Cashae Monya in "Cabaret." Photo by Daren Scott
Cabaret is the ultimate in ironical musical theater. In spite of what the title tune suggests, life is NOT a cabaret, old chum. The raucous fun and bawdy music of the Kit Kat Klub are fronts for pain and sadness and fear.
These dark predilections make Cabaret – this 1998, the one revived by director Sam Mendes – an ideal fit for ion theatre’s tiny, shadowy space. In the course of a couple of hours’ time, ion’s production directed by Claudio Raygoza becomes the Kit Kat Klub of Berlin, circa 1931. Ion has even set up a few small cabaret tables among the regular loge seats for added atmosphere.
This Cabaret is highly sexualized with its dancers, choreographed by the prodigious Michael Mizerany, and even its Sally Bowles (Cashae Monya) outfitted (by costume designer Keira McGee) in sartorial provocations seemingly on the verge of wardrobe malfunction. That’s half of the fun. The other half are the Kit Kat novelty songs (written by John Kander and Fred Ebb) that are played for sight-gag effect, like “Two Ladies,” “The Money Song” and “If You Could See Her Now,” the latter famously featuring a “gorilla.”
The gender-bending cast is huge (for ion) with musicians doubling as actors, all of which enhances the devil-may-care spirit of the proceedings. Monya is to a substantial degree the best singer in the ensemble, though her British accent as Sally comes and goes. Drew Bradford wears a perpetual frown as Sally’s American suitor, Cliff, but he’s forgivably sincere. In the showcase role of the Emcee, Linda Libby shares duties with a ubiquitous (too ubiquitous) kazoo-playing boy (Scotty Atienza). Her Emcee visual antics aside, Libby is actually at her best during the piquant ballad “What Would You Do?” Morgan Carberry is notable as the wry prostitute Fraulein Kost and for her terrific keyboard work from the band area. (She’s also Cabaret’s musical director,)
The shattered, or soon-to-be shattered, denizens of the Kit Kat Klub eat, drink and make merry (or make love, and lots of it) because they know that tomorrow promises a terrible inevitability. Cabaret will always be staged someplace sometime because of all the terrible tomorrows that followed as the Nazis rose to power. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/13/17.)
Bryan Banville, Tom Zohar and Kay Marian McNellen" in "Tarrytown."
On the surface, Adam Wachter’s one-act musical Tarrytown seems like another variation on the eternal triangle, in this case an insecure gay man (Tom Zohar) and an unhappily married couple (Kay Marian McNellen and Bryan Banville) all residing in rural Tarrytown, N.Y. But in fact Tarrytown is a deft take on Washington Irving’s famous “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” That narrative device and a thoughtful musical score make this world premiere presented by Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company so promising.
While some of Wachter’s lyrics are strictly expository, they are by and large clever and insightful in what they posit about finding love and self in a scary world. The cast directed by Francis Gercke and Anthony Methvin enjoys definite chemistry in very tight confines, and Zohar is an expressive vocalist whose Ichabod Crane (just one of the three Irving characters referenced in this piece) is a sensitive and vulnerable protagonist. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/16/17.)
Minka Wiltz in "Black Pearl Sings!" Photo by Daren Scott
The personal crises that are milked for pathos in the San Diego Repertory’s Black Pearl Sings! are secondary to the sheer emotive power of Minka Wiltz’s vocals. In Frank Higgins’ drama set in Depression-era Texas (then later in Greenwich Village), Wiltz portrays Alberta “Pearl” Johnson, an African-American woman doing hard time for a murder. Into her life intrudes an abrasive Library of Congress musicologist (Allison Spratt Pearce) who dangles the chance of parole at Pearl if she will share in recordings the endangered songs of her slavery heritage. Questions of compromise, cultural appropriation and self-determination emanate from Higgins’ overreaching and somewhat predictable script, one inspired by musicologist John Lomax’s working relationship with folk-blues legend Lead Belly.
Wiltz is a revelation as Pearl, summoning the pain of a harrowing past even when she’s not singing. Spratt Pearce does well enough with the off-putting character of Susannah Mullally, making her as sympathetic as is possible. The unseen but very much heard star of this show is the music, which aches with human drama. (Review originally published 12/6/17 in San Diego CityBeat.)
Ariana DeBose (center) in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical." Photograph by Jim Berne
Beyond the lavishness of the world-premiere Summer: The Donna Summer Musical at La Jolla Playhouse is the fact, known long before this show was ever written, that Donna Summer was a remarkable talent. Only her association with the title “Queen of Disco,” which this production rightfully emphasizes was for Summer a double-edged sword, has deprived her from being considered a towering figure in more respected genres, such as R&B or even pop.
Summer is an expensive-looking and technologically sophisticated docu-musical constructed around the songs that defined Donna Summer. Many of them were written by Giorgio Moroder or Peter Bellotte, both of whom are portrayed in the show, or by Summer herself, who because of the singularity of her powerfully expressive voice was an underrated songwriter. This musical’s book was written by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Playhouse Director Emeritus Des McAnuff, who also directs. Though faithful to the facts of Summer’s turbulent life and career, it is overstuffed and relies on many of the “celebrity rise and fall” tropes so familiar in biographical musicals of this kind: the downside of fame, the struggle to find true love, balancing family and career, reliance on pills, et al. But Summer’s all-too-short life (she passed away at 63) had its share of pain and anguish, especially during her childhood church days, and that is not glossed over, but the storytelling takes a definite back seat to the music.
Three women – Storm Lever (“Duckling Donna”), Ariana DeBose (“Disco Donna”) and LaChanze (“Diva Donna”) – portray Summer during various stages of her life, and impressively deliver her songs throughout. As for those songs, some are truncated or seem out of context, but hearing them again, over less than two hours, is frequently a stirring experience. Among them: “Last Dance,” “Hot Stuff,” “On the Radio,” “Bad Girls,” “MacArthur Park” (performed in a spine-tingling sequence), “Dim All the Light,” “She Works Hard for the Money” and, ‘natch, “Love to Love You Baby.” Choreography by Sergio Trujillo and a band conducted by Victoria Theodore add sizzle to Summer, which is best appreciated as a nostalgic concert. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/29/17.)
San Diego Musical Theatre’s Miracle on 34th Street (A Live Musical Radio Play) evidently was so successful last year when it debuted on the Horton Grand Theatre stage that SDMT has brought it back. Based on a 1947 Lux Radio Hour broadcast, this Miracle on 34th Street adapted by Lance Arthur Smith with original songs by Jon Lorenz remains a likable holiday treat. There are a couple of cast changes from last year, notably the addition of Tim West as Kris Kringle. West not only looks the part, but he’s delightfully low-key.
With brick-and-mortar department stores going the way of the dinosaur thanks to online shopping services, the ones who really ought to embrace this show are the people at Macy’s. Not only does the store figure prominently in the Miracle on 34th Street story, but also in a bunch of its songs. The U.S. Postal Service, another institution looking potential obsolescence in the eye thanks to digital technology, is also celebrated in this show (in “USPS Jingle”).
All this aside, SDMT’s production is warm and family-friendly and altogether a merry reason to visit the Gaslamp Quarter through Dec. 24, when Miracle on 34th Street closes. That’s Christmas Eve, by the way.
As with Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot, a drama staged earlier this year in InnerMission Productions’ black box space in University Heights, Deanna Jent’s 2012 one-act play Falling is intense almost to the breaking point. The anxiety of its characters is quickly absorbed by the audience, resulting in an immersive theater experience.
Falling is the story of Josh, a severely autistic 18-year-old boy who cannot care for himself and who, because of his unpredictable aggressive behavior, proves even a physical threat to his family. This does not deter Tami and Bill, Josh’s loving parents, who meet the formidable moment-to-moment challenges of his care with sacrifice, patience and fortitude, even as the crushing helplessness of doing so imperils their marriage and each’s own emotional well-being. Also in the suburban household are Josh’s frightened and angry sister and a visiting Bible-toting grandmother who believes that prayers to the Almighty will somehow make everything right.
Tami and Bill know that they won’t.
D. Candis Paule and Steve Schmitz heroically portray Josh’s parents in InnerMission’s 80-minute production, with Alanna Serrano as the teen sister Lisa and Kathi Copeland playing Grammy Sue. Robert Malave brings dauntless focus, physicality and an undercurrent of innocence, too, to the remarkably complex role of Josh in a performance that never rests. Josh is disturbingly singing along to “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” from “Mary Poppins” one minute, then cowering, covering his ears and crying out because of a dog’s barking the next. Malave’s every sound and agitation reverberate in the tiny black box theater.
Tautly directed by actress Samantha Ginn, who also works with autistic children and young adults, Falling is unsettling and uncomfortable to watch at times. The tension and uncertainty accompanying every interaction, no matter how seemingly routine, between Josh and his family are relentless. But the unselfish love exuded in Schmitz’s and especially Paule’s performances, along with Malave’s fearless commitment as autistic Josh, make an indelible impression. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/22/17.)
The moors of 19th century literature are lonely and isolated, as enigmatic as the shifting fog that enshrouds them. Mystery and even danger inevitably await. They are also a “savage” place in Jen Silverman’s quasi-satiric play “The Moors,” which in one brazen act deconstructs any romantic sensibility instilled in them by the likes of the hallowed Bronte sisters. Diversionary Theatre’s production of “The Moors,” a West Coast premiere directed by Lisa Berger, is an antidote to the fulsome emotionalism of novels like “Wuthering Heights.” At the same time, it’s a subversive, at times bizarre, alternative to the holiday-oriented theater fare that will predominate the remainder of the year.
“The Moors” is set in “the 1840s-ish” according to the theater program, and Silverman’s expressive script makes every effort to suggest that its avowed truisms about power, desire and the respectable order of things are as cogent today as they were, or should have been, over a century ago. As in the sweeping tales of those bygone times, Silverman’s play takes place in a mysterious house on a bleak moor, where at the outset two spinster sisters, the domineering Agatha (Kim Strassburger, effecting icy) and mousey but manic Huldey (Hannah Logan) are preparing to welcome a governess to the premises. When Emily (Whitney Brianna Thomas) arrives, it is soon clear that the estate master who summoned her in come-hithering letters (the sisters’ brother) is missing, and more quixotic still, there is no child in need of a governess. There’s also a house maid (Gerilyn Brault) who may or may not be named Marjory or Mallory and who may be either with chronic cough or with child.
All this before the real screws have been turned (that’s Henry James, not Bronte, but no matter) in “The Moors.” A “forbidden” love affair, a deadly conspiracy and a brutal murder are yet to come. When secrets fairly crying out to be confided are made known and simmering impulses are indulged, the tenor of “The Moors” turns comic and for all practical purposes to camp. Best served by this evolution of tone is Logan, whose portrayal of oppressed sister Huldey is frighteningly hilarious. Logan also is the beneficiary of the play’s spotlight moment, in which she goes full diva murderess.
With minimal humor but no shortage of metaphor-making and weighty observation is a subplot relationship between the family mastiff dog (John DeCarlo, speaking as if imbued) and a wide-eyed moorhen (Rachel Esther Tate). The mastiff’s ominous courtship of the feathery tutu-clad hen takes place on the moor, which is suggested onstage by drawing a curtain over Kristen Flores’ Victorian set. Is this open-air liaison just more forbidden, foredoomed desire? Only playwright Silverman knows for sure.
If the machinations of this 1840s-ish world defy explanation in deference to the latitude expected of dark comedy, then it’s all good with what goes on in this entertaining but confounding play. Or as sister Agatha says with cold, deadly-certain confidence about her moorland manor: “All things here are possible.” (Review originally published in San Diego Union-Tribune on 11/21/17.)
Edward Watts (left) and Dan DeLuca in "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" at the Old Globe Theatre. Photo by Jim Cox
There’s a new Grinch in town. Edward Watts, a musical-theater veteran whose credits include everything from The Most Happy Fella to The Book of Mormon, is starring in this year’s iteration of the Old Globe Theatre’s Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Watts boasts a kind of James Arness presence in the part, which works especially well in the sequence in which the Grinch is donning a Western hat and telling the Who’s that he’s from “Who-ston.” (As in Houston, in case you are one of the few San Diegans who haven’t seen this long-running holiday favorite.)
By the by, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is now in its 20th year, which speaks well to the legacy of Theodor Seuss Geisel, to Timothy Mason and Mel Marvin who wrote the show’s book, lyrics and music, and to the Old Globe actors and creative artists who never take this yuletide treat for granted. It’s still undeniably fun, especially for the kiddies, but even a grown-up like me who’s seen the show eight to ten times can find plenty of reasons to laugh and enjoy.
Let’s give some overdue credit to director James Vasquez, to musical director Elan McMahan, and to some of the ensemble who’ve been doing faithful Who duty for quite a few years: Steve Gunderson, Bets Malone, Robert J. Townsend, and Nancy Snow Carr, for instance.
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! runs through Christmas Eve.
It’s a daunting if not futile undertaking to attempt to freshen William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, so universally familiar is its premise and much of its quotable verse. It’s also the one work of The Bard of Avon’s that perhaps even Shakespeare-phobes have seen at least once. (Or else they’ve seen the definitive 20th-century reinterpretation that is West Side Story.) The Old Globe Theatre’s annual collaboration with the University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program this year is Romeo and Juliet, and while this production doesn’t exactly freshen the tragedy about two mixed-up teenagers from Verona, it does instill it with both the impetuosity and runaway hormones of timeless adolescence.
To begin with, the production that runs through Nov. 19 has as its director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, who earlier this year made her Old Globe directorial debut in this very Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre with the stirring drama Skeleton Crew. In addition to giving Romeo and Juliet’s young actors the latitude to set free their emotions and immerse themselves in the story, Turner Sonnenberg’s contemporary sensibility for the much-produced play is reflected in this production’s choice of music (which includes the Jackson 5), its tenor (rapier-witty until it turns requisitely tragic) and a pace as swift as the lengthy play will allow.
Jose Martinez is a strident Romeo and Larica Schnell a highly strung Juliet, with each lover portrayed as a captive of first, passionate love and feeling absolutely entitled to it. That entitlement does not make their well-known untimely suicides any less grievous. Samantha Sutliff as Juliet’s brassy nurse and Eric Wellman as Romeo’s hotheaded crony Mercutio milk every moment they have on the little Shiley stage, while Renardo Charles Pringle Jr. balances sputtering and gravitas as poor Friar Lawrence, who tries in vain to facilitate Romeo and Juliet’s happiness.
Bottom line, if this Romeo and Juliet gets college students, or even younger audience members, into the theater this fall then its jillioneth return to the stage will have been well worth it. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/15/17.)
Donatella Soul and Arthur Wentworth in "American Carnage: A Love Story."
Think of the futuristic society portrayed in director/playwright Aimee Greenberg’s “American Carnage: A Love Story” not as a Utopia, but a Dystopia. It’s a bloodless, remote-control world where clouds and trees no longer exist, where art is confined to a “Museum of Obsolete Media,” where artificial intelligence moves inexorably toward the subjugation of humankind.
All this is implied more than shown in the world premiere of Greenberg’s one-act play staged by her fruitlessmoon theatreworks company at the City Heights Performance Annex. Augmented by screen projections, startling sound effects and a few props, the cast of eight in “American Carnage” can only represent a microcosm of what this intellectually ambitious work is trying to say in just one act. True, there is a tattooed, toga-clad ruler called Coleigula (pronounced if not spelled like the depraved Roman emperor) who presides over the privileged techno-world that’s in power. But looming over his repressions and his sickness (“We are committed to the repopulation of the Caucasians!”) is more global, indeed more universal, commentary about loss of freedom, individuality and sentient feelings.
It’s a tall order for 90 minutes of theater, and as such the narrative of “American Carnage: A Love Story” is delivered in mostly taut mini-scenes, periodically interrupted by cautionary reflections from Greenberg herself, as an unnamed cast member. This is not to say there aren’t focal characters. In fact, that’s where the love story comes in.
YML (Arthur Wentworth) is a hybrid robot/human who is – not his words – “cursed with curiosity.” This leads him from his assigned vector to the Badlands, where the dissipating number of humans reside. His own human side having been incited at the Museum of Obsolete Media by exposure to the likes of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” and Tony and Maria’s duet in “West Side Story,” YML makes an emotional connection with young Delilah (Alexandra Phillips), leading to his defying his creators, who would have her killed.
Yet YML’s quest and his fate are but a layer of an over-layered script that could benefit from some refining. Within the play’s sweep are declarations about survival of the fittest (complete with stand-in for a Galapagos tortoise), Darwin, and genetic experimentation (pig men onstage). While expecting more from a love story between a human and a hybrid droid may be in itself counterintuitive, it’s clear that the heart of “American Carnage” is YML himself. Or would that be itself?
Though somewhat restricted by the mere definition of his character, Wentworth is a sympathetic protagonist, particularly when he’s dabbing on his Pagliacci clown makeup or reciting for Delilah Tony’s half of “West Side Story’s” “Somewhere.” A few others in the ensemble wander toward performance-art territory, though that’s practically inescapable given the sharp pronouncements of the script and the stark Performance Annex setting.
Even with its exorbitance of statements about what the future of men, women and machines may hold, “American Carnage: A Love Story” is an intelligent new work, and there’s nothing artificial about that. (Review originally published 11/14/17 in San Diego Union-Tribune.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat