TRAVIS' REVIEWS:  Spring through Summer 2023   


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 disappointing 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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OUR DEAR DEAD DRUG LORD at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

I’ve been writing about theatre for some 36 years—and creating it almost twice as long. I have developed a standard answer when people ask me after a performance what I thought about a play. I inevitably say, “I don’t have a clue until I sit down and start writing about it.”

This answer is partially a joking way to avoid the issue, partially a hint that I don’t think such a question is in any way appropriate to ask any critic in a lobby after a show, and partially sometimes absolutely 100% literal.

With the opening of Alexis Scheer’s quirky dramedy Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, never has my quasi-sarcastic retort been truer. On the way home from the Douglas, I whined to my partner that, as much as I loved the slickness of the production, the designers’ brilliant choices, the exceptional performances, and the auspicious CTG directorial debut of their Associate Artistic Director Lindsay Allbaugh, I was a little baffled about what the play is actually about.

Hugh said, “Well, I guess it’s kinda a coming-of-age story, isn’t it?” I initially was reluctant to reduce it to that but, by the time we were passing Fairfax, I realized he was right. The play is indeed a coming-of-age story—albeit a coming-of-age story so disturbing it could curl your toes, deliver a few lingering nightmares, and craftily embrace the awakening in our time of the unstoppable acceleration of feminism and a matriarchal society.

Let’s face it: it’s never been a piece of cake in any period of time to live through one’s teenaged years but, in A’murka in our majorly fucked 21st century, the journey could today make Miss Havisham’s moldy wedding cake look quite tasty.

Although the four teenaged girls featured in Scheer’s play are all typically overdramatic Medea-inspired Miami high schoolers in the early 2000s joined together to get their extracurricular club reinstated as a sanctioned afterschool activity by their tony private school—a quest which, one admits, will look great on their college apps—their methods are anything but material for an homage to those classic feel-good movies starring Haley Mills or even Lindsay Lohan.

Their group is called the Dead Leaders Club and, aside from choosing a late departed villainous leader to study and perhaps physically raise from the grave with the help of a homemade Ouija board, they were stripped of their connection with the school due to the members’ suspected cocaine use in the achievement of their goals.

The quartet used to hold their meetings in the school’s senior lounge but now have taken over a spooky but surprisingly grand treehouse (imaginatively realized by Francois-Pierre Couture’s wildly eclectic set) where they can conjure and snort to their hearts’ content and even make a ritual blood sacrifice of a trapped feral cat to help them summons their departed hero, Pablo Escobar, a man they’ve come to idolize the way young girls these days get wet in the panties over Harry Styles.

Their recently transplanted New Jersey initiate Kit (Coral Peña) is puzzled by their practices, especially the worship of a former drug kingpin who reminds her of the landscaper outside the clubhouse working on the shrubs. Still, despite her absence when she gets an afterschool job at Cold Stone Creamery at the mall, like the other three veteran DLC members she appears to be dispassionately able to violently dispatch the poor wailing kitty housed in a cardboard box without a second of emotional resistance.

This is the key to the supernatural yet revealing conclusion of Scheer’s discomforting tale, which transforms from the typical teen coming-of-age story so completely it’s impossible to still see the slightest resemblance to High School Musical: The Musical.

Actually, there’s a palpable early hint of Disney gone awry here, something Allbaugh has cleverly straddled and rides to fruition. At least at the beginning, until the girls exhibit that eerie collective lack of feeling toward the frightened cries their terrified feline victim, Our Dear Dead Drug Lord could easily have been a perfect vehicle for Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, and Zendaya—but then those former Mouse Empire teen stars have all moved on into darker places as well.

Samantha Miller holds her own nicely as Scheer’s least developed character Squeeze, the most squeamish and yet most levelheaded member of the group, while Ashley Brooke, as the play’s resident Launcelot Gobbo, a continuously melodramatic valleygirl-clone called Zoom, brings the most laughs but occasionally lets the task of lightening things up for the audience get a little over-the-top.

Peña’s Kit, whose Colombian mother has burned into her that the dear dead Escobar himself may actually be her father, and Lilian Rebelo as Pipe, the self-proclaimed alpha leader on whose upper-middleclass property the DLC clubhouse exists, both deftly deliver strong-willed and ferociously single-minded performances.

Despite a reluctance to acknowledge the importance of a spontaneous make-out session and their potentially life-changing attraction for one another, it’s clear these two are the most likely to survive growing up in a world gone as far beyond Hannah Montanadom as humanly possible.

Still, it’s Pipe’s deeply suppressed trauma surrounding the death of her young sister that becomes the catalyst for her to push her friends into helping her bring back the ghost of Escobar to visit and initiate the play’s completely unexpected and otherworldly final convolution.

So, just what is going on here? First of all, there’s naturally something quite unnerving about how a potential Saturday morning kids’ TV storyline can quickly mutate into something so horrific—you know, just like life itself in our equally dark and dysfunctional society. Ultimately, ironically, Scheer’s message is revealed as something far deeper than afterschool camaraderie, thinking about applying for college, or raising the dead.

Beneath the humor, the gruesomeness, the many shocks that continuously unfold throughout Our Dear Deep Drug Lord, Alexis Scheer’s haunting play is about the strength and power—and yes, the magic—inherent in what has long been somewhat condescendingly referred to as our fairer sex.

“A powerful woman is a dangerous thing,” an unexpected source of wisdom cautions Pipe late in the play’s final unraveling. “We called them witches and strung them up in trees, drown them in the lake, and burned them at the stake.

“Men can only take by silver or lead… but women need only themselves to plant seeds in the hearts and minds that stab and twist when they begin to root, ensnaring us all with just a thought.

“We’ve spent centuries convincing women they’re crazy, but you’re so close to waking up.

"Imagine what you want in your mind’s eye and then let yourself have it.”

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PETER PAN GOES WRONG at the Ahmanson Theatre

Man, in a time when paradise is on fire, most of our country is either baking or drowning, dockworkers are attacked for doing their job, our own town is crippled by an industry on strike, a monstrous traitor is still being handled with kid gloves, and the homeless woman who insists on sleeping on our porch refuses to let people in or out, a little ridiculously silly humor could not be more welcome right now.

Actually, make that a lot of ridiculously silly humor when considering the LA premiere of Mischief Theatre’s Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Ahmanson, which provides two-plus hours of cathartic laughter beginning even before the curtain rises.

After company members wind through the audience trying to attach an impossibly long extension cord from the back of the 2,084-seat house to the stage where keeping the Darling house set from blowing a fuse is a priority, we are reminded by Trevor, the company’s grumpy stage manager (Chris Leask) that this isn’t Hamilton, after all.

And that’s good, because I was certainly ready to enjoy a mounting of J.M. Barrie’s beloved turn-of-the-20th-century escapist novel celebrating childhood innocence as presented by the UK-based Mischief’s fictional Conley Youth Theatre.

Conley has had its problems recently, the program informs us, including when their 10-foot Nile crocodile Nadia, tapped to give this production some authenticity, was killed by police after her tranquilizers wore off and she went on a rampage that hospitalized four people.

Sadly, this tragedy was followed by another trauma after a field trip into a wilderness forest to acquaint the children cast in their upcoming adaptation of The Lord of the Rings with survival tactics ended in disaster when a headcount revealed two of the kids were left behind in the wilderness.

Nothing stops the uber-talented creators energizing Mischief, however, and after a triumphant tenancy on Broadway, Peter Pan Goes Wrong reveals itself to be a refreshing addition to this audience-challenged season for LA theatre where, except for cashcow revivals of popular musicals and a plethora of plays determined to remind us what a shithole of a society we live in, has resulted in me spending more time at home than during the pandemic, getting stoned and streaming movies rather than paying a month’s rent parking at local venues or clicking on my canister of pepper spray while walking to one of our location-challenged intimate theatres.

After the same company’s Olivier and Tony-winning The Play That Goes Wrong, the global sensation which enjoyed a highly popular run at the Ahmanson in 2019 and is still packing houses for a tenth year in London, what a treat it is to have these guys back. And it seems the feeling is mutual, since the company’s artistic director Henry Lewis and his coauthors Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields appear to be thrilled to be here, a place where they not only had such resounding success but where they say there's still 47 ramen restaurants to try.

Lewis, Sayer, and Shields also appear onstage. first as Peter’s decidedly wide shadow, a headphones-prompted John Darling, and as his stuffy father George, respectively. They form a remarkable triad of comedic mastermindliness in the beloved British Benny Hill and Monty Python-style tradition, collaborating with worldclass designers and special effect artists to diligently make this version of Peter Pan look like an amateur production of the classic gone horribly awry.

Even at final curtain, the eclectic troupe of 11 worldclass comic geniuses are joined for their rousing standing ovation by 10 backstage technicians who make all the Goes Wrong parts of the evening do so with outrageously spectacular results.

In the first scene alone, taking place at the Darling’s London townhome, Wendy and her brothers Michael and John (Charlie Russell, Matthew Cavendish, and Sayer) are unceremoniously crushed by their bunk beds while Mrs. Darling (Nancy Zamit) is almost beamed by a falling lighting instrument, while the family’s trusty plus-sized canine watchdog Nana (Lewis again) gets stuck for nearly the entire scene in her doggie door and the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (Greg Tannahill, here also called the Boy Who Couldn’t Keep It In His Pants) gets slammed repeatedly into the wobbly scenery by his seemingly unmanageable flying harness.

It only gets worse (better) from there, culminating in Act Two when the revolving stage becomes unhinged and the tumbling, gravity-challenged actors are thrust into a maelstrom of out of control rotating pie-shaped set pieces falling apart as they spin uncontrollably.

The performances, under the physically-demanding direction of Adam Meggido, could not be better, with particularly standout turns from Lewis, Leask, and especially Shields, who as the infamous Captain Hook resembles a skinny John Cleese and manages single-handedly to turn a bit trying to open a bottle of poison with his hook into a 10-minute comic monologue while shouting back at the booing audience to shut up.

“Please!” he chastises. "This is a serious scene! I’m trying to poison a child!” This is followed by his observation that this is exactly why we don’t understand Shakespeare in our country—although later he does admit he loves Americans because we’re "never afraid to be crass."

Zamit steals the show repeatedly as Mary Darling repeatedly makes lightning-quick costume changes and returns instantaneously as the family’s maid, later entering again as a Melissa McCarthy-like Tinkerbell—that is until poor Tink is electrocuted when her twinkling electrically-adorned tutu is splashed with Hook’s bottle of kiddie poison.

Then there’s one of the most hilarious celebrity additions to the production ever attempted as Bradley Whitford takes over as the story’s fairydust-tossing narrator, assuming the role through August 27 when he will be replaced by Hawaii Five-O and Lost star Daniel Dae Kim for the rest of the run.

Battling constantly with a motorized throne chair with a mind of its own, Whitford is incredibly game, not to mention agile at 63, taking pratfalls, being buried alive by out of control mermaids, and finally admitting to the audience the only reason he accepted his guest status is because of our debilitating WGA/SAG-AFTRA strike.

“This is the worst piece of theatre I’ve ever been involved in,” he whines to us, soon returning to the stage carting his three Emmy Awards from his long tenancy on The West Wing and demanding to be shown some respect.

“I’m too old for this,” he tells us. “We need to get the producers back to the table.”

Considering the constant uproarious mayhem that never stops for a bloody moment in Mischief Theatre’s side-ache funny Peter Pan Goes Wrong in its most appreciated journey traveling to the magical island of Neverland, one must wonder if our hero’s fate to never grow up might actually be attributed more to the dangers of being killed by wayward set pieces rather than by a fear of encroaching adulthood.

Still, considering the world we all face as we leave the comforting darkness of the venerable Ahmanson Theatre and are thrust into our mess of our Real World Gone Wrong, perhaps a nice little trip to the second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning might be a fate devoutly to be wished.

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LAST SUMMER AT BLUEFISH COVE at the Fountain Theatre

In the late Jane Chambers’ once controversial 1974 dramedy Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, a diverse but steadfast group of queer women friends migrate each summer to the same remote Long Island beachfront enclave to hang together, solidifying their longtime friendship as they commiserate about the struggle to exist within the narrow confines of the world outside their own.

Into their cloistered midst comes Eva (Lindsay LaVanchy), a recently divorced and obviously lost straight woman who has stumbled into their community having no idea these women play for the other team. Although her presence offers a perfect comedic contrivance to exhibit what a wry and witty playwright Chambers was, along the way Eva’s rapid education into the lesbian lifestyle four decades ago also presents the quintessential rule-shattering engine to challenge the restrictive and narrow-minded conventions inherent in our society back when Bluefish Cove was written.

The irony here is that this groundbreaking play first played for two years at this same theatre from 1983 to 1985, exactly 40 years ago and before the Fountain even became the Fountain, starring a then unknown Jean Smart as Lil, the tough-talking summer resident of the Cove with whom Eva finds new life. That love can reach beyond the confines of Eva's sheltered existence before stumbling into a whole new world she only vaguely knew existed salutes the power of Chambers' signature vision.

“Gay women are kind of like hobbits,” Lil (Ann Sonneville) explains to the sufficiently wide-eyed Eva. “No matter how oppressive earthlings get, we continue to thrive in Middle Earth. We are survivors. We straddle both worlds and try to keep our balance.”

This bold new direction more than intrigues Eva, who falls hard for Lil despite her new friend correctly identifying her neediness as something stemming from loneliness, vulnerability, and curiosity—all traits that scare the bejesus out of her. Still, by the beginning of the play’s second act, the two are an item and Eva is trying to decide if her dining room set and six-foot couch will fit in Lil’s typically tiny Manhattan apartment.

This unexpected new relationship is closely scrutinized by Lil’s close knit and protective comrades: her best friend and successful sculptor Annie and her once-married lover Rae (Noelle Messier and Ellen D. Williams), closeted physician turned popular “high priestess of feminism” author Kitty and her secretary-with-benefits Rita (Sarah Scott Davis and Tamika Katon-Donegal), and wealthy but defeated heiress Sue putting up with her spoiled brat of a girl-toy Donna (Stasha Surdyke and Stephanie Pardi).

Together, this exceptional group of veteran actors creates a fiercely loyal and extremely plausible family unit, gifting this production as a posterchild for ensemble performance at its best, almost never sinking into what could easily be played as stereotypical behavior.

The one minor early exception is LaVanchy, who begins the play pushing too hard as the naive and Stepford-y housewife/breeder Eva, but by Act Two, as her character finds her way and her strength, clearly so does she. Perhaps this is accomplished by playing opposite Sonneville, whose indelible depiction of Lil, the wary hardknock modern Mother Courage privately facing the toughest battle of her life, is what makes the entire production breathe.

It’s the collective skill of this cast that keeps Chambers’ four-decade old play from descending into being more than a tad dated, overcoming the friends’ continuous use of the now seldom heard word “dyke” to describe themselves. Talk about answering machines, watching Phil Donahue, and ordering clothes from catalogs might come off as ancient references in 2023, but the concern about Kitty’s career facing possible ruin if her dreaded secret becomes public is today thankfully a fear which in general has hopefully evolved despite the dinosaurs of the conservative right whose unbelievably backward current attack on freedom and equality is keeping the tar licking at their sensible heels.

Under the sensitive direction of Hannah Wolf, the Fountain’s history with Bluefish Cove and the company’s usual demanding insistence on excellence makes this the quintessential place to celebrate and honor the 40th anniversary of one of the most noteworthy theatrical contributions recounting the hotbed beginnings of the gay rights and second-wave feminist movements—something that, to one character living in 1974, still sounded “like a disturbance in the lower colon.”

Surely sparked by the Fountain’s production of The Octoroon last summer, the first to magically transform the theatre’s parking lot into an outdoor stage, the choice to present the tale’s seaside location as an al fresco experience is an inspired choice here.

Although it surely introduced a challenge to Wolf and her designers, from Desma Murphy’s set that cleverly meanders from Lil’s cabin out to her beloved beach and fishing deck, to Andrea Almond’s sound and RS Buck’s lighting, it’s lovely to feel the “ocean” breezes as the play unfolds—although perhaps the creators didn’t count on the Cove still being quite so chilly by mid-June this year.

It also must present a special challenge to the actors, who must have had to get used to a sea of patrons out front all wearing glowing blue-lit earphones, a device decided upon probably, as was the show’s early 7pm curtain time, to keep the Fountain’s neighbors happy. Still, one of the true joys of live performance is to sense the audience’s reactions as they spontaneously happen and change each night; I doubt if people laugh and sob as freely with the story emanating within their heads.

As much of a pioneer Chambers was at presenting lesbian relationships with such warmth and humanity for the first time, she was also uncanny in her ability to pour out her own feelings in one other often ignored territory. Diagnosed with cancer in 1981, the playwright's personal battle and how her own circle of friends dealt with her struggle became a real-time issue in Bluefish Cove and, in the process, helped make her characters far more identifiable to viewers initially only focused on their sexual orientation.

As Lil realizes while staring out at her beloved beach and sea, “Next summer, someone else will be standing at this window watching a July sunset. And Rae and Annie will be sitting over there sipping drinks and they’ll say to this stranger at the window, ‘Beautiful sunset, isn’t it? Lil loved that view. She thought God put that rock down there for her. When she stood on it with the surf pounding against it, spraying salt so high that she could taste it on her lips, she was the Queen of Bluefish Cove.’ I can’t seem to say goodbye to that beach out there.”

Take my breath away, Jane Chambers; not only did you honor the struggles of an entire community of some of society’s most disenfranchised people, you were able to bravely share what was in your heart as someone with limited time genuinely mourning what would soon be lost.

Now here’s the thing about writing for my own platform, free to say whatever I want rather than having to bow to overly eager editors and the limitations of journalistic rules and regulations. As someone who has triumphed over the Big C five times in my life, the first at age 20 and the most recently at the height of the pandemic—as I faced daily trips to my oncologist for radiation treatments checking out the lobby to be sure my fellow travelers were wearing their masks over their mouths and noses—Lil’s stubbornness not accepting her fate without a fight was something with which I identified bigtime.

Her final speech resonated to my core, immediately bringing back my own reaction confronting a gloriously emotive sunset three weeks ago at Casapueblo, the lategreat Uruguayan artist Carlos Paez Vilaro’s self-designed Picasso-esque citadel situated on a remote peninsula in Punta Bellena, halfway between Montevideo where I had just finished teaching an acting intensive and the glorious beaches of Punta del Este. Simply, it was an unexpected experience that made me feel as though I might be saying goodbye to such beauty for the last time.

After an exhaustive tour conducting workshops in three major South American cities and feeling every bit of my 76 years as my fellow tourmates helped me navigate stone stairs and broken sidewalks (granted I had traveled nearly 17,000 miles with a fractured rib and two stitches in my inner thigh), listening to the disembodied voice of Paez Vilaro, reciting his beautiful “Ceremonia del Sol” as the fiery sun set over the calm and twinkling waters of the majestic Atlantic, did me in when the artist ended with the heartfelt phrase “Chau, Sol.”

I was slapped with my mortality quite dramatically right about then and that haunting evocation, as the artist poetically said farewell to the disappearing sun, instantly made me dissolve into tears. Luckily, as my newly minted touring family members wrapped their arms around me, my fellow instructor Eric Campros reminded me that Paez Vilaro’s lovely goodbye to the day was followed by the phrase “Manana te espero otra vez”—or “I’ll wait for you again tomorrow.”

First and foremost, however, beyond the tugging of my personal heartstrings, this fine revival of a significant modern classic is important to revisit because it heralds to a new generation the strength and resiliency of people who identified as queer 40 years ago, people who dared to love however and whomever they chose and fought the overpowering hostility that tried to force them—force us—into hiding at a time when the idea of marriage equality seemed a concept we would never see in our lifetimes.

Last Summer at Bluefish Cove provides something that desperately needs retelling, particularly at this point in time when one greedy and drastically debased political party leads the charge to strike down the rights people as courageous as this mold-breaking playwright and her not-so fictional summer friends seeking camaraderie and authentication fought so valiantly to conquer.

I wish Jane Chambers could still be around to tell the setting sun “Manana te espero otra vez” and to see what the Fountain Theatre has accomplished breathing wonderful new life into her greatest play.

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THE RED SUITCASE at the Broadwater Theatre Mainstage

It’s hard to believe there’s anything Del Shores, uber-prolific playwright, screenwriter, and producer of award-winning entertainment in most every discipline known to man, could manage to find to do he’s never done before.

Yet with the world premiere of Jiggs Burgess’ The Red Suitcase at the Broadwater, Shore makes his directorial debut—that is directing a play that wasn’t written by him.

There is an undeniable connection here, as Burgess’ fascinating play was the inaugural winner of in the Del Shores Foundation Writers Search, whose mission is to find and facilitate the development of new Southern queer artistic voices.

Shore’s new direction in direction, with the assistance of Blake McIver Ewing’s additional staging, proves the guy can do just about anything and once again he clears a direct path to creating theatrical magic. The Red Suitcase quickly proves to be a beautifully written, beguiling exploration into the demons faced by many of us forced to move on from growing up gay in a world that too often doesn’t understand the journey.

Our hero Pogue (longtime Shores collaborator Emerson Collins in an incredibly demanding role) is a quirky, effeminate young boy desperately trying to navigate the insular world of bucolic East Texas in the late 60s and survive the expectations of an unforgiving father who hardly wanted him in the first place and certainly didn’t expect to have to raise a sissy.

Four decades later, having managed to escape and find some success as a New York City-based writer despite living through a childhood that would make any Dickens character blanch, Pogue returns home to face the torments of his youth, only to find his long-estranged father is facing some formidable torments of his own.

Burgess’ tale is told almost Story Theatre style, with the adult Pogue narrating his story directly to us, the audience, in an arresting series of lyrical, beautifully evocative monologues that somehow recall Tom in Williams’ The Glass Menagerie reinvented by Charles Mee or Aaron Posner. As his memories flow, Pogue returns to his childhood self to live through the most difficult and the most horrendous events, leaving Collins to interpret the character from age six or so into adulthood.

As with the maturation of most of us, not all of Pogue’s memories are terrible, including his first awkward kiss with an equally out of place classmate named Charlie (Mat Hayes) and contact with the one constant positive role model of his childhood, his unconditionally loving and ever-forgiving grandmother (in a sweet, unforgettably nurturing performance by Charlotte Louise White that made me want to stick around after the performance for a big hug).

With the exception of White, as well as Kristen McCullough and Bruce Malena as Pogue’s insensitive countrified Married with Children-esque parents who would make anybody want to hop a Greyhound to the big city as soon as humanly possible, the three remaining castmembers appear as various characters throughout his life.

Aside from his slightly overwrought moment as Charlie, so gay he would have been run out of town long before high school, Hayes is perfect as a pair of good ol’ boys: his aunt’s cruel jokester of a husband and as a rural country sheriff who teaches Pogue his first official lesson in racially-spawned intolerance.

Pam Trotter is continuously effective as the nurse who starts the guy’s life off with a literal bang when she drops the newborn on his head, as well as his world-weary Aunt Jane and especially as the aptly named Mrs. Prig, the teacher intent on making his life a living hell every chance she gets.

Tiago Santos succeeds best bringing his multiple characters to life, from a comedic turn as the nightmare delivery doctor to Pogue’s continuously embarrassed older brother Sam to Martin, the illegal Mexican farmhand who treats the boy the way everyone else in his life should have and eventually gives the kid his first real experience with loss.

McCullough is always a fun addition to any cast, but although as April she provides welcome moments of levity, she is ultimately sadly underused and left me wishing for a little more stage time to enjoy her work. She plays beautifully off Melena as the gruff and impossible Bud, who himself is so on the money he instantly conjured memories of my own bigoted and ever-disappointed father, leaving me surprised he didn’t bring back those omnipresent nightmares I spent years erasing from my life.

As Pogue, Collins has the marathon task of never once leaving the stage as he assays a character who must switch in age from child to adult with only a line or two to differentiate the passage of time.

There is no doubt Collins is a wonderful actor and, although I’m sure as the run of the play progresses the rough edges of the character he completely understands both intellectually and emotionally will smooth out, at this early stage of the play’s development he’s not quite where he needs to be. His time playing the adolescent Pogue seems a bit pushed yet, in patches where he becomes more comfortable, it’s clear the right choices he still needs to make are all right there.

As the adult Pogue, it’s obvious Collins has a reverence for Burgess’ breathtakingly and gracefully expressive dialogue, but here he also works just a little too hard, in this case overdramatizing the elegiac, ambrosial poetry of the passages when it would serve the play better to just trust the words without embellishment.

The analogy of Pogue’s ever-present red suitcase, the place where he stores his memories and carries them along with him wherever he goes, is heightened by Shores’ remarkably fluid and inventive staging which utilizes piles of old well-traveled thrift store suitcases moved and assembled into various set pieces by the performers, almost becoming akin to another character in this already highly imaginative memory play.

Still, what is taken away from The Red Suitcase more than any other aspect of this hauntingly evocative production is the blossoming advent of an important new playwright. Jiggs Burgess has a smashing gift for taking a premise hardly untapped and infusing it with a fresh and indelibly personal take on what a struggle it is to grow up in our convoluted society, to find refuge and safety where there has been none, and above all, to ultimately be comfortable in one’s own skin.

Oh yeah, then there’s that other message; you know, that forgiveness thing. It’s an area where Burgess’ potentially heroic Pogue is far more evolved than I am.

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CRABS IN A BUCKET from Echo Theater Company at the Atwater Village Theatre

What is there about the human condition that keeps many of us unable to boost one another and become consumed with jealousy when someone else achieves something we have not? It’s no secret that members of traditionally disenfranchised communities tend to end up fighting each other in the attempt to avoid oppression and, in the process, usually become oppressors themselves.

This is what playwright Bernardo Cubria satires with great humor and an abundance of punny pinches in his new play Crabs in a Bucket, now world premiering at the Atwater Village complex presented by Echo Theater Company.

Although the Mexican-born playwright says Crabs began as a metaphoric reflection of his own dealings as part of the LatinX theatre scene, as well as the continuous struggles in general facing all of us Don Quixotes trying to create something meaningful in our apathetic country, he admits his vision soon grew to skewer a whole lot more than what it means to be an artist in America’s current environment of inequality and collective selfishness.

Under the direction of Alana Dietze, her quartet of perfectly cast actors literally playing four side-shuffling crabs (clad in Lou Cranch’s delightfully daffy costuming) deliver Cubria’s sharply insightful dialogue about what happens when crab mentality takes over and those stuck at the bottom of a shucking bucket start to work against one another instead of together—the quintessential thematic exploration right now as WGA and SAG-AFTRA members try to rally together against the greedy omnipresent film and television studio fatcats.

Inspiration came while Cubria was working on a play in New York written by Mando Alvarado and he was struck by a line referring to the LatinX community as crabs in a bucket, a condition that, when one of their number tries to crawl out, causes others to step over it and push it back down. 

In his sublimely twisted farce, Cubria’s bucket dwellers Amargo and Pootz (Xochitl Romero and Anna LaMardrid) become increasingly more resentful after spending 20 years stuck at the bottom, obsessing as they rag about crabs who have gotten the shuck out and others who have either given up or become insufferable losers. The chit really hits the fan when newcomer Beb (Jordan Hull) arrives on a skateboard full of optimism and quickly becomes shocked the veteran “lemmings of the crustation world” there have developed such an angry and defeatist attitude.

As she tries in vain to get the others to change their thinking and get it through their cephalothoraxes that their own bitterness is what’s keeping them down, suddenly a fourth crab joins the cast—and I’m for once not trying to be clever here as, according to my recent Google search, a group of crabs is actually called a “cast.”

Mamon (Michael Sturgis) is a former resident of the orange plastic Home Depot pail and has been one of the most despised escapees, especially to his former best friend Amargo. They had a pact, you see, about what they would do if one of them was able to get out and when her friend so cavalierly abandoned the bucket, Amargo nearly threw up in her carapace.

The surprise returnee is definitely not anxious to discuss how he got back there or what the mysterious unknown world outside the rim is really all about and, when he and Beb form a bond, it further infuriates his old bud, causing Amargo to accuse him that his new alliance is only a blatant means to get his thorax sucked.

Cubria, whose The Play You Want debuted at the Road Theatre last season and was one of my top TicketHolder Award-winners for 2022, once again offers super-smart dialogue that is continuously laugh-out-loud funny until the importance of what lurks just below the humor begins to sink in.

Dietze proves to be the quintessential partner to deliver his message, with a keen sense for physical comedy that clearly translates to her players, all of whom deliver performances not only brazenly silly and downright hilarious but brim over with the desperation and overlying sense of malaise with which anyone trying to live and stay above the rim in our mess of a world can identify.

It’s considered a bad thing in the narrow confines of the long-enduring bucket-dwellers’ society to be an individual or special in any way and, to them, having faith in the future can leave those pinchy crabs at a decided disadvantage. “It’s nice to believe in nonsense,” the terminally disgruntled Amargo believes, “because it makes you feel like you’re in control.”

And as happens in our culture when one of the most resilient and special among us is driven enough or lucky enough to make it to the top and see the sunlight, far too often the victor suddenly finds they have “none of the special left.”

The Echo’s knockout production is blessed with the inventive and rule-defying directorial skills of Dietze leading a virtuoso ensemble of comedic actors and utilizing a clever team of designers who, unlike the characters stuck in Bernardo Cubria’s Crabs in a Bucket, are able to work together smoothly to celebrate what the future has in store for a very special dramatist, a guy I suspect has a shucking lot more to say.

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INTO THE WOODS at the Ahmanson Theatre

It’s hard to find a more indelible score or a more inventive musical than Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods, one of the most unmistakable examples of why the lategreat Sir Stephen was one of the most preeminent theatrical composers of all time.

The first time I saw Woods when it debuted before its original celebrated Broadway run at San Diego's Old Globe in 1986, I knew I was seeing a future classic more assuredly than any production I’ve ever viewed in its infancy.

Thirty-seven years later, I have seen more incarnations of the musical performed than perhaps any other and honestly, never have I been disappointed. As long as it’s played with passion and an unswerving respect for Sondheim, it’s hard to do it wrong. Still, when it’s done to perfection, it’s pure enchantment.

Such magic happens with the current national tour of the 2022 Broadway revival now appearing at the Ahmanson, which began as part of New York City Center’s popular Encores! series featuring concert mountings of our greatest musicals and went on to win over the Great White Way yet another time.

Pared down to include the orchestra placed onstage behind the performers and featuring minimal sets and design elements, no musical works better with such simple staging as this one, clearly making the focus of this production almost entirely Sondheim’s brilliant score and lyrics, as well as Lapine’s charmingly tongue-in-cheek book which offers a sly new spin on the classic 19th-century fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.

Making this glorious revival even more faultless, being cast in Woods must be on the tippy-top of every musical theatre artist’s bucket list and not only did the Encores! presentation attract some of our time’s most impressive crop of Broadway notables, almost all of the impossibly gifted cast members have traveled on to the Ahmanson with the show.

Direct from New York, this one time only collection of world-class talent includes Montego Glover as the Witch, Stephanie J. Block and her real-life husband Sebastian Arcellus as the Baker and his wife, Gavin Creel as Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf, Cole Thompson as Jack, Katy Geraghty as Red Riding Hood, David Patrick Kelly as the Narrator and the Mysterious Man, and Diane Phalen and Nancy Opel as Cinderella and her Stepmother.

All are standouts, particularly Block, who brings down the house with the often overlooked ballad “Moments in the Woods,” and Creel as the musical's lecherous predator out for a juicy meal in “Hello, Little Girl” and later in a showstopping duet of “Agony” with Jason Forbach as Rapunzel’s Prince, both lamenting the limitations of those "raised to be charming, not sincere."

Geraghty is hilarious throughout as the feisty Red, particularly acing “I Know Things Now,” and one of the most unique performances from the Broadway cast is delivered by Kennedy Kanagawa, reprising his flawless manipulation of the all-time best version of Milky White, Jack’s poor doomed cow here designed by puppetmaster James Ortiz to be even more expressive than anything the folks at Disney ever concocted. Not even Old Yeller’s demise can rival that of poor Milky's.

Director Lear deBessonet and choreographer Lorin Latarro keep things moving with ease and a delightful sense of humor to match and obviously honor Sondheim and Lapine’s unique vision, a palpable respect for genius further enhanced by musical director John Bell and his excellent orchestra.

It is nearly impossible to imagine a better version of Woods, from its entertaining wink-wink-nudge-nudging of the first act to the dark and melancholy second half when the storyline’s well-known tales morph into a series of treatises on loss, abandonment, and all those often less-than admirable aspects of the human condition members our species resort to when thrust alone out into the void. "These are people," we're reminded, "not familiar with making choices."

Into the Woods will always be something I conjure in my head whenever I consider the glories of live performance as the genre of musical comedy began to transform into the complexities and innovations of contemporary musical theatre late in the 20th century—and this incredible revival of the great Sir Stephen’s groundbreaking pioneer will surely now be the first thing I envision.

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BEETLEJUICE THE MUSICAL at the Pantages Theatre

As someone who often proclaims to have far more passion for attending plays with a message rather than sitting through yet another happy-sappy cashcow of a musical, I find since the lifting of the lockdown I have seen—and honestly enjoyed—a surprising number of people suddenly breaking into song without notice.

Does this mean my golden years have finally caught up with me and in short time I’ll be at home evenings watching Wheel of Fortune with my teeth in a glass next to me? Or has the current crop of stage musicals stopped giving a nun’s ass about the problem of Maria, waxing nostalgic about real good clambakes, or wishing to find a room somewhere far away from the cold night air? You know, the kind with an enormous friggin’ chair in it?

Whatever the reason for my possible geriatric decline into melodious pablum, no musical I have attended during my recent journeying has delighted or entertained me more than Scott Brown and Anthony King’s multi-award nominated adaptation of Tim Burton’s 1988 horror comedy Beetlejuice.

This writing team on the rise exhibits a unique ability to pepper their book with many contemporary wink-wink references that audiences 35 years ago would not have understood. These include the realization that the “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” Beetlejuice feels as irrelevant as a gay Republican, while the scariest thing the recently deceased Barbara Maitland (Britney Coleman) can conjure is the parking lot of Trader Joe’s since she and her late husband’s afterlife might be a “little on the Pottery Barn and dry white wine side.”

Coupled with Eddie Perfect’s infectious and equally topical score and some of the most impressively off-center graphic novel design choices in theatrical history, Beetlejuice the Musical is, as its leading character mentions, certainly nothing as boring as Brigadoon.

Now stopping off way too briefly at the Pantages, this national tour loses nothing from hitting the road. Alex Timbers directs a dynamic cast with a keen eye for dizzyingly overdramatic stage pictures, accented perfectly by Connor Gallagher’s refreshingly playful choreography, David Korin’s Caligari-esque sets, wonderfully whimsical costuming by William Ivey Long, boldly eccentric Adult Swim-inspired projections by Peter Nigrini, and puppetry by none other than Lion King-Cirque du Soleil’s KA creator Michael Curry. And hey: how many stage musicals include program credits for special effects (Jeremy Chernick) and magic and illusion design (Michael Weber)?

Not one thing here to complain about, I tell ya.

As the title character, Justin Coullette is a force of comedic nature, with a vocal delivery reminiscent of the late-great Phil Hartman’s Captain Carl and a body language that defies description. At a time when many musical productions with demanding leading roles split performances between two actors, it’s hard to imagine how Coullette gets through eight shows a week without sleeping the other 20 or so hours of the day and with access to the kind of great drugs we had available to us when I was in my long-gone touring era.

As woebegone teenage goth princess in mourning Lydia Deetz, it’s hard to imagine such a pivotal role would be entrusted to Isabella Esler, whose program bio proclaims she is not only making her professional stage debut but is a recent graduate of a high school in San Jose. Well, folks, not only is Esler up for the challenge, she’s about the best thing in the show, possessed of a charisma to rival any established Broadway talent and a voice that could break glass—and I mean that in a good way.

The hilariously nerdy Will Burton evokes Crispin Glover cast as Ed Grimly as Barbara's husband Adam, a guy Beetlejuice says resembles someone who runs a struggling coffeeshop, while Coleman has a raucous comedic flair that defies a voice that, if you close your eyes, would make you swear was a young Audra McDonald.

As Lydia’s absent father and his vapid spiritually awakened lifecoach lover Delia, Jesse Sharp and Kate Marilley are absolute perfection, easily rivaling the classic images of Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara in the film.

The musical, like Tim Burton’s original vision, has an abundance of scene-stealing supporting roles for actors. Most of them are often not onstage for more than one scene—or in the case of Jackera Davis as a poor innocent kid hawking girl scout cookies at the former Maitland home (which first looks like a “nursing home for sad cats” but turns into a haunted house designed by Salvador Dali on acid), in only one song.

Davis knocks that one number right out onto Hollywood Boulevard, Danielle Marie Gonzales is a Googie Gomez clone as Miss (Dead) Argentina, Abe Goldfarb is suitably outrageous as Delia’s guru Otho, and Kris Roberts is a standout as the Deetz’s hyena-laughing dinner guest Maxine and later as Juno, the crusty manager of the Gates of Hell.

From the ranks of the uniformly energetic and truly exceptional ensemble, Lee N Price is quite a surprise as a schleppy pizza delivery guy who, despite his size, suddenly breaks out in a tap dance that would make the ghost of Gregory Hines sit up and notice.

Beetlejuice the Musical is simply the quintessential treat for a hot summer night, which at this point in time gratefully skips any of our world’s nagging societal issues and blissfully remains free of politically pointed preaching. I left the Pantages with a grin so wide it made my face hurt.

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THE ANTS at Geffen Playhouse

As someone with an almost obsessive lifelong appreciation for horror films—particularly really, really bad ones—I was excited for the world premiere of The Ants at the Geffen Playhouse, the self-described “Horror Play” conceived and developed in the Geffen’s Writers’ Room.

Unfortunately, although introducing Ramiz Monsef to Los Angeles theatregoers as a promising new playwright, his play is a bit of a disappointment, particularly considering the Geffen’s usual knack for choosing material, not to mention the obvious resources available to the topnotch designers who have conspired to bring The Ants to life.

There’s not much horrifying or shocking or creepy-crawly about these Ants;  sadly, the only thing that crawls here is director Pirronne Yousefzadeh’s pacing. You know those cheesy 70s B horror movies where half of the footage features a terrified young woman running in the dark through the same woods over and over? There are more chills and scares and good ol’ fashioned dramatic tension in Blair Witch 2 than in this evening at the Geffen.

That’s not to say there isn’t good stuff happening here too. Monsef’s dialogue is crisp and clever, filled with observations about our existence in a world gone mad with out of control technology, rampant political correctness, and the ever-increasing divide between the haves and the have nots. The trouble is, he has yet to figure out how to present his characters spouting such societal scrutiny as people we have any reason to care about, not to mention how to deliver his cultural cognizance without hitting us over the head with such rudimentary predictability.

Ambitious entrepreneur Meredith (Megan Hill) lives with her milquetoast husband Shahid (Ryan Shrime), someone who has obviously given up his balls in return for a lush life fueled by his wife's breakneck sense of overachievement, in a hightech-enhanced fortress at the top of a hill she personally designed and is marketing to wealthy customers trying to escape the dangerous streets of their unidentified city.

Meredith controls Shahid—whom she has redubbed Shawn in an effort to erase his ethnic identity as part of her undeniable emasculation—so completely that she has even programmed her self-developed Echo-on-steroids virtual assistant called The Brain to keep track of her hubby when he journeys to the store to pick up her missing almond milk with a program she calls “Shawn’s Leash.”

Their futuristic home is a model for her mania to create a safe house—or as Shahid’s visiting brother Nami (Nicky Boulos) observes, “attack house.” It is complete with steel barriers that descend over windows and doors at the drop of a voice command to her AI servant, depicted as a pulsating ultramodern device sitting on the coffee table (ominously voiced by Hugo Armstrong) actually resembling a brain and able to light up in christmas tree colors whenever receiving instructions.

Still, despite Meredith’s efforts to create an impenetrable stronghold rising above the dangers lurking below, the one thing the couple can’t seem to control is the steady procession of ants able to somehow make it past the home’s elaborate defenses.

Of course, those persistent invasive critters are an analogy for the shadowy homeless population growing in number near the bus stop at the base of their hill, a group the ultra-Karen homeowner finds intolerable despite her efforts to show what a great humanitarian she is (“Oh please,” as she defends herself, “I support public radio and the symphony”).

Nami is also an unwanted assault to her elitist castle, arriving unannounced during a blinding rainstorm after months of no communication, a familiar routine for the “human pledge drive” whenever he once again loses his most recent minimum wage job and needs money and a place to crash.

The most impressive thing about this potentially alluring world premiere is the production’s design elements, certainly not the performances Yousefzadeh has elicited from a cast that, at least in two cases, are surprisingly unwatchable.

In a glaringly underwritten role, Shrime fares best of the actors playing Monsef’s troubled family, far less overdramatic and annoying than either Boulos and Hill, the former simply unnecessarily loud and continuously working too hard to show us what a slacker Nami is, and the latter giving a performance so over-the-top that she conjures something akin to Gale Sondergaard cast as Cruella de Vil. If Hill toned down her egregiously overemphasized histrionics or if the other actors adopted her same George Romero-inspired performance style that often pays homage to bad stoner-type genre films, perhaps the fun might have masked the script’s blatant cautionary social commentary.

Still, there is one knockout performance that raises the stakes considerably, making the too-short stage time Jeremy Radin is given the most successful section of the otherwise talky and suspense-challenged action.

As a dorky pizza deliverer who stumbles into Megan’s hammer-wielding rampage and ends up with a bloody head and wrapped in duct tape, Radin takes a small role and delivers a powerhouse performance, morphing almost instantaneously from a character seemingly added as comic relief into the most sinister aspect of Monsef’s thinly veiled didactic tale. If only the rest of The Ants provided as much tension and anxiety as Radin brings into the mix, the Geffen might be able to call it a “horror play” after all.

Still, the star of the show ultimately proves to be the design aspects of the production, from the elaborate construction of Meredith’s Orwellian castle by Carolyn Mraz, heavy on flashing neon accents and complete with those huge steel-like panels that slam down and obscure the rain and the view of the city at the blink of an Alexa, to Hana S. Kim’s increasingly more apocalyptic projections, Pablo Santiago’s eerie and occasionally blinding lighting, and John Nobori’s strident and sometimes intentionally ear-splitting sound plot.

So much promise here, most of it missing what might have been if as much attention as was paid to the design went into tweaking and unifying the performances while approaching the underlying theme of The Ants with either more subtlety—or a whole lot less.

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TINA — THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL  at the Pantages Theatre and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Beginning in London’s West End in 2018 presented in association with the recently late-great rock superstar herself, TINA—The Tina Turner Musical went on to win an Olivier Award before arriving on Broadway the following year and taking home its lion’s share of honors—including being nominated for 12 Tony Awards, winning one for its original star Adrienne Warren.

Born Anna Mae Bullock into a dirt-poor sharecropping family in Nutbush, Tennessee in 1939 (the youthful Anna Mae played here in a showstopping turn by Ayvah Johnson, a kid with Turner-sized pipes herself), the future Queen of Rock ‘n Roll did more than simply achieve international acclaim. The 12-time Grammy winner’s legendary live shows have sold more tickets than any other solo performer in music history and along the way, during her incredible six-plus decade career, Turner did more than change the rules: she rewrote them, defying the previously unwieldy limitations of age, gender, and race in the music business with a fiery determination to buck the odds at all costs.

There’s something both bittersweet and celebratory about TINA arriving here and making its west coast debut at the Pantages only three weeks since she left us all wanting more at age 83, the historic theatre only steps away and around the corner from her Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an honor dedicated 37 years ago in front of the Capital Records building where she recorded some of her greatest hits.

Katori Hall, the celebrated Pulitzer-winning co-writer of the musical, wrote, “We have always wanted to put audiences in the room with her and it’s obviously going to have even more meaning now that she’s gone from us physically.”

Although TINA has already swept London and Broadway in the last five years, its residency here in one of the most recognized capitals of the music business in the world so soon after Turner’s death proves LA to be the quintessential place to celebrate her music and her life. The show’s opening night felt as though it was a giant 2,700-seat memorial service—no, more like a joyous Irish wake—and the fact that its subject was co-executive producer with her husband Erwin Bach and creative consultant on its inception could not have made it more special.

The book by Hall (currently also represented in LA with her play The Mountaintop opening at the Geffen Playhouse), written in a collaboration with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, defies the usual pitfalls too often present in the overworked and typically whitewashed genre of musical stage biographies. The book never blinks from delving into the shocking physical and mental abuse Turner suffered from childhood on, nor does it avoid her difficult early post-Ike “hasbeen” years with repro men knocking on her door, chronicling a desperate suicide attempt, or trying to maneuver the strained relationship she shared with her distant and often absent mother (Roz White).

Noted Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd does a monumental job wrangling the breakneck rollercoaster ride that is TINA fluid, managing to keep a huge ensemble of over 30 incredibly exciting performers on the move, delivering nonstop, visually stunning action while still keeping the proceedings squarely focused on the actor portraying the omnipresent title character who appropriately dominates every scene.

And it's that focus that makes the potentially dangerously formulaic musical such an unexpected wonder to experience. It’s not hard to understand why two performers share the emotionally and physically demanding role, each playing four performances a week on the production’s eight-show schedule.

Alternating with Zurin Villanueva, it’s impossible to imagine how anyone could be better portraying the great Tina Turner than Naomi Rodgers, who even after what must be an exhausting two-hour-plus whirlwind performance on opening night turned TINA’s enthusiastic and well-deserved standing ovation into something of a dance party, granting the grateful audience two additional numbers after the curtaincall, culminating with a breakneck reprise of “Proud Mary.”

Anthony Van Laast adds to the jubilation with his energetic, whimsically all elbows-and-knees choreography, as does Mark Thompson’s flashy set and costuming, Bruno Poet’s lighting, and Nevin Steinberg’s sound design.

None of this would be as spectacular without Jeff Sugg’s colorful and flashback-ing psychedelic projections, musical director Anne Shuttlesworth leading her dynamic live orchestra, or some exceptional supporting performances—particularly the pint-sized Johnson, White’s imperfect mother whose own abusive life hampered her ability to parent, and Carla R. Stewart as Tuner’s loving and supportive grandmother.

So, “What’s Love Got to Do with It”? Just about everything here. TINA — The Tina Turner Musical is more than beautifully mounted, fiercely performed, and dazzlingly designed: it is brimming with love: love for the artform at its most contemporary and unflinchingly bold, love for unstoppable warriors who survive every obstacle placed before them, and especially love for the late-great Queen of Rock ‘n Roll, an unforgettable superstar the likes of whom the world had never seen before her long and revered reign.

“Her energy, her spirit, obviously has been interwoven into our creative processes,” Katori Hall wrote about this poignant and serendipitously timed opening of TINA at the Pantages, “and I pray that we’ll always be able to give every audience member a little piece of Tina when they come to the show.”

Mission accomplished—and then some.

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BACK PORCH at the Victory Theatre Center

The world premiere of Back Porch, Eric Anderson’s loving homage to William Inge’s classic tale Picnic, delivers a charming, sweet little gem of a play to the Victory.

Anderson grew up in rural Kansas in the early 1950s, where he developed a lifelong obsession with both Hollywood and Inge’s Pulitzer-winning drama when as a child in the summer of 1955, his family journeyed to the next county to watch part of the time-honored Oscar-winning version of Picnic being filmed.

“I’ve been crazy about movies and theatre ever since,” says Anderson. “I wanted to pay tribute to a significant American playwright, William Inge, who was also significantly closeted. I hoped to write the kind of play that he himself might have written had he lived in another time and place.”

Clearly, Anderson is correct and he has done just that. On Kenneth Klimak’s simple rustic countrified porch set, a young man named Gary Opat (Isaac W. Jay) is no smoldering Kim Novak but he shares Madge Owens’ frustration and anxiety coming of age stuck in a small town and missing out on the more adventurous aspects of life he only reads about happening in other more vibrant places—in Gary’s case, Hollywood, a place he only dreams about lost soaking up his movie magazines.

Along comes a strapping and world-wise young urban cowboy with dubious intentions named Bill Holman (Jordan Morgan), who becomes the life-changing Hal Carter to Gary’s innocence-challenged Madge. In Anderson’s clever tale, it seems the guy is actually connected to Joshua Logan’s film version, as he’s in town working as stunt double for William Holden himself since—wouldn’t you know it?—Logan’s actual movie is currently being filmed right there in their overwhelmed little community.

Anderson’s play is extremely promising, which is perhaps the best way to also describe this production. It’s promising, not perfect. What’s needed most is stronger direction from Kelie McIver, whose staging is impressive but guidance in keeping the cast on the same page needs improvement. When there are this many one-person shows on one stage at the same time, it’s the director who must help them together forge a convincing ensemble.

Particularly in the first act, the languid pace, which is surely intentional to show the boring routine of the people who inhabit the Opats’ back porch, gets a little too languid to keep its viewers interested. This is exacerbated by most of the performances, with actors left alone to create their quirky characters but doing little to successfully communicate with and bounce off one another.

I would love to know what Jay and Morgan see when they look out front into the fourth wall; as it is, it seems instead of envisioning hills and valleys, both are making sure their most important lines and emotional moments land just above the audience’s heads. We get it just hearing Anderson’s evocative dialogue without being treated as though we need it to be hammered in.

In the first act, Jay has the hardest time simply because his twink-ish years are obviously a bit too far in the past. Getting to a place of Gary’s late teenage angst and refreshingly angelic unsullied golly-gee-ery is just past his prime. By the second half, his character's newly minted maturity grows exponentially and works like gangbusters, although if tears don’t come when scripted, unconvincing wailing buried in your partner's shoulder is not an alternative.

Morgan fares better as Bill, although even though his character’s intentions are purposely suspect, the true nature of his attraction to Gary is still in flux in his otherwise convincing interpretation.

The best performances at this early point in the evolution of Back Porch are a delightfully rich turn by Jonathan Fishman as the family’s lovable neighbor and constant visitor to the Opat social hub of a porch Millard Goff and particularly Karl Maschek as Gary and Del Wayne’s initially milquetoast widower father Barney.

Maschek, the play’s resident George Tesman of the mid-century American South, is simply the heart and soul of this production. In the first act, the character is interesting but only hints at being pivotal, but in the second half as the play’s series of crises unfold, he becomes a titan. The disappointments he has suppressed in himself and the guilt about how he has managed to raise his sons as a single father after the death of his wife is simply heartbreaking—and when Barney himself breaks, Maschek is nothing short of riveting.

Erik Zac as the annoying Rosalind Russell schoolteacher-boarder character here called Myron Uhrig and Cody Lemmon as Gary’s brash young outspoken younger sibling Del Wayne both have endearing moments but, in general, this cast (save Maschek) needs to stop working so hard and instead begin truly listening to and connecting with one another.

This doesn’t mean such a thing won’t happen here, particularly considering the potential magic inherent in Anderson’s play. The performance I attending was one of the first. Give these obviously talented performers a few more performances under their belt and I truly suspect great things will begin to happen. Just please trust the playwright’s evocative and well-chosen words, folks; it’s all right there for you without having to push so hard.

Unfortunately, since the late-great William Inge’s shame over his repressed homosexuality and his long documented struggle with alcohol and depression led to his suicide at age 60 in 1973, creating a play dealing with a forbidden love affair between two young men discovering their attraction to one another at a bucolic smalltown family’s simple country home in the repressed 1950s does somehow honor a tortured but immensely talented wordsmith who, despite his success, was never able to achieve the even greater heights of what might have been due to the societal limitations of the times he created his masterworks.

Somehow I think, if he could, Inge would be thanking Eric Anderson profusely for continuing and building upon his legacy with his lovely, lyrical Back Porch.

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A TRANSPARENT MUSICAL at the Mark Taper Forum

There’s something monumental about the world premiere of Joey and Faith Soloway’s A Transparent Musical, the uber-talented siblings’ joyous stage adaptation of their popular and groundbreaking Amazon Prime TV series.

With book by Joey Soloway and MJ Kaufman and music and lyrics by Faith Soloway, the first treat here is to see so many diverse and gender-unencumbered theatre artists performing together on a professional stage as respected as our own venerable Mark Taper Forum.

Debuting at the kickoff of Pride Month, the production has many components for which people considered a tad out of the conventional societal norm can be proud, seeing themselves onstage represented as real, living, breathing, multidimensional characters rather than be forced into the usual stereotypes we all know so well.

The Golden Globe and multiple Emmy-winning Transparent series introduced the world to Mort Pfefferman (Daya Curley here in the double-Emmy-winning role made famous by Jeffrey Tambor), a good upstanding Jewish Pacific Palisades father who, at the rapid approach of his golden years, decides it’s time to come out of hiding to his shocked family and begin his transition to become the woman he always felt in his heart he was.

The crisis in the already shattered Pfefferman household is not an easy revelation for his ex-wife Shelly (Liz Larsen) and two older children Sarah and Josh (Sarah Stiles and Zachary Prince), but it is especially an emotional knockout to his youngest Ali (Adina Verson), who is also finding her own sexuality to be a thorny issue.

Transforming (pun intended) the Pfeffermans’ story into a musical was yet another Soloway-sparked inspiration, especially considering the exceptional songwriting skill of Faith Soloway, whose evocative and catchy score is one of the biggest assets offered by this production, along with Tina Landau’s clever and fourth wall-breaking direction and spirited choreography by James Alsop.

Curley is perfectly cast as Mort, who soon demands the shocked Pfefferman family and friends start calling her Maura, particularly because, as her program bio reveals, the actor has gone through a similar personal journey with gender transitioning.

Verson is easily relatable, gifted not only with an uncanny ability to make their character’s struggle identifiable to anyone in the audience without getting stuck on the specifics of Ali’s search for identity, but possessed of a voice that delivers the Soloways’ message with the clarity of a musical theatre Judy Collins.

Stiles is a particular standout as Maura and Shelly’s whiny and terminally Jewish-American-Princess-esque daughter, on a fierce mission to present the perfect nuclear family to the outside world while popping antidepressants like candy and exhibiting an impressive determination to prove her child’s lice infection was only an allergic reaction.

Larsen is a continuous scene-stealer as Shelly, vying at every turn to grab the spotlight and once again become the center of attention of her family and followers as the past president of her temple’s community center.

There are truly memorable turns in this bright and unstoppably game ensemble of crack performers. Murphy Taylor Smith is especially notable as the JCC’s sweet new rabbi Raquel, as is Futaba Shioda, substituting at the performance I attended for Kasper as the center’s new artistic director on a secret personal mission, and Jimmy Ray Bennett, in for LA treasure Pat Towne as both the center’s overly-eager executive director and as the recurring ghost of Magnus Hirschfeld, the real life sex and gender expert who chronicled alternate lifestyles in the freethinking Weimar era of pre-Nazi Germany.

This is certainly an ambitious and exciting project, but not one without need for further exploration. As someone unacquainted with Transparent during its TV years, I felt at a disadvantage here. It was not hard to pick out the fans of the original series peppered throughout the audience, as isolated pockets of cheers or shared laughter from different sections of the house heralded a clear familiarity with the material.

Kaufman and Soloway’s script surely recalls everything that made the show so successful, but hey—they had five seasons to delve into the lives of all the peripheral characters and storylines surrounding the central tale of Mort/Maura Pfefferman and how they dealt with their family’s brave new world.

For me, I wish the musical version were pared down to the essentials. As much as I enjoyed Faith Soloway’s prolific score and the performances of this incredibly diverse band of players, I would have liked to have seen the much appreciated and perfectly timed adaptation focus on the immediate family and how their lives are affected by their new unexpected challenges, not get bogged down and ultimately even lost in several complicated subplots concerning the show’s multitude of interesting but less pivotal characters.

Perhaps that way, this promising fresh version of Transparent could slash at least a third of their eventually too long two-hour and 40-minute run time and maybe those smothering side stories, dealing with divorces and sex addictions and finding long-lost family members, might one day become A Transparent Musical 2. And since Faith Soloway has too many great songs to lose, the sequel could already have its own score.

I know I’d be there opening night with bells on—maybe even a feather boa.

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SIX at the Pantages Theatre and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts

It’s an encouraging sign of the times that musical theatre continues to reinvent itself and has begun to take some bold chances, refusing to be stuck perpetually shouting at Dover to move his bloomin’ arse or harmonizing about that bright golden haze on the meadow.

That said, Tony Marlow and Lucy Moss’ blockbuster musical Six really isn’t—a musical, I mean. Instead, it’s a glittering, raucous, electric-shock loud, neon-flashing pop concert. As such, it’s a treat unless, of course, you were intent on getting lost in a storyline rather than spend 90 intermissionless minutes watching an expanded version of Chicago’s “Cellblock Tango.”

Six is a thin retelling of the individual stories of Henry VIII’s doomed ex-wives, each of whom in turn sing out their own tragic story in powerful rock-goddess fashion under the premise that the audience is to decide which of them was the most memorable blip on the radar screen of convoluted English history.

The competition is played out directly to the audience, immediately evoking the image of one of those impressively overproduced and popular TV talent shows. One could almost envision a table set up at the front of the house with Katy Perry or Lionel Ritchie or Simon Cowell seated facing the stage ready to hold up numbers on giant cards after each number.

After the group opening “Ex-Wives,” where the ladies further summon Kander and Ebb deja vu as they stand in a line across the front of the Pantages stage and alternately wail about their fate (“Divorced, beheaded, died / Divorced, beheaded, survived”), the six performers rocking this tour are equally dynamic as they belt out Marlow and Moss’ infectious Tony-winning score.

One by one, Khaila Wilcoxen as Catherine Aragon, Olivia Donaldson as Anna of Cleves, Courtney Mack as Katherine Howard, and Gabriella Carrillo as Catherine Park prove themselves worthy of popstar chops, while the pint-sized but fierce Storm Lever seems to be channeling early Kristin Chenoweth as Anne Boleyn.

Natalie Paris, who originated the role of Jane Seymour in the musical’s initial West End debut and received an Olivier nomination for her performance, is still the standout here, graced with delivering the score’s most memorable ballad, “Heart of Stone.”

The infamous demise of King VIII’s sextet of marital victims is surely an unlikely inspiration for a pop musical which, behind the splash and razzle-dazzle, celebrates feminist activism and the battle against misogyny and female victimization—albeit a tad incongruous as set in Tudor-era London. Yet under the direction of Moss and Jamie Armitage and featuring spirited choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, there’s something oddly empowering about this unexpected worldwide theatrical phenomenon that began humbly in 2017 performed by Cambridge University students at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

With an exceptional all-female band led by musical director/keyboardist Valerie Maze, Flash Gordon-meets-Grace Jones Tony-winning costuming by Gabriella Slade, incredibly evocative lighting by Tim Deiling, and concert-worthy sound by Paul Gatehouse, Six gets its audience up and moving by its Spice Girl-y finale. Still, if you’re looking for a plot, a character arc, and maybe even some emotionally charged resolution within the confines of ancient (albeit fictionalized) British history, better wait for the current New York revival of Camelot to hit the road.

You might need to be of my generation to understand this reference, but I give Six an eight: it has a good beat and you can dance to it.

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A NEW BRAIN from Celebration Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center

In 1992, Falsettos’ Tony-winning composer William Finn started to experience dizziness, blurred vision, and partial paralysis. After collapsing in a restaurant, he was rushed to a hospital where doctors discovered he was suffering from arteriovenous malformation in his brain stem.

After undergoing radical gamma knife surgery, during his subsequent year of forced rest and recuperation Finn said he felt as though he had a whole new brain. Driven by his art as he has always been and with the help of his longtime collaborator James Lapine, they pair turned his traumatic personal experience into—what else?—a musical.

Writing about his fear of dying before creating his finest work, A New Brain began in a concert version at the Public Theatre in 1996, featuring all those tunes rattling around in Finn's healing but still prolific head during his ordeal and dealing with his efforts to get back to work.

The first full staging at Lincoln Center in 1998 began the journey of Finn’s most personal work, which after its five-month off-Broadway run has been performed infrequently over the ensuing years since musicals about demon barbers and phantoms haunting opera houses seem to be something potentially more entertaining to the general public then finding a production about surviving a brain aneurysm as a possible fun night out.

In its return to production after our dastardly three-year nightmare which has killed off so many small LA theatre companies, the scrappy Celebration Theatre has chosen A New Brain as its first post-pandemic offering, now being presented in association with the LA LGBT Center.

This particular musical is a daring choice for Celebration’s return, especially with a spirited cast of 10 crowded onto the Center’s charming but teenyweeny Davidson/Valentini stage where director Khanisha Foster and choreographer Alli Miller-Fisher have done yeoman’s duty keeping their cast from banging into one another in about an 18-by-30-foot playing space.

Joined by musical director/keyboardist Gregory Nabours conducting a knockout four-member band placed behind curtains above and behind the stage on Stephen Gifford’s remarkably facile set, which utilizes the aisles and actors often standing directly adjacent to its audience manners, the fact that this works and stays in continual motion is a major accomplishment commendable in every regard.

As Finn’s alter ego, Amanda Kruger is in excellent voice as the show’s helpless protagonist Gordon Schwinn, although it’s disappointing there’s not a more concrete character arc presented here. Gordon’s initial frustration and anguish writing songs for a creatively stifling TV children’s show, the difficulties putting up with well-meaning but often annoying people hovering around their hospital room, and the eventual trials of the recuperation process, all track in about the same emotional range.

Kruger is still lovable, nicely interacting with their dynamic and delightfully eager supporting cast. Yassi Noubahar provides a wonderful complement as Gordon’s lover Roger, based on Finn’s own longtime life partner Arthur Salvadore. Gina Torrecilla as Gordon’s well-meaning but smothering mother Mimi and Sade Ayodele as their bestie Rhoda are standouts, as is Ryan O’Connor (obviously the secret lovechild of Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly) as the obligatorily flamboyant night nurse Richard.

Richardson Cisneros-Jones is hilarious as Gordon’s father and also as Mr. Bungee, the life-sized bullfrog star of the children’s series who pops in and out of the overthinking patient’s dreams, although someone should tell the actor it’s not necessary to project his voice to the back tier of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's many balconies when audience members are seated literally a foot away.

Whitney Avalon, Jason Ryan, Mitchell Johnson, and Gabi Van Horn are infectious as various individuals converging on Gordon’s busy and tuneful hospital room, but the true stars of this Brain-trust are the talented team of Foster and Miller-Fisher, who are so incredibly good at keeping these players moving in such a cramped space that if they directed and choreographed the folks waiting in line at DMV, they could make a trip to renew one’s driver’s license an enjoyable experience.

As much as I wholeheartedly support this revival presented as gender-expansive in its casting choices, I also think it’s rather a disservice to the production to make a point of that decision and advertise A New Brain with such a clear emphasis on that choice.

Lapine and Finn already tickled the norm 25 years ago by writing a play about a gay character named Gordon and his boyfriend Roger, something that in no way changes the nature of the couple's commitment to one another.

For me, colorblind and gender-fluid casting has been a non-issue for a long time in the more socially advanced world of the arts—and particularly in the world of theatre. It takes about 30 seconds flat to get past any initial surprise, which solidifies once again how truly unimportant race or gender is in how we respond to people and the joys and dilemmas they face in life.

Especially in a presentation mounted by the Celebration Theatre, one of our country’s oldest and most respected companies presenting mostly LGBT content over the past 41 years in operation, there simply seems to be no need for making a point of gender issues here since it has nothing to do with Gordon’s journey.

I know of no history of rednecks and evangelicals picketing theatres that have previously brought A New Brain to fruition over the last quarter century because its protagonists are in a same sex relationship. William Finn and James Lapine have written a musical about two people who love each other and everyone else depicted in their story has no issue with their relationship that a director or casting director would need to work around.

This cleverly staged and charmingly human production stands on its own quite nicely without any need to point out that the gender fluidity in its ensemble makes it a “unique opportunity to see A New Brain in Los Angeles as it has never been done before.” What’s far more important here is how each of us identifies with coming face to face with our own mortality and to understand Gordon’s greatest fear: to leave the planet with our best songs still unwritten.

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SCINTILLA at the Road Theatre Company

Master wordsmith and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Alessandro Camon is more than a just a savvy and beguiling chronicler of the human condition. In his riveting new play Scintilla, now in its world premiere at the Road, he cunningly presents the problems of a group of everyday people to stealthily offer his take on more massive and often seemingly insurmountable global issues.

You know: the big stuff most of us blithely ignore because we can’t see any possible solution as something within our individual control—or perhaps we choose not to look?

Young and upwardly mobile San Franciscan couple Nora and Michael (Krishna Smitha and Kris Frost) travel into the lush and enchanted woods of California’s remote wine country on the pretext of having dinner with his eccentric and reclusive artist mother and to introduce the two women in his life.

More than that, however, his obviously tense and distracted demeanor camouflages his real mission, soon revealed as attempting to convince his pigheaded materfamilias Marianne (Taylor Gilbert) to leave her longtime and beloved rustic tree-sheltered cabin—with major praise here to set designer Stephen Gifford—and relocate her to a place closer where he can stop worrying about her well-being.

There are two reasons why Michael sees this as the only solution, one perhaps more urgent than the other, but both understandable. Not only is there currently a raging wildfire burning nearby rapidly making life in the idyllic region a dangerous prospect but, in the long term, Marianne is starting to face the early stages of Alzheimer’s and he doesn’t want her wandering around in her self-imposed isolation as she begins to fade from life.

As many residents of our state’s mountain communities, Marianne has survived more than one fire threat and isn’t having any. Not only is she perfectly content living alone as she has since the untimely death of her husband in a car accident, there’s a simmering yet quite palpable strain between the mother and son stemming from that very issue.

Into the mix comes Marianne’s neighbor and former boyfriend Stanley (David Gianopoulos), a rugged plaid flannel-clad Jeff Bridges clone who, although he appears to be satisfied with staying friends without benefits, has no real idea why she has unceremoniously dumped him.

Just when the high-strung Michael doesn’t think he could be any more frustrated by this new intruder making his mission to get his mother off to safety tougher, another person shows up, a local homeless tent-dwelling handyman named Roberto (Carlos Lacamara) who has been beaten up by a bunch of assholes who want him to move along from camping out in their utopian community.

If this group thrust together by circumstance isn’t interesting enough—especially spouting the ultra-smart dialogue created by Camon, who has a knack for making us quickly care about the people he creates—once again, Scintilla is a whole lot more than simply seeing if the tension between them can be overcome.

So, what do we have here? A simple, well-constructed, but perhaps predictable little kitchen sink (or is it raw open-beamed hilltop) dramedy where family dynamics are stretched tightly and then released in a heartwarming conclusion? Hardly.

Scintilla is about climate change. It’s about facing our fears. It’s about facing extreme loss when human beings have developed such a gift for putting our troubles on the back burner and hoping the heat dies down without ever having to stick our hands in the proverbial flame.

Above all, it’s about the tenuous survival of our species.

As the fire jumps the highway Marianne and Stanley use as the symbol of their safety, she continues to appear blasé, tossing her spring mix salad, heating her pre-prepared quiche, and pouring endless glasses of wine, each time from a clean glass and eventually popping the cork on the $12,000 1973 vintage bottle she’s been saving forever for a special occasion.

Scintilla is about having to confront loss head-on and dropping the pretense. Stanley sees himself as invulnerable until circumstances prove otherwise and Marianne’s real agenda may or may not include feeling complacent about the future, whether it be suffering long and difficult days as her illness overtakes her feistiness or whether she’d rather simply let the fire do its thing. After all, she quips, she’s always wanted to be cremated.

“It’s funny,” she tells those gathered, “now I spend a lot of time with my memories, knowing they won’t last.” She remembers swimming in a river when she was a kid, long before our collective stupidity poisoned it, and admiring the night sky before it was obscured by smog and the stars still glittered brightly.

“And I realized,” she admits, “I don’t know how to mourn it… how do you mourn a river? How do we mourn starlight? We don’t have prayers for that.” Instead, she says, “We just bamboozle ourselves with bullshit, with drugs, with fucking phones, until we can’t feel a thing.”

Under the precision yet unobtrusive directorial hand of Ann Hearn Tobolowsky, the cast of Camon’s indelibly lingering and hopefully future classic is superb, the quintessential poster children for ensemble performance.

As Marianne, the unstoppable Taylor Gilbert is at her best—and that’s saying a lot considering the body of her work, most of it over the past humina-humina years at the Road where she is founder and longtime co-artistic director.

Here, her slow but steady descent from a headstrong and intractable remnant from the free and loose early days of our generation to someone fighting to stay independent is heartbreaking as we watch her hands begin to shake and her voice become a husky, defeated plea for answers to explain the rapidly crumpling world around us.

Gianopoulos is a perfect sparring partner, a loud and blustery peace-sign flashing survivor who reveals his own haunted memories of an early family disaster and eventually succumbs to his own buried fear of fire despite his dismissal of the idea which could show him to be a sentimental weakling.

Smitha is a rock as Nora, a symbol of compassion and faint hope maybe there's someone around young and caring enough to make a difference, while Lacamara as the proud but lost shell of a man holding onto his dignity, makes a full meal of what could be an easily overlooked role.

Frost might have the play’s most impossible task, helping us relate to someone as contentious and unlikable as Michael, a ridiculous uptight and unswervingly arrogant guy who “doesn’t do messy” but instead only “does algorithms.” His is a continuously frustrating, continuously annoying presence and the actor works theatrical miracles playing someone for whom we would ordinarily have no sympathy.

Still, as brilliant and fiercely committed as this troupe of artists may be, it’s all about the work of Camon, who left me with his eloquent and sometimes disturbing play rattling around in my brain for these several days after I attended and, I suspect, for much longer than that.

“It’s one of those things, like the idea of God,” Marianne realizes. “You can’t hold onto that kind of thought. Our minds can’t go there, even for a moment. How we failed is too much. It’s too terrifying, how we actually failed the whole human experiment.

“We fucked it up, everything we touched, because we must keep going to feed the machine and the machine won’t stop until all the glaciers melt and all the oceans swell and all the cities are burned to the ground or riddled with plague like some fucking ancient prophecy.

“We came into this world, this living planet, with rivers for veins and forests for lungs and mountains for bones and we decided, we actually decided, to become its cancer. All it’s going to take is a spark, a single scintilla, and we’ll all be gone.”

I keep thinking of the qualifications to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, awarded annually for a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.

Not sure what it takes to get the Pulitzer committee’s attention, but in a fair world the members should be descending on a scrappy little gem of a theatre in NoHo for a look at Alessandro Camon’s exquisite, lyrical, urgently important new play Scintilla.

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A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at Pasadena Playhouse

Before the opening night performance of Pasadena Playhouse’s glorious 50th anniversary revival of Stephen Sondheim’s multi-Tony winning A Little Night Music, producing artistic director Danny Feldman explained how the esteemed State Theatre of California strategized to overcome our theatrical community’s otherwise anemic post-pandemic return to live performance.

He basically went to the Playhouse’s top donors and told them if the place they loved was going to be able to come back, it was time to cough it up—albeit gently, I presume.

The donors came through spectacularly, financing what must be the 99-year-old institution’s most ambitious season, including a massive tribute to the memory of our greatest American composer who left the world so much richer in 2021.

After the Playhouse’s magnificent mounting of Sunday in the Park with George in February, I wondered how they could possibly match such an achievement—especially tackling Night Music which, though honored worldwide for its incomparable score and classically stiff-backed tribute to the world of American musical theatre beyond real good clambakes and problems with Maria, it's definitely a piece that can fall flat onto its voluminous petticoats.

Au contraire, my friends, this production is an absolute wonder, especially presented with Wilson Chin’s exquisite scenic design impressively lit by Jared A. Sayeg and framed within the Playhouse’s ornate century-old Spanish Colonial Revival proscenium arch. Simply, Pasadena Playhouse is the quintessential venue to present this particular musical masterpiece.

Utilizing the auditorium’s built-in side stages to extend the playing space and bring the action even closer to its appreciative audience, director David Lee’s staging is sweeping and lyrical, an undertaking that could easily rival anything offered in any venerable Broadway house at any point in time.

Based on Ingmar Bergman’s celebrated 1955 romantic comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, frequently chosen as one of the most important films of all time, Sir Steve’s musical adaptation also takes place in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, where below the austere manners and proper social decorum, the private lives of the participants are anything but virtuous.

With a worldclass ensemble cast able to bridge both the punctilious and the lascivious natures of the story’s participants, Lee and company have managed to pay consummate homage to both the complex compositions and subtle risqué humor of Sondheim, not always something successfully executed.

Merle Dandridge is revelatory as the morally ambiguous Desiree Armfeldt, a well-known actress noted not only for conquering the classic stage roles but also commandeering the hearts and libidos of men—usually the married ones—wherever she travels.

Dandridge quickly makes the iconic role her own, bringing not only a charismatic bohemian sexuality but a loving humanity to the character that makes anyone in range forgive her indiscretions. The charms and world-weary remorsefulness of Desiree culminate in Night Music’s most memorable ballad, “Send in the Clowns,” in which the actress is surprisingly able to overcome the indelible memory of the original Desiree, Glynis Johns, who won a Tony for her evocative croaked-out interpretation of the song Sondheim wrote especially for her.

Michael Hayden also breaks through the stereotypical bluster of Desiree’s former lover Fredrik Egerman, now a prominent lawyer recently married to the giddy and still sexually repressed 18-year-old Anne (Kaley Anne Voorhees), delivering a finely drawn examination of midlife crisis that’s usually played far more comedic than empathetic.

The women in the cast in general overshadow the men, not necessarily because, unlike Tennessee Williams, Sondheim and the show’s Tony-winning bookwriter Hugh Wheeler have concentrated on the female characters. It’s not that Chase Del Rey as Fredrik’s woebegone son Henrik and Ryan Silverman as Desiree’s terminally misogynistic dragoon lover Count Malcolm aren’t fine in the roles; it’s just that their costars are the clear standouts.

Sarah Uriarte Berry as the Count’s long-suffering wife Charlotte and Ruby Lewis as the Egerman’s sexually adventurous maid Petra both bring down the house with Night Music’s other pair of classic tunes, “Every Day a Little Death” and the eleventh-hour “The Miller’s Son,” respectively, while Jodi Lee as Desiree’s retired courtesan mother finds a new gentler poignancy to her solo “Liaisons.” And as Desiree’s too-wise preteen daughter Fredrika, Makara Gamble makes an auspicious debut in a role often played by precocious young actors working too hard at being cute who don’t quite grasp the I’ve-already-seen-it-all nature of the character.

Under the musical supervision of Darryl Archibald and a phenomenal full onstage orchestra led by musical director Alby Potts, the cast must also be praised for its collective vocal prowess, especially with Georgia Belmont, Jared Bybee, Kimberly Dawson, Oriana Falla, and Arnold Geis winding in and out of the action as the musical’s onstage Greek Chorus.

And oh, did I mention Kate Bergh’s truly magnificent costuming? Her intricate and well researched period-perfect designs could not be a better complement to the production as they shimmer and glow and sweep elegantly across the stage under Sayeg’s creamy lighting; if the theme of this year’s recent annual Met Gala had been “Into the 20th Century,” Bergh’s creations could dress the most fashionable superstars walking the red carpet.

There are no druthers to chronicle in this brilliant and well-timed revival of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, a production that solidifies Pasadena Playhouse’s position as one of the most notable—and steadfast—regional theatres in America.

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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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