The Full Monty is a whoo-hoo-hoo show, especially for women in the audience. Always has been. Always will be. That’s not to say that The Full Monty, now nearly 18 years old after first opening at the Old Globe Theatre, isn’t likable or enjoyable. Sure, it’s a one-bit wonder, as in “Wonder when the guys will take their clothes off?” Yet its story of six unemployed steelworkers in Buffalo who decide to dance-strip to make ends meet and to – here’s the dollop of seriousness –validate themselves, is an undeniable crowd pleaser.
So it is at the Horton Grand Theatre downtown, where San Diego Musical Theatre’s winning ensemble earns its hoots and hollers. Steven Freitas, Jonathan Sangster, Danny Stiles and Ron Christopher Jones lead the way, with Joy Yandell and Devlin ensuring that the men don’t completely steal the show. Choreographer Paul David Bryant and director Neil Dale orchestrate all the antics nicely on an undersized stage that gets crowded but never out of control. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 1/31/18.)
Stephen Schmitz and Vanessa Dinning in "Outside Mullingar." Photograph by Ken Jacques
Valentine’s Day is a couple of weeks away, but love is already in bloom at Scripps Ranch Theatre, which is staging a quaint and shamelessly romantic production of John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar. This four-person play set on adjoining cattle and sheep farms in the Irish countryside was presented two years ago by the San Diego Rep, and the Scripps Ranch version, a co-production with Oceanside Theatre Company and directed by Kathy Brombacher, is a reiteration of the 2014 love story’s charm. It’s also a reminder of the script’s fatal flaw in the motivation department. No spoilers forthcoming.
Nevertheless, the Scripps Ranch cast fronted by Stephen Schmitz (so memorable in last year’s Falling from InnerMission Productions) and Vanessa Dinning as two lonely neighbors approaching middle age is ideally suited to the prevailing sentimentality, right down to spot-on Irish accents. (Jim Chovik and Dagmar Fields round complement this pair as two oldsters on the doorstep of death.) When Dinning and Schmitz’s characters eventually connect, hankies will come in handy. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 1/31/18.)
Manny Fernandes and Allison Spratt Pearce in "The Last Wife." Photo courtesy of Cygnet Theatre
Cygnet Theatre’s The Last Wife is not so much a deconstruction of history as it is, in the words of playwright Kate Hennig, a reimagining of the people who made it. It’s also a potboiler of a historical drama set in contemporary trappings with howling ambition, lusting and assorted machinations enough for a full season of “Dynasty” (the ‘80s original, not the lame current revival). That is not to diminish a production that under Rob Lutfy’s skilled direction of a superb cast is both thoughtful and intelligent, and which is neither undercut by its scarcely contained emotion nor its didactics.
The “last wife” of the title is the remarkable Katherine Parr, or Kate, who reluctantly married King Henry VIII but who in her four years as his queen brought a dignity and shrewdness to the monarchy that were sorely missing under Henry’s brash, oft-tyrannical reign. She also facilitated a reconciliation between the king and his two daughters by previous wives, Mary and Elizabeth (Bess), and was responsible for their being restored to the line of succession, an act that would change the course of English history. The Last Wife determinedly mines the depths of Kate’s complex relationships: with Henry, with the three children (including Jane Seymour’s young son, Edward) and with her lover and future husband Thomas Seymour, Jane’s brother.
Allison Spratt Pearce is strength and luminosity personified as Kate in an inspired portrayal that, as the play intends, reverberates with the here and now. Manny Fernandes, in a highly physical performance, is more than up to the ferocity and repugnance of Henry VIII. Cashae Monya’s Mary is the most audacious character in The Last Wife, with 14-year-old Kylie Acuna intuitive beyond her years as Bess, and Steven Lone a lustful Thom who’s prone to petulance.
Cygnet’s staging could do without the accompanying “tension music” in a couple of confrontations, and here and there the 2015 script’s nods to currency are a bit wink-wink. But this production is by turns sensual, ferocious and even contemplative, and it is lengthy and well-paced enough to contain all the heat and reflection of its extraordinary characters. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 1/24/18.)
"Hamilton" is the hottest ticket in town, and deservedly so. Photo by Joan Marcus
From the night it debuted nearly three years ago Off Broadway at The Public Theater, Hamilton, the Musical has been rightly acclaimed for its innovative, propulsive approach to the American musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s nearly completely sung-through (much of it in rap) bio of Alexander Hamilton is a stirring, immersive experience that reinvents the art of lyrical storytelling.
Yet as Broadway San Diego’s presentation of Hamilton’s national tour underlines, Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize-winning creation is also a trenchant evocation of American history from the time of the Revolution (the focus of Act 1) through the turbulent formation and development of a new nation (along with Hamilton’s personal-life travails the crux of Act 2). Hamilton takes liberties with its broad characterizations of Jefferson (Jordon Donica) and Madison (Mathenee Treco), both depicted as antagonists, and a prissy, buffoonish King George (Rory O’Malley) recurs throughout for comic relief. But while focusing on the immigrant Hamilton’s (Austin Scott) tireless determination and keen mind, Miranda does not gloss over the man’s frailties. This humanizing of character connects Hamilton the man, and the show, with the here and now.
Scott is dashing and undaunted in this production’s title role, stepping into the shoes Miranda filled for so long on Broadway. The self-empowering “My Shot” is his fitting anthem. Isaiah Johnson, who played George Washington in the recently ended Los Angeles run of Hamilton, reprises his portrayal at the Civic Theatre (the sound at which, happily, is crisp). Johnson is appropriately charismatic and his “One Last Time” a dramatic high point of the second act. As Hamilton’s rival Aaron Burr, Ryan Vasquez exudes more smugness than heat, and likely as intended, the character is not a sympathetic, tortured foe. He’s just the winner of a duel where Hamilton nobly lost his life.
While the rapped numbers of the score are electrifying, the breaths Hamilton takes for balladry, however central to the story, pale by comparison. But this is an extraordinary theater experience worthy of the plaudits that it has received. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 1/17/18.)
Sandra Ruiz in "As Bees in Honey Drown." Photograph by Daren Scott
When it comes to juicy roles, that of Alexa Vere de Vere is right up there. The con artist protagonist of Douglas Carter Beane’s comedy As Bees in Honey Drown models herself in part on an Alexis Carrington type, which should be all you need to know. Alexa, who faux-flatters and drops names hard and calls her prey “darling” and “lamb”, is a caricature come to life.
So Sandra Ruiz, who plays Alexa Vere de Vere in OnStage Playhouse’s current staging of As Bees in Honey Drown, can be forgiven for going over the top. That’s how the part is written. If Alexa ISN’T played over the top, then the Act 2 backstory about how she became Alexa doesn’t work.
The principal plot is that Alexa has identified a nebbish gay writer (Aaron Lugo) as the next target of her longtime recurring scam: find a hungry young artist who craves fame, string him or her along on some pretend project, and while doing so get the unsuspecting chump to spend thousands of credit-card dollars on her. After being beaten up and humiliated, the duped writer, Evan Wyler, wants to somehow get revenge.
For being more than 20 years old, this play is smart and, while not laugh-aloud funny very often, able to both divert and amuse. At OnStage where it’s directed by Bryant Hernandez, Ruiz so takes over the machinations that co-star Lugo comes off as too hopeless a patsy to conceive, much less achieve, a measure of revenge against Alexa. The supporting role best articulated comes from James P. Darvas as a tortured painter who knew Alexa as Brenda once upon a time and who originally helped her concoct her con.
At least at a matinee performance, As Bees in Honey Drown appeared to out-hip the attendant audience, some of whom were heard, louder than they should have been, wondering what was going on or even tut-tutting various characters’ behavior.
As Bees in Honey Drown continues through Feb. 10.
Left to right: Richard Baird, Omri Schein and Lovlee Carroll in "Around the World in 80 Days." Photo by Aaron Rumley
Stamina is the word that comes to mind in regard to Mark Brown’s rigorous adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Brown’s circumnavigational odyssey, now on stage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, calls for a cast of five to portray more than 40 different characters. One of the actors, Will Vought, takes on 19 all by himself. That’s stamina. That’s perspiration. You see plenty of it, and not just on Vought’s brow alone, during the two-hours-plus production.
Stentorian-voiced Richard Baird is the lone member of the ensemble who plays only one part, but it’s the central role of adventurer Phileas Fogg, who to win a wager unflappably embraces the quest to travel around the world in 80 days. As Fogg’s sidekick Passepartout, the dependably hilarious Omri Schein owns the North Coast Rep stage every moment he’s on it, demonstrating his remarkable talent for both physical and reactive comedy. Rounding out the cast (billed simply as Actor 1, Actor 2, Actor 3 and so on) are Loren Lester in multiple roles, principally that of a detective pursuing Fogg in a generally useless subplot to the main story, and Lovlee Carroll, whose highest-profile character is that of a petite Indian woman rescued from a ritual sacrifice by Fogg.
Brown’s script is very busy and more than a bit contrived, but the game cast gives it a good go under the direction of Allison Bibicoff. The rapid-fire costume changing borders on vaudevillian, which seems apt for a show like this one, and there’s never a moment taken or presented too seriously. Who knows what Jules Verne would have thought of this reimagination, but he doubtlessly would have cracked a smile, and perhaps more than one.
Around the World in 80 Days continues through Feb. 4. For more information, go to northcoastrep.org
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.