The Newsies musical based on the 1992 motion picture is, sadly, anachronistic. It celebrates with no shortage of youthful energy an era when newspapers were not only relevant but they reigned, and labor unions were both championed and cheered. In the case of this likable show by Alan Menken (music), Jack Feldman (lyrics) and Harvey Fierstein (book), the time was 1899 and the inspiration a strike by New York City newsboys that made its own headlines.
Moonlight Stage Productions’ Newsies thrives on the emotional uplift of anthemic battle cries like “The World Will Know” and “Seize the Day,” and on whirling athletic dancing choreographed by Colleen Kollar Smith. Newsies’ love story is obligatory and its ballads rote, but the heart and conscience of the story are sincere. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/25/18.)
"Xanadu" at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. Photo by Adriana Zuniga-Williams
The 1980 film “Xanadu” was flat-out bad. It even inspired the snarky Razzies Awards. On the other hand, the 2007 Broadway musical version, a self-parodying 90 minutes of anything-goes silliness, is fun with a capital F. OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista has opened its 2018-’19 season with a completely entertaining production of Xanadu, with its artistic director, Teri Brown, at the helm. In spite of some noticeable sound problems on opening night – hopefully fixed by now -- this good-natured staging of the show by Douglas Carter Beane, John Farrar and Jeff Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra fame) amuses with its snide satirizing of Greek mythology, L.A. at its most laid back, and Broadway itself. Moreover, it might actually make you nostalgic for Olivia Newton-John, the star of the film whose “Magic” and “Have You Never Been Mellow” are among this stage adaptation’s tunes.
Another Olivia, Olivia Berger, stars in OnStage’s Xanadu as the comely muse brought to life who falls in love with an artistic minded slacker boy (Joshua Tyler Powers). No one in the talented cast, especially the other muses, takes the story very seriously – nor should they. Everyone’s simply in the what-the-hell? spirit of this shamelessly silly romp, and the house band performing in the wings never misses a beat. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/25/18.)
Edward Albee’s first work was the one-act The Zoo Story, and it certainly foreshadowed the tense, often-uneasy dramatic canon that was to flow from this great American playwright. In 55 anxious minutes that unfold in real time, a “permanent transient” (as he calls himself) named Jerry makes contact with and proceeds to unload every tortured emotion and neurosis upon Peter, a mild-mannered publishing-company exec with a wife, two daughters and two parakeets. Directed by Rosina Reynolds for Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company, the action is a slow boil of human drama.
Francis Gercke’s Jerry is manic and calculatingly menacing for most of the one act, while Phil Johnson’s Peter endures in quiet anguish on the Central Park bench where Jerry has interrupted his routine of quiet reading. When Peter can stand no more and boils over, Johnson and Gercke become two desperate men at odds where anything can happen. It does. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/18/18.)
Usually the scene-stealer in a supporting comedic role, the prodigious Omri Schein deservedly gets the lead role in the farcical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the storied 1962 Broadway musical (and later a film) that closes North Coast Repertory Theatre’s 36th season. Schein plays Pseudolus, the Roman slave who is the instigator of every ruse, machination and hapless deceit in this no-holds-barred comedy. He remains hilarious even when the deadpanning and slapsticking gets redundant (which, eventually, they do).
The cast of 13 is the largest ever for a show at North Coast Rep in artistic director David Ellenstein’s 16-year tenure. Besides Schein, the Forum cast includes many familiar comic pros in San Diego theater including Andrew Ableson, David McBean and Melinda Gilb. After 56 years, Forum is rife with obvious antics, characters and situations, and Stephen Sondheim’s score is relatively serviceable beyond the classic “Comedy Tonight.” What we’re left with, bottom line, is vaudeville in togas. Nothing wrong with that if that’s what floats your Roman barge, and Schein’s worth the price of a ticket. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/18/18.)
"The Lorax" is based on Dr. Seuss' book. Photo by Dan Norman
The audience cheers when the little beaver-like guy with the bushy mustache announces “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” He’s the conscience and soul of the new musical based on what Dr. Seuss said was his favorite book, “The Lorax.” And it’s somehow fitting that this environmentally biting show opened at the Old Globe Theatre the same week that Scott Pruitt resigned as head of the EPA that he’d been charged with making toothless.
As for the musical, produced by the Globe and Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis in partnership with London’s Old Vic, it tries boldly to appeal both to kiddies and adults. There are fuzzy animal characters and dazzling puppetry for the former, and a couple of noisy showstoppers (“Super Axe Hacker,” “Thneed 2.0”) for the latter. At times the big-show wows come close to overwhelming the sweet, simple message -- that the flora and fauna of our planet are more important than money. But The Lorax is so meticulously presented that only a climate-change denier could complain. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/11/18.)
Brenda Meaney (left) and Xochitl Romero in "Queens." Photo by Jim Carmody
Queens is the story of some remarkable women, though not of royal blood. The women are immigrants to the U.S. from countries as disparate as Poland, Afghanistan and Honduras who have in common the deep-seated dream of a better life in America, land of supposed opportunity. The Queens in Martyna Majok’s play is that easternmost borough in New York City. It is there, in the basement of a rundown tenement, that two intersected stories of immigrant women surviving on strength, spirit and bonding are told.
Under the direction of Carey Perloff, La Jolla Playhouse is staging the West Coast premiere of this new work from Majok, recipient of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Tense and emotive, Queens is riveting throughout its 70-minute first act, which flits in time between 2001 and 2017. The second act, however, turns cynical and histrionical, diluting to some extent the overall staying power of the play. This does not in any way diminish the performances of the six cast members, half of whom assume dual roles. Noteworthy is Jolly Abraham who as Aamani speaks with both the yearning and the apprehension of immigrants everywhere. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/11/18.)
Sean Murray (left) and Jonathan Sangster in "Spamalot." Photo by Ken Jacques
Cygnet Theatre’s 16th season has opened with a bang. Its joyfully irreverent production of Spamalot is in the finest spirit of the Monty Python antics that inspired it, right down to the animated images (projected on a screen behind the stage) that accompany the hapless tale of King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail. Cygnet’s artistic director Sean Murray, who played Arthur in a memorable Moonlight Stage Productions Spamalot in 2014, is back as the besieged king. So is Christine Hewitt, the Lady of the Lake of that staging in Vista. The Cygnet cast, which is roundly riotous, also includes James Saba, David S. Humphrey and Bryan Banville, all of whom play multiple roles.
The Python sense of humor isn’t for everyone, and it’s true that some bits feel stretched out, but in this dependable romp there’s always another pun or musical parody coming. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/4/18.)
Kate Burton (right) stars in "The Tempest" on the Old Globe's Festival Stage. Photo by Jim Cox
A wonderfully imaginative realization of The Tempest, the last play in Shakespeare’s canon, launches the Old Globe Theatre’s Summer Shakespeare Festival with a flourish. From Kate Burton’s commanding performance as Prospera, purveyor of magic and exiled ruler of an island, to some exquisitely fanciful costume design by David Israel Reynoso, this Tempest is enchanting in every sense of the word.
Though a story of forgiveness – Prospera (from Prospero in the original male-centered conception) chooses magnanimity over violence in reconciling with those who have banished her – The Tempest is as fanciful and waggish as anything Shakespeare wrote, and this production directed by Joe Dowling enjoys delightful turns from Philippe Bowgen as Ariel, Manoel Felciano as Caliban and Robert Dorfman and Andrew Weems as pranksters Stephano and Trinculo. The magic-heavy second act rightfully overwhelms the more plodding first in this production, including even an R&B/calypso mash-up celebrating the love between Prospera’s daughter Miranda (Nora Carroll) and young Ferdinand (Sam Avishay). Best is Burton’s closing monologue, which in its poignancy could be Shakespeare himself bidding his work and the world farewell. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/4/18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.