Arts In LA
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The Manor
Greystone Mansion

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Darby Hinton and Daniel Leslie
Photo by Ed Krieger

To the plaintive strains of orchestral underscoring and an expository welcome delivered by the family butler, a collection of ghostly figures enters the hall-like living room of the Tudor Revival-style Greystone Mansion. Over the next two hours, the audience is treated to the 16th-annual incarnation of playwright Katherine Bates’s extraordinarily engaging “environmental” production. Moving throughout five separate locations in this 55-room, 47,000-square-foot monument to architectural excess, we witnesses, split into three apportioned groups, follow a storyline that must have been an astonishing challenge to commit to paper.
   This semi-biographical adaptation is cleverly constructed. It draws upon the 1929 true-life tragedy, ruled a murder suicide, that befell Edward “Ned” Doheny Jr., who was given Greystone as a gift by his father, oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny, and Ned’s secretary, Hugh Plunket. It weaves in the elder Doheny’s involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal, which stained the administration of President Warren G. Harding. Bates’s mythical family, the MacAlisters, suffers no less a calamitous outcome.
   Director Martin Thompson handles this intertwined set of multilayered plot points and his cast of 12 with seemingly relative ease. The season-opening performance felt a bit measured throughout the first act as though the cast and various technical personnel involved, led by stage manager Don Solosan, hungered for an actual audience to get a true feel for the timing of so many scenes playing out simultaneously. By the second act, however, the downward spiral of the MacAlisters and all within their sphere of influence graduated from merely intriguing to downright captivating.

Heading up this fictitious family is Darby Hinton, as Charles MacAlister, and Carol Potter, as his second wife, Marion. Hinton and Potter have a lovely chemistry that hinges on the love and support each of their characters offers the other particularly in the play’s darkest moments. As their son, Sean, and new daughter-in-law, Abby, whose wedding day kicks off the play, Sol Mason and Annalee Scott bring vibrancy to the proceedings.
   Abby’s father, Frank Parsons, sharply essayed by director Thompson, is the MacAlister family’s lawyer. As the plot thickens, Parsons has his work cut out for him defending his clients against federal prosecutions, which parallel those faced by the Doheny dynasty. The crimes surround a bribe required by MacAlister’s former partner, Alfred Winston, now an influential U.S. senator, in exchange for gold mining rights. Brought to life with evocative sliminess by Daniel Leslie, Winston’s good-old-boy persona provides cover for the machinations of a razor-sharp tactician. His wife, Cora, given a beautifully sympathetic turn by Melanie MacQueen, is caught up in the increasing circle of victimhood due to her husband’s criminal dealings.
   Adding more fuel to the fire are Mikel Parraga-Wills and Kira Brannlund as Gregory Pugh, the Parsons’ handyman, and his Cockney-accented wife, Henrietta Havesham Pugh, a former music hall chorine. As the tale progresses and the stakes are upped, Parraga-Wills does a yeoman’s job of portraying his character’s ever-increasing mental deterioration. Meanwhile Brannlund humorously brings to life her alter ego’s gold-digging fixations.
   Finally, special kudos to perhaps the three most instrumental members of this talented ensemble: Daniel Lench as James, the Butler; Katherine Henryk as Ursula, the Housekeeper; and Esther Richman, Ellie, the mute Maid. This trio serves as the production’s tour guides, handing off and ushering the three groups of audience members to and from each location. Their duties require constant vigilance concerning the synchronization of the various scenes, which, by the nature of this show, are performed three times so as to be seen by the entire audience.

To preserve the denouement, suffice it to say that Lench’s closing address accompanying what plays out before the audience, once again reconvened in the living room, induces goosebumps and serves as the perfect capper to this Shakespearean drama.

January 18, 2018
 
Jan 11–Feb 4. 905 Loma Vista Dr, Beverly Hills. Free parking onsite. See website for schedule. Note early curtains. $65. (310) 364-3606.

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Winter Solstice Pagan Holiday Show
The Actors’ Gang

With all the brouhaha over the return of the words “Merry Christmas” to the casually tossed-off things we say to one another at year’s end, this latest show at The Actors’ Gang comes at a splendid time. Its title says it all, welcoming pagans of all faiths and none. It provides athletic entertainment, visual spectacle, giggles and a bit of information about where modern-day American year-end celebrations originated. Which of its elements are best here? The more thoughtful and hopeful ones.
   Dionysus and Aphrodite, portrayed by the shows directors Adam J. Jefferis and Lee Margaret Hanson host the evening. Dionysus brings his patronage of theater and the boozing; Aphrodite brings the love. He’s a stinky-drunken mess; she’s a gyrating wannabe-siren. They’re earthy enough to populate their show with what mortals call entertainment, however. The Gang’s ensemble (credited with creating the acts, though writing credit goes to Jeffers, Hanson and Rynn Vogel) appears in movement-based pieces, and guest stars offer happily ages-old variety acts.
   Those acts (on the night reviewed) consisted of Chris Ruggiero’s juggling and card manipulations; Whitney Kirk’s aerial tissu artistry; and Donna Jo Thorndale’s embodying of Delois Delaney the O.G. Crafter, plying mostly comedy because, as she says, “The only guns we need in America are glue guns: They create.”
   The inebriated portion of the audience clearly had the grandest time. Many in the seats were willing to participate when called down to the stage, for picking cards, making a Christmas ornament (yes, the show includes a few recognitions of that holiday), and slow-dancing at the Winter Pagan Holiday Dance, supplied with a partner if needed.

But the pieces that created a lasting impression of universality and beauty are the interludes of movement the ensemble performs. “Creation” leads off, a story of the distant past told in every faith, beginning and apparently ending in water. Cihan Sahin’s projection designs and Bosco Flanagan’s lighting combine to enhance these dances that evoke no particular style but clearly depict their themes.
   “Light” begins in the future or perhaps the present as the ensemble remains welded to cellphones to tell of joining isolated lives, the upside of technology. Humor enters the stage with “Modelism,” in which looking fabulous is everything, as deities such as Loofah, goddess of rejuvenation, parade in a ministry of silly walks.
   But “Forgiveness” is the most beautiful, coming near the show’s end and reflecting the contagious healing power of that quality, a burden lifted from each of us as we feel it.
   Unfortunately the show decided to end in a different mood. Giving the finale to Poinsettia, daughter of Aphrodite and Dionysus, puts triviality in the place of honor, as the Christmas-addicted Poinsettia badly (deliberately comedic, in the hands of Lynde Houck) sings “Sleigh Ride.”
   Still, as the year ends, it’s nice to know theater hasn’t yet been completely forced to shut down and there’s still a refuge for pagans.


Reviewed by Dany Margolies December 10, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 
Continues through Jan 13.

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The Rainbow Bridge
Ruskin Group Theatre

When the audience enters the theater, onstage is an examining table bearing a small beagle snuggled in a soft little towel. Oh, dear. Are we going to be laughing or crying?
   There’s cause for both, throughout The Rainbow Bridge. Playwright Ron Nelson filled his play with funny lines, and there’s quite a bit of life’s truths in there. But the work needs a rethink. It can and should be stronger.
   It centers on Jerry (Paul Schackman). He’s a lawyer and decent guy, but he’s haunted by the way his mother and sister treated him when he was younger. They have passed on, his sister Amanda (Mary Carrig) shooting herself, and their mom, Lois (Lynne Marie Stewart), slipping and falling in the blood. Oddly, that seems funny here.
   When Jerry takes his ailing beagle to the vet (Jaimi Paige in a perfectly calibrated performance), she convinces him to euthanize the pup. But how this crazy vet has kept her license is impossible to fathom. She’s too upset to administer the final meds but not too upset to blatantly seduce Jerry.
   She makes Jerry read aloud a poem titled “The Rainbow Bridge,” about meeting our loved ones on “the other side.” And, cue magic music, Lois and Amanda return to haunt Jerry at every inconvenient moment.

Nelson has the opportunity to say much about growth and healing. Many of us carry with us the ghosts of our pasts. But as of now, the play could use restructuring and a bit more of a universal lesson—without sacrificing any of its humor.
   First and foremost among the dramaturgical problems, the protagonist doesn’t learn or change much, but his sister does. Amanda begins to realize why she has picked the wrong men, she begins to cry when she sees an example of real love, and she figures out how to get back across the Rainbow Bridge.
   The conflict is in the bickering between Jerry and his family. Even though he still fears mom, we never believe he’ll go through with the deadly crimes Lois wants him to commit. Mostly, there’s not a chance he’ll disappoint his sweet wife (Emily Jerez). So he’s doesn’t seem to be battling his conscience at any deep level. Nor does Jerry’s client, Theodore the arsonist (Edric Carter at the performance reviewed), seem eager enough to go through with any actus reus. He’d rather share a smoke with Jerry.

The f-word is overused throughout. At this point it’s lazy writing. When used in a play once or twice, it might give us the measure of a character. Here it has lost its potency, with a single exception: The yoga teacher (Mouchette Van Helsdingen), finally losing her center, earns a laugh with it.
   Director Michael Myers gives the piece polish and adds sight gags that zip by. Hillary Bauman’s scenic design relies on perfectly executed choreography, the actors and crew working in smooth sync, as strips of canvas are unfolded and reversed and removed to create each scene.
   As of now, however, this work is a series of sketches that needs a better throughline. A pot of gold lurks somewhere in it.


Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 23, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

 
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Disney’s Aladdin
Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz


Adam Jacobs
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann & Deen Van Meer

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

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

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

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

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