Sunday, August 31, 2008

Review - Vanities, A New Musical

Vanities, A New Musical
book by Jack Heifner; music & lyrics by David Kirshenbaum
directed by Judith Ivey
Pasadena Playhouse
through September 28
I have been a fan of Jack Heifner's play Vanities since I first saw it in the 70s in New York with Swoosie Kurtz and Kathy Bates. Part Steel Magnolias, part Designing Women, and making Sex in the City possible, it is an ode to the strength and comraderie of women through the years. This brand new musical version holds up beautifully due to a wonderful ensemble, very humane direction from Judith Ivey - she really keeps the three women grounded - and because...well, gosh, darn it, you just feel good all over as you exit the theatre.
I am not a woman, but I can relate to Mary's desire for freedom from her surroundings, Joanne's naivete and closed-mindedness and Kathy's obsession for organization. I would most like to be Mary, if I could choose, probably because her independence takes her far and makes her more carefree and tolerant and to top it all, she enjoys herself every day of her life. We all need to have more fun, as long as it is not at the expense of others. Lauren Kennedy (Mary), Sarah Stiles (Joanne) and Anneliese van der Pol (Kathy) play their roles to the hilt and have a glowing chemistry. Ivey's direction and Dan Knechtges' musical staging are fluid and fast paced from start to finish, and the music by David Kirshenbaum is buoyant and meaningful. Mary's yearning to "Fly Into the Future", Kathy's disappointment with "Cute Boys with Short Haircuts"and Joanne's attempt to hold on with "The Same Old Music" are wonderfully substantial in expressing each character's emotion.
I graduated from high school in 1964, lived through Kennedy's assassination, moved to New York in the 70s (what an eye opener as compared to small city living) and really found myself identifying with the action onstage. As men and women are equally affected by change, both sexes may find abundant parallels and a sense of humor in the lives of these three typical American galpals.
The vanities (Anna Louizos) change perfectly into lockers and other set pieces. Having the women make their costume changes onstage via song from scene to scene aids fabulously in making the time segments connect rapidly and believably.
As Heifner is quick to point out in the program, the dictionary definitions of 'vanity' all fit the meaning of the show: excessive pride, emptiness or folly and, of course, a dressing table.
Whether we choose to accept it or not, life changes and seeing this musical will certainly make that change, sometimes like a bitter pill, easier to swallow. Take a friend or loved one along; better still, call an old friend later, one that you haven't seen in a long while, find out what he's been up to and wish him well!
5 out of 5 stars

Review - Beethoven, As I Knew Him

Beethoven, As I Knew Him
text by and starring Hershey Felder
directed by Joel Zwick
Geffen Playhouse
through October 5
Hersehy Felder's artistry at the piano is a marvel. I could and would listen to him play a recital of Gershwin or Chopin or Beethoven for a couple of hours at any time, night or day. Beethoven, As I Knew Him, his newest play into which he interweaves Ludwig van Beethoven's cherished works, is at its best when Felder puts his fingers to the keyboard. It is when he speaks as Beethoven or Dr. Gerhard von Breuning, the young man whose father idolized the musician, that the piece becomes dull and humorless.
This is not due to Felder's lack of expertise as an actor - hardly, for he changes characters quite skillfully, and his accent is more than adequate. It is because the life of Beethoven was so sad that there needs to be some levity to make it click theatrically with the audience. And that never happens within the text of this play as written. Diehard fans of Beethoven will hang on every word and note, but for most, the truth is much too heavy a price to pay.
It is 1870 as the play opens and Dr. Breuning takes us back to his youth in Vienna as his father Stefan and he became involved in the life of the genius Beethoven. We learn of Beethoven's terrible childhood where his father hit him furiously on a regular basis and threw him into the cellar for no apparent reason. There was also the case of his two brothers Johan and Karl, and nephew Karl, who abused him financially and emotionally. He was alone with his art, the only real consolation, which became even more crucial as he gradually started to go totally deaf. When a man can no longer hear the sounds of this world, how can he compose the most beautiful sounds imaginable? Felder conjectures that Beethoven's mind had entered the realm of the spiritual world, that he heard the voice of God. The coda to the play is also quite fascinating. Breuning became a doctor and exhumed Beethoven's body to perform an autopsy and examination of the skull bones that would hopefully show scientifically how a completely deaf man could become a phenomenal musical genius. Nothing resolved, but interestingly enough, the bones eventually made their way to California, where they remain in someone's possession today.
All of this is interspersed with Beethoven's immaculate compositions including some of the concertos and sonatas from the three periods of his creative life - and herin lies the best part of the evening, especially as interpreted by the very fine musical savvy of Hershey Felder.
The projections on the screen behind the proceedings are especially effective like the one of the Countess, of whom Beethoven was so enamored: mobile within her portrait.

3.5 out of 5 stars
Recommended for the angelic music and for Felder's brilliant interpretation of it.
(Photo credit: Michael Lamont)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Concert Review - GMCLA 30th Anniversary

(top: Della Reese and Donzaleigh Abernathy) (middle: Joely Fisher flanked by Tippi Hedren and Abernathy) (bottom: Erin Hamilton with mom, the one and only CB)
Photo credit: Bill Dow

Indulging us with a little bit of history since its inception in 1979 - with a heavy emphasis on the Civil Rights Movement, some meritorious political rhetoric against Prop 8, and a whole lot of excellent musicianship, GMCLA (the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles) presented their long, yet enjoyable 3-hour gala 30th anniversary concert Monday, August 25 at the Walt Disney Hall downtown. Joely Fisher, pretty, spunky and deliciously droll, served as MC (named an honorary lesbian and gay man). Upon her first entrance she proclaimed that since Margaret Cho said no to hosting the event, who else could they ask that would be least likely to refuse? Well, Fisher filled the bill splendiferously, and even sang in the second half of the program: "All the Good Men Are Gay", punctuating her intro with "Fuck Kristen Chenoweth!" Gifted belter that she is, Fisher ignited the capacity house.
Guests included the ageless and still incredible Della Reese singing "I've Been Touched by an Angel" (the one she wrote with accompanist TC Campbell, which CBS did not use as the theme for the series - they should have - it's good!) and her own rocking "Work It Out". Then came Erin Hamilton, Carol Burnett's beautiful youngest daughter - who knew she could sing so well??? a new diva for the pop world- electrically rendering John Lennon's "Imagine" and "One World" (her own riveting composition with Scott Anderson).
The second half included a verbal and musical ode to gay marriage with guest partners George Takei and Brad Altman - who are just about to legally tie the knot, a lovely rendition from the chorus of "We've Only Just Begun" and 2 dynamic solos from guest Levi Kreis who sang the "Sordid Lives" theme and a world premiere "Look How I've Grown". A rollicking "Brand New Day" from The Wiz ended the evening which included a welcomed return from Ms Reese and a gorgeous encore from the group"Take Me to the World".
The opening Prologue from Ragtime was a bit too ambitious, but Billy Rugh did well with the choreography within the limits of the stage. "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" and "Cancion con todos" were two of the most memorable highlights from the chorus. A formidable display of artistry by one and all! Bravo!
Don't miss the chorus in their regular shows this special 30th year-season at the Alex in Glendale!

Monday, August 25, 2008


As U2 Like It
The Troubadour Theater Co
directed by Matt Walker
Falcon Theater
through October 12,
in repertory with
Alice in One Hit Wonderland
What do the Bard and Troubie have in common? The Bard wrote a play as an entertainment for the masses. In today's day and age, there is no better American theatrical company of actors to perform Shakespeare's work than The Troubies, whose dual purpose is to entertain and yet entertain some more. Shakespearean actors are allowed to be broad, for it's all in the words; Troubie style is over the top, big time, and bawdy to boot - and so, a perfect match. As U2 Like It, currently in rep at the Falcon with Alice, is one of their finest. All the ingredients come together for a magical evening: great acting, great singing, pretty set and costumes; you name it, this production could not be better.
Stealing much of the show is Rick Batalla as Oliver. Proclaiming himself a totally different guy in three disguises, Batalla is drop-dead hilarious in all of them. Gaining attention from the audience as well is handsome prince-charming and well worth ogling over Matt Merchant as Orlando. Delightful in the comic relief roles are Audrey Siegel as Phebe and Matthew Morgan as her less than desirable suitor Silvius. Katie Nunez is a knockout as Celia. What a voice! In a smaller role as Jacques, Beth Kennedy (see my interview with her on the interview page) is just magnificent. Her big speech "All the world's a stage", in which she interprets the 7 stages of man, is alone worth the price of admission to this show. As melancholy Jacques, Kennedy never cracks a smile. Her white-face harlequin look is intact until the very end. It's an eloquent and stellar turn! Walker, whose direction is impeccable as always, stands back in the lesser role of Touchstone with his masterful panache and comic flair.
Costumes by Sharon McGunigle are elegant; the set by Sherry Santillano is a perfect fit for both plays, and the band...just the best: Eric Heinly, Thomas Dryaton, Mitchell Sigman and Pocket Honore.
No need to go to Stratford for an honorable replication of Shakespeare; it's right here at the Falcon. They sneer that U2's songs all sound the same; that may be true, but they certainly work well in tandem with the Midsummer Night's Dream-like plot of As You Like It. Shakespeare would delight in such boldness!
5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Cabaret Review - BaulPointPen

(left to right: Ben McLain/Paul Peglar)
Sterling's Upstairs @ Vitello's
Saturday, August 16
Deliriously playful and clever, artists Ben McLain and Paul Peglar created quite a sensation in their supper club debut @ Sterling's Upstairs @ Vitello's on Saturday, August 16. Their act, known as BaulPointPen, is described as a best-friend singing comedy duo. There's a brotherly rapport between them as with Martin & Lewis or Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, projected with a very upbeat attitude that is now and a satirical flair that is totally original. Their style is structured, yet loose and their comic timing, fast and furious. Supported by an established 10-year friendship, the boys' chemistry is undeniably sharp, making their hour onstage pass by much too quickly.
Each has a distinct vocal styling: McLain has an incredible range from Broadway baritone to opera; Peglar's is more pop oriented with a terrific head-voice akin to that of Frankie Valli. They alternated positions at the mic and piano, essaying one or two standards, some showtunes and a few delightfully screwball originals. Highlights included McLain's beautiful rendition of Pavarotti's "Nessun Dorma", a hilarious "Tears on My Pillow", involving an impromptu encounter with a member of the audience, Peglar's great Jersey Boys audition, "Crying"/"I Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You", and his own silly composition "Cheesy Love Song".
McLain's "Defying Gravity" replete with broomstick and green face was a hoot, as were the two typically frustrating LA audition sequences with McLain trying to sing, in one of them Sondheim's "Giants in the Sky", for a sadistic/nonplused director, Peglar. Also extremely satisfying were their own off-the-wall versions of "I Love LA" and the scat-like finale of "Friend Like Me" from Aladdin.
What appeals to me most in a fresh new act is that special way the performers somehow manage to act, be funny and sing with complete naturalness and sincerity. McLain and Peglar are first and foremost good actors. They possess the talent, charisma and breakthrough inventiveness that hit the jackpot: BaulPointPen was a knockout. And to think they put this show together last March; it takes most talents years to come close to such genius! Stay tuned for future engagements!
5 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 4, 2008

Review - Assassins

Photo credit: David Elzer

book by John Weidman; music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
West Coast Ensemble
directed by Richard Israel
extended thru September 28
All Americans are entitled to the American dream, even those who assassinate a President. After all, there is a thin line between a spectator and a perpetrator: they are both cut from the same mold. John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim quite brilliantly show assassins throughout American history - those that succeeded and those that failed. The current West Coast Ensemble mounting boasts an outstanding cast and superior direction.
Motivation for the crimes is ever so carefully explored. It is most fascinating to note that assassins were motivated in many different ways: some by money, some by social status; some thought they were saving the United States from injustice by casting out its tyrannical leader, and still others just wanted some lasting recognition. What do they have in common? They were hated, but are forever remembered - more readily in fact that many
illustrious celebrities!
Richard Israel guides his actors efficiently and economically in this grande and bold parade across the tiny stage. Standouts include Shannon Stoeke as Lee Harvey Oswald, John O'Brien dynamic as Samuel Byck, who planned the death of Nixon, and Christopher Davis Carlisle as John Wilkes Booth. Also notable are Andrea Covell as Emma Goldman, Steven Connor as Charles Guiteau, Darrin Revitz as Lynette Fromme and Johanna Kent (musical director and understudy) as Sara Jane Moore, who plotted against Gerald Ford. Dana Reynolds makes a lovely Balladeer.
Sondheim's music is intellectually and emotionally potent in "Another National Anthem", "Everybody's Got the Right", "Something Just Broke", especially meaningful for those like myself who lived through that cold Friday in November of 1963 when JFK met his maker, and the very popular "Unworthy of Your Love".
The show had only moderate success on Broadway in 1991, but it is much better suited to a small theatre. Psychological drama needs intimacy to reap its full-fledged effect. West Coast Ensemble courageously and memorably makes Assassins their own.
It's a five-star hit!