Friday, April 24, 2009

review - Ain't Misbehavin'


Ain't Misbehavin'

The Fats Waller Musical Show

conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz

directed by Richard Maltby, Jr.

Ahmanson Theatre

through May 31

Jumpin', jivin', jammin'. Jubilant, joyful: a jimdandy show. It originated in 1978, winning every conceivable award on Broadway and still holds up, 31 years later, as one of the best musical revues of all time. The reason is simple: Thomas "Fats" Waller's music is timelessly entertaining, and the performers DELIVER!

Two things set Waller apart from other composers of his era. Of course, his signature tunes like "The Joint Is Jumpin'" have that undeniable swing. That's a given, but who can match his one-of-a-kind sense of humor? "Your Feet's Too Big", "Fat and Greasy", "The Ladies Who Sing with the Band", "Cash for Your Trash" have lyrics and rhythms of comedic genius. And, on the opposite side of the fence, what about his uncanny ability to create beautifully stylized melodies with substance? "Black and Blue" is perhaps the quintessential ballad about living black, yet the words and notes are unadorned and dynamically underplayed. A quiet masterpiece!

It is impossible to single out one performer over the other. Doug Eskew, Armelia McQueen, Debra Walton, Roz Ryan and Eugene Barry-Hill are all sensational, whether performing together or individually. And so is the orchestra under the great musical direction of William Foster McDaniel. These are seasoned pros, who love the material and make us love it equally.

These folks COOK. The show is pure ecstasy.

5+ out of 5 stars.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

review - No Way To Treat a Lady

No Way To Treat a Lady
book, music & lyrics by
Douglas J. Cohen
directed by West Hyler &
Shelley Butler
Colony Theatre
through May 17
No Way To Treat a Lady was a uniquely popular film in 1968, in that it was a dark thriller with comedic undertones. Its theatricality gave Rod Steiger an opportunity to show a great range of characterizations, and to George Segal, Lee Remick and Eileen Heckart wonderfully rich roles as real people forced to deal with a serial killer's demented delusions.
The musical is quite an ambitious project for one Douglas J. Cohen, who developped the book from William Goldman's novel... and the music and lyrics as well. Previously produced twice off-Broadway, this production at the Colony marks Lady's west coast premiere, and it is a divinely fresh and pleasant entertainment.
What is most engaging about Lady on stage is watching its two protagonists play out their parallel lives, which are so radically different yet so unbelievably similar. Both mama's boys and workaholics, but failures at their individual endeavors, Morris (Kevin Symons) and Kit (Jack Noseworthy) have a difficult time living up to any expectations, and the conflict becomes one great big duel to see who will win. An interesting feature is that Morris, a cop assigned to the serial murder case, not only is pressured by his Jewish mother Flora (Heather Lee) and his new girlfriend Sarah (Erica Piccininni), but also by the murderer who slyly keeps in touch with Morris by phone. In fact, Kit not only announces his victims to Morris, but also takes credit for Morris' promotion on the case. But will Morris be able to find Kit before Sarah becomes his ultimate victim?
The cast, with skillful dual direction from Hyler and Butler, is a delight. Heather Lee plays both mothers, and three of Kit's victims effortlessly. A dandy character actress, Lee is funny with all the women and even manages to keep the Yiddish, Irish and Italian accents in place. Move over, Meryl Streep! Symons makes the perfect mensch with Morris, flustered and frustrated in his professional and personal life. Noseworthy, such a wonderful singer, has the opportunity of a lifetime to show versatility with Kit Gill, and he is more than up to the challenge. Piccininni is sweet and intelligent as Sarah and does some lovely singing with 2 of the show's best numbers: "So Far, So Good" and "One of the Beautiful People".
Of course, good champions over evil, and Kit Gill is the loser - no surprise, especially for a musical, but the whole show as a theatrical sparring match is such a treat, and, it actually does offer a surprise: the music is good and so easy on the ears.
5 out of 5 stars

review - Back to Bacharach and David

Back to Bacharach and David
a musical event
The Music Box @ Fonda
through May 17

Being a huge fan of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's work, I was thrilled to see the announcement of a brand new show in appreciation of their great musical heritage. I am also a big fan of Kathy Najimy and her edgy work as a comedienne/actress. Najimy directed Back to Bacharach and David, and I must admit, I was disenchanted at the overall effects of the evening.
The one positive about this music is that it is true pop and inherently upbeat. Even when a character is down in the dumps as in Promises, Promises, he or she finds a way up and out of the doldrums through singing a happy tune. Music, afterall, moves the soul, and like laughter, makes one smile when sad. That said, my main objection to Back to Bacharach is its overt insistence on being cute and hip. Bacharach and David's music has built in energy and joy. It is not necessary to force it or restructure the arrangements to make them zippier for an audience. Many of the song arrangements in this revue are so radically different that the songs become unrecognizable. The result: I was not moved. "A House Is Not a Home" is a beautiful song that usually moves me to tears. Not so here. Put into a medley, its simple message loses power. Medleys allow more songs to be performed, especially when there is a large repertoire to offer. But too many medleys have a tendency to distill unique songs rather than empower them.
There are some wonderful exceptions during the 75-minute set.. The Promises, Promises medley is terrific and also the combination of "Windows of the World" and "What the World Needs Now" heightened by background images of Mother Theresa, etc... and same-sex marriage. This was a wonderful moment.
The four lesser known performers: Diana de Garmo, Tressa Thomas, Tom Lowe and Susan Mosher make some beautiful sounds together and individually, especially Thomas and de Garmo whose powerhouse instruments are most effective on standards like "Walk On By" and "Anyone Who Had a Heart". Lowe does nice work with "Alfie" and also does quite well with the fast-paced choreographic moves he is called upon to deliver. I would have preferred to see one more male singer in the group, though. The three females often overshadow the one male, creating an imbalance.
Najimy's concepts/scenarios are never boring, but there could be less of them. When the four artists just sing, the song is the thing... and the show is at its best.
If it takes new arrangements (Steve Gunderson) to get a younger generation to pay attention to Bacharach/David, then so be it. I am already a fan and would have been much happier with a more traditional approach.

3 0ut of 5 stars

Saturday, April 18, 2009

check out 2004 Debbie Reynolds Interview

Legendary actress/singer/comedienne Debbie Reynolds returns to the El Portal Mainstage April 29-May 10 with her critically-acclaimed evening of comedy and song. I interviewed the one and only DR in 2004 when she first appeared at the El Portal in Love Letters. Check out this fun interview @ Grigware Interviews. it is located directly below my 2009 Interview with Jeff Trachta.

Friday, April 17, 2009

review - Lydia



by Octavio Solis

directed by Juliette Carrillo

Mark Taper Forum

through May 17

There's an unforgettable line in James Goldman's The Lion in Winter, where Eleanor of Aquitane intones, "Every family has its ups and downs". In Lydia, currently at the Mark Taper Forum, the 70s Mexican-American family depicted are crushed victims, all: father, mother, younger and older sons are hanging in there, daughter Ceci barely. In the course of 3 hours, Octavio Solis smacks us in the face with so many raw emotions that by play's end, when we hit the air outside, there is a sigh of relief that the pain is over, but, I found myself not regaining a true feeling of comfort or sense of balance during the two days after seeing Lydia, such is the impact of this powerful piece of poetry.

I did not live in a family like this one or experience the excruciating pain of Ceci (Onahoua Rodriguez), left completely paralyzed after an auto accident, but I did fear my father's wrath, sense my mother's insecurity and have the growing pains and passions of first love. These universal qualities are enough to make an audience relate, especially for a woman to feel the "ball of fire" Ceci describes growing inside her. Through Solis' revelatory execution, Ceci, although practically a vegetable, becomes normal for minutes at a time and confides to the audience her feelings and reactions to those around her. It is the newly hired mojada or 'wetback' maid Lydia, who through a similar past accident, bears a spiritual connection to young Ceci. Lydia and Ceci become inseparable, and Ceci channels through Lydia the horrors of her accident, also involving her brother Rene and cousin Alvaro with whom she was passionately consumed.

Under Juliette Carrillo's fast paced and fluid staging, Rodriquez is amazing, particularly in her physical portrayal, as one minute she is in liquid motion and the next on the floor writhing in isolated pain. Such a challenge for an actor to carry off and Rodriguez does it magnificently! Stephanie Beatriz plays Lydia with a streetwise and coquettish sense of humor that disguises her mysterious nature. Carlo Alban is heartwarming as the young son Misha, the teenager who would rather write poetry than play football to the chagrin of dad Claudio, played with vehement machismo by Daniel Zacapa. Tony Sancho is the brash homophobic brother Rene and Max Arciniega, the elusively perplexing Alvaro. Catalina Maynard rounds out the outstanding ensemble as mom Rosa, desperately clinging to her faith at all costs.

Two lines of Solis stay with me: "Peace of mind? What is it?" and "There's never any why?!" Life's sorrows are inexplicably devastating. And the finale, obscenely raw, but with genuine pathos, is the ultimate act of love. My only misgiving with the entire play is the blatant and painful reality that it mirrors. Like O'Neill before him, who painted images with total realism, Solis is a playwright to be reckoned with.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, April 10, 2009

review - Voice Lessons

Voice Lessons

written by Justin Tanner
directed by Bart DeLorenzo

Zephyr Theatre
through May 17

Great characterization makes a script tick. Think of The Glass Menagerie without Amanda Winfield, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest without McMurphy, or the screenplay Fatal Attraction without Alex made so undeniably unforgettable by Glenn Close! And, without argument, the actor's performance heightens this character! Such again is the case with Ginny in Justin Tanner's newest play Voice Lessons. Her schizophrenic nature and nonstop prattle rivet our constant attention and Laurie Metcalf's brilliant portrayal of her makes an otherwise pathetic and despiccable creature - get her out of here or as Bette Davis so aptly put it in All About Eve: the heave ho! - unbelievably fascinating and funny. You love her; you hate her, simultaneously.
Metcalf is totally open to the moment and allows herself to react without limitations. This makes her crazy Ginny acceptable, at least sympathetically. Though we may find her, as does Nate (French Stewart) awkward and obnoxious, we realize the antogonism comes from a much deeper place and that a far bigger payoff is in store. In fact, this wanna be singer - who cannot carry a tune - deludes herself into thinking that she is actually charming her voice teacher Nate into a loving relationship. The results are catastrophic and unbridledly hilarious. Add a third character Sheryl, another atypical love interest for Nate, played with an hysterically vengeful force by Maile Flanagan, and Tanner has created the triangle from hell.
As brilliantly as Metcalf opens up and cuts loose, Stewart is equally marvelous in holding back, as in his reactions of disbelief and agitated malaise.
Tanner's writing is deliciously way off center and over-the-top, and with Bart DeLorenzo creating the perfect phrenetic pace, the 55 minute piece whizzes by in what seems like a flash. Instrumental musical background between scenes of the very theatrical Phantom of the Opera and West Side Story, to name a couple, enriches the highs of the action, as does Ginny's favorite love song, whose infamous popularity- gotta love it, gotta hate it- makes the perfect finale for this twisted story.
This is theatricality at its best, and is just about the funniest one-act I've seen in a very long while!
5 out of 5 stars

voice lessons plays the zephyr

Laurie Metcalf costars with French Stewart in Justin Tanner's newest one-act Voice Lessons at the Zephyr Theatre.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

review - Mauritius


by Theresa Rebeck
directed by Jessica Kubzansky
Pasadena Playhouse
through April 26
From the moment the curtain rises on Mauritius, you know you are in for something unusual. With its exotic lighting cues and darkly forboding musical sounds, the tone is set for a spellbinding experience. As in David Mamet's American Buffalo, we are led realistically into a quaint little collectors' shop, this time not for coin collectors but rather for philatelists. The action of trade-off begins immediately in the first scene, and then, little by little, characters and their motivations are made clear. No boring first act setups here; the bottom line has top priority. Rebeck's gripping tale, Kubzansky's dynamically focused direction and a ferociously committed ensemble make Mauritius, now at the Pasadena Playhouse, a first-class stunner.
And what an education about stamps! Never having collected, I didn't know the first thing about their value, particularly those with errors, but I do now. There is much to value in this little play, which cannot be classified a thriller, as murder is not an issue, but it is nonetheless, thrilling, as passions collide and explode quite feverishly. Twists and turns, moreover, are abundant and will keep you riveted 'til the end.
The cast is super. Kirsten Kollender as Jackie plays an innocent with moxie who, due to personal pressures, turns into one savvy and smooth operator. Her performance is excellent, as are those of Ray Abruzzo as the slick and despiccable Sterling, John Billingsley as the jaded and unsympathetic Phillip, Chris L. McKenna, funny and likeable as the pawn Dennis, and Monette Magrath so fine as the nasty and selfish sister Mary. All get a chance to show both good and bad sides of their personality.
Tom Buderwitz' rotating set is a mesmerizing antique, especially Jackie's and Mary's mother's dilapidated homestead.
When you first read that this is a play about stamps, it may not grab you, but believe me, you don't want to miss it! It's as surprising, engrossing and entertaining as good theatre can get.
5 out of 5 stars

Palm Springs Revisited - Follies & Jeff Trachta Live!

Jeff Trachta & yours truly after a performance of Jeff Trachta Live!

John Davidson & yours truly after a performance of The Palm Springs Follies. Forever young: Davidson, that is!!
The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies
This is my second visit this season to the Follies for Get Your Kicks on Route 66. It's one of their best shows thus far. Terrific toe-tapping, gorgeous costumes, and dynamic guest stars truly make a difference. First up last fall it was glamorous Freda Payne, followed by another beauty Susan Anton (who will return for the final week of May - and will open next year's season from October to December 31, 2009) - and now forever boyish John Davidson. As charming as all get-out at 68, Davidson woos the ladies in the audience with his love songs (also the title of his newest CD) and seductive banter. His energy onstage is dynamite, and with or without his banjo, he can still croon a tune! Kudos also to Sammy King and Francisco, who, by the way, are presenting their farewell performance this year. What a classic comedy act! Also praise to the adorable Russian poodles with Irina Markova. Added since I last saw the show is a fabulous second act salute to Broadway with "Lullaby of Broadway" and the title song from 42nd. Street. It's a knockout! Leonard Crofoot, Randy Doney, Judy Bell and the oldest living showgirl Dorothy Kloss, now 85 - and what gams! - are but a few of my very favorite Follies' guys and gals.
Don't miss this extravaganza through May 17!
5 out of 5 stars
Jeff Trachta Live!
What more can I say about Jeff Trachta? He was my Entertainer of the Year for 2008 and continues to be in 2009. His show is sold out every weekend at the Spa Resort Casino. This man is a super talent: he can sing, he is funny, and does one of the best impressions of George Burns I've ever heard. His multi-screen backdrop of backup singers - that are all played by Trachta - works so terrifically throughout the one-hour show. The Justin Timberlake number, now in brown leather jacket, really rocks!
Jeff, you are a truly amazing performer and bring such joy to your audience. Like fine wine, you keep getting better and better - and... you're not too shabby on the eyes either!
5 out of 5 stars
PS See my latest interview with Jeff Trachta @ Grigware Interviews.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Beth Grant in world premiere Cornelia @ Old Globe in San Diego

The world premiere of Cornelia, by Mark Victor Olsen (Big Love), directed by Ethan McSweeny (In This Corner), to run in the Old Globe Theatre May 16 – June 21 (press opening: Thursday, May 21 at 8pm), will co-star Beth Grant (pictured), Melinda Page Hamilton, who will play “Cornelia,” and Robert Foxworth. Grant is just coming off the critically-acclaimed first season of Logo's Sordid Lives by Del Shores.