It takes craftiness to dramatize an 80-day trip around the world on a theater stage. New Village Arts has plenty of that, using little more than costume changes, various countries’ flags, and a few modest props to create the illusion that adventurer Phileas Fogg is trekking by train, ship, and even elephant to and through lands including India, Hong Kong, Japan and the U.S. All to get back to London in time to win a bet. Craftiness and misadventures aside, the whirlwind trip (if you can call a two and a half hour show a whirlwind) becomes wearying. But NVA”s new production of “Around the World in 80 Days,” based on Jules Verne’s novel, is a musical. The North County duo the Shantyannes composed more than a dozen tunes for the show which definitely inject some life into its familiar story.
Those tunes are performed onstage but inconspicuously by a band clad as pirates: Kyle Bayquen, Andrew Snyder, Trevor Mulvey, Nobuko Kemmotsu and conductor/keyboardist Tony Houck. While most of the lyrics serve strictly expository purposes, the music is jaunty and much in the spirit of the not-very-serious story. At New Village, choreographer Jenna Ingrassia-Knox keeps the young cast always on the move, and director Kristianne Kurner employs a likable ensemble (Rae Henderson, Alexander X Guzman, Jasmine January and Olivia Pence) to advance the narrative, sing choruses and portray multiple characters.
Of the principals, Frankie Alicea-Ford is well suited as Fogg, the main character but one whose demeanor of smug confidence almost never wavers. AJ Knox does well by the bumbling, hardly menacing Fogg adversary, Inspector Fix. Farah Dinga is beguiling as Aouda, the Indian woman saved by Fogg from a fatal sacrificing. As Passepartout, Fogg’s valet, Audrey Eytchison boasts boundless energy but ultimately irritates more than entertains.
Projections behind the actors aren’t vivid enough to be especially memorable, leaving the flags and costumes and fake mustaches to convey changes in locale. For sheer holiday escapism and a stocking full of silliness, “Around the World in 80 Days” is a fitting diversion, and it runs through Dec. 22.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/11/19.)
Will Bethmann as the store elf Crumpet in "The Santaland Diaries." Photo by Simpatika
, David Sedaris’ 1996 essay “The Santaland Diaries” has lived on because of the one-act play adapted from it by Joe Mantello. Because the story of Sedaris’ hapless and exasperating experience of being an elf at Macy’s doesn’t really date (in spite of the diminishing status of brick-and-mortar department stores), it’s still possible to wring laughter out of his wry, sometimes-spiteful reminiscences onstage.
Will Bethmann does just that at Diversionary Theatre, where Anthony Methvin directs a swift (one hour in length) and spry “The Santaland Diaries.” For the audience, this is grin-and-chuckle rather than chortle-and-guffaw material. The narrative would probably be just as effective were Sedaris himself standing there reading his essay. Still, Bethmann works hard for every grin and chuckle he gets, and they add up quickly in such a short show.
Note: Get yourself photographed with Santa Claus before the performance.
Given the signature David Mamet profanity exercised in “American Buffalo,” it might seem incongruous to be enamored of the script’s musicality. Yet there’s no better way to interpret the harsh but brilliantly rhythmic quality of the 1975 drama’s dialogue. Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company’s production of “American Buffalo” articulates this quality to a tee, owing to a smart director (Rosina Reynolds) and two actors (Richard Baird and Francis Gercke) who clearly intuit the incendiary tone but also the rat-a-tat vibrations of Mamet’s play.
The tale of a Chicago junk-shop owner (Gercke), his brutally neurotic crony (Baird) and a wrongheaded plan to burgle a house and supposedly turn a con back on a con artist quickly becomes convoluted. But it’s so much fun watching and listening to the actors fret and f-word their way through the proceedings that the quest for a rare and (maybe) expensive coin matters little. What a delicious theatrical departure for the holidays.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/4/19.)
In 1942, Gordon Hirabayashi, an American of Japanese heritage, stood on principle and defied a U.S. government order to “sign up” for a wartime internment camp. His case would go all the way to the Supreme Court.
Hirabayashi’s remarkable story comes to life in the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s staging of Jeanne Sakata’s “Hold These Truths.” The one-person show stars Ryun Yu, who during the course of 90 minutes portrays Hirabayashi throughout the years of his fight against racial discrimination and for justice. Yu also plays others who factored in: his friends, his family, his prosecutors, his legal team. Yu’s is an affecting, dignified performance that transcends “legal case.” The marginalization, mistreatment and even imprisonment of men, women and children because of their race and color is tragically not a thing of the past.
Jessica Kubzansky directs “Hold These Truths” at the Rep, where well-timed sound effects (designed by John Zalewski) foster the illusion that Yu is not alone and that history, of a shameful kind, is unfolding around him.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/4/19.)
David McBean (left) and Tom Stephenson in "A Christmas Carol." Photo by Ken Jacques
From the way he grumbles over his pathetic supper of gruel to his stony scowl elicited by any mention of Christmas, Tom Stephenson’s Ebenezer Scrooge is delightfully Scroogey. He grimaces at well-wishers, growls at carolers and, in Cygnet Theatre’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” intermittently seems to break the fourth wall and share his meanness and miserliness with the audience.
Stephenson is the anchor of Cygnet’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, now in its sixth year as a Victorian-bedecked play-with-music in Old Town. (Previously, Cygnet had staged “A Christmas Carol” as a radio play in an equally charming if slightly more stilted incarnation.) Those who’ve seen Stephenson’s Scrooge in past years will enjoy the subtle nuances of characterization he always brings to the role as well as the new musical touches here and there in this surefire production directed by Sean Murray with a score by Billy Thompson.
In the ghostly story of “A Christmas Carol” … wait. No synopsis is necessary, right? What counts is the telling of the tale, and Cygnet once again does so with warmth, ingenuity and just the right degree of humor.
Besides Stephenson, everyone else from 2018’s talented cast returns, each of them playing multiple roles. Patrick McBride is a sympathetic and stiff-upper-lipped Bob Cratchit as well as a booming Mr. Fezziwig (accent on the wig). The versatile and expressive Melissa Fernandes inhabits everyone from Mrs. Cratchit to Scrooge’s put-upon charwoman with vigor and spirit, while Melinda Gilb demonstrates once more that she can kick up her heels as Mrs. Fezziwig one moment and wail like one of the Cratchit kids the next.
Charles Evans, Jr.’s gentle acoustic-guitar playing is an atmospheric complement to his many portrayals throughout, and Megan Carmitchel’s tender vocals grace the reprises of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” reworded for this storytelling. Rivaling Stephenson for sheer charisma is David McBean, who makes showy entrances as both Marley’s fettered ghost and as the towering, grandly robed Ghost of Christmas Present.
Music director Patrick Marion supports the ensemble on piano. The production’s merry choreography is by Katie Banville.
Back to the aforementioned ingenuity of Cygnet’s “A Christmas Carol”: In addition to their characterizations, the cast members other than Stephenson are busy manipulating puppets (design by Michael McKeon, Lynne Jennings and Rachel Hengst), creating sound effects as resonant as the rattling of heavy, dragging chains or as slight as the chirping of birds. Many of these embellishments are holdovers from Cygnet’s radio-play version of “A Christmas Carol” and are just as effective in furthering escape into Dickens’ story.
“A Christmas Carol,” first published in 1843, is often less regarded among Dickens scholars than his sweeping, novel-sized works, but its imagery and depth of language are undeniable. Cygnet Theatre’s adaptation naturally takes liberties with its use of the original story, but there is admirable respect for its richness and intricacy. Then as now, love and compassion reside in its holiday tidings.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 12/4/19.)
"Cambodian Rock Band" at La Jolla Playhouse. Photo by Jim Carmody
“Cambodian Rock Band” is a stirring work of theater that comes along not nearly enough. Its intuition for creating moments on the stage is keen, its comingling of insight and emotion rare. What Lauren Yee’s play may accomplish most artfully, however, is juxtaposing tragedy on both a mass and an intimate scale with a celebration of music at its most cathartic and redemptive.
Yee is a 2012 MFA graduate of UCSD’s Department of Theatre and Dance and one of the hottest playwright in the country. It’s fitting that her “Cambodian Rock Band,” which she says was inspired by first hearing the Cambodian and American band Dengue Fever during her student years, is onstage at La Jolla Playhouse on the UCSD campus. The play-with-music was commissioned by the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Orange County, where it opened to raves last year. The Playhouse staging, directed by Chay Yew, is a co-production with Portland Center Stage at the Armory.
Songs by the L.A.-based Dengue Fever are featured in “Cambodian Rock Band” and are performed by the cast members. Jangly and propulsive, the music is an urgent and atmospheric amalgam of ‘60s surf rock, garage rock and psychedelia.
As immersive as the live music is, the story of “Cambodian Rock Band” – a young woman (Brooke Ishibashi) named Neary in Phnom Penh working to bring to justice a Khmer Rouge war criminal (Daisuke Tsuji) – is taut with human drama. Neary’s father Chum (Joe Ngo) surprises her at her hotel, and soon a long-kept secret about his past in his native Cambodia comes to the fore. He tells his story in Act 2, when the full depth of the Khmer Rouge brutality is laid bare.
Ngo’s performance, both with and without an electric guitar, is an unforgettable one.
The brilliance of “Cambodian Rock Band” is its facility for shifting but also sustaining mood while never straying from its conscience and soul or from the cautionary messages it imparts. The potency of Cambodia’s music is an affirmation of a people’s survival and courage in the face of humanity at its worst. So too is the love between a parent and child demonstrated as transcendent and unbreakable.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/20/19.)
Sarah Jane Nash (top) and Kate Rose Reynolds in "And Neither Have I Wings to Fly." Photo by Ken Jacques
Metaphor alert! Metaphor alert! Whenever the title of a play, or any narrative work for that matter, includes the word “fly” it’s a safe bet that the ensuing story will have something to do with a person at the outset tethered by fate or circumstances being uplifted. In playwright Ann Noble’s “And Neither Have I Wings To Fly,” that person is Eveline Donnelly, a young Irish woman living a dutiful but mostly joyless life tending to her widowed father and her younger, impetuous sister, Kathleen. What will it take to get Eveline’s dreams off the ground? Why a ghost, of course.
But Noble’s 1995 play isn’t flighty at all. On the contrary, it’s grimly serious on the subjects of death and duty. Without complaint and with nary a smile, Eveline does what she believes she must do in a depressing, dysfunctional household – until the spirit of her mother appears (only to her), causing her to doubt everything, including her own sanity.
“And Neither Have I Wings To Fly” is, then, a plum opportunity for a talented actress, and Scripps Ranch Theatre’s production has one in Kate Rose Reynolds. Her Eveline’s subtle transformation is accomplished with an aching, yearning grace. Reynolds previously appeared in SRT’s “Move Over, Mrs. Markham” and “Communicating Doors.”
The play’s buttressing subplot involves sister Kathleen (Katee Drysdale, brimming with youthful impulsiveness), her engagement to earnest but bland Leo Doyle (Hayden Emmerson), her infatuation with a swaggering actor (Zackary Bonin) and her deep-seated issues with her and Eveline’s father, Peter (Walter Ruskin). Throw in Leo’s “bad boy” brother Charlie (Paul Eddy) falling immediately for Eveline and you have an extended Irish family drama at its juiciest.
While the affected Irish accents are thick and the emotions turned up high most of the time, the staging under the direction of Jacquelyn Ritz retains enough introspection and humbled awareness of life’s temporality that its dignity and messages are not undone. The title of the play, incidentally, is taken from a Scottish folk song, one heard more than once, and chillingly, during the production. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/13/19.)
Lenny Wolpe (left) and James Sutorius in "The Sunshine Boys." Photo by Aaron Rumley
Its mugging and leering vaudeville scene aside, “The Sunshine Boys” is an old-fashioned, gently paced relationship comedy. The relationship in this vintage Neil Simon play is between a couple of crusty comic veterans whose 43-year partnership belied a foundational dislike for and intolerance of each other. At North Coast Repertory Theatre, the pair is portrayed with all due spit and vinegar by Lenny Wolpe (as Willie Clark) and James Sutorius (as Al Lewis). Watching the two spar – and it takes a long while in Act One before they get to do so – is the heart of the show, directed at North Coast Rep by Jeffrey B. Moss.
Wolpe does, however, wring some comic tension out of his multiple scenes with Bryan Banville, who plays Clark’s harried nephew with likable exasperation. That nephew, who happens to be an agent, is the one who had the bright idea to reunite the estranged Lewis and Clark for a network TV special. Bad idea, but good fun for theatergoers.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/6/19.)
Sandy Campbell (left) and Linda Libby in "Handbagged." Photo courtesy of Moxie Theatre
If Moira Buffini’s “Handbagged” were a better play, it might have provided tour-de-force opportunities for two of San Diego’s most gifted leading ladies: Sandy Campbell, who portrays Queen Elizabeth II, and Linda Libby, who plays Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. These two make the most out of their moments in Moxie Theatre’s production of Buffini’s historical comedy. But because of the structure of the 2013 work, they’re obliged to take a back seat to the two women portraying younger versions of the queen and “Mags”: Debra Wanger (measured) and Lisel Gorell-Getz (strident), respectively. The potential for provocative confrontations between the two latter-day British icons is also mostly lost in the play’s fact- and gossip-filled recounting of the history in the UK during the Thatcher years in power.
All four actresses give their best, nonetheless, and the device of having two ensemble actors, Max Macke and Durwood Murray, playing a raft of other characters (Ronald Reagan, Dennis Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, et al) contributes to “Handbagged” having many animated exchanges onstage. In any event, it’s a treat for anglophiles. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/6/19.)
Michael Louis Cusimano and Racquel Williams in "The Last Five Years." Photo by Ken Jacques
Love is happy, love is sad. Love is sad, love is happy. This is the rotating sensibility of Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years,” a musical chronicle of a relationship (and subsequent marriage) based on his own that soured. In the two-handed piece, young Jamie and Cathy take their turns singing about themselves, about each other and about where as a couple they are headed. The irony is that though they’re on stage together much of the time, they exist in completely different points in the five-year relationship: Jamie goes from the first blush of love to the anguish of the breakup; Cathy is in despair mode when the show begins and is wearing a too-good-to-be-true smile at the finale.
This parallel-time device is enough to distinguish “The Last Five Years,” which debuted in 2001 and is now onstage at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town, from a run-of-the-mill romantic musical. Brown’s script (he wrote the book, music and lyrics) amplifies the fact that lovers, or spouses, are rarely on exactly the same page.
Cygnet’s Jamie and Cathy are the mutually adorable Michael Louis Cusimano and Racquel Williams. They look,sound and move so well together that their performances are almost balletic. Each is completely comfortable with the score’s overly sincere ballads of longing or loss, though their comic moments are best, as when budding actress Cathy goes through the humbling rituals of auditions and writer Jamie’s publishing ship comes in. To some degree, Cusimano and Williams are more likable than their career-obsessed characters.
That director Rob Lutfy has the pair nearly constantly in motion keeps the proceedings from feeling static, which was an issue when this same musical was presented a few years ago at the now-shuttered ion theatre in Hillcrest. Justin Humphres’ set design and the subtle lighting conceived by Anne E. McMills help foster a sense of intimacy.
Most notably of all is the exquisite musical accompaniment behind stage directed and orchestrated by Patrick Marion. Making up the supple ensemble are cellists Erika Boras Tesi and Diana Elledge, violinist Sean Laperruque, bassist Mackenzie Leighton, guitarist Jim Mooney and Marion himself on piano.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/30/19.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat