Arts In LA
Theater Reviews
 
Go Back to Where You Are
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


John Fleck and Justin Huen
Photo by Enci Box

Just when you think no one could possibly fashion yet another riff on the timeless work of Anton Chekhov, David Greenspan proves once again there are no limits to the ways of paying respectful but inventive homage to the Russian master.
   On an ocean-side bleached-wood deck on the east side of Long Island that could be beamed up and set down anywhere to depict Madame Arkadina’s country estate in The Seagull, or the patio of Frank and Maria’s summer house in Charles Mee’s Summertime, or Conrad’s makeshift outdoor stage in Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, it doesn’t take actors meandering onto designer Nina Caussa’s starkly Hockney-esque playing space with wistful seaward expressions on their faces to know where this is going.
   Yet, Greenspan manages to find something new while honoring the old. Speaking of beaming things up, his arrestingly lyrical Go Back to Where You Are travels from tableau to tableau, where pairings of his eccentric, lonely characters can tell each other—or the audience—what’s on their minds. Thanks to his evocative poetry, Greenspan never moralizes, creating wonderfully multifaceted characters who incessantly whine about their lot in life without making us wish they’d down their cocktails and shut the fuck up.

Bernard (Justin Huen), a frustrated unpublished playwright with perpetual writer’s block, and his classically two-faced Broadway stage star sister Claire (Shannon Holt) host a party at the family beach house, where her old comrade and newest director Tom (Bill Brochtrup) arrives quarreling with his partner Malcolm (Jeffrey Hutchinson) to discuss the first time they will be working together in 15 years.
   Her son Wally (Andrew Walke) is also present for the questionably cheerful soiree, as is Claire’s dear old friend Charlotte (Annabelle Gurwitch), whose career has been nothing as successful as Claire’s. For all the male characters in the play, when not air-kissing half-hearted hellos to one another and conveniently prone to taking long walks along the shore and cliffs above the property, one shared problem seems to haunt each one: men.
   Wally is reeling from his boyfriend’s death, and Bernard’s long-dead partner is equally mourned, while Tom and Malcolm appear to be pondering if such a solitary existence might not be all that bad. From the beginning beats, as Huen wanders onstage behind the seemingly unprepared person giving the welcome speech reminding us to turn off cellphones and unwrap candies, Bernard continues the dialogue directly to the audience, wondering where he is, physically and in life, and questioning what he’s doing at the time—which might just be writing the play we are about to see. His sister will soon warn those in attendance that his writings “go here, then there” to the point where viewers might need a map to keep up. But Bernard explains clearly that what’s about to unfold is going to be weird, a fact he reminds of a couple of times before final bows.

Into this eclectic mix of unfulfilled acquaintances and duplicitous family members drops an angel or spirit or resident of purgatory named Passalus (the truly inimitable John Fleck), an failed ancient Greek actor send by a hoodie-wearing God (Hutchinson) to help the conflicted group get their heads out of their proverbial butts and see the beautiful sunrises from their ascetically pristine party deck. To get the job done as quickly as possible, Passalus decides a good way to avoid detection is to pass himself off in an alternate persona, as well—that of a fluttery, proper, RP-accented elderly British visitor named Constance Simmons.
   Coupled with the fact that Passalus falls madly in love with Bernard, Greenspan’s imaginative scenario provides a clever chance to add a little Michael Frayn-ian farce to the proceedings; if the set were not so austere, there might even be room for a few slamming doors. God returns to Earth to criticize Passalus and remind him that the consequences of not accomplishing his mission would not be his desired oblivion but instead would damn him to an eternally fiery end, especially if his ruse is detected by the mortals.
   Working through the scattered puzzle pieces of this script, with its lack of coherent chronology and demanding a seamlessly insouciant delivery of each elegiac pronouncement cannot be easy for any director or cast to realize. But thanks to this talented veteran ensemble led by stage magician Bart DeLorenzo, watching this dense but sweetly romantic play unfold becomes an exciting, almost dreamlike experience.

Each performer is top-notch, but all spend most of their time deferring to Fleck whenever he is onstage fearlessly taking chances only about three performers could pull off. His quirky interpretation of Passalus is often as frantic and jaw-dropping as any of the famed performance artist’s celebrated one-person creations, solidifying once again that Fleck unequivocally could be the answer to a Jeopardy question about what constitutes an intrepid artist, someone one who courageously left his filter buried in the sand about the time Passalus donned his first toga and carried his first spear into the arena at Epidaurus.

July 23, 2016
 
July 16–Aug. 28. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Alternating Wed or Thu (check theater’s website), Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $10-34. (310) 477-2055.

www.odysseytheatre.com

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The Eccentricities of a Nightingale
Pacific Resident Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Brad Greenquist and Ginna Carter
Photo by Vitor Martins

This Tennessee Williams play has been said to be about good and evil, illusion and reality. Being by Williams, it’s poetic. But onstage at, directed by Dana Jackson and with her thoroughly superb cast, mommy and daddy issues reach out and clutch at the audience’s throats.
   As a rewrite of his 1940s Summer and Smoke, Eccentricities feels more real, more of a psychological study and less of a classical display of symbolism. At its core, Alma Winemiller remains the eccentric nightingale, the not particularly gifted singer with the quirky mannerisms. But her spine feels steelier here, her understanding of herself is deeper. And perhaps because of this new, “improved” Alma, she is more contented with herself. We now cringe for the others around her, not for her.
   As in Summer and Smoke, Alma lives in the closed system of the Mississippi Delta just before World War I. Status depends on job titles. Popularity is based on conformity. Appearance is everything. Alma is a spinster, trying to do what her martinet father demands, trying to rise above the neighbors’ malicious misguided thoughts about her mentally ill mother.
   Oh, is she eccentric. But she is her own woman. So she can’t and won’t change for anyone. That’s apparently what draws her next-door neighbor, young physician John Buchanan, straight to her.

However, all this subtext would not be this apparent without the compassion and admiration director Jackson and the actor playing Alma clearly feel for that character. That actor is Ginna Carter, in a performance of a lifetime.
   Those who’ve seen an Alma in other productions might, frankly, be dreading a revisit with her. She can be grating, evoking disdain or pity. Not here. Here she is such an interesting, involving character, the play’s nearly three-hour running time slips by.
   There’s plenty of acting technique in here, too. Carter vibrates, not with faked, shaky distractions but with a tremendous life force that cannot be stilled. Alma’s scripted gestures have been well-considered. Even her vocal quirks have charm.
   No wonder John seems to treasure her here. Andrew Dits plays him in a remarkably subtle, also respectful performance. John understands Alma, calms her without squelching her energy, admires her, and likely is attracted to her.

But, oh, does he ever have a controlling mother. Mrs. Buchanan claims to care only that her sonny boy marry a fitting woman, not this preacher’s odd daughter with the lunatic mother (played with gentle otherworldliness by Mary Jo Deschanel). But when mommy (played to chilling smugness by Rita Obermeyer) comes into John’s bedroom, strokes his head of curls, and gives him a rather salacious foot rub, we wonder about her ultimate goal.
   Some of John’s connection with Alma likely stems from his observation, conscious or subconscious, that her father is equally controlling, but much colder about it. Rev. Winemiller (a seething, vitriolic Brad Greenquist), captive in a behavioral prison of his own making, is a ramrod, and if he can’t cruelly prod Alma into conformity, he’ll freeze her out of whatever affections he may have.
   Even in small secondary roles (decades ago, playwrights included plentiful such characters because producing budgets allowed them), the acting is polished and era-conjuring. Alma’s acquaintances—a circle of misfits, each with his or her own odd baggage—are played with care and charm by Paul Anderson, Joan Chodorow, Choppy Guillotte, and Amy Huntington, particularly good as they listen breathlessly to an offstage conversation between John and Alma. Derek Chariton plays the strange young man ensnared by Alma’s unfortunate newfound existence at the play’s end.

Helping create this eccentric world, Kis Knekt’s scenic design of Spanish moss and faded grandeur creates a dreamscape, presided over by the stone angel symbolizing and named Eternity. It’s not a set we want to move in to, but it firmly evokes time, place, and mood and holds us there.
   Williams has said Alma is his favorite character and the one closest to him. After seeing this paradigm-shifting production, it’s likely audiences will feel much the same.

July 8, 2016
 
June 18–Aug. 14. 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. Street parking or free parking behind the theaters. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. $25–34. (310) 822-8392.

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Four Chords and a Gun
Bootleg Theater

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Matthew Patrick Davis, Johnathan McClain, Michael Daniel Cassady, and James Pumphrey
Photo by Kim Zsebe

The specter of fame daunted the miscreant members of the original 1970s punk rock band The Ramones. They were four schleppy dudes from Queens, slouching around in leather bomber jackets to give them credibility, who couldn’t believe there was an audience who respected and understood them. For Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Marky Ramone—aka Jeffrey Hyman, John Cummings, Douglas Colvin, and Marc Steven Bell, respectively, their names inspired by Paul McCartney’s pseudonym Paul Ramon during his Silver Beetle days—it was kinda like “reverse high school,” a time when they were surely anything but the popular kids.
   Playwright John Ross Bowie has combined fact with fiction to reimagine the events leading to the creation of the band’s fifth album, “End of the Century,” for which the band teamed with the music business’s most infamous sociopath Phil Spector to finally afford it the unprecedented hit it needed so badly. Journeying from New York, where Joey has been camping out for years on their manager’s living-room couch and the others still lived with their parents, the band members experience intense culture shock when they arrive at Spector’s massive LA mansion and are greeted by the legendary Lugosi-cape-clad music producer in his own lair. It’s a place so grand that they keep getting lost in its multitude of rooms. Their host doesn’t fare much better himself, having no idea whether one of the many priceless acquisitions gracing his walls is a Monet or a Degas or if it’s French or Dutch.

The Ramones’s days are long and difficult, working under the oppressive guidance of the persnickety Spector (a flawlessly creepy Josh Brener), who describes himself as a little Jewish munchkin with asthma, panic attacks, and an overwhelming need to prove himself. He clashes with Johnny (Johnathan McClain), an avowed anachronism as perhaps the world’s only conservative Republican punk rocker. But Spector craftily forges a special bond with the severely OCD-afflicted Joey (Matthew Patrick Davis), whom he describes as “another New York yid stuck in the wrong desert.” He knows Joey is the real star of the group, with a voice he says sounds like an “angel with a dick.”
   During the album’s volatile months of sessions, Spector prophesizes his future by repeatedly pulling his gun on the band members, culminating when he sticks its barrel in the mouth of the blissfully zonked out Dee Dee (Michael Daniel Cassady) to make Johnny return to the studio to set down the four guitar chords he has been tinkering with for four hours straight.
   Spector is miserably frustrated by the band’s lack of a work ethic, aware of what its potential could bring him if the quartet wasn’t so fucked up: Johnny on his John Birch–fueled anger, Joey with emotional issues so severe he doesn’t like to go outside, Dee Dee quelling his nerves with massive amounts of drugs, and Marky (James Pumphrey) all but stymied by his world-class lethargy. This all makes for a fascinating and often hilariously conflicted story, although inevitably the play gets a tad bogged down as the four slowly, painfully spiral downward.

This is not to say this cast isn’t completely spectacular and gloriously unfiltered; that Bowie’s script isn’t enormously clever, lightning quick, and uproariously funny; or that director Jessica Hanna’s brilliant staging isn’t continuously kinetic, an impressive feat in which even the scene changes are choreographed to fit each band member’s quirky body language.
   McClain is particularly noteworthy as Johnny, acting only from the nose-down as the rest of his face peers out from below wigmaker Lauren Wilde’s signature Johnny Ramone bangs, his vocal calisthenics and burdensome slouch totally nailing the conflicted rocker who lurched around with the weight of the world squarely on his shoulders. Cassady is also a standout, although Dee Dee’s continuous pacing and coke-fueled nervous energy often pulls focus when it should not. Arden Myrin provides a memorable presence as Linda Daniele, the squeaky-voiced bimbo groupie who leaves Joey for Johnny, causing the guys to never speak to one another again through years subsequently spent touring and performing.
   The work chronicles a period when the music business though it would change the world as no one had ever done, then got so continuously wasted and bogged down by the trials of life that only a fraction of what might have been transformed and improved actually happened. In that regard, this play succeeds magnificently, a seamless though sad tribute to the broken dreams and lost opportunities that crushed a promising generation.

July 11, 2016
 
The theater offers free childcare kids ages 4–12, for Sunday matinee performances.

July 7–July 31. 2220 Beverly Blvd., downtown LA. Thu-Sat 7pm (note early curtain), Sun 2pm. $25-30. (213) 389-3856.

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Church & State
Skylight Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Annika Marks, Tracie Lockwood, and Rob Nagle
Photo by Ed Krieger

Although the concept seems rather improbable in this era, playwright Jason Odell Williams speculates about one uncharacteristically unaltered politician still capable of having a honorable thought all his own. Obviously, Williams’s Church & State is a work of fiction.
   Three days before his demanding narrow-minded constituents head to the polls to do their gloriously self-serving civic duty, North Carolinian Sen. Charlie Whitmore (Rob Nagle) is in a quandary. As his campaign’s theme song, “Jesus Is My Running Mate,” plays over the loudspeakers just before he speaks at a major rally, the hand-slappin’ good ol’ boy is experiencing a moral watershed moment. It’s only been a few days since a mass shooting inside one of his state’s grade schools has taken 29 young lives and, as a typically rapacious politician seeking a photo op, he travels to the site where children’s blood is splattered all over the classroom’s art projects and American flags. Before he can strike a pose looking grim and spout a few hollow promises for the cameras, he experiences a life-altering crisis of conscience.
   At the memorial service, Charlie has an epiphany: that living without fear is more important than second amendment rights, religious faith, or “our country’s antiquated laws.” When approached by a young blogger (Edward Hong) who is shocked when the candidate says he did not pray for the children, he is asked pointblank if he really believes in God. Charlie, in his troubled emotional state, does the most politically incorrect thing he could ever do, wondering aloud if it’s possible to believe in a god who would let such things happen. Charlie then vows to not waste time on prayer when there’s so much work to be done, a statement that goes viral just as he’s about to take the podium.
   Charlie’s bible-thumping, Kim Davis-haired, Spanks-wearing wife, Sara (Tracie Lockwood), and his abrasive stereotypical Jewish campaign manager Alex (Annika Marks) are horrified when they google Charlie’s interview before he hits the stage and realize what is about to go down. The problem is exacerbated when he declares his intent to abandon his carefully prepared speech and talk directly from his heart. Alex, who was hired to keep the senator on track but is now dealing with a boss who wonders if she’s even “in the same car anymore,” believes the move would be political suicide. Sara, who is the kind of person who assumes Alex is a lesbian because she’s a Democrat from New York, for once agrees with her.

Under the brilliant directorial eye of Elina de Santos, this cast could not be better. Despite Alex’s formulaic limitations, Marks avoids the inherent traps written into her role as the hardly decorous campaign manager fighting for her own career as well as that of her candidate, something that could have afforded the character a more satisfying conclusion if she didn’t oddly all but disappear from the play’s concluding scene. Hong does wonders with two small roles, the other as the intern who, when asked his opinion, humbly states he thinks we should all not be so hung up on “what our book says and what their book says.”
   Still, the true genius here was in the casting of Nagle and Lockwood as the fantastically feudin’, tenderly lovin’ Charlie and Sara. Their performances are richly nuanced and disarmingly real in roles that could wipe out lesser actors within the play’s first beats. Lockwood is endearing as the loud and ridiculously opinionated wife zealously protective of her husband and her faith, and Nagle takes our breath way as Charlie. This is especially true in a flashback scene set in two different periods of time, as Charlie recounts and simultaneously re-creates his interview with the offending blogger.
   As his emotional state darkens his demeanor, and later in the delivery of the senator’s impassioned speech about his dilemma and plea for assistance from his constituents to help him get the feet under him again, Nagle is dazzling. Together, Lockwood and Nagle make complete sense of their characters’ frustrations and verbal skirmishes, able to clearly show how the couple’s love for each other will survive no matter what the outcome of the guy’s pivotal re-election.

This is a mesmeric production of a captivating, thought-provoking new play sure to only advance the career of a promising new dramatist. Still, although the outcome of Charlie’s re-election is a surprise, it’s one of the few surprises in an otherwise brightly intelligent and often hilariously on-target script. It is deserving of high praise and well worth the committed participation of this spectacular cast and production team, but if you don’t see the ending coming in the first 10 minutes of its 80-minute running time, you might just be brain dead. Perhaps, sadly, this is because we’ve become so hardened by the tenor of the times in which we live.

July 4, 2016
 
July 2–Aug. 14. 1816-1/2 N. Vermont Ave. Sat 8:30pm, Sun 3pm. $15-39. (213) 761-7061.

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In & of Itself
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Derek DelGaudio
Jeff Lorch Photography

Derek DelGaudio’s world premiere In & of Itself proves him to be a captivating performer and a mesmerizing illusionist. He is not quite yet the philosopher he purports to be, but kernels of interesting ideas weave through the piece—such as making personal pain disappear like a house of cards.
   The show borrows from old routines of cabaret magic acts, from one-man confessional shows, and from ancient myths and stories. Somehow, though, under the direction of Frank Oz (yes, the puppetry artist), the various strands come together for a freshly visual piece.
   Six alcoves in an upstage cinderblock wall hold the beautiful props that DelGaudio uses throughout, all under the vibrant lighting designed by Adam Blumenthal. At least, we think they’re alcoves.
   It’s also a moody piece, with paradoxically soothing yet disquieting music by Mark Mothersbaugh (yes, front man for Devo).

“Magicians” often use pomposity to shake their audiences’ confidence in their own perceptions. DelGaudio is anything but pompous, though snarkiness creeps in during a few of his seemingly improvised asides.
   Secrets and individual elements of the show won’t be spoiled here. Just know that brief, non-embarrassing audience participation is available, to those who want it, by merely standing up during the show’s impressive finale.
   But before that, DelGaudio builds his premises brick by brick (yes, a reference to something in the show). All is perception, including our individual identities, he tells us. Chance, fate, a bit of sculpting, and lots of hard work make us who we are and make this show what it is.
   The show uses the startlingly reconfigured Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater (the 99-Seat space) at Geffen Playhouse to bring the audience almost on top of the action. Even from an aisle seat, though, some of the illusions are not fully visible. At the problem’s worst, an origami boat gets deliberately knocked to the floor, where it may or may not have seemed to disappear.
   The work also includes a convoluted bit about inviting an audience member to come back the next night, which leads into an extreme stretch to get another audience member onto the stage.

The show’s root problem, though, is that it’s exceedingly difficult to be thinking about what DelGaudio is saying while watching what he’s doing—whether it’s intricate handiwork with a deck of cards or the seemingly random resorting of letters in stacked mail slots. Given the subject matter, we’d like to be paying full attention to his thoughts. But the illusions are far more intriguing.
   And yet, at the top of the show, he says, half-accusingly and half-sorrowfully, “You think I’m a liar.” We want to hear what he wants to tell us. We want to know that the audience member who seems to randomly pick out a letter from a stack honestly didn’t know he was picking out a letter written to him by a family member.
   We want to believe that the video of the card work is live.
   We want to believe that DelGaudio is not, as he tells us, a liar.
   Maybe that’s the magic of being an audience member.

May 13, 2016
 
May 11–Aug. 7. 10886 Le Conte Ave., LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 65 minutes. $100-$150. (310) 208-5454.

www.geffenplayhouse.com

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Sierra Madre Playhouse

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Richard Van Slyke and Stanton Morales
Photo by Gina Long

In the grand scheme of things, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is only as good as its cast, and Sierra Madre has that nailed with a terrific ensemble who enliven William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s amusing take on competition among the young.
   The story is simple: A group of middle-school winners of previous bees are gathered to determine the contestant who will go on to the national competition. Combat is fierce, and who will win is anyone’s guess.
   Former winner and local realtor Rona Lisa Peretti (Gina D’Acciaro) is in charge of the bee, and she is joined by Vice-Principal Douglas Panch (Richard Van Slyke), a nervy deliverer of words, definitions, and sentences that pack a lot of the humor of the show.
   The third adult in the scenario is Mitch Mahoney (Jaq Galliano), a rough and rugged offender doing his community service by giving the losing contestants a hug and a juice box. Though the focus in on the children, the adults deliver a plethora of funny and touching moments throughout.

The first child we meet is Chip (Joey Acuna Jr.), an appealing boy scout whose song, “My Unfortunate Erection,” portends early elimination. Next is Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (Hannah Leventhal), her school’s gay and straight alliance leader, with two pushy dads.
   Then there’s Leaf Coneybear (Robert Michael Parkinson), who designs his own clothes and is third-place winner of his local bee. He is a surprise selection because winners 1 and 2 are at a bar mitzvah. William Barfée (Stanton Kane Morales), whose attempts to get the judges to pronounce his last name correctly are futile, is awkward and has a magic foot that helps him spell the words.
   Olive Ostrovsky (Cristina Gerla), whose mother is in India in an ashram and father is absent from the event, offers the most affecting portrayal in the production as she pines for affection in “I Love You.”
   Last up is Marcy Park (Joy Regullano), a parochial-school whiz whose deadpan demeanor belies her inner child. Her considerable prowess at acrobatics, musical talent, and facility with six languages are showstoppers.
   Four additional cast members are selected from the audience, and, at the performance attended, they were a delight. Minimally prepared ahead of time, they handled their words like spelling bee pros.

Director Robert Marra gives his actors plenty of leeway for individual portrayals, and the production is crisp and nicely paced. Though the musical numbers are mostly vehicles for spotlighting the characters, Joe Lawrence’s musical direction is excellent, and Marra’s choreography keeps things lively. The voices are universally outstanding in every number.
   Jeff Cason’s set and lighting create a realistic gym with its concrete block walls and adjustable bleacher seats that serve the cast well. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes are inspired, particularly William’s and Leaf’s.
   Though the emphasis is on humor, the story packs a punch as insecurities and issues of acceptance are all too realistic. Adults playing children can often be a bit precious, but these actors are spot on as they fully inhabit each quirky character. This is a true ensemble piece that is notable for its polish and high quality.

July 27, 2016
 
July 8–Aug. 21. 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Ample free parking behind the theater. Schedule not announced. $20–35. (626) 355-4318.

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One of the Nice Ones
Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Rodney To and Rebecca Gray
Photo by Darrett Sanders

The prevalence of negative body image issues in our image-obsessed society has hardly been ignored as a subject for scathing and darkly extreme contemporary comedies. Why, Sheila Callaghan and Neil LaBute have practically made it a cottage industry. Yet, finding something fresh in an overworked theme isn’t the kind of challenge from which playwright Erik Patterson is known to walk away. Not only does Patterson offer a brand-new twist to the overworked topic, he also throws in a heaping dose of sexual politics in the workplace.
   Going in for a performance review is a trepidatious event for any insecure underachieving employee, especially when being forced to face one of those many people who seem to operate more from a rush of power than as a levelheaded spokesperson for their boss. And for Tracy (Rebecca Gray), a wheelchair-bound telephone solicitor employed by a sketchy weight loss company, the stakes are even higher, since she’s been denied a rather specialized surgical procedure the firm’s insurance carrier will not authorize.
   At first the panicking Tracy, nervous to the point of hyperventilation, is told by her superior (Graham Hamilton) that despite her drastically low performance levels, her job is secure. But when she shamelessly begins to compliment and cajole Roger, eventually pleading for him to confide to her what’s really going on, he admits she’s high on the list to receive a pink slip at the end of the week. She has one card left to insure her future with Tenderform Weight Loss Systems—and it happens on her back, spread-eagled across Roger’s desk with her crisp professional office-wear skirt hiked above her waist and the pair humping like rabid jackrabbits to The Carpenters’s otherwise lulling “Rainy Days and Mondays” pumped over the firm’s loudspeakers.

Familiarity with the body of work churned out by Patterson is reason enough to strap oneself in and prepare for a bumpy ride after Tracy and Roger make the Beast with Two Backs in full view of their surprised audience, but in deference to the unfiltered creativity established by the play’s darkly twisted creator, it would be almost sinful to reveal any of the play’s rapid twists and turns, something virtually impossible to accomplish without giving away some more delicious downward-spiraling ramifications from the randy co-workers’ inappropriate office…performance.
   Under the mercilessly bold direction of Chris Fields, Gray and Hamilton are courageous and wildly committed at playing One of the Nice One’s central not so nice residents. Although the play basically belongs to them, Rodney To as a sheepish—but well-endowed, we learn—co-worker and Tara Karsian as a customer Tracy has talked into coming into the office for a consolation, are both golden additions to Fields’s sparkling cast.
   Amanda Knehans’s whimsical and versatile set—imagine if Pee-wee Herman had outgrown his playhouse and went to work in an office—is a colorful addition to the fun, but it is Patterson’s mischievous mind and unsanitized wit that makes One of the Nice One infinitely nicer than the socially damaged characters he has invented.

July 25, 2016
 
July 16–Aug. 21. 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm & 7pm. $30. (310) 307-3753.

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Tennessee Williams UnScripted
Falcon Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Ryan Smith, Lauren Rose Lewis, and Nick Massouh
Photo by Sasha Venola

With the faint metaphorical scent of magnolias lingering in the air and more than enough Southern charm to fill the bill, this brilliantly multifaceted group of improvisational experts pays homage to one of America’s greatest playwrights. Sparked only by the offering of an audience-suggested family heirloom (on opening night, it was a brass bowl), director Brian Lohmann along with cast and crew set out on a hilarious trek through the literally unknown.
   Due to the company’s rotating set of cast members, not only is the storyline a mystery to all concerned but its development is no doubt influenced by whoever has pulled duty at any given performance. On the night reviewed, Lohmann and a stalwart half-dozen took the bull by the horns, leaving the enthusiastically supportive audience rolling in the aisles.
   Some characterizations, more than others, were clearly modeled after those from Williams’s better-known works such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Floyd Van Buskirk’s performance as Mr. Toby, proprietor of a mountaintop resort in Florida (the source of oxymoronic humor throughout the show) was slyly reminiscent of Burl Ives’s Big Daddy, including an otherwise unexplained second-act appearance in a wheelchair. Meanwhile, Kelly Holden Bashar, playing the sultry Melinda Fairweather, channeled a perfectly executed knockoff of Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie. Holden Bashar’s interactions with her sympathetically forlorn husband Robert “Bobo” Fairweather, played by Lohmann, and Ryan Smith’s mysteriously sensual Chance, a stranger to this group of vacationers, were remarkably well-crafted and effective in advancing the plotline.

Ably toting the water bucket of humor were Dan O’Connor and Kari Coleman as the blue-collared Richmond “Skudge” McHenry and his hypochondriacally discombobulated wife, Roberta. O’Connor was a master of snarkiness as he capitalized on details and missteps offered by his fellow actors, while Coleman’s ability to interject with character-driven non-sequiturs was spot-on perfect.
   Likewise, Edi Patterson was a stitch as Carnelian, the resort’s chief cook and bottle washer, whose bizarre name came about during a moment in which she and Lohmann became temporarily tongue tied. Instances such as these are what make witnessing this company’s work so much fun due in no small part to the adroitness with which they are able to mine comic gold from a mere hesitation or slip of the brain. It’s never done as a Gotcha but rather from the collective refusal to pass up an opportunity to add to the chaos.

While the onstage shenanigans take part on designer Michael C. Smith’s appropriately crafted scenery—complete with wicker porch furniture, ivy-covered clapboard walls, and even a corrugated tin moon conspicuously hung upstage center—there’s collusion afoot in the tech booth. Stage manager Madison Goff is responsible for lighting the show as it progresses, while her assistant, Alex Caan, adds musical underscoring and sound effects. What’s most interesting is the influence they have, at times, on just how long a scene plays out or is brought to completion. It’s a symbiotic relationship that rarely fails.
   On the night reviewed, the production offered a perfectly constructed arc of middle, beginning, and end. Revelations and rebirth of relationships came to a believable conclusion much as with Williams’s seriocomic pieces. What any other performance in this run turns out to be is what makes attending this company’s work a visit marked by anticipatory excitement.

June 22, 2016
 
June 17–July 31. 4252 Riverside Dr. Fri 8pm, Sat 4pm & 8pm, Sun 4pm. $29–44. (818) 955-8101.

FalconTheatre.com

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The Engine of Our Ruin
Victory Theatre Center

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Steve Hofvendahl and Tim Ryan Meinelschmidt
Photo by Tim Sullens

In a season when our country’s fractured political system is at the pinnacle of comedic illogicality, the world premiere of Jason Wells’s hilarious and smartly absurd play corresponds with the reality show unfolding around us. “If we’re the smartest thing on earth,” a character comments on the flawed and destructive nature of humans, “it’s because we figured out how to do the measuring.”
   Inhabiting a luxurious hotel suite in an unnamed Middle Eastern country—kudos to Evan Bartoletti’s spectacularly appointed set and prop designer Alessandra Hajaj’s subtle but suitably gaudy accoutrements, described in the script as resembling a Byzantine whorehouse—a team of American diplomats has been sent by the US government to broker a deal with the foreign country’s scary powder keg of a regime. The idea is to exchange some of our obscenely overflowing corn surplus for anything that will reduce mistrust between the two governments. But, thanks to a hired interpreter with an agenda of her own, things go awry more rapidly than in a farce by Ken Ludwig, even without the slamming doors.
   Under the sure and solid directorial hand of Maria Gobetti, whose crafty and wonderful little physical bits and touches are everywhere and enhance Wells’s tale immeasurably, a stellar ensemble cast works through the ever-increasing misunderstandings and foibles that, although beginning as a simple mission that could have probably ended with a friendly handshake and a back-slapping trip downstairs to the hotel’s bar, turns into a convoluted mess that could initiate World War III if not quelled in a hurry.

One of the slyest and most daring conceits here unfolds in the first scene, in which the American contingent (Tim Ryan Meinelschmidt, Shannon McManus, Gregory Hoyt, and Spencer Rowe) meets with the other country’s top diplomat (Brian Abraham) and his gung-ho assistant (Ryan P. Shrime), and the sabotage from the female interpreter (Zehra Fazal) begins immediately.
   No matter how innocently the Americans offer their corn, told by their higher-ups that it makes no difference what they get in return as long as it eases tensions, everything they say is instead misinterpreted to mandate equality for the country’s women and demand the creation of a Women’s School of Law and Engineering unless they want war.
   The difficult task here for Gobetti and her actors is that, although both groups speak two languages, all the dialogue is delivered in English—although the performers morph from proper English to Borat-speak whenever they try to communicate in the other’s tongue. This takes a few minutes for the audience to grasp. Once the ideas and the rhythms are established, however, the effect is impressive.
   At first, Meinelschmidt seems to be annoyingly oratorical, as though barking all his lines in homage to the late Phil Hartman, but this bombastic speaking voice—which beyond his character’s stuffy Eastern seaboard upper-crusty exterior reveals a sincere effort to his serve his country and ace what he sees as an important mission—is totally intentional. It’s a risky choice for actor and director, but it’s a brilliant choice. Hoyt is also a standout as his goofy, terminally clumsy aide who wants to get all this hokum done so he can party hearty, as is Rowe as the understated security guy who just may or not be a plant from the CIA.
   As their government overseer, Steve Hofvendahl takes his one long scene, wearily, grumpily trying to make Meinelschmidt’s green envoy get his convoluted drift, which involves possibly disposing the country’s dictator, and steals the show. As Hofvendahl blasts the stupidity and naively pretentious demeanor of his government’s chosen negotiator, he clearly defines what a world-wearying job it is to pull the strings of international politics, finally, with a maddened headshake, whining to the skies that what he’s trying to suggest is the most exasperating act of treason he’s ever been assigned to commit.

This is a beautifully written, exceptionally mounted, wonderfully shrewd topical comedy. But, for all of us reeling from the fears and threats that ignite the world with hostilities and rampant paranoia, if you’re not already scared out of your wits that our planet could be doomed by the ridiculousness of our destructive actions, when you wipe away the tears of laughter, this play should do the trick.

June 2, 2016
 
May 27–Aug. 14. 3324-6 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. Ample street parking is available; additional parking at the Northwest Branch Library, directly across from the theater. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm. $24-34. (818) 841-5422.

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Kingdom of Earth
Odyssey Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Susan Priver and Brian Burke
Photo by Michael Lamont

What do celebrated actors like Estelle Parsons, Lynn Redgrave, Geraldine Page, and even Marianne Faithful have in common with LA’s own veteran theatrical stalwart Susan Priver? They are all truly gifted artists who for some reason agreed to portray Myrtle Kane in one of Tennessee Williams’s most puzzling and challenging later plays.
   First surfacing in the late 1960s and thereafter subject to many restructured and even retitled incarnations, Kingdom of Earth came at a time when the 20th-century’s best dramatist’s ability to still write arrestingly poetic language—and fabricate the by-then typical bizarre situations in which he always placed his characters—was still intact. After Williams’s many years of drugs and alcohol abuse mixed with disastrous reviews heaped on whatever he churned out after that decade began with his final hit, The Night of the Iguana, it tragically became all but impossible for him to construct a coherent storyline or create a clear or accessible character arc for anyone to assay.
   Most of his other twilight plays were vilified when they have since proven to have been given a bad rap, and today many are recognized to have been way ahead of their time. This is not the case with this one. Even as the later The Seven Descents of Myrtle or tidied up in a screenplay by Gore Vidal and directed by Sidney Lumet for the cinematic Redgrave vehicle The Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots, nothing seems able to save poor Myrtle Kane, a character so annoying one wishes the escape route to roof of her new in-laws’ Mississippi Delta farmhouse might be blocked from access when the play’s pivotal floodwaters come. As Vincent Canby noted in his The New York Times review of that unsuccessful 1970 film, this one is a “slapstick tragicomedy that looks and sounds and plays very much like cruel parody—of Tennessee Williams.”

Myrtle (Priver) is a minor New Orleans showgirl who may or may not have made more money on her back as an afterhours independent contractor who meets and quickly marries Lot Thorington (Daniel Felix de Weldon) on a local TV reality show where the prize money was dependent on their union being finalized. Myrtle desperately hopes she can finally pull a Blanche DuBois and settle down with the first guy she meets willing to put a ring on it, so she blissfully journeys with him to the rural farm he inherited from his beloved mother to take over as the matriarch of the household.
   Why poor dumb Myrtle can’t see what a ridiculously light-loafered fellow her new hubby is, not to mention that he appears to be in the final stages of TB, are the most glaring omissions in Williams’s writing here. This is hampered not only by the master’s inability to be, as he himself later noted of the play, not “in the condition to refine” his characters when he wrote it, but de Weldon is also surprisingly not helped much to crawl out of his character’s neon-lit trap by director Michael Arabian. His Lot in life is bogged down by the vapors and allowed to fall headfirst into every queeny attitude ever feigned by an actor.
   Brian Burke as Lot’s adversarial half-brother Chicken, reclusive caretaker of their ancestral house, fares better, but like his stage partners, his is a character with no place to go. A rather offensive subplot involving Chicken’s mixed race heritage, which has literally nothing to do with the story except to allow Williams to drop the n-word with no reason but to shock during this period when he was no longer trying to work within the bounds of artistic pressures to stay commercially viable, would be interesting if it had a real point.

Although Shon LeBlanc’s costuming survives the storms, scenic designer John Iacovelli is hampered by the Odyssey’s difficult Theatre 2, with its two-sided audience configuration, while John Nobori’s inexplicably strange sound cues are more worthy of an original feature on the SyFy Channel, and Bill E. Kickbush makes matters worse with his clunky and glaringly nonorganic lighting plot.
   Still, two things  make this an interesting journey despite its multitude of negatives. The first is the place Kingdom of Earth holds in the fascinating history of Williams’s career, with the tragic disintegration of his genius here smack-dab in the middle of the period when he admits he was “hardly conscious” most of the time. The other wonder of the production is Priver, who soldiers on despite having anything but a silly cartoon character into which she bravely endeavors to breathe life.
   With all the incredibly colorful heroines created by Williams before substance abuse and encroaching madness dulled his powers to create coherent characters, it’s a shame an incredible actor like Priver, obviously perfect to get under the skin of one of Williams’s flawed Southern belles, isn’t appearing as one of those ladies instead. Someday it would be thrilling to see her quirky and arrestingly bold talents put to better use, cast as Maggie the Cat or Blanche DuBois or Catherine Venable. Myrtle, on the other hand, might have also been a great role if only she had been written with someplace to escape besides the rooftop when the Delta’s levees fail during the storm.

July 28, 2016
 
July 15–Aug. 14. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $30, rush tickets are available for $15 one hour before curtain, at the door (subject to availability). (310) 477-2055.

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Cabaret
Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Randy Harrison and ensemble
Photo courtesy Pantages Theatre

In Joe Masteroff’s book for that rising phoenix of all 20th-century musicals, Cabaret, poor doomed Herr Schultz reminds us that it’s not always a good thing to reach for the lowest apple on the tree. It’s impossible not to grasp the frightening analogy when Pantages Theatre’s opening night of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s North American tour of its nearly 20-year-old revival of Cabaret coincides with primitive tribal drumbeats of the Republican National Convention.
   Based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 memoir Goodbye to Berlin, Cabaret was first adapted for the stage in 1951 by John Van Druten’s I Am a Camera. By 1966, when Masteroff collaborated with composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb to turn the story into a musical, the tenor of the times dictated that some of the depth and meaning of Isherwood’s original indictment of the ominous political developments in Europe, as Hitler and his malevolent party came into prominence and turned the world around, be softened for Broadway audiences hungry for mindless entertainment.
   Bob Fosse’s classic 1972 film version also sanitized the horrors of the tale a bit, but it wasn’t until 1998, when Rob Marshall revived the musical in true cabaret style at New York’s legendary nightclub Studio 54, that the grittiness and nastiness that should have been attended to all along became the focus of the production. This version’s dancers at Berlin’s seedy Kit Kat Club sport tattoos, bruises, hair that appears to have not been washed in weeks, and the randy, unflinching sexuality that permeated the anything-goes Weimer-era of Berlin’s nightlife, depicted here in all its counterculture splendor.

Many touring productions on the dusty road as long as this one suffer from a lack of sparkle: the sets get a tad creaky and frayed and the performances phoned in. This production, however, is sharp and crisp in every regard, from the re-creation of Marshall’s original direction and sexually charged choreography (by BT McNicholl and Cynthia Onrubia, respectively), to Robert Brill’s stark but critical set design and William Ivey Long’s suitably colorful yet shabby costuming.
   Above all, the cast here is stellar. The dancing ensemble, all of whom, like in the 1998 revival, double on musical instruments to complete the show’s band, are exceptional in their roles, writhing with hot, near-acrobatic eroticism while still able to pick up a sax or a trumpet and wail as plaintively as scantily clad versions of Cannonball and Dizzy. Alison Ewing plays a mean accordion, especially in the chilling Nazi-pride ballad “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” yet is perfect when playing that human revolving door of inexpensive sex Fraulein Kost, as well as doubling in the Kit Kat numbers as Fritzie and delivering a dynamite version of “Married” with Shannon Cochran and Mark Nelson as Frau Schneider and Herr Schultz.

As those star-crossed AARP-aged lovers, Cochran and Nelson bring the play’s sometimes overshadowed subplot, involving the initially sweet but poignantly ill-fated romance between the world-weary boarding house owner and her elderly Jewish suitor to full fruition. Nelson breaks hearts in his plaintive reprise of “Married,” and Cochran summarily steals the show—and elicits audience applause at her exit—with the haunting ballad “What Would You Do?” played directly out front to the house filled with people who right now desperately need to listen to its message.
   Lee Aaron Rosen is exceptional as Isherwood-clone Clifford Bradshaw, bringing something unusually strong and vibrant to a role that can often dissolve in the grandness of the rest of the eccentric and flamboyant characters. Alto saxophonist Ned Noyes is a wonderfully suave and eventually mighty creepy Ernest Ludwig; violinist Leeds Hill is a standout as Cliff’s guilty pleasure chorus boy Bobby; and Samantha Shafer as Kit Kat Girl Rosie can also straddle and twirl a mean cello.
   As that infamous anti-heroine Sally Bowles, Andrea Goss is a knockout, from the raucous “Mein Herr,” the first number that so arrestingly introduces her character, to her broken, hauntingly brutal, and scratched out rendition of the musical’s title number that sends her off at the end to thunderous applause. Thankfully, her solo “Maybe This Time,” written by Kander and Ebb for Liza Minnelli to sing in Fosse’s movie, has also been added here, and again Goss knocks it right out of the majestic Pantages.

Still, the toughest character to assay is the Emcee, who exhaustively oversees the action when not performing with the Kit Kat dancers. Joel Grey and Alan Cumming are impossible acts to follow from those notoriously successful versions of the musical, as is the indelible memory of Michael C. Hall in his celebrated turn in Ivey Long’s sexy suspenders. When it was first announced that Queer As Folk alum Randy Harrison would be appearing the role during its LA run, it was hard not to roll one’s eyes.
   Instead, Harrison is a major revelation. His Emcee is more than an energetic rehash of those stars who’ve come before him; he grabs the character by the balls—as well as those of the actors playing Bobby and Victor, of course—and instantly makes it his own. His voice is stronger than any Emcee who came before him, and he is a comedic knockout in the once-scrubbed “Two Ladies,” as the Emcee simulates various sexual positions with Dani Spieler as Lulu and Hill in drag as his greedy bedmates in a tuneful and hilarious ménage à trois. And when Harrison delivers a melancholy, breathy, desolate rendition of the striking “I Don’t Care Much,” mocking the despair, hunger, and avarice lurking just below the good times as Germany is about to lose its soul, a dropped pin would make the loudest ping in the massive deco-dripping auditorium.
   Above all, of course, besides the majestic score by the greatest songwriting partnership of the last century, the message Cabaret so clearly intends to drive home, something reimagined by Marshall in 1998 with the most indelible and devastating ending of any musical in theater history, is what makes it so important. Starting with the usual degree of infectious fun and life-is-beautiful-itis that makes people run to the musical stage for relief from the daily horrors around us, by final curtain we are sufficiently drained and left to ponder the encroaching scariness of the world we have created for ourselves—or have blithely let be created around us.

July 21, 2016
 
July 20–Aug. 7. 6233 Hollywood Blvd. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. $45–195. (800) 982-2787.

www.HollywoodPantages.com

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Grey Gardens
Ahmanson Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Rachel York and Betty Buckley
Photo by Craig Schwartz

What becomes a legend most? A musty-smelling old Blackglama mink coat was probably being devoured by moths in the back of Edith Bouvier Beale’s dilapidated closet. But in the case of the musical adaptation of the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, nothing could be more becoming than to have Beale portrayed by one of Broadway’s most enduring living legends, the inimitable Betty Buckley. Although the role is supporting, not surfacing fully until after intermission, anyone would be hard-pressed to come away from the Ahmanson’s smartly packaged revival of the musical without Buckley’s name foremost on their lips.
   The tour-de-force performance by Rachel York as Edith’s certifiable daughter “Little” Edie is also high on the list of becoming things about this production. York is equally spectacular, picking up every bizarre peculiarity, nervous tick, and inexplicable nuance of encroaching insanity the real Little Edie so graciously exhibited for Albert and David Maysles’s probing cameras some 46 years ago.
   The then-unknown filmmakers shot footage at the crumbling raccoon- and rodent-infested estate, also home to 52 stray cats, unrelentingly following the two formerly incredibly wealthy, once highly connected socialites inexplicably spending their golden years living in poverty in the derelict mansion where the county health department was constantly at their heels.

Under the loving direction of Michael Wilson, York and Buckley chew the scenery—in a good way. York appears to literally be channeling the odd physicality of Little Edie in every regard, to the point where, when she manages to nail one of the loony 56-year-old’s many goofy quirks that helped make the documentary such a success, the audience hoots and applauds in grateful recognition. York hilariously re-creates Little Edie’s infamous American flag dance from the documentary, her image like so many others projected behind her on the set as the characters are recorded live by two onstage videographers, and she’s also given a welcome chance to show off her magnificent pipes in “The Revolutionary Costume for Today.”
   But just when you think nothing Buckley has accomplished in her illustrious half-century career could be topped, here she is ready to knock everyone out of their chairs once again as the dying semi-invalid Big Edie, her signature voice wavering from Florence Foster Jenkins moose-calls into her own unmistakably glorious song stylings. She is especially memorable in the recurring haunting ballad “Around the World” and heartbreaking in the lonely, plaintive “The Cake I Had.”
   Bookwriter Doug Wright’s first act takes place in 1941 before the Beales lost their minds, which craftily leaves the second act free for the company to re-create their sadly dysfunctional world in 1973 as the film was being shot on the property. It’s a brilliant concept, although it leaves Act 1 feeling rather old-fashioned and stuffy, with every detail of the great old estate shown in perfect detail and Ilona Somogyi’s gorgeous costuming looking as though designed by Edith Head.
   This is also accentuated by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie’s waltz time-y score, which could have been composed by Charles K. Harris at the end of the 19th-century rather than reflecting the 1940s—something Big Edie might have found more compatible with her lifestyle and singing talent. If someone was not familiar with the documentary and aware of what would unfold when the action switches to 1973, however, the intermission might be a time for some patrons to decide to take off early.

Still, the Act 1 performances are also golden. York here plays Big Edie and Sarah Hunt appears as her daughter, not quite ready to relinquish her sanity to care for Big Edie and live a hermit’s existence for the rest of her life despite her mother’s penchant for driving her suitors away “faster than a social disease.” The other people in the Beales’s life, including Little Edie’s soon-discouraged suitor Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (Josh Young) and Big Edie’s evangelistic radio guru Norman Vincent Peale (Simon Jones) are played by a fine ensemble assaying multiple roles with ease.
   Almost seeming like a character, Jeff Cowie’s set is magnificent, the same grand and painfully pristine living room of the mansion revealed in Act 2 to look as though a tornado had hit the property. Howell Binkley’s lighting and Jason H. Thompson’s dynamic projections, which include foliage outside high windows that wave in the breeze and overgrown vines overtaking the exterior in the later period, add significantly to the sweeping spectacle of this show, enveloping but still allowing a palpable intimacy to the tale despite the stateliness and rich appointments of the Ahmanson stage.
   It’s quite an accomplishment that Grey Gardens can be so splendidly mounted and yet the story of the Beales’s miserable and horribly codependent lives unfolds without being overpowering. That can be credited more to the vision of Wilson and the indelible performances of York and Buckley, both of whom deserve the title theatrical legend—and Los Angeles is lucky to have them here working miracles few artists could possibly imagine.

July 14, 2016
 
July 13–Aug. 14. 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours, 55 minutes, including intermission. $25–$130. (213) 972-4400.

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The Boy From Oz
Celebration Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Andrew Bongiorno and cast
Photo by Casey Kringlen

The Celebration Theatre could not have provided a more impressive welcome for the long-overdue West Coast debut of this once-lavish ultraglitzy musical extravaganza, for which Hugh Jackman won a Tony Award in 2004 playing Peter Allen. Ironically, the Celebration’s new location, the former 55-seat Lex Theatre, would at first glance seem to be quite a comedown for The Boy From Oz after first premiering in 1998 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney, Australia, and playing to more than 1.2 million patrons in Allen’s native country before opening on the Great White Way some 13 years later and running nearly a year at the 1,400-seat Imperial Theatre.
   Oddly, this diminutive venue is ideal for recounting the life story of the irrepressible and ubertalented Allen, even though, as Ben Brantley noted in his original review of the Broadway production in The New York Times, it’s an “indisputably bogus show.” Granted, this is a highly whitewashed CliffNotes version of Allen’s fairytale (no pun intended) rise from farm boy to stardom. Regardless, it also handsomely represents the unquenchable spirit and courage to be himself at any cost that made Allen’s career something to applaud. In an age long before a musical performer’s sexual orientation became a non-issue, no one tested the waters and broke barriers better than he did.
   The Lex’s postage stamp–size stage would make any less adventurous director or choreographer run for the hills, but thankfully, it’s Michael A. Shepperd and Janet Roston who here whisk us off to Oz, showing anyone lucky enough to see this production that the Celebration clearly knows how to celebrate. Shepperd’s staging and Roston’s dance moves could not more impressively utilize every inch of this playing space, filling it with contagiously overachieving performances and featuring a high-spirited live band in view just above the action. Add in strikingly glittery imaginative costuming by Michael Mullin, giving pause to wonder how they could be created on an intimate-theater budget, and this Oz has everything but a yellow brick road and a horse of a different color.

The first daring yet ultimately wise decision was to slim down the size of the musical’s ensemble, casting an energetic, infectiously ballsy squad of 12 to assay every character who energized Allen’s journey from rural Tenterfield, New South Wales, to international superstardom, an Academy Award, and his sad untimely death from AIDS at age 48. Only five castmembers play single characters throughout: Andrew Bongiorno, never offstage as Peter; Kelly Lester as his patient mother, Marion; Michayla Brown as the entertainer as a child; Bess Motta as Judy Garland, Peter’s first mentor; and Jessica Pennington as her daughter and eventually Peter’s ex-wife Liza Minnelli. All other players take on multiple roles and morph into an exceptional all-singing, all-dancing chorus to deliver the show’s big production numbers.
   To Shepperd’s credit, the cast is also an eclectic troupe. In this substantially spare Emerald City cleverly designed by Yuri Okahana, telling a tale traveling from Australia to Hong Kong to New York, the performers range from the exceptionally tall Marcus S. Daniel to the teeny-tiny Shanta Marie Robinson whom Shepperd and Roston place at either end of a dance line seemingly to emphasize and perhaps even poke fun at the diversity of their casting choices. And when Daniel cross-dresses as a leggy Radio City Rockette, he reveals an unmistakable resemblance to Charlotte Greenwood, who once described herself as the only woman in the world who could kick a giraffe in the eye.
   Bongiorno has all the charm and much of the unstoppable charisma of Allen, who was a nearly impossible act to follow. Lester is a standout as his long-suffering mother, especially delivering the plaintive “Don’t Cry Out Loud” as her son battles his final unwinnable battle. The seriously adorable Brown is delightful playing Peter as a child, cast presumably when it proved impossible to find a male that age able to play the precociously flamboyant Peter Woolnough, a kid with an instinctual and uncontainable need to sing, dance, and pose in style.
   Still, the most jaw-dropping performances come from Motta and Pennington. Both prove physical dead ringers for the mother and daughter. Pennington finds much of Minnelli’s sweetness, her early discouragement existing in the darkest corners of her mother’s enormous shadow, and her discomfort with her own eventual stardom—which never brought the happiness she’s always sought. She knocks it out of the park belting the spirited “She Loves to Hear the Music” and later teaming with Bongiorno for the haunting ballad “You and Me (We Wanted It All)” during the onetime couple’s final goodbye.
   Motta channels every tick, every passionately clumsy body movement, every vocal crack, every eye-roll of the tortured Garland in unearthly detail. From her first appearance, in 1966 when Garland’s fourth husband and Allen’s latest trick Mark Herron checked her out of the hospital to see him perform at a club in Hong Kong, Motta is totally sensational, finding Garland’s wicked self-deprecating humor and entitled irascibility with ease. After waking from a nine-day coma to see Peter and his partner Chris Bell (Daniel) perform, Garland soon ribs him for being so green, solidifying their ensuing longtime friendship after seeing his gleeful reaction to her quipping, “I’ll bet you haven’t even had your stomach pumped yet.” Asked to sing a number for the crowd, Motta wails a plaintive “All I Wanted Was the Dream,” which Garland soon added to her repertoire after Peter and Bell began touring as her opening act.

There are inaccuracies in Martin Sherman and Nick Enright’s book, most glaring in the depiction of Allen’s longtime lover Greg Connell (Michael Mittman). The book portrays the sweetly ethereal Texas top fashion model as a butch and somewhat pushy businessman working in advertising when the two met; instead, Connell was managing a restaurant in Greenwich Village at the time. Still, the unfolding of their amazingly loving and supportive relationship is poignantly told.
   Above all, however, it’s the score that makes this such a striking tribute to Allen’s world-class talent. Although the program credits all music and lyrics culled from his own staggeringly prolific songbook, ignoring except in the small print the contribution of Carole Bayer Sager as lyricist in many of his later tunes, the creative genius of this one man is beautifully honored. From “Everything Old Is New Again” to the Olivia Newton-John hit “I Honestly Love You” to the Oscar-winning “Arthur’s Theme (When You Get Caught Between the Moon and New York City)” to the spectacular “I Go to Rio”—which, enhanced by Mullin’s insanely fantastic costuming, affords a suitably showstopping finale—The Boy From Oz chronicles a time when it took an idiosyncratic artist with the soul and audacity of Allen to help change the world in the most melodic way.

May 9, 2016
 
April 29–July 31. 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $40–45. (323) 957-1884.

www.celebrationtheatre.com

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