Rather than relying in the manner of a Shakespearean comedy upon magic or a merry mix-up, “Ring Round the Moon” hinges on a theatrical parlor trick: an actor seemingly being two places at the same time. In one instant, bon vivant Hugo (Brian Mackey), the host of a midsummer night’s fete, is exiting stage left. In another instant quickly following, Hugo’s kinder, gentler twin brother Frederic (also Brian Mackey) is entering from stage right or from down stage. This dizzying device is employed just the right number of times in Lamb’s Players Theatre’s frothy production of “Ring Round the Moon.” In other words, not to the point where it becomes exasperating or loses its comic zing.
Credit for the fluency of these transitions must go not only to the smooth execution by Mackey, a frequent Lamb’s performer, but to co-directors Robert Smyth and Deborah Gilmour Smyth, who ensure that these and others of the rambling play’s comings and goings delight more than distract. (Gilmour Smyth also portrays one of the comedy’s funniest figures: the wry, knowing and sometimes stogie-puffing Dowager Countess, aunt to twins Hugo and Frederic.)
“Ring Round the Moon,” written by English playwright Christopher Fry (“The Lady’s Not for Burning”), is an adaptation of French dramatist Jean Anouilh’s “L’Invitation au Chateau” (Invitation to the Castle). Its flight of fancy is that aristocrat Hugo has recruited a beautiful commoner, Isabelle (Joy Yvonne Jones), to his country manor house for the purpose of being magnificently gowned and to lure smitten brother Frederic from the heels of snooty Diana (Rachael VanWormer). Cocksure Hugo refers to this as his “huge and dark design.” Naturally, he has another, private motive, and just as naturally this ruse will go haplessly off track.
The comedy’s lengthy first act spends a great deal of time introducing its many characters, some of which feel extraneous. But the cast at Lamb’s is a sparkling group. Even those in strictly supporting roles, such as David McBean as the deadpan butler Joshua and Cynthia Gerber as the Dowager Countess’ dippy attendant Capulet, have moments to shine.
In sequences choreographed by themselves (along with Gilmour Smyth), Siri Hafso and Donny Gersonde practically dance away with the whole show. They, like everyone on stage, are opulently costumed by Jeanne Reith.
Mackey’s physical and oratorical stamina aside, the revelation of this production is Jones, whose presence is commanding without her even speaking, and when she does, with fire in the weightier second act, her Isabelle articulates the play’s moral: money can buy neither love nor happiness. (She makes a point of a very different kind in a wild throw-down with VanWormer’s Diana.)
Though not exactly subtle, when Isabel and filthy-rich party guest Messerschmann (Manny Fernandes) literally tear up and toss into the air notes of currency, “Ring Round the Moon” further decrees that wealth and class are unimportant, or at least they should be. Happily-ever-afters needn’t depend on either one.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 10/22/19.)
Roxane Carrasco in "Bad Hombres/Good Wives" at San Diego Rep. Photo by Jim Carmody
The narco telenovelas so popular in Mexico and Latin American countries are the chief inspiration for Herbert Siguenza’s wild and crazy comedy “Bad Hombres/Good Wives,” a world premiere at the San Diego Repertory Theatre that is a guaranteed good time. A certain amount of abject silliness is expected from a spoof of this kind, and “Bad Hombres” delivers, but what makes it work is that no sight gag is belabored, no joke is run into the ground, and no one scene is allowed to drag. This joyously subversive spoof directed by Sam Woodhouse, the Rep’s artistic director, is paced just right.
Siguenza, playwright in residence at the Rep and a co-founder of the Latino comedy troupe Culture Clash, has drawn from not only over-the-top narco telenovelas but Moliere’s “School for Wives,” creating a romp that has an ardent feminist message amid all the clowning. The story set in the early ‘90s in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, finds chauvinistic drug-cartel kingpin Don Ernesto (John Padilla) recruiting a young girl raised in a convent (Yvette Angulo) to be his submissive, subservient wife. This gesture of muscle and machismo is soon compromised by the girl’s encounter at a train station with a handsome stranger (Jose Balistrieri), who turns out to be the son of Don Ernesto’s recently deceased rival in the drug trade.
But these complications are implying drama that is never taken seriously. Any tangible conflict is defused by the presence of Don Ernesto’s maidservant Armida (Siguenza, hilariously in drag), by the widow of his dead rival, an eye-patched banda superstar named Lucha Grande (Roxane Carrasco) and by a harried priest with fetishes (Ricardo Salinas, a Culture Clash cohort of Siguenza’s). Love and women’s rights conquer all in the end.
Whether it’s the raucous singalongs and dancing to the onstage music performed by Adrian Kuicho Rodriguez or the sheer zaniness of Siguenza, Salinas, Carrasco and the rest of the entertaining company, “Bad Hombres/Good Wives” is an undeniably fun theater experience. Among the many hysterical scenes is one in which Armida (Siguenza) instructs the bride-to-be Eva (Angulo) on the art of seducing a man. Memory burn is all but ensured.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/16/19.)
A family's holiday dinner turns volatile in "Noura." Photo by Jim Cox
From the opening moment of Heather Raffo’s “Noura,” when the title character (played with arch desperation by Lameece Issaq) stands alone in the snowfall until its abrupt though unsatisfying end, this one-act drama pulsates with tension. A Chaldean Christian refugee who has left her homeland of ISIS-terrorized Iraq for a new life in Queens, N.Y., Noura feels herself in the psychological and emotional vise of two worlds: past and present. In the San Diego premiere of this play at the Old Globe under the direction of Johanna McKeon, questions and platitudes predominate during a claustrophobic Christmas celebration among Noura and her husband Mattico David), young son (Giovanni Cozic) and lifelong friend (Fajer Kaisi). The anticipation and subsequent arrival of an orphan college girl from Mosul precipitates the startling revelation of secrets and the articulation of sentiments long-suppressed or festering.
For an hour-and-a-half play that takes place in a very short time window “Noura” traffics in complications, personal conflicts and identity crises enough for a work three times this length.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/9/19.)
Cashae Monya (left) and Tamara McMillian in "Intimate Apparel." Photo by Daren Scott
New Village Arts’ production of Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” is among the finest stagings the Carlsbad theater has accomplished in recent memory. Thoughtfully directed by Melissa Coleman-Reed and featuring a superior star turn by Tamara McMillian, this realization of Nottage’s 2003 play about an African-American seamstress clutching at love and dreams is sublime in its storytelling and engulfing in its sadness.
A creator of fine intimate wear around the turn of the 20th century, Esther (McMillian) yearns for a meaningful life of her own and one in which she may be cherished and desired like those for whom she sews. The prospect of a long-distance lover (sending letters from Panama) buoys her hopes. In Nottage’s intelligent script, very little turns out as one might expect, and Esther’s strength and heart are tested throughout. The NVA cast in this deliberately paced but literate drama also includes Cashae Monya, who brings to bright but bittersweet life the part of Esther’s wayward friend, Mayme.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/9/19.)
Casey Likes (center) stars in "Almost Famous" at the Old Globe Theatre. Photo by Neal Preston
Cameron Crowe’s stage-musical adaptation of his 2000 film “Almost Famous” is ebullient, joyous and warm, shining a strobe light not only on his youthful (he was 15) pursuit of a career as a music journalist but on the vagaries and excesses of the 1970s rock culture. Like the film from which it was adapted, the world-premiere musical is also, as Crowe has called it, a “love letter” to San Diego and to his mother, Alice.
Crowe’s collaborators on this adaptation being staged at the Old Globe Theatre are Pulitzer Prize winner (for the edgy musical “Next to Normal”) Tom Kitt and Tony Award nominee (for “Wolf Hall, Parts 1 and 2) Jeremy Herrin, who directs. “Almost Famous” the musical relies heavily on songs written for it (music and lyrics by Kitt, with lyrics also by Crowe), with a couple others that were used in the film (“River” by Joni Mitchell, who was in attendance at the Globe on opening night; Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” and “Fever Dog,” written by Heart’s Nancy Wilson for Stillwater, the fictitious band in both the movie and this musical).
There’s no question that this project is close to Crowe’s heart, and it’s his affection for this at-once thrilling and anxious time in his young life that is so eloquently brought to the fore. Casey Likes is just about perfect as William Miller (the Crowe character), mentored by acerbic rock critic Lester Bangs (Rob Colletti, colorfully playing the cynical yin to William’s wide-eyed yang.) Stalwart too are Anika Larsen as William’s uber-protective mother, and both Colin Donnell and Drew Gehling as the battling but mutually charismatic front men of Stillwater, with whom William goes on tour as an assignment for Rolling Stone magazine. Solea Pfeiffer is “Band Aid” Penny Lane, and while her ballads feel a little repetitive, she renders each with tenderness.
The production at the Old Globe, which Crowe as a boy used to attend with his mother, is outstanding, from Derek McLane’s versatile scenic design to David Zinn’s costumes to the sound design of Peter Hylenski. Recurringly throughout its more than two and a half hours, “Almost Famous” looks, feels and sounds like a rock concert. Nothing could make Cameron Crowe happier than that. Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/2/19.)
“Man of La Mancha” is audacious enough to suggest that there is beauty in delusion, that love has no prejudices and that no dream is impossible. This is why audiences have loved the “Don Quixote”-inspired musical since it opened on Broadway 54 years ago. The omnipresence of a stirring ballad (“The Impossible Dream”) has a little something to do with it, too.
San Diego Musical Theatre’s “Man of La Mancha” directed by Scott Thompson takes full advantage of the sheer romanticism of Dale Wasserman’s story as well as the music and lyrics of Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, respectively, that enliven it. The cast, singing to the very back walls of the Horton Grand Theatre downtown that is SDMT’s home, is supported by an equally rousing orchestra conducted by Don Le Master.
Its classic status aside, “Man of La Mancha” is much more complex than it had to be: In 16th-century Spain, writer/tax collector Miguel de Cervantes and his manservant are under arrest after foreclosing on a monastery. Not only do the ruthless inquisitors await, but Cervantes’ dungeon-mates have seized his possessions. To get them back, Cervantes convinces them to give him a mock trial. His defense is the story he proceeds to tell them. So begins the play-within-the play, the tale of an old man, Alonso Quijano, who to the discomfiture of his family becomes Don Quixote de La Mancha, a knight errant who lives for chivalry, justice and love.
The adventures of this knight (Robert J. Townsend) and his squire, Sancho Panza (Jeffrey Landman), quickly crystallize around Quixote’s spellbound love for a wench of ill repute, Aldonza (Heidi Meyer). His quest for her heart is periodically interrupted by narrative returns to the dungeon, where the solemn Cervantes enjoys a literally captive audience.
Having to portray Cervantes, the “mad” old man and the Quixote character is a quest in itself, one that Townsend meets with the presence and rich baritone for which San Diego audiences have embraced him many times. His most impressive feat may be not oversinging the oft-oversung “The Impossible Dream.” When Townsend is in the old man persona, too, he’s genuinely credible as what a cleric calls him “either the wisest madman or the maddest wise man in the world.”
The only figure in this show who truly changes is the fiery and broken Aldonza, whose contempt for the men who want to use her (“It’s All the Same’) is ultimately transformed into a reciprocal love for the knight who always saw purity and goodness in her, his “Dulcinea.” Meyer never compromises the character’s keen sense of survival.
Not to be overlooked is the sometimes hapless humor of “Man of La Mancha,” not only via the quipping sidekick Sancho, but in visual gags or clever tunes including “I’m Only Thinking of Him” and Sancho’s “I Really Like Him” and “A Little Gossip.” This is, lest we forget, a tale in which a noble knight goes after a windmill and emerges with broken sword, but unbowed.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 10/1/19.)
Hershey Felder’s portrayal of the melancholy master, Fryderyk Chopin, unfolds in the San Diego Repertory’s Lyceum Space, the smaller and more intimate of its two theaters. As such, Felder’s Chopin’s stated premise that everyone in the audience is a student who’s paid 20 francs for the privilege of hearing his story and hearing him play is much more credible than if “Monsieur Chopin” were on the much larger Lyceum Stage. Felder not only performs and inhabits the persona of Chopin, but he engages theater-goers throughout in impromptu Q&A.
While the audience participation, always an awkward undertaking, slows down the one-act, two-hour show, it doesn’t detract from Felder’s supple and dramatic performances of the works of Chopin. The great composer’s short 39 years on life were sad, even tragic, but what music they left behind, and after all, that’s what’s drawing record crowds to this Rep engagement.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/25/19.)
One of the underappreciated pop-rock albums of the early ‘90s, Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend” has been rightfully winning new fans in the 10 years since Todd Almond’s play-with-music, also called “Girlfriend,” premiered at Berkeley Rep. The slow-moving, practically giddy story about two high school grads, Mike and Will, falling into love in an intolerant 1993 Nebraska is considerably enlivened by songs from Sweet’s album.
Diversionary Theatre’s San Diego premiere of “Girlfriend” directed by Stephen Brotebeck rocks to the sound of a dynamic live band populated by Melanie Medina (guitar), Christian Reeves (bass), Nobuko Kemmotsu (drums) and keyboardist/musical director Krysten Hafso-Koppman. As the more conflicted Mike and the immediately smitten Will, Michael Louis Cusimano and Shaun Tuazon respectively may not look like high school graduates, but each in his own way projects the insecurities of that age and also the clumsy tentativeness with desire made all the more daunting by residing in the narrow-minded American Heartland. Yet Sweet’s songs and the house band are more involving than anything in Almond’s sentimental script.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/25/19.)
Tony Amendola (top) and Rafael Goldstein in "Amadeus." Photo by Aaron Rumley
North Coast Repertory Theatre has opened its 38th season with a resounding production of Peter Shaffer’s drama Amadeus, the acclaimed 1979 play about the Imperial Kappelmeister of Vienna, Antonio Salieri, and his envy of young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As written by Shaffer, it was an envy that quickly turned toxic and quite possibly lethal. Amadeus went on five years later to become an Oscar-winning film that spread this theory to the larger public. (Officially, Mozart was said to have died, at 35 years old, from “severe military fever.”)
The character of Salieri is the crucial one in Amadeus, which is told in flashback from his point of view, beginning in a wheelchair as an old man stretching back to his 30s when Mozart was an amazing prodigy but also an irritatingly precocious young man. At North Coast Rep, the role of Salieri is filled with towering commitment and intensity by Tony Amendola, who brings out all of the calculating coldness the playwright instilled in the man (and which may well have existed). So potent is Amendola’s performance that it swamps a genuinely sensitive one by Rafael Goldstein as Mozart. But that is the nature of the play itself. Shaffer’s Mozart possesses tremendous charisma and childlike playfulness – and a little arrogance, too – but he proves no match as an adversary to Salieri.
There’s a grim inevitability to the sinister machinations of Salieri in North Coast Rep’s production. The impudent wackiness of Mozart, unlike in the film version, never dilutes the intensity of the story. Much credit for this consistency of mood and tenor must go to director Richard Baird and to a supporting ensemble that doesn’t overplay its collective hand. Among that supporting cast is Kathryn Tkel, whose turn as Mozart’s wife Constanze is multifaceted and moving.
Exits and entrances are handled gracefully on a sparse set designed by Marty Burnett. Elisa Benzoni’s late 18th-century/early 19th century costumes highlight the pretensions of the court of Vienna while also emphasizing the vast difference in the staid Salieri’s and impetuous Mozart’s personalities.
Forty years after its debut onstage, Amadeus continues to enthrall and mystify. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/18/19.)
Olivia Hodson and Steven Lone in "The Virgin Trial." Karli Cadel Photography
In the contemporary parlance of playwright Kate Hennig’s 15-year-old Elizabeth Tudor, she finds herself “locked up and knocked up.” But the future Queen Elizabeth I in Hennig’s “The Virgin Trial” is much more embattled than that. She’s under fire from both a sadistic noblewoman and from the Lord Protector to Bess’ brother, the reigning boy king Edward. They’re rabid to prove that she was complicit in a murderous plot to ultimately gain the throne herself.
This political intrigue boils at the surface of the second of Hennig’s “Queenmaker Trilogy” plays about the Tudor queens. Her first, “The Last Wife,” was produced at Old Town’s Cygnet Theatre last year under the direction of Associate Artistic Director Rob Lutfy. One of the most riveting dramas of 2018 on San Diego stages, it told the story of Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr, and how in pursuing her passion and independence she defied the very foundation of the monarchy.
Cygnet’s Lutfy is at the helm again with “The Virgin Trial,” in which Bess (Olivia Hodson), the youngest (after Mary) of the late Henry’s two legitimate daughters, is suspected of having taken to her bed her stepmother Katherine’s husband, Thom Seymour (Steven Lone, who played the same role in “The Last Wife”). Thom is arrested after a failed attempt to kill young Edward VII. Katherine has died in childbirth, and the political establishment’s fierce contempt of her has magnified and redirected itself at Elizabeth.
The Lord Protector (Tom Stephenson), who is also Thom’s brother, and the lady of the court (Lisel Gorell-Getz) are either grilling Elizabeth using the good cop/bad cop bit (and in an intentional anachronism using a tape recorder), or torturing Bess’ governess (Monique Gaffney) and secretary (Wil Bethmann) by means that, contemporarily speaking, bring to mind Abu Ghraib. If there’s theatrical shock value in that, or less so in the play’s occasional profanity, it doesn’t diminish what Hennig is saying about the girl “on trial” and the woman and omnipotent monarch she would become. At only 15 years old, Elizabeth is a still caught up in the fears and fantasies of a child, but emerging with chilling resolve is a woman who will bow to no one, a woman whom she says will never be “average.”
“A virgin,” Bess professes in a moment of supreme self-enlightenment, “is a vessel for creation.” In this vein, she not only exalts her virginity but confidently tells her exasperated sister Mary (Brittney M. Caldwell) that in spite of events she will regain it. You can’t help but believe her.
Hodson admirably balances this dichotomy between Bess the woman-child and Bess the sovereign-to-be. As Thom, tortured by urges carnal and ambitious, Lone has a much meatier part than he had in “The Last Wife.” His scenes with Hodson are uncomfortable, as they should be.
Caldwell’s Mary comes off as the most 21st-century sounding of all of Hennig’s characters. It is Mary, in fact, who is the subject of the third play in the “Queenmaker Trilogy,” titled “Mother’s Daughter.” Could that one, too, be in Cygnet’s future? It’s a tantalizing thought.
(Review originally published in The San Diego Union-Tribune on 9/17/19.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat