EVERYBODY'S GOT ONE  

CURRENT REVIEWS 

from TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER

 

  Do You Feel Anger?

Photo by Jeff Lorch 

Circle X

When a professional empathy coach is hired by a debt collection office to help train their employees in how to compassionately handle transactions without calling customers bitches and to stop beating up their emotionally fragile female coworker in the facility’s communal kitchen, little does she know what she’s gotten herself into.

Despite ignoring her own mess of a family dynamic, Sofia (Paula Rebelo) is confident she has the emotional fortitude to change the thinking and the behavior of the company’s male telephone debt collectors despite the fact that one of the first questions she’s asked is to explain what exactly the word empathy means.

“Empathy?” asks Jon (Casey Smith), the genuinely classless office manager who wishes Sofia would sign off on the experiment and go home, “Isn’t that a type of bird?”

A biting, delightfully off-kilter and refreshingly bizarre tale about the abuse and trauma of women in the workplace doesn’t seems as though it would be all that funny, I know. Well, ducks, unstoppably irreverent playwright Mara Nelson-Greenberg instantly proves it’s more than possible with her knockout new #MeToo vs. Cancel Culture comedy/tragedy romp Do You Feel Anger?, which feels like a welcome hybrid between the contemporary absurdist brilliance of John Guare and Charles Mee, with a little Nicky Silver thrown in for good measure.

First premiering at Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2018, Chicago director Halena Kays was in attendance and suitably mindboggled. “My mouth was wide open most of the play,” Kays admits. “Nelson-Greenberg has tilted our world just askew enough that we recognize it but also see it in a whole new way.”

What could be a better match for Anger’s west coast premiere than to be presented by the bravely off-center folks at Circle X, since 1996 one of the most prolific and convention-defying theatre companies in our culturally deprived reclaimed desert climes, an electic troupe of like-minded individuals stalwartly dedicated to producing unique and provocative theatrical experiences against all odds.

You know, odds such as making enough money to keep from disappearing as so many other well-meaning theatrical ensembles have in the past few years.

After a three-year hiatus from LA's intimate theatre scene, Circle X has found a fine home at the Atwater Village Theatre complex, itself to be commended for their dedication to be a generous and affable place for our city’s many often struggling nomadic theatre companies to work and thrive.

Thanks to what could possibly be attributed to some wildly serendipitous nepotism, both Do You Feel Anger? and the once-boggled Kays have landed in LA and the result is yet another success for Circle X. Kays’ direction is sharply explosive and continuously in-your-face, perfect for delivering Nelson-Greenberg’s stinging indictment of our fuckedup societal mores peeking out just below the outrageous humor.

The production could not be more impressively mounted, particularly with the excellent design team joined together to create their subtle magic built around Francois-Pierre Couture’s sufficiently drab yet whimsical set that proves to possess a few surprises of its own.

Kays’ has snagged the quintessential cast, truly a posterchild for ensemble performance. Napoleon Tavale and Rich Liccardo are delightfully creepy as the office’s resident misogynistic phone collectors, Jordan prone to recite ludicrous poetry without warning (“A cow, a man, a boy, a light! A song, a rock, a fish, a star!") and his counterpart introducing himself by saying, “I’m Howie and I have a really bad temper.” Neither of the guys understand what they’re doing there enduring Sofia’s lessons or comprehend what all the lawsuits against the company are about. I mean, what’s wrong with a a guy asking for a blowjob without reciprocation if that’s what he really, really likes? At least they’re being honest and putting their feelings out there, right?

Rebelo does a commendable job assuming the sraightman role, playng Abbott to a whole stageful of Costellos, that is until the office dynamics take a turn for the worse and suddenly her character is thrust into a whole new dimension. This surely is the play's most difficult transition to ace and Rebelo accomplishes it seamlessly.

Appearing occasionally alone on a side stage as Sofia’s shattered mother leaving increasingly defeated phone messages for her daughter, begging her to respond as she and her bigamist father go through a nasty divorce, Rose Portillo is heartbreaking and expertly able to deal with playing Anger’s most grounded character without the feeling of being isolated from the rest of the cast or possibly even appearing in another play altogether in less capable hands.

Still, it’s Tasha Ames as neurotic battered coworker Eva and the aforementioned Mr. Smith as the company manager Jon who guide the storyline and make both the nuttiness and the underlying pathos of Nelson-Greenberg’s amazingly hilarious—and ultimately profound—play work.

Ames begins the first scene greeting her potential savior Sofia on such a faux-amphetamine high and delivering such a wonderfully freakish rant that it fuels the entire play, coming on as though Jennifer Coolidge has been cast in the title role in a remake of Annie Hall (and having once seen Coolidge play a Gucci-clad Laura in a Groundling’s spoof of The Glass Menagerie, this vision is actually not too farfetched).

Smith also immediately takes no prisoners, dispatching each of his goofy lines directly out front with brightly shining toothpaste commercial glee even though he is the only actor onstage who employs this daring commedia dell’arte-inspired device. Better yet: he makes it work beautifully.

There’s also a lovely unexpected eleventh-hour cameo from Charlotte Gulezian as Janie, a physically and emotionally battered coworker so destroyed by her chauvinistic cohorts that she has basically moved into a bathroom stall while her sweater remains draped over the back of a chair in Couture’s austere conference room set and her coffee mug becomes more and more overrun with growing mold as the play unfolds (with kudos due to “Specialty Prop Designer” Richard Maher, I suspect).

And speaking of cameos, the other Chuck Mee-ian surprise comes when a wheelchair-bound character called The Old Man (well, his age is said to be 130, it seems) suddenly enters with the intent of blowing up the office—except that he grabbed a couple of cans of dog food instead of explosives.

In true Circle X style, the scene-stealing role is being played each week by a different actor, with the perpetually deadpanned Bob Clendenin hilariously kicking off opening weekend, to be followed during the run by veteran LA theatre curmudgeons William Salyers, John Getz, Jan Munroe, Tony Amendola, and Silas Weir Mitchell.

“Comedians and comic writers have become the poets and philosophers of our society,” director Halena Kays believes and that perspective is brilliantly advocated in this sparking yet categorically terrifying production.

For all the spectacular components that came together to bring Do You Feel Anger? to the west, nothing about this production is more impressive than the introduction to a true wunderkind playwright ready to energize a whole new generation of playgoers.

“It’s a small, insular community here,” Eva tells Sofia on their first meet and greet. “Everyone is outgoing and mean and it’s just a really fantastic, really scary work environment.” It seems something akin to how I feel about the quality of our lives in general these days, universally speaking, way beyond the claustrophobic walls of Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s inanimate Everyman of an office conference room.

THROUGH FEB. 25: Circle X at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Av., LA. 323.644.1929 or www.circlextheatre.org

  Home Front

Photo by Tim Sullins

 Victory Theatre Center

I have to say if 2023 continues to be as propitious as it’s starting out to be, this is going to be one heckuva amazing year.

The premiere of Home Front at the Victory received an opening night standing ovation so long and enthusiastic that the cast, joined by a most reluctant playwright, had to return to the stage for a second round of ovations.

The play not only heralds the debut of a major work of theatrical literature deserving a long and auspicious future, it also marks the return to the stage of Warren Leight: master wordsmith, Tony winner, and Pulitzer finalist in 1999 for his gritty and compelling masterpiece Side Man.

Leight, as so many uber-promising contemporary playwrights, was immediately snapped up and thrust headlong into a successful career writing and producing for television, most notably for Law & Order: SVU. “I’ve worked enough in TV,”  he admits with tongue characteristically firmly in cheek, “that I can finally return to the theatre.” 

Lucky us.

Obviously a man with exceptional taste, it seems Leight was already a major fan of the work of award-winning director Maria Gobetti and what she and her husband Tom Ormeny have accomplished as founders and co-artistic directors of the Victory for the past highly prolific 43 years—especially their continuing unstoppable passion for championing and developing works by new artists at their two adjacent former storefront spaces physically created almost single-handedly from scratch by Ormeny all those years ago.

To say Home Front, which begins on V-J Day in 1945, is a cautionary tale is something of an understatement. War-widowed Annie Overton (Austin Highsmith Garces) by chance meets returning Lt. James Aurelius Walker (C.J. Lindsey) as they celebrate on the streets of New York City and while sharing a victory dance, they quickly fall in love.

It’s said love can conquer anything, but if you’re a young naive Caucasian girl transplanted from the midwest and your heart is zapped by a Black man several years before the birth of the Civil Rights movement, the future is bound to be incredibly difficult at best.

Leight grew up on the upper west side of Manhattan as the son of a jazz musician in a culture where interracial relationships were more common than in other echelons of society at the time and he early on became aware of the hefty problems such love stories endure. It was that personal experience which led to the creation of this riveting play.

There was a feeling of infinite possibilities for our society as our “boys” returned triumphant from the war, something especially felt by Lt. Walker, a highly decorated soldier and one of the celebrated Golden Thirteen, the select group of African-Americans who were commissioned by the Navy to achieve officer status, receiving public honors and a chest-ful of medals.

Lt. Walker firmly believes he has proven his worth and has returned to a more tolerant world for minorities in our country, only to find that the Jim Crow era was as unyielding and vile back then as ever—particularly for a dark-skinned man and his white-skinned bride.

“Time does not move backwards” he proudly tells his Annie, but after returning for a visit to his home in Goose Creek, South Carolina without his love since such relationships were not only illegal but dangerous there, he quickly realizes he forgot how slowly things change, especially in the backward American South of the late 1940s.

He ends up in jail for defending a young woman from a racist attack while Annie sits in their New York City basement tenement apartment awaiting the birth of their daughter. As her upstairs neighbor and soon fast friend Edward (Jonathan Slavin) warns about her future as the wife of a “colored” man and mother of a mixed baby in a still unforgiving world, “Your privileges were revoked on the night you danced—privileges you never knew you had.”

Gobetti brilliantly leads her dynamic trio of actors with her usual sure hand and the aid of a dynamic team of designers and collaborators.

Evan Bartoletti’s simple but effective set proves surprisingly versatile on what was surely a modest budget, from the back concrete wall which, thanks to Jermaine Alexander’s video projections can alter into the other many diverse settings in Leight’s demandingly filmic script or disappear altogether to reveal Walker’s starkly austere prison cell, to a secret wall that can open to swallow up repossessed furniture.

Gobetti’s trio of veteran performers are exceptional and subtly able to draw us into their eventually heartbreaking story. The descent from a love-dazzled young couple thinking they can conquer all odds to angry, defeated people devastated by the ugly narrow-minded tribalism and unfounded sense of superiority of our country’s shameful past, is assayed to perfection by Highsmith Garces and Lindsey.

Slavin contributes mightily as the separately-but-equally oppressed gay man without for a moment resorting to the usual stereotypical cliches found when actors portray such a colorful character.

It was not lost to me that, although Annie and James have gone through such devastating intolerance in their own lives, they—especially James—rather shamefully react to Edward’s own societal challenges. This is something sadly indicative of our species’ most horrendously unfair trait: the genetic demand to feel superior to someone, to anyone, to fulfill a need to elevate our own sense of worth.

Sadly, the most omnipresent takeaway from Home Front is that despite the advent of civil rights and the tenuous acceptance of the lifestyles and choices of others who are are different from us, deep down the jury is still out about how we truly feel about one another.

This is particularly true right at this messy and divisive period in the growth of our poor country shattered by the Orange Nightmare and a once-noble political party now appearing as a body to embrace the archaic tenets of the KKK I thought were basically snuffed out a half-century ago.

“It’s a story about a long time ago,” says Leight, “but which many people don’t realize we’ve come perilously close to repeating in the last few years.”

This perspective is the reason why, as someone who has spent the majority of my life fighting with all my heart for equality and justice for all, left the Victory moved to the point of tears when I tried to open my mouth and tell Gobetti what a towering achievement she has guided to fruition. 

The final revelation here is not only for us all to watch our backs and keep our guard up, but to fight for our beliefs and our rights even more fiercely than ever.

“It is complicated writing about this topic,”  Leight admits about creating his transcendent and important new play, something that had been rattling around in his head for 20 years, “but I feel very protected by [the team at the Victory]. They help you figure out your vision then make that vision happen. That’s as good as it gets in theatre.”

Having experienced the encouragement and expertise of Gobetti and Ormeny firsthand when my own first play debuted at the Victory in 1994, I know exactly how Leight feels. Surprise Surprise went on to great success and a feature film version, something that I don’t believe would have happened without the Ormenys’ initial encouragement and adroit professionalism.

Home Front, Warren Leight’s long-awaited return to his theatrical roots, has found the perfect home at the Victory and under the talented directorial leadership of Maria Gobetti—and the LA theatre community has been gifted with an indelibly moving production to inaugurate this fresh new and, as always, surely challenging year.

THROUGH FEB. 19: Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. www.thevictorytheatrecenter.org or 818.841.5421

Mean Girls  

 Photo by Jenny Anderson

Pantages Theatre / Segerstrom Center for the Arts

I have never before been in midst of such a committed jumble of eclectic superfans: a huge crowd of single middle-aged women all dressed in early 21st-century pink finery and wearing Lindsay Lohan t-shirts that must have actually fit 19 years ago.

I quickly realized I was perhaps one of three people in the jampacked opening night audience of the musical adaptation of the popular 2004 film Mean Girls at the Pantages who has never seen—or become obsessed—with the original movie. The minute lights came up on the characters of Damian Hubbard and Janis Sarkisian (Eric Huffman and Lindsay Heather Pearce) and the house went totally crazy, I knew I was in trouble.

Luckily, even without any prior introduction to the movie’s conflicted teenaged protagonist Cady Heron (English Bernhardt) and the clique-heavy high school cabal she tries to infiltrate at any cost upon her move from Kenya to Evanston, Illinois, once the phenomenon of prolonged cheers and applause died down emanating from people to whom these particular actors are totally unknown, the musical version stands up beautifully on its own.

With a plot that could come off as predictable and formulaic in the shadow of one of those wildly popular angst-ridden John Hughes epic 80s teen movies, the book by Tina Fey based on her original screenplay never panders to political correctness, her characters far more randy and sexually informed—you know, like real life.

The musical version, directed and choreographed by the current reigning Broadway magicmaker Casey Nicholaw with an infectious score by composer Jeff Richmond and featuring clever innuendo-rich lyrics by Nell Benjamin, is extremely entertaining without falling into the snapping jaws of contemporary musical theatre created more as cash cows than as art.

Of course, as produced by Fey’s longtime SNL boss Lorne Michaels, the Broadway pedigree is still clear and present here, with charmingly colorful costuming by Gregg Barnes, lighting by Kenneth Posner, and a remarkably versatile set by Scott Pask which can be instantaneously and dynamically transformed with frequent cinematic scene changes created by video designers Finn Ross and Adam Young. It’s no wonder Mean Girls was nominated for a bang-up 12 Tony Awards in 2018; the only surprise is that it didn’t win any.

None of this theatrical splendor would be worth the glitz without this excellent ensemble of young (though sometimes hardly teenaged) actors, led by delightful performances from Bernhardt, Huffman and Pearce, and featuring a plethora of knockout performances by the entire cast, from the many featured characters each gifted with their own solo number to the contagiously energetic troupe of dancers uniformly committed to interpreting Nicholaw’s often surprisingly goofy choreography that seems inspired by the signature loose-limbed movements of Ray Bolger.

As the meanest of the mean girls, Nadina Hassan’s scarily entitled Regina George, Jasmine Rogers as the conflicted Gretchen Wieners, and particularly Morgan Ashley Bryant as the lovably ditzy Karen Smith, are all golden. And talking about versatile, Heather Ayers acing three highly diverse adult characters that took three different actors (including Fey) to deliver on film, is to be commended bigtime.

It’s quite amazing that all these performers are possessed of voices that could lead worldclass rock bands, surely augmented by Brian Ronan’s incredible sound design in a venue known for challenging acoustics.

I expected this presentation to be big and bold but suffering from more guaranteed commercial viability than heart, but this sparkling production has both. I may even go out and buy myself a vintage pink Mean Girls t-shirt, size extra-small.

THROUGH JAN. 29: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 800.982.2787 or broadwayinhollywood

MAR. 7 THROUGH 19: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. 714.556.2787 or scfta.org

  Ubu the King

Photo by Ashley Randall

Actors’ Gang

What a treat to relive something that began so inauspiciously 40 years ago and has since morphed into a true treasure for LA theatregoers.

The very first Actors’ Gang production in 1982 was a reinvention of Alfred Jarry’s revolutionary 1896 masterpiece Ubu Roi, which originally debuted in Paris at the Noveau-Theatre for one night only. Jarry’s Ubu the King baffled and shocked the audience with its rude and offensive humor that took on all cultural rules and traditions, opening the door to 20th-century modernism, dadaism, surrealism, and the Theatre of the Absurd.

Jarry was only 23 when he wrote Ubu, the same age as the Gang’s founding and still artistic director Tim Robbins was when he discovered the work while a student at UCLA and presenting it there. It was the production that birthed the Gang after moving it to the long-lost Pilot Theatre in Hollywood.

“When I first read it… I loved it,” Robbins admits. “It was a different world, a play of invented words and primal behavior, a twisted children’s playground, a funhouse of bad behavior.”

Of course, over the past four decades, Robbins’ Gang has been a tireless champion of some of the best counterculture theatre ever produced in America, including 150 plays presented right here in LA, and the company has toured 40 states and across five continents, including London, Milan, Bucharest, Athens, Madrid, Barcelona, Bogota, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Buenos Aries, and most recently Santiago and Conception, Chili.

Add in rehabilitation projects in 14 California state prisons and LA County probation camps, as well as the Gang’s education department which has reached thousands of children in LA public schools, and it’s clear Robbins and his troupe are major artistic overachievers. It a wonder the guy had time to go about tending to his distinguished Oscar-winning film career.

Now Ubu has been remounted as a 40th anniversary revival for the Gang, once again directed by Robbins and in no way tamed by the ensuing years or our ever-disintegrating national willingness to accept criticism for how we see the world and our ever-devolving place in it. The farts and exaggerated carnality and outrageously outspoken blasts aimed directly at the heart of authoritarian domination are still right in time as we try to pick ourselves up after nearly three years in isolation and figure out who the heck we are now in these dark days.

The play—and the outrageous style which blends unstoppably over-the-top humor and the 16th-century tenets of Italy’s Commedia dell’arte—has brilliantly survived the years and the cast is as eager and unfiltered as any energizing the Gang since its inception.

Chas Harvey perfectly leads the way as Ubu, complete with an enormous padded costume designed by Rynn Vogel that makes his rolls in the hay with Dora Kiss as Ma Ubu even more hilarious or his pained squats to deliver loud anal eruptions even more delightfully ridiculous than simply the loud prolonged bursts of sound alone.

The entire ensemble is equally willing to pull out the stops but it is the Gang’s most cherished and prolific member, Bob Turton—who should be enjoying the career recognition of Chaplin or Keaton or Robin Williams or Jim Carrey—who is the true highlight of the production as Captain MacNure, especially when he is feeding num-nums to his beloved collection of Ken dolls.

Those omnipresent Kens and the production’s impressive collection of puppets designed by Mary Eileen O’Donnell and Elif Sezgin, most of whom suffer their terribly brutal demise at the hands of the ambitious Ubu as he forcibly and gleefully takes over rule of the kingdom, are nearly as much fun to watch as the wildly committed actors themselves.

Ubu the King has lost none of its power or punch, offered once again in the guise of delectably scandalous and boisterously unconstrained humor that no one can ace better than these folks, making this one of the most irrepressible and enjoyable evenings out this busy season celebrating the welcome return of signature creativity delivered by our town’s ambitious theatre community.

Still, the fun is not without warning: “I’ve been thinking about the time we first did the play in 1982,” says the Actors’ Gang’s creatively ebullient leader Tim Robbins, “and whether the churlishness and danger of the Reagan years might have been a mild prequel to current loss of all good sense mega meta disaster movie we are living through today.”

RETURNING JAN. 27 FOR AN INDEFINITE RUN: The Actors’ Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Venice. 310.838.4264 or theactorsgang.com

The Beatles' LOVE at the Mirage, Las Vegas 

For a critic, keeping an open mind and looking at the familiar with a fresh eye for the unexpected is what it’s all about. The Beatles’ LOVE, the long-running Cirque du Soleil extravaganza that has successfully metamorphosed the Mirage Hotel from being all about overmarketed white tigers into becoming the host one of the most groundbreaking musical collaborations of all time, has recently been “updated”—sometimes a dirty word in Las Vegas.

I returned to see LOVE for the umteenth time with some trepidation, since I have what I’d like to think is a personal history with the show. When it first premiered back in 2006, I was given access to the machinations of creating the show. I was in groupie heaven, able to hang around backstage watching rehearsals and getting to know the artists. I spoke with two amazing “Sirs,” the Beatles’ producer George Martin and, on opening night, Paul McCartney himself.

In awe, I observed the down-to-the-wire refining of Philippe Guillotel’s now-famous period-shouting costuming, then interviewed prop goddess Patricia Ruhl and puppet mastermind Michael Curry (also responsible for the magical creatures in the Cirque’s magnificent KA down the street at the MGM Grand and The Lion King on Broadway). Why, I even got to enjoy a memorable “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” experience with an unearthly beautiful server named Levi I met at the opening night party.

The reworked current version of LOVE is in many ways simplified, which is surprisingly not a bad thing. It now seems less about the spectacle and more about the music and what is evokes in us. For some reason, I heard the gossamer lyrics of John and Paul as clearly this time as if they were onstage reciting their game-changing urban poetry and, oddly, the signature wonders of the Cirque took a respectful backseat for me to what these guys had to say about the world from the perspective of a half-century past. Prophetic, so much of it—and sadly, so little has been heeded or has changed about our fucked-up species since they first introduced their inspirational classic tunes.

Granted, I have been a Beatles fan since my friend brought the White Album over to my house in the fall of 1968 after standing in line overnight waiting for it to be released, an event that stretched from one “enhanced” morning into the next and made me fall deeply in thrall with the Fab Four and their ever-evolving music for the first time as the fireplace in my living room melted onto the floor.

Now, all these years later, watching the wonders of LOVE for the first time, it was like dropping acid again. Close. Really close. For me, however, what it made me recall even stronger was that opening night in the summer of 2006 when it all unfolded before me for the first time. Truly, though 17 years ago, I saw it all so vividly it felt like it had all happened about 18 months ago.

During that week dragging myself through the sweltering Vegas summer, my first glimpse into what would become a legendary production took place in the bowels of the Mirage where Siegfried and Roy once housed their lions and tigers before and after performances. It was complete with ominous scratch marks remaining along the hallway and remnants of the bolts that once fastened their cages in place still visible on the walls, but now acrobats soared to the high ceiling of the room on long vertical ropes while rehearsing for the much-anticipated opening of Cirque’s fifth permanent Vegas attraction.

Unlike those overly trained and obviously unhappy white-striped beasts of yore, helpless to say whether they wanted to be there or not all those years, these newly arrived airborne human artisans had been rehearsing for months—and not just to learn how to soar like Lucy in the Sky. In keeping with the “Here Comes the Sun” number, the performers honored a song written when the Beatles were into their metaphysical-transcendental stage by fiercely researching and diligently studying a mix of yoga techniques and Eastern Indian dance. Whether or not they tried a couple of tabs of Clear Light to understand the mood and atmosphere of that colorful era lost in time, they didn’t say.

Let’s just say commitment among the huge cast, as well as the multitude of backstage artists and technicians pushing the LOVE payroll to about 200, was a given—and obviously still is 17 years later. Bowing at every turn to the Beatles’ groundbreaking sound, the Cirque and MGM International joined forces with Apple Music to stage this still magical mystery tour, miraculously engineering new life into some of the 20th century’s most enduring music—and still keeping it alive and well all these years later.

In the process, they shaped a musical revolution of sorts by bringing together the brilliance of the most imaginative and successful composers of the last century with the most innovative troupe of performance artists working anywhere today, a formula that subsequently did them well with Viva Elvis, which opened the Aria there in 2010, and Michael Jackson ONE, currently playing still at Mandalay Bay. It’s a given that the Cirque reinvented this bizarre town over the past quarter-century since Mystere took the infamous desert oasis by storm in 1993. Wayne Newton has never been the same.

The original opening festivities were overshadowed by the presence of Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, as well as Sir Paul, who answered all questions rather dourly and barely venturing past one syllable, and his only other remaining bandmate, the newly elevated Sir Ringo Starr. Still, the most incredible part of covering the event was meeting and talking to the late-great George Martin, the then-octogenarian producer of all the Beatles’ albums and co-musical director of LOVE with his son Giles.

Working for two years on this project, Sir George admitted that night it was thrilling even for him. Not content with creating a retrospective or tribute show, the Martins insisted instead on bringing to each of the 2,013 audience members the personal experience of being in a small recording studio listening to the music for the first time.

In their sound studio high above the stage, an exact replica of Abbey Road Studios (“So much so we felt like laboratory hamsters whenever we moved something,” he admitted), the Martins practiced their signature sorcery. “Our mission was to try and achieve the same intimacy we get when listening to the master tapes at the studio,” he proudly explained. “The songs sound so alive. A lot of people listen to the Beatles in a conventional way—radio, MP3 player or car, for example—but never in such a space as this.”

Creating a kind of directional panoramic mode in the theatre-in-the-round by embedding two speakers in the back of every seat, the sounds of LOVE engulf and envelope the audience, achieving, as Sir George believed, “a real sense of drama with the music, [making] the audience feel as though they are actually in the room with the band.”

This is made more unique since the master tapes utilized were not designed for a record, not mined from the old classic albums or concert performances, but cut during the boys’ stints in the studio making small promotional films. Often featuring improvised quips as they goofed off and joked casually with one another, the final mix offers, as Sir George reasoned to me with infectious, childlike enthusiasm, “such an immediate sound… not ‘muffly’ like with so many shows in rooms this size.”

And today even more than before, unlike any Cirque du Soleil production before it, LOVE is a spirited and colorful homage of the era in which The Beatles soared—and the designers and creators did everything in their power (and they have a lot of resources from which to draw) to revive that global phenomenon known in my lost youth as Beatlemania. Beginning with real live Nowhere Men shuffling alone onto the stage to reluctantly visit a modest “Nowhere Land,” four scrim-obscured sides of the 360-degree experience soon lift grandly into a brave new world.

Acrobats scale ropes leading from a deep smoking pit around the stage to the riggings high above, twirling around the dismal scene of WWII-torn Liverpool, the exact time when John Lennon was born during the last Blitz. As brick walls burst and four small mop-topped children cower in their beds, the chillingly omniscient voices of the Beatles fill the enormous space to harmonize their glorious a cappella classic tune “Because.” Many of the Beatles’ characters are present onstage, including Eleonor Rigby, Father McKenzie, Sgt. Pepper, Lady Madonna, Mr. Kite, and the Walrus, as the chronology of the Beatles’ music journeys from the early eager goofy enthusiasm, through the drug-enhanced and meditation eras, and on to a spectacular finale of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

The 90-minute ride is like nothing anyone has ever seen before, thanks to the creators’ ability to make it all alternately imposing yet surprisingly intimate. Populated not only with typical Cirque aerialists and gymnasts but with street performers, ballet artists, hip-hoppers, tap and break dancers, some originally pulled right off the curb who’d never been onstage show before, there could not be a greater or more devoted homage to the colossal talents of the Beatles than LOVE.

Theatre and set designer Jean Rabesse was given a totally blank blueprint schematic of the former Siegfried and Roy stage and told to do whatever he wanted—a designer’s dream. Like the Martins, Rabesse wanted to go, he told me in 2006, inside the "universe of the 1960s" beginning in the lobby itself, and thought the idea of creating a black box recording studio feeling “was a natural” to put the audience in the studio with the band. A lot of what he created was conjured in computerized 3-D: “Other shows work with models and drawings,” he explained, “but this one had to be seen as a POV from every seat and all angles.” This result, he suggested, is that one needs to come back “four to 10 times to see everything,” bringing a hint of the original three-ring roots of the circus to mind—again, thankfully, without imprisoning and domesticating wild animals.

Augmenting the inspiration of LOVE’s conceptual creator Guy Laliberte, who first conjured the idea for the production while hanging with his bud, the late-great Saint George (Harrison) himself, are incredible video projections fabricated by Francis Laporte, who admitted to me behind the scenes in his own studio that a scant two years ago he never would have had the tools to achieve the heights of visual wonder he did with LOVE. Utilizing mostly unearthed promotional films featuring the Beatles at their most relaxed, his aim was to be as timeless as possible. This is apparent in a spectacular mounting of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” as projected letters of the alphabet float down, projected across screens from above. “We wanted the feeling of words falling,” explained Laporte, “like a dream falling apart.”

Asked about the inclusion of four children depicted without faces wearing plastic Beatles mob-headed helmets reminiscent of Devo, director-writer Dominic Champagne’s ability to conjure a personal connection with the bandmembers becomes apparent. “Remember, John Lennon was the most famous man on the planet after Jesus Christ back then,” he explained just before opening night.

The Beatles were back then as puzzled by their own rampant fame as anyone else, making them feel almost invisible within the claustrophobic confines of their own celebrity. This emphasis is also visible in the presence of one lost Chaplin-like Nowhere Man, whose presence is meant to reflect the loss of freedom and personal space Lennon was experiencing when he referred to himself as a ‘nowhere man.’ “You know, for any of us,” said Champagne with a grin, “all we need is love.”

The scariest thing for me sitting among the first people to see LOVE was the audience dotted with ancient gray and white heads reminiscent of a group of subscribers gathered for opening night of some old musical warhorse at La Mirada Civic. My immediate thought, as the walls themselves came alive with the sound of Beatles’ music cranked to full volume, was that the usual Vegas audiences might not appreciate the decibel level.

And not much has changed. Footlong margaritas still in hand and wearing what Rita Rudner once quipped to me where clothes that make her want to go up to them and say, “Excuse me, but what are you thinking?,” the minute the sounds of John, Paul, Ringo and John’s vocals filled the huge auditorium, all those gray and white heads came alive, bopping and weaving like psychedelicized flower children just as we did 50 years ago. Those ancient heads, you see, were my contemporaries, something that made me want to go back to my suite, melt into the pillowtop mattress, and pull the covers over my own rapidly-graying head.

But after partying the night away at that original opening bash, toe-to-toe with the performers and artisans of LOVE break dancing ‘til nearly dawn, I realized back then what a remarkable impact my generation has made on the world in general and the future of music in particular.

As my students used to continually quiz me about my days touring in Hair, booking the Troubadour in its artistic heyday, or working for Jim Morrison and The Doors, their adoration for my era is obvious, not like when we Boomers were kids, listening with moderate curiosity as our parents waxed nostalgic about swinging to Tommy Dorsey or listening to Rosemary Clooney warbling about the cost of doggies in the window.

There was nothing wrong with those simpler days that also bravely paved the way for my generation's own historic musical emergence, but it was nothing like what we accomplished in the late 60s and early 70s before disco strip-mined the experience, bringing with us sounds that laid the groundwork for the unstoppable musical freedom of today.

For all those yung'uns who worship our Boomer-years youth, you should; there was nothing like it for those of us who somehow managed to survive it. And in the last 17 years, there’s still nowhere to absorb that experience better than by heading to the Mirage to let your mind soar and your body groove to the wonder of the Beatles as though discovering them for the first time, reverently recreated and celebrated in LOVE, the best Cirque du Soleil production in their amazing 38-year career revolutionizing entertainment as we once knew it.

PLAYS INDEFINITELY: Mirage Hotel & Casino, 3400 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas. 702.761.7111 or www.cirquedusoleil.com

 Tournament of Kings, Excalibur, Las Vegas

Photo by Travis Michael Holder 

*** SPECIAL TO TICKETHOLDERSLA by H.A. Eaglehart  ***

Nelson Tsosie is the name of a cowboy forever seared into my memory. We shared many similar attributes, be it as members of the Navajo Tribe, growing up in the same hometown where rodeo was a huge part of our native culture, and we both graduated high school in 2005. Tsosie became the International Indian Finals Rodeo bareback champion that same year and would later become the first Navajo to compete in the PBR.

He rode professional circuit meaning one thing: Las Vegas, staging grounds for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the PBR, the Las Vegas National Horse Show, and Excalibur's Tournament of Kings. Tsosie inspired many including me and during a summer break from college, I competed in amateur circuit rodeo simply to participate with my friends cheering on Tsosie.

I returned to school in the fall but the experience of rodeo forever left me with an appreciation for the smell of a tilled arena, masterful horsemanship, and a fully engaged cheering audience ranging in age from newborns to great grandparents. Thanks to horses, my impression of Las Vegas has always been about good sportsmanship, community, family, and horses, attributes all summing-up one of the longest running Vegas shows, Tournament of Kings at Excalibur.

I have been a family man since before I even had a family. In college, despite sharing a dorm with NYU students the most exciting thing I did outside of class was visit museums and stroll through Central Park. Perhaps this is why today I review live theatre in Los Angeles. I grew up in an inclusive culture where events are meant to allow everyone to participate and have fun.

Anytime I am in Las Vegas it’s always to see the shows, be it Cirque du Soleil, magic, or horses and kings charging at each other armed with exploding-tip lances.

Tournament of Kings is an absolute must-see for anyone vacationing in Sin City and is the reason Las Vegas is an amazing vacation destination for families. I'll never forget descending the stairs behind the flickering arcade lights for the first time and entering the giant coliseum-styled dirt arena with gorgeous stained glass windows overlooking King Arthur's Arena.

The audience is designated cheering sections around the arena for the Kings of Europe competing in the tournament and my partner Travis and I wound up cheering for Austria. It's interesting to note this show has been running since 1990 but early in 2022, a notable change was made in replacing the King of Russia with the King of Romania.

The most important part of any rodeo experience on the Navajo Nation is the food, which is always delicious and usually meant to be eaten by hand—food you can drop when both hands suddenly need to be free for clapping.
Everything about rodeo is meant to be engaging like the Colosseum of ancient Rome and Tournament of Kings is brilliant in capturing all the subtle nuances that absolutely would have been part of any jousting event in medieval Europe. This devotion to authentic detail provides a real-life learning opportunity for yung’uns in love with knights and fire-breathing dragons to step back in time as kids in King Arthur's Court.

Dinner is served by staff dressed as serfs and wenches in costuming on par with Hollywood level brilliance. Wonderful tin platters serve whole Cornish hens, the most amazing sweet potato you'll ever have, corn on the cob, a complimentary Christmas cookie (sadly just during the holidays), and for me Sierra Mist in a fancy mug.

I studied stunt choreography for four years in college, trained mustangs rescued in Nevada for adoption to forever families in Los Angeles, and can say without a doubt Tournament of Kings has some of the best horses and riders in the country.

I tip my hat to all the equestrian performers and wranglers behind the scenes in charge of training horses for this spectacular medieval show which easily would become Buffalo Bill's Wild West show with a different wardrobe. Compliments to the sword and fight choreography and performers exhibiting a show so well rehearsed the delivery appears instantaneous and adventurous to the audience.

The choreography, the dancers, Merlin the Wizard complete with a pointed hat and staff, King Arthur and all his jesters, steal the show by playing the pivotal role of maintaining the crowd's heightened state of excitement allowing horses and kings time to reset.

The production team also needs to be celebrated because the investment in everything from mobile flamethrowers to the rockets flying overhead at the end are an experience seldom witnessed in today's world of HD screens of all sizes.

Tournament of Kings is so much more than a show in the modern sense because, just like at the Navajo Rodeo in my birthplace of Shiprock, NM, the audience truly plays the most important part in the whole show.

I say this as someone with a little experience in being one of the performers out in the tilled arena. There were times I was only able to hang on to hard bucking roughstock because of just how loud the audience was cheering my name. Never have I felt closer to my community and at Tournament of Kings, I could see this same energy feeding the Kings' performances.

It’s easy to see this is a fun show to be lucky enough to play a role. It’s a communal experience families visiting Vegas absolutely must see because at Excalibur, everyone gets to participate in creating lifelong memories.

PLAYS INDEFINITELY: Excalibur Hotel & Casino, 3850 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas. 866.306.0942 or excalibur.mgmresorts.com

On Film: The Assembly 

Photo by Dena Meeder

Hershey Felder Presents

The pandemic has proven quite a ride for my dear friend, actor/playwright/scholar/director/pianist Hershey Felder, whose career traveling the world for the past two-and-a-half decades performing in his highly acclaimed solo shows, appearing as some of the world’s most famous and historic composers, was purdy much grounded.

Although his main residence in Florence, Italy was hardly a bad place to be stuck during lockdown, it’s hard to keep a creative genius with the passion of Hershey Felder from… well… creating.

In 2020, he began producing filmed versions of his repertoire to share with the world, partially created as a benefit for our own Wallis Center for the Performing Arts and a dozen other such venues to which he has performed to continually sold-out audiences over the years.

The first live-streaming event featured his celebrated performance in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, which was shot in the grand villa looming above his cherished adopted city that he shares with his wife of 25 years, former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell.

Offered to view from home by his own production company, Hershey Felder Presents, the immediate success of his filmed performance spawned several other recreations of his stage shows, including his performances as Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Puccini, and the piece on Rachmaninoff he was preparing as his next touring show before the world pulled in the welcome mat.

These projects then began to gradually evolve into full-on motion pictures, complete with actors and costumes and breathtaking actual settings that would make Rick Steves jealous. In an impossibly short period of time, HFP began offering full seasons in their catalog of an entirely new line of musical storytelling, all written, directed and starring Hershey, including the full-length films Dante and Beatrice in Florence, Mozart and Figaro in Vienna, Chopin and Liszt in Paris, and featuring Hershey as Shalom Aleichem in Before Fiddler.

It was the latter project that I believe further encouraged Hershey’s ever-deepening passion to delve into his own rich personal heritage, resulting earlier this year with the release of his magical documentary Musical Tales of the Venetian Jewish Ghetto, detailing the remarkable story of how for 500 years the Jews have been kept safe on an island all their own.

Not only is the extent of Hershey’s talents staggering to contemplate, the artistic components that come together under his direction are even more amazing. At the end of November, the guy proved his ability to grow and expand his horizons in his newly explored medium is something almost unearthly. Hershey’s latest film, The Assembly, is hands-down the crowning achievement of everything he's produced to this point.

So much was crammed into his newest effort, it was released in two parts and the result is incredibly moving—and something every person with a concern for the future of our species should watch.

It began with his admiration for a nonagenarian Holocaust survivor named Eva Libitzky, who spent her post-war life in America traveling to schools across the country sharing her personal story to one generation after another of young people whose knowledge of the horrors of the Nazi's concentration camps too often was close to zero.

During one such visit at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, eight grateful students who met with Libitzky in turn treated her to a gathering where they showed their appreciation by sharing their own art. If the talent these young artists exhibit in The Assembly, which features clips of each performing showtunes—alternating with talking about their diverse individual backgrounds, their hopes, their dreams—were the only thing filmed, it would still be remarkably inspiriting.

Originally envisioned as a stage musical to be performed at their school, The Assembly at first seemed to be a lost cause after the pandemic knocked plans to workshop the project came to a grinding halt. Luckily, Hershey’s ever-spinning imagination took it one step further, getting the bright idea, as the Covid clouds began to clear, to offer these bright young people the golden opportunity to travel with Libitzky to Poland, the country from which she fled, to hear the horrific tales of her incarceration unfold where it actually happened.

Unfortunately, Libitzky suddenly passed away last May at age 97, but that didn’t deter Hershey. In collaboration with their school, last October the students were brought to Warsaw for the experience of their lives, a trip that will surely stay embedded in their minds for the rest of their lives.

Making the journey to visit the remains of Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, then to tour Auschwitz and Lodz, the students were accompanied by Hershey, his wife Kim, Libitzky’s son Moses, and actress-singer Eleanor Reissa, introduced to us in Musical Tales of the Venetian Jewish Ghetto, who here appears both as herself and in sections appearing as Lipitzky reading passages from her 2010 autobiography, Out on a Ledge: Enduring the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Beyond.

As they tour the grim horrors of the Holocaust firsthand, we are privy to the knowledge they absorb and feel as though we’re right there ourselves as members of the group express their emotions along the way and we, like them, receive an all-new appreciation for life and a magnificent lesson about the resiliency of the human animal.

All is not sad here, however, as between these passages we are treated with the glorious music of the Jewish ghetto during that era that has survived in joyous song and dance celebrating life and community. Hershey, Reissa, and the students then join to create yet another indelible moment caught forever on film as they visit the Jewish cemetery in Lodz where Moses Libitzky recites the Kaddish and Hershey sings “El Maleh Rachamim,” both poignant Jewish prayers for the departed.

Near the end of the second part, the group discusses what has been learned and how it gives each participant a fresh new resolve to face life, to make a difference, and to be sure no one ever forgets what happened.

For me, The Assembly was haunting and inspiring in a very palpable way. These gifted kids gave me a much-needed dose of hope for the future in our miserably disppointing world and, even more then that, it reminded me once again of how art can heal and how it can change the world.

Every classroom in the world—make that every person—should experience the importance of what the unstoppably creative Mr. Hershey Felder continues to share with us all. Simply, I was gobsmacked by his latest masterpiece, encouraged in a way I thought I was past experiencing, and I am humbled to call this brilliant artist and world-class storyteller my friend.

www.hersheyflederpresents.com

The Empire Strips Back 

Photo by Cam Atree

Ricardo Montalban Theatre

A long time ago in a parody far, far way, a very clever Australian named Russall S. Beattie booked an intimate 150-seat theatre in Sydney for a three-night run to present his unauthorized and outrageously non-PC burlesque send-off of the Star Wars franchise combining striptease, dance, standup comedy, and a galaxy-load of irreverent humor.

Eleven years later, The Empire Strips Back has landed in LA after seven sold-out national tours of Australia, a critically acclaimed national tour of the U.S., and directly from an extended run at the Great Star Theatre in San Francisco.

After several hilarious spoofs of TV commercials projected on screens adjacent to the stage at the Montalban Theatre, including such treats as a vodka commercial with a comely lass lounging in front of a fireplace and draped across a luxurious white Wompa skin rug and a tobacco ad showing an Imperial High Commander lighting his fag with his light saber, the well-watered audience was quite ready to roar, especially after a considerably late start.

I know it takes awhile sometimes for actors to get dressed for curtain on opening night, but this was the first time I realized it can sometimes take an extra 20 minutes or so just to get un-dressed.

Now, may I be quite honest when I say I do my best to attend events I’m covering with an open mind but honestly, although I thought this would be a fun evening, I was also purdy sure the production would be a tad… well… cheesy, shall we say?

This Empire is anything but that. The production numbers, featuring gorgeous and extremely talented young dancers playing beloved Star Wars characters such as a menacing but sexy Boba Fett, a Darth Vader who proves she’s not anyone’s father, a surprisingly limber 3CPO, a holographic Obi Wan, a faux-menacing chorus line of Stormtroopers with highly modified chest shields, a steamy Twi’lek pas de deux, a decidedly homoerotic turn by Hans Solo getting topped by his friend Chewbacca (I always knew it!), and even a lap-ish dance by Princess Leia tantalizing R2D2 to the point that he spouts dollar bills into the first rows of the audience as he tweets and twirls in ecstasy.

The choreography by Lisa Toyer and James Barry is first rate throughout, as is the dramatic and atmospheric lighting designed by Peter Rubie. Between acts, Lando Calrissian’s nephew Eric (Eric Newton) takes the stage to keep the energy high as though he’s warming up a decidedly adult game show audience, delivering raucous Star Wars-themed in-jokes and a few well-placed digs at the show’s new home in Hollywood (“I’m finding Jedi mind tricks don’t work on crackheads”).

Besides such spirited displays of theatrical imagination and delightfully off-color humor, including incredibly oversized prop creatures from a monumental-sized Jabba the Hut to a rideable TaunTaun and featuring the universe’s sexiest costumes ever, The Empire Strips Back also offers Star Wars fans a few previous insights never before shared. Although Hans Solo proves to be a surprisingly talented dancer, removal of a few layers of his Rebel Alliance uniform reveals he may have been hitting the deep-fried Nuna legs a little too often while traveling the galaxy, while who would have guessed that the Miley Cyrus wrecking ball-riding Sheev Palpatine was circumcised?

If you’re looking for some holiday fun that goes way beyond silver bells and sipping eggnog by the tree, Mr. Beattie galactic folly could not be more fun—that is if you can stop wondering how the infamously litigious-heavy folks at Disney are not doing their best to blast The Empire Strips Back into the deepest regions of outer space.

THROUGH JAN. 28: Ricardo Montalban Theatre, 1615 N. Vine St., Hollywood. Tickets: empirestripsback.com

 

See? I'm an Angel!