Kerry Bishe and Chris Lowell in "Barefoot in the Park." Photo by Jim Cox
Were newlyweds ever as cute as they are in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park? Beginning a new life together in an impossibly impractical apartment in New York and subsisting on hugs and kisses is pretty much the entire premise of Simon’s 1963 comedy. By the standards of today, when relationships, much less marriage, are as complicated as Pythagorean identities, Barefoot in the Park feels sugar-sweet, even naïve. The trick is to forget about reality and just enjoy the sweetness and naivete. The Old Globe’s new production of Barefoot in the Park makes it easy.
Start with a uniformly talented cast. Kerry Bishe conveys all of the over-the-top giddiness about life and love inside Corie Bratter, the new bride who believes everything is so wonderful that even sleeping in a closet turned “bedroom” is no inconvenience. Better still is Chris Lowell as her understandably beleaguered (and a little overwhelmed) new husband, Paul. As disarming as Bishe and Lowell are in the first act of the play, when the conflict is mostly about the haplessness of the tiny brownstone apartment, they’re twice as much fun in the argument scenes later. There’s never any doubt that the Bratters will work things out, but until they do their back-and-forth barbs can be enjoyed guilt-free. Simon’s wittiest writing is heard in Corie’s and Paul’s quips and benign sarcasm.
The playwright conceived meaty supporting roles for this snappy comedy. As Corie’s timid but lovable mother, Mia Dillon gently plays off the exuberance of Bishe as well as that of Jere Burns as neighbor Victor Velasco, “the Bluebeard of 48th Street.” His is the most broadly drawn character in the play, but he mostly reigns in what could have been a cartoon part.
Director Jessica Stone was intuitive enough to craft a Barefoot in the Park that skips along, never trying to be weighty or relevant. Her ensemble’s comic timing is tight, and the otherwise breezy rhythm of the show is hindered only by the apparent necessity of two intermissions.
The retro music sprinkled into the action and the animated unveiling of the Bratters’ furniture when it first appears add to the enchantment of the goings-on. If only love were as magically achieved. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/8/18.)
Implausible and predictable as it was, the 2001 film “Legally Blonde” succeeded primarily because of the on-screen charms of Reese Witherspoon. While the 2007 stage musical adaptation that premiered in 2007 was Reese-less, it too succeeded, relying on a dependable formula of cleverness and corn.
Legally Blonde The Musical is based both on the movie and (like the film) a novel by Amanda Brown. Brown’s experiences at Stanford Law School were the inspiration for those of the Malibu Barbie named Elle Woods, who after being dumped by her Harvard Law School-bound boyfriend Warner, finagles her way into Harvard herself. There the antics ensue and the maturation of seemingly vacuous Elle takes place.
New Village Arts in Carlsbad has opened its new season with Legally Blonde The Musical (book by Heather Hatch; music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin). NVA’s is a true ensemble effort, with no one member of the cast (even Danielle Levas as Elle) owning the production. That includes the potentially scene-stealing dog Monty (aka Rufus), one of two canines with stage time.
The merit of Legally Blonde The Musical is its often laugh-out-loud lyrics which spoof the shallowness of wealth, contemporary relationships and the stuffiness of bastions of protocol and self-importance like Harvard. The beautician subplot from the film is carried over, with Marlene Montes memorable as the wisecracking but issued Paulette. The recurring presence of Elle’s “muses” chorus (specters of her sorority sisters) adds sauciness and choreography to the proceedings.
While the first act of Legally Blonde The Musical is, despite its length, tightly woven, the show goes rather off the rails in Act 2, with the gyrating “Bend and Snap” in particular interrupting rather than moving along the story. The case Elle is trying, too, wraps up so conveniently it raises the question of what all the pretrial fuss was about.
This is quibbling. Legally Blonde The Musical is, like its screen predecessor, eye and ear candy ideally suited to a girls night out or a first date. When a show comes with funny lines, beautiful clothes (designed by Samantha Vesco), a fine band (directed by Tony Houck) and a couple of dogs, what’s to complain about?
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/1/18.)
The Newsies musical based on the 1992 motion picture is, sadly, anachronistic. It celebrates with no shortage of youthful energy an era when newspapers were not only relevant but they reigned, and labor unions were both championed and cheered. In the case of this likable show by Alan Menken (music), Jack Feldman (lyrics) and Harvey Fierstein (book), the time was 1899 and the inspiration a strike by New York City newsboys that made its own headlines.
Moonlight Stage Productions’ Newsies thrives on the emotional uplift of anthemic battle cries like “The World Will Know” and “Seize the Day,” and on whirling athletic dancing choreographed by Colleen Kollar Smith. Newsies’ love story is obligatory and its ballads rote, but the heart and conscience of the story are sincere. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/25/18.)
"Xanadu" at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. Photo by Adriana Zuniga-Williams
The 1980 film “Xanadu” was flat-out bad. It even inspired the snarky Razzies Awards. On the other hand, the 2007 Broadway musical version, a self-parodying 90 minutes of anything-goes silliness, is fun with a capital F. OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista has opened its 2018-’19 season with a completely entertaining production of Xanadu, with its artistic director, Teri Brown, at the helm. In spite of some noticeable sound problems on opening night – hopefully fixed by now -- this good-natured staging of the show by Douglas Carter Beane, John Farrar and Jeff Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra fame) amuses with its snide satirizing of Greek mythology, L.A. at its most laid back, and Broadway itself. Moreover, it might actually make you nostalgic for Olivia Newton-John, the star of the film whose “Magic” and “Have You Never Been Mellow” are among this stage adaptation’s tunes.
Another Olivia, Olivia Berger, stars in OnStage’s Xanadu as the comely muse brought to life who falls in love with an artistic minded slacker boy (Joshua Tyler Powers). No one in the talented cast, especially the other muses, takes the story very seriously – nor should they. Everyone’s simply in the what-the-hell? spirit of this shamelessly silly romp, and the house band performing in the wings never misses a beat. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/25/18.)
Edward Albee’s first work was the one-act The Zoo Story, and it certainly foreshadowed the tense, often-uneasy dramatic canon that was to flow from this great American playwright. In 55 anxious minutes that unfold in real time, a “permanent transient” (as he calls himself) named Jerry makes contact with and proceeds to unload every tortured emotion and neurosis upon Peter, a mild-mannered publishing-company exec with a wife, two daughters and two parakeets. Directed by Rosina Reynolds for Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company, the action is a slow boil of human drama.
Francis Gercke’s Jerry is manic and calculatingly menacing for most of the one act, while Phil Johnson’s Peter endures in quiet anguish on the Central Park bench where Jerry has interrupted his routine of quiet reading. When Peter can stand no more and boils over, Johnson and Gercke become two desperate men at odds where anything can happen. It does. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/18/18.)
Usually the scene-stealer in a supporting comedic role, the prodigious Omri Schein deservedly gets the lead role in the farcical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the storied 1962 Broadway musical (and later a film) that closes North Coast Repertory Theatre’s 36th season. Schein plays Pseudolus, the Roman slave who is the instigator of every ruse, machination and hapless deceit in this no-holds-barred comedy. He remains hilarious even when the deadpanning and slapsticking gets redundant (which, eventually, they do).
The cast of 13 is the largest ever for a show at North Coast Rep in artistic director David Ellenstein’s 16-year tenure. Besides Schein, the Forum cast includes many familiar comic pros in San Diego theater including Andrew Ableson, David McBean and Melinda Gilb. After 56 years, Forum is rife with obvious antics, characters and situations, and Stephen Sondheim’s score is relatively serviceable beyond the classic “Comedy Tonight.” What we’re left with, bottom line, is vaudeville in togas. Nothing wrong with that if that’s what floats your Roman barge, and Schein’s worth the price of a ticket. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/18/18.)
"The Lorax" is based on Dr. Seuss' book. Photo by Dan Norman
The audience cheers when the little beaver-like guy with the bushy mustache announces “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” He’s the conscience and soul of the new musical based on what Dr. Seuss said was his favorite book, “The Lorax.” And it’s somehow fitting that this environmentally biting show opened at the Old Globe Theatre the same week that Scott Pruitt resigned as head of the EPA that he’d been charged with making toothless.
As for the musical, produced by the Globe and Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis in partnership with London’s Old Vic, it tries boldly to appeal both to kiddies and adults. There are fuzzy animal characters and dazzling puppetry for the former, and a couple of noisy showstoppers (“Super Axe Hacker,” “Thneed 2.0”) for the latter. At times the big-show wows come close to overwhelming the sweet, simple message -- that the flora and fauna of our planet are more important than money. But The Lorax is so meticulously presented that only a climate-change denier could complain. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/11/18.)
Brenda Meaney (left) and Xochitl Romero in "Queens." Photo by Jim Carmody
Queens is the story of some remarkable women, though not of royal blood. The women are immigrants to the U.S. from countries as disparate as Poland, Afghanistan and Honduras who have in common the deep-seated dream of a better life in America, land of supposed opportunity. The Queens in Martyna Majok’s play is that easternmost borough in New York City. It is there, in the basement of a rundown tenement, that two intersected stories of immigrant women surviving on strength, spirit and bonding are told.
Under the direction of Carey Perloff, La Jolla Playhouse is staging the West Coast premiere of this new work from Majok, recipient of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Tense and emotive, Queens is riveting throughout its 70-minute first act, which flits in time between 2001 and 2017. The second act, however, turns cynical and histrionical, diluting to some extent the overall staying power of the play. This does not in any way diminish the performances of the six cast members, half of whom assume dual roles. Noteworthy is Jolly Abraham who as Aamani speaks with both the yearning and the apprehension of immigrants everywhere. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/11/18.)
Sean Murray (left) and Jonathan Sangster in "Spamalot." Photo by Ken Jacques
Cygnet Theatre’s 16th season has opened with a bang. Its joyfully irreverent production of Spamalot is in the finest spirit of the Monty Python antics that inspired it, right down to the animated images (projected on a screen behind the stage) that accompany the hapless tale of King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail. Cygnet’s artistic director Sean Murray, who played Arthur in a memorable Moonlight Stage Productions Spamalot in 2014, is back as the besieged king. So is Christine Hewitt, the Lady of the Lake of that staging in Vista. The Cygnet cast, which is roundly riotous, also includes James Saba, David S. Humphrey and Bryan Banville, all of whom play multiple roles.
The Python sense of humor isn’t for everyone, and it’s true that some bits feel stretched out, but in this dependable romp there’s always another pun or musical parody coming. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/4/18.)
Kate Burton (right) stars in "The Tempest" on the Old Globe's Festival Stage. Photo by Jim Cox
A wonderfully imaginative realization of The Tempest, the last play in Shakespeare’s canon, launches the Old Globe Theatre’s Summer Shakespeare Festival with a flourish. From Kate Burton’s commanding performance as Prospera, purveyor of magic and exiled ruler of an island, to some exquisitely fanciful costume design by David Israel Reynoso, this Tempest is enchanting in every sense of the word.
Though a story of forgiveness – Prospera (from Prospero in the original male-centered conception) chooses magnanimity over violence in reconciling with those who have banished her – The Tempest is as fanciful and waggish as anything Shakespeare wrote, and this production directed by Joe Dowling enjoys delightful turns from Philippe Bowgen as Ariel, Manoel Felciano as Caliban and Robert Dorfman and Andrew Weems as pranksters Stephano and Trinculo. The magic-heavy second act rightfully overwhelms the more plodding first in this production, including even an R&B/calypso mash-up celebrating the love between Prospera’s daughter Miranda (Nora Carroll) and young Ferdinand (Sam Avishay). Best is Burton’s closing monologue, which in its poignancy could be Shakespeare himself bidding his work and the world farewell. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/4/18.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat