A Very Special Holiday Special
Little Fish Theatre
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
Margaret Schugt and James Rice
Photo by Mickey Elliott
If as of late you find yourself longing to laugh but not quite able to, Little Fish Theatre might coax you into smiling, snickering, chortling, and more than a few times doubling over in hilarity.
At the San Pedro–based theater through Dec. 17, A Very Special Holiday Special provides these opportunities in its eight short plays, all world premieres by Mark Harvey Levine. They lean toward secular views of Hanukkah and Christmas (with a brief mention of Kwanzaa), subtly urging warmth and tolerance for all while not forgetting faith and faithfulness.
The show presumes a sense of humor, plus historical and religious perspectives, in its audiences. For example, the opening play is only for those who can cope with the idea that Judaism predates Christianity but neither predates a nice brisket wrapped in aluminum foil.
However, first comes the pre-curtain speech that is anything but, considering that it’s very much part of the show and that there’s no curtain, meaning actors don and doff costume bits just out of sightlines.
The speech features the entire cast, seven actors from among the company’s best, reading a heavily doctored version of a beloved Christmas poem, managing to rhyme kosher with brochure. It lets the audience quickly adjust to the crisp comedic delivery and swiftly morphing characterizations we’re treated to throughout.
Then comes “Oy Vey Maria.” Yes, the newborn baby Jesus has a grandma (Madeleine Drake) who arrives, brisket in hand, apparently uninvited and late because of traffic. Grandma is clearly tetchy that those three wise guys got a better welcome from the postpartum Mary (Margaret Schugt) and the concomitantly passive Joseph (Bill Wolski).
In “The Light,” Wolski and Daniel Tennant play guards in ancient Jerusalem tasked with watching over a one-day supply of oil, keeping the flame burning for seven more. While Tennant’s guard is cranky and easily distracted, Wolski’s guard is steadfast, letting us know we can sometimes help miracles along.
“I’ll Be Home for Brisket” takes place at the house of siblings: the supper-cooking Martha (Susie McCarthy), the feather boa–wielding Mary Magdalene (Schugt) and the accident-prone little brother Lazarus (Amanda Karr). Here, a centurion (James Rice) comes to carry out a census despite the transiency of the guests, tallying in Roman numerals, his jokes earning rim shots from the Little Drummer Boy (Tennant).
In “A Very Special Hanukkah Special,” a George Bailey-esque Murray (Rice) learns it’s a good thing Hanukkah isn’t as commercially successful as Christmas is.
“Oh, Tannenbaum” stars Rice as a husband and Schugt as a talking Christmas tree, as they spend an early morning sharing worldviews. Throughout, the tree lovingly needles vegetarians and promotes botanical equality.
In “Best Present Ever,” Karr plays a harried pet owner who eventually notes the finest gift we exchange with our animals. McCarthy is the bouncy dog, and Wolski is the luxuriating cat with an Iberian accent.
“You Better Watch Out” finds a Buddhist couple being visited by militants in July who insist on knowing why the Christmas decorations aren’t up yet. Tolerance triumphs.
In the spirited finale, titled “Les Miserabelves,” the cast zips through the best of “Les Miz” songs, spoofed for the holidays, to tell, loosely, the story of Rudolph (Wolski) and his pyrrhorhinosis.
Throughout the show, references to television’s many animated Christmas specials by Rankin/Bass Productions flood the stage, some coming so quickly they pass before they can jog the memory. Lines from Christmas carols, instantly recognizable, constitute bits of the dialogue.
But linking the plays are serious themes of respect, broad-mindedness and inclusiveness.
Director Holly Baker-Kreiswirth, having perfectly cast her actors, amps up the humor but keeps the tone just gentle enough, adding poignant touches. Visual jokes enhance verbal ones, while the eight plays hurtle along in completely controlled mayhem.
Stacey Abrams’ lighting design plays up the ranges of tenderness and silliness in the stories. But costumer Diana Mann, for her work in this show and others over the year, deserves whatever she desires for whatever holidays she celebrates—or all of them.
November 14, 2016
Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze.
11–Dec. 17. 777 S. Centre St., San Pedro. Fri-Sat 8pm. (No perf Nov. 25.
Additional perfs Thu, Dec. 8 and Dec. 15 at 8pm; Sun, Nov. 20, Nov. 27,
and Dec. 4 at 2pm.) Running time 1 hour and 50 minutes, including
intermission. $27, $25 for seniors. (310) 512-6030.
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–Dec. 3 (no perf. Thanksgiving Day; added perf. Wed, Nov 30 at
8pm). 5108 Lankershim Blvd. Thu-Sat 8pm. Pay what you want. (323)
Theater company and ticketing
The following have generously supported ArtsInLA.com....
Up & Running Arts Management and Consultants
Tell them you read about it on ArtsInLA.com
...and contact us at info@ArtsInLA.com!
...or tweet us at @ArtsInLAcom (no dot)!