Trenyce (center) stars as Diana Ross in "Motown the Musical." Photo by Joan Marcus
The history of Motown is best told in the unforgettable music that came out of the Detroit record label founded by the visionary Berry Gordy. That being said, “Motown the Musical” delights when it’s showcasing that music, everything from Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye to Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder. When this lengthy jukebox musical stops the music to tell the story of Motown, of Gordy’s trials and tribulations, of his romance with Ross, of the various seminal artists’ evolution, it cools off and turns intermittently melodramatic.
But so infectious are the songs, faithfully performed by a very talented cast that includes Trenyce as Ross and Matt Manuel as Gaye, that one can forgive the less-involving storytelling. Broadway San Diego is staging this Motown fans’ treat through Dec. 31 at the Civic Theatre, downtown. In case you need reminders of Motown’s greatness, here’s a short sample of the dozens of songs that are performed in this show (be forewarned – some of them are performed only in part):
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”
“I Want You Back”
“Heard it Through the Grapevine”
“Dancing in the Street”
“You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”
“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”
“Please, Mr. Postman”
And many, many more.
The Best in San Diego Theater in 2017
Cortez L. Johnson (left) starred in "The Ballad of Emmett Till." Photo courtesy of ion theatre
Powerful commentaries on race, two world-premiere dramas and a couple of exciting musical revivals distinguished what was a memorable year in San Diego theater.
The Ballad of Emmett Till, ion theatre: The lynching in 1955 of a 14-year-old African-American boy named Emmett Till stunned the country and added fuel to the early civil rights movement. Ion Theatre’s production of Ifa Bayeza’s play was a wrenching re-creation of the events that led up to the murder of the boy known as “Bobo,” and at the same time a reminder of the unwavering spirit of the family left behind who made sure his story, in all its tragedy, was told. An indelible theater experience.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, New Fortune Theatre Co.: The San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Space hosted this lush and tres sexy realization of Christopher Hampton’s 1985 play. New Fortune Theatre Co. artistic director Richard Baird co-directed (with Kaitlin O’Neal) and starred as the rapacious Vicomte de Valmont, with Jessica John Gercke deliciously in league with him as the Marquise de Merteuil. From its lush period costumes (by Howard Schmitt) to its lyrical scene changes, Les Liaisons Dangereuses was dangerously enticing.
Blue Door, Moxie Theatre: Cortez L. Johnson, who portrayed Emmett Till at ion theatre in July, earlier co-starred (with Vimel Sephus) in Moxie Theatre’s staging of Tanya Barfield’s one-act about the racial divide and personal conscience. Here, Johnson inhabited the spirits of multiple black men who were tormented and/or killed, with Sephus a college professor wracked with doubt after having declined to participate in the Million Man March. Delicia Turner Sonnenberg directed the cerebral and evocative production.
Ballast, Diversionary Theatre: In this world-premiere play by Georgette Kelly, a wife (Jacque Wilke) struggles to come to terms with the gender transition of her spouse (Dana Aliya Levinson) who is also a church pastor. Incredibly, that was only one layer to a complex and deeply personal narrative that Diversionary Theatre presented with grace and honesty. While Kelly’s script leaned heavily on metaphor right down to its title, Ballast told a story whose underpinnings are both significant and timely.
On the Twentieth Century, Cygnet Theatre: For sheer screwball fun, the Twentieth Century Limited to New York – by way of Old Town – was just the ticket. It was there that Cygnet Theatre revved up a delightful revival of the 1978 musical by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with music by Cy Coleman, all of them Broadway royalty. A stellar cast led by Eileen Bowman, clever choreography by David Bannen and a nostalgic set by Sean Fanning made this a trip well worth taking.
Into the Heights, Moonlight Stage Productions: Those under the spell of Hamilton may regard Into the Heights as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “other show,” but Moonlight showed why this high-energy musical, which opened on Broadway in 2008, still rocks. Everything about this summertime staging, from James Vasquez’s direction and the choreography of Carlos Mendoza, to the passion of the ensemble cast, clicked. For a few memorable weeks, the Vista night air was filled with the sounds of salsa-meringue and hip-hop.
Margin of Error, Roustabouts Theatre Co.: A new theater company, the Roustabouts, debuted impressively in Horton Plaza’s Lyceum Theatre with this smart, caustic world-premiere play by Will Cooper. Roustabouts co-founder (with Cooper and actor-director Phil Johnson) Ruff Yeager starred as a narcissistic physicist with issues in the ethics department. Tense and effective dramatic support came from Joel Miller, Roxane Carrasco and notably Rose Reynolds, daughter of this taut production’s director, Rosina Reynolds.
Father Comes Home from the Wars, Intrepid Theatre Co.: Count on Christy and Sean Yael-Cox’s Intrepid Theatre Company for at least one Top 10 show every year, and this was it – a lyrical staging of a three-act drama by Suzan-Lori Parks. The storytelling takes place during the Civil War and focuses on a slave-turned-soldier (Wrekless Watson) in search of freedom and understanding of self. Among the many outstanding performances, one stood tallest: Tom Stephenson as a cruel slave owner.
Skeleton Crew, Old Globe Theatre: The Old Globe’s Powers New Voices Festival first presented this intense play by Dominique Morisseau three years ago. Its return, this time as a co-production between the Globe and Moxie Theatre, was an opportunity to watch a dedicated cast (Tonye Patano, Brian Marable, Amari Cheatom and Rachel Nicks) transform the break room of a Detroit auto plant, one about to be shut down, into a frank and sometimes painful series of encounters about life’s hardships.
Falling, InnerMission Productions: Though hard to watch at times for its candid portrayal of the challenges of raising a severely autistic teenager, Falling was a profoundly rewarding hour and a half. Much credit went to Robert Malave for a fearless performance as 18-year-old Josh, and to D. Candis Paule and Steve Schmitz as the parents whose faith, love and endurance are mightily tested. Inside InnerMission’s tiny blackbox performance space, there was no escaping the emotional freefalls.
Honorable Mention: North Coast Repertory Theatre’s Of Mice and Men, New Village Arts’ Awake and Sing, Moxie Theatre’s Ironbound, Lamb’s Players Theatre’s Shadowlands, Diversionary Theatre’s 2.5 Minute Ride. (Originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/27/17.)
Michael C. Louis (left) and Steve Gouveia in Lamb's Festival of Christmas. Photo by Ken Jacques
Lamb’s Players Theatre’s annual Festival of Christmas marks its 40th year this holiday season with a new script, Kerry Meads’ A Fargo Christmas: North of Normal. Of course, Fargo has never been the same since the Coen Brothers’ classic film, and the town is very much (fairly or not) synonymous with cold, desolate temperatures and quirky inhabitants. A Fargo Christmas is decidedly lighter than the Coens’ depiction and certainly more spiritual. It comes with a narrative about a church up for sale to the highest bidder, the competitors being two fellowship communities vs. a dollar-signs-minded developer. But the story is secondary to some sublimely sung and performed music under the musical direction of Jon Lorenz.
Steve Gouveia, recently of Lamb’s Smoke on the Mountain, and Michael C. Louis shine on guitars and vocals during “Mary Had A Baby” and Jackson Browne’s “The Rebel Jesus.” But the voices of Benjamin Roy, Katie Porter, Caitie Grady, Joy Yandell Hricko, among others, also make A Fargo Christmas a soothing seasonal treat. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/20/17.)
"A Christmas Carol" at Cygnet Theatre
Tom Stephenson (left) and David McBean in "A Christmas Carol." Photo by Ken Jacques
The message of forsaking greed and taking care of the less fortunate couldn’t be any more resonant than in is this season of GOP tax “reform.” Yet Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is relevant every year. That said, Cygnet Theatre’s annual A Christmas Carol production, adapted by directed by Sean Murray with a tender score by Billy Thompson, is one of the joys of the yuletide.
There’s one cast change this year: Katie Sapper (replacing Maggie Carney) joins the familiar ensemble of Charles Evans, Jr., Melissa Fernandes, Melinda Gilb, David McBean (memorable as both Marley’s Ghost and the Ghost of Christmas Present), Patrick McBride and Tom Stephenson (as a wonderful Scrooge). Other than this, changes from previous incarnations are subtle ones that only repeat viewers will identify. No matter. This production is one to savor with family, friends and strangers who are brought together in the glow of the holidays. (Note: the actors entertain with jokes and carols onstage pre-show.) (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/20/17.)
"Cabaret" at ion theatre
Cashae Monya in "Cabaret." Photo by Daren Scott
Cabaret is the ultimate in ironical musical theater. In spite of what the title tune suggests, life is NOT a cabaret, old chum. The raucous fun and bawdy music of the Kit Kat Klub are fronts for pain and sadness and fear.
These dark predilections make Cabaret – this 1998, the one revived by director Sam Mendes – an ideal fit for ion theatre’s tiny, shadowy space. In the course of a couple of hours’ time, ion’s production directed by Claudio Raygoza becomes the Kit Kat Klub of Berlin, circa 1931. Ion has even set up a few small cabaret tables among the regular loge seats for added atmosphere.
This Cabaret is highly sexualized with its dancers, choreographed by the prodigious Michael Mizerany, and even its Sally Bowles (Cashae Monya) outfitted (by costume designer Keira McGee) in sartorial provocations seemingly on the verge of wardrobe malfunction. That’s half of the fun. The other half are the Kit Kat novelty songs (written by John Kander and Fred Ebb) that are played for sight-gag effect, like “Two Ladies,” “The Money Song” and “If You Could See Her Now,” the latter famously featuring a “gorilla.”
The gender-bending cast is huge (for ion) with musicians doubling as actors, all of which enhances the devil-may-care spirit of the proceedings. Monya is to a substantial degree the best singer in the ensemble, though her British accent as Sally comes and goes. Drew Bradford wears a perpetual frown as Sally’s American suitor, Cliff, but he’s forgivably sincere. In the showcase role of the Emcee, Linda Libby shares duties with a ubiquitous (too ubiquitous) kazoo-playing boy (Scotty Atienza). Her Emcee visual antics aside, Libby is actually at her best during the piquant ballad “What Would You Do?” Morgan Carberry is notable as the wry prostitute Fraulein Kost and for her terrific keyboard work from the band area. (She’s also Cabaret’s musical director,)
The shattered, or soon-to-be shattered, denizens of the Kit Kat Klub eat, drink and make merry (or make love, and lots of it) because they know that tomorrow promises a terrible inevitability. Cabaret will always be staged someplace sometime because of all the terrible tomorrows that followed as the Nazis rose to power. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/13/17.)
Backyard Renaissance's "Tarrytown"
Bryan Banville, Tom Zohar and Kay Marian McNellen" in "Tarrytown."
On the surface, Adam Wachter’s one-act musical Tarrytown seems like another variation on the eternal triangle, in this case an insecure gay man (Tom Zohar) and an unhappily married couple (Kay Marian McNellen and Bryan Banville) all residing in rural Tarrytown, N.Y. But in fact Tarrytown is a deft take on Washington Irving’s famous “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” That narrative device and a thoughtful musical score make this world premiere presented by Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company so promising.
While some of Wachter’s lyrics are strictly expository, they are by and large clever and insightful in what they posit about finding love and self in a scary world. The cast directed by Francis Gercke and Anthony Methvin enjoys definite chemistry in very tight confines, and Zohar is an expressive vocalist whose Ichabod Crane (just one of the three Irving characters referenced in this piece) is a sensitive and vulnerable protagonist. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/16/17.)
Minka Wiltz in "Black Pearl Sings!" Photo by Daren Scott
The personal crises that are milked for pathos in the San Diego Repertory’s Black Pearl Sings! are secondary to the sheer emotive power of Minka Wiltz’s vocals. In Frank Higgins’ drama set in Depression-era Texas (then later in Greenwich Village), Wiltz portrays Alberta “Pearl” Johnson, an African-American woman doing hard time for a murder. Into her life intrudes an abrasive Library of Congress musicologist (Allison Spratt Pearce) who dangles the chance of parole at Pearl if she will share in recordings the endangered songs of her slavery heritage. Questions of compromise, cultural appropriation and self-determination emanate from Higgins’ overreaching and somewhat predictable script, one inspired by musicologist John Lomax’s working relationship with folk-blues legend Lead Belly.
Wiltz is a revelation as Pearl, summoning the pain of a harrowing past even when she’s not singing. Spratt Pearce does well enough with the off-putting character of Susannah Mullally, making her as sympathetic as is possible. The unseen but very much heard star of this show is the music, which aches with human drama. (Review originally published 12/6/17 in San Diego CityBeat.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.