The portion of Tennessee Williams’ soul that was tortured – and the torture was never more percetible than in The Glass Menagerie –infuses and inflicts the words and the lyricism of his semi-autobiographical masterpiece. Williams is the frustrated poet and more frustrated son, Tom Wingfield, the character through whose memory we glimpse a St. Louis household oppressed by a love-you-to-death mother, a crippled and emotionally paralyzed sister and a misguided reverence (courtesy of mother Amanda) for the imagined gentility of the Old South. Williams’ own mother, Edwina, was emphatically neurotic, and his older sister, Rose, was schizophrenic and institutionalized most of her life.
The Glass Menagerie, first produced in 1944, remains an absorbing and disturbing work of theater, especially when its dominant figure, Amanda Wingfield, receives the towering, tangled interpretation requisite of the character. (Laurette Taylor originated the role on Broadway; among those who distinguished themselves in later filmed productions were Gertrude Lawrence and Katharine Hepburn.) Rosina Reynolds is the ideal choice for Amanda in Cygnet Theatre’s new production on stage in Old Town. A veteran actress of well documented versatility, Reynolds’ instincts are on-target throughout the play, whether she’s called upon to exhibit smothering mother love, wispy Southern grace or spurts of temper awash in pain and resentment.
Reynolds, who fittingly commands every scene in which she appears, is complemented by Francis Gercke as the conflicted son, Tom; Brian Mackey as the affable and sympathetic Gentleman Caller; and Amanda Sitton as daughter Laura. Sitton, an intuitive and expressive actress, is most affecting when her character is not speaking but instead crouched on the floor before her animal friends of glass or curled up, like a frightened fetus, on the couch.
Director Sean Murray has all the pieces in place for an unbreakable Glass Menagerie (though the use of recorded tinkling piano during some of the dramatic interludes feels desultory). This is a dark story recounted in stark memory where hope is elusive and love an enigma. You’re somewhat surprised when you exit into the Old Town festivity and nothing in the night has changed.
Playwright Matthew Lopez’s west side story, “Somewhere,” evokes a longing reminiscent of the song of the same title from the Broadway classic written by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents. Lopez’s Candelaria family, like “West Side Story’s” lovers, Tony and Maria, daydreams of a time and a place just for them. Mama Inez’s (Priscilla Lopez) place is California, where she yearns to reunite herself and her three children with Papa Pepe, whom she believes is out west seeking work and money that can support them all. Daughter Rebecca’s (Benita Robledo) dream place is the Broadway stage, where she can dance her way to stardom. Cocky son Francisco’s (Juan Javier Cardenas) place is wherever he can realize his imagined talent as the next Brando.
Only the introspective (and, as it turns out, secretive) son, Alejandro (Jon Rua), believes that the family’s place is meant to be a Brooklyn housing project once they are forced out of their west side tenement. Alejandro has reigned in his own dream of being a dancer and resigned himself to a place at the neighborhood grocery store. In “Somewhere,” presented in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, the Candelarias’ fate becomes tied to reconciliation between dreams and reality and, not insignificantly, to the towering “West Side Story,” the stage musical and the subsequent film.
Under the direction of Giovanna Sardelli, “Somewhere” reflects Lopez’s obvious passion for the musical theater. Its affection for robust show tunes is mirrored in the Candelaria family’s starry eyes and their insatiable impulses to dance. The play’s most memorable moments are the choreographed ones: Alejandro’s gentle dance with his mother; the footloose one-upmanship between Alejandro and childhood friend Jamie (Leo Ash Evens) that becomes a deft duet; and the climactic, athletic solo by Alejandro after he’s confessed an agonizing deception to his mother.
For the most part, the dancing (stellar choreography here by Greg Graham) works in the tight confines of the White Theatre, though there are sequences when it’s difficult to see the footwork between all the props and furniture.
Lopez’s storyline is probably more complicated than it needs to be – the eviction from the tenement seems a major deal in Act 1 but forgotten in Act 2, and Alejandro’s true feelings about his errant father remain ambiguous, even at the end. This cast, though, is an appealing one, with Broadway veteran Priscilla Lopez (Matthew’s aunt) a Latina Mother Rose of Merman-esque indomitability, Cardenas both tireless and funny, and Rua darkly brooding (if at times coming off like a party pooper).
The Great American Trailer Park Musical asks the question (courtesy of the peroxide-haired, pork-rind-fed trio of Betty, Linoleum and Pickles): “What happens if you take a wrong turn on your Florida vacation?” Well, you end up in the burg of Starke where the Litter Box Show Palace is the strip joint of choice and high-end living is at a trailer park called Armadillo Acres. It’s the cartoon setting for the seven-year-old musical by David Nehls and Betsy Kelso now at San Diego Repertory Theatre, directed by the Rep’s Sam Woodhouse.
The howling, self-conscious musical combines obvious parody of Red States trailer park “culture” and the eternal triangle story. Neither on its own could bear the heft of this show (it’s a one-act affair, but really should be two) which features 12 songs and 10 times that many one-liners, spoken or sung. It’s a heapin’ helpin’ of hick, sexual and scatological jokes, with sight gags confined to guns, cleavage and tacky clothing. (The real sight to see here is the set created by Ian Wallace – three vintage trailers, one with a purple commode out front, and all the fun-to-read road and business signs plastered behind them.)
Trapped in the show’s love triangle are agoraphobic wife Jeannie (Courtney Corey), the strip-teasing other woman Pippi (Jill Van Velzer) and the local Leroy husband, Norbert (David Kirk Grant). The resolution of their romantic foibles is inevitable, though a gun-toting dude named Duke (David McBean, very funny) does supply a twist to the ending. In lieu of a subplot, there is continuous spoofing of trailer park stereotypes (maybe they’re not stereotypes) most of it provided by Betty (Melinda Gilb), Linoleum (Leigh Scarritt) and Pickles (Kailey O’Donnell) with all the subtlety of a hog calling.
A couple of musical numbers – the dream-sequence “The Great American TV Show” and the sequins and glitter (why?) “Storm’s A-Brewin’” – seem contrived, but most songs keep in the spirit of the proceedings (brace yourself for “Road Kill”). The band, directed by Anthony Smith, is ace, but at least on opening night vocals were way too loud.
Or can something be way-too-anything in a show like this one?
There’s nothing like a rainy day matinee at the theater. In the middle of the week yet. So, under those unusual circumstances, off I went to the Welk Resort Theatre in Escondido, which is presenting the Broadway chestnut Man of La Mancha. It’s a faithful staging of the 1965 musical, which was adapted from Dale Wasserman’s original play written for TV called “I, Don Quixote.” Faithful as in costumes evoking 16th-century Spain, cartoonish stage fighting and, inevitably, the anthemic “The Impossible Dream (The Quest).”
Long before the wave of Cameron McIntosh/Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals that were carried by one good song, there was Man of La Mancha (music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion), whose “The Impossible Dream” remains stirring almost no matter who sings it (in the Welk’s production, it’s star John LaLonde) or what time of the day it’s sung (evenings or matinees). The remainder of the score is diverting at best, with a couple of numbers – the comic relief of Sancho Panza’s “A Little Gossip,” the muleteers’ “Little Bird, Little Bird” – filler, nothing more.
As to the story, the play-within-a-play allows the actor portraying Miguel de Cervantes all the elbow room he needs to exude bug-eyed madness and idealism, and LaLonde takes full advantage. He’s complimented by Natalie Nucci as the bitter and beautiful prostitute Aldonza, whom Don Quixote romanticizes as his “Dulcinea.” As sidekick Sancho Panza, Daniel Berlin comes off like a young Dom DeLuise, or should we say Don DeLuise?
One of the more inventive, and charming, aspects of the Welk’s Man of La Mancha is that the live music is performed by the actors on the stage: acoustic guitars, a flute, percussion instruments. The double duties are managed seamlessly, and the instruments of choice ensure that the score doesn’t become bombastic, even during “The Impossible Dream,” which closes the first act.
The set is crowded but not claustrophobic, and in these confines the Act 2 ravaging of Aldonza by the muleteers feels all the more disturbing. It’s an apt moment to remember that “The Impossible Dream” will reprise at the finale and brighten the darkness.
Lengthy. Bloody. Campy. That’s Diversionary’s production of Marlowe’s “Edward II,” the largest (15 cast members) staging the University Heights theater has ever attempted. Under the imaginative direction of Richard Baird, this “Edward II” (about a weak king – albeit a fierce warrior on the battlefield – whose obsession with his male lover incites a conspiracy to depose, and kill, him) strikes the right notes of sweep and solemnity, and the stage fighting (on a small stage to boot) is mightily choreographed. Ross Hellwig, in the title role, and John Polak, as chief antagonist Mortimer, demonstrate booming voices and deep-seated passions.
Two decades, four presidents and countless broken hearts after angels first fluttered over the American theater, the lines remain blurred between fear and forgiveness, love and desire, and justice and the law. No wonder that Tony Kushner’s epic “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” endures as a work of uncommon power and poignancy. For evidence, look no further than ion theatre’s production, on stage through Dec. 11 at the Lyceum Space below Horton Plaza. Numbing in its sadness but as kinetic as a light switch being flipped on and off, this “Angels in America” is cerebrally and emotionally draining. You exit spent, but with the quiet inner exuberance that there is hope for humanity.
The two parts of “Angels in America,” “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” are being presented in repertory, though you can see them back to back (with a break) on Saturdays and Sundays. For all their length (“Millennium” runs 155 minutes, “Perestroika” 170, each with two 10-minute intermissions), the productions move at a steady pace. The many scenes are episodic, and the interweaving story lines (the dying devil, Roy Cohn; the also-dying but tender-hearted Prior and his conflicted lover, Louis; the closeted Mormon lawyer Joe and his drug-addled wife, Harper) multilayered but as fundamental as loving and wanting to be loved. AIDS and death are looming and unfathomable. Perhaps ironically, only when an actual angel descends upon the proceedings do Kushner’s dialectic and revelatory soul-baring turn ponderous.
Ion’s cast is formidable: Kyle Sorrell stands out as young Prior, whose fight for life and reluctance to be God’s “prophet” we feel to the marrow. Jessica John Gercke, as Harper, is delusional but never desperate. Kevane La’Marr Coleman does well by the wise and witty Belize. Catalina Maynard manages multiple roles with aplomb, including Joe’s (Jason Heil) Mormon mother and a reappearing rabbi. Jesse MacKinnon spits his lines as the spit-worthy Cohn.
“Angels in America” is a treatise on social, sexual and gender politics, but more so a bridge over the vast chasm between life and death – or is it just a footstep?
Madcap is getting a workout at North Coast Rep. Lend Me A Tenor, Ken Ludwig’s quarter-century-old screwball comedy, makes quite the ruckus at the Solana Beach theater: doors fly open and slam shut, exhortations and exclamations echo to the rafters, the caffeinated cast flies from stage left to stage right and back again as fast as the one-liners. As you’d expect with a show executed at this comic tempo, some laughs are more easily goaded than others, and the going can get chaotic. But it’s controlled chaos in director Matthew Wiener’s able hands.
Before “Get Him to the Greek,” there was Lend Me A Tenor, the story of a well-meaning, underappreciated lackey charged with minimizing the excesses and unpredictability of a prima donna star long enough to get a big performance out of him. In this case, the lackey is Max (Christopher M. Williams), the prima donna is larger-than-life tenor Tito Morelli (Bernard X. Kopsho) and the Greek is the Cleveland Opera, circa 1934. For Max, a secretly aspiring tenor himself, the task of keeping Tito under control is complicated by the tempers run wild of Tito’s wife, Maria (Jessica John, robust as chianti) and Max’s boss, Saunders (Ted Barton, laughably blustering) and the hormones run wild of opera diva Diana (Jacque Wilke, va-va-voom) and Saunders’ daughter, Maggie (Courtney Corey).
Sight gags, a broadly played case of mistaken identity and trysting ensue, all of it presented at Marx Brothers pace. The two-Titos bit stretches plausibility, but in this comedic context passes muster. Give the cast high marks for timing, too, without which Lend Me A Tenor would be in need of more than an opera star.
You’re sitting in a café, quietly finishing your lobster bisque, when a cell phone nearby begins to ring. It rings and rings and rings some more. It belongs to the man seated at another table. He isn’t answering. He isn’t breathing, either.
What happens next is the spark that lights the eccentric comedy Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a play by Sarah Ruhl (Eurydice, The Next Room) getting its San Diego premiere courtesy of the always inventive Moxie Theatre. With its crafty metaphors, snippets of dialogue that verge on non-sequiturs and an unpredictable story that flits from a little café to the Johannesburg airport to a seeming afterlife, Dead Man’s Cell Phone possesses the vexing yet entertaining twists and turns of a “Twilight Zone” episode for the 21st-century romantic.
At the core of the twisting and turning is Jean, the disconnected woman who answers dead man Gordon’s phone and subsequently discovers connection to herself and her desires. Jo Anne Glover is eminently likable and sympathetic as Jean, who can’t help becoming immersed in the lives of Gordon’s survivors – his sweet but square brother Dwight (Jonathan Sachs), his hilariously hostile mother (Kathryn Herbruck), and his ex-wife Hermia (Lisel Gorell-Getz), a (SIGHT GAG SPOILER ALERT!) onetime ice-skating star who now does figure-eights around martinis. Under the direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, the ensemble (also including Yolanda Franklin and Matt Thompson as the dead man who has a lot to say) is true blue to Ruhl’s edgy commentary on love, lies and technology. The laughs aren’t easy. You say you want easy? Sorry, wrong number.
Thirty-eight years after it first hit the stage in London, The Rocky Horror Show remains a textbook example of style over substance. We don’t really care about straight arrows Brad and Janet and why they’re unwittingly plunged into a wacked-out world of sex-obsessed alien transvestites. No, Brit actor/writer Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show is a (mostly) visual and (kind of) aural spectacle of leather and mascara counterculture, a camp, B-movie middle finger to traditional theater and traditional gender.
The Old Globe’s Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show is very much in that spirit. Its rousing rebelliousness, garters and corsets, and multimedia special effects excusably overpower the story. Throw in some kinetic choreography, a crack band and a couple of crowd-pleasing performances (in particular Matt McGrath’s strutting Frank ‘N’ Furter), and both Rocky cultists and horrified tourists are bound to leave titillatingly entertained.
The in-theater sound quality isn’t always up to the fast-paced vocalizing, and years of Rocky Horror assimilation into our pop culture minimizes the show’s shock value. But this production, smartly directed by James Vasquez, is too likable to dismiss. Then there’s the audience around you: You might have a cross-dresser seated in your row, or maybe just a fan bearing a glow stick who knows how to dance “The Time Warp.”
All Hanan Mashalani wants is to be a pop star, a Lebanese-American idol. But in Enrique Urueta’s sexually charged, label-busting comedy, the Lebanese part is what Hanan must give up for stardom. She must, as the title goes, “learn to be Latina.”
Wide-eyed, stammering and TMI-ing Hanan (Tamara Dhia) becomes a puppet in the hands of record company beyotch Mary O’Malley (Faeren Adams), who also wears a sock puppet on her hand named Calcetina that “speaks” fluent and scolding Spanish. Mary’s assisted by the secretive but solicitous trio of Bill, Will and Jill (Dangerfield G. Moore, Steve Smith and Amanda Cooley Davis), whose own agendas range from the voyeuristic to the masturbatory. This is not your father’s record label.
Despite her outrage at being linked to terrorism because she’s of Lebanese descent (this is done with some hilarious physical comedy and equally un-P.C. series of power point slides), Hanan goes along with overbearing Mary’s plan to make her over as a Latina diva in the sizzling manner of Shakira. Hanan’s at-first-reluctant transformation is complicated by a bubbling sexual attraction to Blanche (Olivia Espinosa), who is referred to by all at the wacky record label as “Office Bitch.” She’s nothing of the kind, of course. She’s Lebanese lesbian Hanan’s -- and the play’s -- conscience.
Learn to be Latina works hard at being outrageous in its smashing of ethnic, racial and sexual sensitivities. Like so many of those well-intentioned but excessive skits familiar to viewers of latter-day “Saturday Night Live” episodes, Learn to be Latina doesn’t know when to let its cast, or its audience, catch a breath. Little wonder that the cleverest sequence in the show is its opening, with the robotically choreographed Bill, Will and Jill interviewing Hanan when she first arrives at her appointment with destiny. The locomotive, or merely loco, comedy comes close to slipping the track many times afterward.
While much of the relentless raunch is entertaining, it’s also wearying. The hand puppet, an obvious metaphor to begin with, begins to annoy. One wants to sock the talking sock.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.