences of his company’s new direction. He’s blinded by high stock prices. Skilling loves his daughter and tries to teach her the importance of the dollar. These may be indecent men, but they are written as fully realized humans.

Viverito has created a witty visual cartoon. Characters are represented as Three Blind Mice, a ventriloquist and his dummy, a mangled version of Lady Justice, and a Siamese twin Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Shell companies personified as ferocious velociraptors with laser-red eyes are a witty conceit. The set, by Viverito, contains neon lights and flashy signs to illuminate the razzle-dazzle of the übercompany while revealing nothing of its shadow underside. When the audience returns for Act Two, the banker boxes have been moved so they’re stacked as an inverted pyramid, ready to tumble at any moment.
   Enron mostly works because of Pipo’s sterling portrayal of Skilling. He captures Skilling’s Darwinian contempt for anyone who doesn’t strive for ultimate success and his self-deception that he is truly the hero of the story, savior to his employees and the market at large. Marshall is wickedly funny as the good Southern belle, one of the most powerful women in the world when the play opens, who is at first exposed as a heartless, backstabbing queen bee but who eventually is the only person who wanted Enron to do something that benefits the world.
   Egan turns Lay in a buffoon, clueless and irresponsibly ignorant of the machinations around him. He has given the keys of the kingdom to the Pied Piper and knew enough of the evils to never ask questions. David Lombard plays Andy Fastow, the architect of the scheme, as a sycophant who just wants daddy to love him. Each ensemble member is excellent, but Judy Nazemetz stands out as a stock analyst who truly believed in Enron’s magic and feels hoodwinked in the end.
   Humor is sometimes the perfect vehicle to expose harsh realities. Enron is an amusing, biting interpretation of the scandal, both didactic and illuminating, that mockingly uncovers the hubris found in a greedy society.

June 9, 2015
 
May 22–June 28. 6760 Lexington Ave. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. $30. (800) 838-3006.

www.theprodco.com

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Not That Jewish
Jewish Women’s Theater

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Monica Piper
Photo by Patrick Conde

In Not That Jewish we encounter something distinctly unexpected: a first-person memoir by a former standup comic that actually feels like a real play. Even more of a surprise, it’s pegged to a particular demographic (i.e. Jewish women; note name of theater company) while possessing enormous crossover appeal. A fast-paced scrapbook, funny and heartwarming by turns, Monica Piper’s life story proves an unqualified delight in the Jewish Women’s Theater’s spacious yet intimate white-box space known as The Braid.
   Piper’s broadest thesis is that identity is determined by the qualities of one’s heart, not by one’s success or failure at following the rituals and rules of whichever culture a person happens to be born into. In the course of her journey (with stops for standup comedy, a failed marriage, sitcom writing, adopting a son from a Christian single mom, and breast cancer), Piper discovers that the characteristics most needed for a soulful life—compassion, caring, respect, humor—are available to anyone who chooses to tap into them.

Oy vey! I reread that paragraph and think, gevalt, the reader is going to think Not That Jewish is some kind of sermon or self-help tract. Not at all: You don’t win writing Emmys, work on Roseanne Barr’s staff, or secure recognition as a Showtime Comedy All-Star if you’re a tub-thumping spiritual healer. Rest assured that Piper’s take on life (hers and everyone else’s) is infused with laughter, much of it of the belly variety. It’s just that she’s seen enough tsuris, and learned from it, that she can’t help passing along what she knows. And it all happens to be of the sympathetic, healing variety.
   Quick glimpse: Oncologist sits her down to give her “good news, we found it early. And it’s small.” “How small?” “Um…it’s small.” “Is it small enough that I don’t have to do all those 10K runs?”
   I cannot imagine anyone’s not enjoying being in Piper’s company for 90 minutes. And if there are any such, I wouldn’t want to know them.

May 11, 2015
 

April 9–July 26. The Braid, 2912 Colorado Ave. #102, Santa Monica. Thu & Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7:30pm. Running time 90 minutes. $35. (310) 315-1400.

www.jewishwomenstheatre.org

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Les Misérables
Encore Entertainers at Warner Grand Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Serenity Robb and Andrew Metzger
Photo by Myles Regan/
RegalDigitalImages.com


This sprawling epic about life, guilt, forgiveness, transformation, redemption, and the French revolution gets a skilled, moving, but scenically sparse production by Encore Entertainers.
   First and foremost, Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics—based on the original French by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, which they based on the 1862 Victor Hugo novel—are clearly sung and meaningful here, under the direction of Summer Dey Cacciagioni and the musical direction of Mike Walker. This is fortunate because the lyrics are gorgeous and because the musical is sung-through, so no explanations of the story are spoken between songs.
   Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music, too, gets such a clean, rich sound here that the score seems prerecorded. It’s not; that masterly pit orchestra is led by conductor-keyboardist Walker.
  
J. Michael Bailey stars as Jean Valjean who, criminalized for stealing bread for a starving family, struggles to overcome the branding, becoming valiant in the process. Bailey’s warm, expressive voice beautifully fills the role’s expansive range, as Bailey creates a warmhearted father figure.
   Valjean’s lifetime nemesis, Inspector Javert, is wonderfully underplayed by Christopher Carothers, whose voice, as adept as Bailey’s, is colder and more terrifying, at least until he sings the self-reprimanding “Soliloquy.”
   As Valjean rises in the world, he befriends one of his factory workers, the single-mother Fantine. Dying, she belts “I Dreamed a Dream,” given a thoroughly sweet rendition here by Dana Shaw. Valjean promises to look after her tiny daughter, Cosette (an even sweeter performance by Bella Gomez).
   Cosette was in essence sold to the dreadful Thénardiers, who force Cosette to act as scullery maid while they spoil their own daughter, Éponine. Valjean finds Cosette and takes her away.

A decade later, Éponine is a streetwise teen in love with a student, Marius. He, however is interested only in revolution, at least until he meets the beautiful, delicate Cosette. Éponine, here portrayed by Tracy Ramsay, sings the showstopping Act Two topper, “On My Own.” Ramsey’s vocal chops thrill while she makes the song her own. Cosette has become Valjean’s well-tended flower, perfectly embodied here by Mackenzie Hamilton. She meets and falls for the sweet-hearted Marius, played by Richie Olson. Both actors seem so young, but they are probably at the age Hugo intended them to be. Their work together is extraordinarily tender.
   Among Marius’s fellow students is the stirring leader of the revolutionaries, Enjolras, played here by Jahmaul Bakare with a beautiful operatic voice and a charismatic presence. The scenes of revolutionary foment are powerful and as realistic as things get in musical theater.
   Monsieur Thénardier returns to claim a little something for his troubles. He also returns because he is the comedic highlight of the musical. Andrew Metzger gives this innkeeper-turned-gangster a touch of Jack Sparrow as he prowls and picks pockets.

Pursuant to Encore’s mission of educating young performers, the cast includes students, and it shows in the group vocals and in the acting. But they are learning the best way possible—by being onstage with no second takes—and the talents of the best of them bode well for the future of musical theater in the Southland.
   In particular, among the students in the cast is high school senior Serenity Robb, playing the comedic lead Madame Thénardier. While Robb is not yet at the level of that total-and-then-some immersion in a character that marks the top-tier performers, she is a star in the making. She has a strong voice, comedic chops, and a presence that holds attention through a song.
   What’s a revolution without a revolving stage? As did the 1985 original production, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, the action here takes place on a turntable, allowing characters to stroll as they ponder their futures, and allowing the audience to see the front and back of the barricade built by the young Parisian radicals.
   A set of stained-glass windows flies in for the prologue, when Valjean is given his fresh start by a priest, and then not until toward the end of Act Two do a few projections show up to establish locale. Lighting, too, is hit-and-miss, and the booth missed more than a few spots on the evening reviewed. Only these design issues keep this production from being full-out glorious.

June 22, 2015

Republished courtesy Daily Breeze
 
Moves to Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach. Fri 7:30pm Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 1pm. Running time nearly 3 hours, including intermission. $35–55. (310) 376-3500.

www.encoreentertainers.org

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Private Lives
Little Fish Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Amanda Karr, Lukas Bailey, Leona Britton, and Noah Wagner
Photo courtesy Little Fish Theatre

Appallingly feuding but passionately attracted couples are not new to the stage. Shakespeare drew them in The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing. Edward Albee penned them in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
   Amanda and Elyot are quintessentially creations of the great British wit Noël Coward, in his 1930 play Private Lives. Coward, a master at cheekily spotlighting human foibles, gibes at the mores and marriages of his time. Amanda and Elyot had admittedly made each other miserable in their three-year marriage. Now, five years after they divorced, they find themselves on a balcony of a hotel at a French seaside resort. Unfortunately it’s the first evening of their honeymoons with their respective new spouses.
   Elyot and his new wife, Sibyl, clearly aren’t the happiest of couples, either, as evidenced by Sibyl’s relentless probing into the causes of Elyot’s divorce. Meanwhile, Amanda’s new husband, Victor, is similarly interrogating Amanda. But once Elyot and Amanda catch sight of each other, the lust and the violence flow again.
   The former couple runs off together, to her Paris apartment, where they hunker down as only English sophisticates can do. Their new spouses find them there—no sense asking how, nor, if it’s not too middle-class American to wonder, what each does for a living.
   In the decades after Coward wrote the play, laws and mores have changed in the marriage department, but his points about love are evergreen, and those points are given further honing in this production, directed by James Rice.

The only disappointments here are in the design elements. The Act One balcony is packed with what look like paint-flecked tarpaulins tossed over presumably patio furniture—in reality hiding Act Two’s Parisian living-room setup. The audience would believe the setting is a badly neglected American backyard before it could possibly believe this is a honeymoon retreat on the English Channel.
   Costuming is eye-catching though not period-defining. Garbing the hapless Victor in tails and spats might be a hint about his lack of couth, but it comes across as a design error.
   Nonetheless, the actors soon lure the audience into the lives of these Bickersons. Rice’s cast may not display the frothy English sophistication Coward was known for, but the actors create real people onstage, particularly Rice’s two leads.

They are Noah Wagner, playing Elyot, and Amanda Karr as Amanda. In the role originated in London’s West End by Coward, Wagner gives Elyot a red-blooded presence. It’s needed, because Karr has a personality that envelops the stage. There’s no fear one or the other character will lose—nor get injured—in the verbal and physical battles that this romance comprises (excellent fight choreography by Mike Mahaffey).
   By perfect contrast, Lukas Bailey makes a stiff-upper-lip Victor, and Leona Britton is a fluttery, wailing Sibyl. Elizabeth Craig completes the cast, playing the French maid, swiftly speaking only French and adding masses of Gallic disdain.
   In real life, Amanda and Elyot would not be not the kind of couple with whom most of us would want to spend an evening. Fortunately, in the hands of Little Fish, they are separated from us by the nice, safe fourth wall of theater, so we admire the quality acting.

June 15, 2015

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

 
June 12–July 18. 777 Centre St., San Pedro. Entrance and parking behind the theatre; access through alley between 7th and 8th streets. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25-27. (310) 512-6030.

www.littlefishtheatre.org

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American Idiot
DOMA Theatre Company at MET Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Jess Ford and Andrew Diego
Photo by Michael Lamont

Fifteen years ago, when superpower band Green Day decided to produce a rock opera paying homage to The Who, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, who is credited for writing 98 percent of the Green Day’s most celebrated music, created the dynamically screwed up anti-hero Jesus of Suburbia. When the effort catapulted into the band’s 2004 album American Idiot, it was a worldwide success and won the Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2005.
   In 2009, Armstrong collaborated with Green Day fan and Broadway director Michael Mayer (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Tony winner for Spring Awakening) to turn the band’s Tommy-like concept into a stage musical. First mounted at Berkeley Rep, the theatrical version of American Idiot went on to New York, rocking out the venerable St. James Theatre for more than a year.
   LA’s decade-old DOMA Theatre Company, which has been turning out some surprisingly massive and well-appointed productions for almost a decade, is a perfect match for Green Day’s loud and irreverent musical, which follows Johnny (Jess Ford), the Jesus of this show’s particular suburbia, who, with his two buddies Will (Wesley Moran) and Tunny (Chris Kerrigan), dreams in song of leaving the restrictive environment in which they grew up, ready to rebel by singing and rocking their way into the big city.

Things don’t work out so well for Will, whose wife leaves him with their infant son because he never seems to get off his couch, rise from his smoky haze, and put down his ever-present bong. Tunny, too, ends up in an unexpected state, whisked into the army and returning from one of America’s horrifying desert wars in a wheelchair.
   Still, we follow Johnny the most closely, as his initiation into disenchanted youthful urban existence brings him into contact with Whatshername (Renee Cohen), who introduces him to her politically active and rebellious lifestyle, and St. Jimmy (Andrew Diego), who gets him high on a series of increasingly more debilitating street drugs.
   After the perils of our disintegrating society and the bitterness of life in the real world nearly kill all three heroes, each returns to his hometown. Although it would be more satisfying if the guys discovered how to conquer their demons rather than retreat back to the place that shaped them, hopefully along the way their eyes have been opened to things none of them would have understood without their bellyflop into contemporary chaos.
   But that’s fodder for American Idiot II, which in a perfect world should include a palpable sense of the era just past the one when the original album was released, a time when our country’s young’uns were forced to come of age through 9/11, as well as during the Iraqi War and conflicts in Afghanistan and across the globe.

Director Marco Gomez and his design team, especially Michael Mullen, who presumably on a shoestring created some the flashiest, most whimsical and creative costuming seen on any LA stage this year, join to lift this production way beyond the usual limitations of typical 99-Seat theater productions of large-scale musicals.
   Musical director Chris Raymond and his excellent band add immensely to the mix, as do the generally balls-out performances by the principal players. One small criticism: Although the denizens of American Idiot are all purdy much continuously in pain, it would be a better character choice if every song and every spoken line were not delivered with a tortured expression and the appearance of emanating from a dying beast.
   Especially when assaying Angela Todaro’s energetic and highly athletic choreography, the wildly fearless and spirited chorus of 17 knockout young triple-threats collectively liquefy together, wondrously becoming like one more principal character in the story, reminiscent of the townspeople in Evita who also often moved across the stage as one communal mass of humanity.
   Of the talented ranks, it would be remiss not to mention the Joplin-esque vocal calisthenics of Sandra Diana Cantu, as well as the überanimated, appropriately over-bleached Kevin Corsini, one of the tallest ensemble members whose unruly crown of straw glows brightly under Jean-Yves Tessier’s exquisitely atmospheric lighting.

Green Day’s most popular tunes re-created in the musical—including “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” which became a message against governmental avarice and ineptitude after the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the title song and “Holiday,” both part of the Green Day’s in-your-face score and Armstrong’s literate and often depressing book and lyrics—clearly express an entire generation’s dissent over the actions initiated by our government in our own country and across the globe.
   Underlying the musical’s sometimes simplistic plotline is a conscious message shouting out against corporate greed and unnecessary war, something that overpowers any minor clumsiness. Add in a cast this charismatic and such knockout production values, and this is a miraculous mounting of the musical not to be overlooked.

June 11, 2015
 
June 5–Aug 2. 1089 N. Oxford Ave., LA. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm (dark July 4). General admission $30; VIP admission (includes reserved seating and a complimentary snack and beverage), $34.99; seniors and students with ID $20. (323) 802-9181.

www.domatheatre.com

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Marry Me a Little
Good People Theater Company at the Lillian Theater

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Jessie Withers and David Laffey
Rich Clark Photography

While Craig Lucas was appearing in the original cast of Stephen Sondheim’s classic Sweeney Todd in New York, the fertile brain of this actor-turned-playwright was sparked by a discussion listing the many songs from the prolific composer-lyricist’s equally fertile brain that had been cut from some of his most successful creations before opening night. After approaching Sondheim with an idea and getting his blessing, Lucas and Norman Rene created this Off-Off-Broadway 1980 musical revue featuring all those lost songs and a few more from Sondheim’s then-still-unproduced musical Saturday Night.
   Directed by Rene and starring Lucas and Suzanne Henry, Marry Me a Little transferred from Off-Off to Off-Broadway, racking up a decent run and even more decent reputation over the years in regional theaters everywhere. Easy to produce—two actors, an accompanist, a minimal set—it was an inspired choice for Janet Miller and her Good People Theater Company to bring to the infamously bare-boned Hollywood Fringe Festival. Miller, her musical director–accompanist Corey Hirsch, and performers Jessie Withers and David Laffey can easily present their hour-long offering, pack up their bed and Hirsch’s keyboard, and voila: the theater is ready for the next Fringe entry.
   The premise was simple as Lucas and Rene saw it, interlacing all those abandoned Sondheim tunes together to create an ongoing song cycle made up of private thoughts conjured by two lonely strangers living in apartments 2C and 3C of a giant Manhattan apartment building, existing quietly in their otherwise unconnected isolation. As the story progresses, Withers and Laffey share the stage throughout but only infrequently share a song together, sung to each other as they occupy the same room, adhering to the authors’ conceit that the two singles are singing their hearts out while alone in their separate studios.

This is perfect for the whimsical mind and smoothly modulated talents of director-choreographer Miller, who craftily weaves together the movements of her players as they share the same bed in different rooms until they accidentally meet, it appears, in the lobby or elevator sometime during the performance. Beginning with the plaintive ballad “Saturday Night” from that aforementioned musical, their love story continues as the couple falls in love, eventually becomes disillusioned (living “One day of grateful/For six of regret”), and by “It Wasn’t Meant to Happen” (trimmed from Follies), retreats right back to their solitary individual galaxies in 2C and 3C.
   Withers has a gorgeous, rich, near-operatic soprano that the notoriously discerning, cranky ol’ Uncle Stephen would appreciate. She is especially notable interpreting the title song and “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” originally sliced, respectively, from Company and Anyone Can Whistle, and gives a deliciously and suitably naughty spin to Follies’s lost “Can That Boy F….oxtrot.” Laffey has a splendid voice as well, although on opening night he was dealing with vocal strain in the second half, making the biggest impression in “Multitude of Amys,” also cut from Company.
   Hirsch does an exceptional job at the keyboards, although occasionally it would be nice for the accompaniment to soften a bit and not overpower the vocals, something that could be easily adjusted if the Fringe Festival were not such a hurried affair. The same is true for Withers and Laffeys’s performances, which could also use a few more rehearsals and a little seasoning and sinking into the shoes of the characters.

Of course, Marry Me a Little is ultimately about Sondheim, whose tunes, even the ones that were scrapped, are arresting and whose lyrics are beyond compare with anyone else writing in the last 50 years or so. If anyone seems to understand loneliness and the fleeting qualities of love, it’s him.

June 10, 2015
 
June 7–28. 1076 Lillian Way., West Hollywood. See website for schedule. Running time 70 minutes, no intermission. $15-20.

www.15HFF.org/2234

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Undateable
Second City

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Amanda Blake Davis and Robyn Norris

Sometimes theater is about humankind’s greatest achievers. Sometimes it’s about supremely tragic figures. And sometimes, as with this show, it’s about the rest of us.
   A group of Second City’s fine performers went off piste and conducted a social experiment. After Robyn’s (Robyn Norris) friend posted a profile on a dating site and asked Robyn to check it over, Robyn set up an account to access the site. Robyn created the outlandish profile of an admittedly “crazy-insane person” she named TracyLovesCats. A shockingly large number of men—and women—responded, begging for various forms of contact with “Tracy.”
   Norris’s fellow troupe members Chris Alvarado, Rob Belushi, Amanda Blake Davis, Kate Duffy, and Bob Ladewig joined in, posting outrageous profiles no one could possibly think were anything other than a joke. These performers’ “sketch” show, Undateable, re-enacts verbatim the heartfelt responses by real, everyday people to these perverse personals.
   So, even though Rob (Belushi) pushed the intimacy-phobic envelope with DoorSlamEric, women think Eric is dateable. And although PioneerInABox (Kate Duffy) gets busted (she claims to function as if in the 1860s, yet she’s online), she manages to lure interest. Even Amanda’s (Blake Davis) age-questionable Old4U75 appeals to a prospective beau.
   The show, a fascinating concept, is well-structured and is imaginatively directed by Frank Caeti. It is also, of course, hilarious, though a strong strain of sympathy runs through it. And even though the show has been running for months, the performers have fresh energy. These performers are more interested in telling their story than in “being funny,” so the laughs come from the audience’s self-recognition and not from any obnoxious stage-hogging shenanigans.
   The troupe sings and dances—and not badly—to enhance several of their “scientific” points about romantic behavior. A few minutes of improv at the end of the show reflect the performers’ well-honed chops.
   Locational cautions: The venue is in Hollywood where street parking has a two-hour limit, metered until midnight on Fridays. The show is a mere one hour, but it undoubtedly will start a few minutes late. In addition, the theater is upstairs, and the site has no elevator. But if you’re swift and spry, head on up there for a dose of reality. It will probably provide you with more than several hearty belly laughs. It might also make you weep for mankind.

August 19, 2013

6560 Hollywood Blvd. Fri 9pm. $10.

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The Phantom of the Opera
Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Chris Mann and Katie Travis

It’s been almost 30 years since Andrew Lloyd Webber transformed Gaston Leroux’s 1909–1910 gothic novel Le Fantome de L’opera and the 1925 silent film version into what is surely Webber’s most enduring success. His astonishing cash cow crept up from the bowels of the Paris Opera to be unleashed on the world of eager theatergoers in 1986, traveling on throughout the world to enjoy one of the most celebrated sagas in the annals of musical theater history.
   The production’s original producer, Cameron Mackintosh, is presenting a newly reworked, redesigned, reorchestrated Phantom of the Opera, now stopping back in its old familiar Hollywood home for an eight-week run. The sweeping art deco splendor of the Pantages Theatre might be a bit too modern for the era in which the classic tale unfolds, yet somehow seems right—perhaps because it’s as gilded and gold and intricately adorned as Paul Brown’s freshly versatile new sets and Maria Björnson’s elaborate costuming, which flashes and sparkles into the audience under Paule Constable’s moody yet pleasingly creamy lighting effects.

The production is a mixed bag, surprisingly slow and ponderous at times, but it also has many things to recommend it. The full and spirited orchestra, led by Richard Carsey (through June 21), is quite a treat, beautifully augmented by Mick Potter’s crisp and crystal clear sound design, truly a major achievement in a venue where sound has often been an issue. The great consequence of this accomplishment is something also unexpected: We can now bask fully in Charles Hart’s richly poetic lyrics, whereas in the original production they tended to disappear into electronic echoes and loud rock-musical amplification.
   Laurence Connor takes over the directorial reigns with skill and a fine regard for Harold Prince’s original concept, but Scott Amber’s wonderfully droll choreography wins over any veteran Phantom fans who expect to see grand staircases populated by costumed mannequins, an elephant in the Hannibal sequence that’s more than just a two-dimensional flat with rolling eyes, and a chandelier that starts as a pile of pieces, hydraulically reconstitutes as it repositions itself to its former grandeur over the auditorium, and later comes crashing down way too close to the audience members’ heads. Here it sits just in front of the proscenium, and, when it threatens patrons, it’s more of a sputter and a short drop than an E-ride at Disneyland.

The ensemble is generally worthy, particularly Anne Kanengeiser as the Gale Sondergaard–like Mrs. Giry and Jacquelynne Fontaine as the opera’s entitled diva Carlotta. Chris Mann, a finalist on The Voice in 2012, has a glorious vocal range able to scale the heights and depths of Webber’s difficult score, but Mann lacks the charisma and seductive qualities needed to play the poor maligned Phantom. This is mostly because Mann is far too young and his voice not yet seasoned and growly enough to assay such a demanding role; give the guy a few good years dealing with the world, and he’ll be perfect in the role in the newest new reinvention of Phantom in about 2030.
   Storm Lineberger is in fine voice for Raoul but has little heroic enough about him to effectively appear to be capable of rescuing his childhood love Christine from the dreaded Opera Ghost—or to make anyone think he’d be a more interesting companion than the far more dashing and seemingly sincere Phantom.
   Katie Travis as that poor torn ingénue is perhaps the best Christine this reviewer has ever seen—and frankly, I’ve seen a lot of them, including the talentless original, Sarah Brightman, who as an actor should have stuck to singing. Travis easily hits that obligatory C-above-high-C when prodded by her Angel of Music to do so, and her hauntingly beautiful ballad “Wishing You Were Here Again,” sung in a foggy graveyard to her dead father, is a standout.

The original Broadway and London productions of Phantom, featuring its original designs, Prince’s clever direction, and choreography by Gillian Lynne, are still running after all these years. Mackintosh’s reworked and redesigned touring version, which his reps are touting as a “spectacular new production,” proves to be somewhat right, somewhat wrong. There are indeed dazzling features introduced here, but a lot is lost in the process as well. Either way, The Phantom of the Opera will go on impressing rabid new generations of worshippers for a long time to come—and if someone has never had the privilege of being left with indelible images from the original to compare with this experience, this version will do just fine, thank you very much.

June 19, 2015
 
June 17–Aug. 2. 6233 Hollywood Blvd. Tue-Thu 8pm, Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $29-250. (800) 982-2787.

www.HollywoodPantages.com

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Songs of the Fall
Ruby Theatre at the Complex

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Leanna Rachel and Unaty Mangaliso
Photo by Jeremy Sole

Attending an entry in the Hollywood Fringe
Festival is a roll of the dice, especially when the production is an original musical utilizing only the limited bells and whistles available in a black box at the Complex. Many red flags surrounded the premiere of Ben Boquist’s Songs of the Fall, not least that it was touted as a “pop/rock musical with a fresh and controversial take on the Adam and Eve myth,” promising to explore themes of race, gender, addiction, and even reincarnation by asking “what really happened in the Garden of Eden.” This might make some of us who consider ourselves challenged by sappy musical theater offerings, not to mention scoffers of the theory of creation, run for the exits. The saving grace might be in the term “myth” to describe the show.
   Songs of the Fall is truly a diamond in the rough—or in this case, in the Ruby. Boquist’s book is charming, and the show’s premise, as it zips back and forth in time between Eden and present-day New York, is inventive enough, as is his sweetly sincere performance as the generally clueless Adam. Still, what indeed is remarkable about this quietly auspicious introduction to his talents is the score. Judging from the song titles listed in the program, expectations could easily initially be met with skepticism and a few eye-rolls, but Boquist’s compositions are impressively sophisticated and memorably lyrical, especially with Robert Rues’s complicated arrangements that make them even richer.

Under director Whittney Rooks, there’s something delightful in the wide-eyed wonder of Boquist’s footie-pajama-ed Adam and Unati Mangaliso’s equally comfy Eve, though his character emerges as the planet’s first doofus boyfriend and hers as the first whiny, nagging woman, the pair sometimes giving off the air of a couple arguing about cost versus cleaning power of some laundry detergent in a TV commercial.
   John Eddings as the wisely elderly Grey, Cody Hays as the cross-dressing Prime, and the barely teenaged Aurora Blue as Cate are part of one depiction of God, here called The We and living as homeless people on the street of New York. All performers, including the miscast Leanna Rachel as a Lucifer, someone who has to work way too hard to get to evil, are infectiously earnest and sincere, although the singing expertise exhibited proves somewhat uneven. The true breakthrough performance here is the prepubescent Blue, who knocks her songs and her performance way out into the continuous traffic of Santa Monica Boulevard.

Like so many writers offering their work for the first time in such a discerning public forum, Boquist seems to include everything he has ever wanted to say, as well as every tune he ever was proud to have composed, in this one outing. This two-act, two-plus-hour show should be pared down considerably. As is, the work begins to drag as the storyline and the music get a tad repetitious. Above all small druthers, however, one thing is crystal clear: This garden-fresh (pun intended) new kid on the block is an amazing composer, and this work heralds a promising introduction to someone who, in a fairer world than ours sometimes, could someday be recognized as a formidable contributor to the art form.

June 18, 2015
 
6476 Santa Monica Blvd. See website for ticket prices and schedule.

Fringe

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Waterfall
Pasadena Playhouse

Reviewed by Mindy Schupmann


Emily Padgett and Bie Sukrit
Photo by Jim Cox

It is pre–World War II Siam, and young student Noppon (Bie Sukrit) is fascinated with America and its culture. With the enthusiasm of youth at 22, he extolls its virtues to his friends, who are a bit more skeptical. When he is given the opportunity to escort distinguished diplomat Chao Khun Atikarn (Thom Sesma) and his beautiful younger American wife, Katherine (Emily Padgett), Noppon improbably falls instantly in love with Katherine, even though there is little chemistry evident in their various encounters. What progresses is a sudsy love affair consummated in an elegant waterfall. As Noppon’s fortunes rise in spite of his passion for Katherine, her fate is a downward spiral.
   Theatrical pros Richard Maltby Jr. (book and lyrics) and David Shire (music) have the bones of an intriguing plotline that comes from a classic Thai novel, Behind the Painting, by Siburapha. Its romantic sensibilities might have transferred well if the need for lush theatrical melodrama hadn’t taken over. While the music is pretty and the choreography arresting, it is insubstantial and sometimes a political polemic pitting Thai culture against rising Japanese aggression.

Sukrit is a pop star in his native Thailand, and he is charmingly dashing even as he deals with making sure he enunciates American dialogue clearly and effectively. Padgett’s lyric soprano handles the Maltby-Shire score well, though her character is bland even in her most melancholy moments.
   Sesma gets the meatiest role as the troubled husband struggling with his reserved Thai nature, trying to demonstrate his love for Katherine. “My Wife, Katherine” articulates his conflicts. As Nuan, a servant to Katherine, J. Elaine Marcos has a few choice moments in her disapproval of Noppon’s pursuit of Katherine and a touching one at the end of the play as she exhibits sorrow for her mistress.
   Noppon’s friends, Santi (Jordon De Leon) and Surin (Colin Miyamoto), aquit themselves well as the skeptics, and quirky American-born Kumiko (Lisa Helmi Johanson) gives the production a much-needed jolt of energy as she articulates her between-two-worlds conflict in this changing Asian landscape. In a semi-sinister moment, foreign minister Takamoto (Steven Eng) sings “I Like Americans,” and, remembering wartime history with Japan, the song is quite effective even though a bit caricatural. Also notable is a duet by Sukrit and Padgett, “You Cannot Tell Me Not to Love You.”

The large cast is well-directed by Broadway and Thai impresario Tak Viravan with co-direction and choreography by Dan Knechtges. Gorgeous costumes throughout the production by Wade Laboissonniere amp up the appeal, particularly in the ethnic Thai dance numbers. Stellar scenic design by Sasavat Busayabandh also elevates the play’s impact throughout, particularly the stage-wide titular waterfall. An impressive train platform and locomotive is also a bold choice.
   Asia’s move toward democracy, the passage of time, and the thematic idea of never forgetting your first love anchor the core of the play. Its potential for success as a Broadway debut in 2016 is mixed at the moment, but with some judicious tightening and more depth in key human elements, it could be successful. It is still a lovely work in progress.

June 14, 2015
 
June 7–28. 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 4pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. $47–87. (626) 356-7529.

www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

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Matilda The Musical
Ahmanson Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Mia Sinclair Jenness and company
Photo by Joan Marcus

The audience for the opening of Matilda The Musical was packed with children, certainly drawn by the fact that this wondrous production was adapted from the popular classic novel by the late Roald Dahl, perhaps the most successful writer of children’s books since Hans Christian Anderson or Lewis Carroll. And, like that of those particular authors, Dahl’s work was not all about fuzzy bunnies or how to adopt perfect manners to please one’s parents. His work was often dark, twisted, and unruly, even perceived as potentially inappropriate or troubling for his young readers by more-conservative critics. This wily, celebratory musical adaptation of one of his most enduring works is no exception.
   The multi-award-winning Matilda, which before landing here took London and New York by what a character calls her “ouchy front bottom” is, like the rest of Dahl’s prolific body of work, an edgy, incredibly inventive offering. Thankfully, it’s one for the history books that can help upgrade the perception of musical theater as merely the place where people consider the problems of Maria and try to get to the church on time.

Dahl’s story follows the title character (impressively played opening night by Mia Sinclair Jenness), a brilliant little lassie who devours novels that include Jane Eyre and Crime and Punishment, much to the horror of her disapproving family who won’t even acknowledge that their “creep of an offspring” is a girl. Her gloriously slimy used-car-salesman father (Quinn Mattfield) sings a number right to the audience: telling the kiddies that they don’t need anything but the telly to help them grow up to be just like him, and stating that TV is “All you need to fill your muffin/Without really having to think of nuthin’.” Matilda’s mother (Cassie Silva) has a breakneck schedule as a parent since microwaves don’t cook themselves, and, when she’s not practicing her… um…moves with her overbuilt competition dance coach Rudolpho (a hilarious Jaquez Andre Sims), she follows her mantra that “Looks are more important than books.”
   Everywhere Matilda turns, she is met with disapproval and shock that she is smart, except when visiting her friend Mrs. Phelps (Ora Jones) at her beloved library or when her promise is noted by her sweet new teacher Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood). But even that is not enough to keep our pintsized heroine from the clutches of her school’s dastardly bulldyke-y headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Bryce Ryness in the most outrageous nightmare-inducing drag since John Travolta played Edna Turnblad), a dastardly former Olympic hammer thrower whose motto is “Bambinatum est maggitum (children are maggots). It’s Trunchbull’s belief that to teach a child, one must first break that child—the practice of humiliating or otherwise torturing her wee charges being something she admits “gives me a warm glow in my lower intestine.”

The all-stops-out adult ensemble is genuinely glorious, under Matthew Warchus’s animated direction, obviously encouraged to play the cartoon quality of their characters for all it’s worth. Ryness is particularly memorable as Trunchbull, his “The Hammer” and “The Smell of Rebellion” proving to be two of the most delightful musical offerings of the evening. Mattfield and Silva are equally courageous in their comic abandon, as is the hysterically low-key Danny Tieger as their worshipped elder son Michael, whose sweatshirt proclaiming “genius” emblazoned across the chest could not be farther from the truth.
   Jenness (who alternates in the demanding role with Gabby Gutierrez and Mabel Tyler) is an understated standout in the title role, one that doesn’t allow much offstage time to recover, and the children’s ensemble is jam-packed with adorable and infectiously precocious kiddies belting and tumbling into our hearts at every turn. If anything is amiss in this mounting of the musical, however, it is in how often difficult it is to understand the words of Dennis Kelly’s ingenious book or the lyrics of Tim Minchin’s masterful score when intoned by the children in the cast. Perhaps due to the thickness of the kids’ faux-cockney accents or the problems inherent in sound designer Simon Baker’s efforts to overcome the cavernous Ahmanson’s echoes, the fact that the adult performers are able to be understood makes it seem the problem is not insurmountable as the run continues.

It’s a shame when anything cannot be heard here, since Kelly and Minchin have together created such an incredibly masterful homage to Dahl—one that keeps the children in the audience enthralled, despite the production’s nearly three-hour running time, while never missing the opportunity to add quips and situations for adults to savor as they zip directly over the heads of the young ones. There’s a wonderful Pee-Wee’s Playhouse feeling about the proceedings, with deliciously exaggerated characterizations and designer Rob Howell’s costuming only adding further colorful embellishments.
   From the opening number “Miracle,” which sends up parents who dote on their children as the main reason for living, to brilliantly onboard choreographer Peter Darling’s energetic staging of the children’s “School Song” and his cleverly tongue-in-cheek parody of Spring Awakening in the eleventh-hour “Revolting Children,” to paeans to the glories of ignorance and of being “Loud” (a showstopping tango number performed by Silva and Sims), nothing is off-limits for bookwriter Kelly, director Warchus, and this gloriously gifted comedic company of players.
   The true star of all this, however, is the amazing score and lyrics by Minchin (aided by knockout multilayered vocal orchestrations by Chris Nightingale), which continuously accentuates Dahl’s original message, an important reminder to kids and adults alike: that although we can’t choose how we’re born or how we’re raised, we sure can choose to take over from there, manage our own lives, and work tirelessly in our brief time on this conflicted planet to create our own happiness.

June 8, 2015
 
June 7–July 12. 135 N. Grand Ave. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. $25–175. (213) 972-4400.

www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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Murder for Two
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Jeff Blumenkrantz and Brett Ryback
Photo by Joan Marcus

Smack dab in the middle of our current, if not our ongoing, theatrical austerity crisis comes Murder for Two, a musical whodunit whose bold, albeit thrifty, conceit is to have all the roles played by two actors. Specifically, one (Brett Ryback) portrays Marcus, an eager young patrolman whose stumbling onto a murder makes his dream of becoming a detective possible, and another (Jeff Blumenkrantz) plays “The Suspects,” aka everybody else: the distinguished author who’s the victim; members of the family and retinue in his classic country house; and all hangers on.
   Thrifty as the gimmick is—and unless I miss my guess, one at least partly inspired by the success of Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps, with its team of thesps doing multiple duty—it doesn’t make staging Murder for Two a walk in the park. For one thing, it’s a lot to ask two actors to come up with the nonstop energy and charm to maintain 90 minutes of musical hijinks sans intermission—which is why I expect community and school audiences to encounter numerous lackluster renditions of Murder for Two in the foreseeable future. Moreover, one of the performers has to be versatile enough to make some two-dozen characters distinctive and rich on the fly, while the other possesses the shoulders on which the audience’s story engagement rests.
   And on top of all that, both have to be proficient at the piano. While one actor is confessing or dying or dancing or emoting downstage, the other needs to be available at the keyboard. Still, I have encountered Ryback and Blumenkrantz’s work multiple times before—always first rate—so I had no trepidations as to their ability to carry this thing off. Plus, they created the parts, first in Chicago and then in New York. One advantage of LA’s getting to see original-cast tours is that all the growing pains tend to have been worked out long before.

I must admit, though, I was worried during the opening moments, which director Scott Schwartz has staged quite poorly. Our actors are setting up a generalized bare-theater setting—you know the deal, a few chairs and some flattage, a couple trunks and a standing worklight. Suddenly, as they unveil the piano, some kind of hostility or resentment between them emerges from somewhere, and they get all wordlessly huffy and start engaging in a musical battle side by side at the piano bench.
   And I’m thinking, “Oh, no, don’t tell me on top of everything else, they’re going to have this metatheatrical actor feud bubbling beneath the main story.” It’s one thing for Tom and Jerry to instantly throw themselves into one-upmanship at the 88s over “Hungarian Rhapsody,” because we already know they’re archrivals. But antipathy between new characters has to be clearly set up and justified. This show’s opening clashes, which came out of nowhere and seemed unsupported, made my heart sink.
   It sank further when Blumenkrantz began his shape-shifting and I couldn’t immediately tell whether he was portraying women or effeminate men, or just eccentrics. Eventually I sorted it out and/or he found his comfort level, and he sailed off into a genuine, completely entertaining tour de force of character transformation. (Blumenkrantz will be out July 10–19, replaced by co-author Joe Kinosian.) Ryback, as predicted, kept up his winning charisma throughout, even throwing in a few character surprises all the way: a most adept central performance.

If I can’t 100 percent rave about Murder for Two, it’s because the story gets too fancy, and fanciful, for complete interest. Librettists Kellen Blair and Kinosian set up a ticking clock—Marcus feels he must solve the case before the “real” detectives arrive on the scene—but I can’t say it ever impelled real suspense or ever mattered to me whether the character achieved his hoped-for dream. The staging, clever as it is, winks at us too often, and too many on-the-margins non sequiturs are thrown in. Out of the blue, for instance, we’re told that unknown to us, a boy choir has been on the scene all along. Wha?? You start wondering what the rock-bottom reality of the story is, and whether there is one, and may find yourself not caring about the solution of the murder. (Or that of the other ongoing mystery, “Who stole the ice cream?” Don’t ask.)
   As for the songs, for which Blair is credited with lyrics and Kinosian with music, they seem peppy and serviceable. But a score needs to be tied to an emotional core to register on first hearing, and the emotional core of Murder for Two is somewhat surface by design.
   Still, I can’t imagine this show being better performed by anyone, anywhere, and I am sure it will provide most theatergoers with nonstop pleasure. I will never forget one moment about two-thirds of the way through, when suddenly Blumenkrantz evoked—with voice, manner, and facial gesture, as he does so skilfully throughout—a character we, and clearly Marcus, had not yet met. Ryback took a long pause, allowing us to register the situation, and it almost seemed as if it was a thrown, amused, cracking-up Ryback and not Marcus who was uttering, on our behalf, “Who…are you?” Priceless. That was the little touch of Pirandello in the night I was looking for, and found from time to time, in Murder for Two.

June 6, 2015
 
June 3–Aug. 2. 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. (Additional perf. Mon, June 15, 8pm. No perf. Wed, June 17.) Running time 90 minutes. $69–74. (310) 208-5454.

www.geffenplayhouse.com

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