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Resolving Hedda
Victory Theatre Center

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Tom Ormeny and Kimberly Alexander
Photo courtesy Victory Theatre Center

Individual stage performances are but momentary glimpses, jointly experienced for one fleeting moment by their creators and those who witness the proceedings. So, what would occur if, in stepping through the proverbial looking glass, it was revealed that the characters not only exist in perpetuity but are completely aware of every actor who has embodied them since those characters were committed to parchment by the play’s author?
   This is the stepping-off point of playwright Jon Klein’s mind-bending world premiere comedy based on Henrik Ibsen’s century-old classic Hedda Gabler, given first-rate direction here by Maria Gobetti.
   Kicking off this often hilarious straddling of the fourth wall is Kimberly Alexander, whose tour-de-force performance in the title role demands she walk a constant tightrope between the theatrical reality of Ibsen’s tale and Klein’s wickedly funny asides and plotline machinations.
   Alexander’s delivery of Klein’s expository opening monologue brings the audience up to speed with both Ibsen’s original tale and Hedda’s obsessive desire to, for the first time ever, survive this story’s denouement.
   And with such lovely production values–Evan Bartoletti’s beautifully appointed drawing room set and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s fetching costuming–one steps back in time with ease.

Dramaturgically, Klein mirrors Ibsen’s original by setting up his quartet of scenes with the standard plot points, paying scrupulous attention to the details of the original play. George and Hedda Tesman have returned from a nearly half-year honeymoon during which he performed research and she was bored to distraction. George’s hopes for a professorial post become entangled with a former rival while Hedda manipulates George’s spinster aunt, a flighty childhood acquaintance, and a local court justice.
   But within this saga lurk twists from the very start. Klein’s Hedda has totally dispensed with the household maid, Berta, so as to maintain a sense of control as she activates her scheme. Replacing Berta is a silent stagehand, portrayed by Sean Spencer, who appears throughout with modern-day items.
   Hedda excepted, none of the characters realizes what is happening, but each struggles valiantly to incorporate heretofore unseen props into their world of 1891. Meanwhile, tossed-off references to the Internet, specific television shows, politics, even modern-day medical conditions take wing, thanks to Alexander’s sardonically dry delivery.

The supporting cast expertly handles the challenge of embodying Ibsen’s original characters not as actors but real-life people who must deal with all of Hedda’s intentional curveballs. Alyce Heath gives Aunt Julia a pleasantly optimistic, occasionally clueless, tone that works well when she is faced with anachronistic developments. Ben Atkinson’s George, is more bumbling than browbeaten as he struggles to keep up with the strange behavior demonstrated by the Hedda he thinks he knows.
   As Hedda’s put-upon schoolmate, Thea Elvsted, Marisa Van Den Borre exudes a sympathetic air despite her character’s whininess. Meanwhile, Tom Ormeny is at the top of his game in the role of the slimy Judge Brack, whose apparent concern masks his palpably creepy sexual obsession with Hedda.
   Perhaps the closest to the mindset of Alexander’s Hedda is her husband’s chief competitor, Eilert Lovborg, a formerly disgraced academician who has managed to revive his career. In the hands of Chad Coe, this Lovborg seems to sense what Hedda is hoping to pull off.
   And yet, the stone rolling down the hill cannot be dissuaded from its appointed path. Hedda exits with the pistol, one of a pair belonging to her father, a renowned military general. We hear a shot. Ibsen’s enigmatic final line is delivered by Judge Brack. Is all as it seems? One must witness this enjoyable production to fully experience Klein’s masterful homage.

October 5, 2017
 
Sept 29–Nov 12. 3326 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) 841-5421.

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Honky Tonk Laundry
Hudson Mainstage Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Bets Malone and Misty Cotton
Photo by Michael Lamont

No doubt more than happy to sport the title “King of the Jukebox Musicals,” playwright-creator-director Roger Bean can add another gem to his jewel-laden crown with the Los Angeles premiere of this hootenanny homage to the Country Western genre. Originally staged at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre some dozen years ago, the show now includes musical additions and deletions intended to improve the flow of Bean’s somewhat updated storyline.
   On that note, Bean is a wise director for not having reinvented the wheel when it comes to casting his piece. Featuring the production’s original cast, Bets Malone and Misty Cotton, the evening is blessed with one showstopper after another, backed by Jon Newton’s fully fleshed orchestrations. Individually, each performer can rattle the rafters with the perfect tonal qualities required for this type of music. And when performing the various duets, their voices become almost one in timbre, an absolute must given some of the harmonic requirements.

Malone plays Lana Mae Hopkins, a third-generation owner-operator of the Wishy-Washy Washateria, the design of which, by Tom Buderwitz, is out-of-this-world perfect with every conceivable nook and cranny offering Adam McPherson’s properties as eye candy for the viewer. Having arrived to discover her employee, Jennelle, is in the county hoosegow, Malone’s Lana Mae bemoans her professional and personal fate—more on husband Earl in a moment—with the wistful “I Need a Vacation.”
   Almost as if heaven-sent, in pops Cotton as the semi-bipolar Katie Lane Murphy, a local gal who is just one Valium away from taking out her cheating, live-in boyfriend, Danny. Within a few more songs from the show’s collection of nearly two dozen in total, and before the first act concludes, we learn a whole passel about these two. Cotton’s family history is laid out in “Independence Day,” while Malone offers words of wisdom and advice via “Stand by Your Man” and the self-revelatory “Who I Am.”
   As things proceed, we come to realize these two have some serious “man” problems on their hands. Cotton goes for broke with an almost demonically possessed comical version of “Before He Cheats” in which she recounts having vandalized Danny’s pickup truck. Meanwhile, Malone’s Lana Mae is eventually forced to conced husband Earl’s cheatin’ heart after Cotton’s equally hysterical rendition of “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial” featuring just one example of choreographer James Vasquez’s consummate show-wide work. The result is a gut busting sight gag performed by Malone involving chocolate bars, crayons, a box of Krispy Kreme donuts, and a collection of thong underwear belonging to Earl’s bed bouncing mistress, Raylene. Oh, and a sizzling hot duet version of “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’.”
   Having now been emotionally linked through their common circumstances, Katie Lane encourages Lana Mae to follow her heart and pursue her long-shelved dream of being a “Nashville sangin’ star.” The plan evolves into a one-night concert that brings us back from the intermission break. Bean and musical director Lyndon Pugeda pull out all the stops, lending even further credibility to Malone’s and Cotton’s unequaled talents. Here, too, costumer Renatta Lloyd, hair and makeup designer Byron Batista, and sound designer Cricket S. Myers top their own fantastic first-act production values.

Highlights of this show-within-a-show include a salute to the queens of the Grand Ole Opry in which Malone and Cotton bring to life the vocal stylings of Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and Tammy Wynette. And what would a tour through Nashville’s version of “Your Hit Parade” be without some down-home country vocal gymnastics? Answering the call, these two triple-threats bring down the house as they combine a pair of songs including Bean’s original piece, composed with Adam McPherson, “I Wish That I Could Yodel.”
   But, for true melodic bliss, nothing surpasses Malone’s nearly heartbreaking rendition of real-life singer Terri Clark’s “Smile.” Among the full-throated belting and comic zaniness, this quiet, reflective moment, featuring the unparalleled talents of lighting designer Steven Young, is worth its weight in gold. Oh, and lest you think Danny, Earl, and even Jerry, the town’s oft-referred-to and only Uber driver, get off scot-free, rest assured they’re in attendance at the Act 2 concert, whether they realize it or not.

August 26, 2017
 
Aug 11–Sept 17. 6539 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm & $45–55. (323) 960-7773.

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The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Independent Shakespeare Company in Griffith Park

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Evan Lewis Smith and Erika Soto
Photo by Grettel Cortes

There’s some pretty wild twistin’ goin’ on up at the Old Zoo in Griffith Park, and it’s not just the plotlines in Shakespeare’s comedic treatise on love, betrayal, and eventual reconciliation. It’s the 1950s. The jackets are plaid, the chiffon is flowing, and the socks are a-hoppin’. This production may be director and Independent Shakespeare Company co-founder David Melville’s slickest conceptual integration of a work by the Bard with a particular musical genre seen to date. From the cast’s topnotch leads to the indefatigably energetic members of the ensemble, this retooling of the company’s first-ever production (dating back to Hollywood’s Barnsdall Park some 14 years ago) is outstanding. And dang, can this group’s backup band take you down Memory Lane.
   The story is fairly simple which further serves Melville’s vision for the piece. Valentine, an intellectual young man, sets off from Verona to Milan in search of his fortune, fame, destiny, what have you. Once there, his heart is smitten by the stunning Silvia, already promised to a local gentleman by her father, the Duke. Meanwhile, back in Verona, Valentine’s best friend Proteus is in the throes of romance with local girl Julia. Upon being sent to Milan against his wishes by his own father, Proteus jettisons all thoughts of Julia in favor of lusting after Silvia, thus providing the story’s conflict. Banishments, concealed identities, comedic servants, hoodlums, and even an actor portraying a disgustingly smelly canine round out this wild and wacky tale.

As Valentine and Proteus, Nikhil Pai and Evan Lewis Smith handle Shakespeare’s language with such ease that nary a thought or emotion is missed. In particular, Pai’s reaction to the Duke’s forcing him to leave Verona is truly touching, while Smith’s first-act soliloquy justifying his rakish behavior in discarding his love for Julia elicited stridently negative verbal audience reactions.
   As Silvia, Sylvia Kwan is radiantly regal. But beware of her character’s eventual temper, which Kwan fervently unleashes on Smith’s Proteus, a comeuppance that resulted in shouts of acclamation from the hillside full of viewers.
   Erika Soto’s Julia is thoughtful one minute and impulsive the next. Soto’s ability to wring out every conceivable moment from her lengthy speeches and witty repartee opposite various other characters reveals an expert skill set. Whether as Julia or Sebastian, the male disguise she assumes in order to pursue Proteus to Milan, Soto is an onstage powerhouse.
   Supporting this quartet is a host of ISC’s brightest and best. William Elsman doubles admirably as the onstage drummer and the oh-so-regal Duke. Xavi Moreno and Melville are respective riots in the roles of Speed and Launce, servants to Valentine and Proteus. April Fritz was an audience favorite in the wisecracking, Brooklyn-accented role of Julia’s maid, Lucetta. Patrick Batiste, not only carrying the lion’s share of the vocal stylings, brings a lanky comedic charm to Julia’s compadre Sir Eglamour. And nobody holds a candle to Katie Powers-Faulk’s dance moves as a gun-toting biker chick Valentine encounters upon taking up residence as leader to the forest outlaws.
   But, for scene-stealing gusto, no one matches the chameleon-like talents of Lorenzo Gonzalez, who embodies a varied trio of roles. Gonzalez is commanding as Proteus’s father, Antonio. He’s a hoot as Crab, the aforementioned cur that invokes the repeated wrath of Melville’s Launce. And he brings down the house as the foppish, lisping, Italian-accented Thurio, Silvia’s originally intended.

The remainder of the band consists of Gerald McGrory on bass guitar, Melville playing a mean electric lead, and the show’s musical director Dave Beukers, easily one of the most talented keyboardists in Los Angeles. After all, just about anyone can play a stationary piano. In this case, however, a traditional upright winds up wheeled all over the stage with Buekers literally at its beck-and-call.
   Caitlin Lainoff’s singularly colored green back wall, featuring multiple doorways and window units, pops to life under Bosco Flannagan’s lighting design. Ruoxuan Li’s costumes are period perfect with special note given to the band’s matching suits and the outlaws’ leather ensemble. A remarkably prodigious amount of well-performed choreography, by Powers-Faulk, is incorporated into the show, not the least of which are the full company numbers that conclude both acts of this must-see production.

August 25, 2017
 
Aug 5–Sept 3. Old Zoo in Griffith Park. Wed-Sun 7pm. Free. (818) 710-6306.

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Strays
The Secret Rose

Reviewed by Dink ONeal


Lisa Wharton

Revealing the innermost workings of her heart and the devotion she has for the fostered and adopted animals she has supported over the years, playwright and solo performer Lisa Wharton’s multilayered Strays is lovingly crafted.
   Wharton, adopted at just 17 days old and then a second time as a youngster by her stepfather, brings a unique perspective to the unspoken fears and trepidation that must inhabit the mind of a homeless animal.
   Her childhood seemed quite perfect at times. And yet, unpredictable betrayals by the fathers she assumed were her support system threw her world into utter chaos. It’s a tribute to Wharton’s inner strength and determination that she now leads a life so well-adjusted, positive, and more than obviously successful.

Even more admirable is her ability to transfer that strength into a mission through which she lifts up the lowliest of creatures. As Wharton details her various experiences with rescue animals, she treats her audience to the humor, the frustrations, and even the pathos that comes along with committing one’s time, talent, and treasures to such an undertaking.
   Through her various characterizations and with the assistance of photos and videos clips projected on an upstage wall unit, Wharton ingeniously introduces us to her “family.” There’s a darling tabby-marked feline named Boo and a Benji-like dog named LadyBug. Via some pretty funny anecdotes, we learn that these two are presumably in complete control of the Wharton household. And then, one day, along comes “Freeway.” Probably won’t take anyone long to figure out how and from where this little guy came into the picture.
   Wharton also regales the fostering of a larger, multibreed dog named Luke she rescued from certain death and nursed back to health and for whom she was able to eventually secure a loving home with a well-vetted family. Here is where we are invited by Wharton to dig deeply into what it takes to raise, nurture, and finally set free another being. It speaks volumes as she parallels it with having finally had the opportunity to meet her own birth mother.

Director Lisa Nicole Lennox clearly has a personal stake in developing her excellent connection with Wharton and her material. Lennox’s set design consists of a number of moveable pylons, which Wharton makes good use of in revealing hidden treasures and creating various locales. Likewise, Donna Willett’s lighting creates a number of uniquely separate playing spaces in this intimate venue.
   And finally, lest one think that this production is presented only for the purpose of advancing Wharton’s message, it is noteworthy to add that the benefits will quite literally live on. Wharton, Lennox, and all associated have created this piece as a commendable effort to raise funds and are donating 75 percent of all ticket sales to be distributed to two different animal rescue organizations. What they offer is a touching piece worth seeing and a worthy cause that touches others.

November 17, 2017
 
Oct 29–Dec. 3. 11264 Magnolia Blvd. North Hollywood. Sun 3pm. Running time 1 hour. $28.


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Hamilton
First National Tour at Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Michael Luwoye and Isaiah Johnson
Photo by Joan Marcus

“How.” That’s the first word of Hamilton. The word, as a question, repeats throughout.
   Pretty much everyone who has seen or heard this musical agrees it is genius. The question remains, how did Lin-Manuel Miranda come up with this miracle?
   How does he tell the story of Alexander Hamilton in lyrics and music? Yes, music. Despite the “rap,” the score includes melody, harmony, and counterpoint.
   How does he tell a story that is in essence about writing, yet his writing almost entirely escapes self-consciousness and self-referentiality?
   And once Miranda created the piece, how did director Thomas Kail set it on the stage, so the audience sees and feels the story? (The first national tour is reviewed here, in its run at Pantages Theatre.)
   And how did Hamilton, the forgotten Founding Father of our nation, climb so high and fall so far. How did this orphan boy from the Caribbean get to America, rise within political ranks, create our financial system, and then plummet amid the vehement jealousy surrounding him?

Aaron Burr (Joshua Henry), self-described as “the damn fool that shot him,” narrates Hamilton’s story. The main figures in Hamilton’s life quickly appear onstage. Indeed, if the show has a fault, it’s that so much rich material goes by so quickly. This work doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator.
   As early as the opening number, the pairing of roles the actors play reveals more of the show’s genius. We hear that Hamilton’s son Philip (Rubén J. Carbajal) and his friend John Laurens (Carbajal again) died for him; Hercules Mulligan and James Madison (both played by Mathenee Treco), Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson (both by Jordan Donica) “fought with him.” His wife Eliza (Solea Pfeiffer), her sister Angelica (Emmy Raver-Lampman), and too-close neighbor Maria (Amber Iman, doubling as third sister Peggy) passionately loved him. George Washington (Isaiah Johnson) wisely trusted him.
   With all this support and admiration, how could Hamilton fail? That’s the story here, as tragic as the Greeks ever wrote about.

Miranda’s music is as eloquent as his lyrics. Hamilton is energized, never cool, never laid-back. Even in his old age, there’s an underlying drive. The score begins in optimism. College drinking songs ensue. Revolution foments and, in a military march, “Yorktown” provides a stunning summary of the 1781 battle.
   At the top of Act Two, Miranda introduces Jefferson with syncopated jazz, cool and swinging. Hamilton’s downfall is propulsive and slightly atonal. His final correspondence with Burr is a polite minuet. Eliza’s finale is filigreed and knife sharp.
   Kail stages the nonstop, sung-through score vividly and fluidly. On David Korins’s multilevel set of brick and wood, seemingly not yet completed just as our nation’s history wasn’t and isn’t, Kail creates the action. It spans shipboard through polite drawing rooms and tough-talking cabinet rooms to the Weehawken dueling grounds.
   Perhaps better for the storytelling, no lead performances stand out as star turns, though the voices are captivating. Catching attention here is an oversized portrayal of snide, gleeful King George III by the wryly effervescent Rory O’Malley (chosen to give the post-show speech on opening night, warmly recognizing the behind-the-scenes theatermakers, including understudies and standbys).
   Likewise remarkable is Howell Binkley’s lighting. It changes the locale, mood, and tone of the story. One of the benefits of sitting in the balcony for this production is seeing the lighting from that angle.

These are the “hows” of the production. What of the “hows” of the characters? How did Hamilton fall? The same way he rose: through a dangerous mix of tremendous ego, tremendous ambition, and tremendous talent.
   How did Eliza survive her husband’s extramarital affair and her son’s death? She grew a steely spine and stepped out of her self-absorbed unhappiness to take action, to help others, to document her husband’s history. She’s a vital part of telling this story and, as women can manage to do, she gets the last, poignant, word.
   This show is indeed genius. The remaining “how” is how to afford and obtain tickets.

August 21, 2017
 
Aug 16–Dec 30. 6233 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. $85–750. (800) 982-2787.

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