TRAVIS' REVIEWS:  Winter 2023 to... ?  


ON FILM:  THE ASSEMBLY from 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.

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Contrary to popular opinion, with some notable exceptions most theatre critics I know hate having to write a negative review—at least those reviewers who don’t need to work out their personal miseries at the expense of their readers.

It’s agonizing for me to write a bad review at this particular point in time when, after our lengthy crippling lockdown due to the pandemic, unlike Broadway theatres now playing to about 90% capacity, most of their counterparts in LA are still struggling bigtime to get back on their proverbial feet.

It’s especially hard to in any way bash the Geffen Playhouse, which after the debilitating canceling of Dominique Morriseau’s slickly produced but unimpressive Paradise Blue after only five performances thanks to the playwright’s misdirected sense of entitlement, as well as the Covid-cramped and then publicly criticized A Wicked Soul on Cherry Hill due to its sensitive content, the complex came back to life with a huge-assed bang.

Aside from the success of the Bryan Cranston-led Power of Sail, mentalist Vinny DePonto’s twice-extended Mindplay, Lee Edward Colston II’s The First Deep Breath, and a sterling revival of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? despite a case of questionable star-casting in a leading role, the Geffen also gave us the west coast premieres of two of my top TicketHolders Award-winning choices for 2022: Lindsay Joelle’s exceptional diamond in the rough Trayf and Matthew Lopez’ brilliant and multi-award-winning two-part epic The Inheritance, as well as the brilliant new musical The Lonely Few currently completing its run this coming weekend in the Geffen’s versatile second space.

All that said, the Playhouse’s current tenant, the world premiere of Ava: The Secret Conversations, written by and starring Elizabeth McGovern, is a major misstep for the otherwise high-flying theatre complex.

Based on British journalist Peter Evans’ 2013 ghostwritten “autobiography” of one of the most famous movie stars of all time, McGovern’s shaky stage adaptation reveals two things about her work, both based on this performance: tackling the life and persona of the bigger than life Ava Gardner, she proves herself to be a decent if not electrifying actor capable of holding her own—if only that in itself were enough—but as a playwright, she needs a basic tutorial on how to create a viable throughline.

I am a staunch advocate for casting against type, but it’s hard to play a famous temptress as identifiable as Gardner, who was as sultry and voluptuous as McGovern is girl-next-door-ish and almost appearing to be anorexic, particularly when Alex Basco Koch’s huge projections of the star’s most glamorous headshots continuously haunt the walls of the set behind her.

Taken directly from Evan’s real interviews with Gardner, at one point she asks him, “When you’ve blown up so big, don’t you know you end up paper thin?" See, I don’t think she meant it literally. That’s not saying McGovern isn’t attractive—remember Dawn Wells’ Mary Ann received far more fan mail than Tina Louise’s Ginger—but it’s impossible to accept her as Gardner, especially clad in Toni-Leslie James’ striking but ill-advised gowns and a wig that makes her look as though she should instead be playing Judy Garland in The End of the Rainbow—which actually would have been better casting.

Beyond that, her one-dimensional performance sadly never gets past shouting out obscenities with the best of the most notorious Hollywood divas and predictably clinking ice cubes in her ever-present glass. As happens with many actors who have made their mark in film and television, McGovern either doesn’t have the ability to delve much deeper into the psyche of what made Gardner so troubled and difficult, or over the years shooting disconnected scenes she has forgotten how to create a character arc onstage.

I wish this potentially worthy Ava had been envisioned as a one-person show, perhaps with the actress speaking to the audience or possibly talking into some kind of recording device. By making Peter Evans (Aaron Costa Ganis) an equal onstage partner in the story, it sets the play up to create a character as equally interesting as Gardner; as is, there’s nothing whatsoever to care about in the guy, even when he’s being harassed by his agent (Ryan W. Garcia) in an annoying series of ridiculously unnecessary voiceover phonecalls.

This forces Ganis to have to work far too hard to make Evans an engaging sparring partner, which looks more exhausting than honest. And when he transforms instantly into Gardner’s former husbands Frank Sinatra, Artie Shaw, and especially as Mickey Rooney, the only one who sees his efforts as successful is the actor himself.

It’s hard to imagine where noted director Moritz Von Stuelpnagel was hanging out during all this, obviously not somewhere where he could help his performers bring some semblance of reality into their performances or at least raise an eyebrow when David Meyer’s otherwise impressive set is inexplicably made to morph midway through the show into a bedroom complete with an unmade bed replacing the London flat’s omnipresent loveseat.

If at least the notoriously sexually adventurous Gardner tried at some point in the second part to get Evans into the sack (she does tell the writer “Nobody could ever teach me how to act but Mickey taught me how to fuck”), maybe the slickly accomplished but puzzling set change would have made some sense.

Another elaborate and inventive set change ends the piece, by the way, clearly camouflaging the script’s complete lack of an ending with smoke, mirrors, and flashy Hollywood-inspired gimmicks that prove far more interesting than the play.

Unfortunately, if the name Elizabeth McGovern hadn’t been attached as playwright and star to Ava: The Secret Conversations, there’s not a chance it would have ended up debuting in a classy, impressively designed production at the venerable but too often starstruck Geffen Playhouse. If it were opening as a piece in the early development stage at a 38-seat repurposed storefront on Santa Monica Boulevard at midnight on a Monday night as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, I still would have written it was a promising effort but drastically needed to go back to the drawing board for further retooling.

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HAIRSPRAY at the Dolby Theatre

It seems as though some touring production of the bright and shining eight-time Tony Award-winning musical adaptation of John Water’s classic 1988 film Hairspray, which first opened on Broadway in 2002 and played 2,642 performances before shuttering in 2009, has been on the road since Herbert Hoover was President.

Still, over the two decades since it embarked on its journey, current Some Like It Hot Tony nominees Scott Whitman and Marc Shaiman’s wonderfully in-your-face musical, filled with lightness, bursting with fun, and cleverly designed—especially David Rockwell’s versatile cartoon-like set design and William Ivey Long’s colorful costuming—is once again bringing the house down at the Dolby.

Who would have thought watching Divine eat poodle poop in Pink Flamingos or wave away her husband’s bedtime farts in the Odorama-infused Polyester, that one fine day just after the turn of a new millennium, Waters, who acted as consultant on the musical version, would see one of his cultish counter-culture masterpieces become the toast of Broadway and then still be filling theatres 35 years after his original film debuted.

In case you’ve been pulling a Rip Van Winkle the past few decades, Hairspray, set in Baltimore in 1962, is the story of Tracy Turnblad (now delightfully played by Niki Metcalf), a “big-boned” teenager with hair up-to-there who spends her afternoons after being released from detention for ratting her beehive religiously watching the local teenybopper dance show on TV.

When one of the regular kids on the program has to take a leave (for nine months, what else?), Tracy auditions to replace her. She is unceremoniously turned away by the “cool kids” and the ambitious bigoted producer of the show, becoming the butt of the popular girls’ jokes instead. Then when the show’s host Corny Collins (Billy Dawson) spots Tracy pony-ing away at a high school hop, she’s brought onto the show after all and becomes the toast of Baltimore, as well as spokesperson for Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway Plus Size Emporium. 

Still, Tracy has even more of a conscience than a heart and soon she is embroiled in a fight to integrate the show, not wait until the once-monthly “Negro Day” to watch some really cool dance maneuvers. It's not an easy fight, providing the major twist (no pun intended) about Hairspray that made it such an important film and later an important musical comedy.

Like Ragtime, it survives the ages because Waters’ original screenplay and Mark O’Connell and Thomas Meehan’s stage adaptation chronicle a transitional period of time in American culture with an urgently consequential message about the world lurking just below its infectious jukebox musical façade as Tracy and her cohorts fight to forever change The Corny Collins Show.

Originally Hairspray was directed by Jack O’Brien (who also won the 2003 Tony for the effort) and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell (who surprisingly didn’t), assignments Matt Lenz and Robbie Roby have now respectively recreated for this tour. 

Unlike too many long-traveling tours, spontaneity is happily the keyword to describe the energetic ensemble members dancing and singing their hearts out on the Dolby stage, led by the sweetly spirited performance of Metcalf, Addison Garner as the show’s Cruella-like producer Velma Von Tussle (who fights to lead the kids “in the white direction”), Ryahn Evers as her vapid clone of a daughter Amber, Emery Henderson as the simpleminded but endearing Penny Pingleton, Charlie Bryant III as Seaweed, Joi D. McCoy as his sister Little Inez, and Nick Cortazzo as local teen idol Link Larkin, who simply rocks as a guy with girls falling all over him and can’t imagine how Rock Hudson puts up with it.

In the role made famous by Divine in the original movie, the Tony-winning Harvey Fierstein on Broadway, John Travolta in the film adaptation of the musical, and Bruce Vilanch in the first national tour, RuPaul’s Drag Race Miss Congeniality winner Andrew Levitt, also known as Nina West, takes over the role of Tracy’s socially-blossoming drudge of a mother. Levitt is as outrageous as he looks in Long’s hilariously exorbitant now familiar costuming, instantly making the character his own rather than becoming a copy of his high-profile predecessors.

Physically towering over Ralph Prentice Daniel as Edna's diminutive joke store owner husband Wilber, the duo is hilarious in their comedic yet loving duet “Timeless." It's a showstopper of a number staged simply in front of a curtain rather than be overshadowed by Rockwell’s flashy sets and still proving to be the highlight of the evening.

It’s surprising that younger 2023 audiences “get” some of O’Donnell and Meehan’s classical 60s-era references, from Jackie Gleason’s tagline to wondering if Liberace has found the perfect woman to a crack about the touchability of the Gabor Sisters, but ironically it all still seems to land with an audience in general surely born well after the Golden Age of television.

Whatever strikes your funnybone, however, be prepared to dance in the aisles and cheer like nobody’s business, ‘cause this crisp and energetic current tour of Hairspray is something everyone can enjoy on some level, no matter how many of its throwaway references go directly over the heads of the whippersnappers gathered to celebrate it.

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THE LONELY FEW at Geffen Playhouse

It’s rather a phenomenon that a brand new untried musical in development for the last five years can debut in a 114-seat Los Angeles black-box theatre and not only sell out almost immediately, but soon after find the theatre announcing an extension even before opening night.

Such is the case with the brassy and in-your-face rock musical The Lonely Few, created by playwright Rachel Bonds and composer Zoe Sarnak, now in its much talked about world premiere in the Geffen Playhouse’s second space, the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre.

Perhaps its unheard of advance sale came partially from Robert Ito’s splashy pre-opening feature in the New York Times or the announcement that the cast would include three substantially buzzed-about young Broadway superstars on the rise, but whatever the reason, one can only hope it extends a few more times so more people will be able to see it before it moves on to what is surely to be a spectacular future.

Set in a small neighborhood Palomino-style bar in rural Kentucky, directors Trip Cullman and Ellenore Scott with the invaluable inclusion of Sibyl Wickerheimer, one of our town’s most creative set designers, have impressively transformed the Geffen’s more intimate theatre into an immersive rustic two-level playing space.

Here many of the audience members are seated at tables and chairs or placed on barstools that line two sides of the house as the band delivers a surprisingly welcome ear-splitting score from a roughhewn raw wood stage placed smack-dab in the middle of neon signs and a fully stocked bar. It’s a place where magic happens.

What makes The Lonely Few nearly unstoppable is Sarnak’s brilliant score, delivered by a cast of worldclass performers with jaw-dropping vocal skills (save one) who, appearing as the play’s in-house band, also provide most of their own musical accompaniment—with more musicians led by musical director Myrna Conn hidden just behind the back wall accompanying songs not meant to be performed by the onstage band members.

This production is a breath of fresh air in the current landscape of potentially groundbreaking musical theatrical offerings as it centers around the romance sparking between two gifted female band singers (Lauren Patten and Ciara Renee) as each wrestles to find their place in the music scene—one as a backup singer clawing her way up and the other as someone desperately trying to keep from being smothered by the dead end of her Old Kentucky Home, a far more dismal place than Stephen Foster ever imagined.

Patten, the hot-hot Broadway phenom who in 2019 took the town by storm with her Tony, Grammy, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Award-winning performance as Jo Taylor in the Alanis Morissette-Diablo Cody musical Jagged Little Pill, is absolutely showstopping once again as Lila, the country girl stuck in Dogpatch working as a clerk at the local Save-a-Lot discount mart while caring for her useless and perpetually drunk brother Adam (Joshua Close, the “save one” as the only non-singer in the cast of six).

From the minute Patten hits the stage impressively delivering Sarnak’s haunting “Always Wait for You,” followed by the rocking “God of Nowhere” performed at the local wateringhole and introducing the members of her band The Lonely Few (Damon Daunno, Helen J Shen, and Thomas Silcott), it’s not difficult to surmise one is in the presence of a huge future Broadway musical lioness equally adept at quiet introspection and Joplin-like brassiness.

As hard as it is to imagine a costar able to keep from being overshadowed by the performance of Patten, Ciara Renee, also a talent on the radar from her New York turns as Jenna in Waitress and as the first African-American actress to portray Elsa in Disney’s Frozen, seamlessly bounces off and compliments the five-star talent of her love interest.

Dauanno, nominated for both a Tony and a Grammy as Curley in the dastardly 2019 revival of Oklahoma!, is also a standout on his own as Lila’s restless boss and bandmate Dylan, as is Shen as their sweetly ambitious keyboardist JJ and Silcott as the band’s drummer and the laidback owner of the bar.

Almost everything here is top-drawer, from the dynamic yet relatable performances, to Cullman and Scott’s clever environmental staging, to Wickershimer’s innovative set, Nick Kourtides’ loudly provocative sound, and Adam Honore’s moody lighting design—which not only is appropriately flashy when needed but is also able to identify two separate playing spaces with the actors performing in a duet while standing directly next to one another.

Over and above everything is Sarnak’s indelible score, which leaves us with the feeling of attending a rock concert more than experiencing a new work of musical theatre. Ironically, it works.

Unfortunately, there’s one glaring Achilles’ heel in the ongoing development of The Lonely Few and that’s the well meaning but unfortunately inadequate book, something it’s impressive to see these dynamic artists able to rise above. 

Bond’s thin, uninspired, achingly predictable TV soap opera of a script pulls the entire production down. It’s not without merit nor something that needs to be totally scrapped, but it definitely needs some major, major reworking before the show heads off to it’s next well-deserved incarnation.

I don’t know if such a plan could generate enough income to employ such a dynamic cast and artistic team, but would I love to see this incredible new piece play in clubs, such as my old stompin’ grounds the Troubadour or the Chat Noir in New Orleans or the Bitter End in New York. It could become the quintessential amalgam between the theatrical community and the music business.

If I still had the contacts I had during my long tenure as Talent Coordinator of the Troub during its heyday in the so-called Golden Age, I’d have been on the phone first thing this morning. Even despite its ho-hum book to drag it down, The Lonely Few is a winner in every other regard.

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GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

I usually don’t cover productions with short runs or are one-time events, but the return to the Wallis of Hershey Felder as George Gershwin Alone is an exception for several reasons, including the fact this current stop on his national tour marks Hershey’s final performances in the play that started here in LA in 1998 and began his quarter-century international celebrity.

It all began on the stage of the now sadly bulldozed Tiffany Theatre on Sunset in WeHo when Hershey was a mere lad of 29 and the show has since played to audiences worldwide for more than 3,000 performances from all over the country to South Korea, with celebrated stops on Broadway and London’s West End in between. When asked during his traditional question-and-answer period at the end of his opening night performance last Friday what made him decide to create a solo piece playing the great composer in the first place, Hershey’s answer was perfect: “Trying to pay the rent.”

Whatever the reason, that humble 99-seat beginning sparked a one-man empire that's now taken a bold new turn into film production centered in his home in Florence, Italy—and one major reason I choose to write about George Gershwin Alone despite its now completed short run here is because the performance was one of the first he transferred to film and is available to all of us to view whenever we wish from his Hershey Felder Presents website.

When the Wallis first announced this five-day return engagement, Hershey stated, “This presentation will be my farewell to a beloved character who left us tragically [at his longtime Roxbury Drive home] in Beverly Hills only blocks from the Wallis in 1937 at the tender age of 38.”

Gershwin was born in 1898 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in Brooklyn and composed his first hit at age 21. He wrote more than a thousand songs for the stage and screen, as well as works for the opera house and the symphony orchestra. When Gershwin died of an undiagnosed brain tumor in 1937, he left behind a legion of bereft fans and an astonishing legacy of enduring music that has never dimmed in popularity.

Hershey’s exploration of Gershwin’s short but extraordinary life illuminates a master composer whose work shaped a distinctly American style of music. George Gershwin Alone spotlights this brilliant man’s partnership with his brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin, and incorporates beloved songs ranging from his hits “Fascinating Rhythm,” “I Got Rhythm,” “’S Wonderful,” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” to excerpts from ground-breaking musicals Porgy and Bess and An American in Paris, and a complete performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.” 

I first saw Hershey channel the great American icon in his solo debut at the Tiffany 25 years ago and my reaction to the performance was the first gasp of one of the most important friendships of my life, germinating from my gobsmacked reaction to his work which was in turn met with a desire from him to meet me to say thanks. “You’re one of the first people to ‘get’ me,” Hershey once told me, although I can’t imagine anyone not immediately realizing they’re in the hallowed presence a genius at work watching any of this guy’s performances. 

I also asked him during his performance last week why he has made this the “farewell” tour playing Gershwin. “I’m 54 now,” he quipped from the stage, “and he died at 38. I hope the play has a long life without me in the future, but for me, I don’t want to be playing him hobbling across the stage on a cane.”

Through the past quarter-century-plus, Hershey has given performances of his solo productions in his Composer Sonata series at some of the world’s most prestigious theatres and has consistently broken box office records. Besides George Gershwin Alone (which played Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre and the West End’s Duchess Theatre), Hershey’s phenomenal body of performances include his Monsieur Chopin; Beethoven; Maestro (Leonard Bernstein); Franz Liszt in Musik, Lincoln: An American Story, Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, Our Great Tchaikovsky, and A Paris Love Story and Chopin in Paris. 

His compositions and recordings include Aliyah, Concerto for Piano and OrchestraFairytale, a musical; Les Anges de Paris, Suite for Violin and Piano; Song Settings; Saltimbanques for Piano and Orchestra; Etudes Thematiques for Piano; and An American Story for Actor and Orchestra. He was also the adaptor, director, and designer for the internationally performed play-with-music The Pianist of Willesden Lane with Steinway artist Mona Golabek; producer and designer for the musical Louis and Keely: ‘Live’ at the Sahara, directed by Taylor Hackford; and writer and director for Flying Solo, featuring opera legend Nathan Gunn. Hershey has also operated a full-service production company since 2001 and has been a scholar-in-residence at Harvard University. See? An underachiever for sure, right?

Following 28 years of continuous stage work and over 6,000 live performances throughout the U.S. and abroad, in response to the world going into hibernation in 2020, Hershey created Live from Florence, An Arts Broadcasting Company, which has produced 18 theatrical films to date. They include the recently-released The Assembly; Musical Tales in The Venetian Jewish Ghetto; Chopin and Liszt in Paris; Violetta, the story of Verdi’s Traviata; Dante and Beatrice in Florence; Mozart and Figaro in Vienna; the world premiere musicals Nicholas, Anna & Sergei; the story of Sergei Rachmaninoff; Puccini, the story of famed opera composer Giacomo Puccini; Before Fiddler, a musical story about writer Sholem Aleichem; Great American Songs and the Stories Behind ThemLeonard Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic, a documentary.

Those two staggeringly prolific seasons of programming also included the filmed version of George Gershwin Alone, shot in the midst of the pandemic in September, 2020, on the atmospherically creaky stage of the historic Teatro Della Pergola in Florence, built in 1656 and the third oldest interior theatre in the world. It is an amazing and groundbreaking treasure available for us all to watch and is currently available at

For my series of portraits featuring Hershey in eight of his roles, click on COMPOSER SONATA elsewhere on this website.

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THE PILOT WHO CRASHED THE PARTY at the Broadwater Theatre

Some people spent their time doing time during the pandemic planting herb gardens, some took yoga classes on Zoom, some (I wonder whom?) churned out more paintings than Margaret Keane back when she was locked in her basement, but for actor/writer/director/improvisationist extraordinaire Paul Sand, about to embark on his tenth decade observing the world through the seductively skewed lens of comedy, he wrote his first full-length play.

Now two years later, the world premiere of the classic overachiever’s delightfully silly farce The Pilot Who Crashed the Party dives nose-first directly into the Broadwater with its 91-year-old playwright doubling as director.

It’s as though Joe Orton has channeled Agatha Christie in Sand’s clever send-up of melodramatic 1930s drawing room mysteries when a pilot crashes his small plane into the Santa Monica Mountains hilltop home of Sally (LA theatrical goddess Jacqueline Wright) during a violent rainstorm, interrupting the international socialite’s 50th birthday celebration.

The pilot (Sol Mason) staggers into the home and collapses, waking only to profess to those gathered that he has no idea who he is or why he would even be piloting a plane. Stuck in the home as a river of mud keeps those gathered from leaving and robbed of phone service, the eclectic group of party guests insist on not letting the man sleep for fear if he does he could lapse into a coma.

Each person has his or her own vision of who the man is, what his real agenda might be, and how his presence relates to them personally—and here lies the heart of the complex and convoluted mystery filled with delightfully overdramatic and bizarre twists and turns. It’s like Mark of the Vampire meets Dinner at Eight directed by Todd Browning as projection designer Fritz Davis’ animated rain and lightning relentlessly descend down as the actors valiantly work toward chewing Jeff G. Rack’s suitably elegant yet minimalist scenery. It’s almost a shame it can’t be presented in black and white.

As onstage musicians Yennie Lam and Chris Rorrer as the duo Sally has hired to play for her party enhance the proceedings on violin and cello, occasionally leaving their chairs to follow one character or another around the stage while still continuously playing, their accompaniment morphs from classical to eerily histrionic to help the seriously necromantic tale unfold. Soon Sand’s rapid twists and turns and Marx Brothers-inspired physical comedy sensibilities heighten the storyline and those nagging questions surrounding the pilot’s identity—and possible more sinister mission—become curiouser and curiouser.

When it comes to physical comedy, no one could possibly match Wright, who may be one of the bravest and most outrageously unfiltered performers ever to set foot upon a stage. Her Sally is the force that pilots this Pilot, delivering a performance of which no one else on this planet, save possibly Jennifer Coolidge or the ghost of Madeline Kahn, could get away with. Picture maybe an old ‘30s B-movie with Joan Blondell cast in a role originally written for Gale Sondergaard.

The problem here is that, with the exception of Claudia Ferri as Sally’s diva-like Italian movie star best friend, no one else quite gets the concept and the result is as though Wright and Ferri are in one play and the rest are cast in another. Leaving Wright out there performing a nearly one-person show is rather unfair to her; it’s testament to her unique abilities how courageously she ignores the unevenness of her supporting performances.

Although surely there’s something to say for Pinteresque pauses in such material, the dialogue is often delivered so slowly and leisurely that one might wonder if one of the actors has forgotten his or her lines, which is a distinct possibility during the performance I attended since an understudy was appearing as one of the major characters for the first time.

Mason gets a huge pass as the often nebbishy pilot, who appropriately plays the straightman foil to Wright’s Lylah Clare and does so perfectly. If it seems he could both physically and in performance choices resemble a contemporary version of the young Paul Sand himself, it might not be so farfetched since I understand he has been working with the man on projects for the last decade or so.

Whatever the problems, however, The Pilot Who Crashed the Party is great diversionary fun and a tribute to the comic genius and resilience of Mr. Sand, whom I have idolized personally since I was a working kid in Chicago theatre and he was a mainstay of the groundbreaking Second City, a place blocks from my late teen home at Lincoln Park West and Menominee that I frequented often and where I took classes that were a highlight in my own evolution as an actor and writer. His newest effort is not to be missed, especially starring the indomitable Jacqueline Wright, who should be preserved in Webster’s under the entry “One of a Kind.”

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1776 at the Ahmanson Theatre

Despite its popularity over the years, I’ve never been a big fan of Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s celebrated 1969 Tony winning musical 1776.

Although the history of it, depicting trials and tribulations of the bickering delegates of the Second Continental Congress sweltering in the Philadelphia heat during the summer months leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in that pivotal moment in the formation of our country, I’ve always found the nearly all-male cast of characters rather annoying. They might be our Founding Fathers, but they are depicted here as pedantic, loud, abrasive, unwilling to compromise, ridiculously competitive, and glaringly self-serving.

You know… politicians.

Maybe that’s the problem for me. It seems glaringly obvious that 247 years later, in the era of Clarence Thomas, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan, Ron DeSantis, Lindsey Graham, and of course the dastardly Tangerine Nightmare, not much has changed. And since we're bombarded on a daily basis to these insufferable dick-swingers rattling on ad infinitum on every news program we suffer, spending three hours time traveling back to 1776 to listen to their predecessors bloviating has always been a challenge for me—even if they do occasionally break into song.

In the current revival now rocking the Ahmanson, co-directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus have conquered the inherent misogyny of the tale brilliantly by envisioning and revitalizing the rather stodgy musical to now feature a racially diverse all-female, transgendered, and non-binary cast. Instead of a stage full of swaggering, preening males both physically and metaphorically adjusting their packages, Page and Paulus’ refreshing revival now features performers able to poke delicious fun at the ridiculousness of blustery male entitlement.

Except for one disappointing leading actor who, despite a knockout voice, jeopardizes the overall vision of the piece by never really approaching her character with anything even remotely suggesting more than a cartoon version of toxic masculinity, the otherwise incredibly game and gifted ensemble here is what makes the production succeed.

Perhaps the most grounding and unifying performance comes from Liz Mikel as the cantankerous, occasionally lecherous Ben Franklin, never giving the sense of simply pretending to be male but finding the many quirks of the well-known historical gent without resorting to gimmickry.

Nancy Anderson as the initially reluctant Thomas Jefferson and Joanna Glushak as the Congress’ self-righteous John Dickinson are also standouts in this dynamic cast, but when actors appearing as characters who are no more than a footnote in the history books step out in song, the musical really… well… sings.

This becomes clear early on when Shawna Hamic as the terminally Southern delegate Richard Henry Lee takes over the stage without ever resorting to Foghorn Leghornitis to deliver the hilarious “The Lees of Old Virginia,” not usually thought of as one of the more memorable tunes in Edwards and Stone’s score.

Kassandra Haddock steps out from behind the table as Edward Rutledge with the show’s most powerful and unsettling number, “Molasses to Rum,” as the delegate from South Carolina argues why those gathered to approve Jefferson’s Declaration have to strike a passage proposing to abolish slavery if the Congress has any hope of anyone from the South agreeing to the document.

In the musical’s only traditionally female roles, Tieisha Thomas doubles as Abigail Adams and the Reverend Jonathan Witherspoon, while Connor Lyon takes on Martha Jefferson and Dr. Lyman Hall. Both ace their characters’ beautiful ballads, “Yours, Yours, Yours” and “He Plays the Violin,” respectively.

Still, the most haunting and indelibly memorable moment is delivered by Brooke Simpson as the shell-shocked Courier pours out the battle-weary soldier’s pain in “Momma, Look Sharp,” an agonizing reminder of the horrors of war and the unthinkable sacrifices that destroy the lives of both those lost and the families they left behind. Simpson’s performance is so touching and her voice is so clear and Baez-like that I was surprised her lengthy ovation didn’t turn into one of those rare standing ovations in the middle of a performance that defines the term show-stopping.

Page and Paulus have given new life to the staging, with the delegates seated at long tables for lengthy periods of time never left without synchronized choreographed reactions to whatever is unfolding and by adopting simple, austere design choices that never get in the way. Being a fly on the wall during the creation of this rethinking of 1776 would be a consummation devoutly to be wished.

It’s hard to imagine which might have been the most significant inspiration accounting for the success of this new look at an old musical warhorse: the innovation of Page and Paulus to make diversity first and foremost in retelling the familiar story with a contemporary twist, or the exceptional talents of the cast they and casting directors Duncan Stewart and Benton Whitley have assembled to embody their vision, wake up the language, and impactfully deliver a message that even helps disenchanted and tired old freedom fighters such as yours truly experience, in these disillusioning latter-days, a rare moment of lingering though faded patriotism.

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There's some question whether the original 1985 stage version of Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman has ever been produced in LA. I was told it might have once been presented here in its original Spanish language version, but it’s something I cannot find chronicled anywhere no matter how extensively I google.

Whether or not A Noise Within's stunning new production of the two-character drama is a Los Angeles premiere or not is up for grabs but either way, I'll bet it's never been mounted as beautifully as it is here in the hands of our most visionary wunderkind director Michael Michetti.

Based on Puig's 1976 novel El beso de la mujer arana, written by the great Argentinian novelist and screenwriter while living in his long politically motivated exile in Mexico, the play was first produced in the West End starring Mark Rylance and Simon Callow and translated by Allen Baker.

Of course, it was the source material for the Academy Award Best Picture-nominated 1985 film version which won Best Actor honors for William Hurt as the supergay incarcerated prisoner Molina, as well as the popular Kander and Ebb musical version first mounted on Broadway in 1993, winner of Tonys for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book for Terrence McNally, and grabbing performance honors for Brent Carver as Molina, Anthony Crivello as the revolutionary Valentin, and Chita Rivera in the title role, an imaginary character first added in Leonard Schrader's original screenplay.

I imagine one reason the original non-musical version is not done is because of the static, even claustrophobic nature of the story. Spending a couple of hours observing the day-by-day existence of two incredibly incompatible characters stuck together sharing a dank and cramped cell in Buenos Aries’ notorious Villa Devoto Prison during Argentina's infamous "Dirty War" is hardly like leaving home to see The Odd Couple—at least not an odd couple as envisioned by Neil Friggin' Simon.

There’s no director on the planet able to keep such a thing interesting and kinetic better than Michetti, who not only provides a s stunning, thought-provoking experience for those gathered, but shrewdly, even poetically conquers what I’ll bet is one of the major reasons the play is not often produced: a rather clumsy and anticlimactic ending where voiceover replaces live action.

Not only has he and set designer Tesshi Nakagawa found an ingenious way to make it work, they make it integral to the message Puig was trying to communicate in the first place.

For me, Kiss has always been one of the world’s greatest love stories, something I discussed often with our Ms. Rivera, who passionately agreed with me when I was working with John Wimbs at Live Ent doing publicity for the musical’s west coast premiere at the Ahmanson in 1996. It’s Shawshank Redemption meets Romeo and Juliet and without innovative staging and two drop-dead performances from the actors playing polar opposites who defeat all odds, I’m sure this original play version could be deadly.

No worries here; Ed F. Martin and Adrian Gonzalez could not be more perfectly cast. Martin finds a delicate, gossamer understanding and a palpable inner strength concealed behind the camouflaging veils as Molina—and without the ultra-muliebrity of Hurt, whose obnoxiously queeny Oscar-winning performance made me want to hurl popcorn at the screen.

Gonzalez deftly manages to accomplish the same in reverse, presenting what could be a stereotypically muy macho male but then slowly, in tiny increments, finds the deeply sensitive humanity of Valentin, presenting a character who becomes tolerant, then intrigued, then succumbs to becoming a caring and sweetly generous lover.

The improbable turn could seem forced and even silly without the kind of remarkable acting Martin and Gonzalez ace without leaving the audience with a moment to question the birth of love despite an improbable, if not impossible, situation.

Although we don’t ever learn how long these guys have been cellmates, we do know Valentin would like Molina to stop “whining like a 19th-century housewife,” while Molina believes “if all men were like women, there would be no torturers.” Valentin begs him to not analyze things to death, while Molina in turn is puzzled why the guy risks himself for his radical political cause, even though he professes to respect him for it.

It’s not a match made in heaven—or is it? As the prisoners’ relationship begins to change drastically (kudos to intimacy coach Carly DW Bones), the raison d’etre of Manuel Puiz’s tale becomes clear: “I’m more and more convinced,” Valentin confesses, “that sex is innocence itself.”

I usually brake for any story, be it play, novel, or film, taking place in a prison or during a war. I don’t know why, but I always wonder if there’s something to this past life thing that usually keeps me away from such topics.

ANW's Kiss of the Spider Woman has distracted me bigtime from my neurosis with its never cramped or claustrophobic design choices, Alex Mansour’s infectious tango-inspired original music, Michetti’s always fascinatingly enterprising staging, and a pair of truly worldclass performances in two demanding and easily misunderstood roles.

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TWILIGHT: LOS ANGELES, 1992 at the Mark Taper Forum

It’s been 30 years since Anna Deavere Smith’s award-winning solo play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 debuted here in its sold-out world premiere at the Taper before going off to a much-acclaimed run in New York at the Public and later be nominated for two Tonys when it transferred to Broadway. Subsequently, the show traveled the country on a national tour mounted by Berkeley Rep and also enjoyed transferring to film in partnership with PBS.

Now Twilight has returned to the Taper where it was originally commissioned by Center Theatre Group, championed by CTG’s lategreat founder and artistic director Gordon Davidson, after the horrors of the notorious 1991 savage attack on Rodney King and the acquittal the following year of the assholian LAPD officers who beat him into a coma—an incident which of course resulted in the LA riots that left 58 people dead and 2,383 people injured, clocked in 7,000 fire responses, 12,111 arrests, and left 3,100 businesses damaged.

Smith originally conducted personal interviews with many Angelenos affected by the riots, including professors and scholars, leaders of the Black Panther party and other prominent African-American activists, targeted Korean shopkeepers whose livelihoods were destroyed, even one of the cops responsible for the event which shocked LA and the country to the core.

Smith performed her distillation of those interviews in her creation, playing every one of those individuals and doing so brilliantly. Now however, she has adapted her original script to be performed by five actors, the result of which actually makes Twilight even more riveting as it centers on the events and removes the overpowering focus on what, granted, was truly a memorable performance by its author.

Smith developed this reconceptualized version of Twilight in 2021 off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre, a presentation New York Magazine noted proved that there was a “moral thrill in the work that will never fade,” while the New York Times named a Critic’s Pick and said the production remained “as necessary now as when Los Angeles was actively smoldering.”

It’s said of our species that we never seem to learn from our mistakes but now that Smith’s masterwork has returned to where it began, it couldn’t be more obvious that it’s an even more timely and urgently important work than ever—if only this time someone listens to its message and does something to change things that have remained glaringly stagnant over the last three decades.

The Taper has made a major contribution to the play’s greatness, hiring the incredible Gregg T. Daniels to direct and assembling some of the most impressive performers and designers working today in our oft-maligned desert climes.

Daniels smoothly, deftly keeps the piece moving and fluid, clearly honoring the material as his main concern rather than letting the piece too easily become a showcase of the otherworldly artistry of his cast and design team, all of whom are able to stand on their own without needing any well-meant dramatic embellishment.

“The work was never meant to be restricted to a one person show format,” Smith has commented about her new revision. “I wanted all of my works to be done by groups of actors, especially in schools and universities, or in communities where discussion might follow. Democracy is all about a variety of individuals working towards a goal. The cast of a play can exemplify that.”

The Taper’s cast of five is absolutely breathtaking, from Lovensky Jean-Baptiste’s take on an angry activist and an even angrier defendant in the trial against the monsters who pulled innocent trucker Reginald Denny out of his truck and beat him unmercifully, to Sabina Zuniga Varela’s poignant turn as a possibly undocumented teen trying to fit what happened into her life and a turn as a male Chicano artist willing to fight for his freedom and the safety of his family at any cost.

Lisa Renee Pitts is equally comfortable as Rodney King’s loving but socially challenged aunt and especially as Elaine Brown, the world-weary former chairwoman of the Panthers sick to the core having to repeatedly state the same reasons why simply taking to the streets to protest is not nearly enough to force the drastically necessary change our country so desperately needs.

Still, it is the work of LA theatrical treasures Jeanne Sakata and Hugo Armstrong who shine the brightest here.

With a flip of a string of pearls or the donning of a jacket, Sakata is instantly able to transform from portraying anthropologist and Asian-American scholar Dorinne Kondo to Yong Hee, a sweet Korean immigrant struggling with her broken English and mourning the death of her personal American Dream when her innocent husband was shot in the face by the rioters as he sat in his car trying to maneuver the chaotic traffic.

And when the diminutive actor suddenly slips into the swaggering persona of Charlton Heston, Mr. “Cold Dead Hands” himself, it becomes apparent Sakata can do just about anything—not that such a thing is anything this particular admirer (and former costar) didn’t already know.

Armstrong is also able to morph instantaneously from portraying one of the cops accused to the entitled but scrappy board president of the LA Police Commission, a man who walked directly into the fray, to a typical film industry talent agent who discusses how his power lunch was interrupted by news of the riots.

Nearly all of the performers further solidify their versatility by each assuming the identity of the late Beverly Hills realtor-to-the-stars Elaine Young, whose interview focuses more on the dastardly results of her many plastic surgeries than about the riots, something she survived among a handful of other clueless westside dilettantes hunkered together in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Perhaps Smith’s cleverest rethinking comes in Act Two in a new segment called “The Table” where castmembers wheel in a long banquet table overflowing with food and all five actors sit down together to share a compilation of the play’s most interesting and diverse interviews, from Pitts’ world-weary Black Panther leader to Varela’s take on LA Times Pulitzer-winning reporter Hector Tobar to Sakata’s lowly Korean shop owner, breaking bread together in an attempt to foster some kind of community. The effort only confirms how different we all are and how frustrating it is to try to get us all on the same page.

Jeff Gardner’s arresting sound design, incorporating Tru’s original score, is perfection, as is Brandon Baruch’s accompanying lighting plot and the often nondescript but easily identifiable costuming by Samantha C. Jones that helps the actors switch from one character to another with lightning speed.

Efren Delgadillo’s set is simple but impressive, able to become a blank slate to celebrate Yee Eun Nam’s dynamic video projections that almost become a sixth character. There’s an overhead opera-style supertitles screen stage-center that flashes welcome announcements of who the interviewees depicted are and what they represent—and when the huge screen suddenly features the entire video of the King beating and later the attack on Reginald Denny, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the Taper become so eerily silent save for scattered sobs and shocked intakes of breath of those in attendance who probably only saw them unfold on a small screen.

There’s no doubt that what’s addressed once again in this reinvention of a groundbreaking classic is certainly appreciated at this time and place when we are still reeling from the death of George Floyd and so many others murdered at the hands of racist out-of-control cops and as we try to return to normal after the administration of our dangerously deranged former Celebrity Appresident gave the Morlocks license to crawl out from below their rocks and almost destroy our country.

Add in the current national climate where our Asian-American community in America is being ostracized and threatened more than ever before and one can only wish this time out, someone will heed the warnings and join the fight to make serious changes in how we can, as Rodney King himself once prophetically put it, “all just get along.”

I was extremely pleased to see how many young students were invited to attend the opening night of Twilight, many clearly identifiable as theatre students, many possibly from LACHSA considering their excitable energy and extroverted conduct, not to mention the cornucopia of Wicked and Mean Girls t-shirts on view throughout the auditorium. Not only have they been given an opportunity to experience the wonders of true ensemble performance at its finest, they can experience firsthand how clearly, with commitment and selflessness, art can potentially inspire and make a difference in a too often uncaring world.

Thirty years ago, I had hoped young people in general and theatre students in particular would get to see the original mounting of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and I now wonder if anyone ever did, considering how little has changed in this vile and still blatantly inequitable society of ours.

Please listen, our desperately indispensable next generation. Please, please listen to these forever immortalized American citizens interviewed by Anna Deavere Smith thirty years ago and do a better job changing the world than we have, won't you? The future of our planet is in your hands.

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So the Rubicon Theatre Company of Ventura and the producers of the world premiere of Dark of the Moon, a New Musical have asked, since it’s still in development, that there be no reviews yet but… that doesn’t stop me from updating the production into the sweepstakes for my annual TicketHolder Awards for 2023.

It immediately goes directly into consideration for Best Musical and surely Best Score for the brilliant, haunting music created by my dear friend Lindy Robbins and her co-writers Dave Bassett and Steve Robson. It’s a wonderful, promising new musical sure to have an exciting and celebrated future.

Click on FEATURES AND INTERVIEWS here on the THLA homepage for a feature on the creation of the musical. 

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UNRIVALED at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center in collaboration with Playwrights’ Arena

It’s a uniquely comforting feeling to once again be able to enter the Boston Court Performing Arts Center in Pasadena, one of our town’s most supportive, prolific, and welcoming intimate theatres. For anyone who has ever had the privilege to work or perform there, it’s a creative home like no other.

I remember when doing my first show there in 2004, playing Frank in the west coast premiere of Charles Mee’s spectacular Summertime, during rehearsals one of the actors in the play before ours about to close told me she felt she was leaving her family and wanted to come back regularly just to take a shower.

Imagine then how gratifying it is to see the place back in action and the lobby filled with excited patrons equally as excited as I was, especially since their new production, the world premiere of Rosie Narasaki’s fictionalized historical dramedy Unrivaled, set in 11th-century Japan, is a co-production with another worthy and committed Los Angeles theatre company, that fiercely resolute survivor Playwrights’ Arena.

One of the most noteworthy things about this premiere, even beyond seeing the B/C Mainstage once again bustling with energy and excitement, is the play’s origins. Narasaki began developing it within the nurturing arms of Playwrights’ Arena and its unstoppably devoted artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera before it was further nurtured in the Boston Court Playwrights Group.

The fact that Rivera and the B/C’s equally driven artistic director Jessica Kubzansky are seeing their joint project, recipient of a 2022 Los Angeles New Play Program (LANPP) Award, come to fruition in a slick and elegantly designed full production—and seeing it attended by a sold out opening night packed with some of the most passionate theatre artists working on our city—has to be immensely gratifying for them both.

Unrivaled is Narasaki’s boldly speculative and outrageously contemporary take on the relationship between two of ancient Japan’s most celebrated writers, Sei Shonagon (Chelsea Yakura-Kurtz), author of The Pillow Book, and Murasaki Shikibu (Katie Kitani), whose The Tale of Genji is considered to possibly be the world’s first novel and the most significant work of literature in Japanese history.

Sei and Murisaki are ladies-in-waiting to the Empress Teishi (a wildly Vallygirl-esque Cindy Nguyen) and clearly, what Narasaki is committed to explore, utilizing the clever device of bringing the behavior of the two celebrated writers screaming into 21st-century sensibility, is the “ultimate frenemy” rivalry that might have existed between the two women, not only in the restrictive society in which they lived, but as something that lingers on to this day for female artists forced to claw for the same recognition afforded their male counterparts.

Although the two women have the utmost respect for each other’s talent, their resentment for one another is palpable, especially when their lives are complicated by Murasaki overhearing the Empress badmouthing her to Sei in an attempt to allay her sagging confidence and then their relationship is further done in by the amorous attentions of an important male admirer (David Huynh).

This production also marks the Boston Court directorial debut of the company’s associate artistic director Margaret Shigeko Starbuck, who within the limitations of Yuki Izumihara’s appropriately minimal set, made up of simple raw wood platforms and one lone oversized Japanese paper screen, keeps things moving in what could be, in less skillful hands, an extremely static environment.

Alyssa Ishi also keeps her sound plot simple to match the production design, while Jana Ai Morimoto’s costuming is whimsically created to reflect both the tradition Japanese robes of the era, yet offer a hint of modernity if one really looks, with glittery zippered go-go boots and other accoutrements peeking through the voluminous silk.

The one design element that melds together everything between the two diverse periods in history is Henry Tran’s shadowy, gossamer lighting design, subtly mysterious or visually lyrical depending on the moment. Tran gets a big shoutout for painting a stage picture that fosters the overall elegance mentioned earlier.

Still, the real breakout star here is Narasaki, truly a playwright of exceptional promise uncannily able to switch seamlessly from writing austere period-inspired poetry paying homage to the original writings of the actual women depicted, then suddenly freezing the action on a dime (or should I say yen?) as the Empress steps out of the scene to explain things directly to the audience, delivering her giddy enthusiasm as though playing a character lifted from Mean Girls.

It’s a great reassurance to see the Boston Court back in action, particularly playing host to Playwrights’ Arena. No LA theatre company could be more like a lotus than either of these scrappy, resilient artistic entities, both known for pushing up through the ever-encroaching mud to bring lovely, delicate blossoms into the sunlight for us to find some much needed inspiration.

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LOVE AND INFORMATION at Antaeus Theatre Company

It’s a given that our courageous Antaeus Theatre Company doesn't brake for a challenge, something especially true as they tackle Caryl Churchill’s seldom produced 2012 play Love and Information, a dense and complex reflection on, among other prevalent Churchillian themes, the fragility of the human memory and how that fallibility has been influenced—and exacerbated—by the advent of the digital age.

Author of such daring and universally acclaimed experimental works as Top Girls and Cloud Nine, both of which not so coincidentally have been previously produced by Antaeus, Churchill is considered one of our time's most important leading-edge playwrights. At age 84, she still brings a sharply tuned poetic spin on contemporary sexual politics and unrelentingly explores the thorny issue of the social forces which, try as we may to avoid such an outcome, cannot help but affect our daily lives.

Consisting of a 90-minute collection of 50-some short basically two-character scenes performed by eight game actors uncannily able to tap into a kind of professional schizophrenia, Love and Information is perhaps Churchill’s most opaque play, written without stage directions, devoid of any character breakdowns, and not offering any guidance to help decide how it might be staged. This leaves the outcome and even the message of the play totally subjective, dependent on how the director designated to take the lead orchestrates the goings-on.

Antaeus has confidently bestowed that task to Emily Chase, who helms this fascinating take on the play with tremendous success on Frederica Nascimento’s austere and nearly nonexistent set, keeping each short scenario constantly fluid and yet simultaneously grounded, something which is without a shadow of a doubt a monumental achievement in itself.

Still, although I understand the desire to make the piece accessible to American audiences, I do think something is lost in translation here performing the piece without its archetypal English accents since Churchill’s script is devoid of grammatical contractions and spouts words such as “proper” in a way only the British utilize.

Luckily, Chase has been gifted with a brilliant company of performers who are all seamlessly capable of switching from one of the play’s diverse 100-plus characters to the next with lightning speed, leaving us dazzled and even somewhat dizzy in their collective ability to sort out the meaning of Churchill’s often fragmented situations and pinpoint the discernible humanity in each that we surely all recognize and experience in our personal lives.

This includes a poignant, thought-provoking, somehow unsettling scene where the ensemble joins together to sit and watch old home movies together, prompting one of the participants to observe that her memory of the events are limited only to the things that happen on the video. It brought to mind how little I remember of the mother I lost when I was only 18 until I dig out the old photo albums that help invaluably to evoke her image and presence once again.

Two of Antaeus’ most impressively prolific artists, Anne Gee Byrd and John Apicella, lead the knockout ensemble on to flesh out the meaning of each vignette, inspiring the other actors to be as brave and fearless as they are in the creation their own individual interpretations. The veteran duo is especially memorable in one scene as a wife deals with a longtime mate no longer able to recognize her, something I’m sure will hit home with many audience members besides yours truly.

It’s rather ironic that Churchill wrote Love and Information almost a dozen years ago and yet was somehow able to see clearly into the future and understand how technology would further both compliment and complicate our lives, how it would energize our existence and bring us together in our infinite electronic cyberland, and how often it would leave us more lonely and swamped by the scattered complexities of contemporary life than ever.

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THE SECRET GARDEN at the Ahmanson Theatre

What a treat. After having the golden opportunity to be in the opening night audience of the splendid revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Sunday in the Park with George last Sunday at Pasadena Playhouse, to be graced a week later with this luscious and gorgeously appointed revival of Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s 1992 Tony and Drama Desk-winning The Secret Garden is almost too much for a sentimental old duffer like me to handle.

With an eye on a New York run, multi-award-winning Broadway director and choreographer Warren Carlyle has, with Norman's blessing, trimmed and visually reinvented this classic musical—and has done so beautifully. The Secret Garden has not been performed often in the past three decades since its initial success primarily because of how difficult and expensive it would be to mount as it was originally presented.

Besides some judicious pruning to Norman’s Tony-winning book, Carlyle and his veteran gang of notable New York theatre artists have streamlined the show's elaborate set and, by virtually eliminating the many scene changes, have made it far more accessible. This was something I looked upon with some trepidation but I found myself pleasantly surprised.

With the help of The Secret Garden's new world-class design team, headed by scenic designer Jason Sherwood and including Ann Hould-Ward‘s elegant costuming, Ken Billington and Brian Monahan's strikingly atmospheric lighting, and Dan Moses Schreier‘s emotive sound design, Carlyle adds true magic to Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved 1911 novel.

With the contribution of musical supervision and new arrangements by Rob Berman and orchestrations by Danny Troob, Dan Redfeld conducts an excellent and highly committed orchestra performing the recently deceased Simon's ethereal score which, akin to most of the compositions left behind by Sondheim, is unabashedly more operatic than anything created for commercial musical theatre in its time.

Burnett's charming English children's story could not have been an easy story to adapt, but Norman's ability to capture the original superlunary ambience of the book was always impressive and here, that undertaking has been morphed once more into something innovative and visually haunting.

Twelve-year-old Emily Jewel Hoder, arriving to this production directly from the successful revival of The Music Man on Broadway, handles the demanding role of the novel's orphaned heroine Mary Lennox with great professionalism, especially since the character is seldom offstage.

Although she nicely handles the demeanor of her lonely character, described as a “child who's never stood so still or looked so old,” occasionally Hoder's work seems to register as more theatrical than heartfelt, something that, with her obvious talent, is sure to fall more solidly into place after what must be a scary prospect: the very first night appearing in the taxing leading role of an established musical—a character that 31 years ago made Daisy Egan the youngest Featured Actress in a Musical Tony winner in history.

Derrick Davis is impressive as her tortured Uncle Archibald, as is Sierra Boggess as the earthbound spirit of his late wife Lily. Their gossamer duet of Simon's lovely ballad "How Could I Ever Know" is one of the highlights of the evening, as is Davis' duet "Lily's Eyes" with Aaron Lazar as his scheming brother Neville, surely the most unforgettable song in Simon and Norman's Grammy-honored score.

Showstopping numbers are legion in this secret garden, including those assigned to the puckish John-Michael Lyles as Dickon, a free-spirited sprite devoted to maintaining the overgrown moors surrounding Archibald's austere Misselthwaite Manor, and likewise Julia Lester as his spunky housemaid sister Martha. Susan Denaker is also a major standout as the manor's housekeeper Mrs. Medlock, as is Mark Capri as the trusted groundskeeper of Archibald's late wife.

“Old houses like this,” we are told, “possess more spirits than there are us,” and here Carlyle has craftily envisioned Mary’s parents (Ali Ewoldt and John Krause) and their household of devoted servants who cared for the family's needs in India before they were all wiped out by cholera, as ghosts still lingering throughout the play to watch over Mary, the sole survivor of the epidemic.

Perhaps the most memorable performance comes from Reese Levine as Mary’s bedridden 10-year-old cousin Colin, the doomed young lad she saves from the dastardly intentions of his Uncle Neville. Levine is incredibly feisty as the sweet but mistreated son of Archibald and Lily who survived the childbirth that ended his mother’s life.

I remember being sufficiently taken by the original New York production, but what has stayed with me more than anything over the years has been Heidi Landesman’s incredibly lavish set, Theoni V. Aldredge’s lovely costuming, and the performances of Mandy Patinkin as Achibald and John Cameron Mitchell as Dickon. Granted, that was a long time ago but honestly, the rest of it is definitely foggy.

I came away from this revamped and refreshed version with an appreciation for something I’m amazed didn’t floor me the first time: an enormous appreciation for Lucy Simon’s majestic score and Marsha Norman’s redolent, ambrosial lyrics. By ingeniously scaling down and simplifying the musical, Warren Carlyle has created a quintessential homage to the musical genius that brought it all to fruition the first time.

“I heard someone crying,” Mary Lennox sings. “Maybe it was me.” Or perhaps Norman was channeling a future image of me leaving the Ahmanson on opening night of this breathtaking return to The Secret Garden.

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What a nerve-racking experience it must have been bringing Act One of the lategreat Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant but hardly musical theatre formulaic Sunday in the Park with George to a small but scrappy off-Broadway playhouse for its first viewing in 1983.

That first courageously audacious peek at the first act of the groundbreaking classic ran for a mere 25 performances back then at Playwrights Horizons, only tenuously adding a still workshopping Act Two for the final three shows.

With the encouragement and praise of Leonard Bernstein and other American theatre luminaries, Sondheim and his longtime collaborator, director James Lapine, brought Sunday in the Park to Broadway’s majestic Booth Theatre the following April and, although still unsure of its success and stung by mixed reviews from the critics, the musical went on to win two Tony Awards (albeit only for design); eight New York Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding Musical, Sondheim’s lyrics, and Lapine’s book and direction; and finally the ultimate honor: the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—one of only 10 musicals in history to be so honored.

A lot was at stake for Sondheim, who after the crushing failure of his Merrily We Roll Along in 1981 had announced to the world he was done with musical theatre.

It was Lapine who persuaded him to change his mind after the two had found inspiration anew from viewing George Seurat’s sweeping century-old neoimpressionist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which magnificently commands an entire gallery wall at the Art Institute of Chicago where it has been on view since 1924.

Sondheim and Lapine returned to the museum several days in a row to study the painting, which introduced Seurat’s invention of pointillism to a then-skeptical art world. Such obsessive behavior sparked by A Sunday Afternoon is a concept I personally understand only too well—but more on that later. Maybe.

As they sat enthralled by the familiar group of working-class citizens caught in a moment of time enjoying the view from across the Seine from a humble and hardly fashionable bucolic park on the outskirts of Paris that provided respite from the urban madness of the City of Lights, they wondered just who the people portrayed were and fantasized about the lives they lived before the artist gave them such celebrated artistic mortality.

Lapine commented aloud that the only thing missing from the stiff-backed Parisians frozen in time on Seurat’s canvas was an image of the creator himself—and soon the pair was collaborating on a fictionalized history of the backstory featuring the artist as the leading character and, surely inspired by the recent failure and struggles of Sondheim himself, breathed life into a piece that forever changed the future of musical theatre.

Sunday in the Park is nowhere near the sweet and simple entertainment previously offered by works contemplating corn as high as an elephant’s eye or real good clambakes. The imagined lifestyle and personal demons haunting any artist as he or she navigates the murky waters of commercial success, of their place on their community, of the emotional connection between creation and appreciation, are all poetically explored without ever considering how to solve a problem like Maria.

Thankfully, the venerable Pasadena Playhouse, my alma mater from it long run as a college of the theatre arts and our State Theatre of California since 1937, has initiated a season-long tribute to Sondheim, who left us in 2021 after over six decades of turning the world of musical theatre on its proverbial ear.

This production inaugurates that effort spectacularly with a full production of the highly acclaimed limited-run 2017 New York revival brilliantly directed by Lapine’s niece Sarna Lapine and starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford as Seurat and his fictional mistress Dot, roles that made even bigger stars of the already celebrated Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters when the show first debuted.

What Pasadena Playhouse and Miss Lapine have managed to create here is an enormously well-appointed effort featuring a large and gifted cast, Alison Solomon’s smoothly fluid choreography, and exquisite production designs including Clint Ramos’ glorious costuming and Tal Yarden’s impressive projections depicting gigantic renderings of Seurat’s canvas in various stages of completion. Every aspect is further enhanced by a glorious 14-piece orchestra under the award-worthy leadership of orchestrator and musical director Andy Einhorn.

It’s hard to imagine, in this era where the traditionally struggling world of live theatre is so drastically grappling with post-pandemic apathy, that the Playhouse has pulled off this massive production when not even Broadway productions these austere days manage this kind of stateliness.

At the end of the first act, while the ensemble sings the triumphant “Sunday” as they assume the positions and costuming of the figures in Seurat’s painting, great art inventively honors great art and the result is electrifying. Yet, although I never saw the original production except as it was filmed on video in 1986 and presented on TV’s American Playhouse, every other mounting I have seen over the years featured some of the figures in the classic tableaux represented by cardboard cutouts carried onto the stage and set in place.

In Sarna Lapine’s staging, each of the figures is assumed by living, breathing actors—a 22-person troupe of veteran performers all with the voices approved by the gods. The effect is staggering and the emotion it evokes literally brings tears to the eyes of even the most hardened world-weary theatregoer—including yours truly.

As the title character who is seldom offstage during the two-and-a-half hour run time, former Good Wife series regular Graham Phillips is a major revelation, completely unrecognizable to this reviewer who only was familiar with him as put-together ivy-leaguer Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Geffen last season. Graham is possessed of a commanding voice that easily rivals Patinkin’s—and that’s saying a lot.

His performance is appropriately the heart of the production both as Seurat and in the second act as his great-grandson namesake also slammed by the insecurities and inequities of a career as an artist. As the engineer of his electronic art installations tells him as he quits live performance to return to his former job at NASA, "This work is too stressful."

Phillips' leading lady is played by the clearly talented Krystina Alabado, who brings a brand new but not for me always successful take to the role of Dot. She is less comedic, more serious as she wears her troubles on her sleeve rather than showing us how she represses them, and above all without the coquettish throw of the head and period cabaret hall swagger that in the past has given the character her edge of streetwise survivor.

Along with a bit of whimsy and geriatric puckishness that has always characterized the role of Marie, Dot’s 98-year-old granddaughter who has inherited her mother’s strength and resilience and is portrayed by the same actress, Alabado doesn’t quite match the passion Phillips emotes—and her well-trained theatrical emphasis on hitting her final consonants gets in the way of what the character could be.

The ensemble is populated by performers whose collective gratitude at being given the opportunity to honor the genius of Sondheim is palpable, with particular mention of the delightfully tongue-in-cheek performances of Alexandra Melrose and Jimmy Smagula as a pair of stateside tourists who prove the term Ugly American wasn’t necessarily coined in modern times, Jennie Greenberry as a nurse whose towering Mahalia Jackson-esque voice rings like a bell over all others in the group numbers, and Emily Tyra as a 19th-century castmember of The Real Housewives of Paris, France.

Liz Larsen is also a standout as George’s crusty mother, bringing great pathos to the haunting balled “Beautiful” as she laments all the changes going on around her in the name of progress, including the clearing of a lovely old grove of mature trees to build “towers”—in this case, a particularly distinctive one being erected by Gustave Eiffel.

Even with a production as reverent and praiseworthy as this in almost every precision detail, from the staging and design to the performances by actors obviously enthralled interpreting the complex melodies and uniquely insightful lyrics of a master, and with the most sincere gratitude to Pasadena Playhouse for making such an auspicious event (and season) happen, everything is eclipsed by Sondheim’s parnassian meditation on the painful challenges and the loneliness of creating art in a society that never seems to understand nor appreciate the personal cost of doing so.

Children and art, we’re told on Sunday in the Park, are all we have to leave behind us. There’s no doubt Sondheim wrote his finest and most elaborate score while questioning his own journey as an artist, gamely offering a rationale for his own sacrifices he hoped sounded logical enough to eventually be recognized as truths.

Remember I mentioned earlier my personal connection to this pioneering musical? As a very young boy I would accompany my mother while she was teaching classes at the Art Institute and later performing at the adjacent Goodman Theatre. While she worked, when I wasn’t sitting under my monumental bronze lion, one of the majestic pair that guard the entrance of the great museum (a flippant gift from her to me once that at my young age I chose to take quite seriously), I would wander throughout the halls of worldclass art.

Wherever I roamed in the historic 1893 Beaux Arts structure, I always ended up sitting quietly for hours and hours on the cold marble bench placed directly in front of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, appreciating the many minuscule points of color that, like Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s A Sunday in the Park with George, joined together "bit by bit" to make a whole.

That experience sparked my imagination and changed the very direction of my life, giving me courage to go on when someone as steadfast and unshakable as George Seurat could give difficult birth to such an enduring work of art despite that fact that he died at age 31 having never sold a painting in his life.

My own journey, as with any artist or person dedicated to the creation and appreciation of art beyond all else, has not always been an easy one. Still, a large part of my decision to keep going from early on has always been the magical soul-stirring memory of an unforgettable work of art initially constructed in a vacuum that, despite being misunderstood and faced with indifference in its time, will move and inspire generations to come for as long as our species still exists on our fragile planet.

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UBU THE KING at the 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.”

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THE LION KING at the Pantages Theatre

Sometimes a showbiz match is made in theatrical heaven. Certainly that is the case for whomever at Disney suggested Roger Allers and my friend Irene Mecchi’s brilliant stage musical adaptation of their original 1994 animated version of The Lion King make its Los Angeles debut at the Pantages Theatre back in 2000—where the Nederlanders would partner with the legendary studio and spend $10 million to restore one of our town’s most magnificent former 1930s movie palaces to its original glory for the production.

Not only was the Pantages’ elaborate art deco ornamentation brought back to life by hand-painting every inch with new gold and silver leafing, the baldachin of the theatre’s entrance, long covered by a false ceiling, was revealed to be just as richly adorned as the rest of the place. The result was The Lion King stayed on at the Pantages for almost two years and clocked in nearly 1,000 performances.

Now, after 20 years touring North America, and with productions worldwide making it the top-grossing title in theatrical history, grossing $8.1 billion, the King has returned to its SoCal throne.

Beyond the architectural and design splendor of the Pantages, there is no more imaginative spectacle than The Lion King as experienced live, especially considering director Julie Taymor’s screamingly colorful and whimsical costuming, the mask and puppetry designs she developed with Michael Curry (the guy also responsible for the gigantic creatures crawling around Cirque du Soleil’s KA in Las Vegas), Richard Hudson sweepingly and impressively motile set, and Donald Holder's starkly velvety lighting—all of which were recognized among the production's six Tony Awards. 

There is a palpable magic still inherent in this uniquely lavish and charmingly uplifting production as the huge spectacle arrives back home at the Pantages—and as it continues to wow audiences on Broadway, clocking in a staggering 9,000 performances and grossing over $1 billion for the company that famous mouse built.

I was personally honored to be in the audience for the show’s original Broadway opening at the New Amsterdam in 1997, where it held court until transferring to the Minskoff in 2006, as well as working with the PR team at Radio City Music Hall in 1998 when it won those six Tonys, including for Garth Fagan's dynamic choreography and as Best Musical and Best Director of a Musical for Taymor, her win making history as the first woman to be so recognized.

The Lion King is a perfectly unique blend of fine art and ultimate theatricality, sweeping anyone in the audience, no matter how jaded, into a world unlike anything anyone has ever experienced before. As “children” of all ages sit gape-jawed in the audience, there’s such a continuous display of ingenuity and dramatic grandeur that even the world-weariest of viewers will not fail to be impressed. 

As most everyone probably knows by now, the miracles begin when the cast accompanies a full-sized elephant as it lumbers up the aisle to the stage through the audience, sending young children into the protective arms of their elders and leaving the adults equally breathless without such nurturing elder supervision to shelter them. 

Soon, the baboon shaman Rafiki, impressively played here by Gugwana Dlamini costumed in the character’s now well-known vibrant fur with what looks like a tambourine for a tail, her feet dominated by gigantic toenails and her face painted in a dazzling rainbow of shades, leads the enormous troupe in the familiar opening production number, “Circle of Life,” and quickly succeeds in making the iconic role her own. 

Actors portraying antelopes sprint by like cyclists across the massive playing space, followed by a herd of delicate giraffes moving silently on long and elegant stilts, while bright splashes of cloth at the ends of sticks become birds streaking across a jungle sky and company members in cane skirts and grass headdresses actually become the stage’s jungle floor. 

Of course, even considering the innovation of all this show’s celebrated wonders, it would be nowhere without the basics: Allers and Mecchi’s finely-tuned and often decidedly tongue-in-cheek book adapted from their screenplay and featuring the instantly recognizable score by Tim Rice and Sir Elton John. Fagan’s angular choreography is well represented and recreated by this energetic and committed touring ensemble, and the leading performances—Gerald Ramsey as Mustafa, Peter Hargrove as Scar, Scarlett London Diviney as the young Nala, and Darian Sanders and Khalifa White as the adult Simba and Nala—are all worldclass.

The show’s delightful periodic doses of comic relief and often topical double entendre-spouting dialogue are brought to life behind Curry's remarkable puppets by Nick LaMedica as the high-strung and finely-feathered valet Zazu, Nick Cordileone and John E. Brady as those sweetly goofy buffoons Timon and Pumbaa, and Robbie Swift as Ed, the hungry predator with a mind of his own. 

Still, it is the 13-year-old Jaylen Lyndon Hunter (alternating with Jordan Pendleton) as the young Simba who is the beating heart of this massive production, bringing an energy and natural graceful athleticism to the pivotal role that leaves one thinking there is a definite hope for the future. Hunter’s is a performance that can inspire every wide-eyed kid in the audience to strive for his character’s spirit and courage as Simba learns some of the hardest yet most edifying lessons in each of our own circles of life.

The Lion King has regally rediscovered its former home at the Pantages, where I suspect it could once again have reigned supreme for many, many years if it could have been ensconced here again for a longer run—but that would rob us grateful Angelenos of the incredible season the Nederlander’s Broadway in Hollywood has assembled to shake up our too often culturally deprived city. 

While it’s stopped here, don't miss an experience unequalled in what it has to offer: theatrical innovation, a wizardry only Disney can conjure, and a reminder of the spirit and determination of all living creatures attempting to bravely survive on our often inequitable planet.

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 ON TV:  THE LAST OF US — Episode Three

No doubt this much talked about HBO miniseries is an exceptional effort for a fairly formulaic apocalyptic video game-adapted tale of survivors fighting zombie-like formerly human fungal virus blossoms—albeit with commendable acting, phenomenal special effects, and especially knockout art direction. I must admit, though, the first two installments did leave me itching a tad as I was trying to go to sleep.

But then along comes Episode Three, when suddenly the storyline veers off into a brilliantly written and hauntingly poignant single-viewing mini-movie that will surely leave Emmy Award voters in a quandary next year—unless they decide the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series honor can be split two ways between Murray Bartlett and my incredibly talented friend and former evidEnce Room compatriot Nick Offerman.

I mean, really, guys.

Some of the best and most heartfelt work I’ve ever seen on television.

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NIMROD at Theatre of NOTE

My Lord, what fools these nimrods be… and as dysfunctional as the dastardly pus-blossoms who in 2016 somehow managed to grab power in our poor maligned country may be, Phinneas Kiyomura’s outrageous farcical spin on the antics of our last presidential administration takes it one step further.

The wake-up call jarring us somnambulant former freedom fighters back into action seven years ago was all too real—and the Traitor Tot and his self-serving minions are living cartoons without needing to be reinvented as caricatures without much effort. Still, although the precariously disastrous tailspin into madness that drastically maligned the history of America seems anything but funny, thanks to Theatre of NOTE’s world premiere of Nimrod, Kiyomura’s commedia dell’arte-inspired ability to find humor in the Trump years is more than welcome.

Written in “tragical comedic” Shakespearean verse and grandly played as though A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s rude mechanicals have been taken over by Pee-Wee Herman’s Playhouse gang, Nimrod finds the lighter side of our dimwitted tangerine-hued nightmare-in-chief and the 30,573 documented lies he foisted upon the public in his destructive four-year reign—not to mention and the horror of contemplating his current bloviated run for reelection.

In true well-honed NOTE fashion, Nimrod begins with Hiwa Chow Elms writhing in ecstasy as she squats on the face of Edward Moravcsik as her trusty hunk of a bodyguard, the guy who provides the satisfaction her weenily-endowed husband cannot. Even though she only speaks with a heavy Slovakian accent while being interviewed by the press, there’s little doubt who the character represents. Yet when after she climaxes she rises to don a fuchsia satin robe with the phrase “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO YOU?” emblazoned on the back, there’s no doubt where Kiyomura and his team are going.

The unhappy First Lady laments to her personal cunning linguist that her husband-in-name-only’s decision to run again goes against his promise in a prenup signed at the beginning of his campaign that he would quit after one term, a deal that would net her $20 million in a divorce settlement after his political appropriation of all things decent has ended.

The dialogue is wonderfully silly and delightfully off-color, brought to life by a game and all-too willing ensemble cast that, although individually somewhat uneven in their expertise to handle such over-the-top comedy, proves it matters not—in fact, the wildly divergent playing styles of the performers make the goings-on somehow more endearing, something director Alina Phelan has shrewdly embraced with a wink and a sly smile.

As much fun as everyone involved is having here, obviously encouraged by Phelan to pull out every stop, no one is having more fun than the nearly unrecognizable Kirsten Vangsness in her title role as A’murka’s halfwit former Celebrity Appresident.

Sporting random smears of orange Texas Dirt makeup and a cheesy blond wig that appears to have been salvaged from a dumpster behind a Hollywood Bouleverd cosmotology school augmenting her familiar character’s continuous look of having undergone a prefrontal lobotomy, Vangsness rants nonsense speeches that veer even further into gibberish, drools over a towering plateful of Quarter Pounders, proudly and gleefully farts like Pantalone, and rapaciously schtupps a radioactive giant hog arriving in a giant crate as a gift from his best buddy, the president of Russia.

Vangsness is simply uproariously funny and absolutely priceless throughout without a single stop left for her to pull out.

There’s something quite satisfying watching Dotard Donnie portrayed as the total buffoon he is, a guy who becomes confused when he catches himself using bigly words he doesn’t understand and has never used before—words like “Sorry"—and a clown whose expertise and familiarity with the intricacies of managing the complexities of war came solely from a bout with chlamydia in 1972.

It seems to me Phinneas Kiyomura’s refreshingly rollercoaster of a theatrical ride, scheduled to run at NOTE only through mid-March, could play on far longer, especially considering that the absurdity of the Republican party’s descent continues with all-new daily episodes added to the burlesque.

With the playwright in attendance opening weekend and, considering his long association with the company he will probably continue to be, an obviously well-placed recently added joke about weather balloons proved a perfect addendum to his sharply topical satire.

Although currently Nimrod has a very satisfying and most Shakespearean conclusion, a consummation devotedly to be wished involving one of the most drastic natural shocks that flesh is heir to, since NOTE’s plucky, gallant, and often hilariously crossdressing cast is clearly willing to continue to go wherever Kiyomura and Phelan want them to go, could a quick rewrite and an appearance by a pregnant Rihanna suspended from a platform be far behind?

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MEAN GIRLS at the Pantages Theatre and 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.

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