Terrell Donnell Sledge in "The Wind and the Breeze." Photo by Karli Cadel Photography
From the top of a bridge in Rockford, Ill., onetime legendary hip-hop emcee Sam (aka Sam I Am) awaits Fourth of July fireworks -- months in advance of the big night. What the veteran rapper, disdainful of his past and resigned to the lack of a future, is really doing in Nathan Alan Davis’ The Wind and the Breeze is surveying the landscape that is his life, Meanwhile, a circle of young dreamers hungers for his support as they pursue their own musical destinies.
Directed at Cygnet Theatre by Rob Lutfy, The Wind and the Breeze is a promising new work from Davis, one rich with personal circumspection and enlivened by the rapping of Terrell Donnell Sledge as Sam and Demetrius Clayton as would-be protégé Shantell. Monique Gaffney, meanwhile, adds both edge and sensitivity as Sam’s knowing cop friend Ronda. To some degree, the play strains to demonstrate its gravity, and fireworks make for an easy metaphor. But The Wind and the Breeze has much worthwhile to say about fate, friendship and the search for the right place to touch down. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/23/18.)
"A Thousand Splendid Suns" at the Old Globe Theatre. Photo by Jim Cox
A production of immense emotional potency, the Old Globe’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, presented in association with American Conservatory Theater (ACT), is not to be missed. Adapted for the stage by Ursula Rani Sarma and based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Khaled Hosseini (“The Kite Runner”), the play explores the relationship between two Afghan women living in Kabul in the deadly years between 1979 and 2001. In spite of dehumanizing government restrictions and the unspeakable violence to which they are subjected by the husband they share, they strive with all their hearts for dignity, love and to hold family together.
Carey Perloff, ACT’s artistic director, oversees a fervent staging at the Globe that includes breathless performances by Nadine Malouf as young Laila and Denmo Ibrahim as the older Mariam. Haysam Kadri is unrelenting as the ruthless husband Rasheed. Original music directed and performed by David Coulter provides piquant backdrop to a story that is shocking in its depictions of brutality one moment and life affirming in the next. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/23/18.)
Robert May (left) and Luke Monday in "Red." Photo by Ken Jacques
Artistic temperament, thy name is Rothko. That’s Mark Rothko, the fiery abstract expressionist who is the alpha dog in John Logan’s brilliant Tony Award-winning play Red. Subject to all his pontifications, tantrums, insecurities and verbal abuse is a new young assistant named Ken, an aspiring artist who at the outset is eager to learn from a downright ornery and dismissive master with no intention of playing mentor. The tension of this relationship and what each man ultimately learns from the other coalesces in a cerebral but urgent 90 minutes.
Four years after Red was last seen locally, in a dynamic production at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, a worthy staging of its own is happening at the Brooks Theater in downtown Oceanside. Directing for the Oceanside Theatre Company is Kevin Hafso-Koppman. His actors are Robert May as Rothko and Luke Monday as Ken. Both are more than up to the challenge of Logan’s biting and articulate script.
The action takes place in Rothko’s studio, circa 1950s, in New York’s Bowery, in a converted gymnasium where no natural light is admitted because the great artist can’t control such light. He soon discovers that he can’t control his assistant either, who challenges Rothko’s arrogance and pretentiousness with the simple question “Do you have to keep telling people what art is?” before really unloading on the egoist later (of course, to little avail). The quietly intense Monday credibly conveys Ken’s transformation. May’s Rothko is less unhinged than that of John Vickery in the San Diego Rep’s Red, but he’s just as domineering and dismissive, and besides, his character’s evolution is less transparent than Monday’s, as the play prescribes.
At the Brooks Theater, Carol Naegele’s scenic design is suitably bohemian, and the artwork painting by Zachary Elliott is a shadowy blood red. The acoustics in the theater are problematic, however. The actors can be heard all right, but when Rothko’s phonograph isn’t playing one of his favorite classical pieces, a humming is audible beneath the exchanges between May and Monday. At least it was during a recent matinee performance. So rich with both cultural and psychological expression is Logan’s script that no unwarranted noise should intrude. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 5/16/18.)
Its songs may seem old – because they are – but the longest-running Broadway musical revue ever is blessed with the endurance and exuberance of youth. The 39-tune celebration of composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller is returning to New York in July for a much-anticipated engagement at Off Broadway’s Stage 42. That’s 23 years after it opened on the Great White Way and ran for more than 2,000 performances. But Smokey Joe’s Café is open for business locally right now, at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista where it’s directed and choreographed by Shirley Johnston, who is also a member of the nine-person cast.
Officially titled Smokey Joe’s Café – The Songs of Leiber and Stoller, this two-act show is a jukebox musical in the purest sense. It’s 100 percent sung through, with no spoken book, and its tunes are not strictly connected in any discernible thematic fashion. In the first act, for example, the comedic “Poison Ivy” is sandwiched between the torchy “Fools Fall in Love” and the vampy “Don Juan,” while in Act 2, “Jailhouse Rock” (complete with the ensemble in prison stripes) bisects the jazz-inflected “Some Cats Know” and the swooning “Spanish Harlem.” But continuity is less important than the Leiber-Stoller songs themselves, which over the course of two hours also include classics like “Kansas City,” “There Goes My Baby,” “On Broadway,” “Hound Dog,” “Young Blood,” “Yakety Yak,” “Love Potion #9” and the unifying finale “Stand By Me.”
OnStage Playhouse’s cast is mostly young, but talented and sincere in their renderings, particularly Dominique Dates, Raymond Stradford III and the versatile, aforementioned Johnston. Her choreography is industrious and contributes added dimension to what otherwise would be an oldies concert. Consequently, the group numbers with parts of or the entire cast in dance mode are Smokey Joe’s Café’s high points. The solo vocalizations in general are overwrought.
A six-member band, which includes 15-year-old Alvin Paige on saxophone, cranks out the tunes with gusto.
While the narrow confines of the Onstage theater makes entrances and exits from the wings awkward, the spry and multi-costumed (by Pam Stomply-Ericson) cast never misses a beat. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 5/9/18.)
Robert Townsend and Carolyn Agan in "South Pacific." Photo courtesy of San Diego Musical Theatre
Underlying the boisterous good time that is the 1949 World War II musical South Pacific is the anti-racism subtext that ensures the relevance of this Broadway warhorse written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, with a book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan. It’s still jarring when, near the end of Act One, until-then darling Ensign Nellie Forbush refers with extreme prejudice to her lover’s first wife as having been “colored.” It remains sad that Marine Lieutenant Cable decides he can’t wed the Tonkinese woman he loves because of what his family would think. And with all the iconic songs of South Pacific’s score, including “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Younger Than Springtime” and “Bali Hai,” the brief one indicting racial prejudice, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” lingers too.
All this said, South Pacific is not a preachy show. Audiences like those at the Horton Grand Theatre downtown continue to be moved by its two love stories and roused by its island-happy dancing and hi-jinx. San Diego Musical Theatre’s production directed by Kristen Chandler is true to both the thoughtful and the diverting sides of this work based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific.” The orchestration of Don LeMaster fully embodies every swelling melody of South Pacific’s ballads while setting just the right pace for its jauntier moments, Among the cast of more than 20, Carolyn Agan shines brightest when the “little hick” from Little Rock is proclaiming herself “A Cockeyed Optimist” or trying to “Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.’ Her expression of Nellie’s ambiguity of conscience is less credible. Robert J. Townsend has the pipes for the romantic Frenchman Emile de Becque whom Nellie loves, but, fair to Townsend or not, he’ll make no one forget Ezio Pinza (the original on Broadway) or Brian Stokes Mitchell, so stunning in a 2006 Carnegie Hall concert version of South Pacific.
The featured comic players, Agustine Welles as Seabee Luther Billis and Gigi Coddington as island maven Bloody Mary, entertain mightily, especially Welles in drag during the strutting “Honey Bun.”
South Pacific may seem old-fashioned today. But those who see it, whether for the first time or for the fifth, should heed its still-crucial lessons. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 5/2/18.)
Hannah Logan (center) portrays a drama therapy teacher in "What Happens Next."
What happens next for a circle of military veterans is discovering a means to cope with the scars of war and discovering themselves at the same time. This psychological and emotional dynamic underlies Naomi Iizuka’s penetrating What Happens Next, being presented by La Jolla Playhouse in association with L.A.-based Cornerstone Theatre Company. The site-specific work is part of the Playhouse’s “Without Walls” program and is staged at the Challenged Athletes Foundation in Mira Mesa. Hannah Logan plays the facilitator of a small drama therapy group; her students are a mixture of actors and actual vets. What Happens Next is potent and very, very real. It’s also a must-see. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 4/25/18.)
Dave Klasko and Ali Rose Dachis in "The Wanderers." Photo by Jim Cox
The dual worlds of Anna Ziegler’s The Wanderers do not physically collide, but they are remarkably intertwined in this smart world-premiere play directed by Barry Edelstein in the Old Globe’s White Theatre. One world is that of cerebral but detached Brooklynites Abe (Daniel Eric Gold) and Sophie (Michelle Beck). They’re both writers of the naturally tortured variety, though the successful Abe is also pretentious and in love with his every word, especially those he speaks in fits of narcissistic disillusionment. The other world is seen 20 years earlier. Its inhabitants are Abe’s father Schmuli, an ultra-Orthodox Jew in the Satmar Hassidic community, and mother Esther (Ali Rose Dachis, the cream of the cast), whose joyous spirit and freedom are oppressed by the arranged marriage.
When Abe begins an email relationship with Julia Cheever (Janie Brookshire), a beautiful devotee from one of his book readings, another layer of dysfunction is added to his deteriorating relationship with Sophie. Meanwhile, the parallel scenario from the past both heightens and explains the pain and guilt that drive Abe to sabotage all that is good in his turbulent life.
Ziegler’s characters have just enough serrated edges to stave off what could otherwise be First World wallowing. The depth of her script, with its multiple reflections on faith and self, ensures 100 minutes of thoughtful and riveting theater. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 4/25/18.)
The cast of "How the Other Half Loves" at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Photo by Aaron Rumley
Very much a product of its time and place, the swingin’ England of 1969, Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy “How the Other Half Loves” skirts the edges of issues such as sexual politics and distinctions between the classes. But its principal observation is this: Adultery is not only a response to the era’s sexual freedom but, if deftly indulged in and concealed, sophisticated enough to transcend class differences. A casual affair can be bloody good fun for all … well, perhaps not for the cuckolded spouses, but there can be bloody good fun in forgiveness, too.
As such, “How the Other Half Loves,” onstage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, feels dated, especially when today’s headlines suggest that blithely engaged in infidelity is no laughing matter. But uneasy as its premise may be, the play’s comic antics are frequently on the mark. That’s an achievement indeed for a production two and a half hours in length.
Upper-class Frank Foster (James Newcomb, a manifestation of old-guard British sputter) has no clue that his flamboyant wife Fiona (Jacquelyn Ritz) is carrying on with one of Foster’s employees. That would be Bob Phillips (Christopher M. Williams), a bit of a boor who shares an untidy and antagonistic household with wife Teresa (Sharon Rietkerk, razor sharp), who has nearly stopped giving a damn. Their unseen baby is an appendage, practically a bother.
When faced with having to alibi to their spouses, Fiona and Bob, unbeknown to each other, involve a young couple, William and Mary Featherstone (Benjamin Cole and Noelle Marion). The Featherstones are as unhip as unhip can be. Fiona claims to have been out late consoling a cheated-on Mary, and Bob a cheated-on William. The visual payoff comes in “How the Other Half Love’s” cleverest and most inventive sequence: a dinner party at which the Fosters host the Featherstones, and a dinner party the next evening at which the Phillipses host the Featherstones. The two dinners are staged simultaneously, at one table, with the characters in one scenario oblivious to those in another, and the Featherstones fast and furiously switching from one moment in time to the other.
The ingenuity of two separate narratives unfolding at the same time on one set (designed by Marty Burnett) is the attraction of “How the Other Half Loves” and what elevates it above a retro episode of TV’s “Love, American Style” (make that “Love, British Style”). The focused cast directed by Geoffrey Sherman brings this off illusion seamlessly.
Inevitable misunderstandings and a dollop of slapstick arrive in the play’s second act. The good news is that doddering Frank and meek little Mary come to life when needed most. The scene-stealer in North Coast Rep’s “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers” last fall, Noelle Marion is terrific here, too, in a polar-opposite part.
“How the Other Half Loves” is heavy on Beatles tunes and is oh-so-‘60s in its sensibilities, but its hard-working ensemble is fab. (Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 4/17/18).
The Brits have an uncanny knack for creating comedy laden with slapstick physicality and shameless sexual innuendo. What’s more, American theatergoers can’t seem to get enough of it. Michael Frayn’s madcap farce Noises Off is proof-positive: it’s 36 years old and still going strong on both professional and community theater stages. A revival was even running on Broadway as recently as two years ago.
So how can Coronado’s Lamb’s Players Theatre go wrong with its own production of Noises Off? Answer: It doesn’t. The combination of Robert Smyth’s direction and Jordan Miller’s choreography (not of dancing but of breathless climbing and descending of stairs, and impeccably timed slamming of doors) guarantees a giddily frantic pace and an exhausting onslaught of sight gags – absolute musts for Noises Off.
Smyth and Miller have an indefatigable cast (stylishly costumed by Jeanne Reith) to work with, too: Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Brian Mackey, Charlene Wilkinson, Fran Gercke, Ross Hellwig, Jessica John, Cynthia Gerber, Jim Chovik and Omri Schein (the latter, alas, under-used here). The actors are having so much fun not taking any of this seriously that the audience can’t help but go along.
Noises Off concerns the staging in the 1970s of an English touring show by playwright “Robin Housemonger” provocatively titled Nothing On. Act One of Noises Off is weakened by a lot of arguably extraneous exposition and establishment of character. But Act Two, in which the “stage” is turned around and the Lamb’s audience sees the characters from a backstage perspective, is fast, furious and riotous. (Credit goes to scenic designer Mike Buckley and to the Lamb’s crew that moves things around during intermissions.) In Act Three, Nothing On comes all undone and silliness prevails.
Along the way, Mackey tumbles down stairs. Hellwig and Chovik lose their trousers. Gilmour Smyth sits in sardines. Wilkinson loses contact lenses and stares numbly into space. Gercke (as the show’s reluctant director) gesticulates as though guiding planes from runway to gate. There’s a total absence of tension or pretense, which accounts in part for Noises Off’s enduring charm and popularity. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 4/18/18.)
Men on Boats has to be the most exhausting show of the year to date. Not for audiences, which should be entertained by New Village Arts Theatre’s white-knuckle dramatization of an epic journey through churning waters into the Grand Canyon. But Men on Boats’ 10 actors, all of them women portraying men, tirelessly create the illusion of these adventurers challenging the wrath of the Green and Colorado rivers by miming rowing, by grunting, by shouting and flailing. The perspiration onstage is real.
Jaclyn Backhaus’ play, directed at NVA by Melissa Coleman-Reed, follows the 1869 quest of an intrepid four-boat crew led by one-armed explorer John Wesley Powell. The U.S. government-funded mission: to make the first successful passage by men of European descent through the treacherous waters of the Grand Canyon. Men on Boats chronicles this dangerous trip and does so with the device of an all-woman cast, including NVA Artistic Director Kristianne Kurner as Powell.
With nothing more than projections (by Melanie Chen Cole) of the rivers’ furious white water and towering red rocks (designed by Christopher Scott Murillo) behind them, Kurner and company ably achieve the impression of an adventure that would seem extremely difficult to suggest on a theater stage. It helps that the actors are in nearly perpetual motion and in a consistent state of full-throated excitement. As for the gender switch, it doesn’t on its face add any layering of understanding to the story, though the physicality of the actors demonstrates that no battle with nature is the province of one sex.
The steady Kurner is Men on Boats’ anchor; among the ensemble the most nuanced performance is delivered by Nancy Ross in the role of William H. Dunn, who recognizes the peril of the exploit, challenges Powell’s judgment and even comes close to crumbling.
Men on Boats is better at spectacle and ingenuity than it is at being a play. Its episodes are drawn out, its humor sometimes strained and its ending clunky, unsatisfying. There must be, however, only admiration for its director, who must navigate a cinematic story on a theater stage, and for the 10 women who give their all in a fashion that would have made Powell’s crew proud. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 4/11/18.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat