Opening night of Lamb’s Players Theatre’s production of Persuasion began with an earnest pre-show explanation from director Robert Smyth about the context and significance, socially and academically, of Jane Austen’s last novel (published four years after her death). Smyth’s mini-lecture, essentially reproduced inside the program along with a detailed roster of the Regency romance’s interweaving families, suggested that the audience might either become confused or fail to recognize the import of Austen’s free-thinking heroine, Anne Elliot. But Persuasion is not that obtuse. While Anne is a complex character, the drama around her both in Austen’s novel and in this musical adaptation by Harold Taw and Chris Jeffries is a straightforward one: Will she reunite after eight years with the suitor she was forced to turn away?
As a musical, Taw’s and Jeffries’ show takes full advantage of the mannerisms, traditions and class distinctions of the early 1800s in southwest England. Songs spring from the stiff upper lips of the romantic leads, of course, but the jealousies and eccentricities of the tale’s other characters are also mined for pleasant, mostly expository musical numbers. While Persuasion’s tension encircles Anne (Allison Spratt Pearce) and the dashing Captain Wentworth (David S. Humphrey), it’s the comic relief provided by the gossips and social climbers on their periphery that keep solemnity at bay.
The beautifully voiced Spratt Pearce is enjoying an extraordinary year, having already given superb performances in Cygnet Theatre’s The Last Wife and Diversionary’s The Loneliest Girl in the World. Her melancholy Anne is sympathetic but strong, and when she at last is able to smile in the arms of her captain, the smile is contagious. Humphrey is stalwart and sincere as Wentworth, residing though he does in a rather stiff character. The supporting turns are delightful, including in multiple roles Linda Libby, Megan Carmichael and Omri Schein, the latter in drag that recalls Peter Sellers at his “The Mouse That Roared” best.
As expected the costumes designed by Jeanne Reith are exquisite, and the musical accompaniment by an ensemble under the direction of Patrick Marion is lush.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/17/18.)
Taylor Mac’s “Hir” cultivates mind-bending and gender-bending ideas. What may be its most cogent proclamation, that “everybody is a little bit of everything,” comes from head of the household Paige, who with manic fervor is embracing the new and damning the past. As life dramatically changes in and around her, seemingly by the minute, she’ll freeze in mid-conversation or mid-mannerism and announce “Paradigm shift!”
In this way, and in the play’s verbal storm of gender politics and psychobabble, Mac discourses on the fluidity of gender and the absurdity of institutions restrictive by their rigidity, by their reluctance to accept and even by their tendency to inhumanity. The American family is the institution in the crosshairs of “Hir,” a raucous but congested dark comedy now onstage at Cygnet Theatre under the direction of Rob Lutfy.
This is no Rockwellian family. If soldier Isaac (Dylan Seaton) didn’t get post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in Afghanistan, where his duty was gathering blown-up body parts in the Mortuary Affairs Unit, the house he returns to three years later seems sure to do the trick. His stroke-impaired father Arnold (Joel Castellaw) is dressed in a nightgown, his ashen face smeared with makeup and a fright wig fit for a clown atop his head. He’s also being served estrogen “shakey-shakes” by wife Paige (Deanna Driscoll), who’s let the house turn into a hoarder’s nightmare and who squirts Arnold with water anytime he doesn’t do as told. Then there’s Isaac’s younger sister, Maxine (Avi Roque), who’s injecting testosterone to transgender, and who already has a bit of a beard going.
Isaac (called “I” by his mom, who wants her shocked son to just go with the flow) gapes and runs to the kitchen sink to hurl a lot, an overplayed gesture of horror. Arnold is a pathetic figure later revealed to be much worse than that, while Max affirms a desire to “gender-redefine ‘here-story.” (“Hir” is Max’s chosen third-person pronoun.) Paige’s symbiotic relationship with Max is tied up in her own crisis of identity and purpose. The dishonorably discharged (for drug use) “I” – another play on pronoun? – and his macho desire for order have no place in Paige’s reconstructed domain.
The production’s very physicality and penchant for sight gags, whether they include a plastic water bottle, a banjo or a trove of garish wigs, feed the comedy but actually diminish the import of what Mac may be saying about gender and personal liberation. It’s not until well into Act 2 that the laughter is jolted away as if by electrodes, and who these people are crystallizes.
In any case, Driscoll, a fearless performer, rides this Tilt-a-Whirl of a narrative with limbs flying, leaving everything out there on the Old Town stage. Roque, who identifies as Latinx Trans/Non Binary, brings layers of vulnerability to the changing Max. Paige and Max are “Hir’s” heart and soul, a mother and child making different but deeply defining transitions amid the fray.
(Review originally published in San Diego Union-Tribune on 10/8/18.)
What if the person you loved had only 100 days to live? How would you spend them together? These are the questions addressed in music and conversation by husband and wife Abigail and Shaun Bengson in Hundred Days at La Jolla Playhouse. An enterprising work written by the Bengsons and Sarah Gancher, Hundred Days flees the bounds of conventional theater or concert. In just 75 minutes it incorporates music (rooted in multiple idioms), narrative and movement in frequently daring fashion.
Still, it can be self-indulgent to the point of discomfort, as during Abigail’s aching, wailing “Three-Legged Dog” number; and when addressing the literally eternal question of what does death mean, Hundred Days traffics in awfully worn territory. There’s no discounting the superior musicianship, which sounds crisp and urgent in the Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/10/18).
Though very sentimental, New Village Arts Theatre’s staging of Tony Meneses’ Guadalupe in the Guest Room is a warm and engaging 90 minutes that confronts profound family loss with dignity and restraint. Part of New Village’s bilingual and bicultural Teatro Pueblo Nuevo initiative, the one-act play tells the story of a mother (Gabriela Nelson) and son-in-law (Tom Steward) grieving under the same roof (his) the loss of Claudia, who was Guadalupe’s daughter and Steve’s wife. Their language barrier and incompatibility are bridged by a shared fascination with Mexican telenovelas, the emoting episodes of which are amusingly acted out by the other two members of this cast: Daniel Novoa, who otherwise portrays a kind gardener who falls for Guadalupe, and Charlene Coleman, playing a teaching colleague of Claudia’s.
NVA Associate Artistic Director Nadia Guevara makes her directorial debut with this little play, and she is gifted with a tender, understated performance by Nelson as Guadalupe. The lighting blackouts that separate the production’s mini-scenes are distracting, but the action is beautifully paced. Meneses’ script about grief comes with its share of tropes, but their familiarity does not lessen the appeal of his sympathetic characters.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/10/18.)
Kevin Hafso Koppman (left) and Donny Gersondo in "Young Frankenstein." Photo courtesy of San Diego Musical Theatre
San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of Young Frankenstein is assuredly a treat for your pre-Halloween fun. Running through Oct. 28 at the Horton Grand Theatre in the Gaslamp Quarter, this incarnation of the Broadway musical based on Mel Brooks’ 1974 film captures all the wackiness and atmosphere of its progenitor. Under the direction of Larry Raben, it even manages to accommodate a large cast and multiple, fairly elaborate set pieces on the less than roomy Horton Grand stage.
The much-loved film was written by Brooks and Gene Wilder, who starred as Frederick Frankenstein. Brooks wrote the book for the musical with Thomas Meehan, and also composed the show’s music and lyrics. A couple of the tunes, like “Deep Love” and Frau Blucher’s “He Vas My Boyfriend” are actually worthy of the movie. The others are intermittently clever but far from essential.
SDMT’s cast is a stalwart one, though. As Frankenstein, Kevin Hafso Koppman channels Gene Wilder throughout, but he’s quite winning in his own right. Jonathan Sangster, a reliable supporting player around town, delivers big time as the hump-backed Igor, while Christine Hewitt is a howl as Frau Blucher (cue whinnying horses). Melina Kalomas is statuesque and un-self-conscious as Frederick’s narcissistic fiancée Elizabeth, and Kelly Derouin as Inga and Donny Gersonde as The Monster could be called this show’s fine iterations of beauty and the beast respectively.
An extended “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” choreographed by Daniel Smith, complete with top hats, tails, canes and Monster, rocks the old Horton Grand in this musical’s high point.
Young Frankenstein runs through Oct. 28 at the Horton Grand Theatre, downtown.
To get the metaphor out of the way: the bull is singularly determined revolutionary activist Mary Woolley, and the china shop is the former Holyoke Seminary for Women in the early 20th century. But from the opening moment of Bryna Turner’s Bull in A China Shop, it’s clear that Woolley’s revolutions – academic, social and personal – are not merely grounded in historical context. The recording of a solemn chorale is shattered by strafing contemporary rock, and indeed a riot grrl soundscape recurs throughout this San Diego premiere of Turner’s play at Diversionary Theatre.
The anachronistic music is but a part of Bull in a China Shop’s nod to universal relevancy. Its five female characters speak in anything but hushed Victorian tones, and though they are costumed for the early 1900s, they are not emotionally bound by their tight collars and long skirts. Woolley (Jo Ann Glover) was a Wellesley academic who became president of Mount Holyoke and for more than 30 years reshaped it in her intensely feminist mindset. Jeannette Marks (Tamara McMillian) followed her to Mount Holyoke, where she taught English and eventually became department chair. She was also Woolley’s lover.
Written primarily in short, confrontational scenes, the play depicts a Woolley embattled on two fronts: the perpetual fight for the liberation of women both in academia and beyond; and the one to convince her lover that her idealism has not been traded for power or individual recognition. But the drama in Bull in a China Shop resides not so much in Woolley’s and Marks’ stalwart commitment, but in their enduring relationship. It’s tenderly conveyed by Glover in the more strident, humorless role, and by McMillian as Marks, a character drawn with more complexity. In this staging directed by Kim Strassburger the most resonant scenes are one with Woolley on a trip in China, likening her loving connection to Marks to a pair of devoted swans, and a blazing, funny solo turn by Andrea Agosto as a scorned, lovesick student of Marks’.
At only 85 minutes, Bull in a China Shop is soon over, and though a sometimes-choppy affair, it leaves the audience wanting more time with two remarkable women whose influence is surely felt today.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/3/18.)
Alice Birch’s experimental Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again is a fiercely feminist affirmation that in the Diversionary black-box theater that is home to InnerMission Productions inundates the little space with sound and fury. As much performance art as it is theater, the one-act Revolt is divided into half a dozen vignettes, performed with tireless commitment by a cast of six (five women and one man). Bravest of them all is UCSD student Kirstiana Rosas, delivering a desperately forthright monologue as uninhibited as though she were standing in front of a mirror.
The searing hour and a half explores women’s rights to their own bodies and to equal treatment at work, the questions of reproduction and exploitation, and even rape. It turns loud and excessive in the last 10 minutes or so, but its ardency never wanes.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/26/18)
Amanda Naughton and Jim Stanek in "Fun Home." Photo by Daren Scott
The “fun home” in Alison Bechdel’s childhood and adolescence is what she and her siblings call their father’s funeral home – his side business when he’s not teaching English. On the surface, there’s a lot of fun going on in the family’s actual home. But then neither young Alison nor her siblings know that their dad is gay and that he’s having relationships outside the home and his marriage. In Fun Home, the acutely thoughtful musical by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron based on Bechdel’s graphic novel, the grown Alison (Amanda Naughton) tells the story not only of her father’s tortured double life but of her own coming to terms with her sexual identity, and her coming out.
Alison is also seen as a child (on opening night played by Taylor Coleman) and a college student (Claire Adams), giving Fun Home a three-pronged, multidimensional narrative, with Naughton as the omnipresent narrator. Aside from Naughton’s steady performance and equally penetrating turns from Jim Stanek as father Bruce and Bets Malone as mother Helen, Fun Home successfully makes a very personal story feel universal. Its score is up and down, and the kids’ dance scenes are little more than distracting, but there’s no missing Fun Home’s declarations on love and truth to oneself.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/26/18.)
Aaron Lugo and Allison MacDonald in "All My Sons." Photograph by Daren Scott
Having opened its 35th season earlier this year with a rousing production of the parodic musical Xanadu, Chula Vista’s OnStage Playhouse goes in a very different direction with Arthur Miller’s sobering family drama All My Sons. This staging is less memorable than that of Xanadu, but the enduring acuity of Miller’s play ultimately carries the day.
OnStage is presenting All My Sons, directed by James P. Darvas, in significantly remodeled confines, including more comfortable seats (imported, OnStage aristic director Teri Brown confided, all the way from Ohio). The cozy Midwest backyard setting, designed by Jadelin Boldenow, extends white picket fence and all practically to the first row of seats, guaranteeing that anyone in any of the three rows is close to the drama.
Drama it is, too, in this play, which evolves proddingly but delivers a gut punch before it is through. The now-on-hiatus Intrepid Theatre Company mounted a tremendous All My Sons four years ago and was rightly honored by the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle for Outstanding Dramatic Production for that calendar year. OnStage’s All My Sons is much more rapidly paced than Intrepid’s, clocking in at less than two hours (though it’s a three-act play), and at times it seems to rush through Miller’s piquant dialogue. While stagings of All My Sons can be overly ponderous, this one should be slowed down just a tad.
The story concerns the household of Joe and Kate Keller in the post-wartime late’40s. Kate (beautifully played here by Allison MacDonald) longs for the return of her missing son, Larry, whom she fiercely believes will return to her despite everyone else’s resigned belief that he was killed in the war. Her denial, however, pales beside that of Joe (Mark Solz, stiff in Act One, more aptly explosive later), who harbors a deadly “secret” that almost everyone already knows. Tensions mount as the Kellers’ surviving son, Chris (Aaron Lugo, along with MacDonald the most touching among the cast), brings to town Larry’s former fiancée, Ann (Emily Candia), whom he now intends to wed.
The notion of culpability hovers over the entire story, and that of forgiveness is grudging. But even in 2018, this reflects the path that life, including among families, often takes.
All My Sons runs through Oct. 13 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. $20-$25; onstageplayhouse.org
Katie Rose Clark and Matt Doyle (with microphonnes) in "The Heart of Rock & Roll." Photo by Jim Cox
Among the questions confronting bar-band Bobby, the likable hero of the Huey Lewis and the News-inspired jukebox musical The Heart of Rock & Roll, is: Is it hip to be square? Is it better to be an exec with a cardboard-box company than to be a big-time rocker? The answer would seem a no-brainer, but then Bobby’s got some extenuating circumstance that comprise the storyline of this world-premiere show at the Old Globe Theatre.
The good-timey, decidedly non-anarchic hits of Lewis and the News are a comfortable fit for an aspiring Broadway musical. Not only are the tunes themselves – mostly chestnuts from the ‘80s – bright and sing-able, but thanks to the show’s writers, Jonathan A. Abrams and Tyler Mitchell, they’re also easily integrated into the narrative. Besides “Hip to Be Square,” favorites such as “Workin’ for a Livin,” “Do You Believe in Love,” “If This Is it” and the title song function just as if they were crafted for the stage. But make no mistake: This is not American Idiot. The Heart of Rock & Roll is safe and satisfying, the kind of good time Huey Lewis and the News ensured in concerts and for viewers of their MTV-driven videos.
No one in the story itself is really a heavy. Everyone’s got some wholesome good in them, even the superficial wannabe beau (Billy Harrigan Tighe) of lovely Cassie Stone (Katie Rose Clarke), the cardboard-box CEO who Bobby (Matt Doyle) falls for. It’s inevitable that the “Power of Love” will win out. A superb comic turn by Orville Mendoza as eccentric business magnate Harrison Fjord adds considerably to the non-musical portions of the show.
All the stage bells and whistles are on display in this Globe production directed by Gordon Greenberg. The versatile set (designed by Derek McLane) shifts impressively from dive bar to product-convention floor to Chicago’s Navy Pier, and more. Lorin Latarro’s choreography is likewise inspired, in one sequence employing bubble wrap as a dance floor.
One’s affection for and familiarity with the songs of Huey Lewis and the News may ultimately determine enjoyment of The Heart of Rock & Roll. Then again, there’s a lot to like about a big, splashy show that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
(Review originally published 9/19/18 in San Diego CityBeat.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat