For a show with a limited premise –harried Brits forced to stand in for some Yank singers of cowboy ditties --- Chaps! packs plenty into its under two hours. The 1995 musical comedy by Jahnna Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner melds Monty Python-like physical comedy and one-liners with “A Prairie Home Companion” folksiness, while paying tribute to singing cowpokes like Gene Autry. As if that weren’t enough, the story, set at a BBC radio studio in 1944, unfolds with the threat of German bombs bursting in air above.
Somehow, all this comes together at Lamb’s Players Theatre under the direction of Robert Smyth. It does so not because Chaps! is any great shakes, but because the production relies on what Lamb’s does so very well: builds shows around intimate live-musical performance. (Its Once was a highlight of San Diego-area theater in 2018, and even its year-end Festival of Christmas was a musical delight.) The songs of Chaps! composed by everyone from Roy Rogers to Johnny Mercer may not be everyone’s cup of tea: They include “Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” “I’m An Old Cowhand,” “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle,” and “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds,” among others. But the actor-musicians in the cast – Steve Gouveia, Manny Fernandes, Caitie Grady and Charles Evans, Jr. – make the tunes a treat for even city slickers in the house.
While the setup of Chaps! would have been sufficient for a 10-minute skit, there are enough comic antics to divert in between the musical numbers. The funniest sight gag finds Fernandes pretending to perform ventriloquism with Evans dressed up as his dummy. Evans is a scene-stealer throughout, whether during this shtick or as Miles Shadwell, the BBC studio’s anxious, asthmatic producer.
It’s perhaps inevitable that in a comedy like this one, somebody would dress up in drag. Ross Hellwig, mustache be damned, dons the frippery of a saloon girl in Act 2. From the sidelines throughout, Arusi Santi provides cartoonish sound effects to create the impression that the “Tex Riley” show is happening on the radio, and Jeanne Reith’s western costumes for all are bright, bodacious and authentic.
Chaps! is slightly frantic but sweet sounding and family friendly. Not even World War II intrudes.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 3/20/19.)
As if the first year of college isn’t anxiety-inducing enough for California teen Lexi, she’s been sent off to the University of Connecticut by her mother with a cautionary urban legend planted in her head: there’s a serial killer with a hook for one hand who preys upon young women. Thanks, Mom.
Whether the murderous madman is real in UCSD MFA grad Lauren Yee’s “Hookman” is purposely ambiguous. But there’s no shortage of graphic evidence in the 2015 play that Yee has referred to as an “existentialist slasher comedy” that he exists, at the very least on the power of suggestion. Blood turns up everywhere – on clothing, on knives, on Lexi’s own hands. The Hookman, meanwhile, is a masked figure naturally dressed in black. Or is he just in Lexi's mind?
San Diego State’s School of Theatre, Television and Film is staging “Hookman” in association with Moxie Theatre under the direction of Moxie’s executive artistic director, Jennifer Eve Thorn. All the “Hookman” actors and crew members are SDSU undergrads or graduate students. “Hookman,” was actually workshopped in 2012 at UCSD’s Baldwin New Play Festival, the same year Moxie produced Yee’s “A Man, His Wife, and His Hat” (since retitled “The Hatmaker’s Wife”).
With all the stage blood and the one-act play’s cutting takes on college life, “Hookman” is undoubtedly a treat for the students involved. Kennedy Garcia, playing the lead role of Lexi, admirably carries the show, which is presented in SDSU’s rather awkward Experimental Theatre. Her fellow actors, for the most part, are mired in one-note “type” roles: the text-obsessed roommate, the self-involved blond girl, the slacker-sounding boyfriend.
The one supporting character who seems like a real person is Lexi’s best friend, Jess (Dominique Payne). A California flashback to a drive the two are taking from In-N-Out to the movies is “Hookman’s” hook. Jess ends up dead, killed by: A drunk driver? A murderer? Lexi’s reckless driving? The scene plays out three times in the makeshift chassis of a car onstage.
This ambiguity, it turns out, is necessary for Lexi’s self-examination and confrontation with her fragile psyche. Everything that goes down in “Hookman” in between these fateful car scenes, from a grisly murder (the show’s one true fright) to a quixotic encounter at a memorial for the dead Jess, is presented as enigmatic or surreal or both.
Further roiling the waters are Yee’s built-in musings on misplaced victimization, responsibility and culpability, and the complexities in general of trying to find one’s place as a young woman in the micro-society of college, one that can be unjust, high-pressure and even predatory. (Lexi confides to Jess, in one driving flashback: “I think I was raped.”) For existential heft, Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” is repeatedly name-dropped, too.
The issues raised are crucial ones, but there are way too many for a 70-minute play in which the visual effects inevitably cause the thoughtful reflections to lag by comparison. Ultimately, the answer to who or what the Hookman is will depend on which aspect of the production resonates most. (Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 3/19/19.)
Jeanna de Waal and Roe Hartampf in "Diana." Photo by Little Fang
A spirit of rebellious fun envelops the world-premiere musical Diana, which the “People’s Princess” might have well appreciated. What in lesser hands could have been conceived as a pious bore is just the opposite in La Jolla Playhouse’s production written by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan. This “biopic” of a musical chronicles in whirlwind fashion (that’s saying something in a two-hour, 30-minute show) the life of Lady Diana Spencer/Princess Diana of Wales with tongue quite often in cheek. Whether it’s portraying the paparazzi in all its predation (the tune “Snap, Click”) or the liberated Di retaliation-dancing in her famous F-U dress (“The Dress”), this production directed by the Playhouse’s Christopher Ashley shines brightest when it’s not taking itself too seriously.
The book by DiPietro leans heavily on the first stage of Diana’s (Jeanna de Waal) life, from her meeting with Prince Charles (Roe Hartampf) through their storied wedding, the birth of William and Harry, and up to the point where the princess realizes that her marriage is a sham and that Charles’ true love is the married Camilla Parker Bowles (Erin Davie). The post-divorce years do show Diana’s humanitarian efforts, but there’s no mention of boyfriend Dodi Fayed, and the accident that ended her life is treated briefly and very tastefully.
The musical score has its share of swelling ballads, to each of which the gifted de Waal brings credible passion. But the novelty numbers featuring the press and the dress, and one introducing the hunky James Hewitt with whom Diana had an affair, are the most memorable.
Judy Kaye does double duty as Queen Elizabeth and romance novelist Barbara Cartland, soaring over the top in the latter role, but who cares? Yet every performance except for de Waal’s is arguably eclipsed by William Ivey Long’s costume design, which in its attention to historical authenticity will blow away Diana fanatics and lifetime royals watchers.
With its gravitas taking a back seat to spectacle and flash, Diana may disappoint the reverent and the proprietary. For others who simply crave a couple hours of pure entertainment – Broadway, anyone? – this show is sure to please.
Hershey Felder in "Hershey Felder, Beethoven." Photo courtesy of San Diego Repertory Theatre
Much more than a kind of “Beethoven 101, “Hershey Felder’s one-man play with music (and what music!) is a thoughtfully immersive dramatization of the life of one of the world’s great musical geniuses. As he has done previously with other masters of the classical idiom (Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Liszt) and towering 20th century figures (George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein), Felder combines theatrical narrative and performance on an impeccable Steinway to chilling effect. Hershey Felder, Beethoven at the San Diego Repertory Theatre under the direction of Joel Zwick is a swift (90 minutes) but revealing portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven in all his tortured complexity.
Felder based this show’s narrative on a text by Gerhard von Breuning, the son of Beethoven’s lifelong friend, Stephan von Breuning (though the two were estranged for years) and briefly a student of Beethoven’s. Felder portrays both Gerhard von Breuning and Beethoven during the hour and a half onstage. Through them, he recounts the turbulent life of one of classical music’s titans: Beethoven’s abiding passion for his craft, his intuition for innovation, his defiance of convention and, all too early in his career, the onset of deafness.
Like with other Felder interpretations, this one transcends exposition because of the music. Among the beloved works of Beethoven performed are the “Emperor Concerto,” “Moonlight Sonata,” which Felder emphasizes was not a title chosen or favored by Beethoven, and, as a coda to the evening, “Fur Elise.”
Despite all that’s been written about Beethoven in nearly 200 years, much of his life, and certainly his death, is shrouded in myth. But the fascination with Beethoven, whether it be among musicologists, musicians or simply those who are moved by the works he created, is more potent than legend. Still, it’s a stunning moment when, in depicting Beethoven’s last moments on Earth, Felder rises up from the deathbed and shakes his fist at the heavens. Even if apocryphal, it’s a depiction of a man whose fierce, unyielding spirit (and perhaps anger) left an indelible mark on a world that though it cheated him of happiness was the beneficiary of the beauty he gave it.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 3/6/19.)
Richard Baird and Jessica John in "Gabriel" at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Photo by Aaron Rumley
Germany’s only occupation of the British Isles during World War II was of the Channel Islands, which included Guernsey off the coast of Normandy. That’s the setting for Moira Buffini’s Gabriel, a tense drama shrouded in mystery and dark secrets.
It’s 1943 and Jeanne Becquet (Jessica John), her young daughter Estelle (Catalina Zelles), her daughter-in-law Lily (Lilli Passero) and a housekeeper (Annabella Price) have been turned out of their home by the occupying Germans and forced to live in digs where half the time the power is out. Contemptuous of the occupiers but deft and pragmatic, Jeanne works the black market and keeps a predatory and pompous major named Von Pfunz (Richard Baird) on a string. Then into their lives comes a stranger, a body washed up on the shore, barely alive. Lily and Estelle nurse the handsome young man, who has no memory, back to health. The child calls him “Gabriel,” and the name sticks. But who he really is – a missing German SS man, a wayward Englishman with a terminal disease, a manifestation of Jeanne’s missing son, or an otherworldly angel befitting his “name” – is an open question and the catalyst for the play’s intrigue, intensity and raw emotion.
Christopher Williams directs North Coast Repertory Theatre’s West Coast premiere of Gabriel, which debuted way back in 1997. This is an anxious, suspenseful production, if at times glacially paced. Each major character requires considerable time to reveal himself or herself, and in the case of the mysterious Gabriel (Alan Littlehales) the question of whether there ever will be answers looms throughout.
There’s no question about the depth of the principal performances. Both John and Baird are first-rate, bringing to the fore the ambiguity and inscrutability of the complicated relationship between Jeanne and Von Pfunz. Meanwhile Passero, a newcomer to the North Coast Rep stage and a former finalist on NBC’s “The Voice,” balances strength and vulnerability as Lily, drawn as if in a magical dream to Gabriel while as a Jewish woman afraid for her very life in the presence of the Germans.
Though over two and a half hours in length, Gabriel is riveting and, from a historical perspective, haunting as well. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/27/18.)
Opal Alladin (left) and Avi Toque in "Tiny Beautiful Things." Photo by Jim Cox
Author Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice column ran for almost two years in the online literary magazine The Rumpus, and it was no “Dear Abby.” Both its inquiries and its answers were lengthy, sometimes painfully frank and, in the case of Strayed’s advice, delivered with literary aplomb. A subsequent book compiled from the “Dear Sugar” columns later became a one-act play adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos. Tiny Beautiful Things is getting its West Coast premiere in the Old Globe’s theater-in-the-round space.
Directed by James Vasquez, Opal Alladin bravely portrays Strayed, who responds to three supporting actors (Keith Powell, Dorcas Sowunmi and Avi Roque) portraying letter writers. The subject matter is frequently dark, even wrenching, with even one of “Sugar’s” own life stories just as horrifying. The play strives to soothe and succor, though as with real life, uneasiness pervades throughout.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/20/19.)
Teri Brown and Charles Peters in "Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune." Photo courtesy of OnStage Playhouse
For anyone who’s ever stayed up all night in the company of someone very special there’s Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. McNally’s genuine and intimate 1987 play tells the story of a first date between a short-order cook named Johnny and a waitress named Frankie that lasts until dawn, during which time the two characters figuratively and literally bare themselves to each other, and loneliness becomes new love.
At OnStage Playhouse the company’s artistic director, Teri Brown, is profoundly moving as Frankie, who wrapped up though she is in the hot sex isn’t sure about the deeper feelings coming from Johnny (Charles Peters, superb) or from inside herself. There isn’t a moment during Frankie and Johnny’s two engrossing hours that rings false, a testament to not only McNally’s words but to the performers and to the director of this production, Jennifer Peters (Charles’ wife). It’s easy to believe that the little Chula Vista stage is a New York studio apartment, that the unseen neighbors in the next building are in abusive or dead marriages, and that, in a nod to hope, Frankie and Johnny have found their soulmates.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/20/19.)
The shadow of death darkens the already limited daylight of fictitious Bethlehem, Alaska, in Diversionary Theatre’s world-premiere presentation of Miranda Rose Hall’s The Hour of Great Mercy. Marrieds Maggie and Roger are grieving the loss of their daughter Rachel, accidentally killed in a hunting accident by her female lover, who later committed suicide. Maggie (Dana Case) tries to cope by teaching gun-safety classes and clutching a self-help book as if it were a Bible. Roger (Tom Stephenson), who believes his daughter was murdered by her lover, has channeled his grief into bitterness, rage and hatred, broadcasting it to the Bethlehem few from the shed he’s converted into a one-man volunteer radio station.
When Roger’s brother Ed (Andrew Oswald), a Jesuit priest who’s on Roger’s hate list for having memorialized both Rachel and her lover, turns up in Bethlehem, he has numbing news: He’s been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and plans to shoot himself to death “by the river.” The river, of course, will loom metaphorically throughout The Hour of Great Mercy, in words and song.
Complicating the circumstances but providing uplift is Ed’s encountering a young nurse named Joseph (Patrick Mayuyu) in the church where they’ve both gone to pray. They quickly fall in love, and when Roger scorns Ed’s gentle plea to reconcile their family ties, Joseph becomes both Ed’s lover and caretaker. For almost total comic relief there is unfiltered, plain-spoken Irma (Eileen Rivera), who’s connected to almost everyone in some way and who milks all the humor in the play’s portrayal of Catholic ritual.
Though Hall’s storytelling is packed with intimations about forgiveness, the fragility of life, and, blatantly, the complications of spiritual faith, The Hour of Great Mercy is a showcase for a couple of exceptional performances. Oswald’s, especially in the second act when Ed is in the throes of his insidious disease, is subtly powerful. Inhabiting the devastated Roger, Stephenson’s tortured silences are as startling as his eruptions. Rosina Reynolds directs a production that is best when immersed in its contemplative moments and not trying to be ironical or, as with Irma, so in search of easy laughs.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/13/19.)
Wandachristine (left), Lucas Hall and Zakiya Young in "Familiar." Photo by J.T. McMillan
Whether on the screen or on the stage, tales about planning for a wedding, with all the requisite chaos and familial infighting, can be trite. Familiar is not trite. That’s because actor-playwright Danai Gurira’s wedding story onstage at the Old Globe Theatre is both sensitive and substantive. Heritage and tradition are at odds with assimilation and midwestern comforts in the home (a cozy design by Walt Spangler) of Donald and Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Danny Johnson and Cherene Snow), whose daughter Tendi (Zakiya Young) is about to be married. Encouraged by her fiercely traditional Auntie Anne (Wandachristine), Tendi has opted for a pre-wedding Zimbabwe ritual. The consternation that ensues, mainly from Marvelous, results in a lot of shouting and many genuinely funny lines.
Familiar even boasts its moments of physical comedy, most physical of all at the very end of Act I. The play, directed by Edward Torres, does turn solemn in the second act, when a big reveal completely alters the tone, yet allows Johnson and Snow to deliver the show’s two most impassioned orations.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/6/19.)
Dana Lee (left) and Brian Kim in "Aubergine." Photo by Jim Carmody
Musings on the association between food, memories and emotions are nothing new. Nor are ruminations on death. In this sense, Julia Cho’s Aubergine explores no uncharted territory. But in spite of its familiarities, her dignified play about a dying father and the disconnected son attending him (with the help of a philosopher-king hospice nurse) is a graceful, ruminative piece. Toward its conclusion, Aubergine (the word means eggplant) postulates that, among other things, “death is food.” The two, one tangible the other anything but, are woven into the story of Ray (Brian Kim) and his father (Dana Lee) at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
Director Todd Salovey oversees a production that while heavy on platitudes (most of them coming from the hospice nurse, Lucien (Terrell Donnell Sledge), relies on the lyricism of Cho’s writing and earnest performances from its ensemble, which also includes Audrey Park, Yong Kin and Amanda Sitton. While the audience-facing monologues interspersing Ray’s story feel manufactured, their messages are heartfelt.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/6/19.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat