Luke Monday and Taylor Magee in "She Loves Me." Photo by Ken Jacques
The burning question in the romantic musical “She Loves Me” isn’t whether unknowing lonely hearts club correspondents Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash will get together. It’s what misunderstandings and harmless complications will ensue before they do. That’s the charm of this underappreciated show written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (with a book by Joe Masteroff). Bock and Harnick are better known for composing “Fiddler on the Roof,” which opened on Broadway in 1964, a year after “She Loves Me” debuted. “She Loves Me” is no “Fiddler on the Roof,” but as a Scripps Ranch Theatre production directed by Ted Leib demonstrates, it’s festive fun ideal for the arrival of the holidays.
If the premise of “She Loves Me” strikes a familiar chord, it should. The root of the story is a 1937 play by Hungarian Miklos Laszlo. It inspired the 1940 film “The Shop Around the Corner,” with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan as the initially dueling co-workers who don’t realize that each is the other’s romantic correspondent.
Nearly a decade afterward came “In the Good Old Summertime,” with Judy Garland and Van Johnson. “She Loves Me,” which returned the story to the stage but as a musical, followed in 1963. (Thirty-five years later, the film “You’ve Got Mail” starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan found the correspondents communicating via this relatively new medium called the internet.)
The enduring connection between these various incarnations and the palpable appeal of “She Loves Me” is the would-be lovers’ all too human insecurities. By whatever names, they hunger for true love even as they fear they won’t measure up.
“She Loves Me” is not blessed with a signature song. Neither is the setting, a perfume shop in Budapest in the mid-‘30s, particularly compelling. Its snappy characters and unflagging spirit of fun carry the day. SRT’s ambitious staging (a cast of 14, multiple set changes, two musical accompanists) is the company’s most wholly satisfying since its excellent “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” two years ago.
Taylor Magee, possessing a sparkling soprano, delights as Amalia and gets laughs too in her Act 2 “Vanilla Ice Cream” number. Luke Monday is likable and natural as Georg, at home with both song and antics. The ensemble-driven “She Loves Me” guarantees everyone, right down to the delivery boy (Josh Bradford), a tune of his or her own. Basking in the opportunity are supporting players Tara Sampson, Danny Campbell, Joseph Grienenberger and Tanner Vidos.
There’s also a cleverly choreographed (by Marc Caro-Willcox) café scene (“A Romantic Atmosphere”) in which Georg finds out that Amalia is his “Dear Friend” correspondent. She, of course, won’t learn the truth until the inevitable happy ending.
Considering the tight confines of the Lenbough Legler Theatre stage, a “She Loves You” this seamless is no small achievement for the SRT cast, crew and musicians. Sure, this is a love story that’s been told multiple times before, but the payoff of two lonely people finding each other never gets old. (Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 11/13/18.)
Richard Baird (right) stars in "Holmes & Watson." Photo by Aaron Rumley
An 1894 version of “To Tell the Truth,” North Coast Repertory Theatre’s Holmes & Watson summons Dr. John Watson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous chronicler of the adventures of the great detective Sherlock Holmes, to an island asylum off Scotland where he is asked to identify which of three imprisoned men is the real Holmes. But in this production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s one-act puzzler, there’s no predicting where the story will go from there. In a mystery, and Holmes & Watson is decidedly a mystery, that’s a definite asset. Trying to keep up with false leads and red herrings is another thing. So is the play’s tendency to explain and explain some more in such a talky manner that the action, such as it is, can drag.
Director David Ellenstein employs enough active devices, such as gunshots, physical confrontations and flashbacks to the fated Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland where Holmes allegedly escaped death at hands of diabolical foe Professor Moriarty, to move the 85 minutes along. Holmes & Watson also benefits from the cool, magnetic presence of Richard Baird as Watson, who really is the play’s principal character. Baird projects the kind of Dr. Watson – composed, reasoned and fearless – that Doyle intended but which was often in film or TV adaptations portrayed as a sputtering satellite orbiting Holmes’ genius.
Without giving away the goods, however, be forewarned that nothing or no one in Holmes & Watson is necessarily what they seem to be, and that’s the plum for mystery fans. Those neither particularly versed in the Holmes world nor enamored of twisting, turning plots may find this play wearisome. Though with the explicit title Holmes & Watson, it’s hard to imagine anyone wandering into the show unawares.
Sherlock Holmes devotees should absolutely enjoy this smartly written take on a Doyle adventure, and the production’s costumes (designed by Kim Deshazo) and dingy asylum set (by Marty Burnett) are right in line with the period in all its trappings. It’s still early to qualify as holiday-season fare (and Holmes & Watson closes on Nov. 18), but this North Coast Rep offering is one to take the whole family or those out-of-town relatives to. Especially if they love a good mystery.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/7/18.)
Patricia McGregor is directing "A Midsummer NIght's Dream." Photo courtesy of Old Globe Theatre
The Old Globe Theatre’s fifth “Globe for All” touring program couldn’t have picked a choicer cut of Shakespeare than the fairy-inflected, featherweight A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You need not be a scholar of The Bard nor an experienced theatergoer to savor this whimsical romp. There’s enough stage play and silliness to maintain the attention span even of youngsters.
So it was at the Sunday afternoon staging on the top floor of the Central Library (the Shiley Special Events Suite) downtown. The room was packed with folks who happily all found something better – and more enlightening – to do than while away the first day of Standard Time in front of a computer screen or an NFL game. They were rewarded with a delightful performance of Midsummer, directed by Patricia McGregor (she previously directed the “Globe for All” Measure for Measure two years ago) and starring a game cast of nine, all of whom did at least double duty when it came to roles.
For an experienced spectator like myself, the joy in the room was not merely the Midsummer production (though it is a witty, fast-moving and animated one), but seeing the faces of others in the crowd who might have been enjoying their first Shakespeare moment. That’s the gift that the Old Globe is giving to the San Diego community, in particular people who can’t afford or can’t get to the Balboa Park theater itself for shows. These “Globe for All” performances, being staged at 17 community partner venues like the downtown library, are free, but they’re also educational without being scholastic, accessible without being overly simplified, and presented by talented Globe artists with enthusiasm and love, both for the material and for the audiences. And love, as you know, is what A Midsummer Night’s Dream is all about.
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream will also be presented on the Globe’s outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre stage on Nov. 18 at noon and at 3:15 p.m. There will be a charge -- $10-$15 – for these public performances only.)
Visit the Old Globe’s website, www.theoldglobe.org, to see the list of remaining “Globe for All” locations and performance times.
"Wicked" runs at the Civic Theatre in downtown San Diego through Nov. 25. Photo by Joan Marcus
Wicked, one of the most popular musicals of recent memory, is back in San Diego, at the Civic Theatre, downtown. Though I’d seen it twice before, last night proved more enlightening and more satisfying than ever. Why?
For starters, I took my 14-year-old niece to the show. She’d never seen Wicked, and she was as excited as if Christmas had already come. Anytime a Broadway show captures the fancy and imagination of young audiences is in itself exciting and bodes well for the future livelihood of American theater as an art form.
Second, it occurred to me as I enjoyed this musical adaptation (by Winnie Holzman and Stephen Schwartz) of Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” that Wicked is a story not only about the rushes to judgment we make as regards good and bad, but more important a celebration of female empowerment and of the sacred bond of sisterhood. These are critical comprehensions not only for the fractured time in which we reside in America, but for men and women, boys and girls alike.
As to the national touring company that’s in town through Nov. 25, it’s blessed with two outstanding actresses in the leads: Jackie Burns is a fierce, unflinching Elphaba whose passionate vocals elicited cheers after her signature numbers “I’m Not That Girl,” “No Good Deed” and, naturally, “Defying Gravity,” the best-known song in Wicked’s score. As the yang to Elphaba’s yin, Kara Lindsay’s Glinda beautifully balances her comic timing and physicality with a crystalline voice. The remainder of the sweeping cast is vibrant and exquisitely costumed, though none of the other characters in Wicked is as remotely important or compelling as its frontwomen. In fact, the shticky number given to the Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Jason Graee), “Wonderful,” still strikes an out-of-place note.
Tickets to Wicked may be difficult to come by (there is a lottery system offered during the run), but they’re worth defying gravity, or whatever obstacle, for.
G In broadcasting terminology, a “fade” is a transition from one scene or one moment to the next. In Tanya Saracho’s play Fade, the unlikely friendship between conflicted TV-show writer Lucia and janitor Abel makes numerous significant transitions, but the transition that proves most significant of all is the one that Lucia herself makes by the one-act tale’s end.
A onetime television writer herself (ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” HBO’s “Looking”), Saracho knows the intricate and pretentious language of that industry, and it’s that executive blather of which young Lucia, a diversity hire, is so contemptuous. She finds a quick ally in the affable, plainspoken man who cleans her office, though their initial conversations are tangled in semantics, offended stares and affronts over the nature of their respective Mexican heritages. Mexico-born Lucia (Sofia Sassone) is alone among white corporate suits, and lonely in her new L.A. life. All this she imparts at profane, exasperated high speed. The reserved, dutiful Abel (Javier Guerrero) sympathizes and eventually opens up to her in a big way. His personal revelation, and how it steers the course toward Fade’s dramatic high point, is an easily detected plot device. As such, the impact of Lucia’s climactic all-about-me misdeed is blunted.
Moxie Theatre is presenting this production of Fade in association with the Latinx company TuYo Theatre. Maria Patrice Amon is directing. For a show immersed in the quest for cultural identity and claiming one’s rights in a superficial, privileged world, this one eschews the temptation of drawn-out speechy scenes. It successfully opts instead for quickly paced late-night encounters between Abel and Lucia in her office. Sassone’s sometimes-shrill Lucia can be irritating and a challenge to care about, though Saracho obviously created a protagonist who is riddled with insecurities. Guerrero’s comparatively underplayed Abel has enough heart for both of the characters. Warm and believable, Guerrero even exceeds his fine turn in New Village Arts’ excellent production of Jose Rivera’s Cloud Tectonics earlier this year.
Fade’s final Lucia-Abel encounter, one bereft of dialogue, actually speaks the loudest, and is worth the transitional journey to get there.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/31/18.)
DeLeon Dallas and Emily Shain in "Actually." Photo by Jim Carmody
Amber (Emily Shain) and Tom (DeLeon Dallas) are freshmen at Princeton. Once Tom recognizes that Amber’s been eyeing him from afar, they share a flirty meet-cute followed by an innocent-enough first “date” at an ice cream joint. But when a subsequent rendezvous ends up in Tom’s dormitory bed, matters take a grave turn. What happened there depends on who you believe later, when Amber and Tom wind up at a disciplinary hearing over the question of whether he raped her. Amber says yes. Tom says no.
This is Anna Ziegler’s one-act drama Actually. The title echoes the word Amber spoke in mid-sexual encounter, one not shown to the audience onstage, to let Tom know that she’d changed her mind about the whole thing. Tom heard the word, he says, but didn’t take “actually” as a “no.”
With Brett Kavanaugh’s and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimonies still fresh, Actually’s “he said/she said” narrative couldn’t be more timely. San Diego Repertory Theatre’s production of Ziegler’s 2017 play is tense and frank. Most of the 90 minutes is presented in twin monologues, with Shain’s stricken, stammering Amber recounting events before and leading up to the night in the dormitory, and Dallas’ overly confident yet anguished Tom doing the same. Both dwell heavily in each character’s excessive backstories: Amber has body issues and a mother who disses her, and she’s given the implied complications of her Jewish faith; Tom is an African-American at a predominantly white Ivy League school, his best male friend keeps trying to kiss him, and it will turn out his beloved mother is very ill. Possibly these looming circumstances are designed to explain both Amber’s and Tom’s distraction and lack of judgment (along with just being college freshmen), but Actually’s is a very busy script.
Presented on a stage bare but for two chairs, the actors openly confront themselves, and the life-changing seriousness of their situation. When they do clash, the play finds its passion, having occupied itself too much before then in name-drops of Kierkegaard and Nabokov or, less sublime, in references to kegs and Jello shooters. Actually has a verdict, but, as in the reality of the times, no clear reconciliation between truth and conscience. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/24/18.)
Opening night of Lamb’s Players Theatre’s production of Persuasion began with an earnest pre-show explanation from director Robert Smyth about the context and significance, socially and academically, of Jane Austen’s last novel (published four years after her death). Smyth’s mini-lecture, essentially reproduced inside the program along with a detailed roster of the Regency romance’s interweaving families, suggested that the audience might either become confused or fail to recognize the import of Austen’s free-thinking heroine, Anne Elliot. But Persuasion is not that obtuse. While Anne is a complex character, the drama around her both in Austen’s novel and in this musical adaptation by Harold Taw and Chris Jeffries is a straightforward one: Will she reunite after eight years with the suitor she was forced to turn away?
As a musical, Taw’s and Jeffries’ show takes full advantage of the mannerisms, traditions and class distinctions of the early 1800s in southwest England. Songs spring from the stiff upper lips of the romantic leads, of course, but the jealousies and eccentricities of the tale’s other characters are also mined for pleasant, mostly expository musical numbers. While Persuasion’s tension encircles Anne (Allison Spratt Pearce) and the dashing Captain Wentworth (David S. Humphrey), it’s the comic relief provided by the gossips and social climbers on their periphery that keep solemnity at bay.
The beautifully voiced Spratt Pearce is enjoying an extraordinary year, having already given superb performances in Cygnet Theatre’s The Last Wife and Diversionary’s The Loneliest Girl in the World. Her melancholy Anne is sympathetic but strong, and when she at last is able to smile in the arms of her captain, the smile is contagious. Humphrey is stalwart and sincere as Wentworth, residing though he does in a rather stiff character. The supporting turns are delightful, including in multiple roles Linda Libby, Megan Carmichael and Omri Schein, the latter in drag that recalls Peter Sellers at his “The Mouse That Roared” best.
As expected the costumes designed by Jeanne Reith are exquisite, and the musical accompaniment by an ensemble under the direction of Patrick Marion is lush.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/17/18.)
Taylor Mac’s “Hir” cultivates mind-bending and gender-bending ideas. What may be its most cogent proclamation, that “everybody is a little bit of everything,” comes from head of the household Paige, who with manic fervor is embracing the new and damning the past. As life dramatically changes in and around her, seemingly by the minute, she’ll freeze in mid-conversation or mid-mannerism and announce “Paradigm shift!”
In this way, and in the play’s verbal storm of gender politics and psychobabble, Mac discourses on the fluidity of gender and the absurdity of institutions restrictive by their rigidity, by their reluctance to accept and even by their tendency to inhumanity. The American family is the institution in the crosshairs of “Hir,” a raucous but congested dark comedy now onstage at Cygnet Theatre under the direction of Rob Lutfy.
This is no Rockwellian family. If soldier Isaac (Dylan Seaton) didn’t get post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in Afghanistan, where his duty was gathering blown-up body parts in the Mortuary Affairs Unit, the house he returns to three years later seems sure to do the trick. His stroke-impaired father Arnold (Joel Castellaw) is dressed in a nightgown, his ashen face smeared with makeup and a fright wig fit for a clown atop his head. He’s also being served estrogen “shakey-shakes” by wife Paige (Deanna Driscoll), who’s let the house turn into a hoarder’s nightmare and who squirts Arnold with water anytime he doesn’t do as told. Then there’s Isaac’s younger sister, Maxine (Avi Roque), who’s injecting testosterone to transgender, and who already has a bit of a beard going.
Isaac (called “I” by his mom, who wants her shocked son to just go with the flow) gapes and runs to the kitchen sink to hurl a lot, an overplayed gesture of horror. Arnold is a pathetic figure later revealed to be much worse than that, while Max affirms a desire to “gender-redefine ‘here-story.” (“Hir” is Max’s chosen third-person pronoun.) Paige’s symbiotic relationship with Max is tied up in her own crisis of identity and purpose. The dishonorably discharged (for drug use) “I” – another play on pronoun? – and his macho desire for order have no place in Paige’s reconstructed domain.
The production’s very physicality and penchant for sight gags, whether they include a plastic water bottle, a banjo or a trove of garish wigs, feed the comedy but actually diminish the import of what Mac may be saying about gender and personal liberation. It’s not until well into Act 2 that the laughter is jolted away as if by electrodes, and who these people are crystallizes.
In any case, Driscoll, a fearless performer, rides this Tilt-a-Whirl of a narrative with limbs flying, leaving everything out there on the Old Town stage. Roque, who identifies as Latinx Trans/Non Binary, brings layers of vulnerability to the changing Max. Paige and Max are “Hir’s” heart and soul, a mother and child making different but deeply defining transitions amid the fray.
(Review originally published in San Diego Union-Tribune on 10/8/18.)
What if the person you loved had only 100 days to live? How would you spend them together? These are the questions addressed in music and conversation by husband and wife Abigail and Shaun Bengson in Hundred Days at La Jolla Playhouse. An enterprising work written by the Bengsons and Sarah Gancher, Hundred Days flees the bounds of conventional theater or concert. In just 75 minutes it incorporates music (rooted in multiple idioms), narrative and movement in frequently daring fashion.
Still, it can be self-indulgent to the point of discomfort, as during Abigail’s aching, wailing “Three-Legged Dog” number; and when addressing the literally eternal question of what does death mean, Hundred Days traffics in awfully worn territory. There’s no discounting the superior musicianship, which sounds crisp and urgent in the Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/10/18).
Though very sentimental, New Village Arts Theatre’s staging of Tony Meneses’ Guadalupe in the Guest Room is a warm and engaging 90 minutes that confronts profound family loss with dignity and restraint. Part of New Village’s bilingual and bicultural Teatro Pueblo Nuevo initiative, the one-act play tells the story of a mother (Gabriela Nelson) and son-in-law (Tom Steward) grieving under the same roof (his) the loss of Claudia, who was Guadalupe’s daughter and Steve’s wife. Their language barrier and incompatibility are bridged by a shared fascination with Mexican telenovelas, the emoting episodes of which are amusingly acted out by the other two members of this cast: Daniel Novoa, who otherwise portrays a kind gardener who falls for Guadalupe, and Charlene Coleman, playing a teaching colleague of Claudia’s.
NVA Associate Artistic Director Nadia Guevara makes her directorial debut with this little play, and she is gifted with a tender, understated performance by Nelson as Guadalupe. The lighting blackouts that separate the production’s mini-scenes are distracting, but the action is beautifully paced. Meneses’ script about grief comes with its share of tropes, but their familiarity does not lessen the appeal of his sympathetic characters.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/10/18.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat