To borrow from The Who’s Pete Townshend, the kind of guitar god celebrated in “School of Rock,” the kids are alright in this stage-musical adaptation of the 2003 hit film that starred Jack Black. In fact, the kids are by far the best thing about the Andrew Lloyd Webber-driven “School of Rock The Musical,” in which most of the adults are portrayed as uptight bores or just plain uptight. Not only are the fourth-grade characters more entertaining than even the Dewey Finn character amply filled by Black in the movie (and by Rob Colletti onstage), but the young actors playing them rock, especially those who end up performing in the show’s climactic “Battle of the Bands.”
The “School of Rock” musical is less than three years old and is making its San Diego debut, through Sunday, at the Civic Theatre downtown. It features 12 songs by Lloyd Webber (with lyrics by Glenn Slater) while retaining three from the Richard Linklater-directed film. Of the newbies, the catchiest is the playfully anarchic “Stick It to the Man,” and while none of the tunes really rises above the level of boilerplate guitar band, the musicianship, including that of the kids, is solid.
As in the original film, the musical’s story (penned by Julian Fellowes of staid “Downton Abbey” fame) finds slovenly slacker Dewey Finn booted from his band No Vacancy and crashing with nerdy schoolteacher pal Ned Schneebly (Matt Bittner) and Ned’s girlfriend Patty (Emily Borromeo), one of the aforementioned uptight adults. Facing banishment for lack of paying rent, Dewey impersonates Ned to grab a job teaching at very proper Horace Green School. It’s there, after a spree of anti-establishment antics in the classroom, that he discovers the musical talent of his pupils, and under his rowdy tutelage they’re transformed from sedate classical players to rockers. The stars, playing their own instruments with panache, include guitarist Zach (Vincent Molden), drummer Freddy (Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton), bassist Katie (Theodora Silverman) and keyboardist Lawrence (Theo Mitchell-Penner).
Colletti, a veteran of “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway, is in the daunting position of trying to walk and rock in Black’s formidable footsteps, but he and Lexie Dorsett Sharp as school principal (and closet rock fan) Rosalie Mullins are “School of Rock’s” grown-ups to root for. Among the other young actors in the ensemble, Iara Nemirovsky shines as the domineering student Summer Hathaway, while Grier Burke belts out a crowd-pleasing, a capella “Amazing Grace.”
The rock ‘n’ roll of “School of Rock” is evocative of a time before iTunes and Spotify, a time of exhaustive guitar solos and gyrating hair bands. In that respect, this show’s leitmotif feels nostalgic, even anachronistic, more so now than perhaps it did when the film was released 15 years ago. But as a soundscape for a feel-good story about underdogs determined to stick it to the man and have fun while doing so, “School of Rock” strikes all the right chords. (Review originally published in The San Diego Union-Tribune on 6/15/18.)
Florian Zeller’s quietly intense drama The Father at the North Coast Repertory Theatre takes the audience into the “reality” of the mind of a person with deteriorating and heartbreaking dementia. Eighty-year-old Andre’s (James Sutorius) perceptions and recognitions change from scene to scene, and sometimes even faster in this unsettling but relevant play. Helpless and frustrated is his daughter Anne (Robyn Cohen), who aches to do “the right thing” for her father and for herself.
Sutorius’ performance is courageous and unshowy in this numbing one-act production
directed by NCR’s David Ellenstein. The supporting cast includes Richard Baird, Shana Wride, Jacque Wilke, Matthew Salazar-Thompson and Cohen, who experiences every grown child’s most painful nightmare. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/13/18.)
The life of Anita Bryant – both destructive and self-destructive – is one of the two narratives that entwine in Diversionary Theatre’s promising world-premiere musical The Loneliest Girl in the World. The other is that of a young man named Tommy: bullied, closeted and at the outset of the story a loving fan from far of the beauty pageant runner-up from Oklahoma turned wholesome singer. Bryant’s eventual transformation into a righteous hatemonger leads Tommy through difficult yet affirming life changes of his own.
The impetus for Bryant’s devolution could benefit from some contextual heft, but most everything else works in this alternately witty and impassioned show written by Gordon Leary (book and lyrics) and Julia Meinwald (music), and directed by Diversionary’s Matt Morrow. The melodic score is moving without becoming rhapsodic, and its clever turns spoof the pop and political landscapes of the ‘50s and ‘70s especially. As Bryant, the gifted Allison Spratt Pearce humanizes without creating sympathy for a figure justifiably demonized by the gay community. Sam Heldt, meanwhile, is deeply vulnerable as Tony, and in multiple roles Steve Gouveia, Shaun Tuazon, Lauren King Thompson and Marci Anne Wuebben effect the illusion of a much bigger show on a much larger stage. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/13/18.)
Extensive knowledge of opera isn’t essential to appreciating Nathan Gunn Flying Solo, a one-man show written by Hershey Felder and starring the estimable baritone Gunn. But it might help. The arc of Gunn’s biographical story, which he recounts onstage for 90 minutes at the San Diego Rep, is his operatic career, most notably at the Met in NYC. Further, among the selections he performs, those from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” or Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd” contain all the passion that is less present in renderings of, for example, “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’” from Oklahoma. Clearly, Gunn’s heart is in opera.
The undercurrent of the narrative Felder has written for Gunn is the opera star’s relationship with his father, a father like so many (especially on screen or onstage) who is emotionally reluctant. Gunn must be commended for reliving that relationship each performance. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/6/18.)
Eddie Martinez, Peri Gilpin and Mark Pinter in "Native Gardens." Photo by Jim Cox
Native Gardens tries to both be outrageous and to make trenchant sociopolitical statements about class, race, even politically correct gardening. Neither succeeds in Karen Zacarias’ labored one-act comedy at the Old Globe, where the play was first developed last year at the Powers New Voices Festival. In Native Gardens, a fight over a property line between neighbors turns nasty, then bombastic, then flat-out silly. In this corner: the clueless white GOPers Frank and Virginia Butley (Mark Pinter and Peri Gilpin). And in this corner: modern-thinking young couple Pablo and Tania Del Valle (Eddie Martinez and Kimberli Flores). He’s an ambitious Chilean-born attorney; she a pregnant PhD candidate and proponent of environmentally responsible gardening.
Replete with slow-motion and stop-action double takes, much mugging to the audience and lots and lots of shouting, the Edward Torres-directed Native Gardens hammers into the ground its humor and its message points. What’s more, the impetus for resolution of the neighbors’ conflict is a timeworn cliché. The garden playground for all these histrionics is a beautiful set by Collette Pollard, however, complete with stately oak tree. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/6/18.)
"Les Miserables," aka "Les Miz," continues through Sunday, June 3. Photo by Matthew Murphy
With its melding of history, spectacle, melodrama and romance, Les Miserables the musical has been such a hit for so long that it may be the only Broadway show popularly referred to by a nickname: Les Miz.
Any doubt about whether this rousing show based on Victor Hugo’s novel still has legs can be heard at the Civic Theatre downtown, where Broadway San Diego is presenting Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s Les Miserables through Sunday, June 3. That sound you’ll hear is not only the emotional peaks and valleys of this formidable musical’s score, but the cheers from audience members seeing Les Miz for the third or fourth time, or more. An operatic, sung-through show that dispenses the tale’s weighty exposition in dribs and drabs, Les Miz nonetheless boasts its iconic tunes: “I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own,” “Bring Him Home” and, of course, “Master of the House.”
This touring production enjoys a superb Jean Valjean, the saintly character whose saga began with the theft of a loaf of bread, in Steve Czarnecki. (He performed May 29 and 30 and returns June 3; Andrew Maughan assumes the role May 31 and June 1-2.) Czarnecki can sound sweet, despairing and plaintive all at once. Josh Davis bellows a bit as Jean Valjean’s antagonist, Inspector Javert, though he possesses all the ferocity the part requires.
As is customary with BSD presentations, the sets are sumptuous and the special effects atmospheric. The acoustics in the old Civic aren’t the greatest but they’re far from miserable. Les Miz is a show that can’t help but triumph.
Les Miserables continues through June 3
"Avenue Q The Musical" at New Village Arts in Carlsbad. Photo by Daren Scott
Now 15 years old, Avenue Q The Musical and its naughty puppets don’t rock the same OMG factor that they once did, but this is still a very funny and audience-pleasing show. With a crackerjack band and a cast to match, New Village Arts’ production of Avenue Q manages to make the deconstructed puppet “behavior” seem fresh, even as its shock value has been exceeded by the likes of Robert Askins’ play Hand to God. An upcoming Melissa McCarthy film, “Happytime Murders,” is said to even further explode the sweet playfulness of the “Sesame Street” ethos.
But back to NVA’s Avenue Q. This staging directed by AJ Knox relies on the snarky charm of Jeff Marx’s and Robert Lopez’s original music and lyrics, and ace performances by Gerilyn Brault, Zackary Scot Wolfe, Melissa Fernandes and Cashae Monya, among others, ensures a rollicking evening. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 5/30/18.)
Maria Gonzalez (left) and Sandra Ruiz in "The Madres." Photo by Daren Scott
The simmering tension of The Madres takes awhile to boil, but when it does, Stephanie Alison Walker’s play overflows the theater with passion and anguish. Moxie Theatre is one of four U.S. companies rolling out the world premiere of Walker’s work based on the true story of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, courageous women under that nation’s dictatorship between 1976 and 1983 whose sons or daughters were kidnapped and even killed by the regime. Moxie’s production co-directed by Jennifer Eve Thorn and Maria Patrice Amon is profoundly affecting, in large part owing to the committed performances of Maria Gonzalez as Josefina and Sandra Ruiz as Carolina, a mother and daughter in search of Carolina’s own missing child.
The entire story unfolds in Josefina’s Buenos Aires apartment in 1979. Establishing the dangerous circumstances and contextualizing them in terms of Josefina and Carolina results in a slow-paced if suspenseful beginning to The Madres. The events that follow intermission, however, personify all the human drama that makes these women’s longing and agony so gripping. For a piece rooted in history, The Madres connects in contemporary terms to the plight of women today, in another country in the other America, mobilizing for justice. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 5/30/18.)
Kay Marian McNellen and Fred Harlow in "For Better." Photo by Ken Jacques
Mixed-up connections or loaded words spoken at untimely junctures result in romantic and domestic complications in For Better, playwright Eric Coble’s breezy comedy, which relies on the cell phone not only as principal prop but metaphor for what we say to each other – or don’t say. At Scripps Ranch Theatre under the direction of Eric Poppick, a cast of six has fun with the aforementioned complications, and but for an excess of sentimentality (mostly at the conclusion), audiences will too.
Central to the consequences of cell phone-itis is Karen Baedeker (Kay Marian McNellen), who’s become giddily engaged to a man she’s met in person only twice, the rest of the courtship having been via emails, texts and phone calls. While Karen’s old-fashioned dad Wally (Fred Harlow) – this is made clear by his penchant for watching “Columbo” reruns in his bathrobe – is accepting of Karen’s unorthodox arrangement, her older sister Francine (Heidi Bridges), a Type-A know-it-all, is not. What Francine doesn’t know, by way of subplot, is that her drab husband Michael (Charles Peters) has been sexting with the very sexy Lizzie Monohan (Erica Marie Weisz, this show’s sparkler). Then there’s globetrotting Stuart Tramontane (Kenny Bordieri), who turns frantic and turns to drink when he finds out, via cell phone naturally, that the Karen he has yearned for is getting hitched to someone else.
Still with me?
OK, the narrative is jam-packed. But it’s fun when everyone’s on stage at the same time, phones in hand, engaging in one or more digital conversations. That’s also when For Better is most energized and less like your run-of-the-mill rom-com.
For Better continues through June 24.
Terrell Donnell Sledge in "The Wind and the Breeze." Photo by Karli Cadel Photography
From the top of a bridge in Rockford, Ill., onetime legendary hip-hop emcee Sam (aka Sam I Am) awaits Fourth of July fireworks -- months in advance of the big night. What the veteran rapper, disdainful of his past and resigned to the lack of a future, is really doing in Nathan Alan Davis’ The Wind and the Breeze is surveying the landscape that is his life, Meanwhile, a circle of young dreamers hungers for his support as they pursue their own musical destinies.
Directed at Cygnet Theatre by Rob Lutfy, The Wind and the Breeze is a promising new work from Davis, one rich with personal circumspection and enlivened by the rapping of Terrell Donnell Sledge as Sam and Demetrius Clayton as would-be protégé Shantell. Monique Gaffney, meanwhile, adds both edge and sensitivity as Sam’s knowing cop friend Ronda. To some degree, the play strains to demonstrate its gravity, and fireworks make for an easy metaphor. But The Wind and the Breeze has much worthwhile to say about fate, friendship and the search for the right place to touch down. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/23/18.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat