"Critics are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors."   ~ Ernest Hemingway   


Dog Man: The Musical 

THROUGH JAN. 7:  Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org



El último sueño de Frida y Diego  

Photo by Corey Weaver 

Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

The world has long been fascinated by the bohemian and tumultuous relationship between legendary Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and her lifelong love and nemesis Diego Rivera. There have been numerous books and films detailing their fiery romance and unapologetically non-PC love affair that began with their first meeting in 1928 and ended with her death in 1954. Theirs was an explosive, tumultuous bond that survived many incarnations but remained intact though fraught with rampant much-publicized infidelities and continuous violent confrontations.

“I went to other bodies,” Kahlo explains in this current work to her often distant and notably womanizing husband, “to find you in other arms.” Still, their personal emotional fetters always emerged triumphant not only because of their wildly ardent feelings for each other but could certainly be attributed to their intense respect for one another’s art.

Instead of offering the usual biographical chronicling of the pair’s noisy quarter-century May-December love affair and fervently left-wing political sensibilities, however, Grammy-winning classical composer Gabriela Lena Frank and playwright Nilo Cruz (Pulitzer Prize-honored for Anna and the Tropics) have joined together in their gorgeous and bold equally counterculture opera El último sueño de Frida y Diego (The Last Dream of Frida and Diego) to deliver a passionate, magical, brilliantly colorful retelling of their story.

Initially unfolding during an all-too mortal but grandly depicted Dia de Los Muertos celebration that travels from a flower and skull strewn graveyard on to a folklore-inspired presentment of the Aztec conception of the underworld called Mictlan, their inspired vision is a kind of reverse Orpheus and Eurydice tale as the terminally ill Rivera (celebrated Mexican baritone Alfredo Daza) begs the skeletal La Catrina, Keeper of the Dead (Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez) to let his late wife return for one single night to help him inspire his blocked ability to create his art.

Frida (Argentinian mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack) has other ideas. It’s said the 47-year-old Kahlo’s real last thoughts written in her diary just before she died were that she “happily awaits the exit and hopes to never return again,” which has inspired Cruz to mirror those sentiments as the opera’s heroine insists she has no interest in returning to the trauma and disappointments of our physical plane. “How do I create my absence?” she plaintively asks Catrina. “How do I return and let my feet create the world?”

There is nothing about this brave and unexpectedly breakaway opera that doesn’t reflect the lives and rule-defying nature of the lives of its celebrated celebrants, from Frank’s astringent and continually thrilling score that evokes a little Bartok, a bit of Benjamin Britten, a hint of Miguel del Aguila, and perhaps even an occasional echo of Elmer Bernstein, to Cruz’s intensely poetic and gossamer libretto, and on to the artistry of the phenomenal design team energizing the production.

Jorge Balina’s many fanciful deep blue and brilliantly orange ever-changing sets burst with color and familiar Mexican folk-art images beautifully lit by Victor Zapatero, while costumer Eloise Kazan provides the production’s most excitingly imaginative and whimsical designs. In one unforgettably scene, several different living versions of Kahlo’s own well-known tortured self-portraits appear onstage in their own oversized frames underneath five brightly decorated hearts, complete with bloody arrows piercing the chest of one and another encased in twisting and confining vines. “Do they still call me the painter with the brush of agony?” Frida asks her husband at one point and this striking visual tableaux seems to serve as her wordless answer.

The visual splendor of is El último sueño undeniable, sweepingly accentuated by equally innovative director Lorena Maza’s fiercely kinetic staging of the ensemble populated by the dynamic 26-member La Opera Chorus under the direction of Jeremy Frank.

Lina Gonzalez-Granados conducts the LAO Orchestra with the same intense passion and reverence for the material, commanding the musicians and performers as though everyone involved in the production is under the otherworldly spell of two of the 21st century’s most important and controversial visual artists.

Mack, Daza, and Martinez couldn’t be more impressive as gifted worldclass opera singers and also for their deeply conjured performances as actors, as is the appearance of countertenor Key’mon W. Murrah who as a deceased crossdressing actor with a special worship for Greta Garbo, brings an extraordinary seven-octave vocal sorcery to the role that falls somewhere between Yma Sumac and Sylvester.

As a longtime aficionado of the incredible body of work gifted to our culturally deprived reclaimed desert climes by the Los Angeles Opera, I have to say El último sueño de Frida y Diego might be my favorite production I’ve ever seen presented by the prestigious and prolific company.

The intense lyricism blended with blatant stridency of the composition created by Gabriela Lena Frank immediately signals watching as her career soars to what I believe will be astronomical heights, combining sinuous solos and complicated orchestrations written for flutes, piccolos, and even the marimba. Still, although the multi-award-winning composer takes risks never before taken even in contemporary opera, it's Nino Cruz’s expressive and yet accessible libretto that ultimately might be the most fascinating thing of all here.

Without opera’s usual repetitive lyrics utilized to serve the music, Cruz manages to compliment the score while creating a thought-provoking treatise on the fragility of life as we know it, particularly as Kahlo and Rivera’s lives are juxtaposed with the ever-present oppressed townspeople and peasants played by the massive LAO chorus. “The poor are created by disdain,” Cruz notes. “They are invisible... like the dead.” Even beyond this unique accomplishment, the great modern dramatist movingly explores the ephemeral nature of art and how often our creative output is influenced and brought to life by our emotional state—especially by love and by the specter of loss.

You know, the human stuff artists throughout time have desperately attempted to share in an effort to make sense of it all.

THROUGH DEC. 9:  LA Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.972.8001 or [email protected]

Just for Us 

Photos by Matthew Murphy 

Mark Taper Forum

Standup comedian Alex Edelman is one of the most distinct and unique voices to emerge on the scene since the late Robin Williams.

In the special engagement in the shuttered Mark Taper Forum, presented as part of Center Theatre Group’s CTG:FWD, a new initiative created by Artistic Director Snehal Desai and funded in part by special artistic discretionary funds that were raised to be used on special programming, Edelman's hilarious and perfectly timed Obie-winning and New York Times Critics’ Pick solo show Just for Us, that timing nearly cost him the opportunity to share it with us thanks to the current crisis in the Middle East.

There were serious discussions about postponing the LA resident’s two-week run here considering the tensions and humanitarian horrors weighing on everyone’s mind right now, Edelman admits at the start on his opening night here. “Lucky me,” he quips with more than a soupçon of sardonicism.

Still, the words of John Updike, who once noted that “sometimes the work you do can find itself in conversation with the times you live in,” helped Edelman and CTG to decide to move forward—albeit with security guards and walk-through metal detectors stationed outside the Taper’s entrance.

See, as a secular Jew, most of Edelman’s humor revolves around his upbringing in a very conservative family in Boston, a place where rampant racism while he was growing up was the norm and being anything but white for anyone wasn’t easy there “between the 15th century and 1981.”

Raised in a particularly ethnic and racially-intolerant area of Boston (“called Boston,” he adds), his family worked hard to help their three sons understand the history of their ancestral struggles, but not without also teaching empathy. This was something that led his mother, despite his father’s vehement objections, to one year create a Christmas celebration for a non-Jewish friend left alone in the world that opened Edelman’s young mind to a whole new set of traditions he never knew existed.

This is perhaps what first fostered his curiosity that one day, during his time living in Manhattan, made him decide to take his inquisitiveness one step too far. When he found a string of antisemitic rants crowding his social media feed after a post meant to promote the opposite reaction, he decided to accept an invitation inviting new members to attend a white supremacist “nerf nazi” support group meeting.

Despite a good friend’s dire warning that he might be taking his life in his hands, Edelman decided to head to the event—not in “Arkanssippi,” mind you, but in Queens, New York.

I personally identified with his need to understand why he was hated without much basis besides blame for the death of a fantasy deity over 2,000 years ago, although for me, as someone growing up with a small Danish nose and a shock of blond hair, I was privy to many ugly comments made against Jews in my presence that as a kid always encouraged the scrappy side of me to raise an index finger and say, “Excuse me, but…”

Edelman’s bravery humbles me, especially after last month when I made the decision, as global conflicts escalate and university campuses reveal their long-suppressed bigotry, to leave my ever-present Star of David pendant at home in a drawer while traveling to teach in Spain. I like my head right where it sits, you see.

Still, sitting in rapt attention listening to Edelman’s tale, my own choice to go into minor hiding bothered me greatly, a feeling exacerbated by the storyteller as he recounted climbing those potentially ominous stairs to a nondescript third floor apartment and soon finding irony in snacking on “whites-only” muffins.

His memories of that night—which indeed ended up a tad more than scary—are the basis for Just for Us, but his “overmedicated ADHD generation” stream-of-consciousness performance takes many side trips along the way, all fueled by his frenzied energy and constant, seemingly exhausting physicality that leaves him jumping around the Taper stage like a jackrabbit on speed.

Several times, Edelman evokes the memory of the lategreat Robin Williams, including the fact that when ASL-savvy Koko the gorilla was told of the comedian’s passing in 2014, he signed to his handlers that he was genuinely sad. If Koko could “cross the species barrier,” Edelman conjectures, why shouldn’t a “distinctly unfamous” comedian try to connect and try to understand the motives of this Queens-based band of deluded good ol’ boys?

It’s interesting that Edelman should mention Williams and wax nostalgic about the comic legend’s signature genius, because there’s something very similar about what we see unfold on the Taper stage. Not that Edelman’s work is anything directly conjuring his idol’s, only that his delivery is as totally unique and individual to him as Williams’ was to him.

Under the direction of his late decade-long creative partner Adam Brace, who passed away suddenly a few weeks before Just for Us debuted on Broadway, Edelman navigates and almost instantly commands the stage as his own from early on, almost turning cartwheels in excitement on a manic mission to make us all buy into his quirky delivery and understand his passionate, hilarious spin on life. He tells us he was someone who, as a kid, was tested for autism numerous times and how it shocked his mother when doctors found nothing wrong with him.

If ever I felt I was experiencing the first sparks of what will surely be a long and celebrated career, sitting in the audience of Just for Us gave me the sense that theatrical history was in the making before my very eyes.

“Bringing up politics changes the vibe,” he warns us, and although the laughs here are nonstop, the message is crystal clear: without each of us trying to empathize with and be compassionate towards one another in this terrifyingly confusing and brutal world, we’re basically all fucked. This is of course a traditional Jewish concept that, aside from the aggressively twisted machinations of the monster currently leading the state of Israel, is desperately needed right about now.

“As a Los Angeles resident,” Edelman notes, “it’s special that I get to do this show in the place where it was incubated. I performed the show in public for the first time at a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant, Âu Lạc LA, just a two-minute walk away from the Taper, and so to be able to elevate the show from that little café space to the best performing space in Los Angeles is really beautiful to me.”

And it’s an unexpected and incredibly rare treat for us too, to have Just for Us here—although sadly only for such a short run when everyone in our community should see it, both to relieve the tension of our current world situation and to be able to laugh at ourselves and our concerned but too often helpless place in it all.

Alex Edelman definitely feels the love, offering humble thanks to the enthusiastic opening night crowd for coming out and enduring the metal detectors to see him work. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it,” he writes in his program notes, as he relishes the serendipitous opportunity to perform his solo show in a place surrounded by a moat.

THROUGH DEC. 23:  Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

Just for Us: A Valuable Second Opinion

Mark Taper Forum

Special to TicketHoldersLA by H.A. Eaglehart

I am in no way a credentialed theatre reviewer like my life partner Travis, although my interest in all things theatrical goes all the way back to college where I majored in theatre and experiential education, the latter of which I can attest to being extremely qualified.

Experiential education is the modern result of men like Viktor Frankl and Kurt Hahn, both of whom used challenge courses and empathy education after World War II to foster outdoor classrooms capable of impacting individuals on a large enough scale to attempt curing society of fascism.

Simon Wiesenthal once said that civilization shall never rid itself of evil but for this reason must educate ourselves and most importantly our children so when fascism raises its ugly head all of us have the intellect to stomp it back into the ground.

Cal State Northridge, City of LA Recreation and Parks, American Jewish University, the Shalom Institute, Camp Ramah, the Santa Barbara Boys and Girls Club's Camp Whittier, San Juan College and Fulcrum Learning Systems all utilize my expertise in one thing: empathy education. British publishing house Incunabula Media is shortly releasing my autobiography Urban Native: The Musings of a Queer Navajo Cowboy in Hollywood, where I attempt to put this life mission into words and next year, Horse Illustrated Magazine will be doing an article about my years of equine therapy work in Griffith Park.

Being part of making experiential education mainstream here in the States has put me on the front of the Woke Wave, an exciting and amazing place to be where I and other professionals are helping define where the woke movement takes us as a species from here. Not only is my work educational for school-age students but is used in law enforcement and military applications dealing with various issues from PTSD to sensitivity training.

Needless to say I cannot tell you how many Friday evenings it has taken great restraint to keep from throwing things at the television listening to Bill Maher deliver derogatory and ugly conjecture about my generation, Millennials, the woke movement, modern education in relation to discipline and grading, and a whole list of other issues for which Maher has zero conceptual pragmatism yet pretends via lots of hot air to be an expert.

Alex Edelman’s Just for Us is a breath of fresh air for me, signifying the coming of age for my generation as millennials are finally old enough to be stepping into pivotal roles governing our society in diverse roles from empathy educators… to comedians. Edelman, who is exactly my own age, performs with a passionate zeal communicating what it's like to be a millennial and it's an energy I know only too well.

From politics to autism, every aspect of Just for Us encourages me with the profound message that there are others like me out there, others who do not use politics to make good things, including the woke movement and empathy education, appear evil, others who don’t take the truth and twist it into something beneficial for themselves.

Alex Edelman stands onstage with nothing except the truth and it gives me hope knowing his message is reaching a global audience.

THROUGH DEC. 23:  Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

To Joni Mitchell on her 80th Birthday: A Loving Tribute 

Portrait by Travis Michael Holder

Catalina Jazz Club

It was about three thousand years ago when, as Talent Coordinator of LA’s infamous Troubadour folk-rock club during the peak of its golden years in the late 60s and early 70s, I was responsible for finding and booking raw undiscovered talent. I was tipped by the manager of a friend that I had to check out his newest client, a reserved Saskatchewan protégé of David Crosby who sang her own tunes and played her acoustic guitar some Sundays in the backroom of McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica.

Although I loved my Sunday afternoons spent as far away from the music scene as I could possibly manage, I reluctantly folded up my towel early, shook out the Venice Beach sand, and puffed on a little inspiration as I headed east up Pico to McCabe’s. The small gaggle of already ardent fans gathered there was beginning to collectively shift on the impromptu club’s unmerciful folding chairs when an ethereal, hesitant lass in her early 20s stealthily made her way to the stage.

Peeking out warily from beneath exaggerated bangs cut into long, gravity-challenged blonde hair, on first impression this bashful flowerchild seemed an unlikely candidate for musical stardom to me, but as she quietly launched into the first bars of “Song to a Seagull,” the readjusting of uncomfortable backsides against metal stopped, replaced by stunned attentive silence and, if I myself was any indication, a few dropped jaws.

During my tenure at the Troub I received close to a hundred demo tapes each week and sat through the sets of many, many hopeful performers with drastically varying degrees of aptitude who waited—sometimes overnight—to sign up for our über-popular amateur “Hoot Night,” which took over the stage each Monday evening at the club. I had learned one thing from those windmill chasers determined to poke their heads above the surface in the shark-filled waters of the music business: there are a lot of talented people out there, but only a few courageous enough to try something new.

Innovation had become the key to getting my attention, the ability to create something different from the standard fare that had made successes of the current crop of superstars. Sitting that night in McCabe’s, I knew this shy young Canadian playing her sad little guitar a few feet in front of me had that quality in spades.

Not long after, Roberta Joan Anderson came to play the Troubadour for the first time and, as they say, the rest is history. I learned right then and there to trust my friends, especially since it was the late-great Laura Nyro who turned me on to Miss Anderson’s music and the manager both groundbreaking music business icons were prophetically to share was David Geffen.

Fast forward to our Brave New Severely Screwed World and on November 7, 2023, the former Ms. Anderson began her ninth decade on the planet. Although this fact is nearly incomprehensible to me, LA’s incredibly prolific concert producer Chris Isaacson celebrated the occasion bigtime by presenting an incredible one night quickly sold-out event honoring the icon at the thankfully again flourishing Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood entitled, To Joni Mitchell on her 80th Birthday: A Loving Tribute.

Isaacson and Catalina hosted a staggering array of some of today’s best vocalists and musicians at the popular supper club that night, led by former American Idol and America’s Got Talent associate musical director Michael Orland, a man who makes creating music look deceptively easy.

With a band prominently featuring LA-based guitar phenom John Storie, co-founder of the award winning New West Guitar Group and notable member of Jeff Goldblum’s Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, as well as Ahmet Turkmenoglu on bass, Jose Perez on percussion, Stephan Hovsepian on guitar and violin, it was clear each and every vocalist would be thrilled to be working in such prestigious company.

There was, as expected, uniform reverence for Queen Joni, who recording artist and former Bette Midler Harlette Melanie Taylor rightfully acknowledged has provided the “blueprint” for all singer/songwriters who have followed in her formidable footsteps.

Taylor offered spectacular renditions of Mitchell standards “River” from her 1971 album Blue, now also well-known as a Christmas standard; “Raised on Robbery” from 1974’s Court and Spark; and the seldom performed “Edith and the Kingpin” from 1976’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns album.

The sensational Alisan Porter, a well-seasoned actor who began working early on as one of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Gang and went on to win TV’s The Voice in 2016, knocked Joni’s plaintive early 70’s ballads “For Free” and “A Case of You,” as well as the great classic from 1974 “Help Me (I Think I’m Fallin’),” right out of Catalina and out onto McCadden Place.

Frankie Jordan, American Idol contestant whose Dear Amy tribute to Amy Winehouse has thrilled audiences far and near, delivered a spirited “Big Yellow Taxi” from Joni’s 1970’s groundbreaking album Ladies of the Canyon; Australian humanist singer/songwriter Shelley Segal offered Blue’s “My Old Man;” and gifted Armenian songstress Tamara Lalayan brought total silence to the house with a staggeringly beautiful rendition of “Love” from Court and Spark accompanied by her fellow countryman, notable piano virtuoso Artur Zakiyan.

Although acknowledging it was nearly impossible to directly follow Lalayan and Zakiyan, nine-time Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton did a purdy fine job doing just that, scatting through startlingly exciting and innovative arrangements of “All I Want” from Blue and a brilliant matchup of Joni’s “Free Man in Paris” with Vernon Duke’s 1932 classic “April in Paris.”

Before finishing with the entire company leading the audience in a spirited sing-a-long rendition of the classic Joni tune “The Circle Game” from Ladies of the Canyon, the evening ended with an amazing turn from Brenna Whitaker, whose Universal Music debut album was produced by another of my early Troubadour discoveries David Foster, delivering an indelible version of “Both Sides, Now” from the grand lady’s second album Clouds, first released in 1969 and instrumental in putting her on the map.

Catalina’s fabulous To Joni concert proved to be a joyous, uplifting evening I’ll never forget despite two disappointments. I was so looking forward to a rare appearance by my old friend and musical theatre/cabaret superstar Joan Ryan, star of the great musical parody Ruthless! here in 1993, who had to drop out of the lineup of performers at the last minute due to a slight case of Covid and hence robbed me of a much-needed overdue hug.

The biggest letdown was the much-anticipated possible surprise appearance by the reclusive Mizz Mitchell herself who, despite numerous emails and texts from everyone who adores her, decided to stay home and celebrate in her own inimitable style instead.    

Still, the nearly palpable specter of our time’s most cherished singer/songwriter was everywhere at Catalina Jazz Club on Joni Mitchell's 80th birthday. Surely the warmth and wonder and affection for her genius must have wafted from Sunset Boulevard all the way up Lookout Mountain to give our generation’s greatest, most beloved and prolific musical genius at least a moment of subliminal jouissance. 

Happy birthday, my old friend...                               

And to the rest of the world, you're quite welcome.  

Catalina Jazz Club, 6725 Sunset Bl., Hollywood. For future events: www.catalinajazzclub.com 

The Producers, Teatre Tivoli, Barcelona 

Teatre Tivoli, Barcelona, Spain

Talk about a Busman’s Holiday! Who knew when I left for Spain to teach my acting intensives for Felipe Havarek’s South American-based Livin’ Arts Presenta that I’d be celebrating my birthday sitting in the audience of the modern classic musical The Producers, performed in Spanish at an incredible 104-year-old theatre in Barcelona.

A monument to Nouventisme architecture designed by one of the country’s most distinguished and groundbreaking Catalan architects Miguel Madorell i Ruiz, Teatre Tivoli has been a major cultural attraction in Spain since opening in 1919, premiering many important works over the past century including opera, ballet, zarzuela, cinema, as well as presenting many historic concerts by folks such as Bruce Springsteen.

I wasn’t sure what to expect here, but this incredibly grand $2.7 million mounting of Mel Brooks’ musical theatre classic would make the master himself proud. Directed by Angel Llacer, a well-known Spanish TV personality who doubles onstage as Roger de Bris (here Roger de Bacle), the world’s most obnoxiously flamboyant cross-dressing theatre director, this delightful reimagining of the 12-time Tony-winning Best Musical of 2001 is one of the best mountings yet delivered.

If there was ever a musical that bridged the language barrier for someone as embarrassingly devoid of Spanish as I am, it is The Producers, which traditionally embraces the most over-the-top playing style first introduced in Brooks’ original non-musical motion picture way back in 1969. It lends itself perfectly to exaggeration and Llacer and his team certainly pulls out all the stops.

The Roberto Begnini-esque Armando Pita is a joy in the Nathan Lane role of slimy but somehow endearing Broadway producer down on his luck Max Bialystock, and Ricky Mata as his neurotic accountant, initially reluctant victim, and eventual doomed business partner, is hands-down the best Leo Bloom I’ve ever seen—part Cantinflas, part Stan Laurel, and all future triple-threat international musical theatre royalty in a perfect world.

Jose Luis Mosquera is hilarious as that lovable Nazi-loving pigeon fancier playwright Franz Liekind and every dang ensemble member is extremely talented, outrageously game for anything, and also are masters of the rapid quick change.

Bittor Fernandez as Roger’s supergay valet Carmen Ghia (here redubbed Carmen Age-A-Trois), steals virtually every scene he’s in and, from the ranks, dancer Enric Marimon, owner-operator of Broadway House Madrid where we held our recent workshops, is a major standout throughout—whether clothed or not.

Still, the most impressive turns come from Mata in his scenes with Mireia Portas as Ulla, the Swedish-born secretary Max and Leo hire despite her lack of the usual qualifications needed to take dictation. Portas, who is the antithesis of the original amazonian Broadway star Cady Huffman, holds her own despite being as tiny as Huffman is tall, and the golden chemistry between this Leo and Ulla is downright contagious. And for me, hearing Spanish spoken with a Swedish accent is something I'll never forget.

The totally tongue-in-cheek production numbers, under the baton of co-director and noted Spanish musical director Manu Guix, are all worthy of Florenz Ziegfeld, and Llacer has added one crafty addition to the show’s always surprisingly underwhelming Act Two.

As the audience filters back into the house, the word “AUDICIONES” is projected on the curtain while the lead performers grab a trio of unsuspecting patrons from their seats to join the troupe onstage to audition for the show’s coveted role of Adolph Hitler in the musical’s biggest production number, here called “Flores A Hitler.”

Each is given their very own little Fuhrer mustache and is asked to sing a song, but when the third reluctant volunteer (spoiler alert, but hey, this show is performing 6,025 miles from LA so what are the odds?) launches into the character’s real song from the show, Mosquera’s displaced Nazi playwright storms the stage, pushes him away, and wins the role. Can you say… plant?

I cannot think of a better way to spend one’s 77th birthday than being knocked out by this sparkling, effervescent, charmingly exaggerated and extravagant take on The Producers, a production that quickly proves comedy is a universal language in itself. Never once did I miss a laugh; with these uber-skilled performers all exhibiting worldclass timing and comic chops, I was in theatrical heaven from first curtain to final.

THROUGH FEB. 4:  Teatre Tivoli, Calle Casp, 12, 08010, Barcelona, Spain. www.viagogo.com  

Ms. Tucker Will See You Now 

Photo by Craig Allyn Cochrane

Gardenia Supper Club

I don’t usually cover events without a scheduled closing date but Laural Meade’s solo turn celebrating the life and career of the great Sophie Tucker proved an exception even before Ms. Tucker Will See You Now  was announced to return for several monthly encores at the Gardenia, the oldest supper club in America—an event that possibly will become a regular returnee at the 43-year-old Los Angeles institution.

Meade asks early on how many people in her audience are familiar with the work of Tucker, bringing a rather spotty response from those gathered. The number of people obviously interested in cabaret and nightclub performance unaware of the controversial life and career of the once-infamous chanteuse, an artist the lategreat Tony Bennett called the most underappreciated jazz singer of the last century, was a bit disheartening.

Tucker, known internationally as the “Last of the Red-Hot Mamas,” was one of the most popular entertainers during the first half of the 20th century who enjoyed a career spanning over six decades, beginning by wowing crowds at a vaudeville amateur night in 1907 that led to her starring in one of the earliest versions of the Ziegfeld Follies—and ended with one of many appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show a year before her death and an engagement at the Latin Quarter in 1966 a few weeks before she made her final bow at age 80.

With the invaluable assistance of brilliant LA-based composer-accompanist Gregory Nabours on piano, the surprising shortcoming of patrons familiar with Tucker was soon rectified as Meade launched into a long overdue glorification of her legend and her music, performing some of the diva’s most famous songs peppered with stories about her life and even passages from her 1945 biography Some of These Days, named after one of Tucker’s most well-known standards.

Of course, the Ukrainian born Sofiya Kalish, whose Jewish family immigrated to Boston in 1887 when she was only a year old, was as much recognized and is still remembered for her bawdy, off-color material and banter as she is her music, developing a raunchy and self-effacing delivery that must have curled the toes of the easily shocked audiences of her time who proved to be equally traumatized and titillated.

It was that aspect of Tucker’s act that first intrigued and inspired Bette Midler, whose character Soph, spouting rampant sexual jabs aimed at her fictional boyfriend Ernie, was an early highlight of her own meteoric career. In Ms. Tucker, Meade not only pays homage to the original Red-Hot Mama but to Midler, Belle Barth, Joan Rivers, and Phyllis Diller, among others, even sharing ferociously risqué jokes from each of the crowd-pleasing entertainers, all of whom acknowledged a debt to Tucker for their own success.

Meade does not spare herself from inclusion in the self-deprecating humor of the incredibly groundbreaking performer, delivering knockout interpretations of such Tucker classics as “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl” and “I Don’t Want to Get Thin,” as well as delivering some of her many laments kvetching about her lifelong unsuccessful quest for finding true love—without paying for it.

The set list for Ms. Tucker also doesn’t defer from detailing the star’s own history for wild sexual abandon even before the era of free love enjoyed by folks of my own generation, including “My Husband’s in the City” and a raucous medley of numbers about cheating lovers, most featuring innuendos about what fun it can be to give a wandering mate a lustful taste of their own medicine.

Beginning with the 1930 hit “No One But the Right Man (Can Do Me Wrong),” with lyrics credited to the star herself by some music historians, to subsequent renditions of her signature “Some of These Days” delivered as it was first recorded in 1911 and later the more brassy and notorious 1930s version, Meade aces the material without resorting to the familiar Midler-popularized Mae West-y pastiche of Tucker.

Between songs, we learn about a solitary life in the shadow of great celebrity, as well as learning an awful lot about Meade’s personal story, also filled with the challenges and self-induced resurrections that Tucker endured—especially understandable from a former good little born-again-bred Christian lass from Glendale who obviously still has to take a momentary swallow before uttering the “C” word.

Meade handles all of this with charming self-deprecation and an uncanny, blisteringly honest ability to poke fun at herself, a trait which the before-her-time Tucker surely would have appreciated wholeheartedly.

To end a perfect evening and abruptly halt the shared laughter and our willingness to go along with the jokes no matter how shockingly ribald or even occasionally cruel they may be, Meade delivers an arrestingly poignant and indelibly memorable version of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” that alone could make the professional cabaret rise of a brave and intensely gifted late-blooming college professor something as worth appreciating as the career of Ms. Tucker herself.

Still, I was thinking over my second Aperol Spritz at the Gardenia that, with the 9,745th touring company of Les Miserables opening the same week at the Pantages as the night I attended Laural Meade’s Ms. Tucker Will See You Now, wouldn’t it be a great in-joke to change the title to simply... Les Miz Tucker?

Get it? LES Miz Tucker?

I thought you would.

RETURNING NEXT:  DEC. 8 at the Gardenia Supper Club, 7066 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood.  323.467.7444 or www.gardeniasupperclub.com


See? I'm an Angel.