Sunday, August 30, 2009

review - Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins

Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins
written by Brian Christopher Williams/directed by Richard Israel
West Coast Ensemble
through October 4

Every once in a while a play comes along that knocks your socks off. Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins by Brian Christopher Williams is this year's Best Play. I cannot believe that it has not yet had a New York production, but it is to the credit of Les Hanson, Richard Israel and West Coast Ensemble to mount a brilliant and riveting West Coast premiere engagement that I could see over and over again.

Why? First, this is a chronicle of the 70s and Williams' perception of the times and the characters who lived through them is so accurate, it forced me to relive my own experiences. How I trembled at being number 8 in the Viet Nam draft lottery and like Chaz (Nick Niven) would have done just about anything to avoid going to fight in a senseless war. Or how I shivered with pleasure at seeing a perfectly toned male form in the gym shower just as Horace did (Wyatt Fenner). What shame and guilt I felt! Or how my parents cursed at God for not answering their prayers or just plain cursed at everything, like at what I did wrong, which seemed to be just about everything under the sun. What deep hurt we bear as children!

This is a personal memoir of one young boy living in New York state who happens to be gay and trying to find his own voice from age 7 to 15. The play moves backwards in time and shows via TV reporters on the local news channel what was going on in the world and the Poore family's reactions to it all. The Poores are a typical family of real people, who, even when it doesn't seem to be the case, do truthfully care about their kids and their survival. Through some combined efforts at self-improvement and with a lot of faith and support, they do move mountains. Small hills perhaps, but some change is better than none at all.

The ensemble is amazing. Fenner lives and breathes his every moment onstage. Retreating to his tree-house for solitude and comfort (for me it was my bedroom, as we were apartment dwellers), he started to type out his private thoughts and feelings at a tender age, the earmarks of a true writer. Niven makes the rebellious prodigal Chaz an understanding, caring and forgiveable figure. Jan Sheldrick as mother Etta and Tony Pandolfo as father Myron are so believably real in their strengths and flaws, I felt like I was watching my own parents. Nick Ballard as coach Jake Spencer is surprisingly three-dimensional as he essays honestly both the macho and sensitive sides of his complex jock. Sara J. Stuckey is unforgettable as the retarded girl Agnes, who must only use an anguished cry to convey her unfulfilled yearnings. Madelynn Fattibene is terrific in a variety of roles including Anita Bryant, whose twisted Christian morality she wisely underplays, and Sean Owens as the male TV reporters ably completes the sterling cast under Israel's tight, illuminating direction.

This is a play that demands to be seen. For those that lived through the turmoil of the 70s it is as vivid a recollection as you will find anywhere. For those too young to remember, it is a rich and urgent segment of your education. Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins represents, not the hope for perfection, but the hope for a time when we may at least accept the separate beauty and grace that each human being has to offer our world.
5+ out of 5 stars

CABARET review - Bitter, Party of 3 @ Sterling's

(l to right) Kelly Dodson, Jon Paul Burkhart and Josie Yount performed their act Bitter, Party of 3 @ Sterling's Upstairs @ Vitello's Saturday, August 29 to overwhelming audience approval. Every song they picked dealt with a personal complaint, mild to vehement, like...for example, that an actor may have about the auditioning process or that a neighbor has against a noisier neighbor, etc

Both Yount and Burkhart are splendid character actors, and with a keen sense of comedy to guide them, can be ultimately expressive in the execution of a tune. Yount, for example, had a field day with "The Girl in 14 G" where she really showed off her incredible vocal range as well as in Jason Robert Brown's enjoyably stinging "Climbing Uphill" a no-holes-barred sendup of casting directors/producers/directors who don't listen to the auditions set before them. Burkhart, the clown with the rubbery face, was a hoot in his duet with Yount "The Song That Goes Like This", and then showed remarkable versatility with his sweet, serious take on "I Can't Make You Love Me". Dodson is less flambuoyant than divaish Yount, wears little makeup - presenting herself perhaps a bit too plain -but does have a lovely voice and did a beautiful job with Scott Alan's gorgeous "Fly Away (Never Never Land)". She could have done more with the humorous "Alto's Lament", but faired better with Yount on Stephen Schwartz's "What Is This Feeling" from Wicked. May I suggest to Dodson, without being overly critical, that she pretty herself up more next time around, and - go for it!

Whether in solos, duets or as a threesome, Dodson, Burkhart and Yount wasted no time talking, but did a solid hour of singing, and for the most part, it was a very engaging and entertaining set.

Perhaps next time, they could create a little spoken dialogue or sketch to enhance their Bitterness. After all, all 3 are successful actors with the acclaimed Musical Theatre of Los Angeles (MTLA), whose future engagements you cannot afford to miss. I hear Evita may be on the horizon?

Once again, kudos to Michael Sterling who has been the backbone, along with partner Tony Monsour, of the phenomenal 3-year success story of Sterling's Upstairs @ Vitello's, the premiere supperclub of the San Fernando Valley.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

review - Gaslight

written by Patrick Hamilton
directed by Charlie Mount
Theatre West
through September 27
When Gaslight premiered on Broadway in 1941 it was titled Angel Street; the film in 1944 was renamed Gaslight. The devilish Mr. Manningham (really Steven Powell) abiding on Angel Street: clearly an ironic twist! Gaslight remains a more complex and intriguing title. Whatever its name, the play as a Victorian thriller, when done well, is both utterly suspenseful and charmingly melodramatic. Theatre West in its Chestnut Series (Revivals of Great Plays) and producer/director Charlie Mount are presenting a truly handsome and polished production of the classic.
Those familiar with the movie will forever remember Ingrid Bergman's astounding performance, so the play must have an outstanding leading lady to play Bella Manningham, slowly and methodically being driven insane by her conniving husband. The audience must be convinced of her innermost fears and desperation. Corinne Shor fits the bill, providing much, much more. In her hands, Bella is girlsihly gitty, charming, devoted, kind and totally vulnerable to Manningham's (John Cygan) despiccable lies and manipulation. Cygan underplays, creating the perfect villain: he appears debonnaire with every move, in fact, every woman's dream, and yet with a sudden and subtle turn of phrase, metaphorically sends a poisonous arrow straight to Bella's heart. The older servant Elizabeth has a delicate comedic flair in the fine performance of Mary Garripoli, and lovely Emily Bridges makes Nancy a saucy temptress in her seduction of Manningham - something the wonderful Angela Lansbury could never have done on film due to the strict censorship of the time. Of the excellent ensemble, it is Don Moss as Inspector Rough who steals the show. His momnet-to-moment absent-mindedness and unexpected clever ability to figure out the most minute details of the crime add great humor to the proceedings. The set design by Jeff G. Rack is elegant, especially the reds, as are the costumes by Valentino. Mount's direction is impeccable, making the entire production as sumptuously entertaining as a hearty Beef Wellington. Britannia rules at Theatre West!
5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Megan Mullally - TV or stage struck?

Megan Mullalley and I chat after a performance of The Receptionist @ The Odyssey!
read my review below!

James Snyder - Young Oedipus

James Snyder, 2008's Cry Baby in John Water's Broadway musical, is now onstage with Matt Walker and The Troubies at the Falcon Theatre. What an affable young man and very appealing onstage-an eyecatcher in his mini-costume as a Greek soldier!
Be sure to pick up his solo rock CD L.A. Curse available at Lionsgate.

Friday, August 21, 2009

review - Making Good @ The Ford Amphitheatre

This last in the series of Wicked Summer Nights concerts
was undoubtedly the best. It boasted the introduction on the West Coast of Stephen Schwartz's new opera Seance on a Wet Afternoon, narrated by Schwartz and sung magnificently by Lauren Flanigan and company. Act II was a fitting celebration of Schwartz's past works with a lineup of very exciting, and mostly fresh, lesser known talents.

Act I, selections from the opera

I am not an expert in the world of opera, but Seance is hauntingly beautiful. Based on the 60s film of the same name that brought Kim Stanley to international attention as one of our finest actresses, the various emotions of greed, desperation, fear, hope and love are all evocatively expressed in operatic form by Schwartz, in his first opera. Master artists Flanigan as Myra (Stanley's film role), Steve Pence as her husband Billy, Aaron Refvem as 11 year-old deceased son Arthur, Michael Marcotte, and Hila Plitmann and John Kimberling as the despairing parents of the kidnapped little girl Adriana were all outstanding.

Act II, the concert

As with Pippin, this was magical with an abundance of starry performances. Highlights included the sensational Valarie Pettiford, essaying "Magic To Do" with finesse and fine Fosseesque flair, Elizabeth Brackenbury delightfully drole with "It's An Art" (Working), to my mind one of Schwartz's most clever songs, "All For the Best" (Godspell) with Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Barrett Foa in top form, Michael Arden in a surprising turn with "I Guess I'll Miss the Man" (Pippin), usually sung by a woman, Nicole Parker with a soaring "West End Avenue" (The Magic Show), another favorite of mine, a sumptuous duet by Lauren Flanigan and Terrence Mann on "Wanting" (Rags), "In Whatever Time We Have" (Children of Eden) with solid vocals by Jenna Leigh Green and Michael Marcotte, a dynamic "Proud Lady" by dashing David Burnham and a lovely "Meadowlark" by Tammi Tappan Damiano. Schwartz performed the finale at the piano "For Good" (Wicked). Instead of thanking everyone in words, he did what a composer does best, he sang a composition that shows the deep warmth an artist has for his endearing public. It left me in tears.

A terrific, unforgettable evening directed by Billy Porter, with musical direction by Chris Bratten and executive produced by Upright Cabaret's Chris Isaacson and Shane Scheel!

Now we can look forward to the new Upright Cabaret that opens August 29 in its new locale at 1714 Vermont Street in Hollywood.

Call 310-652-5252 for tix or visit:

Thursday, August 20, 2009

review - Oedipus the King, Mama

Oedipus the King, Mama
Troubadour Theatre Co
directed by Matt Walker
Falcon Theatre
through September 27
Oedipus the King, Mama opens on a surprise note. Matt Walker, Beth Kennedy, Rick Batalla and Jen Seifert come out on stage in black dressy attire and announce that due to economic cuts they have no band and will engage the audience with a staged reading of the Sophocles tragedy. Then enters sexy bare-chested James Snyder as a Greek soldier. The 5 start to dispute the pointlessness of this entire change of format - "It's beneath me!" states Kennedy - and proceed to leave Walker alone onstage with a tiny black and white sketch he has drawn of the set, taped to a metal music stand in front of him. Walker looks out at the audience and throws up his arms. (Pause). GOT 'YA! It's just a joke. Now let the mayhem begin! A very bright and unexpected introduction, a nice change of pace - I loved it!
Then once the story starts unfolding, it's a good 20 minutes before things really start to heat up. Yes, there is a very Monty Pythonesque Greek chorus and a wonderful Elvis costume and pompadour wig for Walker, who, as always is a creative genius onstage with his constant ad-libs, and some fine renditions of "Devil in Disguise", "Return to Sender", "Suspicious Minds" and "Teddy Bear". But, despite the off-the-wall efforts of Walker and fabulous cutup Rick Batalla as Creon, things really don't start to COOK until Kennedy makes her first entrance as Jocasta. Bewildered and attracted simultaneouly, Walker as Oedipus sucks from...well, I won't ruin it for you, but suffice to say, raw humor and a heavy emphasis on the grotesque dominate the show. At one point, perplexed beyond reason at how to explain their unnatural relationship to Oedipus, Jocasta heads into the audience as if in a trance, makes her way slowly along the front rows and then unexpectedly scales the bannister, with the agility of a monkey, to the top row - and low and behold - yours truly became a character in the play on opening night. Walker shouted, "Don't pick Don Grigware! He'll write about this!" Funny, funny stuff! Kennedy sat in my lap, grabbed my notes and delivered a rapid-fire ad-lib about my likes and dislikes of the show to that point. Lies, lies, all lies! There were a lot of laughs, and, thanks to the resourcefully brilliant Beth Kennedy, it was a terrific bit of comic relief to help lighten the horrorific plotline that follows: Jocasta's suicide and Oedipus' undoing that entails gauging out his eyes! In true Troubie fashion, blood spills and squirts everywhere, and so typical in Greek tragedy, it's just one mess after another!
A double tribute at the end to the King of Rock and Roll and a special one to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson with "Beat It" really blew the audience away.
Praise to Lisa Valenzuela, Mike Sulprizio, and the entire ensemble, and once again, it was great to see James Snyder dance and sing the Young Oedipus/Elvis. He has an exciting future in musical theatre.
All in all, Oedipus is not the Troubie masterpiece that were last season's offerings - Alice and As You Like It, but, nonetheless, whatever the Troubies create adds a touch of color to the horizon. And considering the depressing nature of Sophocles, what better way to explore it than through the wild, freaky interpretation of the deliciously crazy Troubadour Theatre Company! Always remember: Just a little bit of Troubie is better than no Troubie at all!
4 out of 5 stars

review - The Receptionist

The Receptionist
written by Adam Bock
directed by Bart DeLorenzo
Odyssey Theatre
through September 20 - extended through November 21, Saturdays only @ 5pm and 8pm

Those who like plays to have a clearly drawn perspective and a definitive ending will not take to The Receptionist. From the opening monologue, delivered to an unknown party, Mr. Raymond (Jeff Perry) shows his contempt for torture. When he catches a fish, for example, rather than watch it die, he prefers setting it free; if the gills are damaged, however, he will put it out of its misery inflicting as little pain as possible. The next scene takes place in an office with a receptionist, Beverly Wilkins (Megan Mullally) going about her daily routine of answering the phones, talking, and straightening out her desk and the lives of everyone around her. There seems to be no connection between the 2 scenes, except that Raymond works in the office. This unpredictability becomes a staple in The Receptionist, and you either like it or you don't. I happen to like it, and here's why.
First of all, routine in an office is dull; it's the people who make the atmosphere tolerable, and in some cases even pleasant. Beverly is a New York yenta, with a husband who would rather buy a teacup (he has a collection of them) than pay the phone bill and a needy adult daughter who relies on her parents for constant nurturing and support. Beverly relishes doling out advice about men and dating to her girl friends over the phone between business calls and to co-workers like Lorraine (Jennifer Finnegan), who would rather flirt than work. Routine, routine, routine. Beverly orders a birthday cake for her boss, serves up coffee, picks up the mail and sorts it, greets clients: Beverly is a Jack of all trades in this office as most receptionists are. Everyone has come to rely on her. She's a rock. Mullally is so adept at creating a character in depth - meticulous to a fault with every detail and so much fun to watch. She knows how to get a laugh by simply arranging the pens in a cup. And she has plenty of heart! Finnegan plays Lorraine with exuberance and a breath of fresh air, and the two co-workers, though like day and night, get on favorably.
A break in routine. In walks Martin Dart (Chris L. McKenna), a tall and handsome executive from the main office, wanting to speak with Mr. Raymond. It is important to note here that we, the audience, never find out what business these people are in. Are they insurance brokers, product manufacturers, or something far more devious and unspeakable? When Beverly explains that Mr. Raymond is not in his office, Dart prefers to wait and he does. Wouldn't he have made an appointment? Or if he did, is Raymond avoiding Dart's visit? We never actually find out what Raymond did except that he stopped following protocol, for after he does appear, he and Dart argue in the office behind the front desk and Raymond is ordered to leave, to head out to the main office with Dart - for punishment? - to the dismay and preoccupation of Beverly and Lorraine.
Getting back to basics. Two things make this mysterious play a must see. There is an underlying suspense that builds, little by little. And... it has a delectably dark sense of humor. We laugh when Dart and Lorraine begin flirting innocently - or is it? - with each other, but underneath we feel her fretful suspicions...of his presence and its consequences. And all of this emanates from a supposedly boring day at the office where nothing ever happens. As a temp, Bock must have longed for some change or folly to assuage the monotony of the daily grind. Perhaps the play was conceived as an imaginary diversion for the working class man?
Mullally is the second reason to see The Receptionist. She makes us laugh and at the same time care deeply about what is happening to Beverly Wilkins. There is an abrupt transition in her outlook, a paralyzing fear comes over her face, and we are afraid for her life. Mullally's is a subtle tour de force performance.
As written, it is the two female characters that are allowed to shine; the men have little to do but move the story forward.
DeLorenzo directs with an expert sense of the unknown, at least of how to fine tune it within the banal trappings of the menacing corporate world.
4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 15, 2009

review - Billie and Bogie

Billie & Bogie
back-to-back solo shows written by performers Synthia L. Hardy (Billie Holiday)
& Dan Spector (Humphrey Bogart- Bogie)
directed by Bryan Rasmussen
Whitefire Theatre
Saturdays only at 8pm through August 22
The obvious question arises: why put stories about Billie Holiday and Humphrey Bogart on the same bill? What did the 2 legends have in common? She was a blues singer; he a movie star. Both lived and performed during an era - the 30s, 40s and 50s -when elegance reigned supreme. Celebrities were regarded as bigger than life and were in a class by themselves. But, they were human after all, and in these 2 solo pieces Billie and Bogie, the masks are stripped away for an hour or so and we are allowed to see them warts and all. People with the same addictions as many others; thus, a common thread for Billie and Bogie.
In Billie, written and performed by Synthia L. Hardy, the singer enters a dressing room/rehearsal space backstage and must face 3 reporters about to interview her before she performs a concert. She is agitated, to say the least, cursing, drinking and imploring the journalists to erase the swear words. Once she settles down and fixes a drink or two for herself and her Piano Man (Lanny Hartley) who sits quietly, awaiting her orders to rehearse a song, she begins the story of her unsettling life. We learn of Miss Holiday's drug abuse - which she calls "old news", proclaiming that she is now "clean" - and how her first husband Jimmy Monroe introduced her to opium, her young girlhood given over to prostitution and incarceration, and her rather haphazard introduction to the music business.
What is fascinating about this piece are all the little lesser known details of Holiday's life tapestry, like the deep love for her mother - the glue of the family, how Billie was raped at age 10 and then unfairly branded a seductress, the black man's plight/suffering and the difficulty for Holiday being the first black woman in an all white band (Artie Shaw). Details build methodically and meaningfully through Hardy's intense, intimate portrait and enrich one's understanding of Holiday's bitter yet compromised attitude. Hardy may not sound exactly like Holiday but does a fine job with 7 tunes within the structure of the piece, including "Them Their Eyes", "God Bless the Child", "My Man", "Good Morning Heartache" and the unforgettable "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do".
Overall, the play has a solid structure, with the interview establishing its purpose, and a fully committed and richly personal performance by Hardy.
Bogie, on the other hand, has less urgency. He is not being interviewed, but, for some unknown reason, allows the public in on a private moment at Romanoff's after he wins the Oscar for The African Queen. He chides the press for trying to follow him in, so from the start the play seems to exist solely for the glimpse we get of the crusty icon portrayed most convincingly by Dan Spector. At certain moments when Spector cocks his head or sits forward at his private table at the restaurant, he looks and intones eerily like Bogart.
Hardly a bad boy, his gangster film image, he was more a Little Lord Fauntelroy as a child dressed up like a "dandy" by his snobbish Episcopalian mama, the wife of a drug-addicted surgeon. Bogie's most serious vice? Alcoholism. He drinks and drinks, eats a few bites of French toast, plays chess solo, "an intellectual exercise", talks with levity about his wives and one's gravely serious mental disorder. He says very little about third wife Lauren Bacall, but implies that she, the last, was his most meaningful partner.
He proclaims his passion for sailing, talks about John Huston and his irritating directorial habit of doing take after take, and brags about his own ongoing affair with an assistant -"not one person can satisfy all your needs". Flaws abounding, it is the feisty, honest Bogie who wins our hearts, sharing his indolence, low-class qualities, and impetuous nature. I loved that he put down his performance in The African Queen - totally unjustified - "I was a jackass and Huston let me do it" and that he praised Brando for his work in A Streetcar Named Desire, implying perhaps that Brando should have won that Oscar as Best Actor. Bogie's taking a pee in an offstage restroom with the door open is yet another unforgettable "I am who I am" moment.
There's a consistently loose structure for Bogie, which may very well assist Spector in creating a seemingly spontaneous and undeniably real portrait of the legend.
In summary, a strong, intelligent and enjoyable "slice of life"evening of theatre in 2 very distinct worlds of show business with 2 memorably passionate portrayals. Fluid, well-paced direction by Bryan Rasmussen.
4 out of 5 stars

review - Legally Blonde The Musical

Legally Blonde
The Musical
book by Heather Hach
music & lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin
directed by Jerry Mitchell
Pantages Theatre
through September 6
Omigod! You mean, like, Elle Woods isn't from the San Fernando Valley, but from Malibu? Wow! And- she not only attended college locally but got into Harvard Law School? May seem a bit far-fetched or too hard to swallow, but it doesn't matter, because once you've seen Elle in action, she's irresistible: a cross between Goldie Hawn, Glinda from Wicked and a splash of Mary Poppins thrown in for good measure. You're gonna love her, guys, so run, don't walk to the Pantages and get tickets for this grande spanking, freshly blossomed pink rosebud of a show. If you liked Reese Witherspoon, you will adore perky Becky Gulsvig and everyone else in the fantastically sugar-coated extravaganza Legally Blonde The Musical.
I never saw the film but it only took a few scenes for me to fall in love with the overly-optimistic story and the excessive giddiness of the characters. When Elle enters Harvard Law School for the first time dressed as a majorette with marching band in tow, Blonde had me hooked. And it's all for the sake of love. How can you top that? Gulsvig and troupe radiate big time. Also captivating are Natalie Joy Johnson as the good-hearted Paulette, Coleen Sexton as fitness guru/accused murderess Brooke and Elle's rival Vivienne, vixen Megan Lewis - and all of Elle's Greek chorus: Rhiannon Hansen, Cortney Wolfson, Crystal Joy, Gretchen Burghart and Sara Sheperd. And the men in the show, who learn to treat their women well: Jeff McLean as Warner, Ken Land, so disgustingly overbearing as Professor Callahan, sweet and dependable Emmett, played by magnetic D. B. Bonds and Brian Patrick Murphy as Kyle, the sexiest, Irish jig-dancin' UPS guy I've ever seen! Oh, and who can forget the 2 most loveable canines to tread the boards in a while: Frankie as Bruiser and Nellie as Rufus!
Benjamin and O'Keefe's swinging score is fresh and tingly and Mitchell's fast-paced choreography is crowd-pleasingly sensational.
This is not Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Webber, so you need not worry about the serious side of life. Leave that to Elle, who strives to be serious, but has an awful lot of fun as well.
Warning: there are issues of sexual harrassment, infidelity, deceit, homosexuality and lesbianism, and even murder...and some cases of... poor taste in clothing and..omigod, bad hair, but it all sort of meshes together in what seems like one big happy colorful dream, so lighten up and bring the kiddies! What's the bottom line? A bright evening of laughs and a lot of sunshine.
5 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 10, 2009

Diva Don Loves Meryl Loves Julia

Julie & Julia: my second film so far this summer! Very rare, indeed, pour moi! Not that I don't like film, I do, but I spend so much time attending theatre, that there is little time left for movie going. Anyway, Meryl Streep is so delightful as Julia Child I found myself laughing consistently throughout the 2+ hours. My lifetime partner Alan, who passed 12 years ago, used Mastering the Art of French Cooking all the time. He was quite the chef, and I still have the girth to prove how much I enjoyed those gourmet meals he prepared. He loved Julia, and I, despite my inability to boil water, used to watch her TV show on the food network quite regularly with him. She was an individual that really had a good time teaching people how to cook. What a character! If she dropped a chicken on the floor, she picked it up and simply laughed at her mistake. Streep is having an equally good time playing her. As a matter of fact, a friend and I were recently talking about what makes this actress so much better than many of her contemporaries - she enjoys what she's doing and the work never shows. She's just having so much fun! Now, if only I could learn a thing or two from all of this, my life would be a whole lot happier.
Bon appetit!
ps Oh, did I mention the movie made me hungrier than usual?
-diva d

Thursday, August 6, 2009

CABARET review - Kara Stephens @ Sterling's Upstairs @ Vitello's

Kara Stephens made her cabaret debut From the Soul Sunday, August 9 at 7pm at Sterling's Upstairs @ Vitello's. The wholesome blonde has a lovely, versatile instrument that she used to great effect in the one-hour set, which included multiple guest stars. In fact, there were so many guests she might have appropriately entitled the evening Kara & Friends. She performed solo on only 5 of the 13 numbers. It became quite a variety show. Nothing negative implied as the group did not lack talent - there was an abundance of it. However... Miss Stephens has a strong aura and is gifted enough to go it alone.

Highlights of the set included the wonderful "Alto's Lament" that describes the agony a chorus singer, who is fully capable of carrying the melody, must go through when she is consistently cast to sing in the lower range. Backup singers, especially, appreciate this complaint. Stephens soared on Scott Allan's gorgeously poignant "Kiss the Air", with musical director Steve Lang's jazzy "Somebody Else" that he composed for character Lois Lane to sing on TV's Smallville, on the humorous "His Name" that tells of meeting the perfect man, but not being able to remember whether he was called Charlie or Drew and with her encore the soulful "Misery": quite a variety of song stylings that demonstrated Stephens' remarkable range as a vocalist.

Guest Shaun Samaro performed "Here's Where I Stand" and joined Stephens for "The Journey". Petite Bailey Quist did a rollicking "Gimme, Gimme" from Thoroughly Modern Millie and dueted with Kara on another standout Scott Allan tune "I'm a Star". Stephanie Wood and Dianne Baker engaged us with "For Good" from Wicked, and Nicole Barnhart joined Stephens for an evocative rendition of the mesmerizing "Flight".

The finale was one of my favorite numbers from Kander and Ebb's Chicago: "Cell Block Tango" that reunited Stephens with Quist, Barnhart, Wood and Baker. This is a delightfully dark justification of each murderess's crime against her man and proved to be a shining moment for the gals, as they wowed the packed audience.

This was a fun evening of cabaret for Kara Stephens' first time out. The next time she should go solo, for she has the chops to carry a show all by herself. She's a fine vocalist with great promise.

review - Life Could Be a Dream

Life Could Be a Dream
written/directed by Roger Bean
Hudson Mainstage Theatre
limited engagement through September 27

Roger Bean's current off-Broadway nostalgic musical hit The Marvelous Wonderettes with 60s female rock group classics performed in the style of an intimate concert could very easily be considered the female counterpart of the long-running all-male musical giant Forever Plaid.
Bean has wisely changed formats in creating Life Could Be a Dream, his world premiere male version of The Wonderettes. On the heels of the international success of Mama Mia, he has concocted, not a revue, but a more traditional book-type musical play in which the various 60s rock songs are cleverly utilized to advance the plot. To take but one example, a nagging mother complains about her loafing son and then, imitating her, he bursts into song with "Get a Job". It's heavenly to hear such golden oldies played out within a brand new story context -from an era we've lived through and can relate to on levels of joy and anxiety. It's the story of an all-boy singing group out to win a radio contest. The smart and inspired incorporation of a beautiful female sponsor and coach (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and an Elvis-like adonis from the wrong side of the tracks (Doug Carpenter) to magically give the group its 4th singer works wonders in magnefying audience appeal. Inside out, from top to bottom, Life Could Be a Dream is a winner.
The entire cast are magnetic. Like the boys in Plaid, there are distinct characters that Bean, for guaranteed comic effect, plays out to the extreme. The most obvious is the nerdy and awkard Eugene played to the hilt by versatile Jim Holdridge. To give Eugene a romantic edge with Lois (Wynn) because of a past flirtation, is nothing short of comic genius. It works dynamically, all the boys fall madly in lust for her, and this element keeps the audience in stitches for a very long space of time. Then there's the leader, the dreamer Denny played solidly by Daniel Tatar. His name must go before everyone else's, until Skip (Carpenter) shows up. Of course, there's the dutiful choirboy Wally - a religious boy meant so very much back in the 60s - played beautifully by Ryan Castellino. He receives the least comedic attention of the mix but stands apart with his lilting voice. Carpenter as Skip is a forceful leading man that dominates the stage when he's on, as did Robert Goulet in the 60s. Skip's back story becomes poignant and tender, especially with Lois' loving attention. Not enough praise can be given the stunning Wynn whose true beauty shines from within.
There are some vibrant musical arrangements by Bean and Jon Newton, like "Tears On My Pillow", "The Wanderer", "The Great Pretender" "Duke of Earl" and a glorious 'angel' medley.
The boys shimmy, shake and do all the right bodily moves thanks to choreographer extraordinaire Lee Martino. Ever reliable Michael Paternostro serves as musical director.
Basement set by Tom Buderwitz with a staircase, partial laundry room and cluttered memorabilia is period perfection, as are Shon LeBlanc's costumes. Loved those blue (leopard panelled) bowling shirts and the finale in black and leopard. Leopard is in!
Bean's direction is tight and his script, playfully cute. Listen for the 60s take on superglue! This little show is heaven-sent and will run everywhere for many years to come - and may even beat out that ...aforementioned classic...
Does it really matter? There's always room for nostalgia well done and, as served up here, Life's to LIVE for.
5 out of 5 stars
ps On a constructive note, change the group name from Denny and the Dreamers (with Skip in the lead) to just The Dreamers.

The Original Golddiggers @ the El Portal

(Top: the Golddiggers with a radiant Connie Stevens on opening night - photo credit: Ed Krieger)
(Bottom: left to right: Jackie Chidsey, Nancy Sinclair, Rosie Cox Gitlin, Suzy Cadham, Sheila Allan, and Susie Ewing, original Dean Martin's Golddiggers from the 60s-70s perform at the El Portal for 5 shows only: Thursday August 6 thru Sunday August 9!!)

Directed by Joe A. Giamalva, this was a memorable but far too short evening for fans of these ladies. They are all quite lovely and can still sing and kick up their heels. Palm Springs Follies & Riff Markowitz, take notice!
They performed a bevy of old standards including "You Make Me Feel So Young", "Three Coins in the Fountain", "I Love Paris", "Welcome to My World", "Strike Up the Band" and so on, accompanied at times by original clips of The Dean Martin Show and Bob Hope's USO Tours on a screen behind. They also filtered questions from the audience, which included TV luminaries like Peter Graves and Connie Stevens on opening night, and invited a gentleman onstage to dance with them in a sort of Dean For a Day, reminiscent of Queen For a Day. Comedians Ronnie Sperling and Jerry Hauck did a 20-minute audience warmup. Though somewhat fun, their routines could soarly use updating. The audience were more than happy when the Golddiggers finally made their entrance.
The El Portal and the Golddiggers make an elegant match, and I certainly hope to see more of these ladies in future engagements.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Julia Migenes or Aldonza or Schubert's muse?

At the after party for Franz Schubert, Julia Migenes and I chat about how she was the perfect Aldonza in Reprise's Man of La Mancha last February. "I wanted to be simply... Aldonza."

see review of Schubert below!

review - The First Wives Club @ Old Globe in San Diego

The First Wives Club
a new musical
book by Rupert Holmes;
music & lyrics by
Holland, Dozier, Holland
directed by Francesca Zambello
Old Globe Theatre, San Diego
Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage
through August 23

From film to musical stage: though hardly original, it seems to be the steadiest solution to filling the large theaters of The Great White Way. 10 years ago the Old Globe hosted the musicalization of The Full Monty, which translated quite appealingly to the stage...and now so does the new effort from Rupert Holmes and Holland, Dozier, Holland: The First Wives Club, so popular with movie audiences in 1996. There's something about a good movie script: when it's that good (this one by Robert Harling), the storytelling will translate well to just about any medium. Wives Club's a mix of comedy and drama, high on sex appeal, laughs ...and even has its little message of substance, with people trying to make a difference in their lives. Look how the factory boys of The Full Monty made a drastic change in their work habits and what fun they had; well, the gals of The First Wives Club will strut their stuff, championing their cause for equality and independence and win just as many hearts along the way.
Audiences relate well to middle-class crises. If men lose their jobs, we feel sympathy; if husbands dump their wives for younger women, we turn our attention deservedly to the mature women. So when Brenda (Barbara Walsh), Annie (Karen Ziemba) and Elyse (Sheryl Lee Ralph) unite against their husbands to get back their dignity and pride, we really don't care if they fight fire with fire and cheat, connive and deceive them - this is revenge, baby! The ladies are all top-notch and belt out their numbers with the best of them: Walsh ("My Heart Wants To Try One More Time"), Ziemba ("Have Your Way with Me") and Ralph ("That Was Me Then, This Is Me Now"). The pop rock score by H-D-H is fun and uplifting. There's no tune here of the calibre of their past hits like "Baby Love" or "Baby I Need Your Loving". You don't leave the theatre humming the tunes, but they all work well within the context of the play, moving the plot forward and adding distinctive feelings.
The auction number ("Payback the Bitch!") is a delight, with special nod to choreographer Lisa Stevens for some of the brightest and snappiest moments in the show.
The supporting cast are all dyn-o-mite. Sam Harris is a flambuoyant stand out as designer Duane; Brad Oscar is a mensch as the straying Morty; John Dossett is stunning (especially in leather - see the top photo!) and Kevyn Morrow, with his hightoned body and superior ego to match, rounds out the distasteful entry-level hubbie trio to perfection. Sara Chase is sheer delight in three roles, especially notable as the dumb Shelley and a vocal knockout as Feebee.
Peter J. Davison's scenic design with its glass panels and New York skyline is a stunner, as are Mark McCullough's lighting design and Paul Tazewell's dazzling costumes, notably those flashy furs and leopard outfit for Ralph and the all-white finale.
Zambello's fast-paced direction keeps the action on course without ever missing a beat.
This is a very entertaining evening of theatre. Very slick in production values, Wives Club's engrossing story of characters that change from superficial to caring, adapted here by Rupert Holmes, meaningful score by H-D-H and gleaming performances from the entire ensemble make it a must-see. You will "Jump for Joy"!
Go, go, go!!!
5 out of 5 stars

review - Julia Migenes

Opera diva Julia Migenes performs Franz Schubert: His Letters and Music @ The Odyssey Theatre 2 through August 23.
When I heard that Julia Migenes was performing a new theatre piece Franz Schubert: His Letters and Music, it thrilled me, even though the only music of Schubert's that I am thoroughly familiar with is "Ave Maria". Miss Migenes singing live is an event not to be missed. Her unique show Diva on the Verge, laced with delicious humor, captivated SRO crowds at the Odyssey almost a decade ago. Her exquisite soprano voice is not alone in this Schubert piece, moreover, as she is accompanied by fine actor Jeff Marlow, who essays the composer, and by virtuoso pianist Victoria Kirsch. And with film director Peter Medak on board, the staging is brilliantly fluid throughout the 80 minute piece.
Conceived by Migenes and Phillipe Calvario, what Migenes envisioned was not a play about Schubert but a representation of Schubert himself. The ingenious musician (1797-1828) died at age 31 of complications from syphilis and spent much of his all too brief life in sickness and despair. But through his letters to friends and to his beloved brother, we see - via Marlow's vibrant interpretation - a living, breathing soul whose limitless imagination and carefree enthusiasm made him one of the most prolific composers of his time. Mentored by Salieri and enamored of Beethoven ("Who can do anything after Bethoven?") he was oft dismissing of much of his work and was ecstatic when praised for it by his brother. Estranged from his father and homeland Austria, Schubert mourned most of his life for his mother, who died of typhus when he was 15, and lived a solitary existence reading James Fenimore Cooper and composing.
Marlow reads a letter and Migenes sings an aria that, if not composed chronologically with the letter, at least exudes a similar emotion. Such is the structure of Franz Schubert. Much of it is slow and very melancholy - as was Schubert's existence - but it is Medak's circular staging and Marlow's and Migenes' supreme artistry that fascinate. At one point both are on the floor, she singing in a seductive reclining pose and he reading: the result is quite orgasmic. When his brother acclaims him for a mass he has written, Migenes, as his muse, surrounds him ever so playfully and gleefully, letting the score drape over his chest and she flutters it like a fan: a very exciting moment-one of the few examples of real happiness for Schubert. In another moment she stands above him like an angel and lovingly envelops his limp body in the folds of her white satin gown. As the muse, Migenes is above him, at his side, caressing his hair, cradling him like a mother, never ever too far away - she becomes his very soul, and the chemistry between them is palpable. Such was the passion of Schubert for his music. "Love to sorrow and sorrow to love." He once declared "Art made its triumph over our decline", which shows once again the extent of one's suffering for art's sake.
Interesting to note as well was Schubert's bad luck in getting hired most of the time. At one point he applied for Cappel Meister to the Court in 1826 and was ceremoniously turned away. Migenes feigns a lovely mime in this scene as a court jester.
Taken from the letters of Franz Schubert and empowered by the music that he was inspired to write, Franz Schubert: His Letters and Music is a kind of slice-of-life glimpse into the artistic heart and soul of Schubert's creative process, right up to the moment of his death in 1828.
As he was moving farther and farther away from this world in his private hell, thankfully for us, his musical legacy was simultaneously emerging.
A great tour-de-force for three artists: Migenes, Marlow and Kirsch!

5 out of 5 stars

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