William Cooper Howell (center) in "In the Heights." Photo courtesy of Moonlight Stage Productions
Tick … tick … tick …
That tick-tock you hear is the slow but steady countdown to the arrival of “Hamilton” in San Diego. The highly anticipated opening is Jan. 6 at the Civic Theatre downtown. But for now, let’s give some love to Moonlight Stage Productions in Vista, where right now, and until Sept. 30, you can catch a thrilling staging of the urban musical “In the Heights.”
What does this have to do with “Hamilton”? The music and lyrics of both shows were written by the mega-talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, maybe the hottest name in theater today. “Hamilton” struck a chord with America, but when it opened on Broadway nine years ago, “In the Heights” (with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes) didn’t fare too badly itself: the kinetic musical that mingles salsa-meringue with hip-hop, would win four Tony Awards including Best Musical, and later won a Grammy.
With reason. This is a truly infectious show, and not just the music. You get quickly wrapped up in its characters – those who live and work in the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC – a spirited lot with passion for life and for each other, faith in the face of adversity, and a joyousness about music, dancing and romancing.
The San Diego Rep staged a memorable production of “In the Heights” in 2013, and Moonlight’s, directed by James Vasquez with choreography of Carlos Mendoza, is even better. Props, too, to a robust and versatile orchestra directed by Elan McMahan.
“In the Heights’” players on stage are many, but very worthy of note are William Cooper Howell as Usnavi, the story’s anchor character and resident dreamer; Marlene Montes as the sassy but indomitable unisex salon owner Daniela; and Michelle Cabinian as Vanessa, the woman of one of Usnavi’s fondest dreams.
“In the Heights” has more than spirit – it has heart. It also should tide you over if you’re fortunate to have tickets for “Hamilton.”
Yunjin Kim and James Kyson in "Wild Goose Dreams." Photo by Jim Carmody
For a one-act play, even a long-winded one-act play, La Jolla Playhouse’s Wild Goose Dreams is stuffed with enough commentary and would-be cleverness for two acts. Maybe three. Playwright Hansol Jung’s overly ambitious script spins on its shaky axis between a political drama about the divided Korean Peninsula and an uneasy love story nearly swallowed up by the omnipresence of the internet. The latter is personified onstage by an ensemble of young actors voicing the peculiar but well-worn language of emojis, text-speak and pop-ups. It’s a stagey, labored device that quickly loses its novelty.
In this world-premiere production directed by Leigh Silverman, the focal characters are Minsung, a “goose father” in Seoul (James Kyson) who has sent his family to the U.S. where his daughter can be educated, and Nanhee (Yunjin Kim), a North Korean who has defected to the South. Mutual loneliness brings them together via the web, beginning a relationship that is troubled by his separation from his child and her separation from her father (Francis Jue) in the North. Clear enough. But Wild Goose Dreams sinks under the weight of its allusions to mythology and metaphor, and straining as it does for both laughter and tears, it’s tonally all over the map. Kyson and Kim are engaging enough (and Jue even more so), but that walking, talking, beeping, singing “internet” is just begging to be shut down. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/13/17.)
Katie Karel and Phil Johnson in "Last of the Red Hot Lovers." Photo by Aaron Rumley
Neil Simon’s 1969 Last of the Red Hot Lovers possesses more depth than an old episode of “Love American Style,” but it’s just as silly in its infatuation with the “with-it” topics of the time like the sexual revolution and smoking pot. Not that this affable comedy about a restaurateur’s middle-aged gotta-get-laid crisis isn’t funny. It can’t not be with the exasperated Phil Johnson starring as the beleaguered Barney Cashman. And North Coast Rep’s production, directed by Christopher Williams, co-stars three delightful – and highly entertaining– actresses as Barney’s very different but equally elusive “conquests”: Katie Karel, Noelle Marion and Sandy Campbell. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/13/17.)
Left to right: Deanna Driscoll, Abby Depuy and Rachel Esther Tate in "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds." Photo by Daren Scott
You’ve got to feel for Tillie Hunsdorfer, the teenaged science prodigy in Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Her mother Beatrice is severely depressed, bitter and remorselessly mean. Her sister Ruth is afflicted with both physical and emotional problems. The household boarder is a frail old woman who moves via walker and never speaks. That Tillie, a gentle and dreamy presence, does more than merely survive this misery is the salvation of this despairing and often brutal story.
Cygnet Theatre’s production of Zindel’s play – it failed on Broadway but won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize and became a well-respected film a year later – spares none of the script’s harsh realities or cruelties. Gamma Rays … is not escapist entertainment. But director Rob Lutfy sensitively directs a stalwart cast. Deanna Driscoll commits heart and soul to the deep-seated complexities of Beatrice, who is at once narcissistic and self-loathing, a person painfully starving for love but unable to give it. Driscoll’s unselfconscious performance is also a brave one. Though the daughters are narrative satellites of the Beatrice character, both Rachel Esther Tate as Ruth and Abby Depuy as Tillie distinguish themselves fearlessly as well, with Tate’s harrowing mania as the older daughter making for some of the evening’s most unsettling moments.
The play’s memorably unwieldy title refers to Tillie’s science project: exposing marigolds to radioactivity and assessing the results. For Tillie, the experience is one of otherworldly wonder, and given her family she needs another world. Her profound relationship to her project is emphasized in recurrent sequences that are softly and thoughtfully choreographed.
Gamma Rays … plays out on an appropriately messy set by Charles Murdock Lucas (with properties designed by Rachel Hengst) that evokes both the grim truths and prevailing hopelessness of the Hunsdorfer household. Their domain is not one you’d wish to visit in real life, and you hope that the real-life Tillies out there who do occupy them find their freedom and their joy someday. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/6/17.)
Sara Esty (left) and Emily Ferranti in "An American in Paris." Photo by Matthew Murphy
Like the film that inspired it, An American in Paris the musical is a spectacle of balletic dance. Period. Its love quadrangle is far less interesting than the often-stunning choreography (by Christopher Wheeldon, who also directed) set to the music of George and Ira Gershwin. The touring production of An American in Paris opened Tuesday night at the Civic Theatre, presented by Broadway San Diego. It’s a lengthy but lush affair that will most enchant lovers of dance (and maybe lovers of Paris, which is sincerely evoked in both the production’s inventive set pieces and color-changing screen projections).
Most lovable of all is Sara Esty as the fledgling ballerina Lise, who, if you don’t know the story already, captivates the attention of an artist (McGee Maddox) and a pianist (Stephen Brower) while at the same time being promised in marriage to a Frenchman (Nick Spangler). The petite, graceful and supremely athletic Esty is a joy to watch in all of this show’s ballet sequences, and especially in the marathon piece that precedes the story’s inevitable denouement.
An American in Paris continues through Sunday, Sept. 10.
Daren Scott and Samantha Ginn in "The North Plan." Photo courtesy of ion theatre
Jason Wells’ The North Plan, making its San Diego debut courtesy of ion theatre, clearly aspires to pungent political satire. Its hyper-physicality and broadly drawn characters, however, render it closer to political farce. The thriller-brand premise is smartly conceived: a thuggish splinter group has taken over the federal government, martial law has been declared, and a fugitive State Department bureaucrat (Daren Scott) armed with a stolen “enemies list” finds himself under arrest in a tiny Ozarks town. But the threatened outside world feels like fantasy beyond the walls of the town’s one-cell police station. There, the antics of Tanya Shepke (Samantha Ginn) and how they become co-antics with everyone else in the story (bureaucrat Carlton Berg, a police chief and his assistant, and two Department of Homeland Security suits) outdo and out-shout anything that might be happening on the martial-lawed streets of America.
Behind bars apparently after a drunken driving bust, Tanya is one notch above hillbilly, a victim of few breaks in life and of a no-good husband who tried to drown her in a bathtub. But she is fearless, impetuous and prone to firing fusillades of f-bombs at anyone who pisses her off – which is everybody. Ginn, a talented comedienne, has unfettered fun with the character, who finds herself pulled into fellow arrestee Berg’s plan to get his enemies list into the hands of someone who can help save the country. The first-act setting up, behind bars, of this conspiracy between Berg and Tanya is frantic and frankly hysterical. Kudos here to Scott, Ginn and director Isaac Fowler.
When the Homeland Security wonks (Jake Rosko and Fred Hunting) arrive in Act 2, The North Plan’s action inside the little police station ramps up, culminating with deadly gunplay, but all of it played as if with accompanying laugh track. There’s no telling how what happened will impact the bad guys in charge of the country or the emergence of an organized opposition, but you won’t care. Not after you’ve watched this Tanya Shepke – another revolutionary who called herself Tanya, aka Patty Hearst, is referenced during the play – strut her stuff. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/30/17.)
Jessica John, John Rosen and Francis Gercke in "The Explorers Club." Photograph by Ken Jacques
Silliness rules in Lamb’s Players Theatre’s production of Nell Benjamin’s The Explorers Club, a balm as Lamb’s artistic director Robert Smyth suggested on opening night for all the grim current events swirling around us. Nothing is taken too seriously in this swiftly moving comedy about a vivacious female scientist (Jessica John) in 1879 London who desires to be a member of the all-male Explorers Club. Her calling card is a blue-skinned native (John Rosen, owning this show) she has brought to Britannia from a far-flung jungle country. Reacting with either beguilement or astonishment are the explorers, portrayed at Lamb’s by a rousing ensemble that includes Fran Gercke, Ross Hellwig, Paul Eggington, Brian Mackey and Omri Schein.
What happens in The Explorers Club is less significant than its good-humored nonsense, such as the fellas breaking into a song from H.M.S. Pinafore or the wacky choreography that accompanies the native-turned-barkeeper sending rounds of drinks flying down the bar. The sight gags also feature a beloved “cobra” and an equally beloved “guinea pig.” Their relationship doesn’t end well, by the way. Everyone (well, not the cobra or the guinea pig) is lushly costumed by Jeanne Reith, and the veddy English men’s club set by Mike Buckley is magnificent. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/23/17.)
Say this for Sunset Boulevard. Unlike most of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s scores, which boast one memorable song, this 1993 musical based on the classic Billy Wilder film has two: “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” Both are sung by Valerie Perri, who as faded movie queen Norma Desmond is the chief reason to experience Moonlight Stage Company’s outdoor production of this show, directed by Larry Raben. Though Robert J. Townsend and Norman Large are just fine as doomed script writer Joe Gillis and eerie servant Max, it is Perri, portraying Norma with unfettered passion and escalating delusion, that wins the day. As always, Moonlight’s staging is lavishly costumed and robustly orchestrated, and projections by David Engel enhance the illusion that you’re back in a noir L.A. that once was. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/23/17.)
Opal Alladin and Grantham Coleman in "Hamlet." Photo by Jim Cox
The very language of Hamlet, transcendent in its exploration of human beings’ deepest and most fraught emotions, assures its resonance in any context and any iteration. Further, its dark psychology and currents of madness and revenge make it breathless theater. The Old Globe’s Summer Shakespeare Festival production directed by Barry Edelstein takes full advantage of Hamlet’s complex enticements – exploiting with atmosphere and chills its hazy ghost story; manifesting its oedipal underpinnings (a marriage bed, along with a colossal armored figure in gold, are the chief set pieces); and giving us a Hamlet (Grantham Coleman) who, though seeming more manic than mad, is an intense and energized presence, whether inhabiting his revenge or looking into his soul.
Elsewhere, Talley Beth Gale’s Ophelia-gone-mad sequence is a flashpoint of the evening on the outdoor Festival Stage, while the always reliable Patrick Kerr is a suitably sputtering Polonius, and Cornell Womack and Opal Alladin a brazen Claudius and Gertrude.
Penetrating but also entertaining in its theatricality, this is a Hamlet suitable for this summer’s sweltering nights when who knows “what dreams may come”? (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/16/17.)
Marisa Matthews and Jason Maddy in "Evita." Photo by Daren Scott
The San Diego Repertory Theatre has launched its 42nd season with a revival of the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber docu-soaper Evita, a musical now old enough (it began, like their Jesus Christ Superstar, as a concept album, debuting in 1976) that some may be seeing it for the first time. This Rep production directed by Sam Woodhouse is lushly and reverently staged with solid albeit unspectacular performances by its three leads (Marisa Matthews as Eva Peron, Jason Maddy as Juan Peron and Jeffrey Ricca as the extremist narrator, Che). What brightens this Evita is the Rep’s partnership in the production with the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. The SDSCA’s exuberant young performers bring freshness and vitality. Evita’s enduring calling card, of course, is that ballad you know all too well, sung in arguably theater’s second most famous (after Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story) balcony scene. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/16/17)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat