Aaron Lugo and Allison MacDonald in "All My Sons." Photograph by Daren Scott
Having opened its 35th season earlier this year with a rousing production of the parodic musical Xanadu, Chula Vista’s OnStage Playhouse goes in a very different direction with Arthur Miller’s sobering family drama All My Sons. This staging is less memorable than that of Xanadu, but the enduring acuity of Miller’s play ultimately carries the day.
OnStage is presenting All My Sons, directed by James P. Darvas, in significantly remodeled confines, including more comfortable seats (imported, OnStage aristic director Teri Brown confided, all the way from Ohio). The cozy Midwest backyard setting, designed by Jadelin Boldenow, extends white picket fence and all practically to the first row of seats, guaranteeing that anyone in any of the three rows is close to the drama.
Drama it is, too, in this play, which evolves proddingly but delivers a gut punch before it is through. The now-on-hiatus Intrepid Theatre Company mounted a tremendous All My Sons four years ago and was rightly honored by the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle for Outstanding Dramatic Production for that calendar year. OnStage’s All My Sons is much more rapidly paced than Intrepid’s, clocking in at less than two hours (though it’s a three-act play), and at times it seems to rush through Miller’s piquant dialogue. While stagings of All My Sons can be overly ponderous, this one should be slowed down just a tad.
The story concerns the household of Joe and Kate Keller in the post-wartime late’40s. Kate (beautifully played here by Allison MacDonald) longs for the return of her missing son, Larry, whom she fiercely believes will return to her despite everyone else’s resigned belief that he was killed in the war. Her denial, however, pales beside that of Joe (Mark Solz, stiff in Act One, more aptly explosive later), who harbors a deadly “secret” that almost everyone already knows. Tensions mount as the Kellers’ surviving son, Chris (Aaron Lugo, along with MacDonald the most touching among the cast), brings to town Larry’s former fiancée, Ann (Emily Candia), whom he now intends to wed.
The notion of culpability hovers over the entire story, and that of forgiveness is grudging. But even in 2018, this reflects the path that life, including among families, often takes.
All My Sons runs through Oct. 13 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. $20-$25; onstageplayhouse.org
Katie Rose Clark and Matt Doyle (with microphonnes) in "The Heart of Rock & Roll." Photo by Jim Cox
Among the questions confronting bar-band Bobby, the likable hero of the Huey Lewis and the News-inspired jukebox musical The Heart of Rock & Roll, is: Is it hip to be square? Is it better to be an exec with a cardboard-box company than to be a big-time rocker? The answer would seem a no-brainer, but then Bobby’s got some extenuating circumstance that comprise the storyline of this world-premiere show at the Old Globe Theatre.
The good-timey, decidedly non-anarchic hits of Lewis and the News are a comfortable fit for an aspiring Broadway musical. Not only are the tunes themselves – mostly chestnuts from the ‘80s – bright and sing-able, but thanks to the show’s writers, Jonathan A. Abrams and Tyler Mitchell, they’re also easily integrated into the narrative. Besides “Hip to Be Square,” favorites such as “Workin’ for a Livin,” “Do You Believe in Love,” “If This Is it” and the title song function just as if they were crafted for the stage. But make no mistake: This is not American Idiot. The Heart of Rock & Roll is safe and satisfying, the kind of good time Huey Lewis and the News ensured in concerts and for viewers of their MTV-driven videos.
No one in the story itself is really a heavy. Everyone’s got some wholesome good in them, even the superficial wannabe beau (Billy Harrigan Tighe) of lovely Cassie Stone (Katie Rose Clarke), the cardboard-box CEO who Bobby (Matt Doyle) falls for. It’s inevitable that the “Power of Love” will win out. A superb comic turn by Orville Mendoza as eccentric business magnate Harrison Fjord adds considerably to the non-musical portions of the show.
All the stage bells and whistles are on display in this Globe production directed by Gordon Greenberg. The versatile set (designed by Derek McLane) shifts impressively from dive bar to product-convention floor to Chicago’s Navy Pier, and more. Lorin Latarro’s choreography is likewise inspired, in one sequence employing bubble wrap as a dance floor.
One’s affection for and familiarity with the songs of Huey Lewis and the News may ultimately determine enjoyment of The Heart of Rock & Roll. Then again, there’s a lot to like about a big, splashy show that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
(Review originally published 9/19/18 in San Diego CityBeat.)
Wendy Waddell (left) and Kate Rose Reynolds in "Communicating Doors." Photo courtesy of Scripps Ranch Theatre
Door No. 3 is the one to keep an eye on in Scripps Ranch Theatre’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors. Though its very presence in the story is infuriatingly never explained, this door is a portal back and forth in time through which three women travel: a dominatrix (Kate Rose Reynolds) and the wives (Wendy Waddell and Sibongile Ngako) of an unscrupulous businessman (Charles Peters). If this all sounds quite confusing, imagine how the characters feel transporting from one era to another. Confused though they may be, they’re also sharp enough to figure out a couple of murder plots (which, if allowed to play out, would prove fatal to them).
Unfortunately, Communicating Doors doesn’t stop there. Besides being a genuinely creepy suspense tale, it also tries to be a comedy, sometimes of the sheer slapstick variety. In so doing, the play, though gamely performed, never definitively establishes what it wants to be.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/12/18.)
Joanna Strapp (left) and Teagan Rose in "Blithe Spirit." Photo courtesy of North Coast Rep
Noel Coward was a wordsmith of unparalleled wit and flamboyance. It’s his deliciously cutting language that distinguishes Blithe Spirit, the perpetually produced farcical comedy about a man engaged in “astral bigamy.” Charles Condomine (what a name) is curious about the occult. The hapless spiritualist he engages to satisfy that curiosity with a seance unwittingly resurrects in ghostly form his dead wife, Elvira. This proves most intolerable to Charles’ present wife, Ruth, though he himself comes to fancy the idea of having two wives.
This veddy English trifle (though it’s a two-hour, 40-minute trifle) opens North Coast Repertory Theatre’s 37th season. Theirs is a game cast directed by Rosina Reynolds, with J. Todd Adams quick and sputtering as George, Joanna Strapp simmering and exasperated as Ruth, and Teagan Rose charming as could be as ghostly Elvira. However elegantly written, however, the three-act Blithe Spirit rambles on and on. Its scenes with spiritualist Madame Arcati (Susan Denaker) are excessive, and the Charles vs. Ruth confrontations repetitive. Happily, Coward’s intended spirit of playfulness never recedes.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/12/18.)
Ro Boddie stars in "Every Brilliant Thing." Photo by Ken Jacques
Nine times out of ten, a theatrical production that leans heavily on audience participation is annoying. Non-actors cannot act. They’re even worse at improvisation. That being said, Cygnet Theatre’s Every Brilliant Thing is not annoying. It’s not brilliant, though Ro Boddie, the endearing and indefatigable star of the 90-minute solo show, comes damned close.
In this play adapted from a short story, “brilliant” does not mean blindingly intelligent. In British parlance, “brilliant” means wonderful, and Every Brilliant Thing was written by Englishman Duncan Macmillan along with Dublin-born comedian Jonny Donahoe. In the hands of Boddie and director Rob Lutfy, Every Brilliant Thing transcends its British roots. It’s a story for the world, effusively told, and bearing the message that life is worth living. For a million reasons.
That’s how many “brilliant things” Boddie’s unnamed master of ceremonies lists during the show, everything from “ice cream” to “hugs” to “laughing so hard something comes out your nose.” The impetus for the list is his character’s mother’s attempted suicides, which haunt him from childhood through his 20s and beyond.
The novelty of this production is audience recruitment and engagement. Pre-show, Boddie circulates in the Old Town Theatre lobby and chooses participants, who during Every Brilliant Thing are called upon for tasks as minor as shouting out something on the list when prompted, or as conspicuous as portraying, by speaking lines fed to them or spontaneously, people in the narrator’s life. The success of all this depends on each performance’s audience members. In any situation, Boddie is poignant and unflappable, and so tireless that at one point he even runs around the theater giving everyone in the crowd a high-five.
It seems like Every Brilliant Thing would work just as well with sound effects and screen projections, thereby avoiding potentially awkward “performances” by patrons, they who undoubtedly enjoy these bits more than do non-participatory theatergoers. Whatever its devices, however, Every Brilliant Thing honestly confronts the incomprehensibility of suicide while affirming the priceless value of living.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/5/18.)
Jesse J. Perez in "Seize the King." Photo courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse
At one point in Seize the King, playwright Will Power’s reimagination of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard makes a pointed distinction between “not the truth” and a “lie.” He also rails against immigrants and insists on the loyalty of those in his sphere. If that characterization bears resemblance to someone currently occupying a position of great power, it’s purely intentional. But Power’s new play, making its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, also honors The Bard’s 16th-century treatise on the struggle between goodness and evil in an adaptation of Richard III that is bold, exciting and propulsive.
Power, who is a pioneer of hip-hop theater, has turned Shakespeare’s second-lengthiest work (after Hamlet) into an urgent, 95-minute play that ingeniously mixes the formal language of Richard III and a contemporary, streetwise vernacular replete with fast-flying metaphors and profanities. The end result is a sharp, lyrical script that blurs the line between the past and the present, while positing that ambition and depravity are not the province of merely one king, one country or one moment in time.
Seize the King marks the last Playhouse directing stint for Jaime Castaneda, its outgoing associate artistic director, who’s headed to L.A. It’s a grand finale for him, with a tight five-person cast fronted by Jesse J. Perez. His Richard is not the odious, deformed king of classical interpretations, but a conniving, devious figure who levelly addresses the audience, and whose basest passions simmer beneath the surface.
Power’s play omits a great deal of Shakespeare’s text and interweavings, and many of Richard III’s characters (all but Perez play multiple parts in Seize the King). This is a Richard III for the 21st century served up with more humor, but with the same cautionary themes and no less ferocity. Much of that ferocity comes from drummer Richard Sellers, whose percussion from above the stage provides transitions between Seize the King’s short scenes and fills the Playhouse’s Potiker Theatre with pulsating dramatic tension.
The theater-in-the-round setting, enhanced by the magic of lighting designer Tyler Micoleau, further ensures that Seize the King is a stirring, immersive show, and one that should not be missed.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/29/18.)
Jessica John and Brian Mackey in "Smokefall." Photo by Daren Scott
The worlds of playwright Noah Haidle’s “Smokefall” are disparate and inscrutable. Act I (titled “Help Me Remember”) unfolds in a Grand Rapids, Mich., that smacks of David Lynch’s fictitious Twin Peaks, Wash. It’s a baleful place where an old man’s fading memory is only one of multiple family disturbances. Act II (“Where We’ll Never Grow Up”) is set in inside the womb of pregnant wife Violet. The unborn twins residing there could best be described as metaphysical vaudevillians. Then there’s Act III (“The Attempt Is How We Live”), occurring more than 70 years in the future, yet somewhere in which the past and the present converge.
In short, 3-year-old Backyard Renaissance could not have picked a more ambitious work to launch its tenure as La Jolla Playhouse’s resident theater company. “Smokefall,” which premiered five years ago at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, is as challenging a play for audiences as it undoubtedly must be for the Backyard Renaissance cast (Jessica John, Brian Mackey, Francis Gercke, Antonio TJ Johnson and Fedra Ramirez Olivares) directed by Gercke and Andrew Oswald. But in spite of this complex yet literate play’s mind games, it does make for absorbing theater.
In the Grand Rapids household, the expectant Violet (Jessica John) goes about her familial duties with resolute smiles, though an aura of sadness envelops her. Husband Daniel (Gercke) is haunted by “malaise and dread,” which foretells his pending departure. Traumatized daughter Beauty (Ramirez Olivares) does not speak, and she subsists on non-nutritious “food” including dirt and paint. The Colonel (Johnson), Violet’s father, is drifting toward dementia. All this is imparted less by the characters themselves than by the onstage presence of a narrator (Mackey), whose spoken “footnotes” provide back story and context. It’s an intrusive device that is the play’s one tangible weakness, though the narrator’s words do demonstrate Haidle’s eloquence and insight into love, loss and the perpetual mystery of time.
The ominous tone of the first act is soon washed over by the in-womb antics of Act II. Mackey and Gercke as the unborn twin brothers, each clad in argyle sweaters and matching socks, and attached to neon-glowing umbilical cords, banter like bratty but extraordinarily cerebral kids. Theirs is a nearly slapstick, noogy-filled battle of philosophical existentialism. This debate will have shocking consequences before the third act, when in a less fantastical but equally exigent milieu, the question of whether the course of a life is genetically predetermined is confronted.
As the Colonel and later as the aged incarnation of one of the twins, Johnson has the meatiest part in the production, and duly brings the passion and poignancy. John “speaks” expressively with her eyes and benumbed smiles, subtly conveying Violet’s struggle against melancholy. Gercke and Mackey come most alive when wildly in utero together, while Ramirez Olivares melds tender and haunted as the story’s seeker, Beauty.
Incongruous and even preachy as it can be at times, “Smokefall” is a risky and venturesome play produced by a company that espouses “gutsy intensity” in its mission statement. Mission accomplished.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 8/27/18.)
No work of Shakespeare’s has been staged at the Old Globe as many times as Much Ado About Nothing – 13 as a matter of fact in the Balboa Park theater’s 83-year history. This should come as no surprise. Either Much Ado or Twelfth Night must be regarded as The Bard’s most entertaining comedy.
The Globe’s latest production of Much Ado About Nothing, the capper of the 2018 Summer Shakespeare Festival, is a total audience pleaser from start to curtain. Directed by Kathleen Marshall, who oversaw a well-received Love’s Labor’s Lost at the festival two years ago, this Much Ado starts with an exceptional Beatrice and Benedick, the sniping, reluctant lovers at the heart of the story. Both Sarah Topham and Michael Hayden demonstrate a gift for physical humor as well as snappy repartee, with much of their laughs earned by scampering about the lush Italian estate set in order to remain unseen by those characters gossiping for their benefit. While the play’s other pair of lovers, Claudio (Carlos Angel-Barajas) and Hero (Morgan Taylor) are attractive/nothing more, the supporting cast includes a stentorian-voiced Leonato in Rene Thornton Jr., a hapless constable Dogberry in Fred Applegate and two gypsy musicians (guitarist James Michael McHale and violinist Abigail Grace Allwein) who provide atmospheric music compatible with the production’s 1930s, Italian Riviera setting.
So inviting is John Lee Beatty’s scenic design – a sunny two-story villa accented in turquoise, with a view inside downstairs of an elegant dining room, and airy balconies above overlooking a courtyard of bubbling fountains – that theatergoers will long to be guests at the play’s masked party or weddings – yes, there’s more than one ceremony here. In Michael Krass’ costumes, everyone who’s supposed to looks divine for the 1930s, and Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting sets the right mood for all of Much Ado’s dalliances, deceptions and flirtations.
If the musicality of this production falls in love with itself by show’s end, this can be forgiven. All misunderstandings are resolved by that time, and unabashed giddiness is in the night air.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/22/18.)
Joy Yvonne Jones (left) and Cashae Monya in "Voyeurs de Venus." Photo courtesy of Moxie Theatre
The story of Saartjie Baartman is horrific. A Khoikhoi woman who lived in southwestern Africa around the turn of the 19th century, she would leave her native country upon a British trafficker’s promise of making money for a better life, only to become a victim of exploitation, degradation and all manners of abuse. She would be turned into a sideshow humiliation: the “Hottentot Venus.” Baartman’s body, in particular her backside, were sexualized for the titillation and gawking of white Europeans. Even after her premature death, Baartman’s body would be victimized, turned into another kind of exhibition that demeaned her physicality and her soul.
Fittingly, Lydia R. Diamond’s 2006 “Voyeurs de Venus,” which launches Moxie Theatre’s 14th season, opens with a nightmare: not one to torment Baartman, who must have endured many, but young Sara Washington, who awakens terrified. For the 21st-century cultural anthropologist (Cashae Monya), this is a premonition, dramatized onstage like all of her bad dreams to come in a feverish dance sequence choreographed by Michael Mizerany.
“Voyeurs de Venus” reunites three principals from Moxie’s powerful production of “The Bluest Eye” five years ago. Diamond wrote the stage adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel; Moxie co-founder Delicia Turner Sonnenberg directed; and Monya fronted a stellar cast. With “Voyeurs de Venus,” Turner Sonnenberg, Moxie’s former artistic director, has conceived an uncompromising, visceral theater experience that is very much in keeping with the pain and tumult that inhabited Baartman’s tragic life.
Diamond’s lengthy play flits back and forth in time, telling Baartman’s story in the early 1800s and that of Sara, an exuberant, scrupulous academic who is offered a lucrative book deal to tell the “Venus Hottentot” story in an “entertaining” fashion. Her anguish and (though she’s loath to admit it) guilt over the possibility of exploiting Baartman are exacerbated to dramatic effect by the spirit of the Khoikhoi woman (Joy Yvonne Jones) sometimes literally over her shoulder, by the recurring dance nightmares (most, but not all, essential to the narrative), and by an affair with her publisher (Cortez L. Johnson). When Sara isn’t navigating these internal and interpersonal riptides, she’s speaking directly to the audience (once, with the house lights up), providing a window into this conflicted character’s intelligence and conscience.
Monya renders a fearless, charismatic performance, with Jones a mesmerizing presence as Baartman. The 1800s flashback scenes are stagier. Fred Harlow has the one-note role of the trafficker Dunlop, while Justin Lang, who in the contemporary scenes plays Sara’s supportive husband, holds nothing back as the odious Georges Cuvier, the “founding father of paleontology” who would later reduce Baartman’s remains to a “scientific” freak show.
As commentary, “Voyeurs de Venus” aspires to indictments on race, objectification, identity, cultural appropriation and even gentrification -- a daunting order, to be sure, for one play. As stark drama told with urgency, “Voyeurs de Venus” is a reminder of man’s inhumanity to woman, and indeed to all who are devalued and disrespected for nothing more than being human.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 8/20/18.)
Hairspray may be environmentally problematic, but when it comes to social responsibility, Hairspray the Broadway musical has been delivering an important message for more than 15 years: that inclusion should be a matter of course and diversity should be embraced. Filmmaker John Waters was trying to make these points 30 years ago when his “Hairspray” movie was released and became a cult favorite if not a commercial success. With the arrival of the musical adaptation in 2002, which Waters signed off on, the messaging was wrapped in an audience-pleasing score by Mark Shaiman with lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittmann bursting with teen rebellion, sexual innuendo and pop-cultural nods to the story’s setting in 1962 Baltimore.
The winning formula of song, dance, comedy and conscience persists in San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of Hairspray, directed by J. Scott Lapp. In spite of the Horton Grand Theatre’s uneven acoustics and a stage cramped for dance numbers of this show’s size, SDMT’s cast mines all this show’s empathic and joyful moments. It starts, as productions of Hairspray, always do, with an uproarious Edna Turnblad, a woman of great girth always played by a man. SDMT’s Edna is John Massey, who doesn’t disappoint. “She” has a veteran of local musical theater, Steve Gunderson, playing Edna’s joke-shop-owning hubby Wilbur. Bethany Slomka makes an, ahem, big impression as daughter Tracy, who in longing to perform on a teenage dance show on TV, takes up the cause of racial discrimination.
This Hairspray is populated by a slew of dependable musical-theater performers including Eileen Bowman as Velma Von Tussle, Zackary Scot Wolfe as TV host Corny Collins, and Debra Wanger, who makes the most of a small part. The ensemble as a whole is diverse and athletic during Hairspray’s dance numbers, choreographed by Jill Gorrie.
While Hairspray’s commentary remains unfortunately relevant, its early-‘60s name-dropping will escape younger theatergoers, those for whom Eddie Fisher, Perry Como and the Gabor sisters are head-scratchers. But patrons of all ages should appreciate the notions of love and acceptance of who we and others are. Unlike bows and plaid skirts, those never go out of style.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/15/18.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat