Saturday, January 31, 2009

Review - Stormy Weather

Stormy Weather
book by Sharleen Cooper Cohen
choreography by Randy Skinner
directed by Michael Bush

Pasadena Playhouse
extended through March 8

Based on a biography of Lena Horne called Lena Horne, Entertainer, Sharleen Cooper Cohen's Stormy Weather is a challenging stage production, which incorporates Horne's original musical hits and a myriad of complex issues: struggles with her up and down career and sufferings from a pained personal life. Michael Best's staging is very good, placing the orchestra behind an array of mirrors that put Horne and her life on display. His use of a staircase leading into the orchestra pit for some of the actors' entrances and exits gives credence to Horne's scattered memories that seem to flash in from every direction.
The only argument I have with the book is that we need some kind of theatrical device to set the scene. Yes, Horne is about to have a nervous breakdown and needs to search her past for answers that may lead to an eventual catharsis, but is she doing it for the sake of a film or memoir, or is she just doing it? Ray Charles Live used an after-life recording session as its premise; I don't believe we have one for Stormy Weather.
That aside, the show is a winner in the super capable hands of its stars Leslie Uggams (the older Horne) and Nikki Crawford (Horne in the early days). Uggams has the role of a lifetime and relishes every second onstage. Even when she is simply looking on at the proceedings, her involvement is scintillating. She has vocally never sounded better and uses her acting chops most effectively to lend urgency and guts to The Lady's pain. Crawford sings equally well and is perhaps even more beautiful than Horne herself. Both deserve many plaudits for their fine work.
The supporting parade of actors are all marvelous: Cleavant Derricks as Horne's father, Robert Torti as music arranger and Horne's second, devoted husband Lennie Hayton, Kevyn Morrow wonderful as the lonely Billy Strayhorn, and Dee Hoty exceptional as Kay Thompson, vocal coach and authoress, who befriends Horne at MGM. Her gal pal Eve Arden type lends terrific support and comic relief. This is the kind of role that wins Best Featured Actress Tonys, and Hoty makes Thompson boisterous and opinionated, yet unstoppably humorous and likeable. The rest of the great ensemble deserve the highest admiration as well, including Yvette Cason as Edna Horne, Bruce Katzman as LB Mayer - and Jordan Barbour and Philip Attmore - unbelievable dancing duo!
Musical highlights include "Love", "Stardust", "Lush Life", "From This Moment On", "How Deep Is the Ocean", "Come Rain or Come Shine", "The Lady Is a Tramp", "Push De Button", and two gems for Miss Uggams: "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Yesterday, When I Was Young". Her undeniable no-holds-barred attitude with the first and sweet, low-key melancholy with the second are knockouts! Of course, the finale and title of the show "Stormy Weather" is
icing on the cake.
Musical artist, champion Civil Rights advocate, or just plain lady, Horne deserves the highest recognition and and no one could do it with more class than Leslie Uggams. This is a show to cherish.
5 out of 5 stars

ps I did not know that Max Factor created Light Egyptian for Miss Lena Horne. It certainly seems unforgiveable that LB Mayer stabbed Horne in the back by giving Ava Gardner the role of Miss Julie in Showboat and then to top it all lent Gardner Horne's makeup!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Review - Music and Memories

Actress/singer Karenssa Lagear and pianist extraordinaire Wayland Pickard as the one and only Liberace are in Escondido at the Welk Resorts Theatre for one more week performing the fabulous Music and Memories through February 8. Lagear as guest artist lends her gorgeous legit soprano to a song from The Scarlet Pimpernel ( the next attraction at the theatre) and assists Pickard as his guardian angel at the top and end of the show.
I have seen Liberace: Back From Heaven at least 3 times and would travel far to catch it again. I keep hoping, as I am sure Pickard does: next stop Las Vegas. This show is that good, not only because Pickard is a superbly talented pianist but more importantly - he captures the charisma and outlandish style that was Walter Valentino Liberace - better than any performer/ impressionist who did or is currently doing him.
Highlights in the 90-minute set include a wide variety of musical tunes, among them Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Memory" from Cats, "Classical Gas", Debussey, Hollywood Movie Classics like "As Time Goes By", John Barry's "Somewhere in Time", Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Lee's signature tune "I'll Be Seeing You".
It's a glorious evening of Music and Memories that audiences of all ages will enjoy.
Pickard changes costumes (what a treat!) and wears makeup designed by Oscar-winning Kevin Haney... that is so real you'd swear you were looking at the legend himself!
5 out of 5 stars

Friday, January 23, 2009

Review of MTF/DWT's Pippin

book by Roger O. Hirson
music & lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
directed & choregraphed by Jeff Calhoun
Mark Taper Forum
through March 15
In 1972 Pippin opened on Broadway and became one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history, closing in 1977. Stephen Schwartz's bubbling optimistic tunes made the surreal and sensual mood of the piece an ultra-pleasant experience for theatre goers. One actually left the theatre humming the score. Throughout the dreamlike texture of Pippin's quest for his "Corner of the Sky", however, there blooms a simplistic, timeless message that reverberates to this day. So, even though the brand new production, co-produced by the Mark Taper Forum and Deaf West Theatre is visually more opulent, more scrupulously detailed and more complex (due to the even larger cast) than the original, the pieces of the puzzle all fit into place - original director Bob Fosse would approve - and the play's substance is untarnished. Director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun may take a bow for his simply stunning ambition.
Talking about opulence, scenes were not only interesting to watch because of the exquisite sets and costuming (Tobin Ost), but due to the constant unpredictability of the proceedings, like hands and feet popping up regularly in Fosse-esque rhythm through holes in the floor. On a different note, I saw Irene Ryan in constant movement onstage in the original staging of "No Time At All", but here Berthe (heavenly Harriet Harris) remains stationery in a hoop skirt, but wait until you see what's under it with her. And the frolicking in the red-silked bed with undulating bodies appearing as if from nowhere is a sensual eyeful. Thank heaven for Calhoun's extraordinarily perverse visions! It is also a treat to view many of the illusions incorporated here that were so popular in Schwartz's Magic Show (1974).
As in most Deaf West productions, roles are double cast with both hearing actors, who talk and sing, and hearing impaired actors, who sign. Pippin is beautifully interpreted by deaf actor Tyrone Giordano (remember his indelible Huck Finn in Big River?) and Michael Arden (his gorgeous voice sang Pippin a couple of years ago at Reprise). Side by side they complement each other like two halves of the same person. A boy and his alter ego. One reacting one way and the other perhaps the way he wishes he would. Quite a brilliant perspective, which adds further depth to the boy's quest for happiness. Another dimension here is the deaf man's longing to succeed singularly in the hearing world that opposes him.
The entire cast is splendid. Ty Taylor is a dynamically sizzling Leading Player, like Ben Vereen before him. Both Giordano and Arden make Pippin totally vulnerable and believable. Character performances are all wonderful: Sara Gettelfinger makes a deliciously cunning Fastrada; Melissa van der Schyff wins our hearts as the forthright and homespun Catherine; Harris is hilarious as usual (although I would have preferred an older grandmother a la Eileen Brennan, Cloris Leachman or Estelle Parsons); Troy Kotsur is formidable as Charles and James Royce Edwards is fun to watch as the bemuscled narcissist Lewis. Bravo to the rest of the ensemble as well!
This is a glorious show for everyone. It brings hope into a normal: empty, vacant life and really makes one think hard about his priorities.
Superior production!
5 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 19, 2009


Dressed in a loud autumnal-colored flowery shirt and tight yellow pants and backed by 3 powerhouse singers reminiscent of the Mamas and the Papas, STEVE GIDEON opened his splashy new cabaret show The Happening at The Canyon Club in Agoura Hills on Wednesday, January 21 to an intimate and very enthusiastic audience.
I have admired Gideon as an actor/singer since the 90s when I first saw him in Naked Boys Singing and Marry Me a Little. His spark truly lit up that little Sondheim show (reconceived for 2 gay males) and made it cook. I must admit that I would rather see him in a musical play than on the cabaret stage. But, the pleasant surprise in this singing gig (there are other performances scheduled at different venues around town) is his fierce commitment to and love of this material. 60s and 70s music has soul; it's an actor's dream. And Gideon's wildly colorful exuberance and drive certainly put a unique spin on it. "Aquarius" moved him, moved through him and as a result, engaged us in active hand clapping, gyrating and even sing-along. I know I enjoyed myself! A Jimmy Webb song became more than just a familiar tune; it was like listening to a poem with newly discovered nuances of meaning. A perfect example was "Wichita Lineman" which I fondly remembered only because of Glen Campbell; with Gideon's clean interpretation, I really listened to the lyrics and reveled for the first time in the songwriting.
Other highlights in the 75 minute set include Joni Mitchell's beautiful "Chelsea Morning", Billy Joel's "Summer Highland Falls", Laura Nyro's infectious"Son of a Preacherman" - one of Gideon's best deliveries - James Taylor's lovely "Shower the People" - another great moment for Gideon, Elton John's "Tiny Dancer", the Beatles' "I Will" and Paul Simon's "America".
Another rich part of this show - apart from the performers - is that it's sort of a laid-back, easy to digest historical look at the 60s and 70s and how music changed through the decades. Gideon calls Simon & Garfunkel the Currier & Ives on acid and proceeds to show that from 1968 ("America") to 1973 ("American Tune") serious issues in history like the Matin Luther King assassination and the moon landing affected the composition of music in both tone and texture. The fun part of this show within its limited patter is defining -via a Hippie dictionary - the catch phrases of the period, like happening, groovy, ya' dig?, tab and flower power.
The backup Happeningettes - Minta Mullins, Tod Macofsky and Evelyn Halus (a much slimmer Mama Cass - but with an equally pure golden set of pipes) are delightful to watch and hear, so delightful in fact, that I wish we would hear a little more solo - and combo singing from them! Musicians are wonderful as well: music director Jeff Colella at piano, Kirk Smith on bass, Rod Harbour on drums and Jumpin' Jack Madjecki on guitar - he really sets that ample stage ablaze.
We had a totally cool happening!
Look for the show at the M Bar on January 30!
And don't forget Steve Gideon's solo CD Feels Like Home which you may purchase after the show!
As for Michael Sterling and his second venue Broadway in Concert at the Canyon as a regular weekly Wednesday night feature - the first being his Sterling's Upstairs at Vitello's on the weekend - what more can I say? You're the greatest for spreading cabaret to the west end of the San Fernando Valley!
Food at The Canyon Club is superb. I had a succulent Rib Eye - choice of steak, salmon or lemon caper chicken - served with the most unusually delicious garlic mashed potatoes and mixed veggies, tasty salad and smooth chocolate cake for dessert. It's a great meal and show in an ambiance that reminded me of the House of the Blues (same designer, I'm told!) for a bargain of a price. Call for the package price and reservations at 818-879-5016, or check Ticketmaster and be sure to visit:
The Canyon Club
28912 Roadside Drive
Agoura Hills
Every Wednesday is booked through February!
Next up: TV actor Geoffrey Going on January 28, followed by Adam Simmons on February 4.
Post Note: So saddened by Steve Gideon's passing from us on May 1, 2009. He was a fine entertainer whose contributions to the gay world of entertainment will never be overlooked. He proposed the concept for the gay version of Marry Me a Little, which Stephen Sondheim later approved!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

West End Report for 2008-2009

Stan Mazin Reports

I just returned from London after spending my yearly 8 nights there and here are my mini-reviews of the shows seen...

Zorro, the Musical... a delightful funny show filled with wonderful talent and probably my favorite show seen there. Matte Rawle is terrific as Zorro, and the queen of the gypsies, played by Lesli Margherita would make Chita Rivera proud. And the flying and sword play are well worth the price of admission.

La Cage Aux Folles was staged in a very small space so there were only 5 cagelles (I'm told usually 6, but many were out due to flu, etc.). Even the role of Georges (ZaZa) was played by the 2nd understudy, and the audience gave him a standing ovation (very rare in London). I honestly missed having a couple of real girls in the lineup, so the audience would always be pondering which ones were real women, etc. But the show had much heart, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Treasure Island, by no means a children’s show, had plenty of fighting, and smoke, but not much else... a hearty try, but much like a beautifully wrapped package, and afterwards, you forgot what it contained.

Piaf is a beautifully directed, acted, and sung biography starring an incredible Elena Rogers. From start to finish, I was enthralled. I had seen a production of Piaf (a different book, I believe) starring Elaine Paige many years ago, but I think this production is better directed, even though I loved that one as well.

Well is a well meant play concerning the relationship between mother and daughter. The daughter was wonderfully played by Natalie Casey, while the mother was played by Sarah Miles, and one couldn't help but think that she had Ruth Gordon in mind while playing that role. I wanted more.

Carousel was a fairly well produced show with choreography by Adam Cooper (the lead swan in Mathew Bourne's Swan Lake). Since I come from a dancing background I am more affected by that, and I felt the only time the choreography stood out for me was Louise's ballet in Act II... but the show was still quite good.

A Little Night Music was directed by Trevor Nunn, and put on in a little space called The Chocolate Factory, and it was completely sold out... so I waited very early for returns, and thankfully we were the only first 2 persons they let in that night. This was a wonderfully directed, and beautifully sung show, perfectly lit, with the exception that for me, I would have preferred the exact lighting, only a little brighter all around. The result was that in the beginning overture and waltz, one might think we were watching Sweeney Todd instead. Other than that, the evening was a smash for me.

I wanted to see Imagine This, as I was told it was wonderful, even though it did not get such great reviews, but it closed 1 week prior to my arrival... so I had to choose another show, and I had seen many of the American versions of the shows running, but even though I saw Jersey Boys in NYC, I chose to see that again. It was better than the NY version, which I loved... one minor, minor improvement could have been the crispness of just a few of the movements of the guys... but I am being so picky now... it was a fabulous show.

And finally the last night there I saw a show at the Hippodrome called La Clique, which was supposed to be like a burlesque of sorts. It was a variety show including an aerialist from America, a comic singer, a contortionist, and among others a strip tease with the same woman whom I had seen do the same strip on You Tube that someone sent me. An amusing show, with no program, so I couldn't even give you any names... sorry!

Looking forward to New York in April.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

First Mini-Review of 2009


Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
featuring the songs of Neil Sedaka

book by Erik Jackson and Ben H. Winters
directed & choreographed by Troy Magino
Cabrillo Music Theatre
@ Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza
through January 18 only

In its West Coast premiere, Breaking Up Is Hard To Do is a look back at the 60s when rock and roll, oversized hairdos and hoola hoops were all the rage. The scene is the Catskills, NY where performers poured their hearts out in song - to find the right manager or agent and resorted to just about anything, including backstabbing and vicious deception, to make it big.

The production, which had its world premiere in Branson, Missouri, has a neat cast, snappy choreography and, of course, the frolicsome tunes of Sedaka to allure, but the charm and intimacy get somewhat squelched on the Kavli's large stage. I've always thought that Mama Mia would have been so much more quaint and picturesque on a smaller stage, but "where's the profit in that?" you query.

That critique aside, I had a good time, and if nostalgia is your grab bag, so will you. The entire ensemble including Eileen Barnett, Julie Dixon Jackson, Nathan Holland, Ryan Nearhoff, Jeff Leatherwood and Leslie Spencer Smith are terrific. Audiences will delight in the chance to participate, especially in the "Happy Birthday Sweet 16" and "Calendar Girl" sequences. The humor is corny, the visuals silly, and there's nothing substantial to take home, except the image of a nice long walk down memory lane.

4/5 stars

WeHo's Macha Theatre GETS NAKED