Arts In LA
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When Jazz Had the Blues
Matrix Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Boise Holmes and Frank Lawson
Photo by Ed Krieger

Forget the rather lame title that was recently chosen for Carole Englash-Kosoff’s world premiere musical. The original title, Lush Life, was so much more in keeping with the urban jazz era sophistication of the material—because this is the debut of a real treat for the Angeleno theatrical and musical communities.
   Under the smooth and effortless direction of John Henry Davis, with crisp musical direction and impressive orchestrations by Rahn Coleman leading an exceptional band of world-class jazz musicians, and featuring spirited choreography by Cassie Crump and sparkling period costuming by Michael Mullen, When Jazz Had the Blues dreamily recalls Harlem from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s and the rollercoaster career of an often overlooked songwriter who created the most indelible jazz standards ever written.
   Young musical prodigy Billy Strayhorn (Frank Lawson) lived in the shadow of his mentor Duke Ellington (Boise Holmes), who added to his own legend by taking co-writing credit for many of his prodigy’s greatest works—including the Duke’s signature song, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” which Strayhorn wrote while following Ellington’s scribbled directions to his Harlem home—as well as a number of other pieces that became part of the band’s repertoire. In some cases, such as “Lotus Blossom,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Rain Check,” Strayhorn received attribution for his work.
   For others, such as “Day Dream” and “Something to Live For,” they were presented as collaborations with Ellington. In the case of “Satin Doll” and “Sugar Hill Penthouse,” Ellington alone was incorrectly credited. The inequities of their work together and the father-son connection they shared offstage is the heart of Englash-Kosoff’s fascinating play.
   Strayhorn had introduced himself to Ellington after seeing one of his performances at Pittsburgh’s Warrick Hotel, where he brashly told—then showed—the musical superstar how he would have arranged his own music. Their relationship lasted a quarter-century.
   But, although Ellington was fond and fiercely loyal to his diminutive gay “Swee’Pea,” he also kept him out of the spotlight until Strayhorn, with the encouragement of his close friend Lena Horne (Michole Briana White) and his lover Aaron Bridgers (Gilbert Glenn Brown), finally rebelled and published “Lush Life,” “I’ve Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “Paradise,” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” without Ellington’s guidance.

Along the way, we are also shown what life was like for successful African-American musicians and celebrities during that era, who could appear in posh hotels but not check into them. Horne rails when she learns a bedroom scene will be cut from the film Cabin in the Sky by Louis B. Mayer, because, as she states, people in the South don’t want to see Negro women looking sexy. She later breaks down after losing the role of Julie in the film version of Showboat to non-singer Ava Gardner because filmgoers didn’t like to see blacks and whites performing onscreen together.
   At one point, as Horne and Strayhorn perform for WWII troops during a USO tour, she halts the show when she realizes German POWS were placed in the very front while all black soldiers were relegated to the very back of the venue. Just push their sad-looking white faces to the rear, she instructs her marginalized audience members before continuing her concert.

Holmes bears an uncanny resemblance to Ellington both in style and swagger, while White is dynamic throughout, especially impressive contributing a splendid rendition of “When the Sun Comes Out” to the mix. Katherine Washington has wonderful moments as the Duke’s emotionally abused mistress Trixie, also delivering a feisty “In Harlem” with the production’s exceptionally limber dancers Keverlie Herron, Chris Smith, and Darian Archie.
   Lawson is especially impressive in song, giving a whole new spin to “The Man I Love,” sung to explain to Horne the depth of his character’s affection for Bridger. Lawson does tend to rely on playing an obviously light-loafer-ed Billy, while in glaring contrast, Bridger, as interpreted by Brown, is the far more masculine partner, which becomes a tad odd when he becomes the one beaten up for being a “fag” when anyone with 20/20 vision might expect the opposite. Still, Brown is a revelation as an actor and as a musical performer, immediately winning hearts with a show-stopping “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” and in an impressive 11th-hour duet with Lawson of “In a Sentimental Mood.”
   If all this isn’t reason enough to take time for a little diversion from both the state of the world and from our traditional breakneck end-of-year preparations, this fine ensemble delivers a memorable, seasonally motivated rendering of Mel Torme’s classic “The Christmas Song.” Perhaps When Jazz Had the Blues might seem an odd choice for putting someone in the holiday spirit, but, to the contrary, these guys can come roast chestnuts by my open fire anytime.
  

November 27, 2016
 
Nov. 18–Dec. 18. 7657 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. $34.99. (323) 960-7776.

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Peter and the Starcatcher
Torrance Theatre Company

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Torrance Theatre Company ensemble
Photo by Lucy McDonald

Stories of staying forever young, of crafting the ability to fly, and of cultivating optimism have filled mankind’s dreams and pages of literature since ancient times.
   If these themes together sound familiar to modern audiences, it’s thanks to J.M. Barrie’s early-20th-century puer aeternus, in turn threaded into a variety of stories, most notably the 1954 musical Peter Pan.
   Another adaptation, darker and yet funnier, is Peter and the Starcatcher, in a stellar small-theater production at Torrance Theatre Company. A prequel to Barrie’s tale, it modernizes the humor yet harkens back to old-fashioned theatermaking in telling how a very lost boy became Peter Pan with the help of a very brave and competent young lady.

   Bowing on Broadway in 2009, this Peter was written by Rick Elice, music by Wayne Barker, based on the 2004 novel Peter and the Starcatchers by humor columnist Dave Barry and suspense novelist Ridley Pearson.
   Its adventure-filled plot involves two trunks carrying cargo, stowed on two ships racing each other through churning seas, set upon by pirates and lured by mermaids, while a trio of orphans finds escape.

But plotlines seem less important than how the characters travel through them. The characters quickly introduce themselves to the audience, as the goodly Captain Scott (Ryan Shapiro) of the Wasp, the evil Captain Slank (Seth Markzon) of the Neverland, and oodles of pirates populate the stage.
   Boarding the Wasp with one trunk is the righteous Lord Aster (Jeremy Krasovic), secretly a Starcatcher—someone with special powers “dedicated to protecting the Earth and all who dwell thereon from the awesome power of Starstuff.” Said Starstuff is sand-like bits of stars that have fallen to Earth, the transformative powers of which are thirsted after by tyrants.
   Boarding the Neverland with the other trunk is Lord Aster’s daughter, 13-year-old Molly (Calyssa Frankel). She’s very bright, forward-thinking, and confident, and thus a threat to the weak-minded and jealous. Rightfully, she’s an apprentice Starcatcher.
   In a fiendish swap by Slank, onboard the Wasp goes the sand-filled trunk, while onboard the Neverland goes the trunk carrying Starstuff. Tossed onto the Neverland are the orphaned teen boys: Ted (Jacob Nye), Prentiss (Kenyon Meleney), and a nameless lad (Anthony Cervero)—who, you might have guessed, becomes Peter.
   Along the way, in subplots and subterfuge, there’s Fighting Prawn (Demarquis Rembert) who, having years before been brought to England in chains to serve as a sous-chef, now speaks in Italian dishes and hates the English.
   There’s Black Stache (Derek Rubiano), a scenery-gnawing pirate who loses a hand in a trunk accident —you know who he eventually becomes—and his worshipful first mate Smee (Devin Mendez). And there’s a Nanny (David Joseph Keller) and her new sweetie, the flatulent sailor Alf (Geoff Lloyd). All are in service of teaching a hopeless young man to fly, literally and figuratively.

But what soars here is the stagecraft, under K.C. Gussler’s direction. As many of the actors take on double and triple duty filling in even more characters, the staging grows increasingly complex and delightfully rich.
  The clever set (scenic design and construction by Mark Torreso) consists of mobile bits that the actors zip on and off the stage to create the jam-packed action. They’re wonderfully simple pieces, made of materials children would gather to “put on a show.” But under the gorgeously textured, saturated lighting (Katy Streeter/Streetlite LLC lighting), our eyes see story and not merely poles and shreds of fabric, rope, and tinsel.
   When Molly and the lads creep down gangways, crouch in cargo containers, leap overboard, all comes to life through our imaginations. The crocodile is evoked by two red plastic salad bowls lit from within by twirling flashlights, while its teeth are two ropes of white pennant flags, held taut to create a mouth through which characters are tossed.
   Crisp sound effects (uncredited) help us see creaking doors. Bone-rattling organ music and cheery music-hall piano tunes (music director–orchestrator Bradley Hampton) ramp up the excitement.

We would figure out the lesson here without Peter and Molly repeating its themes of “if at first you don’t succeed.” Perhaps that’s done for younger audiences. But there’s more, too, revealing lessons to the grownup able to look past the flying and the wish-fulfillment. This work is very much about unwanted children, empty apologies, greed and racism, and parents carelessly trusting the futures of their children to a stranger.

November 14, 2016

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze.
 
Nov. 12–Dec. 18. 1316 Cabrillo Ave, Torrance. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm (dark Thanksgiving weekend). Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. (424) 243-6882.

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The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Mark Taper Forum

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Aisling O’Sullivan and Marie Mullen
Photo by Craig Schwartz

British playwright–turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s first six plays are set in and around Connemara in the impoverished County Galway on the barren west coast of Ireland where, as a child, he spent his vacations and summers. The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the first of those six groundbreaking plays, and, when it debuted mounted by Galway’s Druid Theatre Company in 1996, it instantly put the delightfully twisted McDonagh on the then-equally barren theatrical radar.
   After the production transferred to London’s West End, the Atlantic Theatre Company packed up the original cast, director, and production—lock, stock, and fireplace poker— shipping the operation to New York in 1998 where it became the buzz of Off-Broadway before becoming hugely successful in its transfer to the Great White Way. There, Beauty Queen received six Tony nominations, including Best Play; won for Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress; and made history as Garry Hynes became the first woman to ever receive the coveted golden disk as Best Director of a Play.
   It was an exciting moment when Center Theatre Group announced the play would be mounted at the Taper this year with Hynes again firmly entrenched in the director’s chair and featuring Marie Mullen, Best Actress recipient for originating the meaty role of the poor abused Maureen, now two decades later mutating that character’s grotesquely loathsome mother Mag. With a set designed by Francis O’Connor, who also created the original, the bar could not have been set higher. Unfortunately, however, this well-meaning and highly anticipated revival is a disappointment.

Although Hynes’s staging and O’Connor’s dreary farmhouse set, though here abstractly expanded upward to utilize the Taper’s towering heights, make the ensuing 18 years since the play first arrived on Yankee shores disappear in an instant, it has none of the punch nor excitement of the first time around—let alone the shock value.
   It’s a struggle to hear the actors speak, made even more frustrating by the nearly indecipherable countrified dialect of McDonagh’s quirky characters. The performance of Mullen, so electrifying and endearing all those years ago, misses the boat completely this time out. Mullen is obviously a phenomenal actor, and, as Maureen, she made the sadly downtrodden 40-year-old virgin stuck in a severe poverty-stricken rural nightmare someone for whom the audience rooted—especially since the mother was played as such a controlling, braying monster.
   Mullen brings the same quality to Mag, playing her more as a sweet aging family dog one wants to pet on the head and stroke to sleep than as someone we want to see bludgeoned to death by that omnipresent fireplace poker. Indeed it’s a charming, wonderfully comedic performance, but without the ghastly, barking, beastly original performance of Anna Manahan in the role, by the end one wishes the outcome of the play might be reversed as well.
   As Maureen, Aisling O’Sullivan is also surely a gifted thespian, but her Maureen is so instantly unlikable and abrasive from start to horrific finish that she loses her audience early. As the Folan’s thickheaded neighbor Ray, Aaron Monaghan is delightfully goofy and easily delivers the playwright’s most raucously real laughs. But again, without a more annoying Mag for him to hate and with whom to be able to be more authentically frustrated, he ultimately loses his way as well.
   As Ray’s roughhewn construction worker brother Pato, clumsily smitten by Maureen but unable to know how to gracefully connect, Marty Rea gives the evening’s most successful interpretation despite the too-youthful actor also being grievously miscast by both age and the slightness of his stature.

It’s a shame The Beauty Queen of Leenane couldn’t have returned more triumphantly this time out, but no doubt it is an enduring modern classic, so save the poker for next time out. Maureen and Mag have a lot of life left in them yet.

November 19, 2016
 
Nov. 16–Dec. 19. 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown Los Angeles. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm (no performance Nov. 24). Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission. $25–85. (213) 972-4400.

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A Very Special Holiday Special
Little Fish Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Margaret Schugt and James Rice
Photo by Mickey Elliott

If as of late you find yourself longing to laugh but not quite able to, Little Fish Theatre might coax you into smiling, snickering, chortling, and more than a few times doubling over in hilarity.
   At the San Pedro–based theater through Dec. 17, A Very Special Holiday Special provides these opportunities in its eight short plays, all world premieres by Mark Harvey Levine. They lean toward secular views of Hanukkah and Christmas (with a brief mention of Kwanzaa), subtly urging warmth and tolerance for all while not forgetting faith and faithfulness.
   The show presumes a sense of humor, plus historical and religious perspectives, in its audiences. For example, the opening play is only for those who can cope with the idea that Judaism predates Christianity but neither predates a nice brisket wrapped in aluminum foil.
   However, first comes the pre-curtain speech that is anything but, considering that it’s very much part of the show and that there’s no curtain, meaning actors don and doff costume bits just out of sightlines.
   The speech features the entire cast, seven actors from among the company’s best, reading a heavily doctored version of a beloved Christmas poem, managing to rhyme kosher with brochure. It lets the audience quickly adjust to the crisp comedic delivery and swiftly morphing characterizations we’re treated to throughout.

Then comes “Oy Vey Maria.” Yes, the newborn baby Jesus has a grandma (Madeleine Drake) who arrives, brisket in hand, apparently uninvited and late because of traffic. Grandma is clearly tetchy that those three wise guys got a better welcome from the postpartum Mary (Margaret Schugt) and the concomitantly passive Joseph (Bill Wolski).
   In “The Light,” Wolski and Daniel Tennant play guards in ancient Jerusalem tasked with watching over a one-day supply of oil, keeping the flame burning for seven more. While Tennant’s guard is cranky and easily distracted, Wolski’s guard is steadfast, letting us know we can sometimes help miracles along.
   “I’ll Be Home for Brisket” takes place at the house of siblings: the supper-cooking Martha (Susie McCarthy), the feather boa–wielding Mary Magdalene (Schugt) and the accident-prone little brother Lazarus (Amanda Karr). Here, a centurion (James Rice) comes to carry out a census despite the transiency of the guests, tallying in Roman numerals, his jokes earning rim shots from the Little Drummer Boy (Tennant).
   In “A Very Special Hanukkah Special,” a George Bailey-esque Murray (Rice) learns it’s a good thing Hanukkah isn’t as commercially successful as Christmas is.
   “Oh, Tannenbaum” stars Rice as a husband and Schugt as a talking Christmas tree, as they spend an early morning sharing worldviews. Throughout, the tree lovingly needles vegetarians and promotes botanical equality.
   In “Best Present Ever,” Karr plays a harried pet owner who eventually notes the finest gift we exchange with our animals. McCarthy is the bouncy dog, and Wolski is the luxuriating cat with an Iberian accent.
   “You Better Watch Out” finds a Buddhist couple being visited by militants in July who insist on knowing why the Christmas decorations aren’t up yet. Tolerance triumphs.
   In the spirited finale, titled “Les Miserabelves,” the cast zips through the best of “Les Miz” songs, spoofed for the holidays, to tell, loosely, the story of Rudolph (Wolski) and his pyrrhorhinosis.

Throughout the show, references to television’s many animated Christmas specials by Rankin/Bass Productions flood the stage, some coming so quickly they pass before they can jog the memory. Lines from Christmas carols, instantly recognizable, constitute bits of the dialogue.
   But linking the plays are serious themes of respect, broad-mindedness and inclusiveness.
   Director Holly Baker-Kreiswirth, having perfectly cast her actors, amps up the humor but keeps the tone just gentle enough, adding poignant touches. Visual jokes enhance verbal ones, while the eight plays hurtle along in completely controlled mayhem.
   Stacey Abrams’ lighting design plays up the ranges of tenderness and silliness in the stories. But costumer Diana Mann, for her work in this show and others over the year, deserves whatever she desires for whatever holidays she celebrates—or all of them.

November 14, 2016

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze.

 
Nov. 11–Dec. 17. 777 S. Centre St., San Pedro. Fri-Sat 8pm. (No perf Nov. 25. Additional perfs Thu, Dec. 8 and Dec. 15 at 8pm; Sun, Nov. 20, Nov. 27, and Dec. 4 at 2pm.) Running time 1 hour and 50 minutes, including intermission. $27, $25 for seniors. (310) 512-6030.

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Urinetown: The Musical
Coeurage Theatre Company at Lankershim Arts Center

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Robert Collins, Daniel Bellusci, and Ted Barton
Photo by Nardeep Khurmi

With an overpowering sense of dread about the future of our society overshadowing everything we do these days, there couldn’t be a better time for the indomitable Coeurage Theatre Company to resurrect this boisterously biting 2001 political satire—which, when it debuted in 2001, was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and winning for Greg Kotis’s book and Kotis and Mark Hollman’s score. With a malignant and power-hungry magnate in charge who vows to “bring our message of hate to the entire world,” to say Urinetown: The Musical was ahead of its time is almost insulting; right now at this time in our history, it’s sadly right on the money.
   With that pesky climate change our own new “leader” insists is fictional having become so harsh and the drought so severe that it’s now illegal for citizens to expel their bodily fluids without queuing up at public utilities where they pay a fee to relive themselves, the prospects for America the Scary is depicted—albeit with outrageously wicked humor—as prophetically dim and dystopian. If the huddled shivering citizens waiting in endless lines and hopping on one leg don’t agree to the cost hikes slapped on them by the greedy Urine Good Company, they are shipped off to Urinetown, a mysterious place where the detainees disappear without a trace.
   Kotis and Hollman pay continuous deference to those who came before them, with continuously crafty flashes of homage throughout to such musicals as Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, and Evita. More pointedly, Urinetown is instantly reminiscent of the then-radical agenda lurking just below the brio in those brazen musical classics by Brecht and Weill. The early rendition of the raucous title song could be right out of Happy End, and there’s a lot of Mother Courage in Janna Cardia’s dynamic turn as facilities manager Penelope Pennywise, particularly as she fiercely belts out, “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” her hands placed firmly on her hips as though about to launch into “Alabama Song.”

Just like performing Brecht, Kotis and Hollman don’t make it easy on the performers or the audience, all of whom must link their imaginations together and traverse the fourth wall fearlessly as narrator Officer Lockstock (the deliciously malevolent Ted Barton) educates curious Raggedy Ann clone Little Sally (Nicole Monet) that too much exposition destroys a good show or that sometimes in a musical it’s easier for the audience to pay attention to one big theme rather than lots of little themes.
   The performances are eager and meticulously rehearsed, the ensemble gamely honoring Christopher M. Albrecht’s spirited choreography, which fills the stage with energy and a wonderful sense of irony no one who’s ever been part of the creation of a musical could possibly miss. Even one knockout understudy on the night reviewed, the engagingly youthful Ethan Barker, was completely able to meld into the breakneck musical numbers without a hitch. These performers could easily present Urinetown in repertory with The Threepenny Opera without having to alter their delivery, strike Matt Scarpino’s suitably downtrodden set, or change out of the perfectly distressed rags designed by costumer Emily Brown-Kucera.
   Daniel Bellusci is a standout as fresh-scrubbed resident hero Bobby Strong, the lowly public latrine attendant who leads a Les Miz–inspired rebellion against Urine Good Company and its owner, mustache-twirling villain Caldwell B. Caldwell (Gary Lamb). Everything good flushes down the toilet for Bobby when he realizes his new love interest, Hope (Ashley Kane), is the daughter of the dastardly Caldwell and has been groomed Trump-style by her father. She’s now recently returned from graduating from the most expensive university in the world where she majored in learning how to manipulate great masses of people.

The direction, by Kari Hayter, is akin to watching a sporting event: without filter, visually nonstop, and willing to go so far over the top the company could make a fortune selling whiplash collars. Brandon Baruch’s lighting is also a major asset, with jumbled strings of household lighting tumbling across the front of the stage, offering glaring footlight illumination for group scenes, interspersed with handheld light bulbs random cast members crouch down to shine in the faces of the principals as they ace Kotis and Hollman’s bittersweet ballads. Keyboardist Peter Shannon does a fine job as the production’s only live musician, a feat made more impressive by the full-blooded, precise musical direction of Gregory Nabours.
   As Officer Lockstock reminds us, dreams come true only in happy musicals—oddly a little like life right at the moment even without an accompanying score to lighten the load. This unbelievably inventive and exceptionally unique revival of an exceptionally unique musical provides some much-needed laughs at a point when so many of us need a break from licking our wounds. Without a doubt, however, it will also gradually sink in that there’s a much deeper message here, meant to produce a simmering rage reminiscent of Peter Finch in Network that, hopefully, makes everyone who sees it realize that, like the manipulated residents of Urinetown, the fight against avarice and dominance—and for justice and ethical treatment for all—is just beginning. Pee freely, my friends, it’s our inalienable right.

November 20, 2016
 
Nov. 5–Dec. 3 (no perf. Thanksgiving Day; added perf. Wed, Nov 30 at 8pm). 5108 Lankershim Blvd. Thu-Sat 8pm. Pay what you want. (323) 944-2165.

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Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Kelly Sheehan, Jeremy Benton, Sean Montgomery, and Kerry Conte
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

In a season when it might be harder than ever to muster up a little holiday cheer while considering arming oneself or building a bunker in the basement, leaving a gorgeous historical architectural wonder in Hollywood after having been magically snowed upon from the Pantages Theatre’s ornate art deco ceiling could cure—or at least temporarily abate—that more than usually unshakable case of yearend angst.
   It’s typical for the Hollywood film industry to try to capture the magic of a hit Broadway musical extravaganza, but in the case of White Christmas, the highest-grossing motion picture of 1954, it’s just the opposite. Director-choreographer Randy Skinner and bookwriters David Ives and Paul Burke have charmingly adapted the beloved and timeless movie and its score by Irving Berlin into a massive, incredibly colorful, delightfully campy stage experience.
   With phenomenally vibrant and inventively cinematic scenic design by Anna Louizos and painstakingly accurate, blindingly sparkly costuming by Carrie Robbins, if this production was anymore Christmassy, its audience would be overcome by poinsettia overload. Even the plaid woolen winter coat worn by Conrad John Schuck as military hard-nose–turned-innkeeper General Waverly is subtly striped in red and green, and the skaters’ heavy outerwear glistens with flashes of glitter.
   The story is lifted directly from the film, as is the original corniness of the acting style. Sean Montgomery and Jeremy Benton channel their inner Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, the former WWII soldiers who go from battlefield entertainers to Broadway stars. Montgomery tends to push the mugging a bit harder than necessary, but when he settles into General Waverly’s failing Columbia Inn in the snow-challenged Pine Tree, Vt., he relaxes his side-of-mouth delivery and becomes far more endearing—especially when trying to get the General’s granddaughter Susan (Samantha Penny, alternating the role with her twin sister Clancy) to go to sleep with a beautiful rendition of Berlin’s Oscar-nominated balled “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”

Unlike the original pairing of Crosby and Kaye, Benton is the more subdued partner, though he is just as engaging as his predecessor. And when he and Kelly Sheehan, effervescent in the Vera-Ellen role of Judy Haynes, link arms to dance, the entire stage opens up. This is particularly true in the dynamic “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” which lets their classically trained roots show through the stage full of dreamlike smoke. Their precise partnering continues with their Act Two opening number, “I Love a Piano,” backed by the ensemble of shiny-faced dancers tapping their talented little hearts out, which elicits a spirited applause lasting so long the heavily-breathing company members have trouble staying in their final tableau.
   And what an ensemble this is. This troupe could out-Rockette the Rockettes. Often in long-touring shows, the company can look a little shopworn, but this cast is perfection in the dizzyingly energetic choreography of Skinner. The line is as in-sync and on-target as any that has recently graced this well-trod Hollywood roadshow venue.
   In contrast to the other members of the story’s quartet of star-crossed lovers, Kerry Conte in the Rosemary Clooney role of Betty Haynes is sweetly understated, keeping her place until the character branches out in her New York debut at the Regency Room, taking the spotlight with a knockout torchy version of “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me.”
   It’s wonderful to see Schuck onstage again, so lovingly curmudgeonly that one wants to go onstage and hug the guy, especially after his final monologue to his reconstituted troops come to cheer on “The Old Man” in his hour of need. If anyone thinks no one could ever tug the heartstrings as brilliantly as Dean Jagger did in the film, think again; Schuck’s General is equally memorable without tapping into the over-the-top style of the rest of the production.

Still, the greatest treat of this year’s visit from White Christmas has to be in the casting of Lorna Luft as the Inn’s acerbic Eve Arden–clone concierge Martha Watson. Luft brings down the house with her spectacularly theatrical rendition of the classic Al Jolson tuner “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” which, perhaps without meaning to, becomes a nostalgic and loving tribute to her mother, Judy Garland, the quintessential interpreter of the Berlin standard. As Martha tells little Susan, who decides to give up her homework to become a song-and-dance kid, “You don’t learn that, sweetie…you’re born with it.” Luft’s voice and physicality so uncannily brings her illustrious mother to mind that it might even bring tears to the eyes of crusty old theater critics.
   Then there’s the finale. Not only is the sufficiently warmed audience more than ready when Montgomery asks those gathered to sing along with the title song “if you know the lyrics,” when the real, cold, meltable snow begins to fall on the house and its patrons, one might even be able to swallow your bile and wish Ebenezer Scrooge or Donald Trump or the Grinch himself a very merry Christmas.

November 30, 2016
 
Nov. 29–Dec. 4. 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours, 30 minutes, including intermission. $35–187. (800) 982-2787.

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Icebergs
Gil Cates Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Jennifer Mudge, Nate Corddry, and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe
Photo by Jeff Lorch Photography

Playwright and up-and-coming TV writer Alena Smith has written something so trendy and so indigenous to Los Angeles you can almost smell the scent of pumpkin spice latte wafting through the night air around the Geffen Playhouse.
   Screenwriter Calder and his insecure actor-wife Abigail (Nate Corddry and Jennifer Mudge) share a lovely plant-filled home in the wooded hills of Silverlake where the two most important things in their lives have become a fixation: to see Calder’s newest project turned into a major feature film and for Abigail to get pregnant, since both are desperate to add a little stability to their ephemeral and, of course, season-deprived existence.
   Their houseguest Reed (Keith Powell), a scientist visiting from Missouri to speak at a conference, was a college roommate of Calder’s, and the two old friends’ lives have exploded into very different directions. Reed has a 2-year-old daughter with another on the way and is anything but a cheerleader shouting the joys of fatherhood to Calder, whose life without strings and a surfboard leaning against the wall of his rustic living room sounds just about perfect to him.
   Smith creates the quintessential scenario of the modern industry-wannabe Angeleno couple, Calder hoping to get a major star to play the lead in the film he wrote for Abigail, which at least on the surface seems to be more of an issue to everyone but her. Her best friend since childhood and current neighbor Molly (Rebecca Henderson) finds the situation appalling, even as her 2-week-old marriage to a woman she met through a roommate ad on Craig’s List is already falling apart. Meanwhile, Calder’s Hollywood slickster agent Nicky (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) hopes his client won’t shit a star on the Walk of Fame because Kirsten Dunst’s “people” are considering the project—as long as Calder is willing to change the hero’s climactic death-by-mack-truck into something that can leave potential audiences with a happier ending. The script, by the way, is based on a true story. Hooray for Hollywood.

The icebergs of Smith’s title refer to both a pack of several thousand polar bears that the manic-depressive and climate change–obsessed Abigail hears about, currently stranded on a tiny rapidly melting ice floe in the Arctic, a place she envisions as becoming “like Glendale or something.” But Icebergs also refers to the possible fate of these people themselves, trapped in a shaky lifestyle that could have a future as ominous and doomed as the world’s crumbling ecosystem. There’s not much about Icebergs that isn’t predictable, and Smith’s kid vs. no kid subplot begins to suffer from overkill. But although there’s a pervasive air throughout reminiscent of a modern cable TV comedy we could all stay home to watch instead of fighting holiday traffic to Westwood, fortunately Smith writes so well we are still absorbed into the excursion, floating through the polar night without wanting to change the channel.
   Complete with an onstage earthquake, everything latter-day Spicoli is introduced or referenced here, from alien invasions, tarot cards, crystals, IMDb ratings, and Trader Joe’s to a spiritually aware pet cat named Taco. Then there’s the prevailing conviction that weed is too “basic” to help the group’s collective depressive mood yet there’s the comforting notion that Calder and Abigail could move to Topanga and raise their future child as members of a secret urban communal tribe. Even for transplanted Midwesterner Reed, his visit also makes him feel like he’s trapped in a real-life action movie.
   The actors are all adept at making this work despite the obvious traps, with Corddry and Mudge rising gracefully above the stereotypical nature and journey of their characters. Powell impressive as Reed, especially near the end when he admits to his friends the reason that he is down on parenting is that being black in today’s America is both frightening and exhausting. “But what if being a provider,” he wonders aloud, “means taking something away from her.”
   Henderson and Near-Verbrugghe, however, leave the most indelible impressions as Molly, the diehard feminist trying to conceal her fragility and overpowering sense of loss, and Nicky, the goofy but somehow endearing Martin Short-like air-kisser who does not seem to know that Missouri and Mississippi are two different places. Director Randall Arney has guided his performers well in finding the complexities of Smith’s inner-screaming characters, although sometimes his staging is forced and clumsy, every move anyone makes seeming to always end with all five actors spaced evenly across the front of Anthony T. Fanning’s strikingly Silverlakean set.

Perhaps one suggestion in Icebergs could sum up what we might all take away from Smith’s tale, the conclusion that we are all, really, doing just fine in our lives—as long as we stay off the Internet and resign ourselves to the fact that “life is a mess, life is tragic, and things don’t always work out.”
   Cheery, that, but at least we’re all in it together. Pass the pumpkin spice latte.

November 26, 2016
 
Nov. 16–Dec. 18. 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood ($5 validated parking around the block adjacent to Trader Joe’s). Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission. $32–90. (310) 208-5454.

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The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe: Revisited
Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Ann Noble and Charlotte Gulezian
Photo by Ken Sawyer

Lily Tomlin won a Tony Award in 1985 for playing all the characters in her partner Jane Wagner’s epic solo play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, turned into a movie in 1991. Still, in a clear indication of how many times great art, particularly comedic art, germinates over long periods of time, the earliest incarnation of these characters and some of the material first appeared way farther back, in December 1975, when Wagner and Tomlin tested their wares before an appreciative live audience at San Francisco’s Boarding House, metamorphosed from the Troubadour North only a couple of years before. I remember the occasion well, as I booked Tomlin’s infamous engagement into the club during my tenure as talent coordinator of the two classic folk-rock venues.
   Although it’s hard to decipher from the program and publicity who should be credited for sparking the idea for a fully staged, 12-actor reinvention of this solo play, this “revisiting,” now premiering at the Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, is as classic and as relevant as the original. What degree of personal attention to the transformation was given by Wagner is also not apparent, one might assume a majority of the credit should be given to the Center’s frequent contributor Ken Sawyer, who directs the piece with his signature brilliant ingenuity.
   On a smartly versatile stage designed by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz that seems created to only heighten Nicholas Santiago’s dazzlingly barrage of artistic period projections, all the now familiar characters created by Wagner and Tomlin are split among members of the outstanding ensemble—including a knockout and lovingly Tomlin-esque turn by Charlotte Gulezian, who introduces the evening as Trudy, the former executive–turned–bag lady who insists she converses with the space aliens looking for answers in the play’s very title.
   Ann Noble is hilariously acerbic as Kate, the grandly Beverly Hills-y client spouting dry evaluations of life and culture while waiting for her hairdresser to rinse her out. Other standouts include Sasha Pasternak as the dour, angst-ridden goth teen Agnes, for whom nothing in the world could possibly be good, and Rachel Sorsa and Julanne Chidi Hill as a pair of hookers telling all to a writer doing a story on working girls. Kristina Johnson is memorable as Lyn, whose character offers a fascinating CliffsNotes version of the evolution of the era’s escalating feminist movement, although the otherwise right-on costumer Paula Higgins hopefully chose a different visual statement than the distracting leotard top Johnson wore for opening night.

As this is the first incarnation of Revisited, further rearranging of the material should be considered, as the section featuring Johnson’s evolving young wife discovering and subsequently becoming disillusioned by her feminism gets overly long and weighs down the second act. Perhaps if the tale of Lyn and her equally fascinating cohorts in the movement were split into two parts, the first inserted into the more engaging and less heavy first act, the audience could leave feeling a little less shelled by verbal artillery fire. That sort of fluidity in Wagner’s work, so well solidified by Tomlin’s ability to jump from one character to the next, could surely be explored by Sawyer and his exceptionally talented company.
   That initial tryout of this “new” material by Tomlin during her Boarding House appearance 41 years ago garnered its own controversy, not for the beginnings of Wagner’s iconic exploration into activist humor but because one night Tomlin, encouraged by San Francisco’s typically openhanded audience response, stayed on after her second set until the wee hours of the morning to try out a new character: a spoiled, stoned-out celebrity railing at the audience about her luminosity and fame, a prophetic feminist Donald Trump way before its time.
   Unfortunately, as 7am approached and Tomlin’s roadie implored the last remaining 50 or so audience members to leave, many others who walked out along the way never realized Tomlin was doing an Andy Kaufman–inspired routine. They thought she had truly gone off the deep end and was not still performing but speaking as herself—something that seemed to make the performer even more eager to offend. The story of that night reached a national audience, including the National Enquirer, which wrote: “Lily Tomlin of Laugh-In fame went bananas on stage at San Francisco’s Boarding House. Lily stunned fans when she suddenly stopped her show and launched into a wild, senseless political harangue. She had to be led off the stage.” It was a hatchet-job I debunked in Rolling Stone magazine in a statement that stopped the tale from continuing.
   I thought back then that not many comedians are as able to perfectly fool Mother Nature, but then not many comedians are Tomlin, who blazed the path for so many others. Seeing the LGBT Center’s richly worthy reboot of The Search for…, I realized again one thing that so clearly contributes to any gifted performer’s ability to bravely go where no one has gone before: a writer as brilliant and as in tune with the universe, its foibles, and its wonders, as Wagner.

October 23, 2016
 
Oct. 8–Dec. 11 (no perfs 11/13, Thanksgiving week). 1125 N. McCadden Place, West Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $30. (323) 860-7300.

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