“Man of La Mancha” is audacious enough to suggest that there is beauty in delusion, that love has no prejudices and that no dream is impossible. This is why audiences have loved the “Don Quixote”-inspired musical since it opened on Broadway 54 years ago. The omnipresence of a stirring ballad (“The Impossible Dream”) has a little something to do with it, too.
San Diego Musical Theatre’s “Man of La Mancha” directed by Scott Thompson takes full advantage of the sheer romanticism of Dale Wasserman’s story as well as the music and lyrics of Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, respectively, that enliven it. The cast, singing to the very back walls of the Horton Grand Theatre downtown that is SDMT’s home, is supported by an equally rousing orchestra conducted by Don Le Master.
Its classic status aside, “Man of La Mancha” is much more complex than it had to be: In 16th-century Spain, writer/tax collector Miguel de Cervantes and his manservant are under arrest after foreclosing on a monastery. Not only do the ruthless inquisitors await, but Cervantes’ dungeon-mates have seized his possessions. To get them back, Cervantes convinces them to give him a mock trial. His defense is the story he proceeds to tell them. So begins the play-within-the play, the tale of an old man, Alonso Quijano, who to the discomfiture of his family becomes Don Quixote de La Mancha, a knight errant who lives for chivalry, justice and love.
The adventures of this knight (Robert J. Townsend) and his squire, Sancho Panza (Jeffrey Landman), quickly crystallize around Quixote’s spellbound love for a wench of ill repute, Aldonza (Heidi Meyer). His quest for her heart is periodically interrupted by narrative returns to the dungeon, where the solemn Cervantes enjoys a literally captive audience.
Having to portray Cervantes, the “mad” old man and the Quixote character is a quest in itself, one that Townsend meets with the presence and rich baritone for which San Diego audiences have embraced him many times. His most impressive feat may be not oversinging the oft-oversung “The Impossible Dream.” When Townsend is in the old man persona, too, he’s genuinely credible as what a cleric calls him “either the wisest madman or the maddest wise man in the world.”
The only figure in this show who truly changes is the fiery and broken Aldonza, whose contempt for the men who want to use her (“It’s All the Same’) is ultimately transformed into a reciprocal love for the knight who always saw purity and goodness in her, his “Dulcinea.” Meyer never compromises the character’s keen sense of survival.
Not to be overlooked is the sometimes hapless humor of “Man of La Mancha,” not only via the quipping sidekick Sancho, but in visual gags or clever tunes including “I’m Only Thinking of Him” and Sancho’s “I Really Like Him” and “A Little Gossip.” This is, lest we forget, a tale in which a noble knight goes after a windmill and emerges with broken sword, but unbowed.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 10/1/19.)
Hershey Felder’s portrayal of the melancholy master, Fryderyk Chopin, unfolds in the San Diego Repertory’s Lyceum Space, the smaller and more intimate of its two theaters. As such, Felder’s Chopin’s stated premise that everyone in the audience is a student who’s paid 20 francs for the privilege of hearing his story and hearing him play is much more credible than if “Monsieur Chopin” were on the much larger Lyceum Stage. Felder not only performs and inhabits the persona of Chopin, but he engages theater-goers throughout in impromptu Q&A.
While the audience participation, always an awkward undertaking, slows down the one-act, two-hour show, it doesn’t detract from Felder’s supple and dramatic performances of the works of Chopin. The great composer’s short 39 years on life were sad, even tragic, but what music they left behind, and after all, that’s what’s drawing record crowds to this Rep engagement.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/25/19.)
One of the underappreciated pop-rock albums of the early ‘90s, Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend” has been rightfully winning new fans in the 10 years since Todd Almond’s play-with-music, also called “Girlfriend,” premiered at Berkeley Rep. The slow-moving, practically giddy story about two high school grads, Mike and Will, falling into love in an intolerant 1993 Nebraska is considerably enlivened by songs from Sweet’s album.
Diversionary Theatre’s San Diego premiere of “Girlfriend” directed by Stephen Brotebeck rocks to the sound of a dynamic live band populated by Melanie Medina (guitar), Christian Reeves (bass), Nobuko Kemmotsu (drums) and keyboardist/musical director Krysten Hafso-Koppman. As the more conflicted Mike and the immediately smitten Will, Michael Louis Cusimano and Shaun Tuazon respectively may not look like high school graduates, but each in his own way projects the insecurities of that age and also the clumsy tentativeness with desire made all the more daunting by residing in the narrow-minded American Heartland. Yet Sweet’s songs and the house band are more involving than anything in Almond’s sentimental script.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/25/19.)
Tony Amendola (top) and Rafael Goldstein in "Amadeus." Photo by Aaron Rumley
North Coast Repertory Theatre has opened its 38th season with a resounding production of Peter Shaffer’s drama Amadeus, the acclaimed 1979 play about the Imperial Kappelmeister of Vienna, Antonio Salieri, and his envy of young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As written by Shaffer, it was an envy that quickly turned toxic and quite possibly lethal. Amadeus went on five years later to become an Oscar-winning film that spread this theory to the larger public. (Officially, Mozart was said to have died, at 35 years old, from “severe military fever.”)
The character of Salieri is the crucial one in Amadeus, which is told in flashback from his point of view, beginning in a wheelchair as an old man stretching back to his 30s when Mozart was an amazing prodigy but also an irritatingly precocious young man. At North Coast Rep, the role of Salieri is filled with towering commitment and intensity by Tony Amendola, who brings out all of the calculating coldness the playwright instilled in the man (and which may well have existed). So potent is Amendola’s performance that it swamps a genuinely sensitive one by Rafael Goldstein as Mozart. But that is the nature of the play itself. Shaffer’s Mozart possesses tremendous charisma and childlike playfulness – and a little arrogance, too – but he proves no match as an adversary to Salieri.
There’s a grim inevitability to the sinister machinations of Salieri in North Coast Rep’s production. The impudent wackiness of Mozart, unlike in the film version, never dilutes the intensity of the story. Much credit for this consistency of mood and tenor must go to director Richard Baird and to a supporting ensemble that doesn’t overplay its collective hand. Among that supporting cast is Kathryn Tkel, whose turn as Mozart’s wife Constanze is multifaceted and moving.
Exits and entrances are handled gracefully on a sparse set designed by Marty Burnett. Elisa Benzoni’s late 18th-century/early 19th century costumes highlight the pretensions of the court of Vienna while also emphasizing the vast difference in the staid Salieri’s and impetuous Mozart’s personalities.
Forty years after its debut onstage, Amadeus continues to enthrall and mystify. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/18/19.)
Olivia Hodson and Steven Lone in "The Virgin Trial." Karli Cadel Photography
In the contemporary parlance of playwright Kate Hennig’s 15-year-old Elizabeth Tudor, she finds herself “locked up and knocked up.” But the future Queen Elizabeth I in Hennig’s “The Virgin Trial” is much more embattled than that. She’s under fire from both a sadistic noblewoman and from the Lord Protector to Bess’ brother, the reigning boy king Edward. They’re rabid to prove that she was complicit in a murderous plot to ultimately gain the throne herself.
This political intrigue boils at the surface of the second of Hennig’s “Queenmaker Trilogy” plays about the Tudor queens. Her first, “The Last Wife,” was produced at Old Town’s Cygnet Theatre last year under the direction of Associate Artistic Director Rob Lutfy. One of the most riveting dramas of 2018 on San Diego stages, it told the story of Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr, and how in pursuing her passion and independence she defied the very foundation of the monarchy.
Cygnet’s Lutfy is at the helm again with “The Virgin Trial,” in which Bess (Olivia Hodson), the youngest (after Mary) of the late Henry’s two legitimate daughters, is suspected of having taken to her bed her stepmother Katherine’s husband, Thom Seymour (Steven Lone, who played the same role in “The Last Wife”). Thom is arrested after a failed attempt to kill young Edward VII. Katherine has died in childbirth, and the political establishment’s fierce contempt of her has magnified and redirected itself at Elizabeth.
The Lord Protector (Tom Stephenson), who is also Thom’s brother, and the lady of the court (Lisel Gorell-Getz) are either grilling Elizabeth using the good cop/bad cop bit (and in an intentional anachronism using a tape recorder), or torturing Bess’ governess (Monique Gaffney) and secretary (Wil Bethmann) by means that, contemporarily speaking, bring to mind Abu Ghraib. If there’s theatrical shock value in that, or less so in the play’s occasional profanity, it doesn’t diminish what Hennig is saying about the girl “on trial” and the woman and omnipotent monarch she would become. At only 15 years old, Elizabeth is a still caught up in the fears and fantasies of a child, but emerging with chilling resolve is a woman who will bow to no one, a woman whom she says will never be “average.”
“A virgin,” Bess professes in a moment of supreme self-enlightenment, “is a vessel for creation.” In this vein, she not only exalts her virginity but confidently tells her exasperated sister Mary (Brittney M. Caldwell) that in spite of events she will regain it. You can’t help but believe her.
Hodson admirably balances this dichotomy between Bess the woman-child and Bess the sovereign-to-be. As Thom, tortured by urges carnal and ambitious, Lone has a much meatier part than he had in “The Last Wife.” His scenes with Hodson are uncomfortable, as they should be.
Caldwell’s Mary comes off as the most 21st-century sounding of all of Hennig’s characters. It is Mary, in fact, who is the subject of the third play in the “Queenmaker Trilogy,” titled “Mother’s Daughter.” Could that one, too, be in Cygnet’s future? It’s a tantalizing thought.
(Review originally published in The San Diego Union-Tribune on 9/17/19.)
La Jolla Playhouse’s Kiss My Aztec! begins with a clever musical commentary about imperialism called “White People On Boats.” The thought occurs: This is going to be an intelligent show with all the biting ferocity of its terrific title. But no. What follows with the exception of the closing number are more than two hours of high-energy but overly familiar comedy devices, from characters in hapless disguise (codpiece anyone?) to talking hand puppets to near-slapstick of the shuddering kind.
What makes this all so disappointing is that Kiss My Aztec!, a co-production of the Playhouse and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, was written by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone and the multitalented John Leguizamo, whose solo affair “Latin History for Dummies” rocked the Playhouse three years ago. Leguizamo has said that Spamalot was an inspiration for Kiss My Aztec! But this new show, the music for which was written by Benjamin Velez, with Velez, Leguizamo and David Kamp collaborating on the lyrics, is nowhere near as artful as that Monty Python joyride.
The score of Kiss My Aztec! is an amalgam of musical genres, including rap, salsa, and approximations of gospel and R&B. This mash-up is less jarring than the book, which endeavors to tell the story of the Aztec people of 16th-century Mesoamerica rising up against bloody conquerors from Spain. The narrative has all the simmering undercurrent of contemporary cultural and racial dynamics but is at least in part dressed up like an historical spoof. The latter overwhelms the former, which is distinctly unsatisfying.
Joel Perez (he of the hand puppets) and Yani Marin (playing a feminist-minded warrior) try hard as the leads up against Al Rodrigo, who all but twirls his mustache as the villainous Spanish heavy. Desiree Rodriguez stands out as his daughter, Pilar, who attempts to defy her father via deflowering by a man of color – Rodriguez’s “Dark Meat” tune is a keeper.
Clint Ramos is scenic and costume designer for Kiss My Aztec!, and his stellar efforts on both counts are very much in the spirit of a production that means well but largely sacrifices its critical messages in the pursuit of easy laughs.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/11/19.)
An audacious work that is not for the wide-eyed dance mom or rosy-cheeked plie prodigy, Dance Nation dares to delve inside the heads of pre-pubescent girls and root out the anxieties, fears and anger that will accompany them into their teenage years and beyond into the battlefield of adulthood. Moxie Theatre is staging the West Coast premiere of Clare Barron’s play with all the bravery and stridency for which this female-championing company is known. In one act that really should have been written as two, there’s self-mutilation, a gruesome dance injury, a fiercely frank, sexually explosive monologue and even characters bearing fangs. This is not the ballet school down the street or “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Under the severe tutelage (and creepiness) of Dance Teacher Pat (Daren Scott), a team of pre-teen dancers rehearses to the points of pain for competitions that could ultimately culminate in the Boogie Down Grand Prix in swingin’ Tampa, Fla. But the practices and rehearsals are only pretexts for the personal pains, discoveries and revelations of the girls, all of whom (as written) are played by adult actors. This may explain why Barron’s script has the 13-year-olds or so making articulate observations and pronouncements far, far beyond their age. The girls are, in effect, already women in girls’ bodies who in navigating the terrors of their youth may be affirming the adults they will become.
The arc of the play isn’t really the quest for victory in Tampa. Instead, conflicts reside, fragmented, in the various girls, like Sofia (Sandra Ruiz), who experiences her first menstrual period. And Amina (Wendy Maples), who is the best of the dancers but for whom a first masturbatory orgasm is achingly elusive. Or Zuzu (Joy Yvonne Jones in an affecting performance), who faces with agony the reality that she will never be “good enough.”
Then there’s Ashlee (Andrea Agosto), whose full-throated avowal of powers sexual and otherwise is such an attention-grabber that the rest of the play never matches its intensity. Dance Nation, directed at Moxie by Jennifer Eve Thorn, plays on loss of innocence to a sometimes unsettling but sharply incisive extreme.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/4/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.