Catalina Maynard and Christian Haines in "Water by the Spoonful." Karli Cadel Photography
In Quiara Alegria Hudes’ “Water by the Spoonful,” dissonance is expressed as a backdrop through the “free jazz” of John Coltrane. Onstage, it palpitates in the head of Iraq War veteran Elliot Ortiz, who is plagued by PTSD from wars foreign and, you could say, domestic.
The Pulitzer-winning “Water by the Spoonful” is the second play in Hudes’ “Elliot Trilogy.” (The others are “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” and “The Happiest Song Plays Last.) It's a simmering tale of battling demons and struggling for connections.
Cygnet Theatre’s production of “Water by the Spoonful” directed by Meg DeBoard comes eight years after the Old Globe last staged it locally. While the story’s online chat room device feels dated, the repercussions of war, as we know all too well, are not.
Hudes, who also wrote the book for “In the Heights,” is adept at creating characters about whom we quickly care. In “Water” besides the tormented Elliot, there are his supportive cousin Yaz and the inhabitants of a crack addiction recovery chat room: “Orangutan,” “Chutes & Ladders,” “Fountainhead” and the facilitator, “HaikuMom.” It’s the latter, a woman named Odessa, who is the bridge between the chat room dramas and Elliot’s plight.
At times, as when Elliot is stalked by his ghosts (one in particular) or fighting to process his pain, the intensity of “Water By the Spoonful” is off the charts. The chat room scenes begin as cathartic escapes but when the play’s conflicts converge it’s sit-forward time in the theater.
Cygnet’s cast, right down the line, is up to the task, starting with Steven Lone’s steely, haunted Elliot. Melissa Ortiz, making her Cygnet debut, is genuine and affecting as Yaz.
It’s great to see Catalina Maynard, who’s delivered so many stellar performances at the San Diego Rep and at the bygone ion theatre to name two, at Cygnet. Her portrayal of Odessa, Elliot’s birth mother, is wrenching.
Credit to the chat-room denizens as well: Emily Song Tyler (“Orangutan”), Bryan Barbarin (“Chutes & Ladders”) and Christian Haines (“Fountainhead”). “Water by the Spoonful” is much more than about trying to overcome a terrible addiction. But that’s a critical part of it, and through these three we’re reminded that there is no prototypical addict’s story, no one way out of the darkness.
With its production earlier this year of “Life Sucks” and now “Water by the Spoonful,” Cygnet already has much to be proud of.
"Water by the Spoonful" runs through April 24.
Ari Afsar (left) in "Bhangin' It: A Bangin' New Musical." Photo by Rich Soublet II
Make no mistake, the allure of La Jolla Playhouse’s “Bhangin’ It: A Bangin’ New Musical” is the Punjabi folk dance bhangra. Its propulsive beats and rhythmic beauty are likely to stay with you long after you’ve forgotten the story around wrapped around them, about the lead-up to an intercollegiate bhangra competition. There is one song ,“Toledo,” that touches on the very real issue of cultural expectations, but the storytelling of this world premiere is secondary to the energy of the music and dancing onstage, which are bangin’.
“Bhangin’ It” was originally intended for the Playhouse’s 2020-’21 season, which was waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the musical, created by Mike Lew and spouse Rehana Lew Mirza (book) and Sam Willmott (music), and directed by Stafford Arima, is winding up the theater’s abbreviated returned-to-the-stage season, following “The Garden” and “To The Yellow House.” The vibrant choreography by Rujuta Vaidya and breathtaking costumes by Linda Cho instill absolute joy in the Mandell Weiss Theatre.
The presence onstage of dhol and tabla performer Deep Singh complements a spirited orchestra in the pit.
Now, as to that tale of the battling students at fictitious East Lansing University in Michigan: It happens that Mary (the likable Ari Afsar) has been forced out of the Tigres bhangra ensemble for daring to want to add to its repertoire dance steps honoring the mother she lost. Chief among her detractors – and the Tigre who forces Mary out – is Preeti (Vinithra Raj), who doesn’t hide her contempt for the fact that Mary is only “half Indian.”
With the complicity of her college pal Sunita (Jaya Joshi), the industrious Mary decides to recruit dancers for her own bhangra troupe, who come to be known as the Wood Ducks. The volunteers are unlikely candidates. They include a White professor at the university (Jason Heil), the questionably coordinated Noah (Henry Walter Greenberg), a dashing DJ (Brandon Contreras), a basketballer (Terrance Johnson) and snarky, political-minded Sunita. When they all realize that they need a bhangra teacher, too, they enlist the owner of a restaurant (Alka Nayyar), who puts them to work in her kitchen … though there’s method to her management.
The first act culminates with a food fight between the Tigres and the Wood Ducks that lays waste to restaurateur Rekha’s Samosa Hut. This may be “typical” college behavior, but it feels rather trite as a climax.
While Mary’s devotion to her mother manifests itself in the musical’s loveliest dance number, and her standing up for her cultural identity is certainly a noble plot point, I never felt fully invested in “Bhangin’ It,” least of all in which side would win the big bhangra competition. What I wanted was dancing and drumming. The more the better.
There is a splashy Bollywood-type number in Act 2, “Commit,” and the post-curtain performances are roof-raising. The rest gets us where we need to go, but it’s two and a half hours’ worth of getting there.
The “Bhangin’ It” cast is working hard and having fun. That’s clear. Besides Afsar, who was born in San Diego and is a UCLA grad, there’s Contreras, who enjoys chemistry with her during their “Toledo” number. This narrative possibility is not explored further. Nayyar is a memorable presence as Rekha, whose part, too, could have been given more complexity.
In the end, “Bhangin’ It” doesn’t nail it. It does entertain.
“Bhangin’ It” runs through April 17 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre.
Brian Rivera (left) and Jerome Beck in "The Great Khan." Photo by Rich Soublet
As a teacher, if I had a student who, given the assignment to write a paper on Mongol warrior Genghis Khan, instead wrote a gangsta rap song about him, something that he clearly put his whole heart and soul into, I’d be elated. That’s what learning should be all about: making knowledge your own.
Unfortunately for 16-year-old Jayden in Michael Gene Sullivan’s “The Great Khan,” his Genghis rap is dismissed by his mother as messing around. That’s only one of the frustrations young Jayden (Jerome Beck) endures in this rolling world premiere production at the San Diego Repertory Theatre directed by Jess McLeod.
There’s high school in general. His mother (Brittney M. Caldwell), who works overnights for the U.S. Postal Service, has moved them to a new neighborhood after Jayden prevented the attack of a teen girl (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew) and in the process incurred the sworn vengeance of the would-be assailants. In the new school, Jayden, who is Black, is outnumbered and in his mind out of place. In history class in particular, he is compelled by his over-solicitous White teacher, Mr. Adams (Dylan John Seaton), to study what Jayden sees as White history made by old White guys.
Jayden would rather retreat to the imagined safety of his bedroom and play combat video games.
What safety? The girl he rescued, Ant, comes through his window pointing a gun at him, demanding he acknowledge that she didn’t require rescuing in the first place.
What’s a frightened, frustrated Black teenager in a racially unjust world to do?
The larger-than-life (and, we learn, misunderstood) persona of Genghis Khan, who rose from slave to emperor in the early 13th century, provides the answer.
Beck is awesome as Jayden, balancing the character’s anger over injustice with both his fear and insecurity over his future and a burning desire to be strong in the face of come-what-may. (Even in a hoodie-onesie, however, he doesn’t look like a 16 year old.) His scenes with Bartholomew are the play's most affecting, particularly those when each lowers their guard.
The theatrical device of “The Great Khan” is the appearance of the Mongol warrior himself (Brian Rivera, making us hopefully forget the ludicrous memory of John Wayne in the role in “The Conqueror”), who like Ant comes through Jayden’s bedroom window. Or we’re led to believe he does. Whether the time Genghis Khan spends with Jayden – playing video war games, comparing personal stories of conflict and oppression, learning from each other – is real or not isn’t the point. Jayden emerges empowered.
Jayden’s enlightenment and empowerment might have happened even without a Genghis Khan materialization, for he learns during the two-hour play about himself and what he's capable of through his wise and loving mother, through the contemplative Ant, and through his ardent personalizing of the Genghis Khan he reads about.
We all recognize that the theater needs young audiences. For high school seniors or college students, “The Great Khan” is a great place to start. It’s intelligent and thought-provoking but also a helluva lot of fun.
“The Great Khan” runs through March 27 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre downtown.
Janet Dacal and Sasson Gabay in "The Band's Visit." Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade
When I first saw “The Band’s Visit” three years ago at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, I realized afterward that I’d seen a wonderful show -- a little musical about a lot of little things, a story with heart that would stay with me maybe forever.
Seeing “The Band’s Visit” again this week at the Civic Theatre, where a national touring production of the Tony winner runs is under way, I felt the same way afterward: moved and uplifted.
Then as now, “The Band’s Visit’s” main character, Dina, who runs a café in a village in Israel where nothing much ever happens, tells us that the tale to come is “not important.” It wouldn’t seem so, either, on the surface: A uniformed police orchestra from Alexandria, Egypt, turns up by mistake in Dina’s town. With no bus heading out until the next day, the musicians are stranded. Dina, who is lonely and starving for any excitement, anything different, takes them in.
So do the people of Petah Tikva.
What unfolds over 95 minutes may not be important or life-changing, but this is where those aforementioned little things are addressed and where they matter.
Dina (Janet Dacal), who like everyone else in Petah Tikva is always “Waiting” (the show’s scene-setting opening song) for something beyond the endless passing days in the desert, finds in visiting orchestra conductor Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay, who played the role in the original film version of “The Band’s Visit” that inspired the musical) an enigmatic but quietly reflective man who strangely fascinates her. He may not be the “Omar Sharif” (Dina’s wistful ballad) of her daydreams and Friday afternoon movies, but for a day and an evening he is her escape.
Tewfiq it turns out has a darker past than his laconic, military manner suggests, and through Dina his vulnerability emerges as much as it can.
Young villager Papi (Coby Getzug), meanwhile, is smitten with Julia (Layan Elwazani), but terrified of even talking to women. “Papi Hears the Ocean” is his hilarious lament to the worldly wise visiting trumpet player Haled (the terrific Joe Joseph), who afterward advises him in the jazzy “Haled’s Song About Love.”
In the household of Itzik (Clay Singer) and Iris (Kendal Hartse), not even the presence of a new baby can quell the discord between the two. It takes a band member’s unfinished concerto turned into a lullaby to bring if not reconciliation, then respite from the pain.
And alone in the village, a young man (Joshua Grosso) waits and waits and waits by a public telephone booth for a call from his true love.
This all adds up to … life. That’s the magic of “The Band’s Visit,” which touches without wallowing in sentiment and which relies on the humanity of its characters to help us recognize our own.
But what makes “The Band’s Visit” soar is its music: the memorable David Yazbek score that includes not only “Omar Sharif” and “Haled’s Song About Love” but the beautiful “Answer Me” that begins with the Telephone Guy alone, waiting, and comes to include the rest of the cast.
The Middle Eastern music performed by the ensemble band – Yoni Avi Battat, Roger Kashou, Brian Krock, Kane Mathis and Wick Simmons – is the real soundtrack of this show. Hearing it transports you to another time and place, somewhere perhaps you never knew existed inside you.
With as talky a book as “The Band’s Visit” possesses, it is subject to the Civic Theatre’s less than hospitable acoustics for dialogue. It’s great that so many people are getting the chance to see this musical, probably for the first time, but I couldn’t help but wish it were being produced in a more intimate venue.
No matter. “The Band’s Visit” is a treasure. See it while you still have the chance. It closes on Sunday, March 6.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.