EVERYBODY'S GOT ONE  

CURRENT REVIEWS 

from TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER

 

Annie 

Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Dolby Theatre

You can bet your bottom dollar that when the beloved musical Annie  first opened on Broadway in 1977, I wouldn’t have thought the sun would still be coming up on it tomorrow… er, today, theatrically speaking.

There have probably been about 12,234 traveling productions of Annie mounted since the original winner of seven Tony Awards finally closed on Broadway six years after its debut, so may I say, particular since I am hardly a fan of terminally red-white-and-blue sugarcoated American musicals, another national tour of this particular show was not high on my list of events to cover at this point in my own long and world-weary hard-knock life.

The current national tour of Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s incredibly popular and family-friendly musical, now playing here at the Dolby, instantly made my curmudgeon-y bah-humbug attitude take a drastic turn. If there had been a kid walking outside the window, I would have paid him to go buy that big-assed prize turkey hanging in the butcher’s window.

So many times with national tours toiling out on the road, the sets begin to look a little worse for wear, like It’s a Small World in 1981, while the costumes get frayed and bulge out in unfortunate places (it’s all that hotel food), and the performances too often appear to be set on remote control. Instead, thankfully, everything about this Annie sparkles with absolutely no sign of aging or lack of enthusiasm whatsoever.

Interestingly, Thomas Meehan’s book has a discernible relevance to our country’s current national omnipresent homeless situation today, with the story’s depiction of a Great Depression-based Hooverville encampment set up under the 59th Street Bridge eerily resembling the tents scattered along Hollywood Boulevard only a few blocks from the Dolby.

The only thing that’s somewhat changed is the show’s gentle digs aimed at the era’s primary political target, as when billionaire industrialist Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks defends President Franklin D. Roosevelt by saying, “Yes, I know he’s a Democrat… but he’s a human being, too.” You know, the old days when the Republican Party wasn’t populated by hypocrites and racists, folks with IQ scores above 58 and residences in only one state.

Under the direction of Jenn Thompson, posterchild for theatrical irony as her career began by playing Pepper in the original Broadway cast, this Annie is the epitome of the perfect amalgam of the old fashioned and the new. Ken Travis’ sound and Philip Rosenberg’s lighting to Wilson Chin’s set design successfully updates the script’s constantly changing settings with the benefit of our musical theatre’s now standard rear projections, resulting in some sort of wonderful magic.

The cast is golden. Stefanie Londino’s Miss Hannigan is a major asset to this projection, easily making the iconic role her own without turning in the usual imitation of the many heralded Hannigans who came before her. Supported by Nick Bernardi and Krista Curry as her dastardly brother Rooster and his Betty Boop-voiced moll Lily, their rendition of the show’s classic “Easy Steet” brings down the house.

Twelve-year-old Ellie Rose Pulsifer slickly carries the entire show on her youthful shoulders as the title character with a Merman-sized voice and sweetly lovable demeanor that even manages not to be upstaged by Addison, trainer Bill Berloni’s rescued shelter dog who also instantly wins our hearts as Annie’s precious canine companion Sandy.

Julia Nicole Hunter as Grace and Christopher Swan as Annie’s “Daddy” (definitely a more innocent time, wasn’t it?) are both impressive, while from the ranks a quite versatile performer named Bradley Ford Betros keeps showing up in a myriad of roles, from a beat cop to Warbucks servant to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and on to Herman Ickles, Secretary of the Interior under FDR (played with surprising restraint by Mark Woodard). Both Betros and his team of backstage quick change dressers deserve special recognition.

And then, of course, there’s those precocious and showstopping pintsized future stars playing the orphans. Hannigan wonders aloud, “Why anybody would want to be an orphan I’ll never know,” but to be cast in one of these roles, especially given the chance to perform Patricia Wilcox’s spirited and charmingly goofy choreography, proves to be a major exception, particularly when after a couple of hours, one can take off the makeup and Alejo Vietti’s suitably ragged costuming and return to a nice warm junior suite at a nearby hotel.

And by the time Riglee Ruth Bryson, Bronte Harrison, Vivianne Neely, Izzy Pike, Kenzie Rees, and Valeria Velasco launch into Act Two’s infectious “You’re Never Really Dressed Without a Smile,” they’ve got us eating out of their frayed woolen mittens.

This is the perfect holiday treat to share with the kids or grandkids or anyone you love, especially if December cheer means memories of New York City as indelibly as my own. From the first image of an Alfred Stieglitz-esque graphic of a snowy Brooklyn Bridge to mention of getting an ice cream sundae at Rumplemeyer’s after a matinee at the Roxy, this wonderful revival of Annie really put this crusty old duffer into the holiday spirit bigtime. Would that all of us could spend Christmas Eve at Daddy Warbuck’s massive yet welcomingly festive mansion at 5th Avenue and 82nd, a place where every orphan deserves to spend the holidays.

THROUGH DEC. 18: Dolby Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 323.308-6300 or broadwayinhollywood.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.

PLAYING INDEFINITELY: Ricardo Montalban Theatre, 1615 N. Vine St., Hollywood. Tickets: empirestripsback.com

Clyde's 

Photo by Craig Schwartz 

Mark Taper Forum 

I think of two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage as the John Steinbeck of our era, someone on a mission to give the many disenfranchised, forgotten, usually silent and wounded people in our country a chance to speak clearly and passionately about their shattered hopes and dreams.  

In the Taper’s west coast premiere of Nottage’s highly celebrated 2021 play Clyde’s, currently the most produced play in America, a typically ragtag group of ex-felons toil away in the cluttered kitchen of a busy greasy-spoon truckstop sandwich shop somewhere along an endless stretch of highway in Pennsylvania.

Located near the neighborhood bar where the playwright’s Pulitzer-awarded Sweat is set, Nottage’s new play even shares a character, the heavily tattooed Jason (Garrett Young, so memorable in the Geffen’s Trayf earlier this season), a fired factory worker displaced by the recession of 2008. Recently released from prison after his frustration with his life led him to being incarcerated for eight years for assault, he is now living outdoors in the local woods as he tries to avoid the drama and pain offered him at a local homeless shelter.

The cafe’s ball-breaking owner Clyde (Tamberla Perry) rules the kitchen of her place with all the compassion of a sadistic storm trooper, gleefully treating her employees like shit because, since she only hires ex-cons like herself, they have no other choice but to put up with her taunts and demands or she’ll put in a call to their parole officers.

“She’s like a former dominatrix who forgot her husband’s safe word,” her longtime and spiritually-ambitious employee Montrelious (Kevin Keneally) declares, although I’m actually not totally sure if he was joking or being serious.

The cast is superb under the direction of longtime Nottage collaborator Kate Whoriskey, who was nominated for a Tony and received the Drama League Award for her staging of Clyde’s on Broadway. Nedra Snipes and Reza Salazar complete the crack ensemble as two additional kitchen workers, the severely beaten-down African American single mother Letitia and her sweetly awkward and thoroughly smitten Latino suitor Rafael.

Each of the members of this downtrodden quintet of otherwise proud folks called “losers” all their lives give richly etched and quietly poignant performances while still providing enough laughs in what could be a very depressing visit to the cafe’s claustrophobic kitchen to ultimately identify the play as a comedy.

Whoriskey is amazingly able to keep the workers moving, chopping veggies and assembling sandwich after sandwich for what appears to be a constant flow of hungry truckers in the cafe’s unseen dining room, yet focusing on the characters needs and personal connections more than their constant activity.

Still, every one of these folks struggle monumentally with the challenges of their lives and the slippery slope of hanging onto their last shred of human dignity, fighting to trust each other—or ever trust anyone again—as they gradually reveal the truths of what potentially destroyed their lives.

Indeed, Clyde’s is a comedy in every respect but after the laughter has died down, what emerges is a brilliant treatise about the inherent dignity of our species and the worthiness of each of us beyond the house of cards that too often crumbles under the prickly challenges of our daily lives.

THROUGH DEC. 18: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

The Brothers Paranormal 

Photo by Jenny Graham

East West Players

An unexpected spookiness has settled over Los Angeles like an enveloping shroud this unusually ghost-heavy post-Halloween season with the opening of East West Players’ overdue mounting of Prince Gomolvilas’ supernatural thriller The Brothers Paranormal.

Two brothers struggle with staying afloat financially by inexplicably starting a ghost-hunting business, perhaps not the best decision since it doesn’t seem as though the more exuberant and ambitious sibling Max (David Huynh) has any reason to believe ghosts exist—at least at first. Their endeavor is strictly a means of making money for Max, more an elaborate con game than a public service geared to help those who genuinely believe unwelcome entities are disturbing their daily lives.

Although Max’s brother Visarut (Roy Vongtama) and their eye-rolling mother (the always-spectacular Emily Kuroda) don’t appear—pun intended—to share his pipedream that they could soon start turning a profit in a such a specified field about which they know nothing, the arrival of a potential paying customer begins a nightmarish journey that proves anything but an easy sale.

Della and her husband Felix (Tamika Simpkins and Jasper Howard), who have relocated to the Midwest from their home in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated their community, are visited by the ghost of a young woman (the dancer-like Ratana, quickly reminiscent of the serial killer from beyond the grave in the Japanese Ring franchise). Retired EMT Felix believes the offending spirit is the young accident victim he may have inadvertently killed while trying to save her life after a horrendous car accident.

As full of scares and shocks as Gomolvilas’ script may be—and there are a few to make his audience jump and shriek out loud—The Brothers Paranormal is about more than that. It’s a play about the alienation felt by people whose lives have been displaced for one reason or another. Max returned home from a happy and successful life in California to care for his troubled and heavy-drinking brother and ailing mother, both of whom have never really felt comfortable living in their fast-moving new country after relocating from Thailand, while Della is too traumatized by the horrors of "The Storm" to feel at peace again in her beloved hometown.

Under the direction of Jeff Liu and energized by a fine cast and a crack team of designers, led by LA scenic designer extraordinaire John Iacovelli and featuring a dynamic sound plot by Da Xu, there are plenty of thrills and chills, not to mention some clever comedic moments that give a hint they’re meant as an homage to both Ivan Reitman’s classic Ghostbusters and those wonderfully silly excursions into the unknown where Abbott and Costello came face-to-plasma with some infamous monsters.

Although often a tad clumsily presented, Ian O'Connor's crafty special effects are sure to make anyone jump, augmented by Brian Gale's eerie glowing lighting bathing each conjuring of that real “live” wraith ready to spring from within the coach cushions or crawl vertically up the wall whenever necessary to advance the plot.

Still beyond all that, Prince Gomolvilas’ latest play is a gripping and quite fascinating exploration of the stress and agonies we all experience when dealing with the shock and disenfranchisement of leaving home, of addiction, of self-harm, and especially of caring for someone we love too much to abandon. The Brothers Paranormal does more than scare the begeezus out of its audience; it tackles the more tangible fears and anxieties that invade the lives of so many of us in one way or another.

THROUGH DEC. 11: East West Players, 120 Judge John Aiso St., LA. 323.609.7006 or eastwestplayers.org

Mindplay 

Photo by Jeff Lorch

Geffen Playhouse

There’s a certain kind of formulaic thread that runs through any performance by magicians and mentalists, a guarantee that there will be baffling and mind-blowing twists and turns, whether they be visual or tactile. It’s not exactly that the world premiere of Vinny DePonto’s Mindplay is all that unique, but the fact that as a performer he presents it so seductively and with such engaging unpretentiousness is the key to its success.

This is the second time in as many weeks that Los Angeles reviewers have received a special request to keep our lips zipped about the details of a performance (the first being 2:22 - A Ghost Story at the Ahmanson), this time out from the Geffen Playhouse’s publicist extraordinaire Zenon Dmytryk:

“In order to keep the element of surprise for all future audiences, we’d like to kindly ask that you please not include any spoilers in your reviews and/or coverage when describing the show. We’d like to keep the secrets and tricks under wraps, so everyone has the element of surprise and amazement when they experience the show.”

So, there you go. Understandable, but boy, it sure makes life hard when one is trying to describe such a special event.

Drama Desk Award-nominated mentalist DePonto’s Mindplay is described as a “love letter to the imperfect mind,” something that feels as though it might be directed to me personally as I try to explain what a fascinating journey the guy takes us on in his new show. We have all become quite familiar with the usual unusual presented here, utilizing what he calls “psychological tricks” rather than even suggesting the proceedings have anything much to do with magic.

“I’ll meet you in the lobby after the show,” DePonto tells his audience, “but don’t expect me to read your minds.” The mindreading in Mindplay, he confesses, instead has to do with “conditions that’ve been specially arranged.” 

As patrons enter the Geffen’s more intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis second space, we’re asked to fill out a card and write down what’s weighing on our minds, but only in a word or two. These are placed in a sealed envelope and deposited in a spotlit fishbowl, a tool DePonto uses throughout the evening to select which unsuspecting person will next come onstage to assist him in his quest to dazzle and amaze.

With the inclusion of colored balloons descending from above to be batted around until DePonto asks us to stop and randomly grab onto one of them, additional victims… er… subjects… are selected. Those chosen go through the usual drill, asked to think of a cherished memory while seated opposite DePonto staring into one another’s eyes, to conjure one’s favorite flavor of ice cream, to recall a memory of an indelible time in the person’s life.

These scraps of personal information are a major part of Mindplay and most every show of its kind produced over the past two decades or so, each individual’s revelations recurring over and over again in new and different but all equally mind-boggling ways throughout the performance.

It was during five days spent in Las Vegas way back in 2006 while conducting an in-depth interview with David Copperfield for a magazine, that I first saw this now well-known approach to “magic” utilized, something that appears to have been developed from some mysterious form of modern technology since no magician before that time was able to conjure similar feats of wonder.

Every single time I sat in the wings at the MGM Grand watching Copperfield knock the proverbial socks off his audience, the formula was the same, but the details and outcomes were always inexplicably different. I have since seen other performers adopt these illusions time and again, but although the machinations are always the same, the results are never duplications.

Written by DePonto with Josh Koenigsberg and directed by Andrew Neisler, Mindplay has all the other bells and whistles that populate such performances, including the standard I’m-just-one-of-you backstory about a late-lamented relative and the tale of discovering an obscure old book on the dustiest of back shelves of some public library that had been written by or about some long dead early 20th century magician who disappeared into oblivion.

They say all art is imitation, but whether or not either the reminiscences of DePonto’s beloved grandma or of the forgotten genius who inspired the magician’s career are true or fabricated, I can say from asking questions while interviewing Copperfield and Criss Angel that both those guys swore their stories were real. If DePonto’s own versions of these tales are true or if they're something created to share his vulnerability with his audience, what’s really important is that the guy presents them so well.

DePonto is far from that vision we have of the “Presto! Change-o!” kind of magician with slicked-back hair and twirling a black satin cape we all evoke when thinking of magicians; instead, he is more like what would happen if someone cast the Woody Allen of the 1970s as David Blaine. Whether an affectation or not his delivery is full of nervous uncertainty and woebegone self-deprecation as he recalls what an unhappy nerd he was as a kid and how he survived a difficult childhood by discovering—what else?—magic.

It’s a pleasure to see the skills of the gifted west coast designers hired to create Mindplay which, one doesn't need to be a mindreader to glean, probably has a life after Westwood. I’ll bet the producers and creators see moving on to New York, where the off-Broadway debut of DePonto’s Charlatan won that Drama Desk honor for “Unique Theatrical Experience.”

Pablo Santiago’s lighting and Everett Elton Bradman’s sound are both exemplary, while Sibyl Wickersheimer’s impressive set design, featuring several descending banks of tall and vaguely ominous safe deposit boxes unveiled along the way behind simple white linen curtains, open on their own to reveal tchotchkes, unraveling cassette tapes, and other personal items supposedly evoking memories from DePonto’s own earlier years. 

And by the way, a first for me: large and generous hats off to stage manager Julie Ann Renfro and her team, who must be backstage running around like chickens with their you-know-what cut off.

As spectacular and atmospheric as the complex devices are that energize the performance, however, they also become overkill and, in this first public incarnation, Mindplay also becomes rather overpowered by gimmickry when DePonto’s skill and sad clownish delivery are more than capable of standing up on their own.

Whatever the small druthers I have that could easily be rethought before Mindplay moves on to even a greener climes, it is massively entertaining and, of course, something that will leave you gobsmacked even though the uber-talented Vinny DePonto tells us early on it’s all trickery and dependent on how easily the human mind can be subject to suggestion.

And may I say without hopefully revealing too much, judging by the post-show reception in the lobby, I sure am glad the nice lady in the audience the night we attended named Jeanne revealed that chocolate mint is her very favorite ice cream. Now that’s what I call the power of suggestion. Yum.

THROUGH DEC. 18: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood. 310.208.5454 or geffenplayhouse.org

According to the Chorus 

Photo by Elizabeth Kimball

Road Theatre Company

Since I spent my long-missed early years often sequestered in dank old dressing rooms in grand old theatres listening for my cue on scratchy monitors mounted on cold concrete brick walls, I’ve always had a soft spot for plays, books, and movies centering on backstage themes, my fascination with the genre deepening after I discovered those outlandish Busby Berkeley extravaganzas and LSD at about the same time.

The world premiere of Arlene Hutton’s According to the Chorus at the Road shows such promise, as a group of typically hardworking chorines populating a long-playing hit musical in the mid-1980s cram into a cramped basement quick change room in one of those massive and musty turn-of-the-20th-century Broadway houses a tad past it’s time—meaning the theatre, that is, not the girls.

Although the promise of Hutton’s semi-autobiographical play never quite gels, the production has a lot going for it. First and foremost, the ensemble cast is spectacular. The performances of the six actresses playing the veteran Broadway dancers (Sorel Carradine, Kristyn Evelyn, Gloria Ines, Mara Klein, Julia Manis, and the seamlessly successful Lauren Schaffel in for Jacqueline Misaye) are all uniformly dynamic, each full of the usual adrenaline-high and unstoppable energy that distinguishes such performers, as well as the guaranteed personal dramas, sour bickering, and the overblown sense of competition that seems to go with the job.

Samantha Tan is quite affecting as KJ, the novice dresser who arrives in this crowded basement snakepit as a replacement and must outlive the continuous eye-rolling scrutiny of her fellow dressers Audrey and Brenda. Obviously, the character represents Hutton’s own career trajectory since she worked as a Broadway dresser during this same period in time and both the character and her creator harbored a daydream about leaving the overstuffed clothing racks behind to become a playwright. Luckily for Tan, hers is also the only character in the play who has the luxury of even a hint of a character arc to make the role challenging.

There’s a charming turn from Maria Spassoff as the show’s gracious un-star-like leading lady, fine work from Juan Pope and Danny Lee Gomez as the obligatory and glaringly underwritten resident gay male dresser and stage manager, and a scene-stealing cameo by a sweet little furball named Gidget playing the star’s adorable and patient theatre dog Olivia.

Still, it’s the two rock-solid longtime Roadies playing the world-weary fellow dressers and KJ’s constant tormentors who are the heart of this Chorus. Avery Clyde is completely believable and nicely understated as the ever-caustic Audrey, ready with a sharp-tongued response to any situation, and Amy Tolsky gives the most memorable performance of the evening as Brenda, the resident “Attila meets Brunhilde” who seldom moves from her folding chair and gets crazy when weather changes make her arthritis flare.

As exceptional as these players are, however, it’s the consummate skill of director Emily Chase, whose work is the most outstanding thing delivered here. With the quick change room represented by Paul Dufresne’s crowded and claustrophobic set, which actually intentionally cuts off a whole diagonal corner of the playing space to make it even more compact, it’s a small miracle that Chase can keep these 12 actors moving and navigating around one another—and the buddha-like Tolsky in her ever-present chair smack in the center of everything—while changing costumes down to their skivvies, doing pre-show warmups in the middle of the action, and snapping at one another as though they were on The View when gila monsters like Rosie O’Donnell and Meghan McCain were still around to shred everyone in their paths.

Although the sharply designed and expertly performed According to the Chorus is more than entertaining, unfortunately the play itself simply isn’t worthy of such a perfectly mounted and detail-oriented production. Although each of the characters has a story to tell, from explaining black eyes to dealing with onstage injuries to whining about food not being allowed in the typically rodent-challenged basement quick change room, we never really get to know anyone besides KJ or, even more importantly, to care much about what happens to any of them.

Hutton offers a juicy depiction of life in the bustling dressing rooms of big Broadway musicals, but it’s a Cliffs Notes version of such a place, something that frustrates as it robs the audience of what it could have been. It’s true that major themes such as the blossoming of women’s rights and the creeping specter of AIDS which so tragically decimated the theatre community in the mid-80s are brought up here, but nothing's really explored or resolved, just mentioned as though they’re something the writer felt obligated to include.

I’d like to think the uber-talented Arlene Hutton sees her According to the Chorus as a work in progress. If not, it’s charming, funny, and beautifully presented by the gifted folks at the Road, but ultimately it pains me to say it’s also something of a disappointment.

THROUGH DEC. 11: Road Theatre Ensemble, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., NoHo. 818.761.8838 or RoadTheatre.org

To Kill a Mockingbird 

Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Pantages Theatre and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Harper Lee rightfully won the Pulitzer Prize for her much beloved 1960 classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, with plot and characters loosely based on memories of her family, neighbors, and sadly, some terrible haunting events which occurred while she was growing up in the 1930s in rural Alabama.

Although dealing with serious societal issues from poverty, rape, and incest to the book’s most important theme, racial inequality in America some 70 years after the Civil War was supposed to bring an era of equal rights to all regardless of race, Mockingbird is still required reading in most high schools and middle schools throughout America.

To this day, the book is the subject of campaigns to remove it from the educational system, mainly for its use of the most offensive of racial epitaphs—possibly even more offensive today than in the less-PC and insensitive era when I was growing up—but still it endures as a great lesson for generations to come as it provides an important treatise on tolerance and the destructive nature of prejudice.

Through wincingly untenable situations and the study of the ignorant people, particularly in the Deep South, who continue to promote such sickening attitudes, Mockingbird remains a testament to the principles of compassion and standing for the courage of one’s convictions. In fact, the character of Atticus Finch is today considered the epitome of moral integrity and remains a model for lawyers and other contemporary practitioners of law and order. Or should be.

There was only one time I have seen Mockingbird adapted for the stage, presented almost 30 years ago with Bruce Davison at Atticus Finch, as well as the lategreat Carrie Snodgrass and my friends who brought me as far as La Mirada Civic to see it presented: the ever-missed Zelda Rubinstein, Lisa Pelikan as Mayella Ewell, and especially Jer Adrienne Lelliott as an indelibly touching Dill.

It was a magical ensemble of actors, granted, but the adaptation, then a hoping for a transfer to Broadway, was not anything as special as what Aaron Sorkin has created for the stage with this current and long-overdue stage version, which opened to much acclaim on Broadway in 2018 with Jeff Daniels as Atticus and featuring Celia Keenan-Bolger in her Tony-winning performance as his precocious daughter Scout. Before being shut down with the rest of the world during the pandemic, the production broke all records for a non-musical production presented at a theatre owned by the Schubert Organization.

The same phenomenon is evident in writing about the play’s current west coast debut; it took me quite awhile to adjust to characters not breaking into song on the musically bountiful stage surrounded by the art deco splendor of the Pantages Theatre. Honestly, I can’t think of ever seeing a straight play presented there and, thank geebus, the Nederlanders have finally conquered the once-thorny acoustical issues that came with presenting live theatre in a space originally designed and intended only to run motion pictures.

Sorkin, who early on won high honors for his hit play A Few Good Men and subsequently his screenplay for the award-winning film version, of course went on to win four-time Emmy Awards as creator and writer of TV’s The West Wing, as well as an Academy Award for Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network.

Still, his adaptation of Mockingbird did not receive raves across the board, criticized by some for switching the focus of the story from Scout to Atticus. It always surprises me when folks who by profession should be the first to keep an open mind about new and fresh takes on classic stories balk at such innovation; personally, I found the change of direction here both fascinating and exceedingly worthy of maintaining the traditions of fine storytelling.

The role of Atticus has always provided an opportunity for a truly gifted actor to brightly shine, from Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning turn in the original 1962 film version to Sorkin’s rendering of Lee’s heroic quiet giant for which Daniels was nominated for a Tony and subsequently replacements Ed Harris and Greg Kinnear were both universally applauded.

Richard Thomas has come a long, long way from his career-defining days as John-Boy Walton. He is riveting as Atticus, a character so well written it would be easy to fulfill by simply following the lead of Peck and Daniels and every other actor who has brought the gentle smalltown lawyer to fruition.

Thomas quickly makes the role his own, his sweet humanity so subtle one almost has to strain to hear him deliver the single father’s pearls of downhome wisdom as he tries to help his children navigate growing strong in difficult world. But when Atticus explodes in frustrated indignation, there isn't a false moment, especially when he breaks the fourth wall during his closing arguments to the court deciding the fate of Tom Robinson (a highly affecting Yaegel T. Welch), a black man falsely accused of raping a teenage white farm girl. When Thomas rails directly to the audience to wake up and work towards changing the world as it must change to keep our fuckedup species revolving around the sun, it’s impossible not to sit up straight and listen.

The trio of young actors cast as the children pivotal to the plot are all exceptionally talented, but unfortunately, they aren’t children—and although I hoped the concept would grow on me, it never quite gelled.

As Scout, the bright and nosy 10-year-old based on Lee herself who becomes the primary narrator of the story, I can’t wait to see Melanie Moore one day in a more age-appropriate role. Here, how hard she has to try to present us with the boisterous physicality of the character is a terrible distraction, something compounded by a curiously odd and inconsistent southern drawl.

As her brother Gem, again Justin Mark is surely a fine actor, but for any young adult to attempt delivering the serious nature of such the quirky 14-year-old old soul falls flat, especially when Atticus notices his son is “no longer a boy.” Since Mark is considerably taller than Thomas, maybe the exchange of lines should have been delivered sitting down.

Of the three, Steven Lee Johnson is the most successful as Dill, the desperately lonely and needy visiting summertime friend who loudly spouts his views and declarations concerning the human condition as though he has memorized a dictionary or maybe passages from the Farmer’s Almanac.

The supporting cast assembled for this national tour is uniformly worthy with one glaring exception: besides an accent sounding a little like Gabby Hayes after downing a fifth of Southern Comfort and smoking two packs of Camels, if the actor appearing as Mayella’s evil racist father played it any more villainously melodramatic, he’d be wearing a cape and top hat and twirling his mustache.

Jacqueline Williams is a standout as the Finch family’s loyal, loving, plain-speaking longtime maid Calpurnia, while both Richard Poe and David Christopher Wells provide a wonderful authenticity as the small town’s judge and sheriff, respectively. Jeff Still is heartbreaking in a stunning eleventh-hour turn as the grieving Link Deas, the town drunk who only actually drinks Coca-Cola from his ever-present paper sack so the townsfolk will leave him alone.

Luke Smith does a fine job of making defense lawyer Horace Gilmer sufficiently odious without feeling the need to conk us over the head, while recent Juilliard grad Arianna Gayle Stucki makes an auspicious professional debut as poor Mayella, the Dorothea Lange-like victim robbed of a childhood, so clearly abused and brainwashed one wishes it might have been her who shanked her father rather than… well… I won’t say for the sake of the six people in the world who may have never read the novel.

In a clever and welcome moment of stunt casting, the small but pivotal role of the Finch’s cranky elderly neighbor Mrs. Henry DuBose is played by Mary Badham, the former 10-year-old with absolutely no acting experience who played Scout in the 1962 film and went on to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress.

All this is held together by that brilliant veteran director Bartlett Sher, who leads with a firm hand and stages the piece seamlessly on Miriam Buether’s constantly moving impressionistic set that the actors themselves roll into place with each scene without it becoming annoying—in fact, I bought such a brave theatrical device far better than I did 20-year-olds playing 10-year-olds.

As uplifting as it is to return once again to Harper Lee’s classic novel, there’s no doubt the enveloping shroud hanging over Mockingbird remains the fact that, in the six decades since it was first published, not much has significantly changed, with special thanks to our last nightmare of a President for opening everyone’s eyes to the ugly rampant racism lurking under rocks in places most of us have only flown over.

There’s a thrown away but snarky reference made by Atticus that dishes the concept of the skewed sense of entitlement and the glaring hypocrisy of Christian charity and turn-the-other-cheekiness, a moment that elicited a smattering of appreciative applause from a few of us brave souls in the Pantages opening night audience who agreed wholeheartedly.

Would that more people could see the importance of what To Kill a Mockingbird had to tell us all those years ago about our blistering faults as members of the human race and how much we need to address those issues if we want to keep from driving ourselves into extinction.

NOW CLOSED: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

DEC. 27 THROUGH JAN. 8: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. 714.556.2787 or scfta.org

If I Forget 

Fountain Theatre

The lategreat Doris Roberts once told me she thought the rudest thing a friend can do is come see you in a play and then not stay after to say hello—not to gush, necessarily, or say something insincere if you hated it, but just to give a hug. My personal default in such situations has always been, “My lord, what a lot of work you guys have put into this!”

Despite having several people I adore involved in the Los Angeles premiere of Steven Levenson’s If I Forget, I left the Fountain Theatre after the performance and, after blubbering something indecipherable to the Fountain’s Producing Director Simon Levy about having no words and asking him to explain my emotional exit to those friends and colleagues I wasn’t staying around to give that hug, we made a beeline for our car before the tears really started to flow. After a seven-decade passion for live theatre and reviewing plays on a regular basis since 1987, leaving the theatre that verklempt was a first for me. I was simply too moved to talk.

Before I write anything else, I can say without a shadow of a doubt this indelible, magnificently staged and expertly performed LA debut of If I Forgot is the best mounting of a new American play I’ve seen done in 14 years, way back when August: Osage County’s Barbara first started insisting her mother eat her fish.

Just as Florida’s notorious hanging chads put yet another halfwit candidate in the White House and not long before the World Trade Center disaster made its move to help reduce the American Dream to rubble, liberal Washington, DC Jewish Studies professor Michael Fischer (Leo Marks) is on the brink of a major life change. On one hand, his mentally fragile daughter Abby is on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at the height of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict trying to find herself by searching for the roots her vehemently non-religious father never taught her to seek, while closer to home, after the recent death of the family matriarch, his father (Matt Gottlieb) is clearly no longer able to live alone, an issue Michael and his two fiercely opinionated and more than occasionally nightmarish sisters are now forced to address.

At the same time, his university has recommended him for tenure just as his new book is about to be published. His manuscript at the center of the play’s conflict is a highly personal and purposely outspoken treatise about what it means to be a Jew in America a half-century after the Holocaust that Michael hopes, though drastically controversial, will lift his reputation as an author from stodgy and unappreciated academia to more universally celebrated heights.

The large and generally fucked-up Fischer clan is the epitome of so many typical modern upper-middleclass Jewish families I personally know so well: well-spoken, quick-witted, and seemingly functional on the surface but below the bravado and public persona they strive desperately to maintain for the outside world to see, they are filled with communal self-hatred and a basically inexplicable sense of near-primordial guilt. This is part of what Michael’s book will address—the publication of which has already sparked a petition to repress it.

Michael is the only member of the family who is not a fervent supporter of Israel and its aggression against the Palestinian state, nor is he onboard with how our government responds to the issue. In his book, he pleads that people must “forget” rather than wallow in the memory of the Holocaust and move on or, for American Jews, “this will be our last chapter.”

He believes we as a people have ironically missed the lesson that nationalism only breeds disaster and that the horrific Death of the Six Million has become the center of Judaism in America, surpassing all the important and selflessly passionate work that has been done by our community to promote and embrace human and civil rights. As Jews since the Holocaust have focused on assimilating into the mainstream of society despite the reality that we are still hated by more people than accepted, we have lost the innate ability to be obstinate, to be warriors, to fight for what’s right no matter the odds, something which with we have been gifted and have embraced throughout history. “We’re white people now,” Michael insists. “We’re respectable.”

Levenson, who won the Tony for his book for Dear Evan Hansen and wrote the screenplays for Tick… Tick… Boom! and Fosse/Verdon, creates dialogue that quickly becomes a rapid-fire assault on the senses, with voices rising and tempers flaring and characters continuously interrupting one another. Yet through all the noise and the shocking revelations unearthed along the way, there is a remarkable humor—truly, in Levenson’s hardly Neil Simon-like storyline, I can guarantee the laughs are as strong and frequent as anything in The Sunshine Boys or Laughter on the 23rd Floor. In less talented directorial hands than Seinfeld alum Jason Alexander and without this exceptional ensemble of actors, I do fear, however, that If I Forget could surely be forgotten.

Marks does yeomen duty as Michael, staying at the center of the tale throughout without much of a break to take a breath. The character could easily become unlikable, especially in a theatre predominantly full of American Jews (hey, it’s live theatre, okay?), many of whom during the performance we attended gasped audibly at the radical beliefs his character pontificates upon along the way. Only an actor as sincere as this man could win them over, which he does completely, even if they do not buy his ideology.

Marks spews out Michael’s frustrations and laments how no one is willing to hear what he has to say to the point that his brow looks permanently furrowed and his voice is in danger of becoming so raspy he could dub Danny DeVito. As I mentioned to him the day after the performance, he must leave the theatre exhausted and sleep until noon the next day, as an actor as brilliant as Marks could not possibly play this role without it taking its toll on him physically; Michael could not be an easy guy to live with for a long run—which I suspect this will be.

The entire cast is splendid, especially in how smoothly they bounce off one another. As Michael’s obnoxious, ball-breaking, self-centered yet still deeply loving pair of ever-circling banshee sisters Holly and Sharon, Valerie Perri and Samantha Klein are blood pressure-rising perfection as people I personally knew all too well, so convincing I nearly broke out in hives thinking of my own growing years. Gratefully, spending a couple of hours in their presence took away a lot of lingerring guilt I’ve felt by not going back to Chicago for my aunt’s funeral several years ago. It’s that hives thing, you see.

Gottleib is both majestic and heartbreaking as the siblings’ proud, stubborn, clearly ailing father, particularly moving as he describes in a lengthy monologue what unspeakable horrors the soldiers encountered when they liberated Dachau, while Jacob Zelonky is a true find as his schleppy grandson Joey, who works hard to understand what’s going on in his fueding and troubled family despite how obviously his mother and aunt insist on keeping him out of the loop.

As the two characters who stumbled unwittingly into this mess, Sile Berminham as Michael’s Swedish shiksa wife and Jerry Weil as Holly’s nebbishy husband hold their own quite nicely despite being cast in the play’s least flashy roles. Both give performances that again could be lost in the shuffle, yet Bermingham and Weil remain infinitely watchable, providing work that made me check in on them and their reactions even when they had little to do besides cringe at the antics of a family which today they might have second thoughts about marrying into.

Beyond it all, may it be said that the creative genius of Alexander is apparent at every sharp turn. His staging is offbeat, dangerously stylized, and fascinatingly kinetic. I wondered if the directorial choices were his own or written into Levenson’s script, but was assured the unique visual choices and fluidity of this mounting were entirely his idea. It is a monumental accomplishment and surprisingly, the intimate, somewhat bareboned yet always versatile Fountain stage is the quintessential venue to present If I Forget. In a space the size of the Taper or the Wallis or Geffen’s mainstages, I believe our (literally) in-your-face closeness to the Fischer clan could easily be compromised.

This is mirrored in every design element, from Donny Jackson’s lighting cornering the action as it unfolds on Sarah Krainin’s cramped American Buffalo-like set, indicating the family’s treasured but brutally downtrodden shop crammed with memorabilia and metal shelfing that is miraculously able to transform from one location to another with the actors seated in the corners throughout the action equally ready to change the setting as they are to enter into a scene.

This is accomplished with surprising gracefulness, augmented by a gossamer recurrent image of Michael’s troubled daughter Abby played by Caribay Franke, who enters between each scene to silently express her woes by dancing Allison Bibicoff’s angular and jarringly expressive choreography, leaping onto and over furniture and appearing in silhouette behind a glass door lit from behind.

If I Forget was first presented at the Roundabout in New York in 2017.  Earlier I compared my reaction to Steven Levenson’s masterpiece with my first look at Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County in 2008. To qualify for Pulitzer consideration, a play must be written by an American playwright, preferably original in its source, and above all “dealing with American life.”

How the Pulitzer committee missed at least nominating this amazing new classic of theatrical literature five years ago when it debuted is anybody’s guess. I believe no work in recent history does a better job of chronicling what it’s like to be a Jew in America at the end of the 20th Century, a condition that two decades later is even more difficult to navigate. Although we have all been forced to learn how to deal with our drastically different political opinions as citizens of our crumbling country on so many levels besides our age-old cultural divides, it has not happened without great pain. If I Forget opens all the wounds, but in an urgently important, brilliantly lyrical, breathtakingly theatrical way.

EXTENDED THROUGH DEC. 18: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Av., LA. 323.663.1525 or fountaintheatre.com

 

See? I'm an Angel!