:Left to right: Marcel Spears, Heidi Armbruster and Brenna Coates in "At the Old Place." Photo by Jim Carmody
Home is where the pity party is. Or so it goes for Angie, a woman of creeping middle age who awash in doubts and self-recriminations abandons her career and her husband and retreats to the empty home in Virginia left behind by her recently passed mother --with whom, of course, she has long been estranged. That estrangement is just a percentage of the psycho-emotional morass in which Angie finds herself. In Rachel Bonds’ At the Old Place, a world-premiere production at La Jolla Playhouse directed by Jaime Castaneda, the sort of internal crises and personal assessments Angie (Heidi Armbruster) confronts have been dramatized many times before, by many writers across multiple mediums. Bonds’ narrative twist, and what separates her play from an 80-minute wallow, is the presence of two fun-loving young people, each troubled in his/her own way, who bring to the surface the emotion that At the Old Place otherwise lacks and which Angie seems unable to harness.
Will (Marcel Spears, in a very natural performance) and Jolene (Brenna Coates) have been hanging out on the front lawn of Angie’s mother’s house long before she arrived on the scene. Jolene thrives on f-bombs and spiked Coke, but she really is a vulnerable soul. Will, sensitive and even more vulnerable, is the most likable – the only likable? – character in the story. But each manages to affect Angie to the point that she girds herself to make an assured decision about her life and her future. (The play’s other character, a colleague of Angie’s from the college where they teach with whom she’s been in a relationship, makes one appearance – “courting” her intellectually as only a dyed-in-the-wool academic can.)
For all its angst emanating from central figure Angie, At the Old Place is at times frustratingly low key. Its liveliest scene might be the drinking game she, Will and Jolene play, even if it feels like Aunt So-and-So trying to fit in with the kids.
One undeniable: the family house designed by Lauren Helpern, with its wide front porch, pitched roof and lemon-yellow light aglow in the windows, is so warm and homey you’ll long to move right in – even if it means spending some time trying to cheer Angie up. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/19/17.)
Cortez L. Johnson and Portia Gregory in "The Ballad of Emmett Till." Photo courtesy of ion theatre
From the moment he came into the world “feet first” as the result of a breech birth, Emmett Till wanted to stand up, his mother recalls early in Ifa Bayeza’s powerful play. How the African-American boy affectionately called “Bobo” left the world at only 14 years old shocked the nation in 1955 and set off reverberations in the civil rights movement. Yet the lynching of this boy who from the get-go wanted to be a man doesn’t tell the entire story of Bayeza’s “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” which is having its San Diego premiere at ion theatre in Hillcrest. The lyrical one-act play is also a celebration of Emmett’s lives: the one he lived all too briefly with such unabashed energy, and the one he might have lived, which endured in the memories of those who loved him.
Bayeza’s 2008 work chronicles the story of Chicago-born Emmett’s visit to his great-Uncle Mose’s Delta-town farm in Mississippi and ultimately an encounter in a grocery store that would precipitate the teenage boy’s kidnapping and murder, terrifyingly dramatized on the small ion theatre stage. This version of “The Ballad of Emmitt Till,” co-directed at ion by Yolanda Franklin and Claudio Raygoza, features a six-actor ensemble, Bayeza’s scaling down of her original 13-character piece. Five of them (Dwaine Collier, Rhys Greene, Portia Gregory, Tamara McMillian and Grandison Phelps III) play multiple roles, with Cortez L. Johnson, seen earlier this year in Moxie Theatre’s charged “Blue Door,” portraying Emmett. It’s a cohesive group occupying tense proceedings that are always in motion. Throughout the production they join in uplifting, spiritual song that in its passion testifies to the deep intertwining of those in Emmett’s life and their commitment to survival.
Emmitt, a young man with a stutter and an endearing guilelessness, proudly arrives at his great-uncle’s farm wearing his Panama hat and white bucks. He is wholly unprepared for arduous chores like picking cotton and plucking chickens (both amusingly re-created). It’s his very innocence about the suffocating atmosphere of hate nearby (“Be respectful,” “Don’t speak to white folk,” he’s cautioned) that turn his adventure away from home to terror. The adult Johnson may not look like a 14-year-old, of course, but he effectively inhabits the naivete and unshakeable will of this one, who out loud can’t believe that God will let him die.
The last half-hour of this 95-minute production is the most gut-wrenching for an audience. The abduction of Emmett, and even more so the dramatized trial in which the boy’s mother recounts trying to identify her son after his mutilated body was found in the river, are frank and graphic. (Emmett’s mother insisted on an open casket to ensure that the horror of her son’s murder of hate be understood.) But as Emmett’s presence stands tall over those left behind at play’s end, notes of hope resonate: for justice, for immortality, and, in Bayeza’s words, for “a new world.”
(Review originally published in San Diego Union-Tribune on 7/10/17.)
Brandon Joel Maier (right) stars in Lamb's Players Theatre's "Big Fish." Photo by Ken Jaques
Everything about Big Fish is, well, big: The number of characters. The number of costume changes. The number of songs in the musical score. The climax, which packs a big emotional punch. To some extent, Big Fish is too big for its theatrical britches, frolicking on and on long past when it probably should end. It’s an audacious affair, packing into one show high school cheerleaders, a giant who lives in the forest, a traveling circus, the Old West, a small-town flood, and the fraught relationship between a father and son. Yet Big Fish – served up for audiences in multiple mediums and multiple iterations – has won hearts. The 2013 stage musical written by John August, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, is based on the 1998 Daniel Wallace novel “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions” and a 2003 Tim Burton movie (written by August), which was very cool. Now we get at Lamb’s Players Theatre a leaner “12 Chairs” version of the musical, with half the size cast of the production that was mounted two years ago in Vista on Moonlight Amphitheatre’s larger stage, and some paring of narrative.
Besides the wondrous costume design of Jeanne Reith (to a significant extent, the star of this show), it’s Brandon Joel Maier in the lead role of Edward Bloom who buoys this Big Fish, directed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth. It’s Bloom’s signature songs (“Be the Hero,” “How It Ends”) soulfully rendered by Maier that rise above what can be at times silly in this tale of how a quirky dad’s fish stories alienate then ultimately endear him to his upwardly mobile son (Michael Cusimano), an expectant father himself.
Among the cast members playing multiple roles John Rosen has big fun whether as a solemn family doctor or a ringmaster/werewolf (not making that up, by the way). As Edward Bloom’s loving wife, Sandra, Kelsey Venter is as warm as her balladry. Cusimano is just fine as the principled son, too.
Two Big Fishes in two years is enough already for San Diego County theater audiences, however. It’s a good show – not a great show. For a story dealing in large part with our mortality, Big Fish on the stage is unashamedly and joyfully alive. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/5/17)
Phil Johnson in "Withering Heights" Photo courtesy of The Roustabouts
Let Emily Bronte spin in her grave. Phil Johnson and Omri Schein’s two-man spoof Withering Heights is a helluva lot more entertaining than Bronte’s one and only 19th-century novel. Johnson is a co-founder of the fledgling Roustabouts company that is presenting Withering Heights on Diversionary Theatre’s stage, In this exercise in inspired silliness, he and Schein do quick-change duty as Bronte’s Gothic characters, including, of course, star-crossed lovers Catherine (Schein) and Heathcliff (Johnson). The North Coast Rep’s David Ellenstein directs the swiftly paced antics, which sometimes descend into flatulence humor but in large part demonstrate Johnson and Schein’s cleverness at parodying Bronte’s melodramatic story. What might be tedious in lesser hands is giddily sustainable for an hour and 20 minutes. Try getting through the novel in that time. Try getting through the first chapter in that time. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/28/17)
Paul Swensen Eddy (center) stars in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story." Photo by Daren Scott
You’d have to be a puritan or a rock ‘n’ roll hater or both not to enjoy Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, Alan Janes’ ’89 jukebox musical about the bespectacled legend from Lubbock, Texas. Before the proceedings turn overly talky with developments in the second act (i.e. Buddy’s whirlwind marriage and his split from the Crickets), this show co-produced by Intrepid Theatre Company and New Village Arts Theatre is in essence a concert performance of Buddy Holly classics like “That’ll Be The Day,” “Peggy Sue” and “Oh Boy.” Paul Swensen Eddy makes an appealing Buddy, and he’s raucously supported by Manny Fernandes as the Big Bopper and Shaun Tuazon as Ritchie Valens.
Rock ‘n’ rollers mostly over 50 will dig this show, but those younger should hear in Buddy Holly’s songwriting and guitar craft the inspiration for rock artists of all stripes (even punkers) who followed. Kudos to the musicians in this production, some of them on stage acting as well, who rock the house. Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story is a trip back in time worth taking. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat 6/28/17)
Torry Kittles (left) and Robert Sean Leonard in "King Richard II" at the Old Globe. Photo by Jim Cox.
From then-President-elect Trump’s insistence last November that theater be a “safe” place to the recent right-wing excoriation of a New York production featuring a Trump-like “Julius Caesar,” the theatrical stage has been in the crosshairs of the new presidency’s disregard for, and even rancor over, the arts. While the Old Globe announced its 2017 Summer Shakespeare Festival season before The Donald was elected, it’s nonetheless providential that the opening production happens to be King Richard II. A grim but poetical play immersed in questions of power, entitlement and betrayal, it’s a fitting and topical vehicle for this Summer of Bob Mueller.
Even without making contemporary correlations, King Richard II is cracking good political theater. Written in verse, this Shakespeare history (an anchoring point for the subsequent Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V) pits King Richard II (Robert Sean Leonard), who believes he wears the crown by divine right (or mandate?), against his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Tory Kittles), who with righteousness and an army of rebellious allies seeks to depose the weak king. The future not only of England but of those bound to either man by blood or loyalty is at stake.
Erica Schmidt directs a production on the Globe’s outdoor Lowell Davies Festival stage that rightly focuses on the inevitability of Richard’s fall and, more so, the damage from his usurpation to his faith and to the very core of his inner self. This is clearest and most profound late in the second act, with Leonard intuitively portraying a man, not a ruler ordained by God, whose fate is foredoomed.
Kittles’ Bolingbroke is by contrast more measured, though he effects little charisma. But both Charles Janasz’s fiery John of Gaunt and Patrick Kerr’s excitable Duke of York enliven each scene in which they appear.
From a visual perspective, John Lee Beatty’s monolithic castle-wall set is apt and imposing, and Andrea Lauer’s costumes are evocative down to the finest detail.
With its lone duel in armor aborted early, the language-heavy King Richard II can be plodding. Its conflicts are those of conscience – not always the loudest, but often the most searing. (Review originally published June 21 in San Diego Citybeat.)
Dana Hooley, Francis Gercke and Tori King Rice in "Loves and Hours." Photo by Ken Jacques
The loves in Stephen Metcalfe’s Loves and Hours are of the May-December variety: Near-50 Dan Tilney (Francis Gercke) is in love (or at least in lust) with barely over 20 Charlotte (Taylor Henderson). Dan’s medical-student daughter Rebecca (Beth Gallagher) is in love with an over-40 doctor named Walter. His college-age son, Dan Jr. (Jake Rosko), is in love (and/or in lust) with neglected – and older -- married woman Sara (DeNae Steele). Even his best friend Harold (Paul Maley) is a newlywed: to a young woman named Andrea (Sofia Sassone) who is half his age. These let’s call them sophisticated relationships may be too hip for audiences at Scripps Ranch Theatre, where Loves and Hours runs through July 2 under the direction of Gercke. (I overheard an older gentlemen sitting near me at a matinee say: “I never knew women were so forward.”) But at the core of it, Loves and Hours isn’t very daring. It’s sitcom-ish in a sleeping around kind of way, and ultimately it celebrates love for what it is: THE FEELING that we all want, right?
Metcalfe’s exposition relies on frequent monologues from Gercke in the title role, foreshadowing, reflecting on and second-guessing not only Dan’s romantic strategies but those of everyone else in his sphere. Almost forgot to mention Dan’s ex-wife, Linda (Dana Hooley), who divorced him after realizing she was gay. If Loves and Hours’ plot sounds overly busy and overly coincidental, it’s because it is. That, along with the reliance on monologue, are its issues. But frankly they’re overcome by an excellent cast at Scripps Ranch Theatre that features not only Gercke himself (very believable in Dan’s doubt-ridden skin) but also Maley as the hapless sugar daddy Harold, Beth Gallagher as daughter Rebecca (in a role that should be bigger) and Hooley, reliably hilarious here as she is in most everything she appears in.
The play’s most sympathetic and genuine character is Dan’s platonic friend Julia (Tori King Rice), whose concept of true love is the purest. Rice is warm and smart and vulnerable in the part, too, qualities that foster an ambiance for a satisfying conclusion.
Jasmin Richardson (left) and Deborah Cox in "The Bodyguard The Musical." Photo by Joan Marcus
“The Bodyguard The Musical” begins in darkness with the startling sound of a gunshot, a rather unsettling moment for theatergoers given recent events in the news. But once the stage lights come up, the tension vanishes and this five-year-old adaptation of the 1992 motion picture concentrates on simply entertaining its audience with the songs of Whitney Houston, romance and relatively benign melodrama.
Alexander Dinelaris’ book doesn’t tray too far from the well-remembered film that starred Houston and Kevin Costner, a tale about a Grammy-winning singer who’s being stalked by a psycho, and the hunky bodyguard hired to protect her. The stage show presented by Broadway San Diego emphasizes the Rachel Marron character over the bodyguard’s, unlike in the movie, but that makes sense because this is, after all, a musical. Deborah Cox belts out Houston hits like “I’m Every Woman,” “Greatest Love of All,” Run to You” and, inevitably, “I Will Always Love you,” with ardency. A veteran of both “Aida” and “Jekyll & Hyde” on Broadway, the R&B/pop artist is no stranger to the boards. An added treat in this touring production is Jasmin Richardson, portraying Rachel’s troubled but talented sister, Nicki. Her vocals are wistfully reminiscent of Dionne Warwick, a cousin of Whitney Houston, of course. As Frank Farmer, the laconic bodyguard, Judson Mills is mostly a modern-day Matt Dillon in a suit, though he does well with the meager bits of humor given him, such as at a karaoke bar. That scene, with Cox’s Rachel surprising the unsuspecting customers with a cameo performance, is the most genuine and most fun in “The Bodyguard The Musical.”
The business with the homicidal stalker (Bradford Rahmlow) is strictly formulaic. Even at its most intentionally sinister, it takes a back seat to Cox’s full-throated rendering of Houston’s tunes and the electric choreography by Karen Bruce.
“The Bodyguard The Musical” continues through Sunday at the Civic Theatre downtown.
L to R: Aurora Florence, Devlin and Meghan Andrews in "The Spitfire Grill." Photo by Aaron Rumley
Whether in mid-song or mid-sob, Aurora Florence is the life force behind North Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of The Spitfire Grill, a sincere, often-sad 2001 musical adaptation of a 1996 film. Florence, an original member of the alt-rock band Imagine Dragons, is Perchance (Percy) Talbott, recently out of prison and doing a different kind of time in a small Wisconsin town where secrets are kept, gossip flows freely and people drop their g’s when they’re talkin’. How Percy comes to transform them all is the crux of the show by James Valq and Fred Alley, which gets a heartfelt staging at the North Coast Rep under Jeffrey B. Moss’ direction. The women’s parts are the best written in this musical, and the female characters enjoy the best songs, too. Taking advantage besides Florence are Meghan Andrews, the single-named Devlin as the Spitfire’s spit-and-vinegar owner, and in a wee but howling part as the town gossip, Maggie Carney. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/14/17.)