As pure spectacle, La Jolla Playhouse’s American premiere of the stage musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an unqualified success. The tale of the outcast Quasimodo unfolds inside the belfry of Notre Dame Cathedral on a set designed by Alexander Dodge that is no less than jaw-dropping. Add the elaborate costumes of 15th-century Paris and the cathedral statues and stained-glass windows that magically come to life, and you have as visually exciting a production as has been staged in San Diego in recent memory.
If only the score was the equal of the visuals. This show, directed by Scott Schwartz, and produced in association with New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse “by special arrangement” with Disney Theatrical Productions, features the same songs composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz wrote for the 1996 animated film. That means that the anthemic “The Bells of Notre Dame” and the rip-roaring “Hellfire” (the closest thing to a show-stopper) are intermingled with saccharine ballads like “In a Place of Miracles” and “Someday.” While the sheer sweetness of the musical storytelling that typified the Disney cartoon is less on display at the Playhouse, there’s still an overload of earnestness in the romance between gypsy Esmeralda and handsome Capt. Phoebus, and the tried-and-true “triumph of the human spirit” specter lurks behind every narrative corner.
Quarrels with the score aside, Brent-Alan Huffman’s direction of a towering orchestra and the solemn vocals of the SACRA/PROFANA choral ensemble fill the theater with emotion. Noteworthy, too, are some exceptional performances, topped by stentorian-voiced Patrick Page as the villainous Dom Claude Frollo. Ciara Renee is beautiful and evocative as Esmeralda, and in the title role, Michael Arden, laudably conveying Quasimodo’s torment, humanity and heroism.
Even with these intuitive star turns, Hunchback relies heavily on exposition, straining to remind us that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and that we make our own monsters. A disappointing finale that might have been brilliant ultimately resorts to telling instead of showing. But in any case, this show’s big Broadway feel may be a harbinger of things to come.
When Kay Conway stares ahead searchingly and speaks what she believes is a numbing truth – “There’s a great devil in the universe, and we call it time” – you feel the chill in her heart. Are we captives of something inexorable? It is then up to Kay’s brother Alan to remind her that time, daunting as it may be, is about joy as much as woe.
The notion and the workings of time loomed large in the mind of British playwright J.B. Priestly. Time and the Conways, now on stage at the Old Globe Theatre, was one of Priestly’s “Time Plays” written during the ‘30s and ‘40s. This Globe production, directed with the light touch of a second hand in motion by Rebecca Taichman, is a stirring experience. You don’t necessarily expect a costume drama set initially in the immediate aftermath of World War I’s conclusion to wash over you so completely. But as Time and the Conways’ flamboyant characters go from present to past and back to present again, they become as fascinating as time itself, Central among them is Kay Conway (Amanda Quaid), the manor’s intellectual presence, who is resolved to becoming a statement-making novelist. Even in Act 1, on the occasion of her 21st birthday when she’s instructing her siblings in a game of charades, Kay’s arch determination is at the fore. In Act 2, 19 years later, Kay is 40, and her grand vision is blurred by compromise and disillusionment. She is not a broken woman, but there is a crack in her will. How she came to such a state is revealed in Act 3, which returns the narrative to the evening of Kay’s party. The thread between all three acts, which morph from one to the other with slow movement of the sets and the heart-rending notes of a piano, is thread-like time.
Kay is not the only Conway with a checkered fate. Sister Hazel (Rose Hemingway) is destined for an abusive marriage, Madge (Morgan Hallett) and brother Alan (Jonathan Fielding) for loneliness, brother Robin (Lee Aaron Rosen) for professional and marital failure and sister with a heart of gold Carol (Leanne Agmon) for worse. Not only Quaid, but Fielding, Hallett and Agmon bring tremendous poignancy to their characters, even in the first-act merrymaking before all the ominous signs emerge.
Regrets Only looks like what they used to call an old-fashioned “drawing room comedy.” The set is actually Park Avenue penthouse living room, but the actors moving about it are glib, sophisticated and well-attired as befits the genre. As to the splendid attire, why wouldn’t everyone be so natty, as the central character of Paul Rudnick’s play is a fashion designer whose gowns supposedly make Vera Wang’s look like something hanging at a neighborhood yard sale. Hank Hadley (Andrew Oswald) is also the catalyst for both the comedy and the dramatic moments of Regrets Only: He’s lost his gay lover of 36 years to cancer, and now his best friend Tibby’s (Kerry McCue) buttoned-up husband is drafting an amendment for President George W. Bush that would define marriage strictly as an institution between a man and a woman.
As Hank, Oswald is not only the center of this play’s universe, but he is the most restrained among the six-member cast. This Diversionary Theatre production, actress Jessica John’s directorial debut, is LOUD. Though they can be funny one and all, McCue, Charles Maze (as Tibby’s husband), Rachael VanWormer (their snooty daughter Spencer), Dagmar Krause Fields (dipsomaniacal Grandma Marietta) and Teri Brown (the maid, Myra) seem to be in volume competition. Brown also pops in and out of the action to make wisecracks, often employing different ethnic accents, and Fields’ first appearance on stage is while dressed in trash bags and traffic cone.
The screwball antics are in competition, too, with the play’s weighty questions: What defines marriage, and if a Dubya-administration amendment would deny gays and lesbians the right to marry, what would happen if they just took a day off from society and showed not just New York but the nation what life would be like without so many people who contribute to its functions and its joys? So the tenor of the production goes up and down, not just between Act 1 and Act 2, but within the second act itself. Only Oswald, most recently at Diversionary in last year’s The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, navigates the choppy waters smoothly. Everyone else would be wise to take it down a notch.
Swirling within the emotional confines of a Pakistani family living in Atlanta are questions of faith, identity and love. They are profound, life-changing questions for father Afzal and his daughters, Mahwish and Zarina, and for Zarina’s husband, Muslim convert Eli. Not the least of these questions is informed by the words of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida: “The history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and the what.” In Pultizer Prize winner (for his first play, Disgraced) Ayad Akhtar’s The Who & The What, 32-year-old writer Zarina is fiercely dedicated to finding answers and spreading the truth – about the Prophet, about the women of Islam, about love. Her quest and the impact it has on those she cares about is an exceptionally beautiful one.
The Who & The What began in development as part of La Jolla Playhouse’s inaugural DNA New Works Series last year. Now it’s making its world premiere in the Playhouse’s Potiker Theatre under the helm of Kimberly Senior, playwright Akhtar’s director. Her cast of four is first-rate: Kai Lennox as Eli, a man of generous spirit who’s torn between his newly adopted religion and the book his wife writes that deconstructs it; Bernard White as Afzal, a man full of life and love for his daughters, but bound to deep-seated religious and cultural tenets; Meera Rohit Kumbhani as younger sister Mahwish, coping with personal conflicts of her own; and Monika Jolly as Zarina, delivering a performance that in its unflinching resolve and complex sensitivity makes The Who & The What function so well on both an emotional and cerebral level.
Senior’s direction is nimble and ideally in tune with the rhythm of playwright Akhtar’s words. The play’s individual confrontations are rife with passion but never regress into shouting matches, nor do they overwhelm the love extant between sisters, between Zarina and Eli, or Zarina and her father. These personal relationships, forged in adversity as well as happy discovery, are as vital to The Who & The What as are its universal inquiries.
May all new works nurtured in La Jolla Playhouse’s DNA series come to such satisfying fruition.
That the spring production at St. Cecilia’s Boarding School is Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is a cruel irony for Peter and Jason. Young, gay and in love, they are star-crossed indeed, with not Montagues and Capulets hovering over them but rather the specters of disappointed or disapproving parents and, harsher still, the intolerance of the Catholic Church. Worse yet for Jason, he has been cast in the role of Romeo, and his Juliet is a schoolgirl who loves him without realizing he can not in his heart love her back.
So the world turns in Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo’s musical “bare: a pop opera,” making its San Diego premiere at Diversionary Theatre under the direction of Noah Longton. With a cast of 15 and four musicians playing from the rafters, “bare” surely ranks as one of the most ambitious productions the University Heights theater, which is currently in search of its new artistic director, has ever staged. Its compact space is variously transformed from a church with pulpit and “stained glass window” to a drab dorm room to the site of a rave complete with frenetic dancers wielding glow sticks. (Credit choreographer Michael Mizerany, who has worked on previous Diversionary projects, for seamlessly moving this large cast around, whether in techno-dance or church-procession mode.)
Though all the familiar Catholic school types are here – the staunch, dogmatic priest; the spunky nun who cracks wise; the nerd-boy in thick glasses; the overweight girl in thicker glasses who never gets a prime part in the play; the tormented girl of easy virtue – “bare” is Peter and Jason’s story. Peter (simultaneously brave and vulnerable) and Jason (macho but afraid in a little boy way, and bitterly conflicted) yearn for each other, but as with Romeo and Juliet, the fates seem to conspire against them. Jason (Charlie Gange) does not possess Peter’s (Dylan Mulvaney) courage about being “out,” and, waging a tug-o-war in his own soul, he succumbs to the seductions of the aforementioned girl of easy virtue, Ivy (Katie Sapper), with dramatic consequences for all in the triangle.
This show is not an opera in the purest sense, but most of the narrative is sung, with dialogue reserved for a few select confrontations between Peter and Jason as they try to sort out their future. Intrabartolo wrote the music and Hartmere the lyrics to well over 30 songs, most of them just a couple of minutes long and a handful disposable. But there are clear highlights: Peter’s sensitivity shines through on the Act 1 “You & I,” with Jason reciprocating, in a more tortured fashion, in the second act’s “Once Upon A Time.” It is Samantha Vesco, as Jason’s wallflower sister Nadia, who strikes the most painful emotional chord, on the forlorn “A Quiet Night at Home,” while also able to sardonically denounce that idealized season for young love, on “Spring.” Memorable too is Sister Chantelle (Kiani Nelson) fronting a Supremes-like crowd-pleaser, “911/Emergency.”
Whoever Diversionary ultimately selects as its new artistic director (Todd Nelms is serving in the interim) would be wise to dare, as with “bare,” on the side of enterprising.
It’s time to take a fresh look at Oklahoma!, which has only been around for 71 years. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s first musical is beloved for its struttin’ cowpokes and down-home romances, and of course for a score that includes “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’”, “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “Kansas City,” “People Will Say We’re in Love” and a rousing title song. But on fresh examination, it’s the show’s left turns that keep Oklahoma! interesting. The courtship of Laurey Williams by Curly McLain is an overly sincere bore, but the one between big-grinning Will Parker and man-mad Ado Annie sure ain’t. There’s also the presence of a flirtatious Persian salesman, and stranger still, a psychopathic farm hand named Jud Fry who darkens Oklahoma!’s sunniness every moment he’s on stage. And how about the extended dream sequence, complete with ballet dancer, that ends Act One? No one’s ever going to call Oklahoma! edgy, but at least it’s not nonstop cute.
Welk Resorts’ barn-like theater is an apt setting for this famed musical, running through Nov. 16, and its relative intimacy brings the singing and dancing close to the audience. The acoustics can be tinny, however, rendering a couple of the characters (RC Sands’ Pa Carnes and Sydney Blair’s Ado Annie) difficult to understand when they’re vocalizing. But the fresh-faced cast as a whole meets the expectations that come with a Broadway show as well-known as this one. While Kailey O’Donnell and Allen Everman as lovers Laurey and Curly are fine, it’s the actors occupying the character parts who shine brightest. Ado Annie is the best part in Oklahoma!, and the aforementioned Blair is a skilled comedienne with an infectious smile. Robin Lavalley earns her share of laughs as wise old Aunt Eller, and Will Huse is truly disturbing as the menacing Jud.
The costumes, provided by The Theatre Company of Upland, are cartoon-colors cheerful, and while the set is merely serviceable, there is a cameo appearance by the eponymous surrey with the fringe on top.
Like so many of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s collaborations, Oklahoma!’s legacy is assured. That doesn’t mean you’ll want to see it time and again. But if you never have, well your education in musical Americana is incomplete.
Intrepid Shakespeare Company has launched its fifth season in impressive fashion, staging a faultless production of Arthur Miller’s fiercely intense family drama All My Sons. This is Intrepid’s third go-round with Miller, an expressed favorite of Artistic Director Christy Yael-Cox: Previously, the Encinitas-based company staged The Crucible as well as Miller’s adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. With this current production, Yael-Cox and a formidable cast evince all of Miller’s precise language and cogent reflection on not only the inexorable binds of family but the price of culpability, war and the so-called American Dream as it was post –WWII.
The sons of All My Sons are not merely Joe and Kate Keller’s Chris (Brian Mackey) and missing in action/presumed dead Larry. They are all the boys who fought the brave fight overseas in and in particular 21 American pilots who died because of defective parts in their airplanes. Joe (Tom Stephenson, quietly imploding) and his partner, Steve Deever, had shipped the defective parts and were subsequently jailed. Joe was exonerated and freed, while Steve remained behind bars. At home, Kate (an exceptionally moving Savvy Scopelleti) clings to the belief that son Larry is still alive, while Chris (Brian Mackey) shyly, but with resolve, woos lovely Ann Deever (Jacque Wilke), who happens to be not only incarcerated Steve Deever’s estranged daughter but Larry’s former sweetheart.
In playwright Miller’s own words, “Betrayal is the only truth that sticks,” but All My Sons is, thematically, not that simple. At stake in the seemingly peaceful back yard behind the Kellers’ quaint Midwest home is the very nature of faith: in oneself, in the ones you love, in what dreams may come and those that will wither away. With its pervading tension and emotionally horrifying twists, All My Sons is tough medicine to swallow for its tormented families, and not so easy on an audience either. But Yael-Cox’s fluid direction and performances with the power of Scopeletti’s, Stephenson’s, Mackey’s and Wilke’s demonstrate how gripping a tragic story can be told.
The American Dream was, and is, elusive and fraught with good intentions gone astray.
There’s almost a court jester-like giddiness to the infernal scheming of Iago in the Old Globe’s Othello, now at the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre. When the Moor of Venice’s ensign (Richard Thomas) is alone on stage, sharing with the audience his cunning plans to undo the general he despises, his malevolence is more than boastful: it’s electrically charged. That the transparency of his plot and all its machinations can not be recognized by Othello, or by anyone else save Iago’s wife, Emilia (and not until it’s too late), has to me always seemed an impediment to the potency of this play. How could Othello be so duped? He did not “love wisely,” but did he even love “too well?”
That these questions persist nevertheless speaks to the resonance of this Shakespearean tragedy, which launches the Globe’s Summer Shakespeare Festival under the direction of Barry Edelstein. This is an aesthetically stunning production, with sublimely simple scenic design by Wilson Chin, timely percussive music from the rafters by Jonathan Hepfer and Ryan Nestor (music used to better effect here than in Edelstein’s earlier The Winter’s Tale) and a Desdemona (Kristen Connolly) costumed by Katherine Roth who couldn’t look lovelier and more angelic.
Thomas revels in his Iago-ing, certainly upstaging Blair Underwood’s Othello. Underwood’s mannered Act 1 orations as proud general and spellbound lover feel self-conscious, though like the character he inhabits, he comes alive when jealousy becomes unbalanced rage in Act 2.
One of the production’s quieter, yet most enduring scenes is that between Desdemona and Emilia (Angela Reed) taking place just hours before Desdemona is murdered. Connolly stills the Balboa Park night with her dulcet rendering of the “Willow, Willow” song, while Reed sounds a strident feminist note that is much needed in this tragedy about men who can be and often are, foolish, vengeful and unworthy of love.
Edelstein’s employment of live music and moments of choreography are, again, more successful here than in The Winter’s Tale. His is an Othello for 2014, though blind jealousy and its inhumanity be timeless.
The complexity and sophistication of theater are its divergent shades of light and darkness. The latter is the prevailing atmosphere for Laura Jacqmin’s Milvotchkee, Visconsin at Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company’s 10th Avenue Theatre. The exquisite Linda Libby stars as an outdoor museum docent named Molly “with a hole in her head,” meaning that she is rapidly descending into dementia. What keeps Milvotchkee … from being a total one-act bummer is not only Libby’s bravura (and brave) performance, but smartly staged representations (in both props and from a taut supporting cast featuring Greg Watanabe) of Molly’s lifelong memories, even as they slip away from her. Rather than watching Molly’s mind and life erode pitiably, we see how she did live and what there was to cherish. Of course, that makes the loss of it all the harder to take – for Molly and for the audience.
Mark Rothko’s studio in the Bowery is not a place for the timid. That’s what the obliging young Ken (Jason Maddy) quickly finds out when he becomes assistant (more like glorified go-fer, at first) to the lauded abstract expressionist. Immediately, the bellowing, salvo-firing Rothko (John Vickery) informs Ken that he’s not his friend and he’s definitely not he’s teacher. Yet that’s what happens over the course of 90 or so minutes in San Diego Rep’s production of John Logan’s Red, directed by Michael Arabian. But before it’s over – and it ends all too quickly, for this is a fascinating character study of a man who was so much more than just his paintings – Rothko has learned a few things about himself from young Ken, though he’s loathe to admit it.
The Rep acquitted itself so splendidly last year with its one-man tale of another timeless painter, Picasso: A Weekend with Pablo Picasso, starring Herbert Siguenza. But if that story was told with lust for life and whimsy, this one is wrapped in Rothko’s ego and bluster, and, we learn, doubt. Vickery is positively commanding in the role, so passionate about his darlings as well as his demons that you accept every high-minded, acerbic word as the Gospel According to a Master. Maddy remains in the background as prescribed for the first half of the one-act play, but his courage and his spine build to a crowd-pleasing tell-off moment that just bounces off Rothko like bullets off Superman.
Red is an accelerated education in art-making and art history for those open to it, and for those who aren’t – hell, what are you doing at this show anyway?
Red rocks. Don’t miss it.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.