Arts In LA
Theater Reviews
 
The Madres
Skylight Theatre

Reviewed by Harker Jones

Arianna Ortiz, Natalie LLerena, Margarita Lamas, and Alexander Pimentel
Photo by Ed Krieger

Stephanie Alison Walker’s The Madres is a searing, devastating look at a movement that swept Argentina in the 1970s. Set in 1978, the play focuses on Josefina (Margarita Lamas, who trades off with Denise Blasor), a housewife who buries her head in the sand at the political upheaval surrounding her; and her daughter, Carolina (Arianna Ortiz), who is a dissident, rising up against the patriarchy. Carolina’s daughter, Belén (Natalie Llerena), is pregnant in Paris with her boyfriend, or so they tell neighborhood priest Padre Juan (Gabriel Romero), who has turned traitor, and the boy next door, Diego (Alexander Pimentel), who has grown into an immature soldier, both of whom come sniffing around trying to find out Belén’s whereabouts. At the same time, Carolina is aware of a woman always sitting in a car outside, ostensibly watching their every move.
   The story is harrowing, not least because it is based on true events. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo was a movement of women who marched through Buenos Aires as they searched for their children who had disappeared right off the streets.
   Originally wearing white cloth diapers with their missing children’s names stitched into them on their heads (the white being in defiance of the color black, which would symbolize that they were mourning their lost children), the scarves came to represent their movement for human rights.
   It’s a simple setup with just the five characters but it’s heartbreaking. The writing isn’t in-your-face pushing issues at us, thankfully. It’s sensitive and thought-provoking, and our entrée into their world is as comfortable as Josefina’s apartment (courtesy Christopher Scott Murillo) and the costumes (courtesy Jojo Siu), both of which are bright and warm and inviting. You feel both at home but also on edge. There’s clearly something in the air.

Director Sara Guerrero brings Walker’s words to vivid life and elicits fantastic performances from all five actors. The three generations of women (with a fourth on the way) are wildly diverse in character and performance. Lamas is sympathetic and understandably frightened. One can understand why she wants to just pretend everything is fine. By upending things, she could make things even worse. Ortiz’s Carolina is spiky, vulnerable, fierce, and protective, and one understands why she marches. By remaining silent, no change will come and more children will disappear. And Llerena’s Belén is terrified, enraging, sad, and desperate. She gives a knockout performance with depth and grace.
   Romero’s Padre Juan is a perfect coward still trying to skate by on a former sheen of benevolence. And Pimentel’s Diego is a quivering mass of insolence, condescension, and insecurity. He’s become a mini dictator because the military has instilled a sense of entitlement in him, and you can see, as he throws his weight around, the awkwardness and insecurity of a boy pretending to be a man.
   The Madres is not just a solid and moving reminder of Argentina in the ’70s. It puts a human face on political tragedies without being preachy, which isn’t always an easy balance. And it’s particularly timely with the oppression happening in this country these days. It should inspire us all to put on a white headscarf and march in front of the capitol under our own oppressive political regime.

March 20, 2018

March 3–April 29. 1816-½ N. Vermont Ave., L.A. Fri-Sat 8:30pm, Sun 2pm, Mon 8pm. Running time: 108 minutes, including intermission. $15–$41. (213) 761-7061.

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Pizza Man
Pop Up Theater at an undisclosed location

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Emma Chandler, Freddy Giorlando, and Raleigh West
Grafton Doyle

Misogyny, mania, mayhem, oh my! All are on full display in playwright Darlene Craviotto’s cleverly crafted snapshot of the mental states of two women, each at the ends of their individual ropes. In keeping with this company’s unique choice of venues, the piece is presented in an oversized, loft-like apartment located deep in the heart of Hollywood. Amid the complete trappings of this actual living space, director Jamie Lou and a more-than-capable cast of three pull off a uniquely engaging production.
   Julie and Alice, played by Emma Chandler and Raleigh West, are a seemingly mismatched pair of roommates. Julie has lost her job as the result of having spurned her boss’s crude romantic advances. Though she is normally the levelheaded member of this unlikely duo, the result is a series of reactions that skyrocket from depression to destructively violent behavior. To her credit, Chandler pulls it off with admirable aplomb even when Craviotto’s script requires near uncontrollable rage.
   Balancing the tale is Alice, dumped by a married man who, after a 13-month tryst, has decided to return to his wife. The perfect foil to her roommate’s unpredictable displays, Alice is at times wisely sympathetic, almost maternal in nature, and at the very next moment hilariously obtuse. West’s top-notch comedic sensibility and timing offer countless moments of respite from what could have been merely a melodramatic tale of wallowing self-pity.

As the two come together to support, cajole, even harass each other over the depths to which their lives have disintegrated, it becomes obvious that the male gender is the root of all evil, or so they opine. What’s the answer? Why, revenge, of course! And who better to take out their frustrations on, with Julie dragging Alice along compliantly, than the title character who arrives bearing culinary sustenance.
   As Eddie, the soon-to-be hapless target of Julie’s rage, Freddy Giorlando holds his own in the face of this tidal wave of estrogen-fueled malevolence. Just as with his two female counterparts, Eddie ricochets between excitement over his good fortune in being “taken advantage” by two attractive women and unbridled fear when the situation start to go south. Giorlando is consistently believable in this occasionally farce-like set of circumstances, which lends great credibility to the play’s climax and resolution.
   Given the true-to-life setting, production values are, in a word, “realistic.” Lou does a fine job of allowing her cast to utilize numerous spaces around this locale, all of which are within eyesight of her audience. It’s an intriguing way to experience a play that is anchored by a trio of very fine performances.

February 8, 2018
 
Feb 2–24. Fri-Sat 8pm. $25 for general admission, $35 for reserved seating.

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What Happened When
Echo Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Harker Jones


Ellen Neary and Chris Stack
Photo by Darrett Sanders

Daniel Talbott’s What Happened When is a claustrophobic, intense, and harrowing familial drama in the guise of a horror story. Set in a bedroom with red-paint (or blood-) spattered walls, three siblings huddle on a bed in an old farmhouse. Elder brother Will (Chris Stack) spins yarns about the fantastic life they’ll have in the hazy future, while sister Sam (Ellen Neary) lies essentially comatose at his feet and younger brother Jimi (Randall Clute) trains a flashlight on the walls and ceiling. What are they hiding from? What are they afraid of? Ghosts? Goblins? Ghouls?
   Turns out to be something far worse. And far more real.
   Beginning in 2009 and unspooling every three years until 2015, the siblings’ secrets and tragedies are revealed through Talbott’s natural and fluid script, with conversations of hopes and memories moving the story ahead with a sense of dread and doom hanging over every word. The dialogue is mostly oblique, so the audience is obligated to pay attention and piece the mystery together. There are no expository interchanges to act as guideposts as free-wheeling dreamer Will, sensible Sam, and sad, vulnerable Jimi see their dreams slip out of sight and find comfort in diverse ways, Will turning to alcohol and sex, Jimi disappearing inside himself, and Sam…well, you’ll see.

Director Chris Fields allows the stage to breathe and the actors to take their time with the dialogue, to sit with their emotions, while some directors would make the misstep of allowing them to spiral into melodrama. Stack gives a mesmerizing and powerful performance, naked in many ways. He commands attention with the slightest flicker across his brow. Clute’s Jimi carries the weight of his world, and he gives a very internal performance. He allows us to see the emotional and psychological scars without drawing attention to them. He’s the light and the emotional center of the story.
   The show is immersive in the sense that some of the seats are practically on the stage. That said, it’s such an intimate theater that, no matter where you sit, it feels like you’re interacting with the characters, which imbues an uncomfortable feeling of being complicit in their tragedies. It’s effective staging, especially for such a hushed and raw piece, and one with such mature material and adult themes.
   Scenic designer Amanda Knehans nails the feel of a rural farmhouse and the poor people who live there; sound designer John Zalewski keeps a background roar of sound constant throughout, adding a sense of existential unease, especially considering there is no score, just pop songs played through transitions to show the passage of time; and lighting designer Rose Malone casts the stage in stark angles and shadows with a reddish glow, creating a horror-movie sensation, all of which engender a wholly chilling experience of isolation and suspense.
   The show is short, but you’ll come out of it dazed from the emotional roller coaster ride its riveting ghost story of loss, dysfunction, and devastation takes you on.
  

April 19, 2018
 
April 12–26, July 25–Aug. 23, and Sept. 26–Oct. 18. 3269 Casitas Ave, LA. Tue-Thu 8pm. Running time 65 minutes, no intermission. $34.

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Sell/Buy/Date
Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Harker Jones


Sarah Jones
Photo by Chris Whitaker

Sarah Jones is a fluid, smart and wickedly incisive performer. After tackling the complexity of immigrant lives outside Manhattan in Bridge and Tunnel, playing every character in a series of monologues (Meryl Streep even produced the Off-Broadway production), she’s now taking on sex: again playing a litany of roles in her self-penned Sell/Buy/Date.
   Staging her work as a college seminar with the audience as the students, Jones starts by playing posh British professor Dr. Serene Campbell, lecturing on the plight of sex workers in the 2010s from the vantage of some unspecified time in the future, prostitution having long been legalized. Having hooked her pupils up to B.E.R.T. (Bio-Empathetic Resonant Technology) modules, she explains they will be able to truly experience the thoughts and feelings of sex workers who were interviewed long ago about the quandaries of their lives. A framing device concerning Campbell’s personal life—including her mother, an impending promotion, and a secret she fears will derail her career—are a little jarring, but it gives depth and humanity to the professor, who otherwise might be just a one-dimensional mouthpiece for the other characters Jones spotlights.

And she spotlights many: a middle-aged Jewish-American homemaker; a Bay Area, Valley Girl–talking, feminist, sex work–studies major; a pimp-turned–motivational speaker named Cookie Chris; a Trinidadian prostitute who claims she’s Jamaican because it’s more marketable; a bro dude at his bachelor party who doesn’t understand his casual sexism; an Irish woman who was sent to a convent after an affair with an older man and who was forced to give up her baby when she was just a teenager.
   Jones’s extensive research and interviews with women from all walks of life who ended up in the sex-work industry have yielded characters—men and women, straight and gay, old and young, black, Asian, white—who are fleshed out, complex, and unique. Jones slips into each seamlessly (sometimes even as they interact with each other), her timing and energy and rhythm and posture and timbre and body language informing them with almost no props and the only costume change being a pair of glasses. It’s astonishing.
   The show and its themes of the commodification of sex and the exploitation of women would have always been timely—and certainly was when it premiered in 2016—but it is particularly and painfully so right now in the age of the #metoo and Time’s Up movements and the assault scandals rocking Hollywood and Washington. As it was prescient and provocative at the time, its trenchant observations about today’s politics and mores are almost painful now as it’s difficult to imagine that our sexual puritanism regarding women will ever lead to an eventual liberation.

Director Carolyn Cantor helps Jones breeze through an 85-minute running time, and with so few props and only one actor, the lighting design by Elizabeth Harper, sound design by Jonathan A. Burke, and original sound design and score by Bray Poor play integral roles in setting the stage. They hit all the right marks, creating a striking and sharp atmosphere of unease.
   Like in an episode of Black Mirror, by setting the show in the future, Jones helps us look back at our current troubled times with perspective. For a show with such dark themes—sex trafficking, prostitution, economic and gender disparity—Sell/Buy/Date isn’t as stark or horrifying as it might sound. Jones uses a spoonful-of-sugar approach: There’s a fair amount of levity, and each character brings an entirely new energy to the stage. Surprisingly, because it doesn’t get quite as dark as it might, the point is muted, but just a bit. Considering the horrors going on in the world, though, probing too painfully might have ended up as simply painful and not have the resonance that this production does.

April 4, 2018
 
Feb 27–April 15, 2018. 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 85 minutes, no intermission. $65-$85. (310) 208-2028.

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Guys and Dolls
Musical Theatre West at Carpenter Center

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Blake Joseph, Matthew Henereson, and Andrew Metzger
Photo by Caught in the Moment Photography

Based on Damon Runyon’s short stories “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure,” Guys and Dolls has enjoyed nearly continuous revivals worldwide since its Broadway production in 1950. With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book co-written by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, the universal appeal of couples working out their romantic problems amid Runyon’s colorful New York denizens makes it nearly timeless.
   Nathan Detroit (Matthew Henerson) is looking for a place to hold his famous “oldest established permanent floating crap game,” and frustrated cop Lt. Brannigan (Kenny Landmon) is hot on his trail. Aside from his crap-game dilemma, his 14-year fiancée Miss Adelaide (Bree Murphy) is pressing him for a marriage date.
   Along comes Miss Sarah Brown (Madison Claire Parks) and her missionary co-workers who hope to provide salvation for the gamblers, showgirls, and street folk who populate Broadway. Because of a bet Nathan makes with gambler Sky Masterson (Jeremiah James) that Sky can’t take Miss Sarah to Havana, Guys and Dolls has two sets of leads who can deliver Loesser’s impressive collection of songs. While their stories might be enough to carry the show, Runyon’s penchant for creative names and outsized personalities adds an irresistible charm to the supporting characters. Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Andrew Metzger), Benny Southstreet (Blake Joseph), Rusty Charlie (Bobby Underwood), Harry the Horse (Ted Barton), Angie the Ox (Michael Stumfig), and Big Julie from Chicago (Phil Nieto) all distinguish themselves as prototypical gamblers. Director Mark Martino has a skilled comic touch, and he balances romance and burlesque successfully.

Loesser created sure-fire standouts among the songs. Murphy’s “Adelaide’s Lament” over her recurring illnesses, Henerson’s “Sue Me” as he tries to win back Adelaide, Parks’s carefree “If I Were a Bell,” and James’s ardent” Luck Be a Lady” are notable and enjoyable moments in the show. Loesser’s “Fugue for Tinhorns” also makes a winning opener with its colorful and lively choreography by Daniel Smith.
   Of course, “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” is always a highlight, led here by Metzger, and in this production another appealing number is provided by Sarah’s grandfather, Arvide Abernathy (Fred Bishop), whose wise “More I Cannot Wish You” is warm and sentimental. Though Parks has a beautiful classically trained soprano, in “I’ll Know” her power overwhelms James, taking away from the appeal of the back and forth of this budding attraction. Martino might have downplayed this to greater effect. They are better balanced in “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.”
   From the Hot Box Girls (Judy Fernandez, Veronica Gutierrez, Katie Marshall, Veronica Musselman, Isabella Olivas, Alissa Wilsey) to the Crap Shooters (Joven Calloway, Danil Chernyy, Brandon Taylor Jones, Joe Komara, Tanner Hampton, Darren Shin), Smith includes impressive acrobatics in his production numbers. When combined with music director Benet Braun’s fine orchestral accompaniments, the show is big, bold, and delightful. Colorful costumes by Tamara Becker, fine sound by Audio Production Geeks LLC, and key lighting by Paul Black round out the noteworthy elements of the production.

This is Musical Theatre West’s 65th season, which by any standard is an impressive accomplishment. Its consistent quality and artful choices keep audiences and supporters faithful. In Guys and Dolls, humor, great music, and well-cast characters combine to produce a highly entertaining revival.

February 20, 2018

Feb 16–Mar 4. 6200 E Atherton St, Long Beach. Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6pm. Running time approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, plus intermission. $20–92. (562) 856-1999, ext. 4.

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The Chosen
Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Harker Jones


Sam Mandel and Alan Blumenfeld
Photo by Ed Krieger

Based on Chaim Potok’s classic novel of the same name, The Chosen is an intimate four-character play about two Jewish boys coming of age through the backdrop of World War II. Our hero and narrator, Reuven (Sam Mandel), fatefully meets his BFF Danny Saunders (Dor Gvirtsman) through a heated street baseball game in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1944. At first adversaries, the two boys, who couldn’t be more different despite growing up only five blocks from each other, realize they have more in common than they would have ever thought.
   Reuven is a smart-aleck Orthodox math whiz. Danny, wildly smart with a photographic memory, is a Hasid on track to replace his father as rabbi and tzaddik, a religious leader and spiritual master, even though Danny wants to study psychology. Reuven’s father (Jonathan Arkin) is kind, open-minded, and generous, while Danny’s (Alan Blumenfeld) is pious, closed off, and cold. But times are changing, and none of the men swept up in them are able to resist change.
   Marking the 50th anniversary of the novel’s publication, the play (adapted into a well-received film in 1981) is a story we’ve seen countless times before, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t merit in it. The themes of religion versus science, fathers versus sons, tradition versus progress are always relevant. Potok’s play, which he and Aaron Posner adapted from his novel, paints deft portraits of the characters without falling into melodrama.

Director Simon Levy gets sensitive performances from his ensemble. Gvirtsman’s Danny is open, soulful, and tortured between his obligations and his yearnings. Gvirtsman is a good listener, too. Blumenfeld, as his father, is pitch-perfect as a man guided by God to lead his people and struggling to understand how not just the world but also his son are changing.
   Levy stages much action and many locations—two homes, a hospital, a softball game, and a college campus among others—with one backdrop. It’s a beautiful, sumptuous set of a wooden library with countless books, showing off how learned both of the boys’ families are. And that’s one of the things that creates such friction between the boys and their fathers, and between the families: Both are intellectual and have been steeped in education. Lack of knowledge is not an issue. Finding compromise is. And who isn’t that true for?

January 30, 2018
 
Jan 20-May 7. 5060 Fountain Ave, Los Angeles. Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm, Mon 8pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $20-$40. (323) 663-1525.

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Disney’s Aladdin
Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz


Adam Jacobs
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann & Deen Van Meer

The stage production of Disney’s Aladdin, now playing at the Pantages, is charismatic family programming that highlights the 1992 film’s score by Alan Menken, Tim Rice, and the late Howard Ashman, with additional lyrics by Chad Beguelin. But the evening cannot compete with the grandeur and limitless nature of animation, nor can it reincarnate the film’s greatest special effect, the gargantuan portrayal of the Genie by the late Robin Williams.
   In fictional Agrabah, a fanciful Middle Eastern city, a street hustler (Adam Jacobs) finds a genie (Michael James Scott) in a magic lamp who grants him three wishes that he uses to charm his true love, the princess Jasmine (Isabelle McCalla). If only he can thwart the evil Jafar (Jonathan Weir) and his sidekick Iago (Reggie De Leon) from exposing him for their own nefarious machinations.
   The score features all the great songs from the film: “A Whole New World,” “Prince Ali,” and the showstopping Act 1 finale, “Friend Like Me.” The new songs, some written specifically for the stage show, fit the original style and are welcome additions. “Proud of Your Boy,” which had been written for the movie by Menken and Ashman before being cut, ranks with the beloved princess who long songs like “Part Of Your World” from The Little Mermaid and “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast.
   Chad Beguelin’s book is problematic, mostly because the added characters add no dimension. Aladdin’s friends Babkak, Omar, and Kassim have several fun numbers (two, like “Proud of Your Boy,” had been written by Ashman during the film’s genesis), but their characterizations are of thin architypes. They are given too much stage time not to be fully fleshed people. The villains have been rewritten to be bland and feckless. Though much of their dialogue comes from the movie script, here Beguelin (book and lyrics) keeps the conversations between Aladdin and Jasmine charming and heartfelt. Weir projects zero menace as Jafar, and De Leon is so wishy-washy one wishes for Gilbert Godfrey to reprise his film role.

Jacobs is winning as the title character, a role he originated on Broadway. With a grin wide enough upon which to project a Cinerama movie, Jacobs balances the boy’s coyness, desperation, and good-heartedness. McCalla is empowered as the princess who follows her heart and mind, not the laws written to imprison her. Scott is as suave as a gambler from Guys and Dolls, doing his best to shatter the image of Robin Williams, but he feels earthbound, particularly when repeating lines Williams launched into outer space. Not the fault of his performance, but the Genie doesn’t carry the show as he does in the movie.
   Casey Nicholaw’s choreography is inventive and rollicking, borrowing from Middle Eastern, Bollywood, and Broadway techniques. His direction keeps the musical moving to a jazzy beat. But he doesn’t go grand enough. The show needs more razzle-dazzle, more magic. The ensemble is too small, particularly in the “Prince Ali” number as well as other crowd scenes. Even with the same size cast, Nicholaw could have found innovative ways to simulate a cast of thousands as Harold Prince did in the Masquerade number of Phantom of the Opera or even in a goofy way like Tommy Tune had with his football players/cheerleaders in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Though the director has the ensemble change clothes and run back into the procession, once everyone gathers on stage, the number feels too intimate.
   Gregg Barnes’s costumes are stylish and colorful. He utilizes the breakaway effect well. Bob Crowley’s sets are ordinary and seem like 1950s painted backdrops, except for the Genie’s lair for the Act 1 finale, which evokes depth and splendor. Illusionist Jim Steinmeyer has one ace up his sleeve, and it’s a doozy. It’s impossible to comprehend how he made that carpet fly, but neither beams nor cables were visible to the audience for keeping that traveling rug up in the air. The effect is not even shrouded in darkness. The rug floats in front of a large, bright moon where even a keen observer must admit that only the supernatural could invoke that contraption to defy gravity. The show needs more spectacle like that.

A polished return to the old-fashioned musicals of the 1950s and ’60s, Aladdin will delight children and keep adults tapping their toes. Though the creators were unable to vanquish the ghosts of the movie, the cast drags the audience into this fantastical world.

January 13, 2018
 
Jan 11–Mar 31. 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $35–$205, “subject to change.” (800) 982-2787.

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