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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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The 39 Steps
Actors Co-op Crossley Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Carly Lopez and Kevin Shewey
Photo by Matthew Gilmore

Ample credit deservedly rests with the creator of this tale, novelist John Buchan for having paved the way for the advent of thriller fiction or what he referred to as the “shocker.” Buchan’s story of intrigue, espionage, and murder was quite serious in its debut as a serial in 1915 and subsequently brought to the silver screen in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 cinematic revisiting. How appropriate, then, not only to poke fun at these masters but also to pay tribute to their works by way of a comically heartfelt homage courtesy of playwright Patrick Barlow’s 2005 adaptation.
   Director Kevin Chesley and his stalwart quartet of players bring to life perhaps dozens—one loses count—of characters, both principal and ancillary, while keeping their respective tongues planted firmly in cheek. Chesley’s utilization of a thrust stage brings the proceedings right into the laps of his audience. The result is a nicely honed mixture of Barlow’s melodrama and subtler moments during which viewers can catch their breaths.
   Perhaps the only drawback to this venue would be the inability to capitalize upon backdrops and projections, which are more easily afforded on a proscenium stage. Here though, Stephen Gifford’s scenic design rings the downstage edges of the space with numerous crates full of Lori Berg’s plethora of props and goodies. From these boxes, which are also used to construct any number of larger set pieces, Chesley’s cast pulls out everything from hats to phones to flasks to what appeared to be a rainbow trout. Upstage are massive floor-to-ceiling, triple-decked, warehouse-style shelves packed to the brim with every conceivable period-perfect item one could use for incorporation into this fast-paced yarn. The effect is that of an adult-sized toy box constantly revealing its treasures and secrets.

As Richard Hannay, the hero of this spy-laden fable, Kevin Shewey brings a welcome sense of the Everyman. Avoiding the traditional choice of the square-jawed, GQ model who stands straight and tall while all around him is amiss, Shewey triumphs here by playing Hannay as often befuddled and flustered but eventually able to call upon his inherent intelligence and common sense to surmount the obstacles he encounters.
   Amply filling the requisite role of the various femme fatales Hannay encounters is Lauren Thompson. From a hilariously ill-fated foreign agent to a Scottish farmwife to Hannay’s eventual love interest, Thompson provides thoroughly fleshed out characterizations that prove her versatility at every turn.
   Every other role in the show is quite literally brought to life by a pair of roles Barlow has titled “Clowns.” Filling what are perhaps two of the most exhausting onstage assignments ever, Townsend Coleman and Carly Lopez are indefatigable. As to how many personages they create—one loses count somewhere around the two dozen mark for each of them—Coleman and Lopez are whirling dervishes assuming and discarding costumes, accents, and even genders with crispness and verve. In particular, keep an eye out for Coleman’s Scottish farmer and the duo’s second-act appearance as blissfully wedded innkeepers. Their performances reveal throughout that dialect coach Adam Michael Rose is worth his weight in gold.

Other notable additional production values adding to this delightful romp include Vicki Conrad’s cornucopia of costuming and hair designs, as well as Andrew Schmedake’s lighting, complete with music hall–style footlights, and Warren Davis’s spot-on sound effects that are called in the booth with razor-sharp precision by stage manager Derek R. Copenhaver.

October 21, 2017
 
Sept 22–Oct 29. 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood (located on the grounds of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood). Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2:30pm. $20-30. (323) 462-8460, ext. 300.

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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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Nocturne
Triptych Theatre Company at Vs. Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Jamie Wollrab
Photo by Kate Danson Photography

Driving home from a summer job making sandwiches, in a grisly road accident, a 17-year old killed his 9-year-old sister. Fifteen years later, he talks about it—the collision, his family’s reactions, coping—in playwright Adam Rapp’s Nocturne.
   It’s in production by Triptych Theatre at the tiny Vs. Theatre in West Los Angeles, where we listen, breathlessly, to a 90-minute monologue that takes us down that road and the others traveled in search of forgiveness.
   Grief and guilt form the massive foundations on which Rapp builds his story, a tour-de-force piece, named for the Grieg piano piece the boy played at competitions—winning the smaller ones but never a big one.

Jamie Wollrab portrays the unnamed young man here, under the co-direction of James Eckhouse and Richard Schiff. Fortunately, the two directors seem to have agreed on a point-of-view for the production. It’s less musical than visual, not focusing on the piece’s musical forms nor on its intriguing use of language. But it’s certainly deeply grounded in the emotions of this family.
   Rapp wrote the middle of three scenes—the second movement, musically speaking—in the third-person voice, as The Son undoubtedly finds it easier to look at his life from the outside. Wollrab pulls out stacks of books, reads the titles, uses the tomes to create furniture in the New York City walkup with its bathtub in the kitchen. Behind upstage scrims, a piano, crashed car, and typewriter are illuminated as The Son’s memory educes them (scenic design by David Mauer).
   Wollrab works a mere few feet from the audience, his sad eyes looking like they’ve done 15 years of crying. His despondency floods the stage. But he recognizes the healing power of humor and lets it make him crack a smile or even a wry laugh.
   Wollrab also beautifully embodies the playful little girl, the fragile mother and the hoarse father, as The Son remembers them. Guilt and grief hang over The Son’s every thought and action. The law and the facts absolved him from guilt—yes, he was speeding, but the brakes failed. Still, his parents won’t forgive him, nor will he forgive himself.
   In Christina Bushner’s costume design, The Son’s clothing is clean but not pressed or polished, as if he can get only so far in his daily tasks, as if cleanliness alone is ample for where he is in life.

On opening night, one of the stage’s hanging lighting fixtures flickered noticeably, sometimes distractingly. Things happen, even in the city’s large theaters, and repairs probably began as soon as the audience filed out. But Wollrab’s actorly concentration was so intense, he either didn’t notice or he retained his professionalism and committed to his character’s story. People face bigger problems, greater worries, than a flickering Fresnel, and this production reminds us to heal our hearts and not sweat the superficialities.

July 24, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

Run of this show has ended.

 
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