An audience-pleaser that started with Whoopi Goldberg in a film 27 years ago, Sister Act has been a subsequent stage hit as an Alan Menken-Glenn Slater musical for 13 years. Why? Crowds love funny funs. While the movie has Whoopi, the musical has knee-slapping, gaily choreographed ensemble numbers with the sisters like “Raise Your Voice,” “Take Me To Heaven” and the show-closing “Spread the Love Around.” Otherwise, Sister Act is about five songs longer than it should be.
San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of Sister Act is reliable and showbizzy, with the aptly named Miriam Dance in the starring role of Deloris Van Cartier, the aspiring performer who is hidden away in a convent for witness protection. Dance, along with Sandy Campbell as the Mother Superior, are first-rate. So is the orchestra conducted by Don Le Master. On opening night, the proceedings were plagued by some sound problems, but the rapt patrons didn’t seem to notice a bit.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 5/1/19.)
Jason Heil, Hannah Logan and Judy Bauerlein in "Sweat." Photo by Jim Carmody
Emotions run red-hot in Lynn Nottage’s deservedly Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Sweat. Plant workers in oppressed Reading, Pa. who are already surviving paycheck to paycheck face the loss of their jobs and identities as the company looks to Mexico for cheaper labor. When one of them, African-American Cynthia (Monique Gaffney), attains a management position, her white friends feel betrayed, and racial tension further roils the emotions.
San Diego Repertory Theatre’s production of Sweat, directed by Sam Woodhouse, is fiery and formidable, an impeccably acted two-plus hours that never relents in intensity. Besides Gaffney, the stellar cast includes Judy Bauerlein and Hannah Logan as Cynthia’s angry and rapidly deteriorating “ex friends,” Cortez Johnson as her conflicted son Chris, and Steve Froehlich as the truly frightening Jason, who will become a white supremacist. The play shifts between the year 2000 and eight years later, when ex-cons Chris and Jason are seen with a parole officer (Antonio T.J. Johnson). For a work that travels not only through time but along the sharp edges of social and political spectra, Sweat is masterfully grounded in stark human tragedies. This is one not to miss.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 5/1/19.)
From the Everything But The Kitchen Sink Department comes New Village Arts Theatre’s adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 commedia dell’arte piece The Servant of Two Masters. For two and a half unbridled hours, the NVA stage in Carlsbad features: slapstick, actors in drag, one-liners of the “And Don’t Call Me Shirley” variety, fart jokes, sight gags, a chase to the old “Benny Hill” TV theme song, contemporary references to pop culture and icons, puns, pratfalls, double entendres and more. Much, much more.
This adaptation must have been a blast to write or co-authors AJ Knox, who directs, and Samantha Ginn, who stars as the eponymous servant doing double duty. The sessions had to have been something like “Let’s try this!” “Yeah! Then let’s do this!” “And then how ‘bout this?!”
Fact is, not everything works in a show this long and rambling. How could it? There’s enough material for two “Naked Gun” movies and a Monty Python sketch or three thrown in for good measure.
What does work is Ginn’s performance. Her ferocious energy, lightning-fast wit and breathless physicality make The Servant of Two Masters watchable, even in its excess, every second she’s onstage. Robin Williams would be proud of a performance as frantically creative as Ginn’s.
Never mind the original Goldoni story of disguise, romance and the machinations of Truffaldino the servant on which this adaptation is based. That narrative, deconstructed for modern-day relevance and hipness, is just a pretext for the many characters to frolic and have fun, often at each other’s expense. Besides Ginn, there are worthy performances from fellow cast members Tony Houck (like Ginn and Knox an NVA artistic associate) as a spurned bridegroom with a pink bicycle, and gruff-voiced Max Macke, who’s dressed up as the unlikeliest female in creation as Truffaldino’s love interest Smeraldina
Cast members repeatedly remind the audience in wink-wink fashion that this is a play and certainly not one to be taken very seriously. Going into The Servant of Two .Masters expecting a courtly costume comedy would be a grave mistake indeed. This is escapist entertainment of the wackiest kind.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 4/24/19.)
Talk about nine lives. Next month will mark 38 years since “Cats” premiered in London’s West End. (It opened a year later on Broadway.) Since then, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” has been staged thousands of times all over the world. Not only that, but come December a feature film based on the stage musical will open with a star-studded cast that includes Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift and Idris Elba.
In the meantime, Broadway San Diego is presenting a national touring production of “Cats” at the Civic Theatre downtown through Sunday. For those who’ve enjoyed the likes of Rum Tum Tugger, Mr. Mistoffelees, Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer before, it’s a frolicking reunion with familiar feline friends. For those new to “Cats,” if there actually is anyone new to “Cats,” there are plenty of eyepopping costumes and special effects, and an iconic song to boot.
That song, “Memory,” remains perhaps Lloyd Webber’s most poignant ballad. So resonant are its wistful lyrics and emotional atmospherics that it’s impossible not to be moved by it even after all these years. In this touring company, Keri Rene Fuller, as the aging cat Grizabella, delivers a powerful rendition worthy of the estimable women who’ve sung it in “Cats” before her, like Elaine Page and Betty Buckley.
Among skeptics, “Memory” has often been regarded as the one memorable song from this musical, though its constant instrumental reprise throughout the nearly two and a half hour show may have something to do with that. But this production in town is a reminder that if “Cats” has no other song as enduring as “Memory,” it is not without additional charms.
The cat costumes and vigorous (sometimes downright balletic) dance sequences are as reliable as ever, but it’s fun to be reminded that “The Rum Tum Tugger” is still an entertaining romp, with McGee Maddox looking like David Lee Roth with a tail, and swooning “kittens” surrounding him. The playful duet with Mungojerrie (Tony d’Alelio) and Rumpelteazer (Rose Iannaccone) is also a kick, as is the burlesque-flavored ode to “Macavity, The Mystery Cat.”
Best of all is the “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” number, complete with a light show, an audience hand-clap, conjuring and dazzling dancing by Tion Gaston.
For the uninitiated or for those who’ve simply forgotten, the story of “Cats” concerns sage Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase) choosing from among the Jellicle cats one to be reborn in the otherworldly Heaviside Layer. Until he does, the sung-through musical amounts to various colorful Jellicles introducing themselves by way of diverting dance-heavy tunes. Grizabella, left out of the fun, is treated as an outcast. But you know her day will come.
Then as now, “Cats” tonally is all over the map, one moment celebrating the inscrutability of the world’s felines and another sounding reverential, even choirlike. Not that such quibbling matters. This beloved musical isn’t going anyplace. Except to movie theaters, where Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella may become the next diva-cat to make memories. (Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 4/19/19.)
Twenty years on (it debuted Off Broadway in 1998), the genderbending glam-rock show Hedwig and the Angry Inch feels less urgent and certainly less outrageous than it first was. But Diversionary Theatre’s legacy production of the show by John Cameron Mitchell (text) and Stephen Trask (music and lyrics) remains one hell of a hoot, as audiences at the University Heights space will testify.
Diversionary’s Matt Morrow directs a powerhouse duo: Jeremy Wilson absolutely brings it as Hedwig, whose circular rise to fame is told in the one-act musical. Cashae Monya is just as dynamic in the supporting role of Hedwig’s partner, Yitzhak. This revival is also a reminder of how lyrical and revealing the show’s songs are, and at Diversionary The Angry Inch Band (Patrick Marion, Jim Mooney, Linda Libby and David Rumley) transform the theater into a rocking club.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 4/17/19.)
"They Promised Her the Moon" at the Old Globe Theatre. . Photo by Jim Cox
Thanks to Laurel Ollstein’s They Promised Her The Moon, the name Jerrie Cobb has been rescued from obscurity, at least at the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. Cobb could and probably should have been the first woman in space (that distinction belongs to Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova). But politics and sexism kept Cobb and 12 other women, dubbed the Mercury 13, from becoming American astronauts in the heroic era of John Glenn, Scott Carpenter and Alan Shepard.
Giovanna Sardelli directs the West Coast premiere of They Promised Her The Moon, essentially a biopic-on-stage that follows Cobb (Morgan Hallett) from fearless pre-teen aviator through a record-breaking career in flying (with scenes ingeniously staged) and to the precipice of making history in the space race. The first act, interweaving Cobb’s upbringing by a doting father and a Bible-thumping mother with her adventures as a pilot and her grueling NASA tests, is engrossing and entertaining. Less so is the second act, specifically a heavy-handed showdown with overly loud congressmen. Yet this is a sincerely told story and a production buoyed by star turns from Hallett and Mary Beth Fisher as pioneering woman aviator Jackie Cochran.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 4/17/19.)
Omri Schein (center) in "All in the Timing" at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Photo by Aaron Rumley
If good comedy is indeed all in the timing, North Coast Repertory Theatre has a hit on its hands. The Solana Beach-based company’s production of David Ives’ cleverly conceived exercises in wordplay and movement are as finely wound as the workings of a clock depicted in Marty Burnett’s set design. Having all kinds of fun on stage is an adroit ensemble of six, directed by David Ellenstein with a clear appreciation for Ives’ singular knack for the cerebral and the absurd.
“All in the Timing” is comprised of a half-dozen Ives sketches or mini-plays produced between 1987 and 1993. The one-act comedies premiered together Off Broadway in ’93, and the compilation has been a popular theater attraction ever since. At North Coast Rep, one of the six original plays-within-a-play, “The Philadelphia,” has been swapped out for one titled “Foreplay, or the Art of the Fugue.” More on this gem later.
The best of “All in the Timing’s” offerings are those that subvert theatrical convention. In “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread,” Omri Schein portrays the minimalist composer in an impeccably choreographed mingling of rhythmic language and a capella operetta. Like a signature “Seinfeld” episode, the narrative is really about nothing, but Schein and the rest of the ensemble (David McBean, Noelle Marion, Christian Pedersen, Taylor Renee Henderson and Uma Incrocci) make buying bread a joyfully hilarious experience.
Likewise, in “The Universal Language,” McBean and Henderson maintain the zany momentum of an entire one-act about a school of “Unamunda” in which a con artist is teaching a new tongue (it sounds like witty gibberish) to a lonely, stuttering and gullible student. That this becomes an unlikely romance is a happy surprise.
Speaking of romance, in two of Ives’ plays, “Sure Thing” and “Foreplay, or the Art of the Fugue,” would-be dating and dating respectively get the full rinse-and-repeat treatment. In “Sure Thing,” Marion and Pedersen meet by chance in a café in a seemingly familiar scenario. But each time a bell rings, the couple’s encounter takes a different comic turn, the result being that even William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” gets laughs. In “Foreplay,” a miniature golf course called Lilli-Putt Lane is the locale for three coinciding dates for a wannabe Don Juan named Chuck (played simultaneously by Schein, McBean and Pedersen) and three different women (Henderson, Marion and Incrocci). The inanity of mini-golf is actually exceeded by the ensuing antics.
Schein, McBean and Incrocci go ape in “Words, Words, Words,” playing chimps under observation tasked with typing until “Hamlet” is somehow re-created. Finally, in the show-closing “Variations on the Death of Trotsky,” the circumstances of the Russian revolutionary’s assassination are served up as a crazy sight gag. Think axe in scalp.
At 90 minutes total and with each of the one-act plays only about as lengthy as it should be, “All in the Timing” is a swiftly paced, farcical showcase for actors and a director at the top of their game.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 4/16/19.)
Sophie Hearn in "Life After." Photo courtesy of Old Globe Theatre
Alice Carter’s father is dead, just hours after their last conversation – a bitter, angry one. In the 16-year-old girl’s shock and torment, she blames herself. In Britta Johnson’s promising new musical Life After, however, the teenager’s search for answers to the unanswerable lead her in directions she never imagined.
The entirety of Life After is told through the prism of Alice’s anxieties, self-recriminations and grief. When Alice (Sophie Hearn) isn’t expressing these feeling herself in words or in song, they are manifested through her perceptions of her older sister (Charlotte Maltby), her mother (Mamie Parris), her friend Hannah (Livvy Marcus) or through three omnipresent singers (dubbed by the playwright The Furies) who sound out Alice’s conscience and suspicions. Because Life After reflects the attitudes and emotional instability of a teenager, it’s able to venture over the top at times and even rely on humor in an otherwise dark context.
Under the direction of Barry Edelstein, the Old Globe is presenting the U.S. premiere of the Canadian Johnson’s play, which opened in and received acclaim in Toronto. The plaudits are justified. Johnson wrote not only the book but the music and lyrics for Life After, and while only one of its numbers, the show-closing “Poetry,” stands out, the remainder do advance and add layering to the story. The theme of forgiveness of self and of others, especially loved ones, resides in the heart of Life After’s songs.
Though Alice seems eloquent and wise beyond a girl of 16, she is a sympathetic and searching protagonist, and the expressive Hearn is well cast in the role. Bradley Dean inhabits with verve the larger-than-life part of Alice’s father, Frank, whose self-help books have made him a media star while taking him away from his family. Shining in support are Maltby as blunt sister Kate and Marcus for providing comic relief opposite Alice’s sadness and doubts.
At a crisp 90 minutes and with an imaginative physical staging that has the both sparse set and its characters in perpetual motion, Life After never stops to wallow or, ironically, to contemplate what does come after death. Its focus is on the ones left behind to make peace with those gone and within themselves. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 4/10/19.)
Sandy Campnell and Andrew Oswald in "Mr. and Mrs. Fitch." Photo by Daren Scott
Backyard Renaissance’s Mr. and Mrs. Fitch is a showcase for its actors, Andrew Oswald and Sandy Campbell, and a show-off for its playwright, Douglas Carter Beane. As the married co-authors of a snarky gossip column, Oswald and Campbell have as much fun as seems humanly possible on a stage for two hours. They trade quips and affectionate barbs, duet on Cole Porter (the play’s title comes from a Porter tune for the musical Gay Divorce), and in Campbell’s case rock beautiful evening gowns. The fly in the champagne, however, is Beane’s overindulged script, which works so damned hard to be cultured and sophisticated. As a result, the more Mr. and Mrs. Fitch ooze high-society bon mots and conspicuous literary references (to Blake, to Yeats, to Donne, to Hemingway, and so forth), the less believable they become.
This does not detract from the joyful performances by Oswald and Campbell, whose chemistry and timing are impeccable. Director Francis Gercke appreciates the lively pace called for in this play, and his experienced actors never miss a beat. Each character has one extended monologue that interrupts the flow, but again, that’s courtesy of the playwright, whose 1997 As Bees in Honey Drown is just as clever but much more cohesive than the 2010 Mr. and Mrs. Fitch.
As for the Fitches, in this tale they’re trapped (if living in a swank Manhattan duplex can be called trapped) between the wicked fun of churning out “celebrity” gossip and their growing contempt for new media (blogs, Twitter, et al) and the infotainment that is its life blood. When, more out of situational desperation than of guile, they invent a VIP celeb named Jamie Glenn, “he” becomes a tabloid sensation, with other scribes even co-opting his biography. This undoubtedly is Beane’s jaundiced, and justifiable, take on what constitutes news. But in Mr. and Mrs. Fitch the crisis never seems at all serious, nor is there any doubt that the Fitches, in spite of not being on the same page sexually (also played strictly for laughs), will carry on, martinis in hand.
Still, Oswald and Campbell rise giddily above the deficiencies of the play itself and practically ensure a good time for anyone with a soft spot for Cole Porter, high style and verbal hijinx.(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 4/3/19.)
Alex Bodine in "Angels in America" at Cygnet Theatre. Photo by Daren Scott
For its annual presentation of two shows in rotating repertory, Cygnet Theatre is staging a 25th-anniversary production of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The two-part masterpiece which, according to Cygnet program notes, Kushner pitched as being about “Mormons, Roy Cohn and AIDS,” gets an electrifying, all-out staging in Old Town with a strong cast directed by Sean Murray that includes Alex Bodine in the harrowing role of Prior Walter and James Newcomb as the despicable Cohn, both of whom are afflicted with the inscrutable and terrible virus.
Part One: Millennium Approaches, which establishes the characters who interweave in Reagan’s 1985 America, showcases Kushner’s dexterity of language and razor-sharp perception of the body politic of the time. (Parallels to the present day are eerily appropriate.) The coming millennium and the emerging horror of AIDS fill the air with fear and extreme anxiety. Besides the visceral performances of Bodine and Newcomb, Connor Sullivan stands out as the emotionally and sexually conflicted Joe Pitt, and Will Bethmann brings manic ferocity to the role of Louis Ironson, Prior’s over-intellectualizing lover. The sound effects sometimes accompanying the narrative can be jarring, but they do not overwhelm the urgency of the story.
Part Two: Perestroika is definitely the lesser of the two halves, though not by much. Fantasy sequences (or are they?) and a feverish scene between Prior and The Angel (Debra Wanger) contribute touches of surrealism, while elsewhere Kushner injects notes of outright humor into the unfolding drama. Perestroika does provide key moments to shine for Rosina Reynolds, who beautifully plays multiple roles throughout both shows, and for Kevane La’Marr Coleman, who reprises the part of a nurse and friend to Prior that he played in bygone ion theatre’s superb 2011 production of Angels in America.
The prolificacy of Kushner and the stamina of Cygnet’s ensemble (the two parts add up to between six and seven hours of live theater) combine for an emotionally exhausting but stalwart 25th-anniversary Angels in America. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 3/27/19.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat