Preston Truman Boyd (left) and Nick Cartell square off in "Les Miserables." Matthew Murphy photo
Just as reading Victor Hugo’s voluminous 1862 novel “Les Miserables” is a major commitment of time, so is seeing the 40-plus-year-old musical based on it what has become one of the standards of modern-day musical theater. I ought to know. I’ve seen “Les Mis” three or four times, the most recent this week at the Civic Theatre downtown where a touring production is in residence through Oct. 15.
You sit there for three hours and digest a subplot-packed tale of good vs. evil, revolution, romance, reclamation and a helluva lot more. I’m a sucker for this show, I admit. It’s too long. It’s bombastic. It traffics in sentiment. But it’s just so damned good.
Broadway San Diego’s brought a national touring production of the sung-through “Les Mis” to the Civic Theatre downtown. It’s hard to imagine there are theatergoers who’ve never seen this epic show for which Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer wrote the music and lyrics. (As to credit for its book, start with Hugo, then add the authors of the original French text, Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel,, stir in additional material by James Fenton, shake vigorously with Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s adaptation, and you have this veritable classic.) It’s defensible what they say about “too many cooks” – seeing “Les Mis” again reminded me of a couple of plot points that really could have been excised for time, such as the unrequited love Eponine has for Marius, who as you will remember only has eyes for Cosette.
But I pick nits here. The fact that “Les Miserable” is so stuffed with song and narrative and is so sweeping is part of its longstanding appeal. After all, Hugo’s novel was thick enough to prop open a heavy door. Why should any kind of faithful adaptation be leaner?
The unquestioned star of this touring production is Nick Cartell playing Hugo’s redemptive hero, Jean Valjean. As my friend Pam Kragen with the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote recently, Cartell is nearing his 1,000th performance in the role. He has a remarkable voice, able to project an uncommon anguished sweetness as in the second-act “Bring Him Home,” in which he holds a note to astounding effect and earns deserved roars of approval from the audience.
In this touring production, Cartell is complemented by Preston Truman Boyd as Valjean’s base adversary, Javert. Boyd’s booming delivery overcomes acoustic issues that unfortunately Haley Dortch as the tragic Fantine is unable to.
Though her role, as I said, seems like it only pads the narrative, Phoenix Best is the best among the production’s female vocalists as Eponine. Her tender “On My Own” is an inspiring way to begin Act Two of the show.
For all its grimness and sincerity, “Les Mis” wouldn’t be “Les Mis” without the debauched Thenardier character and his bawdy wife. Matt Crowle and Victoria Huston-Elem are understandable crowd pleasers, low that their characters may be. Well, are.
With a little help from George Costanza in the memorable “Seinfeld” episode “The Jacket,” the boisterous “Master of the House” number is, in some people’s minds, the best known tune from “Les Miserables.” Les Thenardiers are unleashed and hilarious.
This touring production is impressively staged by Geoffrey Garratt, with scene-changing projections by Finn Ross and Fifty-Nine Productions and emotive lighting by Paule Constable. The sets, from the rowdy inn to the revolutionists’ barricade, are big-time.
Also effective and visceral are the re-creations of battle from the heights of the rebels’ barricade, with gun noises, pops, explosions and even powder smells filling the theater.
So … have I seen “Les Mis” enough times now? Can I close the book on it as I have for, say, “Chicago” or “A Chorus Line”?
I don’t think so. It’s a bigger, better show than either of those, and when it comes around again, whenever that may be, I’ll probably once more be brushing up on my Hugo, my French and my “Master of the House” lyrics.
“Les Miserables” runs through Oct. 15 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
David Shih (left) is the dominant and domineering Mitsuo in "Sumo." Photo by Rich Soublet II
Admittedly if I were to draw up a list of things I’m not particularly interested in, sumo wrestling would be on it, along with the likes of Sanskrit, fry cooking and orthomolecular medicine.
But like any well-told yarn, playwright Lisa Sanaye Dring’s “Sumo” is a PEOPLE story. (I write that in capital letters because it’s that important not only to a successful play but to a film, a TV show, anything with a narrative component.) What begins as an education into a world little known to most, that of Japanese sumo wrestlers, becomes an immersive drama, sprinkled with moments of playfulness. You come to care and feel for “Sumo’s” protagonist, young Akio (Scott Keiji Takeda) who dreams of achieving the peak rank of Yokozuna, as well as others who reside in the Tokyo training “stable” where at the outset of the play his job is to sweep and clean.
In the same way, Dring builds empathy for the others in the stable by humanizing each character. They may be men of prodigious strength and girth, but they are also shown to be individuals with insecurities, anxieties, manufactured masculine superiority and sensitivities.
In partnership with New York’s Ma-Yi Theater Company, La Jolla Playhouse is presenting the world premiere of Dring’s play, the 10th from its DNA Workshop to be produced on a mainstage in La Jolla. Ralph B. Pena, Ma-Yi Theater’s artistic director, directs an ensemble of 10, very ably assisted by among others the production’s fight director, Chelsea Pace, and cultural and martial arts consultant James Yaegashi.
My only experience with sumo wrestling being a brief sequence from the Bond film “You Only Live Twice,” which was filmed in Japan, I came into this production essentially without a clue. Counting on, apparently, most theatergoers being like myself, a goodly portion of “Sumo’s” first act is spent explaining both in action onstage and in utilizing Hana Kim’s projection design the hows, whys and wheretofores of the sport. I didn’t realize, for example, that the average sumo match between two wrestlers usually only lasts seconds.
Within the framework of this education in sumo is the introduction of Akio, who is eager to learn from the veterans around him, including the gruff and dismissive Mitsuo (David Shih), who has achieved the coveted distinction of being a Yokozuna and doesn’t want anyone to forget it.
While the more deliberate first act of “Sumo” is consumed with explaining the sport and its cultural roots, and establishing the various characters, Act Two brings several significant and even wrenching conflicts to the fore, including Akio’s betrayal of two fellow sumo trainees who are having a relationship. He also will ponder the price of trying to become what Mitsuo and the rarefied others like him have become.
These two developments, each in their own way, pack an emotional wallop. Yet the play’s turning points are neither preachy nor heavy-handed . One moment of reckoning for Akio, when he comes to terms with his past and present, is staged with the night’s most poignant and bursting use of color and technical effects.
This is a superior technical team overall, from Wilson Chin’s scenic design to Mariko Ohigashi’s costumes to the aforementioned Hana Kim. Setting the mood and propelling the pulse of the show from above is taiko drummer Shih-Wei Wu.
It should be noted that “Sumo” is not all navel gazing – as if these guys could see their navels. Demonstrating that even wrestlers cooped up together can bust loose and have fun, there’s a likably wacky karaoke scene. Somewhere the Spice Girls’ ears have to be burning.
“Sumo” runs through Oct. 22 in La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum.
Alaudin Ullah (left) and Avirodh Sharma in "Dishwasher Dreams." Photo by Rich Soublet II
I wish that everyone who owns a MAGA cap could see a performance of Alaudin Ullah’s solo show “Dishwasher Dreams.” If plain facts can’t persuade them that there’s hard work, sacrifice and even tenderness in the immigrant experience, maybe this autobiographical story of Ullah and his Bengali family could.
There’s also great value in what Ullah has to share about being Muslim and about what ignorant people think Muslims are.
OK, I acknowledge I’m getting all political here, but Ullah’s “Dishwasher Dreams,” directed by Chay Yew, is not a political piece. A onetime standup comic with “Comedy Central,” HBO and MTV credits to his name, Ullah utilizes humor and lots of it to tell the tales of his Bengali parents, his own experiences in his two homelands (Bangladesh and the United States) and a career that has taken him from the standup stage to theaters like the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White space where “Dishwasher Dreams” is in production.
Ullah’s most strident commentary has to do with how Muslims are perceived, in particular by Hollywood. He re-creates near the end of the 100-minute show an audition he did for suits who wanted him to spout stereotypical (and offensive) “Muslim terrorists” dialogue.
But the lion’s share of “Dishwasher Dreams” is comprised of Ullah’s breathless storytelling: about his dishwasher father’s life in Spanish Harlem; about his mother and the life she would go on to lead in America as well; about the “magic” of Yankee Stadium, how for a wide-eyed boy it became another “Mecca” with Reggie Jackson his adored idol; how a visit back home to Bangladesh as a boy forged a friendship that ultimately had a tragic ending.
Accompanying Ullah, who under Yew’s direction flits from place to place on the White theater-in-the-round stage, is tabla musician Avirodh Sharma. (He also delightfully warms up the audience before the show starts.) Though Ullah’s delivery and cultural references are those you might anticipate from any seasoned standup performer, there is always the awareness of his heritage, of the fun he can have with it but the deep pride he falls about it.
An early influence was George Carlin, who among other things showed Ullah that joking about religion can pay off. The legendary comedian who made famous “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV” was almost as big a hero to Ullah as was Mr. October, the Yankees’ indomitable Jackson.
What surprised me about this show, especially after I’d interviewed Ullah for a San Diego Union-Tribune feature story and found him just hilarious, was how touching “Dishwasher Dreams” is. There are moments that catch in your throat, proving that when it comes to families so much is universal among nations, among peoples, among ethnicities.
A hundred minutes is a lot for a one-person affair, but “Dishwasher Dreams” is a consistently compelling audience experience.
“Dishwasher Dreams” runs through Oct. 15 in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park.
Gabriel Ebert (as Thompson, left) and George Abud as Richard Nixon (right) in "The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical." Photo by Rich Soublet II
If Hunter S. Thompson were alive to see “The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical” that’s world-premiering at La Jolla Playhouse he’d probably think … aah, who cares what he’d think? He probably wouldn’t like it. So what?
Whether this musical by Joe Iconis (music and lyrics) and Gregory S. Moss (collaborator with Iconis on the book) is an accurate portrayal of the life of so-called “gonzo journalist” Thompson will depend on who you ask. Raise your hand if you’ve read “Hell’s Angels,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72” and “The Rum Diary” – a sampling of Thompson’s most notable, or notorious works. I thought so. Many if not most people over 40 have heard of Thompson and can visualize him in his bucket hat and aviator shades, but have they really, truly read the rambling, counterculture “New Journalism” with which he is credited as having pioneered?
This is not to say I believe Thompson was a hack and a mere opportunist. Cynical and incendiary as he could be, he did make genuinely pointed observations about the purported American Dream that was and is impossible to attain, and his stinging contempt for liars in office (hello, Richard Nixon!) was unrestrained and far more potent than any mainstream political commentary.
For all his anti-Republicanism, anti-war passion and celebration of the freaks who were not part of The Establishment, Thompson was a drug addict and a gun nut, and it was no surprise that he became a cartoon character in the eyes of many observers, including Garry Trudeau who lampooned Thompson as the amoral Uncle Duke in his popular “Doonesbury” strip.
The Playhouse’s scattershot but entertaining-as-hell musical, the roots of which go back more than 15 years when Iconis floated the idea to then-new Artistic Director Christopher Ashley, attempts to tell Thompson’s life story chronologically. That means starting with a boy in Kentucky whose weird librarian mom brings home books for him to read, like “The Great Gatsby,” and winding up with the depressed and deteriorating Thompson (Gabriel Ebert) considering his mortality. (There’s a slam-bang ending too good to spoil here.)
Along Thompson’s staggering, swearing, booze-swilling and drug-doing journey to gonzo status, everything but the proverbial kitchen sink finds its way into a lengthy first act: Hells Angels, Derby Day at Churchill Downs, Haight-Ashbury hippies, Chicano activists, Vegas excess and of course Richard Milhouse Nixon, played with glowering, boasting magic by George Abud. He’s the star of every scene he’s in at the Playhouse. Who knew any caricature of Tricky Dick could be this captivating?
The scenic design by Wilson Chin depicts Thompson’s Woody Creek, Colorado digs. It’s an incredibly detailed, cluttered wall of animal trophy heads, clocks, posters, wild illustrations and assorted cultural detritus of the time -- a perfect backdrop to the psychedelic chaos, anger and energy that must have been raging in Thompson’s head.
In fact, “The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson” musical is in essence a show that could all be taking place inside this American antihero’s head: parties, political conventions, peacocks, et al. This may not be the only way to appreciate this show, but it’s one way.
The second act, which starts promisingly with Thompson’s infatuation with George McGovern and his foredoomed run for the presidency in 1972, sinks into rather familiar theater tropes from then on, even flirting with sentimentality. It’s a comedown from the organized frenzy of Act One (though that aforementioned ending is a salvager.)
Not to be underestimated in this production are the consistently tuneful songs composed by Iconis, a Broadway veteran and cabaret singer-songwriter himself. This show is divided into parts (six in the first act, three in the second), all of them featuring numbers varying in atmosphere from anarchic (“Hell’s Angels Theme Song”) to solemn (“Freedom Song”) to fiery (“Song of the Brown Buffalo”) to stirring (“Wavesong”). The latter, which closes Act One, begins with solo piano and swells into an anthem that has to be among the most moving songs the prolific Iconis has ever written.
Most of the musical highlights are sung not by Ebert as Thompson but by the supporting characters: Jason SweetTooth Williams’ (playing Thompson collaborator, the illustrator Ralph Steadman) “Steadman’s Song”; Jeannette Bayardelle’s “Jann Wenner”; George Salazar’s “… Brown Buffalo”; Marcy Harriell, playing Thompson’s exploited and eventually abused wife, Sandy, doing a pained and passionate breakup song. There is some over-singing going on with the ballads, which may please Broadway-minded audiences but which feels at odds with the rebellious nature of the show as a whole.
Abud’s Nixon has his “Big Number” at the beginning of the second act, and like every Nixon moment (including a skimpy skate across the stage) it works beautifully and resides very much in the spirit of this manufactured ego-war between two icons of the ‘70s. The script’s posturing them as mirror images of each other is a narrative stretch, however.
Both the choreography by Jon Rua and a first-class, cooking band conducted by Rick Edinger heighten the exhilaration and the delirium of the proceedings. Puppetry from Animal Cracker Conspiracy, fixtures at La Jolla Playhouse’s recurring WOW Festivals, can only add to the surrealism of Gonzo World.
As for the gonzo man himself, Ebert is tasked with the nearly impossible prospect of making Thompson at all sympathetic. “Doctor” Hunter S. Thompson was not a nice person, to put it mildly. There’s also the burden of inevitable comparisons to Bill Murray’s or Johnny Depp’s memorable big-screen portrayals of Thompson.
Let’s just say Ebert is fine. He looks and moves the part, and relies on his supporting cast to do the musical heavy lifting.
Christopher Ashley knows well how to direct BIG musicals like this one, and he’s a Hunter Thompson fan. The freewheeling mayhem and indulgence in countercultural touchstones of this show are obviously in very deft hands.
“The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical” is more than anything else a courageous undertaking. It’s also surprising. I never thought I’d want to see more of Richard Nixon.
“The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical” runs through Oct. 8 in La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre.
Phil Johnson (left) and David McBean in "The Savoyard Murders." Photo by Ken Jacques
It’s too bad people keep getting knocked off at Tiberius Spriggs’ party. It looks like a blast. Actually, with the arrival of a gun in its midst, the party turns into a blast.
This is the orchestrated chaos of Omri Schein’s “The Savoyard Murders,” staged by the Roustabouts Theatre Company and co-directed by Schein and Phil Johnson, who also stars as Spriggs, a mischievous theater critic and impassioned devotee of the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Schein, himself a gifted comic actor in town, is also a longtime fan of the Queen of Mystery, Agatha Christie. No doubt that in part inspired his script for this world-premiere. In the handout program for “The Savoyard Murders,” Schein also cites the B-movies of Vincent Price as an influence.
There is indeed a mystery at the heart of this two-hour comedy, but it’s not to be taken very seriously. “The Savoyard Murders” rather is an opportunity to enjoy a troupe of game actors playing a murder game and milking every possible laugh from an audience that they can while doing so.
That this is attempted at Scripps Ranch Theatre’s awkward Legler Benbough space is both boon and bane. On the plus side, the tight environs heighten the claustrophobic energy of the little soiree Spriggs has thrown. On the negative, it’s occasionally hard to hear everyone onstage unless you’re seated smack dab in the middle of the theater.
Now – to the story.
Johnson’s dancing eyes as Spriggs telegraph right away that this party has an ulterior motive. His guests catch on pretty quickly too: timid milliner Ezra Dibble (Elliott Goretsky), vampy actress Rowena Rawlings (Taylor Henderson), an actor with a booming bass, Cyrus Schock (Durwood Murray), histrionic matron Desdemona Chatfield-Snarr (Wendy Waddell) and snooty director Balthazar Bellwood (Daren Scott). With the exception of the nervous Dibble, they’re all so wrapped up in their own egos to brace themselves for the worst.
Completing the ensemble and damned near walking away with the whole show is David McBean, portraying not only Spriggs’ manservant Grizzle, but a gaggle of murder victims whose tales are told in flashback. Their names – Peregrine Scattergood, Albert Mogg, Euphoria Barrick, Primrose Cabbage and Millicent Maggot – aren’t half as hilarious as McBean himself, who in a variety of wigs and crazy accents makes every cameo a memorable one.
The conceit of Schein’s script is that each of the murders is cleverly connected to one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, posters for which are conveniently hung on the wall of Spriggs’ 1920s London flat. They include “The Sorcerer,” “Patience,” “Iolanthe,” “The Mikado” and “H.M.S. Pinafore.” I know I’m leaving one or two out, but unlike Spriggs and Bellwood, who claims he’s discovered a never-produced G&S work, I’m not a comic opera fan.
Don’t have to be to giggle at “The Savoyard Murders,” which in spite of being perhaps a half-hour longer and more complicated than it needs to be is full-on silly fun. “Co-starring” with this cast are the various wigs by Peter Herman, Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ period costumes and scenic design by Yi-Chien Lee that is as posh as is possible and is certainly functional.
Everyone emotes with carte blanche, which in this production is practically a prerequisite. Johnson, as the action’s master of ceremonies, is in his element.
To Schein’s credit, his mystery is populated with well-crafted red herrings, and the ending is a surprise.
If you’re depressed about the state of the world or about anything else, “The Savoyard Murders” is surely a show to escape into.
“The Savoyard Murders” runs through Sept. 30 at the Legler Benbough Theatre at Allied International University in Scripps Ranch.
Here's the signature moment from the Old Globe's production of "Cabaret." Photo by Jim Cox
“Cabaret” is one of those legacy musicals I can see over and over again and never tire of, like “West Side Story” or “Fiddler on the Roof.” In just the past 12 months, I had three opportunities to do so: in summer 2022 at Cygnet Theatre, this past spring at San Diego State in a School of Theatre, Television, and Film production, and now at the Old Globe, which has remounted a staging by director-choreographer Josh Rhodes that was presented at Asolo Repertory Theatre at Florida State University.
Rhodes’ “Cabaret” isn’t exactly reinvented – more like reimagined. Its depiction of the Kit Kat Klub and its inhabitants diverges from most productions of the Kander & Ebb musical. Rather than being a seedy dive, this ‘30s Berlin cabaret is slick, sparkling and equipped with handy-dandy stage devices like a mechanical quarter-moon that lowers and elevates chanteuse Sally Bowles while she sings “Mein Herr.” The Kit Kat dancers, male and female, are most often clad in the requisite “Cabaret” S&M-wear, but they look and move like a well-timed Broadway chorus line. Most deviating from of all from other “Cabarets,” neither Sally (Joanna A. Jones) nor the Emcee of the club’s proceedings (Lincoln Clauss, who’s come west from Asolo) is portrayed as a mere amateur performer frolicking in decadent environs, getting by on raw panache and destined to play to patrons no more sophisticated than those boozing away in the Kit Kat.
In this “Cabaret” they’re all but seasoned pro’s, regardless of Sally’s self-defeating narcissism and the Emcee’s garish showmanship. This British Sally could be on the London stage with royalty applauding in the audience.
All of the supporting “Cabaret” characters are here: Cliff Bradshaw (Alan Chandler), the aspiring and closeted American novelist who falls for Sally; Fraulein Schneider (Kelly Lester), stern owner of the boarding house in which most of the non-Kit Kat Klub action takes place; Herr Schultz (Bruce Sabath), the sweet German Jewish fruit seller who loves her; Fraulein Kost (Abby Church), the sassy prostitute in Schneider’s boarding house with an endless parade of johns in sailor suits; and Ernst Ludwig (Alex Gibson), the Nazi smuggler who initially befriends Cliff and turns out to literally wear his loyalty to the Fuhrer on his sleeve.
The romance between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, in this production, is given just about equal focus to that of the Cliff/Sally relationship. To some extent, it even overshadows the trials of our younger lovers.
The chief problem for me is that no one in the story, including this Sally Bowles, makes me want to care about them or their fate. Unlike other “Cabarets” I’ve seen, this one to me does not elicit a visceral emotional connection to its characters. Further, the elaborate set pieces and wonderful choreography and creative costumes are the dominant components of this staging. In a way they even diminish the shock value of the darker undercurrent of “Cabaret”: the encroachment of the evil Nazi influence on German society.
I kept waiting to be moved, to be startled, to be numbed as I have before with “Cabaret.” It didn’t really happen until the very, very end. In this production the haunting “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” never penetrates the skin. Sally’s rendition of the title song is more rattled than brokedown. Fraulein Schneider’s pained and quixotic “What Would You Do?” should be heartbroken. It feels overproduced.
Of course the Kander & Ebb songs are timeless as ever. Clauss and the ensemble have raucous fun with the opening “Willkommen,” with “Two Ladies” and with “Money.” As for “If You Could See Her” in Act 2, why the Emcee is paired with a Kit Kat Girl Rosie (Amy Smith) in pig nose and tail instead of the usual “Cabaret” gorilla, I don’t know. The change must have been intentional. Sorry. I missed the gorilla.
While Sally’s wistful “Maybe This Time” is presented as a torchy solo with Grammy aspirations, the staging of the Emcee’s cynical ballad “I Don’t Care Much” is absolutely brilliant -- the best moment in the entire production. Clauss appears to be a disembodied head aloft like a balloon beside a headless body. It makes a dramatic comment about the disassociation some in Germany made from the Nazi threat at the time, and we all know what the consequences of that were.
With its magnificent orchestra directed by Robert Meffe perched above the stage and impeccable production values, this “Cabaret” delivers worth-the-price-of-your-ticket entertainment. What it doesn’t do enough is leave your heart in your throat.
“Cabaret” runs through Oct. 8 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
Nothing like a quiet get-together at the Weston house in "August: Osage County." Pine & Pebble Photography
Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” is that rare play possessing genuine literary texture and rhythm but at the same time populated by characters so real and so stripped of all pretense that they could be any of us, mostly at our worst.
Without its moments of tenderness, the three-hour fusillade of family crises and resentments would be just about unbearable. Inflicting and absorbing pain is a pastime in the small-town Oklahoma home of the Westons. Letts’ unrelenting drama compels the audience not to look away but to reflect on both “August’s” eruptions and its devastating aftermaths. What it has to say about a family stricken by addiction, illness and the sheer fragility of being human is, sad but true, universal.
Produced only once before in San Diego, 12 years ago at the Old Globe, “August: Osage County” has returned in a staging by Backyard Renaissance that is a major achievement in the 8-year-old theater company’s rich and frequently bold history. How riveting is this production? Put it this way -- it’s inevitable that one will, as audience members are urged to do before the show, “sit FORWARD and enjoy.”
“August: Osage County” opens benignly enough, with patriarch and errant poet Beverly Weston (Robert Smyth) interviewing a prospective caregiver and cook, the Native American Johnna Monevata (Faith Carrion), all the while boozing and meandering over the wisdoms of T.S. Eliot. The weaving, incoherent arrival of wife Violet (Deborah Gilmour Smyth) suggests that this is a job Johnna should run from. Yet she agrees to stay.
Beverly is not seen again. It is subsequently revealed that he has disappeared and has been missing for five days by the time distant family members begin to arrive to join those already on the scene, ostensibly to support a frantic and disoriented Violet. Imagine the worst Thanksgiving Week get-together of your life, multiply its dysfunction and confrontations by 10, then double that.
The eldest of Beverly and Violet’s three daughters, Barbara (Jessica John), has come from Colorado with her estranged husband Bill (John DeCarlo) and disaffected teenage daughter Jean (Ava Smithmier). The couple is at each other’s throats from the very start, leaving Jean to retreat wherever she can to get high – at first to Johnna’s loft bedroom upstairs.
Daughter Ivy (Megan Carmitchel) lives nearby and it’s clear that she has secrets that she has no intention of sharing, in spite of the badgering from her mother and the ubiquitous Aunt Mattie Fae Aiken (Maggie Carney). Ivy has borne the load of tending to the erratic Violet’s needs and also taken the brunt of her mother’s ire and hysterics. (This will change the longer that Barbara, who gives as good as she gets when it comes to Violet, is on the premises.)
Before the third Weston daughter, Karen (Kay Marian McNellen), arrives from Florida, the household is roused very early in the morning by the sheriff of Pawhuska, Deon Gilbreau (Justin Lang) with the news that Beverly has been found dead near his boat, drowned from a suspected suicide.
Can things get any worse?
Daughter Karen, accompanied by her fiancé Steve (Rob Lutfy), can only twitter about her engagement and a dreamed trip to Belize. She seems not to give a good goddamn about either of her parents – she’s having too much fun. As for Steve, he’ll show himself to be quirky and creepy before story’s end.
Aunt Mattie Fae and her husband, the well-meaning but rather bumbling Charlie (Jacob Bruce), have brought with them their loner grown son “Little Charlie” (Anthony Methvin). His sub-story will be one of “August’s” most wrenching.
A funeral-day meal with the entire family around the table becomes an arena for Violet’s rage, cruelty and histrionics, reaching the point that Barbara can stand no more. The climax of Act 2 is a near-brawl with pills flying everywhere.
Act 3 brings more shocks. Ultimately, the closing line of the play, from Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” is stark and fitting.
Backyard Renaissance co-founder (with John and Methvin) Francis Gercke expertly meets the challenges of directing this incredibly complex production. At times there are a dozen actors onstage at once. Conversations intertwine and emanate at full volume from multiple points – the living room, the dining room, the alcove and doorway, the staircase that leads upstairs. Just as fluid is “August’s” shifting tone and atmosphere – three acts’ worth of tension, explosiveness and despair.
This large cast is the one of the most gifted ensembles assembled for a dramatic production in some time locally, rivaling New Village Arts’ equally sprawling “The Ferryman” earlier this year. It’s an all-star contingent that one and all deliver memorable performances.
At the forefront is Deborah Gilmour Smyth as cancer-ridden and drug-ravaged Violet Weston. One of the most fiercely no-holds-barred dramatic roles of the 21st century, playwright Letts’ Violet is a broken but unbowed woman whose meanness and self-destruction know no bounds. With her every nuance of physicality and each cutting criticism, Smyth makes Violet a volatile, unpredictable figure who fosters dread and anxiety whenever she joins the battleground that is the Weston house.
Nancy Friday’s landmark treatise on the interdependency and psychology of the mother-daughter relationship, “My Mother/My Self” could well have been written about Violet and Barbara, who all but tear each other’s hearts and guts out in “August: Osage County” and yet understand (and maybe love?) each other as no two other members of the family can.
This production features one of Jessica John’s most shattering and yet poignant performances as Barbara, who in the midst of her own world crashing down, somehow appoints herself the family fixer – at the cost of her own elusive longing for happiness.
With its exceptional acting turns, Backyard’s “August: Osage County” has technical support to match. The set by Tony Cucuzzella is a marvel at how it works in the small Tenth Avenue environs. Befitting the story, it’s both roomy and claustrophobic.
Lighting by Erik Montierth facilitates all the sensitivity required in the production’s most solitary moments, as when Violet, in the presence of Beverly’s shelves of books, curses the husband who left her, and when Barbara, numb with grief, sits by herself after her husband and daughter have left her.
I’ve always believed that the running time of a theatrical production or film doesn’t matter if the excellence is there.
It’s here. Make no mistake.
“August: Osage County” runs through Sept. 16 at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center downtown.
Kylie Young (left) and Katee Drysdale in "Cry It Out." Photo by Daren Scott
Jessie just had a baby. Now she’s got a serious case of mommy-it is.
Lina just had a baby. No worries. She’s got this.
Adrienne just had a baby. She’s angry – about everything.
New motherhood, with its highest of highs and lowest of lows, is the subject of Molly Smith Metzler’s “Cry It Out,” a 90-minute drama that is kicking off Moxie Theatre’s 19th season and is its first curated show from new executive artistic director Desiree Clarke Miller. Vanessa Duron, Moxie’s associate artistic director, directs this production that stars Katee Drysdale as Jessie, Kylie Young as Lina, Leah Morgan as Adrienne and Alex Guzman as Adrienne’s harried husband Mitchell.
Obviously I’ve never had a baby and I’ve never even had one around the house, so I can’t fully appreciate the joys and trials of motherhood. What I can appreciate are the feelings that must be overwhelming, especially to new mothers, who not only have gone through the physical demands of bringing a new life into the world but the emotional and psychological challenges that follow, including the upturning of the lives they once knew.
“Cry It Out” attempts to articulate these feelings and challenges. That it takes an hour and a half to do so feels redundant, and the unexpected and flat ending adds up to a rather unsatisfying play that mines familiar territory.
Sincere performances by both Drysdale, also exceptional earlier this year in Scripps Ranch Theatre’s “Lost in Yonkers,” and Young can’t make up for the middling script. The cultivated sounding Jessie, a successful attorney on the verge of partnership, and Lena, a hospital worker living with her baby daddy and his alcoholic mother, become fast friends, hanging out in Jessie’s backyard with their smartphones functioning as baby-cams. The more brash, cynical Lina also boasts the thick Long Island accent. They’re like Mary and Rhoda 50 years later: Sweet, unselfish Jessie almost too nice to be true, and the earthier, wisecracking Lina, refusing to take crap from anyone.
But here’s where the credibility is stretched. We’re told that a neighbor up the hill, Mitchell, has been watching the two friends during their between-baby-care coffee klatches in the yard THROUGH A TELESCOPE. He shows up at the backyard uninvited one day and asks them if his wife, who he says is showing zero interest in their new baby, can hang out with them. Sweet, unselfish Jessie assents, even though wisecracking (and the more wise) Lina thinks it’s a nervy, crackpot idea.
Mitchell’s wife proves Lina right when she does show up, having been driven over by a nanny (one with a graduate degree in child development, of course), and proceeds to give new meaning to the word rude.
Sweet Jessie’s reaction is to be concerned and to worry and wonder about rude Adrienne constantly and to continue to invite her over again. Lina? Not buying it.
Where this heads is not good, for any of them.
So Metzler’s point? Motherhood is hard? No two (or three) mothers are the same? There’s no handbook for the job?
I think she wants to comment on the crisis young working mothers endure when deciding between their jobs and staying home with their new babies. But these Long Islanders, Lina’s financial woes notwithstanding, don’t seem representative of the kinds of mothers who really and truly ache to the core when trying to make such a decision.
The title of the play suggests too that emotions shouldn’t be suppressed in making these trying decisions, that it indeed is better to cry it out.
That doesn’t get sweet Jessie anywhere, and the same could be said for the more sympathetic Lina. As for Adrienne, her character is drawn so one-note that when she tries to get real late in the play, it isn’t at all convincing.
Drysdale can’t help but be winning even with the limitations of her role. Minus the too-heavy accent, Young is a genuine presence in those backyard coffee klatches. Morgan is saddled with that aforementioned one-note role – the most dramatic thing she gets to do is throw eggs at Jessie’s house.
Guzman does a mighty fine panic attack; otherwise he’s compelled to be merely neurotic.
Alyssa Kane’s Manorhaven backyard is a pleasant place for Jessie and Lina to hang out, while the lighting by Sierra Shreves and Colby Freel organically change the setting from day to night or vice versa as called for.
The fact is, everybody tries their damnedest to make “Cry It Out” work, but there’s only so much that can be done with a play that comes with built-in narrative flaws and not enough true catharses.
“Cry It Out” runs through Sept. 10 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando.
Left to right: Britney Coleman, Will Burton, Isabella Esler and Justin Collette in "Beetlejuice The Musical,." Photo by Matthew Murphy
If the Grinch who appears onstage at the Old Globe every holiday season wore black and white stripes and had permission to spout pointed political commentary and be profane, you’d have Beetlejuice.
This occurred to me while in the audience of the national touring production of “Beetlejuice The Musical” at the Civic Theatre. Not just because both characters are howlingly funny and big – the Grinch bigger than life, Beetlejuice bigger than death – but in each show, the fun lessens when the star is not onstage.
Now it’s true that Michael Keaton, who starred in Tim Burton’s 1988 “Beetlejuice” film, was on screen only 15 minutes or so, but the movie’s spectacular and spooky effects ensured that its momentum was never slowed. In the stage musical written by Eddie Perfect (music and lyrics) with Scott Brown and Anthony King (the book) the Beetlejuice character is definitely more prominent than in the film, but in the second act he takes a back seat to the Lydia character, and little by little this show doesn’t seem that different from so many other Broadway adaptations of hit movies.
I’ll come back to this. First, a ‘lil history.
The “Beetlejuice” musical opened on Broadway in April 2019 and ran almost a year until it was forced to close, like everything else, by the onset of COVID. After a brief return to the Great White Way, this national tour began. Thus, many if not most people are seeing the show for the very first time. They’re seeing it in style too. At the Civic, quite a few folks were clad in various combinations of black and white stripes. This definitely contributed to the party atmosphere in the old downtown theater.
Perfect’s story is similar to but departs in relatively insignificant ways from the original “Beetlejuice” script by Michael McDowell, Warren Skaaren and Larry Wilson. Married couple Adam and Barbara Maitland (Will Burton and Britney Coleman) die together via electrocution in their “dream home” (in the film it’s a car accident) and find themselves on the Other Side. They learn from the dead but not deadpan Beetlejuice (Andrew Kober, who’s alternating in the strenuous part on tour with Justin Collette) that they can “keep” their house by haunting away the new owners: the get-rich-quick Charles Deetz (Jesse Sharp) and his depressed goth daughter Lydia (Isabella Esler).
That’s about it. The two-hours-plus show is otherwise occupied with parading out outlandish supporting characters including Charles’ mistress Delia (Katie Marilley), her guru Otho (Abe Goldfarb) and, in the Nether World, a creepy ensemble of ingeniously costumed dead folks.
As you’d expect “Beetlejuice” the musical, like the film, is mostly about its technologically born visuals. It’s garish, it’s ghoulish, it’s even got a giant sand worm. The all-stars who deserve standing o’s on this tour: William Ivey Long (costume design); David Korins (scenic design); Jeremy Chernick (special effects design), Michael Weber (magic and illusion design), and many others whom I apologize for not mentioning that make this show like an E-ticket ride at Disneyland. (Remember those, boomers?)
The musical score is not what you’d call hit-laden, but there are a number of rousers, such as the opening “The Whole ‘Being Dead’ Thing,” “Fright of Their Lives” and “Say My Name,” all from the first act, and both “What I Know Now” and “Creepy Old Guy” in the second. Yes, “The Banana Boat Song,” so memorable in the movie “Beetlejuice,” is here, and it’s a definite highlight in Act One.
It’s the staging of these songs that define them – kudos to director Alex Timbers and choreographer Connor Gallagher. The ballads, of the power variety and otherwise, are the province of young Esler, a performer beyond her years, though she doesn’t really elevate them above typical Broadway fare.
I’ve learned to live with and endure standard-issue balladry. My only genuine frustration with this production is that so many of the wickedly funny lyrics sung by the Beetlejuice character are lost in the accompanying music or in the sheer speed with which they’re required to be sung. Kluber makes the best of it and he is undeniably physical and funny. I’d like to compare his performance to Collette’s, but this is a red-hot ticket in town so I’m done with “Beetlejuice.”
Without question Esler is asked to carry the load in this production and certainly given her age, she does so with remarkable poise. Burton and Coleman are likable as the Maitlands while Marilley’s Delia is second only to the Beetlejuice character when it comes to comically commanding scenes.
I’ve read that Tim Burton had begun production on a sequel to the original “Beetlejuice” film, with both Keaton and co-star Winona Ryder, who played Lydia, returning. It’s been halted for the time being by the strikes in Hollywood. Seeing “Beetlejuice” the musical reminded me how much I enjoyed the movie those many years ago, and while sequels generally disappoint, especially those that arrive decades later, this one could be promising. As he showed in the otherwise dismal “The Flash,” Keaton has lost nothing off his fastball when it comes to signature characters he’s played (Batman in that case), and he likely would turn a “Beetlejuice 2” into “Showtime!” again.
All this being said, folks who’ve never seen the “Beetlejuice” movie will still enjoy the stage musical and the bio-exorcist showman whose name is on its marquee.
“Beetlejuice The Musical” presented by Broadway San Diego runs through Aug 20 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
Berto Fernandez and Ariella Kvashny in "Evita," Karli Cadel Photography
Like its predecessor “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Evita” was conceived as a rock musical and was released as a record album before ever being produced in a theater. While a strong case can be made that “JCS” is a rock ‘n’ roller, the ballad- and showtune-heavy “Evita” never felt like one. But these two have something inarguably in common: Both were smash hits on Broadway and have enjoyed productions around the world ever since their New York debuts (“Superstar” in 1971, “Evita” in 1979).
Cygnet Artistic Director Sean Murray told the opening night audience Saturday that he’d wanted to do “Evita” since 1978. That was the year of its West End debut. Murray’s dream has been realized: “Evita,” under his direction, is onstage in Old Town. With stout musical direction by Patrick Marion and brilliant choreography by Carlos Mendoza, Murray’s is an “Evita” to be proud of.
This production is not without a defect. The acoustic compatibility between the backstage band and the singing cast wavers. It’s often difficult to understand what the show’s narrator, the Argentine everyman Che (A.J. Mendoza) is saying in song. Likewise the star, the luminous Ariella Kvashny, whose lyrics are mostly lost when she sings in a higher register.
As for Lloyd Webber and Rice’s show itself, it’s true that “Evita” hinges principally on one song – “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” and its reprises – and as a nearly sung-through musical it can have a stagey, operatic feel. But at Cygnet this a dynamic “Evita” production. The kinetic and recurrent choreography of Mendoza’s and Blake McCarty’s newsreel-like projections behind the stage ensure that there’s always someone or something moving, giving the show momentum and view points. This “Evita” never falls into a lull.
I especially admired the tango dancers under the direction of Nicole Wooding whose movement provides a poignant parallel onstage to the courtship-to-music of actress Eva Duarte and Juan Peron (the towering Berto Fernandez), soon to be president of Argentina.
Cygnet’s stage is not an expansive one, but every inch is maximized to give the musical the sort of sweeping veneer that a story about change and turmoil in Argentina in the 1940s should possess.
The first act-closing, flag-waving “A New Argentina” is as rousing as the “Evita” I saw back in 1980 at the Shubert Theatre in Century City on its first national tour.
Any discussion of an “Evita” production, however, should rightly begin and end with the artist in the lead role. As Kvashny told me in a recent interview I did with her for The San Diego Union-Tribune, this part Is the biggest she’s ever had in her still young career.
And she nails it. In spite of the acoustic issues, she demonstrates her formidable vocal range and, wonderfully costumed (as is the cast as a whole) by Zoe Trautmann, Kvashny is a charismatic Eva who goes from good-time-girl to the most influential woman in the country in a stunningly short amount of time. Kvashny makes this transition credibly and her stage presence – the fuel of Eva Peron’s rise to prominence – is redoubtable.
Fernandez’s is the show’s booming voice, yet he brings appropriate sensitivity to the Peron who in the end must watch his beloved partner physically deteriorating.
Truth be told, I’ve never liked the Che device in “Evita.” (He’s not revolutionary Che Guevara, by the way.) It seems like a narrative contrivance, telling us throughout what we should already be thinking about this extraordinary woman who was saint to some, opportunist or hypocrite to others. This is not a criticism of actor A.J. Mendoza at all. He swaggers and comments just as the script prescribes.
This show’s crowd-pleasing character is Magaldi, the showman who is also Eva’s first lover and who brings her to Buenos Aires. The animated Matthew Malecki Martinez does not disappoint in the role.
“Evita” is bookended by the death of a woman who notably said “My biggest fear in life is to be forgotten.”
Fear not, Eva.
“Evita” runs through Oct. 1 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.