Arts In LA
Theater Reviews
The Lion
Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Benjamin Scheuer

It’s a given that most self-created solo shows dig deep into the past and the personal demons haunting their authors. Benjamin Scheuer takes it one step further with The Lion, adding one component fairly unique to that genre: unflinchingly recounting the bittersweet memories of his life and individual trials and using gloriously evocative music.
   Scheuer offers a bravely unembellished look at growing up in a difficult situation, letting his story unfold through powerful and hauntingly poetic ballads, his sandpapery vocal dexterity, and some truly ferocious skills as a guitarist. Yet austerity is the key here, Scheuer moving from stool to stool, picking up a half-dozen guitars showcasing his versatility, on the Geffen’s intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis stage. His only co-conspirators in showcasing his massive talent are the unobtrusive but effective direction by Sean Daniels, complemented by Neil Patel’s ever-changing sound studio design, lit simply but chameleon-like by Ben Staton.

Scheuer tells of his uncomfortable relationship with a demanding father whose expectations do not mesh with his son’s free spirit, ending in a bitter argument never resolved before his dad, whom he obviously adored, suddenly died of a brain aneurism. A gifted hobbyist musician, Scheuer’s father was a notable mathematician.
   Although he shared his musical passion with his son—even building him a homemade banjo in the basement—his frustration that his offspring didn’t inherit his analytical skills or wasn’t interested in academic success destroyed their time together.
   Scheuer’s story trudges on through a love affair, catastrophic illness, and numerous attempts to find himself in some way that does not involve his passion for music, told by these gifted hands in this quiet and unvarnished production.
   Scheuer is the quintessential product of singer-songwriters from a groundbreaking generation past, a Leonard Cohen or Cat Stevens or James Taylor for the millennium, only taken a step further with a personal tale he shares without filter or embellishment—and we, his sufficiently mesmerized and emotionally transported followers, are his grateful beneficiaries.

January 16, 2017
Jan. 6–Feb. 19. 10886 Le Conte Ave., West LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 70 minutes. $76. (310) 208-5454.
The King and I
Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly
Photo by Michael Murphy

In mid-Victorian days, a Siamese king and an English activist-educator came together in a clash of cultures. That pairing inspired memoirs, then a novel, then films and stage musicals. In the national tour of The King and I, now at Pantages Theatre, the clashing continues—in sweet moments of this East-meets-West, old-meets-new story and in unfortunately mismatched acting styles.
   Of course the 1951 score, with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, remains charming, lilting and tantalizingly hummable—including the familiar “I Whistle a Happy Tune, “Hello, Young Lovers,” and “Getting to Know You.”
   Bartlett Sher’s direction, from his Lincoln Center Theater version, is technically gorgeous. Donald Holder’s exquisite lighting creates misty harbors, sunny gardens, and candlelit evenings. Catherine Zuber’s costuming includes lighter-than-air hooped Victorian skirts, traditional chut Thai, plus elaborate masks and headdresses for the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet.
   Portraying Anna, the feminist hired by the king to bring education to and thus modernize his family, Laura Michelle Kelly is pure loveliness, with the ideal voice and physicality for the role. As the unrepentantly chauvinistic but perspicacious king, Jose Llana is a strong presence onstage. But he plays it contemporary and winking, she’s period and in character. Where was the director in this clash of styles?
   Somebody persuaded Llana he’d get the laughs if he included eye-rolling and other modern American grimaces of disdain and sarcasm in his performance. Many in the opening-night audience loved it; others found it pandering and distancing.
   And what a shame, because Llana has a warm, sturdy, soothing singing voice, an engaging physicality, and dance skills that enable him to launch into out an out-of-time, out-of-step polka until the king eases perfectly into a large loping “Shall We Dance” with Anna and her orbiting skirt (choreography by Christopher Gattelli based on Jerome Robbins’ original, aided by costumer Zuber’s miraculous work).

A secondary couple, adding more social commentary here, are Burmese slave girl Tuptim and the scholar accompanying her, Lun Tha. Played by Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao, respectively, they’re nice to look at, but she gets pitchy and neither is particularly interesting in the story’s context.
   The plentiful kids are cute, and stageworthy, and their principals seem to relish the time shared with them onstage. The eldest child, son and heir Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chan), is cartoonishly prissy at first. But like the best of literary heroes, he opens his eyes and ears in the presence of intelligence, and he learns, later making his first executive decision a modernization of traditional bowing.
   Sher resorts to old-school scene changes, drawing a billowy curtain across the stage until the scenery can be reset behind it. In the last two scenes, though, perhaps running out of actors who could change costumes and make it back out front to drag the fabric along, he changes settings within our view. Like the kings, Sher should have looked back at how old-hat his earlier decisions seemed and moved up to modern improvements.

December 15, 2016
Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze.
Dec. 15–Jan. 21.6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time just under 3 hours, including intermission. $35-187. (800) 982-2787.




Urinetown: The Musical
Coeurage Theatre Company at Lankershim Arts Center

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

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

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

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

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

November 20, 2016
Nov. 5–Feb. 25. 5108 Lankershim Blvd. Thu-Sat 8pm. Pay what you want. (323) 944-2165.

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Center Theatre Group at Kirk Douglas Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Phillipa Soo and Adam Chanler-Berat
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Those who dared to take a charming little French film and turn it into a Broadway-bound musical had to know they’d be facing brickbats along with the plaudits. Or, as the French say, criticism is easy but art is difficult.
   Amélie is a 2001 cinematic gem. It focuses on an unusual young woman, possessed of one of storytelling’s most vibrant imaginations, as she learns how to open a heart sealed shut by bad parenting and bad luck. Its every frame is a work of art. Director and co-writer Jean-Pierre Jeunet (with co-writer Guillaume Laurant) knew when to show expansive views of Paris and when to focus on a saddening eye. Its palette is mature, of autumnal browns and greens, with accents of Amélie’s signature red.
   Now comes Amélie, A New Musical, at downtown’s Ahmanson Theatre. The book is by Craig Lucas, music by Daniel Messé, and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Messé. And though its moral and so many details of the film are tucked in here, it seems to appeal to the recollections of the film’s fans rather than exposing audiences to the soul that went from frozen seed to sweetly maturing florescence.

Director Pam MacKinnon certainly used her own gifted imagination in staging this musical. She started from a whimsical movie and made the work whimsicaler. Old-school masks and puppetry, plied with old-school commedia chops by the ensemble, mix well with projected animation that turn mathematics and philosophy joyously visual (designed by Peter Nigrini). As does the film, the musical starts with a housefly. In the film, the fly symbolized the role of fate and timing in our lives. Here it got a laugh while the film’s fans recalled the filmic moment. Many of the film’s gentle little metaphors have become laugh-getters. And then they go nowhere.
   What works in a few frames of a film doesn’t land as well in a split-second bit onstage. What Jeunet could reveal with a glimpse at a face isn’t available here—though of course some of those emotions are offered via the musical’s score. The loneliness of Amélie’s childhood doesn’t translate here, because the friends she created out of animals and objects are played by actors. The little girl amusing herself by eating raspberries off her fingertips loses context when she’s surrounded by adults playing along with her.
   But there’s much to admire in the staging. The piece feels intimate, even as it uses every nook of the stage. The set is textured and dimensional, and the palette, although brighter and more cartoonish than the film’s, is inviting (scenic and costume design by David Zinn). The set is skewed, made of armoires and suitcases, using these objects of stability and mobility, where secrets can be hidden, to create the interior of Amelie’s apartment and the streets of Paris. Crossing over the stage is a bridge, modeled on the film’s over the Canal St. Martin. It keeps the locales connected, brings verticality to the visuals, and symbolizes the connections between Amelie and others, reality and imagination, life and death.

Whatever one thinks of the artistic transfer between mediums, the musical’s cast does its job, beautifully, apparently fulfilling MacKinnon’s every theatrical need.
   Phillipa Soo is sweetly bemused as Amélie, while Adam Chanler-Berat charms as her romantic foil, Nino. Filling in the characters from the film are Alyse Alan Louis as hypocondriacal co-worker Georgette; David Andino the garden gnome; Randy Blair as Hipolito, the wannabe Bohème; Heath Calvert as the grocer’s assistant and the mysterious man in the photos; Alison Cimmet as mother and air hostess; Savvy Crawford as Young Amélie; Manoel Felciano as father and the man with the lost childhood mementos; Harriett D. Foy as café owner Suzanne; Maria-Christina Oliveras as the co-worker mourning her escaped husband; Tony Sheldon as the grouchy grocer and the elderly brittle neighbor who prompts Amélie to live her own life; and Paul Whitty as the jealous plumber and Fluffy the goldfish.
   The singing voices are nice but not noteworthy. Perhaps that’s the fault of the musical direction, by Kimberly Grigsby, or the vocal arrangements by Grigsby and Messé, or the orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin, but the notes being sung are also played, loudly, by the orchestra, masking the voices and sometimes the lyrics. The musical is very much American, not French, so situations and visuals have been sanitized for your protection. The sauciest moment may be the scene at Nino’s porn-shop workplace, where three pairs of animatronic legs dance above the merchandise. To paraphrase the French, apparently all’s fair in love and musicalization.

December 19, 2016
Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze.

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