No doubt about it, the ‘80s produced some cutting-edge music. None of it is in Rock of Ages, the 2005 jukebox musical by Chris D’Arienzo that’s populated by thumping power-rock songs and dubious resurrections of Journey, Foreigner and Twisted Sister. The good news is that Rock of Ages is a fun show anyway. Its storyline, loosely concerning a would-be rocker (Rory Gilbert), a wannabe actress (Megan Carmitchel) and a Sunset Strip club threatened by a corporate wrecking ball, feels like it was written over a bong and a bag of Oreos. As such, no one onstage takes it seriously, so silliness is as preordained as guitar solos. Cygnet Theatre’s production offers up a skilled band conducted by Patrick Marion and winning turns from many in the large cast, including Bryan Banville, Zackary Scot Wolfe, Anise Ritchie and Victor E. Chan as the narrator with “jazz hands.” (You’ll have to see the show to get that.)
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/17/19.)
Pigpen Theatre Co.’s The Tale of Despereaux is an enchanting adaptation of the 2003 fantasy novel by Kate DiCamillo and the animated film that followed five years later. While the story itself, about a courageous little mouse rescuing a beautiful kidnapped princess, is simple enough for children to understand and enjoy, it’s adults who will best appreciate this world-premiere musical at the Old Globe Theatre.
This is the seven-member Pigpen troupe’s second go-round at the Globe following 2017’s The Old Man and the Old Moon. While that production had its charms, The Tale of Despereaux is much more entertaining, possibly owing to the clever alternating of puppets and actors as the chief rodent characters, Despereaux and Roscuro the rat (who’s really the more compelling of the two). But in addition to the enthusiasm and versatile musicianship of the Pigpen players, Despereaux delights with its ingenious props, inventive visual effects and a grand fairytale set by Jason Sherwood. For the first time, too, Pigpen is employing actors as collaborators, among them the crystalline-voiced Taylor Iman Jones and Betsy Morgan, and spunky Bianca Norwood as Despereaux.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/17/19.)
"The American Dream" gets the showstopping treatment in "Miss Saigon." Photo by Matthew Murphy
Reasons to like, if not love, Miss Saigon:
First, when it’s not overly mired in balladry, it packs an emotional wallop, and does so more than once.
Second, like “Madame Butterfly,” the story that inspired it, it has the guts to end on a tragic note -- in the case of Miss Saigon eschewing the typical big Broadway closing number.
Third, the helicopter scene. Still awesome after 30 years.
The touring production of Miss Saigon inhabiting the Civic Theatre downtown is a reminder of all these assets, in spite of less than ideal acoustics and a serviceable if not particularly memorable cast. Of the three principals, Emily Bautista as Kim, the Vietnamese heroine, stands out. Anthony Festa as her American GI lover Chris can’t match her vocal power, while Red Concepcion makes the signature part of the Engineer more comical than devious.
As with any production of Miss Saigon, the spectacular set pieces, the costumes and the choreography are the star components. The music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, with lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil, ranges from soft poignancy to anthemic, though little of it will have you humming your way out of the theater.
A number near the end of the show that may not be hummable but which is definitely entertaining is the Engineer’s raucous “The American Dream.” This paean to excess, including scantily clad dancers and the humping of a glittering Cadillac, would serve quite nicely as a re-election campaign ad for a certain president.
Miss Saigon runs through Sunday, July 14 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
Lissette is having a death party. When it’s over, when the guacamole and chips have been consumed and the margaritas downed, she will drink a fatal cocktail that will end with dignity her own life at 38 years old.
Melissa Ross’ The Luckiest at La Jolla Playhouse is neither morbid nor overly sentimental in spite of its subject matter. An outgrowth of the Playhouse’s formative DNA New Work Series, the world-premiere play presents Lissette, portrayed in a bravura performance by Aleque Reid, as a gutsy woman who decides to take as much control over her death as she has her life. In so doing, she enlists the help of her best friend Peter (Reggie D. White) and, more reluctantly, her mother Cheryl (Deirdre Lovejoy). Over 90 minutes, the story moves back and forth in time as all three characters confront a reality that has been known to bring out the best as well as the worst in human beings, including and especially those who care about each other.
Jaime Castaneda, from 2014-2018 the Playhouse’s associate artistic director, returns to helm The Luckiest, which for all playwright Ross’ considerable insight strains to achieve the most effective level of dark comedy. What’s more, none of the dramatic scenes between Lissette and the other two characters is as visceral as the audience-facing monologue she delivers toward the end of the play, when she explains the devastation and hopelessness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It’s a shame that explanation couldn’t have been integrated into the narrative of the play rather than isolated, even if intended so for impact.
Ross does build intricacies into her three principals, however, most of all Lissette, who is no long-suffering saint. She confronts her fate with anger, fear and no small amount of courage. As played by White, Peter is the giving, no-B.S. friend anyone would want in a life-or-death crisis, or even just to enjoy day-to-day living. Lovejoy’s mama Cheryl, played with a Boston accent so heavy it sometimes overpowers her lines, skirts the fringe of caricature, but finds a genuineness about two-thirds through the story.
The Luckiest is most certainly a message play, though it’s an important and affirming one.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/10/19.)
More than five years after Lamb’s Players’ Mixtape ended its lengthy residency at the Horton Grand Theatre downtown, the ‘80s musical revue is back, this time at Lamb’s’ Coronado venue. For lovers of that era, this show is just like heaven, to borrow the title of a memorable song by The Cure that naturally is on Mixtape’s gargantuan playlist. The ‘80s was also a decade of excess, and Mixtape crams way, way too much into nearly two and a half hours of nostalgia, from remembering Pac Man and the Smurfs to acknowledging the Challenger space shuttle tragedy. That being said, it’s no mean feat to document musically an entire decade. But then Lamb’s has done it on other occasions, with its ‘60s-‘70s-inflected Boomers and the sweeping retrospective American Rhythm.
Created by Jon Lorenz and Colleen Kollar Smith and directed originally and now by Kerry Meads, Mixtape is a multi-genre retrospective. There are nods to the superstars of the time (Michael Jackson, Madonna) to ‘80s’ dance pop (Wang Chung, Wham!), to New Wave (Duran Duran, Oingo Boingo), to balladry (Lionel Richie), to R&B (the Pointer Sisters), to hair bands (Bon Jovi), to TV theme songs (“Cheers,” “Hill Street Blues,” et al). The tunes come speedily one after another, most of them performed only in part, but all are faithfully rendered by a stout-hearted live band (Leo Correia, Andy Ingersoll, Rik Ogden, Dave Rumley and Oliver Shirley).
Two of the ensemble performers, David S. Humphrey and Joy Yandell, are Mixtape veterans. They’re joined for this new iteration of the musical by Angela Chatelain Avila, Marqell Edward Clayton, Janaya Mahealani Jones, A.J. Mendoza and Shawn W. Smith. Their stamina and enthusiasm are impressive, as are the choreography by co-creator (Colleen Kollar) Smith and the slew of period costumes designed by Jemima Dutra. Colorful and commemorative projections designed by Michael McKeon enhance the trip back in time.
Mixtape resorts to a little piety and preachiness (cue U2) on its way to concluding, but the majority of the stage time is devoted to the MTV-driven visual flash and musical eclecticism that defined the 1980s. For Gen-Xers with long memories, that’s as good as it gets.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/3/19.)
Meredith Garretson and Jon Orsini in "As You Like It." Photo by Jim Cox
Who wouldn’t want to escape to the Forest of Arden brought to life in the Old Globe’s new production of As You Like It? The pastoral setting designed by Tobin Ost is peaceful, even magical. The atmospheric lighting by Stephen Strawbridge is ideal for both the romance and the harmless intrigue of perhaps Shakespeare’s most beloved comedy. There’s original music by Obadiah Eaves that throughout evokes the lighthearted emotional intensities of characters brazen, bold and hopelessly smitten. In short, this is a forest where it’s easy to believe in love at first sight.
As You Like It opens the Old Globe’s 2019 Summer Shakespeare Festival on the outdoor Lowell Davies stage. To direct, the Globe selected Jessica Stone, whose credits for the theater include a charming Barefoot in the Park last year and a cleverly conceived Ken Ludwig’s Robin Hood! the year before, both in the intimate Sheryl and Harvey White space. This is Stone’s first time directing Shakespeare and she has just the right touch. This As You Like It is as heady and exhilarated as first love without ever turning silly.
Its tale is much told: Young Rosalind (Meredith Garretson) is banished from the duchy of her uncle, who has usurped her father (both dukes are portrayed by Cornell Womack). Already Rosalind has met and fallen for the dashing gentleman Orlando (Jon Orsini), and upon settling in the Forest of Arden with her cousin (Nikki Massoud) and Touchstone the clown (Vincent Randazzo) she again encounters Orlando, who has fled his own home. Learning of his love for her too, Rosalind disguises herself as a gentleman and, naturally, delightful complications ensue.
Besides Garretson, who brings tremendous charisma to her role, the Globe cast features Mark H. Dold, stealing moments as the melancholy Jaques. It is he who famously observes that “All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players.”
Given this play and the other Shakespeare offering that will be produced on the Festival Stage beginning in August, Romeo and Juliet, 2019’s summer at the Old Globe could be considered the “Summer of Love.” Now that’s worth celebrating.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/26/19.)
Alex Guzman and Leigh Ellen Akin in "Move Over, Mrs. Markham." Photo by Ken Jacques
What’s the opposite of a morality play?
“Move Over, Mrs. Markham.” But it’s all in fun. The 50-year-old farce by Ray Cooney and John Chapman is chock full – make that beyond chock full – of never-quite-consummated sexual indiscretions. No wonder that the round-shaped bed is the most prominent set piece in this wacky comedy of innuendo and on-the-fly impersonations.
Scripps Ranch Theatre’s production of “Move Over, Mrs. Markham” directed by Francis Gercke is breathlessly paced (especially in Act 2) and, to the credit of Gercke and his cast, the actors avoid soaring over the top even when the convoluted script itself does.
Joanna Markham, charmingly portrayed by Leigh Ellen Akin, and her husband Philip (Alex Guzman, in top comedic form), find their unexciting evening and unexciting marriage fueled for fire when each assents to accommodating a married friend (portrayed by Kate Rose Reynolds and John DeCarlo, respectively) who desires to use their London flat for a tryst while the Markhams are out for the night. Naturally the philandering friends are married to each other. As if this weren’t crazily complicated enough, the Markhams’ ever-present interior decorator (Adam Daniel) is planning to use the same flat for his own tryst later with the housekeeper (Colette Culbertson). The jumping to conclusions and misunderstandings and near-misses in the bedroom that ensue are far too many to recount here, lest the plot be spoiled. Suffice to say this is an evening that the staid Markhams will not soon forget.
Akin and Guzman are the standouts among the ensemble and also the two members of the cast most comfortable in and believable assaying British accents. The true feat of this Scripps Ranch production is the seamless coming and going of the players on the theater’s small stage. Timing, as you know, is everything. Especially in comedy.
“Move Over, Mrs. Markham” runs through June 30.
No two ways about it: The bloodthirsty, flesh-hungry plant Audrey II is the star of Little Shop of Horrors. When she (Eboni Muse) first bellows “Feed me!”, the horror side of Little Shop comes to startling life. Clad in a spectacularly garish costume designed by Amanda Quivey, Muse makes a wildly sinister diva queen.
New Village Arts’ Little Shop of Horrors directed by AJ Knox enjoys a delightful ensemble too, led by Sittichai Chaiyahat as the man-eating plant’s nerdy minder, Seymour. As his co-worker love interest Audrey, the dependable Cashae Monya brings out the lovelier side of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s kitschy songs, while a ubiquitous singing trio (Chris Bona, Natasha Baenisch and Patricia Jewel) evokes the ‘50s when socks were for hopping and B-grade horror movies reigned at drive-ins. Mr. Mushnik of the original musical is Mrs. Mushnik here, with Melissa Fernandes superb in the role, and Philip David Black nails it as sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello. After a strong opening act, the show bogs down a bit, but Audrey II satisfyingly chews the scenery throughout.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/19/19.)
Jamie Torcellini (left) and Larry Raben in "The Producers." Photo by Ken Jacques
Only a Mel Brooks show can still get laughs with the “Walk this way” sight gag. No one can get away with broad, irreverent and politically incorrect comedy like Brooks can, which makes The Producers musical based on his 1968 film such a guilty pleasure. The family-minded Moonlight Stage Productions has opened its 39th summer season with one for the grown-ups. Its staging of the 2001 musical does not disappoint either.
The production reunites actors Jamie Torcellini and Larry Raben, who played the lead and second banana respectively in Moonlight’s 2013 Young Frankenstein. This time around, Torcellini stars as sleazy Broadway producer Max Bialystock, with Raben (who also directs) as timid account Leo Bloom. They’re both in fine form, as are Josh Adamson, Luke H. Jacobs and Max Cadillac in uproarious supporting roles. Moonlight’s orchestra conducted by Lyndon Pugeda is big time, too. The Producers is an irresistible farce still capable of shocking first-time viewers.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/19/19)
At La Jolla Playhouse, the world premiere of Ike Holter’s Put Your House in Order takes a budding millennial-style romance and morphs it into a predatory horror story. The transformation isn’t completely seamless. Caroline’s (Shannon Matesky) and Rolan’s (Behzad Dabu) getting to know each other at her upscale suburban house (designed for maximum curb appeal by Arnel Sancianco) is a tiring exercise in riffing and flirty put-downs. The mood changes with the arrival of a wild-eyed neighbor, Josephine (Linda Libby), whose brandishing of a gun is only the start of the manic chaos that follows.
Playwright Holter’s end-of-the-world motif is heightened in this production by the sounds of sirens, gunshots and the unintelligible rumblings of a growing mob. Caroline and Rolan become survivalists, while Josephine completely whacks out (which has to be a total treat for Libby). Put Your House in Order is frankly more engrossing for its special effects and unseen dangers than in it is for those subject to them. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/12/19.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat