Wednesday, April 24, 2013

HABITAT… Downtown Los Angeles













To quote Canadian playwright Judith Thompson “This play is dedicated to every group home struggling to survive in a hostile neighborhood.” If you go expecting some nice little story of people getting together with hope and understanding – forget it!  Sadly, there are no hearts and flowers on Mapleview Lane, but these bad kids are really intolerable. Even their leader is a villain and all the good intentions in the world won’t help.  In this brutal world parents and children are at war, friends are tormentors, yet no one is really to blame.  It’s an angry commentary on our times and seemingly there’s no recourse – just desolation and rage. 
Leading the dynamic cast is Susan Clark (Margaret) as an elderly resident who sees the danger but finds herself drawn to Raine (Esperanza America), a troubled young girl, with tragic results.  Sal Lopez (Chance) is the advocate for troubled youth whose own demons are being roused by mischievous inmate Paul Nguyen (Sparkle), and Nina Silver (Janet) is a daughter, a mother and a lawyer torn by conflicting emotions.
Powerfully directed by Jose Luiz Valenzuela, with impressive use of the huge stage by Tesshi Nakagawa (set), Cameron Mock (lighting), Carlos Brown (costumes), and, if a bit overwhelming, John Zalewski (sound). 
Produced by Latino Theater Company. Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles.   Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m.  Tickets at (866) 811-4111 or www.thelatc.org.

Monday, April 22, 2013

SOMEONE WHO’LL WATCH OVER ME... in North Hollywood

Reviewed in NOT BORN YESTERDAY, May issue.








This riveting drama is set in a cell in Lebanon, in the 1980s, where three men – an American, an Irishman and a Brit - are being held hostage by a group of Islamic militants. How do they survive years in hell with gun-bearing fools whose goal is to keep them in a cage, shoot them if ordered and have fun watching them squirm?  According to Irish playwright, Frank McGuinness - With defiance and imagination.  Laugh in their faces, talk, argue, sing, embrace and fantasize – but never accept that you’re doomed.
Based loosely on Brian Keenan’s memoir of his harrowing four years as a hostage in Lebanon, this play is a lesson in living.  We are witness to the games, the breakdowns, the heroic struggle, and, in the shadowy scene-breaks, time passes, clothes get shabbier, a man’s mind starts to unravel.  Still the message is: Survive, Love, Hate, but always remember to Laugh!
Bert Emmett is extraordinary as the Irish journalist, goading, teasing, keeping the others alive; Lloyd Pedersen is poignant as the English professor trying to keep a stiff upper lip but usually failing, and Evan L. Smith is heart-breaking as the American doctor grasping at straws to retain his sanity. 
Director Gregg T. Daniel brilliantly conveys the energy and black humor that keeps the men alive, and Gary Lee Reed (Set); Kim Smith (Lighting); Steve Shaw (Sound) and Elizabeth Nankin (costumes) capture the desolation.
Laura Coker produced for The Group Rep, at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd. North Hollywood, through June 2.  Tickets (818) 763-5990 or  www.thegrouprep.com.
         

THE CIRCUS IS COMING TO TOWN... in Los Angeles

Reviewed in NOT BORN YESTERDAY, May issue.











Storybook Theatre has been at it for 25 years now, entertaining kids 3-9 with interactive musicals and, if this show is any example, it’s the adults who get the real treat.  Just sitting among wonder-eyed children and see their reactions, their amazement, their absorption, their innocent pleasure, is not to be missed.  It’s truly magical storytelling because, at this Circus, the children are the show.
            The challenge is how to create a circus in a tiny box of a theatre and – wonder of wonders – they do it.  As the children eagerly rise up, volunteer, rush onstage to join the circus, the acrobats, lions, tigers, giraffes, bears, monkeys, all come to life.  For comic relief there’s a shifty soda-man pushing spinach-ade (yech!), and a spoiler in the crowd who gets her comeuppance, but in the end all learn to celebrate life.
            Actors Anne Leyden (Ringmaster), Melanie Wahla (clown), and Heather Keller (animal tamer), are charmers, and understudy Lukas Bailey is fabulous as nasty Mr. Grimble and nastier Ms. Notfun.  Delightful book, lyrics and direction are by Lloyd J. Schwartz, with music by Brian Feinstein.  Produced by Barbara Mallory with choreography by Paul Denniston.
At Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. Los Angeles, Saturdays 1 p.m. through July 6.  Information: (818) 761-2203 or www.theatrewest.org

Monday, April 15, 2013

TOMORROW... in Los Angeles









In preparation for a major theatrical production of “Macbeth,” a young film actress comes to beg a legendary hundred-year old doyenne of the American Theater to coach her for Lady Macbeth.  To play a legendary figure requires a great actor and, from her first entrance, Salome Jens is comfortably at home in this role.  Just to see and hear her delineate the process whereby a great performer probes and questions the reality of a fictional character is the jewel in this crown.  Even during intermission she is onstage, wraith-like, silent, but oh so real, hardly noticed by the chattering audience regaining their seats, but she is Abigail Booth – a once great stage star ready for her next entrance. 
            If you love theater and have a passion for Shakespeare (as I do) don’t miss this play!  There will be stretches that try your patience, but there will also be – whenever Jens is onstage – transcendental scenes.  As her character says, not many reach those heights and it’s all gone in a moment, but here is an actress with subtle power and her lesson on acting will ring in your heart with sadness and ultimately, joy.  So, go!
Playwright Donald Freed has set the play in the year 2000, with a radio announcing that George W. Bush has been awarded the presidency.  How this parallels the passing of America’s golden era in theater, and whether the modern film actress found her destiny in the end, never became clear.  However, Freed’s strength is in revealing the inner workings of a stage genius, not intellectually but viscerally, and persuading us how it is, and was, and might have been.
            As the film star, Jenn Robbins bustles in, water bottle in hand, a modern gal worshiping the myth of a great past but unable to attain the soul.  When she gives voice to Shakespeare’s words, spoken loud and strong, she is impressive, but too often her character appears facile and smartass.  As James Booth, Kevin Quinn stepped bravely in with script in hand, as a fast replacement for Shakespearean master Geoffrey Forward who was unable to make this performance.  Quinn was good, but exactly who his character was, and what he signified in the play, was enigmatic and unresolved.
            Damian Cruden directed with classical dignity and able assistance from Stephanie Kerley Schwartz (Sets and Costumes); Jeff McLaughlin (Lighting Design), and Christopher Moscatiello (Sound Design).
            This world premiere staging of “Tomorrow” is a co-production by LA’s Skylight Theatre Company, Rogue Machine Theatre, and Britain’s York Theatre Royal.  Playing through May 5 at the Skylight Theatre Complex, 1816 N. Vermont, LA.  For Reservations: (702) 582-8587 or http://www.ktcla.com.

Friday, April 12, 2013

THE INNOCENCE OF FATHER BROWN… in Pasadena













I first read the Father Brown stories – avidly – when I was about 12 and living in Catholic boarding school in England.  Father Brown was created by famous British writer, G.K. Chesterton, and modeled on Father John O’Connor his local parish priest. The first of the 51 stories appeared in 1912 and are still being published today.  Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown's methods are intuitive rather than deductive.  Here is a detective who by looking into the soul of a criminal understands the motives which drove him to commit the crime.  Having received thousands of confessions, men and women baring their souls, he’s heard it all. Compassion was Father Brown’s m├ętier, balanced by his perceptiveness, and “Innocence” captures this spirit of understanding and forgiveness.
            Patrick Rieger has cleverly adapted four of the original stories into a cinematic stream that weaves multiple crimes into a smoothly flowing thriller. Three were personal favorites: the evil man struck down by God’s hammer; the postman no one saw, and the phony guru who devises the perfect murder.  It was a pleasure for me to see these acted out and, hopefully, those who never read the stories will enjoy trying to outguess Father Brown.
            As head of this young but enthusiastic cast, Blake Walker’s Father Brown is pleasingly rosy cheeked and bespectacled; Brandon Parrish as arch criminal Flambeau is good when evil and very good when repentant; Terrance Robinson is excellent in three widely different roles – a calm priest, a religious fanatic and a snooty butler; Adam Daniel Elliott seemed a bit over the top as the Chief Inspector but in the end his rages were significant; Kate O’Toole was impressive in many roles, especially as a reluctant floozy; Erika M. Frances was adorable as a young gal torn between love and common sense, and Jon Snow and Michael Hoag deserve credit for the many roles they admirably played, whether alive or dead.
Producers Allison Darby Gorjian and Betsy Roth, who also co-directed, took on the task of making a small theatre do justice to the vast canvas required.  To help it flow, set and lighting designer Jeremy Williams created moveable walls with church-like panels in keeping with the ecumenical motif, helped along by effective sound by Andrew Villaverde and appropriate costumes by Paige Draney.
            This guest production by Little Candle Productions, presented at Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave, South Pasadena. CA 91030, runs through Sunday, April 28.   
RESERVATIONS:(866) 811-4111.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN... in Pasadena










This is a full concert and musical journey that vigorously explores the influences that made young Janis Joplin into a rock 'n' roll legend. It’s been said, “With a voice like whiskey and a laugh like pure joy, simultaneously rough and vulnerable, Joplin proved music wasn't just a man's world anymore.” Brilliantly written and directed by Randy Johnson, “One Night With Janis Joplin” also shines a spotlight on the artists who inspired her, including Bessie Smith, Etta James, Odetta, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin.  It’s a dynamic show, with Mary Bridget Davies amazingly real as Janis Joplin, and Sabrina Elayne Carten awesomely versatile as all of her black-singer muses. 
I was never a Joplin fan, but I love Davies’ energy and appreciate her vivid impersonation, even though I hardly understood a word she sang.  However, I was blown away by Carten’s totally amazing versatility.  At first by her range – she enters singing an operatic “Summertime” that wowed us – but wait – she went on to sing the blues, soul, jazz, and dynamic rock ‘n’ roll.  Every time she opened her mouth she conquered the style and belted out powerfully - and you understood every word. 
At its Portland, Oregon premiere in 2011 one critic wrote: “If you never got the chance to see Janis live or on film, this feels as close as you’re going to get.”  I couldn’t agree more.  It’s a trip back to the wild free-spirited 1960’s with a live, long-haired, on-stage band creating authentic rock 'n' roll and beautifully backing numerous classic songs.
            Plaudits to the creative team that includes Len Rhodes (Musical Arranger), Justin Townsend (Set and Lighting Design), Jeff Cone (Costume Design), Carl Casella (Sound Design) and Darrell Maloney (Projection Design).  Presented by The Pasadena Playhouse in association with Todd Gershwin and Daniel Chilewich of One Night Productions. 
The Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena.
For Tickets and Information: (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.  Playing through April 21.

Monday, April 8, 2013

END OF THE RAINBOW... at The Ahmanson, Los Angeles
















Here is a tribute/expose/denigration of Judy Garland, where she acts like a cat in heat and talks like a truck driver. Actress Tracie Bennett gives a bravura performance, but whether you for one second buy the premise that she is Judy Garland – yeah, the hard-drinking, drug dependent, brilliant performer with a voice to melt your heart and your eardrums – I beg to differ.
This is not to say Bennett's impersonation is not brilliant theater – you'll never be bored, even if not persuaded - but whatever Garland's demons were like, and how wild and obnoxious her reported behavior, this show doesn't ring true. Also, when Bennett sings, her voice is high and strong and, even though she found the vocal vibrato that rings in the ear like Garland, the throaty, pain-filled husk was missing. She does not come close to capturing the heartbreaking poignancy of Garland's triumphs on stage. Garland radiated fragility, Bennett's gal is as hard as nails.
Maybe my memory goes back further than most, but all through Rainbow another image kept obscuring this crude, vulgar, physical woman onstage. It struck me as I left the Ahmanson. Aha! This could be about Tallulah Bankhead – that's her language we heard – wild daughter of a senator - famous for her foul mouth – always making lewd jokes about "let's f***!" – and yes, except for the singing – it was Tallulah!
           As reviewed for theatermania.com 


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

MARILYN - MY SECRET... West Hollywood











We all have our luminous memories of Marilyn Monroe but this lovely evening spent with her won’t diminish the glow.  If you are seeking the answer to what makes a Goddess you may not find it here, but you will get some insight into what makes a Star.


 Like all great film actors, Marilyn radiated a magic all her own.  This dramedy with songs fleetingly captures Marilyn – then she’s gone – but Kelly Mullis deserves applause for her delightful, loving impersonation.  The charming, ebullient, angry child is all there and told directly to us by the impish Mullis.

 Monique Marissa Lukens is persuasive as domineering acting coach Natasha Lytess, but too caricaturish as Paula Strasberg.  As American blond stripper Lili St. Cyr, Katarina Radivojevic is totally miscast but makes up for it by being impressively sensuous and daring.  Jamie German is totally believable as a cold manipulative Bobby Kennedy and also as a dude looking for an easy lay.
As we are drawn into the play, the question of where authors Willard Manus and Odalys Nanin got their facts becomes relevant.  I’ve always considered many of the stories they chose, from the tabloids and other sources, unreliable, e.g. the number of abortions she had; the boy child she gave birth to at 14 and gave up; the myriad lovers famous and unknown; the bar pickups where after sex she revealed mischievously “You just f***** Marilyn Monroe”; the numerous lesbian affairs (when did Marlene Dietrich have time to make films?); the Kennedy brothers cruel manipulation of her.  Were these facts or rumors?  Some probably true, but others questionable.  Happily, the question behind her untimely death is left ambiguous.  That’s for us to decide: Suicide? Accident? Murder?  Manus and Nanin leave that answer up to us.
Theatre, as we know, has its own rules and being entertaining is more important than biographical facts.  If you want history, read a book!  Even if we’ll never learn her true secret, what we’ll always have are the Marilyn photos – thousands of wondrous images of a beauty we cannot fathom.  Also there’s that riveting onscreen presence, the memorable film roles, that voluptuous yet strangely chaste body, the tender gaze of a lost child, and the sense of wonder she brought out onscreen.  
Besides co-authoring, Odalys Nanin expertly produced and directed this uninhibited salute to an erotic life, while lighting design and video clips by Carey Dunn expand the tiny stage to full life.  At Macha Theatre, 1107 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood, through April 21.  Tickets/Information: www.plays411.com or www.machatheatre.org or phone (323) 960-7862.
Review by Morna Murphy Martell, former Broadway Critic for The Hollywood Reporter