Sarah Ah Sing in "Dogfight" at Coronado Playhouse. Photo by Ken Jacques
Dogfight is one of the great underrated musicals of the 2000s. Adapted from a 1991 film into a 2012 stage musical by Peter Duchan with a score and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (who would later collaborate on the Tony-winning Dear Evan Hansen), Dogfight is a bracing, immersive show that thoughtfully poses questions about beauty, machismo and war.
Cygnet Theatre’s production of Dogfight was among the San Diego theatrical highlights of 2015. But as a current staging by the Coronado Playhouse community theater attests, the emotional complexion of this musical, when well-executed, transcends production budget. What Coronado’s Dogfight may lack in resources and cast experience, it makes up for with perceptive direction by Teri Brown, kinetic choreography by Patrick Mayuyu and a versatile six-member band capable of balancing the score’s dramatic highs and lows. Most of all it beguiles and devastates on the performance of Sara Ah Sing, a junior at Point Loma Nazarene University, who demonstrates bravery and intuition beyond her years as the heartbreaking Rose Fenny,
It’s Rose, a dowdy waitress in a San Francisco diner, who is unwittingly recruited by a cocky young Marine named Eddie (Adam Sussman) to be his date on the last night before he ships out for the Vietnam War by way of Okinawa in 1963. The “dogfight” is a crass competition among the hell-raising Marines to bring to a party the ugliest dance partner, the winner getting a $500 prize. From this cruel ritual evolves in a single night an uneasy but genuine love story between Rose and Eddie. When the night ends, the brutality of the war imparts the true meaning of ugliness.
Ah Sing’s vocals, as during the sentient ballads “Pretty Funny” and “Give Way,” are fervent and tender, as is her painful aloneness after she learns the awful trick played on her. The vocal shortcomings of some of the other cast members are evident, however, and the acoustics in the Coronado Community Playhouse are inconstant, particularly when the actors are moving up and down the split-level set.
There’s no loss of urgency, however, in a production that this longtime community theater (73 seasons and counting) can be proud of. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/31/19.)
The dark cleverness of Roald Dahl’s books may not fully translate to the musical stage, but adaptations have been done four times (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, James and the Giant Peach and Matilda the Musical) and all save Fantastic have been wildly successful. Matilda the Musical, now playing at Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista, succeeds there too, even if there’s way more talking than music in its two and a half hours.
What enlivens the production are some first-rate performances, including that of Charity Rose, a budding star, as Matilda, the genius girl with special powers whose parents shun her. In fact, all the child actors in Matilda impress. On the grown-up side, there’s Randall Hickman, whose gender-bending turn as the awful Miss Trunchbull is a frightening delight.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/24/19.)
The cast of "Another Roll of the Dice" at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Photo by Aaron Rumley
The classic musical Guys and Dolls was based on two of Damon Runyon’s cartoonish short stories about mugs and molls in 1930s New York, “Blood Pressure” and “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown.” Now, decades later, three other Runyon stories have been turned into a new musical titled Another Roll of the Dice. Like Guys and Dolls, this world premiere at the North Coast Repertory Theatre features music and lyrics by the estimable Frank Loesser. The book’s by playwright Mark Saltzman, who’s crafted a show that treats its three stories separately but with a six-member ensemble playing different characters throughout.
Another Roll of the Dice is no Guys and Dolls, especially in the script department -- “Breach of Promise” is the tightest of the three rambling tales. And while there isn’t a song as iconic as Guys and Dolls’ “Luck Be A Lady” or “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” Dice has its musical nuggets. All numbers feature lyrics by Loesser, but included in the score are collaborations with Hoagy Carmichael (“Heart and Soul”), Frederick Hollander (“The Boys in the Backroom”) and Jimmy McHugh (“Let’s Get Lost,”), among others. Allison Spratt Pearce’s lovely vocals and Sarah Errington’s comic chops are cast standouts, and Elisa Benzoni’s bold, bright costumes are Runyon-worthy.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/24/19.)
No doubt about it, the ‘80s produced some cutting-edge music. None of it is in Rock of Ages, the 2005 jukebox musical by Chris D’Arienzo that’s populated by thumping power-rock songs and dubious resurrections of Journey, Foreigner and Twisted Sister. The good news is that Rock of Ages is a fun show anyway. Its storyline, loosely concerning a would-be rocker (Rory Gilbert), a wannabe actress (Megan Carmitchel) and a Sunset Strip club threatened by a corporate wrecking ball, feels like it was written over a bong and a bag of Oreos. As such, no one onstage takes it seriously, so silliness is as preordained as guitar solos. Cygnet Theatre’s production offers up a skilled band conducted by Patrick Marion and winning turns from many in the large cast, including Bryan Banville, Zackary Scot Wolfe, Anise Ritchie and Victor E. Chan as the narrator with “jazz hands.” (You’ll have to see the show to get that.)
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/17/19.)
Pigpen Theatre Co.’s The Tale of Despereaux is an enchanting adaptation of the 2003 fantasy novel by Kate DiCamillo and the animated film that followed five years later. While the story itself, about a courageous little mouse rescuing a beautiful kidnapped princess, is simple enough for children to understand and enjoy, it’s adults who will best appreciate this world-premiere musical at the Old Globe Theatre.
This is the seven-member Pigpen troupe’s second go-round at the Globe following 2017’s The Old Man and the Old Moon. While that production had its charms, The Tale of Despereaux is much more entertaining, possibly owing to the clever alternating of puppets and actors as the chief rodent characters, Despereaux and Roscuro the rat (who’s really the more compelling of the two). But in addition to the enthusiasm and versatile musicianship of the Pigpen players, Despereaux delights with its ingenious props, inventive visual effects and a grand fairytale set by Jason Sherwood. For the first time, too, Pigpen is employing actors as collaborators, among them the crystalline-voiced Taylor Iman Jones and Betsy Morgan, and spunky Bianca Norwood as Despereaux.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/17/19.)
"The American Dream" gets the showstopping treatment in "Miss Saigon." Photo by Matthew Murphy
Reasons to like, if not love, Miss Saigon:
First, when it’s not overly mired in balladry, it packs an emotional wallop, and does so more than once.
Second, like “Madame Butterfly,” the story that inspired it, it has the guts to end on a tragic note -- in the case of Miss Saigon eschewing the typical big Broadway closing number.
Third, the helicopter scene. Still awesome after 30 years.
The touring production of Miss Saigon inhabiting the Civic Theatre downtown is a reminder of all these assets, in spite of less than ideal acoustics and a serviceable if not particularly memorable cast. Of the three principals, Emily Bautista as Kim, the Vietnamese heroine, stands out. Anthony Festa as her American GI lover Chris can’t match her vocal power, while Red Concepcion makes the signature part of the Engineer more comical than devious.
As with any production of Miss Saigon, the spectacular set pieces, the costumes and the choreography are the star components. The music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, with lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil, ranges from soft poignancy to anthemic, though little of it will have you humming your way out of the theater.
A number near the end of the show that may not be hummable but which is definitely entertaining is the Engineer’s raucous “The American Dream.” This paean to excess, including scantily clad dancers and the humping of a glittering Cadillac, would serve quite nicely as a re-election campaign ad for a certain president.
Miss Saigon runs through Sunday, July 14 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
Lissette is having a death party. When it’s over, when the guacamole and chips have been consumed and the margaritas downed, she will drink a fatal cocktail that will end with dignity her own life at 38 years old.
Melissa Ross’ The Luckiest at La Jolla Playhouse is neither morbid nor overly sentimental in spite of its subject matter. An outgrowth of the Playhouse’s formative DNA New Work Series, the world-premiere play presents Lissette, portrayed in a bravura performance by Aleque Reid, as a gutsy woman who decides to take as much control over her death as she has her life. In so doing, she enlists the help of her best friend Peter (Reggie D. White) and, more reluctantly, her mother Cheryl (Deirdre Lovejoy). Over 90 minutes, the story moves back and forth in time as all three characters confront a reality that has been known to bring out the best as well as the worst in human beings, including and especially those who care about each other.
Jaime Castaneda, from 2014-2018 the Playhouse’s associate artistic director, returns to helm The Luckiest, which for all playwright Ross’ considerable insight strains to achieve the most effective level of dark comedy. What’s more, none of the dramatic scenes between Lissette and the other two characters is as visceral as the audience-facing monologue she delivers toward the end of the play, when she explains the devastation and hopelessness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It’s a shame that explanation couldn’t have been integrated into the narrative of the play rather than isolated, even if intended so for impact.
Ross does build intricacies into her three principals, however, most of all Lissette, who is no long-suffering saint. She confronts her fate with anger, fear and no small amount of courage. As played by White, Peter is the giving, no-B.S. friend anyone would want in a life-or-death crisis, or even just to enjoy day-to-day living. Lovejoy’s mama Cheryl, played with a Boston accent so heavy it sometimes overpowers her lines, skirts the fringe of caricature, but finds a genuineness about two-thirds through the story.
The Luckiest is most certainly a message play, though it’s an important and affirming one.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/10/19.)
More than five years after Lamb’s Players’ Mixtape ended its lengthy residency at the Horton Grand Theatre downtown, the ‘80s musical revue is back, this time at Lamb’s’ Coronado venue. For lovers of that era, this show is just like heaven, to borrow the title of a memorable song by The Cure that naturally is on Mixtape’s gargantuan playlist. The ‘80s was also a decade of excess, and Mixtape crams way, way too much into nearly two and a half hours of nostalgia, from remembering Pac Man and the Smurfs to acknowledging the Challenger space shuttle tragedy. That being said, it’s no mean feat to document musically an entire decade. But then Lamb’s has done it on other occasions, with its ‘60s-‘70s-inflected Boomers and the sweeping retrospective American Rhythm.
Created by Jon Lorenz and Colleen Kollar Smith and directed originally and now by Kerry Meads, Mixtape is a multi-genre retrospective. There are nods to the superstars of the time (Michael Jackson, Madonna) to ‘80s’ dance pop (Wang Chung, Wham!), to New Wave (Duran Duran, Oingo Boingo), to balladry (Lionel Richie), to R&B (the Pointer Sisters), to hair bands (Bon Jovi), to TV theme songs (“Cheers,” “Hill Street Blues,” et al). The tunes come speedily one after another, most of them performed only in part, but all are faithfully rendered by a stout-hearted live band (Leo Correia, Andy Ingersoll, Rik Ogden, Dave Rumley and Oliver Shirley).
Two of the ensemble performers, David S. Humphrey and Joy Yandell, are Mixtape veterans. They’re joined for this new iteration of the musical by Angela Chatelain Avila, Marqell Edward Clayton, Janaya Mahealani Jones, A.J. Mendoza and Shawn W. Smith. Their stamina and enthusiasm are impressive, as are the choreography by co-creator (Colleen Kollar) Smith and the slew of period costumes designed by Jemima Dutra. Colorful and commemorative projections designed by Michael McKeon enhance the trip back in time.
Mixtape resorts to a little piety and preachiness (cue U2) on its way to concluding, but the majority of the stage time is devoted to the MTV-driven visual flash and musical eclecticism that defined the 1980s. For Gen-Xers with long memories, that’s as good as it gets.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/3/19.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat