Hip-hop gets the improv treatment in "Freestyle Love Supreme." Photo by Joan Marcus
You think improvisation is hard? Try improv rapping. Then try improv rapping to a prompt like “seasoned croutons.”
No sweat for the performers of “Freestyle Love Supreme,” the musical/improv show created by Anthony Veneziale, along with Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda. They take suggested words, phrases or stories from the audience and on a dime turn them into hip-hop numbers in a spontaneous creation technique known as freestyle.
It’s on full display at the Old Globe Theatre and is proof that you can make something up as you go along and get laughs doing it.
Often – well, possibly more often than not – improv based on audience suggestions can go awry, making for an awkward and seemingly interminable evening. While “Freestyle Love Supreme” is essentially a different show every night because each audience is different, its opening night on Wednesday was fast-moving, funny and enjoyable.
Sure, the troupe members sometimes lost the beat while inventing their raps on the spot, and some of the audience suggestions were so lame that not even the most imaginative hip-hopper on Earth could turn them into comedy gold. But the “FLS” ensemble is experienced and quick. Most of the time, they demonstrated why this show, which has been around since the early 2000s, is so popular and enduring.
The best opening-night bits included re-enacting in rap one audience member’s first date (which happened to be at this performance) and another’s childhood memory of being stalked by a cougar – his prompt suggestion that was the catalyst for the bit: “Being chased by a cougar, and not the good kind.”
Andrew Bancroft, as “Jelly Donut,” serves as MC among the troupe, with Mark Martin, as “Mandible,” specializing in ambient noises. Jay C. Ellis, as “Jellis J,” and the amazing Dizzy Senze, as “Dizzy,” are the most impressive rappers, somehow able to make spontaneous sound un-spontaneous. Morgan Reilly as the appropriately named “Hummingbird” is the featured singer, and on opening night she portrayed the cougar too (“not the good kind”).
The backdrop onstage is a wall of mighty tweeters and woofers, and the moody lighting suggests a trendy club.
At 85 minutes or so with no intermission, “Freestyle Love Supreme” zips right along. Its comedy can be snarky but never mean-spirited. Does one need to be conversant with hip-hop to connect with it? Probably. If you’re not, it’s about time you got conversant and “FSL” is an invigorating way to do so.
“Freestyle Love Supreme” runs through July 10 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
Dhora Da Luz and Samuel Shea in "Cinderella." Photo by Rich Soublet II
The songs remain the same: “Impossible.” “In My Own Little Corner.” “Ten Minutes Ago.” “The Prince is Giving a Ball.” “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” But the 1957 Rodgers & Hammerstein “Cinderella” with the 2013 book by Douglas Carter Beane puts a lot of new wrinkles into the show originally written for television that starred Julie Andrews.
Look and listen no further than the “Cinderella” onstage at Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista.
In Beane’s adaptation, Cinderella (Dhora Da Luz) wants more than love – she wants social justice. The poor villagers among whom she resides are being exploited by the royal regime soon to be ruled by a gentlemanly but un-woke prince (Samuel Shea). In Beane’s adaptation, one of Cinderella’s wicked (not really) stepsisters, Gabrielle (Kumari Small), is being wooed by a firebrand (Drew Bradford) fighting for the aforementioned social justice. In Beane’s adaptation, reconciliation rules the day at the end of the fairytale, with even Cinderella’s wicked (not really) stepmom (Eileen Bowman) receiving forgiveness.
None of this prevents Beane’s “Cinderella” or Moonlight’s lush production from being tremendous fun. If anything, the narrative changes minimize some of the tale’s mawkishness and, dare I say, add a dollop of relevance.
It helps that the staging directed by Noelle Marion with fanciful choreography by Jill Gorrie Rovatsos and steady music direction from Tamara Paige enjoys some highly entertaining performances. Bowman, a consistently scene-stealing musical-comedy actor, is chortle-out-loud hilarious as Cinderella’s stepmother, Madame. Another dependable performer on San Diego stages is Steve Gunderson, slyly amusing here as the prince’s advisor Sebastian. Anise Ritchie gets to belt out the musical’s best belt-out numbers as Marie, the senile woman-turned-Cinderella’s fairy godmother in Beane’s retelling.
Transformations are this production’s calling cards too, as when Marie’s rags turn to fairy garb and Cinderella spins from rags into gowns. Naturally a pumpkin becomes a coach and mice become coachmen. “Cinderella” wouldn’t be “Cinderella” otherwise.
Though dripping with sincerity from the moment they meet, this Cinderella (she’s Ella in Beane’s book) and her prince (called Topher, supposedly short for Christopher) make a likable pair. Both Da Luz (in her Moonlight debut) and Shea have lovely singing voices.
So this is a more than worthwhile night out for you and (if you have any) your kids. It’s too bad Moonlight couldn’t start the show earlier, however, at 7:30 p.m. if not 7. An 8 p.m. start with a finale after 10:30 makes it tough for the little ones to stay awake.
“Cinderella” runs through June 25 at Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista.
Rosina Reynolds (left) and Kate Rose Reynolds in "Iron." Photo by Daren Scott
An acting tour de force for Rosina Reynolds and her daughter, Kate Rose Reynolds, the Roustabouts Theatre Company’s production of Rona Munro’s “Iron” pulsates with tension. Set in a women’s prison in Scotland, there’s a palpable sense that at any moment someone or some thing is about to detonate.
Fay (Rosina Reynolds) has been incarcerated for 20 years after her conviction for stabbing her husband to death. Hers is a life sentence in virtual solitary confinement with opportunities to tend a little garden her only “escape.” She has no visitors and asks for none.
Until one day, at the outset of the play, the daughter she hasn’t seen since she was arrested, the daughter who’s never visited her since, Josie (Kate Rose Reynolds), arrives at the prison. As apprehensive as she is curious, Josie is informed that drop-in visits are not allowed, that she must ask for her mother’s consent in writing before being “invited” to come and see her.
Once she does, the series of visiting-room meetings between mother and daughter begin. They are initially awkward and thorny: Fay wants to know why Josie is even bothering; Josie wants to know where the reticence and anger are coming from. But bit by bit, sequence by sequence, the relationship between the two evolves, never becoming exactly warm (touching is expressly not allowed) but bordering on something in between conversational and co-dependent.
It’s when, without quite realizing it, Josie becomes the vehicle for Fay getting what she wants – and that’s not necessarily devotion from a daughter – that “Iron” punctures any expectation that these two women are going to have a happy ending together.
Rosina Reynolds is one of the most respected actors in town, and her portrayal of Fay is dark, internalized and chilling. She deftly carries off the moments, too, when Fay re-enacts times in her past when life seemed gay and impetuous and full of fun – few as they were.
This is the first time that Rosina and Kate Rose Reynolds have appeared together onstage in mother-and-daughter roles. A very talented actor in her own right, Kate endows Josie with the anxiousness, discomfiture and eventually desperate hope of a child who has discovered her mother after so many lost years. In spite of so many unanswered, terrible questions she comes to believe, maybe against her better judgment, that reconciliation and her mother’s freedom are possible.
The presence in the action of two prison guards (Jada Alston Owens and Richard P. Trujillo) works when they’re silently stalking the two women, spying for illicit passing of contraband or weapons, or when brutishly frisking Fay and Josie after visitations. Giving them both, Owens’ Sheila in particular, little back stories pads the story, the telling of which requires well over two hours’ time. They function more effectively as disciplinary specters in starched white shirts and ties.
With so much of “Iron” consisting of Fay and Josie communicating across a table, the challenge of maintaining the drama’s momentum is an obvious one, but under Jacole Kitchen’s skilled direction the mother-daughter encounters, in which emotional flare-ups on both sides are rife, remain dynamic and unpredictable.
“Iron” is heavy as iron. It’s sad and it’s claustrophobic.
It’s also potent theater with two actors bringing their “A”game.
“Iron” runs through June 25 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando.
Jordan Barbour in "Eighty-Sixed." Photo by Simpatika
Welcome back, Diversionary. The third-oldest LGBTQIA+ theater in the country and one of the most reliable among San Diego’s smaller companies, is finally producing in person again after the long COVID hiatus. It’s back after a $2.5 million renovation to its University Heights building. The money was well spent. A new lobby and bar downstairs and snappy multi-colored seats in the upstairs theater are just a few of the very impressive upgrades.
More important, the world premiere of the musical “Eighty-Sixed” is the ideal production to take advantage of the expanded mainstage theater space. A cast of 12 and a four-piece band might have been crowded prior to the renovation, but in the new Diversionary there’s plenty of room – and more seats for patrons as well.
“Eighty-Sixed” is a well-produced, thoughtful return for Diversionary. Based on a novel by David B. Feinberg, the musical (book by Jeremy J. King, music and lyrics by Sam Salmond) explicitly and painfully revisits a year – 1986 – when the AIDS crisis was in full nightmare mode for the gay community. But as we know, AIDS was a crisis for all America, not that the Reagan presidency treated it as such.
The musical directed by Kevin Newbury begins with BJ (an intentionally un-subtle name for the lead character) going through a jar in which he keeps the names and phone numbers of all of the casual partners he’s had over time. The jar becomes a recurring symbol for BJ’s most conflicted relationship of all – the one not with his sexuality but with his lifestyle.
When New Yorker BJ (Preston Sadleir) is recognized by a “stranger” named Bob (Sean Doherty) and doesn’t remember him back at all, his self-doubt begins. His discovery later that Bob has AIDS and is getting more sick by the minute heightens the self-doubt and inundates him with fear. What was his relationship to Bob, the one he can’t remember?
“Eighty-Sixed” is populated by many peripheral characters … perhaps too many. Those who do seem essential to the storytelling are BJ’s gay friend Dennis, who’s a social worker (Wilfred Paloma), his straight friend Rachel (Farah Dinga), and Dave (Jordan Barbour), hospitalized Bob’s partner and, under the circumstances, his caregiver.
Then again, maybe the presence of so many other men in BJ’s life, including Richard (Frankie Alicea-Ford), with whom he thinks he’s having a monogamous relationship, is essential to the plot point that BJ can’t keep track of who he knows and how well, an issue that the AIDS epidemic has forced upon him.
With 18 songs and a fair amount of dialogue and conversations, “Eighty-Six” takes its time reaching an inevitable conclusion. Some scenes, especially those with a club singer and mirror ball, feel extraneous, and frankly the hospital encounters with Sadleir and Doherty, sensitively performed by both, overpower everything else.
That said, the tragedy of “Eighty-Sixed” isn’t the only component of the musical, which in its sincerest tunes touches on the importance of friendship, sacrifice and knowing oneself. The BJ character has to carry the load as it is he who navigates the four-way intersection of desire, identity, guilt and compassion. Sadleir manages the challenge, supported well by Doherty and Barbour.
“Eighty-Sixed” would be too heavy without some humor. Rachel is a familiar type – the straight gal with the gay male friend – but she has a few funny lines, particularly when she, BJ and Dennis are at brunch. More bittersweet is BJ’s, Bob’s and Dave’s song in the hospital “What About the Weather” when trying not to discuss the omnipresent subject. And Bob refers to serious topics as “heavy pizza.” It’s glib and wrenching at the same time.
The “Eighty-Sixed” backing band is in the shadows but very much a part of this show’s appeal: keyboardist/conductor Patrick Marion, bassist Christian Reeves, drummer Nobuko Kemmotsu and guitarist PJ Bovee.
“Eighty-Sixed” is performed without an intermission. At nearly two hours, it’s a long sit. Thanks, Diversionary, for the new comfortable seats.
“Eighty-Sixed” runs through June 26 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights.
Above ground, everything's cookin' in "Hadestown." Photo by T. Charles Erickson
“Hadestown” is downtown. The touring production of Anais Mitchell’s mythological musical, now playing at the Civic Theatre, looks and feels like the big Broadway show it is: lavish sets, transcendent lighting, evocative costumes, an infectious orchestra right on stage rather than sequestered in the pit. In short, everything to dazzle the theatergoer.
Mitchell’s adaptation of the Greek myth about Orpheus and Eurydice took its time getting to the Great White Way in 2019 – 13 years after it began as a project musical touring New England, with a concept album recording in between. Once it hit Broadway it was a smash, eventually winning eight Tonys including Best Musical.
From a production standpoint, it’s easy to see why. The scenic design by Rachel Hauck (a Tony winner), evoking both a French Quarter club at its festive best and the unrelenting depths of Hades’ grim realm, makes for immersive storytelling. The costume design by Michael Krass also suits both worlds to a tee. David Neumann’s choreography, especially in the Hades sequences, functions beautifully with the music, which incorporates everything from jazz to choral pop to worldbeat.
Beneath the aforementioned dazzle are a few narrative missteps. This is an ultra-expository show, with the god Hermes omnipresently telling us what’s going on and what it means throughout when we don’t need to be told and explained to. “Hadestown” also finds its romantic twosome, Orpheus and Eurydice, not nearly as charismatic or engrossing as the two peripheral figures in the story: Hades, ruler of the Underworld, and Persephone, his abducted queen. Little wonder that Kevyn Morrow and Kimberly Marable on this national tour rule like gods when they’re onstage.
Other than the ending, this is a loose adaptation of the Greek myth, though if you research long enough you’ll find multiple twists, turns and interpretations. It’s best to enjoy “Hadestown” as a myth rather than scouring it for contemporary messaging and relevance. Yeah, the “Why We Build the Wall” anthem that closes Act 1 could be singled out for currency, but Mitchell wrote the song before the cruel and paranoid MAGA years in the White House. As for the notion that the power of music can overcome even the worst oppression and oppressors, that’s a timeless, if sadly naïve, trope.
In “Hadestown,” Orpheus (J. Antonio Rodriguez, an understudy, in the role on Thursday night) is struggling to finish that one quintessential song of overpowering love as he woos the poor, hungry but smitten Eurydice (Morgan Siobhan Green). While Mitchell’s massive score includes some memorable tunes spanning multiple genres (“Road to Hell,” “Way Down Hadestown,” “Come Home With Me,” “Livin’ It Up On Top”), THE SONG Orpheus ultimately finishes is one rife with “la la la” lyrical passages. Sorry, it’s a letdown.
For a lengthy show, “Hadestown’s” dramatic tension is really confined to one premise: Hades has overpowered the starving Eurydice into a deal that keeps her his captive down below and Orpheus is dead-set on rescuing her. Period. It’s the extravagant staging and wonderful live music that matter most. Shout-out to the “Hadestown” musicians, by the by, especially trombonist Audrey Ochoa.
If you’re most captivated, among the cast members, by Marable’s Persephone, you’re not alone. Her Act 2-opening “Our Lady of the Underground,” is a delight. Morrow boasts a basso six feet deep as Hades, and the swagger as well. Between the young sweethearts, Rodriguez has the lovelier voice, though his delivery can sound overwrought.
As narrator/explainer Hermes, Eddie Noel Rodriguez is nattily dressed, unflappable and charming. It’s his job to put a grace note on the myth’s – SPOILER ALERT! – tragic conclusion.
He’s up to the task.
“Hadestown” runs through June 5 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
Marti Gobel (left) and Rachel Cognata in "Mud Row." Karli Cadell Photography
As richly drawn as the characters are in Dominique Morisseau’s “Mud Row,” there’s one “character” not listed in the dramatis personae: an abandoned (though it turns out not really) house in a discarded neighborhood in West Chester, Pa. It’s there, in the midst of a sofa draped in plastic and lamps rarely lit for want of electricity, that past and present converge and two generations of Black women strive for self-truth and identity.
"Mud Row,” now onstage at Cygnet Theatre directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, also finds its characters in various stages of reconciliation, either with the lots given them, with those who came before them, or with each other.
Cygnet’s is a riveting and superbly acted production of Morisseau’s play, which premiered three years ago at People’s Light in Pennsylvania’s Chester County. Here is a vividly told, multi-layered story in which, thanks in part to the excellent performances in Old Town, we care about each of its six characters.
Elsie (Andrea Agosto) and Frances (Joy Yvonne Jones) are sisters with very different priorities living in the turbulent ‘60s. Elsie wishes to ascend socially, in part by marrying into the so-called “Talented Tenth.” The militant Frances, meanwhile, is in the thick of the civil rights movement. Her dreams are not material ones.
This recurring narrative alternates with the present-day circumstances at the West Chester house, which belonged to Grandma Elsie: Her accomplished grown granddaughter Regine (Marti Gobel) has discovered she has inherited the place. Disturbed by her memories of it and her life there, she wants no part of it and tells her loving husband Davin (Rondrell McCormick) so. They will sell it and, to Regine’s way of thinking, get what they can for it.
There’s a complication: Regine and Davin realize someone has been living in the house.
The audience learns before they do that Regine’s estranged troubled younger sister Toshi (Rachel Cognata) and her boyfriend Tyriek (Leo Ebanks) have been squatting at the house for three months. A recovering drug addict, the fiercely determined Toshi isn’t about to give up the house. She equates their living in it with the promise of a new, better life.
Much more than mere family drama plays out as “Mud Row” tensely moves toward resolution, from Frances’ terrifying flashback confrontations while protesting to a shocking moment of impulsive violence in the house at the end of Act One.
The most crucial and affecting scenes are those between sisters: between Elsie and Frances as their chosen paths diverge more and more, and between Regine and Toshi, whose relationship seems irrevocably broken by betrayals and resentments.
Besides Joy Yvonne Jones, who continues to demonstrate why she is one of the most talented young actors in town, Gobel and Cognata both alone and together illuminate the pain and doubts that each sister endures. Regine and Toshi find rare common ground in their memories of Grandma Elsie, aching as those are.
If at times “Mud Row” gets speechy, it’s at least acknowledged once when Toshi asks to be excused for employing a metaphor, and the reality is that some of the play’s most revealing moments emanate from just the fire in Frances’ eyes or in Toshi’s inward, restless reckoning with her past.
Brian Redfern’s scenic design, lighting by Caroline Andrew and sound design by Melanie Chen Cole all contribute to an immersive, time-traveling visit to a house where fulfillment of dreams comes uneasily … if at all.
“Mud Row” runs through June 19 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
The ensemble cast of "Come From Away." Photo by Matthew Murphy
As much as I loved “Come From Away” when it premiered seven years ago at La Jolla Playhouse, I wondered, when it opened two years later on Broadway, if the masses would embrace the musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Heartwarming and often joyous as it is, “Come from Away” is also a reminder of the nightmare that was 9/11. Would “America” take to it on the Great White Way?
It did, in a big way. “Come from Away” would become the longest-running Canadian musical in Broadway history and would earn director Christopher Ashley (the Playhouse’s artistic director) a Tony Award in 2017.
A national touring production of “Come from Away” was to have made a stop at the Civic Theatre downtown in a Broadway San Diego presentation in 2020 … but enough said about 2020 the better. Happily, “Come from Away” has returned at last, in a BSD engagement that runs through Sunday.
If you saw “Come From Away” in La Jolla or on Broadway, see it again. If you’ve never seen “Come From Away,” your time is now.
It is a play with music (more than a pure, full-on musical) about “Operation Yellow Ribbon,” in which 38 airliners were forced by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, to land in little Gander, Newfoundland, population around 10,000. Some 6,500 people, both passengers and flight crew members, were taken care of and taken to the hearts of the generous people of Gander.
Over the course of just one act we get to know both Newfoundlanders and the “come from aways” in their care. The mayor. The constable. The airline pilot. The mother whose son is a missing New York City firefighter. The woman and man from different continents thrown together who fall in love. These aren’t “types.” They are real people dramatized from the true story of “Operation Yellow Ribbon.” (You can see many of them in a superb NBC documentary hosted by Tom Brokaw, available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXbxoy4Mges)
Revisiting “Come From Away” reminded me of all the things I admired about it at La Jolla Playhouse in 2015, like the simplicity of a set composed basically of chairs and the ingenuity of with only these chairs (or nothing at all) taking us inside an airliner or an airport terminal or a local school gymnasium converted into a “hotel.” Here too is a show with many moving parts that never loses its way. Its characters are defined just enough to invest us in their individual desires and dilemmas. The band onstage recreates the folk music of Newfoundland, enlivening but not overwhelming the proceedings.
Most of “Come From Away’s” songs are there to chronicle those days and nights in Gander and to move the story forward, from the opening “Welcome to the Rock” to the pub-party tune “Screech In” to the more thoughtful “Stop the World” and “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere.” The closing “Something’s Missing” is a 9/11 elegy that has lost none of its potency in the passing years.
This touring production cast is exceptional. As prescribed, all actors play multiple roles. Marika Aubrey, who plays American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass, and Kevin Carolan, portraying Gander Mayor Claude Elliott, lead the way, with touching performances too from Christine Toy Johnson and Chamblee Ferguson as Diane and Nick, the pair from Dallas and London respectively who find love in Newfoundland.
Guaranteed there will be moments when the songs or stories of “Come From Away” will catch in your throat, whether it’s the tender gesture of a neighbor toward a stranger or the refusal of an animal shelter manager to abandon the frightened pets stranded aboard the empty jetliners.
“Come From Away” may be the closest you’ll ever get to Gander. You’ll feel like you’ve been there, and for an hour and 40 minutes you’ll feel like an honorary Newfoundlander.
Thank you again to our friends north of the border.
"Come From Away" runs through May 22 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
Melinda Lopez in "Mala." Photo by Rich Soublet II
To call a woman “mala” in Spanish is to call her a bad person. In the case of a daughter trying to take care of her elderly and infirm mother, this also translates to “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Melinda Lopez inhabits this role in her one-woman play “Mala,” onstage through June 12 in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in the round. For nearly 80 minutes, she recounts the odyssey and ordeal of caregiving: the dreading of late-night phone calls; the agonizing over whether to try to force a loved one into a hospital for treatment; the wondering how long it can all go on; and the feelings of guilt when entertaining the thought that there will be an end.
Americans of any means at all are inclined to thrust their elderly parents into “facilities” or “homes,” abdicating the care to strangers. But Lopez and her family are of traditional Cuban lineage, and that’s something you just don’t do. Out of love and out of duty, you do what you must do, even as it’s tearing you apart.
“Mala” finds Lopez portraying not only herself and her mother, but others in the caregiving sphere, from friends and neighbors offering unsolicited advice to an impossibly cheery hospice worker. Nobody has an answer because there isn’t any.
Lopez’s relaxed presence onstage and occasional humor lighten what might otherwise be a stiflingly heavy subject, one that all too many people in the audience either know all too well or fear will someday come to pass. She makes it clear that difficult as her plight is, it’s manageable because she’s acting out of love.
Toward the tail end of the play, directed by David Dower, Lopez admits to hating poets, so it’s interesting that the script turns rather poetic afterward. Anytime you drag T.S. Eliot into the theater – and this has nothing to do with “Cats” – you’re flirting with pretentiousness.
Fortunately, Lopez brings her show to its conclusion without posturing and without melodrama. She is alone on the stage as she has been the entire time, but her story has found its way into the consciences and maybe the hearts as well of anyone who’s experienced the telling of it.
"Mala" runs through June 12 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
Payton Reilly (left) and Drew Becker in "Tootsie." Photo by Evan Zimmerman for Murphy.Made
The problem with “Tootsie” the comedy musical is the same problem with “Tootsie” the film, on which it is based: It’s a one-joke story. A guy dressed up like a woman.
Maybe that’s oversimplifying. After all, the 1982 motion picture starring Dustin Hoffman won a whopping 10 Academy Awards including one for Best Picture. Not that winning an Oscar automatically equates with artistic achievement, but the movie was entertaining with a cast that included Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Bill Murray and Teri Garr.
So why not make a musical version of “Tootsie” for the theater? That’s what Robert Horn (book) and David Yazbek (music and lyrics) did, with a show that premiered in Broadway in 2018.
That show is making its San Diego premiere at the Civic Theatre downtown in a national touring production presented by Broadway San Diego. It stars Drew Becker in Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels part with Ashley Alexandra, Jared David Michael Grant and Payton Reilly in Lange’s, Murray’s and Garr’s roles respectively. I’ve got more to say on Reilly, who is super, in a bit.
The premise of the musical “Tootsie,” written originally for the screen by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart, is the same: A perpetually out of work actor with major personality problems becomes desperate enough (and defiant enough) to audition in drag for a woman’s part, and he gets it. He nails it. He becomes a sensation. In the film, the role is for a daytime soap opera titled “Southwest General.” In the musical, it’s the part of The Nurse in a terrible theatrical “sequel” to “Romeo and Juliet.”
To complicate the gender-bending deceit, Michael falls for the play’s Juliet, actress Julie Nichols (Alexandra). This almost automatically becomes the musical’s principal conflict: not whether Michael can keep up his deception indefinitely without being found out, but whether he can win his lady love.
Like the movie, “Tootsie” the musical seems unbelievable all the way through in spite of its laughs and strong performances. In this touring production, Dexter looks more like Mrs. Doubtfire than an actual woman, but then I didn’t buy Hoffman in dress, wig and jewelry either.
More troubling for the musical, it spans more than two and a half hours, milking its sight gags and over-relying on shtick like actor Max Van Horn’s (Lukas James Miller) shouting, wild-eyed antics, especially when he turns into Dorothy’s suitor, and Adam du Plessis as a loutish, conceited director/choreographer. At the very least 20 minutes could have been cut from this show with nothing lost.
Musically, “Tootsie” bounces along on the strength of Yazbek’s consistently clever lyrics, the catchiest of which recount the plight of aspiring actors everywhere. That brings us to supporting player Payton Reilly’s “What’s Gonna Happen,” a neurotic solo performed at warp speed that she brings off so impressively that you wish the entire show was hers.
As recently seen and heard in Broadway San Diego’s presentation of “The Band’s Visit” at the Civic, Yazbek, who wrote the music and lyrics for that show, has a way with ballads. “Tootsie” includes a couple of note: the recurring “Who Are You?” and “I Won’t Let You Down,” which is Dorothy’s solo in the farcical play-within-a-play.
What “Tootsie” on stage brings to the fore that the film naturally does not is its buoyant choreography (by Denis Jones). The dance sequences are serviceable but at times imaginative.
Drew Becker has the formidable task of occupying a role forever identified with Dustin Hoffman. He’s a capable singer and deft with reaction moments – there’s a lot of them in “Tootsie” – and at his best his Dorothy makes us forget completely that there is a Michael. When he is Michael, however, he doesn’t inspire much rooting for. His contrition over what he’s done, expressed to Julie near the end of the show, comes off as just another acting job.
Forty years after the film, this “Tootsie” gets a few moments of updated enlightenment about gender and about women in particular. Constantly underestimated and hit upon while as Dorothy, Michael Dorsey learns that it’s not easy to be a woman – especially when you’re a man.
“Tootsie” runs through April 17 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
The rockin' cast of "Million Dollar Quartet." Photo by Ken Jacques
If you’re not sweating even a little after a performance of “Million Dollar Quartet,” then you weren’t paying attention. Unless you’re one of those prigs referenced in the show who thinks rock ‘n’ roll is the devil, you were at the very least tapping your feet during this popular jukebox musical about a fabled Sun Records gathering of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis back in 1956.
It’s a shame you can’t get up and dance in the audience at Lamb’s Players Theatre, which is returning to live performances post-pandemic with Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott’s “Million Dollar Quartet.” So you sit there and move as much as is logistically and socially permissible, wishing in vain that there was a dance floor.
That’s one of the few built-in conundrums of this show: the performance of its rollicking tunes, be they “Hound Dog,” “Great Balls Of Fire” or “Who Do You Love,” cannot be fully appreciated sitting down.
Anyway, for “Million Dollar Quartet” to work it absolutely requires cast members who a.) can not only sing but sound reasonably like the legend being portrayed; b.) can play guitar or piano not just at all but well; and c.) can act.
After all, this is theater.
Lamb’s suceeds. The Coronado-based company previously staged “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Avo Playhouse in Vista three years ago. Its cast returns almost intact in this remounted production, the only change being Michael Louis Cusimano taking over from Walker Brinskele as Elvis. The returnees are Brett Benowitz as Perkins, Charles Evans Jr. as Cash and Ben Van Diepen as Lewis. (Onstage accompaniment comes from Mackenzie Leighton on upright bass and Brian Dall on drums.)
Now, back to those requirements. All these guys can play their instruments, with electric guitarist Benowitz the standout. Carl Perkins himself would be grinning. The most recognizable voices among Sun Records boss Sam Phillips’ discoveries are Presley’s and Cash’s. Cusimano can move like Elvis, but doesn’t sound much like him. Evans, on the other hand, moves and sounds (which is not easy) like the great Johnny Cash. He garnered a San Diego Theatre Critics Circle award for his JC portrayal at the Avo, and it’s easy to see why.
Everybody at Lamb’s can sell his part, with the manic Van Diepen a crowd-pleasing Jerry Lee Lewis.
As at the Avo, Lance Arthur Smith returns as Sam Phillips, a role essentially swamped by all the music and big personalities in his midst. “Million Dollar Quartet” also includes the completely desultory presence of Dyanne, a gal pal of Elvis’ who comes with him to the Sun studio and is even given two songs: the Peggy Lee standard “Fever” and Dave Bartholomew and Pearl King’s “I Hear You Knocking.” Katie Sapper is fine at Lamb’s, but the subtraction of this character’s numbers would shorten the intermission-less “Million Dollar Quartet” a good 10 minutes.
The story of this Sun Records recording session is pretty well known and the stage musical telling builds in a few mini-dramas, principally around the awkwardness of Phillips’ stars having gone on to (in the case of Elvis) or about to go on to (Cash, Perkins) bigger and better things. Accounts of the actual event don’t reference such tensions. They do report that most of the music played on that Dec. 4 were gospel songs. A few of them are in “Million Dollar Quartet," but predominantly the score is comprised of rousing rock favorites: “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Long Tall Sally,” “See You Later Alligator,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
Which brings us back to trying to sit still during the performance.
It ain’t easy.
"Million Dollar Quartet" runs through June 12 at Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat