"Cambodian Rock Band" at La Jolla Playhouse. Photo by Jim Carmody
“Cambodian Rock Band” is a stirring work of theater that comes along not nearly enough. Its intuition for creating moments on the stage is keen, its comingling of insight and emotion rare. What Lauren Yee’s play may accomplish most artfully, however, is juxtaposing tragedy on both a mass and an intimate scale with a celebration of music at its most cathartic and redemptive.
Yee is a 2012 MFA graduate of UCSD’s Department of Theatre and Dance and one of the hottest playwright in the country. It’s fitting that her “Cambodian Rock Band,” which she says was inspired by first hearing the Cambodian and American band Dengue Fever during her student years, is onstage at La Jolla Playhouse on the UCSD campus. The play-with-music was commissioned by the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Orange County, where it opened to raves last year. The Playhouse staging, directed by Chay Yew, is a co-production with Portland Center Stage at the Armory.
Songs by the L.A.-based Dengue Fever are featured in “Cambodian Rock Band” and are performed by the cast members. Jangly and propulsive, the music is an urgent and atmospheric amalgam of ‘60s surf rock, garage rock and psychedelia.
As immersive as the live music is, the story of “Cambodian Rock Band” – a young woman (Brooke Ishibashi) named Neary in Phnom Penh working to bring to justice a Khmer Rouge war criminal (Daisuke Tsuji) – is taut with human drama. Neary’s father Chum (Joe Ngo) surprises her at her hotel, and soon a long-kept secret about his past in his native Cambodia comes to the fore. He tells his story in Act 2, when the full depth of the Khmer Rouge brutality is laid bare.
Ngo’s performance, both with and without an electric guitar, is an unforgettable one.
The brilliance of “Cambodian Rock Band” is its facility for shifting but also sustaining mood while never straying from its conscience and soul or from the cautionary messages it imparts. The potency of Cambodia’s music is an affirmation of a people’s survival and courage in the face of humanity at its worst. So too is the love between a parent and child demonstrated as transcendent and unbreakable.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/20/19.)
Sarah Jane Nash (top) and Kate Rose Reynolds in "And Neither Have I Wings to Fly." Photo by Ken Jacques
Metaphor alert! Metaphor alert! Whenever the title of a play, or any narrative work for that matter, includes the word “fly” it’s a safe bet that the ensuing story will have something to do with a person at the outset tethered by fate or circumstances being uplifted. In playwright Ann Noble’s “And Neither Have I Wings To Fly,” that person is Eveline Donnelly, a young Irish woman living a dutiful but mostly joyless life tending to her widowed father and her younger, impetuous sister, Kathleen. What will it take to get Eveline’s dreams off the ground? Why a ghost, of course.
But Noble’s 1995 play isn’t flighty at all. On the contrary, it’s grimly serious on the subjects of death and duty. Without complaint and with nary a smile, Eveline does what she believes she must do in a depressing, dysfunctional household – until the spirit of her mother appears (only to her), causing her to doubt everything, including her own sanity.
“And Neither Have I Wings To Fly” is, then, a plum opportunity for a talented actress, and Scripps Ranch Theatre’s production has one in Kate Rose Reynolds. Her Eveline’s subtle transformation is accomplished with an aching, yearning grace. Reynolds previously appeared in SRT’s “Move Over, Mrs. Markham” and “Communicating Doors.”
The play’s buttressing subplot involves sister Kathleen (Katee Drysdale, brimming with youthful impulsiveness), her engagement to earnest but bland Leo Doyle (Hayden Emmerson), her infatuation with a swaggering actor (Zackary Bonin) and her deep-seated issues with her and Eveline’s father, Peter (Walter Ruskin). Throw in Leo’s “bad boy” brother Charlie (Paul Eddy) falling immediately for Eveline and you have an extended Irish family drama at its juiciest.
While the affected Irish accents are thick and the emotions turned up high most of the time, the staging under the direction of Jacquelyn Ritz retains enough introspection and humbled awareness of life’s temporality that its dignity and messages are not undone. The title of the play, incidentally, is taken from a Scottish folk song, one heard more than once, and chillingly, during the production. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/13/19.)
Lenny Wolpe (left) and James Sutorius in "The Sunshine Boys." Photo by Aaron Rumley
Its mugging and leering vaudeville scene aside, “The Sunshine Boys” is an old-fashioned, gently paced relationship comedy. The relationship in this vintage Neil Simon play is between a couple of crusty comic veterans whose 43-year partnership belied a foundational dislike for and intolerance of each other. At North Coast Repertory Theatre, the pair is portrayed with all due spit and vinegar by Lenny Wolpe (as Willie Clark) and James Sutorius (as Al Lewis). Watching the two spar – and it takes a long while in Act One before they get to do so – is the heart of the show, directed at North Coast Rep by Jeffrey B. Moss.
Wolpe does, however, wring some comic tension out of his multiple scenes with Bryan Banville, who plays Clark’s harried nephew with likable exasperation. That nephew, who happens to be an agent, is the one who had the bright idea to reunite the estranged Lewis and Clark for a network TV special. Bad idea, but good fun for theatergoers.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/6/19.)
Sandy Campbell (left) and Linda Libby in "Handbagged." Photo courtesy of Moxie Theatre
If Moira Buffini’s “Handbagged” were a better play, it might have provided tour-de-force opportunities for two of San Diego’s most gifted leading ladies: Sandy Campbell, who portrays Queen Elizabeth II, and Linda Libby, who plays Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. These two make the most out of their moments in Moxie Theatre’s production of Buffini’s historical comedy. But because of the structure of the 2013 work, they’re obliged to take a back seat to the two women portraying younger versions of the queen and “Mags”: Debra Wanger (measured) and Lisel Gorell-Getz (strident), respectively. The potential for provocative confrontations between the two latter-day British icons is also mostly lost in the play’s fact- and gossip-filled recounting of the history in the UK during the Thatcher years in power.
All four actresses give their best, nonetheless, and the device of having two ensemble actors, Max Macke and Durwood Murray, playing a raft of other characters (Ronald Reagan, Dennis Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, et al) contributes to “Handbagged” having many animated exchanges onstage. In any event, it’s a treat for anglophiles. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/6/19.)
Michael Louis Cusimano and Racquel Williams in "The Last Five Years." Photo by Ken Jacques
Love is happy, love is sad. Love is sad, love is happy. This is the rotating sensibility of Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years,” a musical chronicle of a relationship (and subsequent marriage) based on his own that soured. In the two-handed piece, young Jamie and Cathy take their turns singing about themselves, about each other and about where as a couple they are headed. The irony is that though they’re on stage together much of the time, they exist in completely different points in the five-year relationship: Jamie goes from the first blush of love to the anguish of the breakup; Cathy is in despair mode when the show begins and is wearing a too-good-to-be-true smile at the finale.
This parallel-time device is enough to distinguish “The Last Five Years,” which debuted in 2001 and is now onstage at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town, from a run-of-the-mill romantic musical. Brown’s script (he wrote the book, music and lyrics) amplifies the fact that lovers, or spouses, are rarely on exactly the same page.
Cygnet’s Jamie and Cathy are the mutually adorable Michael Louis Cusimano and Racquel Williams. They look,sound and move so well together that their performances are almost balletic. Each is completely comfortable with the score’s overly sincere ballads of longing or loss, though their comic moments are best, as when budding actress Cathy goes through the humbling rituals of auditions and writer Jamie’s publishing ship comes in. To some degree, Cusimano and Williams are more likable than their career-obsessed characters.
That director Rob Lutfy has the pair nearly constantly in motion keeps the proceedings from feeling static, which was an issue when this same musical was presented a few years ago at the now-shuttered ion theatre in Hillcrest. Justin Humphres’ set design and the subtle lighting conceived by Anne E. McMills help foster a sense of intimacy.
Most notably of all is the exquisite musical accompaniment behind stage directed and orchestrated by Patrick Marion. Making up the supple ensemble are cellists Erika Boras Tesi and Diana Elledge, violinist Sean Laperruque, bassist Mackenzie Leighton, guitarist Jim Mooney and Marion himself on piano.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/30/19.)
OB Playhouse & Theatre Co. turns the midwestern high school experience fiendishly upside down with its splendid production of “Heathers The Musical,” a 2013 show by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy based on the cult film “Heathers” from 1988. While not as relentlessly dark as its cinematic inspiration, “Heathers The Musical” traffics unapologetically in murder, attempted suicide, nihilism and the grimmest facets of teen angst – all elements that made Daniel Waters’ movie that starred Winona Ryder and Christian Slater so memorable.
But the stage musical, directed at OB Playhouse by Manny Bejarano, relies more on anarchic spirit and often-profane parody than on the schematics of the original film. Its poppy score flits from purposely outrageous or sassy ensemble numbers to tortured balladry, and the recurring anthem “Seventeen” somehow ties it all together.
The likable Kate McNellen portrayed Veronica Sawyer, the insecure girl who initially befriends the uber-popular but mean-spirited Heathers, in OnStage Playhouse’s production of “Heathers The Musical” two years ago in Chula Vista. She reprises the central role now in Ocean Beach, with Hunter Brown brooding and dangerous as JD, the disturbed young man she falls for, and Kylie Young, Alexis Dytko and Tyra Carter playing the mini-skirted Heathers. The large cast is aptly costumed and coiffed to represent the “types” in a high school population, and Michael Mizerany’s athletic choreography has them moving with the precision of a fevered pep rally.
The OB Playhouse is limited in performance space, but the actors are freed from the stage and placed within the crowd throughout – an immersive device. A four-piece band led by Ian Brandon sometimes overwhelms the vocals, though this is probably more a consequence of the Newport Avenue theater’s acoustics.
Then there’s the audience. OB Playhouse’s crowds – young, enthusiastic, ready to party – are unlike any others in town, which makes a show here a good-time experience. Even one as wink-wink subversive as “Heathers The Musical.”
Fittingly, it was announced on opening night that those who attend the performance of “Heathers The Musical” on Halloween Night are encouraged to come dressed as their favorite Heather.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/23/19.)
Rather than relying in the manner of a Shakespearean comedy upon magic or a merry mix-up, “Ring Round the Moon” hinges on a theatrical parlor trick: an actor seemingly being two places at the same time. In one instant, bon vivant Hugo (Brian Mackey), the host of a midsummer night’s fete, is exiting stage left. In another instant quickly following, Hugo’s kinder, gentler twin brother Frederic (also Brian Mackey) is entering from stage right or from down stage. This dizzying device is employed just the right number of times in Lamb’s Players Theatre’s frothy production of “Ring Round the Moon.” In other words, not to the point where it becomes exasperating or loses its comic zing.
Credit for the fluency of these transitions must go not only to the smooth execution by Mackey, a frequent Lamb’s performer, but to co-directors Robert Smyth and Deborah Gilmour Smyth, who ensure that these and others of the rambling play’s comings and goings delight more than distract. (Gilmour Smyth also portrays one of the comedy’s funniest figures: the wry, knowing and sometimes stogie-puffing Dowager Countess, aunt to twins Hugo and Frederic.)
“Ring Round the Moon,” written by English playwright Christopher Fry (“The Lady’s Not for Burning”), is an adaptation of French dramatist Jean Anouilh’s “L’Invitation au Chateau” (Invitation to the Castle). Its flight of fancy is that aristocrat Hugo has recruited a beautiful commoner, Isabelle (Joy Yvonne Jones), to his country manor house for the purpose of being magnificently gowned and to lure smitten brother Frederic from the heels of snooty Diana (Rachael VanWormer). Cocksure Hugo refers to this as his “huge and dark design.” Naturally, he has another, private motive, and just as naturally this ruse will go haplessly off track.
The comedy’s lengthy first act spends a great deal of time introducing its many characters, some of which feel extraneous. But the cast at Lamb’s is a sparkling group. Even those in strictly supporting roles, such as David McBean as the deadpan butler Joshua and Cynthia Gerber as the Dowager Countess’ dippy attendant Capulet, have moments to shine.
In sequences choreographed by themselves (along with Gilmour Smyth), Siri Hafso and Donny Gersonde practically dance away with the whole show. They, like everyone on stage, are opulently costumed by Jeanne Reith.
Mackey’s physical and oratorical stamina aside, the revelation of this production is Jones, whose presence is commanding without her even speaking, and when she does, with fire in the weightier second act, her Isabelle articulates the play’s moral: money can buy neither love nor happiness. (She makes a point of a very different kind in a wild throw-down with VanWormer’s Diana.)
Though not exactly subtle, when Isabel and filthy-rich party guest Messerschmann (Manny Fernandes) literally tear up and toss into the air notes of currency, “Ring Round the Moon” further decrees that wealth and class are unimportant, or at least they should be. Happily-ever-afters needn’t depend on either one.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 10/22/19.)
Roxane Carrasco in "Bad Hombres/Good Wives" at San Diego Rep. Photo by Jim Carmody
The narco telenovelas so popular in Mexico and Latin American countries are the chief inspiration for Herbert Siguenza’s wild and crazy comedy “Bad Hombres/Good Wives,” a world premiere at the San Diego Repertory Theatre that is a guaranteed good time. A certain amount of abject silliness is expected from a spoof of this kind, and “Bad Hombres” delivers, but what makes it work is that no sight gag is belabored, no joke is run into the ground, and no one scene is allowed to drag. This joyously subversive spoof directed by Sam Woodhouse, the Rep’s artistic director, is paced just right.
Siguenza, playwright in residence at the Rep and a co-founder of the Latino comedy troupe Culture Clash, has drawn from not only over-the-top narco telenovelas but Moliere’s “School for Wives,” creating a romp that has an ardent feminist message amid all the clowning. The story set in the early ‘90s in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, finds chauvinistic drug-cartel kingpin Don Ernesto (John Padilla) recruiting a young girl raised in a convent (Yvette Angulo) to be his submissive, subservient wife. This gesture of muscle and machismo is soon compromised by the girl’s encounter at a train station with a handsome stranger (Jose Balistrieri), who turns out to be the son of Don Ernesto’s recently deceased rival in the drug trade.
But these complications are implying drama that is never taken seriously. Any tangible conflict is defused by the presence of Don Ernesto’s maidservant Armida (Siguenza, hilariously in drag), by the widow of his dead rival, an eye-patched banda superstar named Lucha Grande (Roxane Carrasco) and by a harried priest with fetishes (Ricardo Salinas, a Culture Clash cohort of Siguenza’s). Love and women’s rights conquer all in the end.
Whether it’s the raucous singalongs and dancing to the onstage music performed by Adrian Kuicho Rodriguez or the sheer zaniness of Siguenza, Salinas, Carrasco and the rest of the entertaining company, “Bad Hombres/Good Wives” is an undeniably fun theater experience. Among the many hysterical scenes is one in which Armida (Siguenza) instructs the bride-to-be Eva (Angulo) on the art of seducing a man. Memory burn is all but ensured.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/16/19.)
A family's holiday dinner turns volatile in "Noura." Photo by Jim Cox
From the opening moment of Heather Raffo’s “Noura,” when the title character (played with arch desperation by Lameece Issaq) stands alone in the snowfall until its abrupt though unsatisfying end, this one-act drama pulsates with tension. A Chaldean Christian refugee who has left her homeland of ISIS-terrorized Iraq for a new life in Queens, N.Y., Noura feels herself in the psychological and emotional vise of two worlds: past and present. In the San Diego premiere of this play at the Old Globe under the direction of Johanna McKeon, questions and platitudes predominate during a claustrophobic Christmas celebration among Noura and her husband Mattico David), young son (Giovanni Cozic) and lifelong friend (Fajer Kaisi). The anticipation and subsequent arrival of an orphan college girl from Mosul precipitates the startling revelation of secrets and the articulation of sentiments long-suppressed or festering.
For an hour-and-a-half play that takes place in a very short time window “Noura” traffics in complications, personal conflicts and identity crises enough for a work three times this length.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/9/19.)
Cashae Monya (left) and Tamara McMillian in "Intimate Apparel." Photo by Daren Scott
New Village Arts’ production of Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” is among the finest stagings the Carlsbad theater has accomplished in recent memory. Thoughtfully directed by Melissa Coleman-Reed and featuring a superior star turn by Tamara McMillian, this realization of Nottage’s 2003 play about an African-American seamstress clutching at love and dreams is sublime in its storytelling and engulfing in its sadness.
A creator of fine intimate wear around the turn of the 20th century, Esther (McMillian) yearns for a meaningful life of her own and one in which she may be cherished and desired like those for whom she sews. The prospect of a long-distance lover (sending letters from Panama) buoys her hopes. In Nottage’s intelligent script, very little turns out as one might expect, and Esther’s strength and heart are tested throughout. The NVA cast in this deliberately paced but literate drama also includes Cashae Monya, who brings to bright but bittersweet life the part of Esther’s wayward friend, Mayme.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/9/19.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat