"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.)
Qurrat Ann Kadwani in "Intrusion."
The 18tth San Diego International Fringe Festival winds up this weekend at multiple venues downtown. Here are a couple of offerings I caught on Friday, both of which you can see yourself before the festival is over:
• Qurrat Ann Kadwani’s one-woman show “Intrusion” envisions a society 20 years from now in which rape has been educated and legislated out of existence. Then – a rape occurs, and all the fury and pain believed to have been banished forever resurfaces. In her one-hour performance, Kadwani portrays multiple characters, including a frustrated prosecutor, a theory-spouting psychologist,, a smarmy politician and even a frightened third-grader. “Intrusion” is intense and laden with uncompromising messages about the objectification and victimization of women, as well as the elusiveness of justice. The sight lines aren’t the best at the Bristol Hotel Fringe venue, but you can see clearly the truths Kadwani makes starkly evident.
“Intrusion” will be performed today, Saturday June 30, at 9 p.m. at the Bristol Hotel.
• “Bunny,” presented by Portland’s Prismagic, is a combination of acrobatics, magic and comedy (there’s even a brief moment of nudity), all crammed into about 35 minutes at the Lyceum Space in Horton Plaza. It’s whimsical circus-like entertainment that features “bunnies,” but never does the obvious of pulling one out of a hat. The recorded music accompanying the antics, however, is way too loud.
“Bunny” will be performed tomorrow, July 1, at 11:30 a.m. in the Lyceum Space, Horton Plaza.
Michelle Marie Trester in "Romeo, Romeo & Juliet." Photo by Daren Scott
Anything that pumps new life into the timeworn Romeo & Juliet is welcome. Not only is Shakespeare’s most famous love story a staple on world stages and in high school auditoriums alike, but the lovers tragedy has been filmed and adapted and reinvented to death. The balcony scene has become a literary cliché.
But there’s good news. That very balcony scene provides the backdrop for zany romantic tension in playwright Ruff Yeager’s farcical Romeo, Romeo & Juliet, a presentation of the Roustabouts Theatre, of which Yeager is a co-founder. His play is not a retelling of R&J but a triangular love story about a summer stock production of Romeo & Juliet somewhere on Cape Cod. In the course of rehearsal, principally of that balcony scene, passions simmer to the fore. Nancy (Michelle Marie Trester), who is playing Juliet, is a prattling goody two shoes from St. George, Utah, whose only vice is Sprite soda. But her naivete blossoms into lust for Tracy (Michael Silberblatt), who is playing Romeo. She is unaware that he’s gay and has himself fallen for the show’s neurotic director, Simon (Brian Mackey). Pop-eyed complications ensue in this briskly paced offering directed by Kim Strassburger.
While the story doesn’t deliver any particular surprises, the actors bring their best to the telling. Mackey, a standout already this year in Lamb’s Players Theatre’s wacky Noises Off, executes physical comedy like few others in town. Silberblatt is a graduate of the Coronado School of Arts with a resume that includes King Lear at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Making his local debut with the Roustabouts, he makes clear his intuition for Shakespeare’s exquisite language amid the fun. Partly because her character is the only one who changes during the course of Romeo, Romeo & Juliet and partly because she’s just so out there as Nancy, Trester is the rightful star of this production. Her bosom-clutching, soda-sipping Mormon girl is a genuine treat.
The Roustabouts are staging Romeo, Romeo & Juliet on at Moxie Theatre on a set designed to look like an old barn, which in the play is being employed as a rehearsal space. That every character yearns for a roll in the hay there is half the fun. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/27/18.)
Asian Story Theatre's "There and Home Again: More Stories from the Sun Cafe."
The 18tth San Diego International Fringe Festival is under way in multiple venues downtown. Some highlights from the first weekend:
• Asian Story Theatre’s “There and Home Again: More Stories from the Sun Café” is a poignant and personal piece that is part history lesson, part dramatic re-enactments. In a gripping hour of vignettes, the company’s talented cast covers a lot of ground, from the Japanese-American internment camps to the fledgling days of San Diego’s downtown neighborhoods. Historic images projected on a screen and iconic music from the ‘40s accompany much of the storytelling in the intimate (though acoustically challenged) Geoffrey theater space inside the Spreckels. But “There and Home Again …” is foremost a family story, with the bygone (at least in its original conception) Sun Café the home base for tales of love and sacrifice and perseverance.
“There and Home Again: More Stories from the Sun Café” will be performed again on Tuesday, June 26, at 6 p.m., and Saturday, June 30, at 7:30 p.m.
• “The Magic in This Soul” is Blindspot Collective’s treatise on discrimination, adapted from more than 100 interviews that local high school students conducted with members of San Diego communities – in particular those marginalized or victimized by the ignorant, small-minded and hate-filled. In the one-hour production directed by Blake McCarty, 10 Blindspot performers tell the stories of those judged and oppressed because of the color of their skin, their sexual preference or gender identification, or because of a disability. In the age of the Trump presidency, their true stories are all the more heart-rending. Trump should see “The Magic in This Soul.” So should you.
“The Magic in This Soul” will be performed again Wednesday, June 27, at 9 p.m., Friday, June 29, at 9 p.m. and Saturday, June 30, at 7:30 p.m., all in the Lyceum Space at the San Diego Rep.
• Performer Tyler West says barely a word in his pantomime-heavy one-man show “Abeyance,” but he doesn’t really need to. He’s that skilled at sounding like a gurgling water cooler or making you believe he’s out on the ledge of a tall building with pigeons perched on every appendage of his body. The most fun comes when the tireless West recruits audience members to improv a few bits with him, so be prepared to be recruited if you attend one of his two remaining shows at the Bristol Hotel on First Avenue.
“Abeyance” will be performed again on Saturday, June 30, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, July 1, at 4 p.m.
• Audience participation is also inevitable, but even more fun than at “Abeyance,” in mind reader Mark Toland’s show in the Geoffrey. Amazing is the only way to describe the things Toland pulls off in a fast-moving exhibition of telepathy, with attendees as subjects. Toland’s also a quick wit, which should entertain even the most stubborn skeptics. But by the end of his show, you probably will be a believer yourself.
“Mark Toland: Mind Reader” will be performed again on Tuesday, June 26, at 9 p.m., Friday, June 29, at 9 p.m., and Saturday, June 30, at 4 p.m.
Have fun at the Fringe! It’s a San Diego summertime tradition that puts Comic-Con to shame.
:Left to right: Brian Salmon, R. David Robinson and D.W. Jacobs in "Uranium + Peaches." Photo by Melissa Jacobs / Salk Institute
How might the world be different today had the United States not dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in August of 1945? That’s one of many provocative questions raised by “Uranium + Peaches,” a new play by Peter Cook and William Lanouette which received its world premiere performance last Thursday at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla. Lanouette is the author of “A Biography of Leo Szilard, the Man Behind the Bomb,” and Szilard is one of three characters in the play based on a real-life meeting in Spartanburg, S.C. in which Szilard, a protégé of Einstein’s, and Manhattan Project chemist Harold Urey tried in vain to dissuade President Harry Truman’s adviser Jimmy Byrnes from sanctioning the use of the newly developed A-bomb on Japanese cities.
The one-act “Uranium + Peaches” was staged in the Salk Institute’s Conrad T. Prebys Auditorium under the direction of Delicia Turner-Sonnenberg, one of the best in San Diego theater. Her cast: Brian Salmon as the cocky, faux-gracious Jimmy Byrnes; D.W. Jacobs as the caustic Urey; and R. David Robinson portraying Szilard, who goes from plaintive to desperate to sadly resigned by the end of the fruitless meeting in South Carolina. The June 21 performance was a staged reading, with the actors still on book, and only Salmon was able to make the audience forget about the presence of scripts. But the tense drama, a bit over an hour in length, has possibilities, for the gravity of its subject is undeniable and the history it recounts is haunting given the consequences – in August of 1945 and in the years since.
"The Squirrels," a world-premiere black comedy, at La Jolla Playhouse. Photo by Jim Carmody
Squirrels are neither cute little critters nor scavenging tree rats in Robert Askins’ allegorical play “The Squirrels.” What they are is human at humankind’s worst: conniving, combative, even racist. This depiction makes for a gnawing black comedy with actors sorta clad as squirrels engaging in lust and bloodlust all for the want of nuts. Naturally, this signifies more, but Askins’ script is smart enough to resist easy contemporary illusions. In fact, there’s a sense of traditional Greek drama in the portrayal of his warring Gray and Fox Squirrels, and, turning Elizabethan, the play’s tragicomic despot figure (a Gray Squirrel named Scurius) suffers a Lear-like deterioration.
La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of this new work by Askins, best-known for the outlandish Hand to God, is brisk, loud and mildly graphic. Director Christopher Ashley’s ensemble includes Candy Buckley, the reason to see last year’s Kill Local at the Playhouse, and Broadway veteran Brad Oscar, The Squirrels’ antagonist who doubles as an emcee/scientist. Unfortunately, the 85 minutes it takes to make Askins’ sociopolitical points is excessive, even for a one-act show. That leaves a story populated by characters that frolic and shout a lot, but the laugh lines (enough already with the mucking jokes) are strained. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/20/18.)
Once is an utterly beautiful musical experience, and a Broadway show (it won eight Tonys at the 2012 awards) that connects all the more in the comparatively intimate confines of Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado. It’s there, under the skillful direction of Kerry Meads and the musical direction of G. Scott Lacy, that this wistful musical makes everyone Irish for a day. Set in Dublin, Once is an unapologetically sentimental tale about love and believing in oneself an in others. Catie Grady portrays the Czech girl who inspires an uncertain Irish singer-songwriter (Michael Louis Cusimano) to artistic heights, and they fall into a love that can never be. Both, but especially Grady, are moving and magnetic presences on the Lamb’s stage, singing and playing instruments like the rest of the sizable cast.
The exquisite music and lyrics of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, consisting of brooding ballads and rousing band numbers alike, outshines Once’s mostly predictable story (based on the 2007 film). That’s fine. This is a production to be savored on a visceral more than a cerebral level, and one to be celebrated too. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/20/18.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat