Encore Entertainers at Warner Grand Theatre
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
Serenity Robb and Andrew Metzger
Photo by Myles Regan/
This sprawling epic about life, guilt, forgiveness, transformation, redemption, and the French revolution gets a skilled, moving, but scenically sparse production by Encore Entertainers.
First and foremost, Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics—based on the original French by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, which they based on the 1862 Victor Hugo novel—are clearly sung and meaningful here, under the direction of Summer Dey Cacciagioni and the musical direction of Mike Walker. This is fortunate because the lyrics are gorgeous and because the musical is sung-through, so no explanations of the story are spoken between songs.
Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music, too, gets such a clean, rich sound here that the score seems prerecorded. It’s not; that masterly pit orchestra is led by conductor-keyboardist Walker.
J. Michael Bailey stars as Jean Valjean who, criminalized for stealing bread for a starving family, struggles to overcome the branding, becoming valiant in the process. Bailey’s warm, expressive voice beautifully fills the role’s expansive range, as Bailey creates a warmhearted father figure.
Valjean’s lifetime nemesis, Inspector Javert, is wonderfully underplayed by Christopher Carothers, whose voice, as adept as Bailey’s, is colder and more terrifying, at least until he sings the self-reprimanding “Soliloquy.”
As Valjean rises in the world, he befriends one of his factory workers, the single-mother Fantine. Dying, she belts “I Dreamed a Dream,” given a thoroughly sweet rendition here by Dana Shaw. Valjean promises to look after her tiny daughter, Cosette (an even sweeter performance by Bella Gomez).
Cosette was in essence sold to the dreadful Thénardiers, who force Cosette to act as scullery maid while they spoil their own daughter, Éponine. Valjean finds Cosette and takes her away.
A decade later, Éponine is a streetwise teen in love with a student, Marius. He, however is interested only in revolution, at least until he meets the beautiful, delicate Cosette. Éponine, here portrayed by Tracy Ramsay, sings the showstopping Act Two topper, “On My Own.” Ramsey’s vocal chops thrill while she makes the song her own. Cosette has become Valjean’s well-tended flower, perfectly embodied here by Mackenzie Hamilton. She meets and falls for the sweet-hearted Marius, played by Richie Olson. Both actors seem so young, but they are probably at the age Hugo intended them to be. Their work together is extraordinarily tender.
Among Marius’s fellow students is the stirring leader of the revolutionaries, Enjolras, played here by Jahmaul Bakare with a beautiful operatic voice and a charismatic presence. The scenes of revolutionary foment are powerful and as realistic as things get in musical theater.
Monsieur Thénardier returns to claim a little something for his troubles. He also returns because he is the comedic highlight of the musical. Andrew Metzger gives this innkeeper-turned-gangster a touch of Jack Sparrow as he prowls and picks pockets.
Pursuant to Encore’s mission of educating young performers, the cast includes students, and it shows in the group vocals and in the acting. But they are learning the best way possible—by being onstage with no second takes—and the talents of the best of them bode well for the future of musical theater in the Southland.
In particular, among the students in the cast is high school senior Serenity Robb, playing the comedic lead Madame Thénardier. While Robb is not yet at the level of that total-and-then-some immersion in a character that marks the top-tier performers, she is a star in the making. She has a strong voice, comedic chops, and a presence that holds attention through a song.
What’s a revolution without a revolving stage? As did the 1985 original production, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, the action here takes place on a turntable, allowing characters to stroll as they ponder their futures, and allowing the audience to see the front and back of the barricade built by the young Parisian radicals.
A set of stained-glass windows flies in for the prologue, when Valjean is given his fresh start by a priest, and then not until toward the end of Act Two do a few projections show up to establish locale. Lighting, too, is hit-and-miss, and the booth missed more than a few spots on the evening reviewed. Only these design issues keep this production from being full-out glorious.
June 22, 2015
Republished courtesy Daily Breeze
to Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd.,
Redondo Beach. Fri 7:30pm Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 1pm. Running time
nearly 3 hours, including intermission. $35–55. (310)
Little Fish Theatre
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
Amanda Karr, Lukas Bailey, Leona Britton, and Noah Wagner
Photo courtesy Little Fish Theatre
Appallingly feuding but passionately attracted couples are not new to the stage. Shakespeare drew them in The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing. Edward Albee penned them in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Amanda and Elyot are quintessentially creations of the great British wit Noël Coward, in his 1930 play Private Lives. Coward, a master at cheekily spotlighting human foibles, gibes at the mores and marriages of his time. Amanda and Elyot had admittedly made each other miserable in their three-year marriage. Now, five years after they divorced, they find themselves on a balcony of a hotel at a French seaside resort. Unfortunately it’s the first evening of their honeymoons with their respective new spouses.
Elyot and his new wife, Sibyl, clearly aren’t the happiest of couples, either, as evidenced by Sibyl’s relentless probing into the causes of Elyot’s divorce. Meanwhile, Amanda’s new husband, Victor, is similarly interrogating Amanda. But once Elyot and Amanda catch sight of each other, the lust and the violence flow again.
The former couple runs off together, to her Paris apartment, where they hunker down as only English sophisticates can do. Their new spouses find them there—no sense asking how, nor, if it’s not too middle-class American to wonder, what each does for a living.
In the decades after Coward wrote the play, laws and mores have changed in the marriage department, but his points about love are evergreen, and those points are given further honing in this production, directed by James Rice.
The only disappointments here are in the design elements. The Act One balcony is packed with what look like paint-flecked tarpaulins tossed over presumably patio furniture—in reality hiding Act Two’s Parisian living-room setup. The audience would believe the setting is a badly neglected American backyard before it could possibly believe this is a honeymoon retreat on the English Channel.
Costuming is eye-catching though not period-defining. Garbing the hapless Victor in tails and spats might be a hint about his lack of couth, but it comes across as a design error.
Nonetheless, the actors soon lure the audience into the lives of these Bickersons. Rice’s cast may not display the frothy English sophistication Coward was known for, but the actors create real people onstage, particularly Rice’s two leads.
They are Noah Wagner, playing Elyot, and Amanda Karr as Amanda. In the role originated in London’s West End by Coward, Wagner gives Elyot a red-blooded presence. It’s needed, because Karr has a personality that envelops the stage. There’s no fear one or the other character will lose—nor get injured—in the verbal and physical battles that this romance comprises (excellent fight choreography by Mike Mahaffey).
By perfect contrast, Lukas Bailey makes a stiff-upper-lip Victor, and Leona Britton is a fluttery, wailing Sibyl. Elizabeth Craig completes the cast, playing the French maid, swiftly speaking only French and adding masses of Gallic disdain.
In real life, Amanda and Elyot would not be not the kind of couple with whom most of us would want to spend an evening. Fortunately, in the hands of Little Fish, they are separated from us by the nice, safe fourth wall of theater, so we admire the quality acting.
June 15, 2015
Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
12–July 18. 777 Centre St., San Pedro. Entrance and parking behind the
theatre; access through alley between 7th and 8th streets. Thu-Sat 8pm,
Sun 2pm. $25-27. (310) 512-6030.
DOMA Theatre Company at MET Theatre
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Jess Ford and Andrew Diego
Photo by Michael Lamont
Fifteen years ago, when superpower band Green Day decided to produce a rock opera paying homage to The Who, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, who is credited for writing 98 percent of the Green Day’s most celebrated music, created the dynamically screwed up anti-hero Jesus of Suburbia. When the effort catapulted into the band’s 2004 album American Idiot, it was a worldwide success and won the Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2005.
In 2009, Armstrong collaborated with Green Day fan and Broadway director Michael Mayer (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Tony winner for Spring Awakening) to turn the band’s Tommy-like concept into a stage musical. First mounted at Berkeley Rep, the theatrical version of American Idiot went on to New York, rocking out the venerable St. James Theatre for more than a year.
LA’s decade-old DOMA Theatre Company, which has been turning out some surprisingly massive and well-appointed productions for almost a decade, is a perfect match for Green Day’s loud and irreverent musical, which follows Johnny (Jess Ford), the Jesus of this show’s particular suburbia, who, with his two buddies Will (Wesley Moran) and Tunny (Chris Kerrigan), dreams in song of leaving the restrictive environment in which they grew up, ready to rebel by singing and rocking their way into the big city.
Things don’t work out so well for Will, whose wife leaves him with their infant son because he never seems to get off his couch, rise from his smoky haze, and put down his ever-present bong. Tunny, too, ends up in an unexpected state, whisked into the army and returning from one of America’s horrifying desert wars in a wheelchair.
Still, we follow Johnny the most closely, as his initiation into disenchanted youthful urban existence brings him into contact with Whatshername (Renee Cohen), who introduces him to her politically active and rebellious lifestyle, and St. Jimmy (Andrew Diego), who gets him high on a series of increasingly more debilitating street drugs.
After the perils of our disintegrating society and the bitterness of life in the real world nearly kill all three heroes, each returns to his hometown. Although it would be more satisfying if the guys discovered how to conquer their demons rather than retreat back to the place that shaped them, hopefully along the way their eyes have been opened to things none of them would have understood without their bellyflop into contemporary chaos.
But that’s fodder for American Idiot II, which in a perfect world should include a palpable sense of the era just past the one when the original album was released, a time when our country’s young’uns were forced to come of age through 9/11, as well as during the Iraqi War and conflicts in Afghanistan and across the globe.
Director Marco Gomez and his design team, especially Michael Mullen, who presumably on a shoestring created some the flashiest, most whimsical and creative costuming seen on any LA stage this year, join to lift this production way beyond the usual limitations of typical 99-Seat theater productions of large-scale musicals.
Musical director Chris Raymond and his excellent band add immensely to the mix, as do the generally balls-out performances by the principal players. One small criticism: Although the denizens of American Idiot are all purdy much continuously in pain, it would be a better character choice if every song and every spoken line were not delivered with a tortured expression and the appearance of emanating from a dying beast.
Especially when assaying Angela Todaro’s energetic and highly athletic choreography, the wildly fearless and spirited chorus of 17 knockout young triple-threats collectively liquefy together, wondrously becoming like one more principal character in the story, reminiscent of the townspeople in Evita who also often moved across the stage as one communal mass of humanity.
Of the talented ranks, it would be remiss not to mention the Joplin-esque vocal calisthenics of Sandra Diana Cantu, as well as the überanimated, appropriately over-bleached Kevin Corsini, one of the tallest ensemble members whose unruly crown of straw glows brightly under Jean-Yves Tessier’s exquisitely atmospheric lighting.
Green Day’s most popular tunes re-created in the musical—including “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” which became a message against governmental avarice and ineptitude after the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the title song and “Holiday,” both part of the Green Day’s in-your-face score and Armstrong’s literate and often depressing book and lyrics—clearly express an entire generation’s dissent over the actions initiated by our government in our own country and across the globe.
Underlying the musical’s sometimes simplistic plotline is a conscious message shouting out against corporate greed and unnecessary war, something that overpowers any minor clumsiness. Add in a cast this charismatic and such knockout production values, and this is a miraculous mounting of the musical not to be overlooked.
June 11, 2015
5–Aug 2. 1089 N. Oxford Ave., LA. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm (dark July 4).
General admission $30; VIP admission (includes reserved seating and a
complimentary snack and beverage), $34.99; seniors and students with ID
$20. (323) 802-9181.
Marry Me a Little
Good People Theater Company at the Lillian Theater
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Jessie Withers and David Laffey
Rich Clark Photography
While Craig Lucas was appearing in the original cast of Stephen Sondheim’s classic Sweeney Todd in New York, the fertile brain of this actor-turned-playwright was sparked by a discussion listing the many songs from the prolific composer-lyricist’s equally fertile brain that had been cut from some of his most successful creations before opening night. After approaching Sondheim with an idea and getting his blessing, Lucas and Norman Rene created this Off-Off-Broadway 1980 musical revue featuring all those lost songs and a few more from Sondheim’s then-still-unproduced musical Saturday Night.
Directed by Rene and starring Lucas and Suzanne Henry, Marry Me a Little transferred from Off-Off to Off-Broadway, racking up a decent run and even more decent reputation over the years in regional theaters everywhere. Easy to produce—two actors, an accompanist, a minimal set—it was an inspired choice for Janet Miller and her Good People Theater Company to bring to the infamously bare-boned Hollywood Fringe Festival. Miller, her musical director–accompanist Corey Hirsch, and performers Jessie Withers and David Laffey can easily present their hour-long offering, pack up their bed and Hirsch’s keyboard, and voila: the theater is ready for the next Fringe entry.
The premise was simple as Lucas and Rene saw it, interlacing all those abandoned Sondheim tunes together to create an ongoing song cycle made up of private thoughts conjured by two lonely strangers living in apartments 2C and 3C of a giant Manhattan apartment building, existing quietly in their otherwise unconnected isolation. As the story progresses, Withers and Laffey share the stage throughout but only infrequently share a song together, sung to each other as they occupy the same room, adhering to the authors’ conceit that the two singles are singing their hearts out while alone in their separate studios.
This is perfect for the whimsical mind and smoothly modulated talents of director-choreographer Miller, who craftily weaves together the movements of her players as they share the same bed in different rooms until they accidentally meet, it appears, in the lobby or elevator sometime during the performance. Beginning with the plaintive ballad “Saturday Night” from that aforementioned musical, their love story continues as the couple falls in love, eventually becomes disillusioned (living “One day of grateful/For six of regret”), and by “It Wasn’t Meant to Happen” (trimmed from Follies), retreats right back to their solitary individual galaxies in 2C and 3C.
Withers has a gorgeous, rich, near-operatic soprano that the notoriously discerning, cranky ol’ Uncle Stephen would appreciate. She is especially notable interpreting the title song and “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” originally sliced, respectively, from Company and Anyone Can Whistle, and gives a deliciously and suitably naughty spin to Follies’s lost “Can That Boy F….oxtrot.” Laffey has a splendid voice as well, although on opening night he was dealing with vocal strain in the second half, making the biggest impression in “Multitude of Amys,” also cut from Company.
Hirsch does an exceptional job at the keyboards, although occasionally it would be nice for the accompaniment to soften a bit and not overpower the vocals, something that could be easily adjusted if the Fringe Festival were not such a hurried affair. The same is true for Withers and Laffeys’s performances, which could also use a few more rehearsals and a little seasoning and sinking into the shoes of the characters.
Of course, Marry Me a Little is ultimately about Sondheim, whose tunes, even the ones that were scrapped, are arresting and whose lyrics are beyond compare with anyone else writing in the last 50 years or so. If anyone seems to understand loneliness and the fleeting qualities of love, it’s him.
June 7–28. 1076 Lillian Way., West Hollywood. See website for schedule. Running time 70 minutes, no intermission. $15-20.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
Amanda Blake Davis and Robyn Norris
Sometimes theater is about humankind’s greatest achievers. Sometimes it’s about supremely tragic figures. And sometimes, as with this show, it’s about the rest of us.
A group of Second City’s fine performers went off piste and conducted a social experiment. After Robyn’s (Robyn Norris) friend posted a profile on a dating site and asked Robyn to check it over, Robyn set up an account to access the site. Robyn created the outlandish profile of an admittedly “crazy-insane person” she named TracyLovesCats. A shockingly large number of men—and women—responded, begging for various forms of contact with “Tracy.”
Norris’s fellow troupe members Chris Alvarado, Rob Belushi, Amanda Blake Davis, Kate Duffy, and Bob Ladewig joined in, posting outrageous profiles no one could possibly think were anything other than a joke. These performers’ “sketch” show, Undateable, re-enacts verbatim the heartfelt responses by real, everyday people to these perverse personals.
So, even though Rob (Belushi) pushed the intimacy-phobic envelope with DoorSlamEric, women think Eric is dateable. And although PioneerInABox (Kate Duffy) gets busted (she claims to function as if in the 1860s, yet she’s online), she manages to lure interest. Even Amanda’s (Blake Davis) age-questionable Old4U75 appeals to a prospective beau.
The show, a fascinating concept, is well-structured and is imaginatively directed by Frank Caeti. It is also, of course, hilarious, though a strong strain of sympathy runs through it. And even though the show has been running for months, the performers have fresh energy. These performers are more interested in telling their story than in “being funny,” so the laughs come from the audience’s self-recognition and not from any obnoxious stage-hogging shenanigans.
The troupe sings and dances—and not badly—to enhance several of their “scientific” points about romantic behavior. A few minutes of improv at the end of the show reflect the performers’ well-honed chops.
Locational cautions: The venue is in Hollywood where street parking has a two-hour limit, metered until midnight on Fridays. The show is a mere one hour, but it undoubtedly will start a few minutes late. In addition, the theater is upstairs, and the site has no elevator. But if you’re swift and spry, head on up there for a dose of reality. It will probably provide you with more than several hearty belly laughs. It might also make you weep for mankind.
August 19, 2013
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