Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa in "The Lion King." Photo by Michael Murphy
You never forget your first time.
Seeing “The Lion King.”
For me it was in Hollywood at the Pantages Theatre back in the late ‘90s or early aughts … I’m not certain. But many years afterward, I remember vividly the thrill of the musical’s first 10 minutes, the “Circle of Life”/”Nants Ingonyama” entrance of the African animals into the theater – a stately parade down the aisles toward the stage.
So it was again last night at the Civic Theatre downtown in Broadway San Diego’s presentation of the nationally touring “The Lion King.” This year marks 25 since the Disney production based on the 1994 animated film, with music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, debuted on Broadway. Today “The Lion King” is the third-longest running musical on the Great White Way, and there’s no reason to believe it will be gone anytime soon.
The peerless Julie Taymor first directed “The Lion King” and created the costumes and mask and puppet design (with Michael Curry) for what is as dazzling to the eye as a theatrical production can be. There’s so much to take in and experience throughout the show one hardly knows where to focus.
If it sounds like I’m gushing, maybe that’s the sentimental attachment this big kid has for “The Lion King” and its coming-of-age story of life’s renewal and respect for all living things. Or maybe it’s just that all these years later it remains a damned entertaining spectacle.
The magic and precision of Taymor and Curry’s puppetry may exceed the book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi and even Sir Elton’s and Sir Tim’s score, but ultimately all components of “The Lion King” succeed harmoniously as they have from the beginning.
This touring ensemble is anchored by the ebullient Gugwana Diamini as the narrator Rafiki. In the musical’s three major comedic parts – that of Zazu, King Mufasa’s major domo, and young Simba’s friends Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the flatulent warthog – Jurgen Hooper, Tony Freeman and John E. Brady respectively are clear favorites with the audience, one populated heavily by parents with children. Gerald Ramsey projects the due integrity and gravity of Mufasa, though Spencer Plachy never seems as evil as he should be as the mad king Scar. Could be that his surrounding brigade of hilarious hyenas minimizes his menace.
Slightly overshadowed by all the larger-than-life supporting characters are Darian Sanders as the grown Simba and Kayla Cyphers portraying the lioness Nala who will become his queen. That’s no knock on their performances, which include some beautifully staged sequences: Nala’s flight from the Pride Rock corrupted by Scar in “Shadowlands”; Simba’s reckoning with his legacy and his duty in “He Lives in You”; and the balletic “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” which is “The Lion King’s” ballad partner to its carefree frolic “Hakuna Matata.”
You’ve read this far and not a word about the plot of “The Lion King,” right? As if you didn’t know it by now. Suffice it to say that the Circle of Life is destined to prevail and that all living creatures of the African savanna get their moments in the footlights. Oh, and Simba learns that growing up comes with sometimes painful lessons – all of them worthwhile.
“The Lion King” runs through Sept. 11 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
Steven Lone and Richard Baird (with apple) in "As You Like It." Photo courtesy of New Fortune Theatre Company
Sitting outside in a quaint amphitheater in the round with a hazy moon overhead and the faint sounds of crickets chirping in the air, I breathed in an unfettered and unadorned production of “As You Like It” and wondered if this was how Shakespeare meant it to be.
After a five-year hiatus, the New Fortune Theater Company founded by Richard Baird and Amanda Schaar has returned to live productions with a staging of The Bard’s much-loved pastoral comedy under the stars behind Westminster Presbyterian Church in Point Loma. It’s not a permanent venue for the company, but for the purposes of this particular play and a celebration of New Fortune’s return, it’s ideal.
Actors perform under strings of lights sans set or amplification, coming and going from wings that are a church parking lot or the gateway to adjoining Westminster Park. The play’s six songs, such as “Under the Greenwood Tree,” are performed live – just singer/actor (Jaden Guerrero) and stringed instrument. There are no bells and whistles in this Forest of Arden.
Dan Hodge directs this production of “As You Like It,” with Schaar starring as the heroine, Rosalind, and Baird in the role of the melancholy Jaques. The cast includes Steven Lone as Rosalind’s stalwart suitor Orlando, Brian McCann as Touchstone the fool, Rachel VanWormer as Rosalind’s exasperated cousin Celia, and Neil McDonald as both Duke Senior and Duke Frederick. All are in peak form.
So regularly is “As You Like It” produced – the Old Globe Theatre launched its Summer Shakespeare Festival with it in 2019 – that its story is as familiar as any of the Shakespearean comedies: Rosalind flees her tyrannical uncle, in the company of Celia, and finds herself and the man with whom she’s fallen in love, Orlando, there as well. A game of disguise and flirtation ensues.
Love at first sight is de rigeur in the forest, where shepherd Silvius (Geoffrey Ulysses Geissinger) pangs after shepherdess Phoebe (Taylor Henderson), Celia flips for Orlando’s older brother Oliver (Michael Rodriguez) and even Touchstone finds his true love, the goatherd Audrey (Leigh Akin).
The exception to all this toujours l’amour is the brooding Jaques, he who affirms with dismissal that “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” Clad fully in black and at times in shades, Baird conveys every bit of the character’s wryness and gloom. His moody observations are somehow more engrossing in the open air.
Lone brings considerable physicality to Orlando, grappling early in the going with both his brother and the formidable wrestler Charles (Xander Brown). Schaar interprets Rosalind as playful but forthright. VanWormer and McCann are her delightful traveling companions.
Danny Campbell, Durwood Murray and Walter Murray contribute much, too, to their supporting roles in what is a very strong cast.
This is a lengthy show – about two and a half hours – and the amphitheater “seating” is in concrete bleachers, so lawn chairs are welcome (and will prove comfortable). The way the weather’s been lately, sweaters and blankets probably won’t be needed, but that’s up to you.
“As You Like It” marks an inspired and diverting return for New Fortune Theater Company. See it some summer evening before it closes on Aug. 29.
Christopher Michael Rivera (left) and Paul James in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Photo courtesy of the Old Globe Theatre.
What the Puck is going on here? Lysander, who was in love with Hermia, is now in love with Helena. Demetrius, who was also in love with Hermia, is now also in love with Helena? And Helena, who was in love with Demetrius, is now running for the hills. Hermia? Well, she’s still in love with Lysander, so now she thinks her BFF Helena is betraying her.
What fools these mortals be indeed.
It’s not mere mercurial behavior. They’re under the influence of the magic of Robin Goodfellow, aka Puck, a sprite who’s doing the bidding of Oberon, king of the faeries. Only Oberon didn’t exactly decree the wild and crazy ramifications of Puck’s misguided spell.
This is Act 3, Scene 2 of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” when all hysterical hell breaks loose. If you’re confused, you should be. That’s the charm of Shakespeare’s Athenian romp, dressed up for fantasy and populated by kings and queens, faeries, an eccentric acting troupe and those star-crossed lovers.
The Old Globe Theatre’s new production of “Midsummer” is the beneficiary of inspired direction from Patricia McGregor, who emphasizes the play’s rampant passions and slapstick physical comedy. While being true to these integral components, she contemporizes the goings-on, as with original music by hip-hop artist Miki Vale (also presiding from above as DJ), without undermining the heart of the play. Even the inclusion of Journey’s insufferable “Don’t Stop Believin’” is brief, and it’s not too jarring when Quince from the acting troupe chides a male colleague for “mansplaining.”
The DJ’s spoken preludes to scenes I could’ve lived without, but again, they’re quick and not intrusive.
Like all good “Midsummers,” this one is spectacularly turned out – David Israel Reynoso designed the costumes and the scenery on the Globe’s outdoor Festival Stage. Puck (Christopher Michael Rivera) is crowned by a green Mohawk, Titania (Karen Aldridge) looks right out of a glittery Vegas revue, and the ubiquitous faeries flit and float and dazzle.
For this “Midsummer,” Lysander (Bernadette Sefic) is a woman, adding nuance to her relationship with Hermia (Jamie Ann Romero) without screaming attention to it. Romero’s childlike exasperation is a crowd-pleaser.
They’re both outdone by Celeste Arias as the hapless Helena, who makes you want to root for her in the love department.
Among the theatrical players, the central figure is weaver Nick Bottom, played to the hilt by Jake Millgard. On opening night his mic seemed to cut out at one point, but that was no problem for him.
Puck is the comedy’s master of ceremonies. Rivera delivers the goods with all due precociousness.
For me, the perpetual issue with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is that though it moves swiftly through its multi-plot machinations, it must accommodate the long and labored performance for the court by Bottom and his cohorts at the end. This never seems to get funnier regardless of how many times I see the play, try as the actors playing the actors might.
Just goes to show Shakespeare wasn’t perfect.
Bottom line though (forgive me that): This Old Globe production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is suffused with otherworldly delights and vitality. That makes for an enchanting fairy tale.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs through Sept. 4 on the Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Stage in Balboa Park.
"Here There are Blueberries" cast members tell stories of the culpable at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during the Holocaust. Photo courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse.
We are reminded of a terrible truth in “Here There are Blueberries,” a co-production of La Jolla Playhouse and Tectonic Theater Project written by Moises Kaufman and Amanda Gronich: A genocide doesn’t just happen. It takes people to make it happen.
At the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust over a million men, women and children were murdered. Meanwhile, SS personnel methodically and without conscience went about their “business” of operating the camp and hoping to rise in the Nazi ranks. They retreated to a nearby resort, Solahutte, to eat, drink and be merry.
They also posed for photographs.
“Here There are Blueberries” delves into a donation in 2007 by a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives of a photo album he said he found in an abandoned apartment in Frankfurt. Researchers with the USHMM uncovered that it had been the personal album of Karl Hoecker, aide to the Auschwitz commandant Richard Baer.
For 90 minutes, a cast of eight portraying both museum archivists and descendants of the identified Auschwitz killers tells the story through actual photographs of life at the camp on the other side of the gas chamber and crematorium. Rather than humanizing these individuals it attaches names to faces, establishing verified culpability and revealing without question that they knew what was going on in all its evil.
The culpable is not restricted to SS officers, either. The female communications specialists, or Helferinnen, who worked at the camp did not do so in isolation or ignorance. They were in their minds dutifully serving the Reich.
The donated photos show that some of these women were treated to relaxing getaways at Solahutte. The snapshot of Hoecker himself gifting a group with blueberries gives this intense theatrical presentation its title.
Much of “Here There are Blueberries” consists of cast members, including Rosina Reynolds, Jeanne Sakata and Elizabeth Stahlmann as Holocaust historian Rebecca Erbelding, playing museum researchers who explain the photographs (seen in wall-sized black-and-white projections by David Bengali) and the revelations made as to who was who, and who did what.
More compelling still are the dramatizations of interviews done with two of the grandchildren of SS personnel – one of them performed by Charles Browning and another by Charlie Thurston, with Grant James Varjas portraying a descendant who came forward and offered to gather in-person the stories of those like himself -- those processing the complex emotions of inheriting a murderer’s legacy.
The last part of “Here There are Blueberries” concerns another photograph album, this one discovered by an Auschwitz survivor named Lili Jacob. It depicts the thousands and thousands of prisoners at the camp, including herself, many of whom ultimately were sent to their deaths.
If ever there was a theatrical production where the audience sits in complete silence, this is it.
“Here There are Blueberries” is important to see and to remember.
“Here There are Blueberries” runs through Aug. 21 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre.
In forefront: Ruibo Qian (left) and Kate Abbruzzese in "Dial M for Murder." Photo by Jim Cox
atta If a mystery is well written, every line moves the story forward.
Frederick Knott’s play “Dial M for Murder” is a well-written mystery. Created for BBC Television in 1952 it moved quickly to a London’s West End stage and then to Broadway. Most famously, it was turned into a film two years later directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly.
Place it in the hands of veteran playwright and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher and you have a “Dial M” for the 21st century. His commissioned adaptation for the Old Globe Theatre possesses all the twists and turns of Knott’s original play and the stylishness of Hitchcock’s film, but even though the story remains set in the 1950s, there’s one contemporary invention: The lover of London socialite Margot Wendice (Kate Abbruzzese) with whom she’s deceiving self-centered husband Tony (Nathan Darrow) is a woman (Ruibo Qian). (In case you’re wondering, man-about-town actor Bob Cummings portrayed Margot’s lover in the movie.)
Other than making Tony a failed writer rather than a retired tennis player – a device that enriches the tale’s irony – Hatcher stays quite true to Knott, a playwright he admires. “Dial M’s” is a simple premise: Tony decides to murder his wife for her money in a plot that involves both blackmailing her and the man Lesgate (Ruy Iskandar) that he hires to do the deed.
How Tony’s plan goes down is far from simple.
A stage mystery like this one requires active listening. It’s a talky affair by necessity, especially through most of the first act, and should your mind wander you’re likely to miss an important clue. “Dial M for Murder” is what Hatcher calls an “inverted mystery,” one in which we know who the killer is from the beginning, so it’s not a whodunit. The attraction for the audience is, like in a cracking good episode of “Columbo,” witnessing the villain setting up his crime then later covering his tracks.
The five-person cast onstage in the intimate Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre performs with panache while avoiding what had to be a temptation to overplay their hands in a true genre piece like this. Darrow is all smug energy and calculation as the morally vacant Tony. Abbruzzese could be one of Hitch’s cool blondes, but she gives her Margot some fire and resolve beneath the rich veneer. As Maxine Hadley, Margot’s mystery-writing paramour, Qian is the smartest person in the room, including the investigating Inspector Hubbard (John Tufts) and especially including Tony.
Under the splendid direction of Stafford Arima, the actors are frequently in motion, making the most of the small space and emphasizing where they are and where things are (as in potential clues) in the evolving mystery. It’s best to keep your eyes as well as your ears open throughout the two-hour drama.
Lighting design by Amanda Zieve, sound design by Leon Rothenberg and snippets of sultry music heighten the ambiance and the suspense. Ryan Park’s costumes, particularly for Margot, would please Hitchcock.
Fight director Rachel Flesher deserves plaudits too for the disturbingly believable attack on Margot by Lesgate. To say more about it would constitute a spoiler.
There’s a lot of exposition and explaining in the script, both before and after this confrontation. Mystery lovers will be indulgent. Others? Well, there’s always those gorgeous costumes, witty byplay and a phone that startles the hell out of you when it rings.
“Dial M for Murder” runs through Aug. 28 in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park.
Adam Pascal and Olivia Valli in "Pretty Woman: The Musical." Photo by Matthew Murphy
The stamp of rocker Bryan Adams is all over “Pretty Woman: The Musical,” for which he wrote the music and lyrics alongside fellow Canadian Jim Vallance. Its score is populated by booming, anthemic songs reminiscent of 1983’s “Heaven,” which Adams composed with Vallance.
In the musical adaptation of “Pretty Woman,” now playing at the Civic Theatre downtown in a Broadway San Diego presentation, the majority of these reverberating ballads are rendered by Adam Pascal, playing the role of Edward that was originated by Richard Gere in the hit 1990 film with Julia Roberts. Pascal might as well be Adams in a gray suit, especially when he’s soloing on the likes of the musical’s “Something About Her” and “Freedom.”
This is a LOUD show – no two ways about it. Louder than it should be. Its 16-song score could have benefited from the lighter, buoyant touch of Roy Orbison’s classic “Pretty Woman” tune. (That does turn up in this production, but not when you expect it to.) Not only does Pascal sing to the rafters, but during “You and I,” in which Edward takes prostitute Vivian (Olivia Valli) to the opera, Amma Osei belts out an aria that could awaken the ghosts in nearby Horton Plaza.
The most entertaining and least histrionic of the show’s musical numbers are those featuring Kyle Taylor Parker, who plays multiple roles under the character description “Happy Man.” Two of them come back to back in Act One: “On a Night Like This” and “Don’t Forget to Dance.” Whether he’s the hotel manager who teaches Vivian how to tango or the unofficial emcee presiding at the opening of each act, Parker is delightful. Most impressive, he’s able to overcome the cliché that is the exhorting “Never Give Up on a Dream” in Act Two.
By now you’re wondering: “What about the Vivian character, the role that turned Julia Roberts into a star? How does Olivia Valli fare in Roberts’ knee-high boots?”
Just fine, it turns out. Valli is deft with her comic moments and actually more believable as a woman of the evening than Roberts was. There’s a disconnect, however, when she’s given a song to sing, and naturally there are many of them in “Pretty Woman: The Musical.” The Vivian singing sounds like a completely different person than the Vivian speaking. That’s no knock on Valli, who has an excellent voice. It’s a consequence of turning “Pretty Woman” into a musical. Vivian’s best numbers are those with fellow hooker Kit (Jessica Crouch), whose own street wisdom is off the charts.
The show’s book by Garry Marshall (who directed the movie) and J.F. Lawton (who wrote it) rarely deviates from the big-screen romantic comedy. Many of the exact lines are resurrected. Thirty two years later, it’s still a problematic setup – a prostitute’s Cinderella dream coming true – and just as illogical practically from start to finish. The appeal then as now is in the recognizable costumes, the Beverly Hills backdrop and Vivian’s fish-out-of-water exposure to the rich and entitled.
“Pretty Woman: The Musical” lasted only a year on Broadway, but if the cheering reception it got on the night I was there is any indication, it may be in for a healthy second life as a touring show. A lot of folks, it would seem, want the fairy tale.
“Pretty Woman the Musical” runs through Sunday at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
Jose Balistrieri and Claire Kaplan in "Blue Period." Photo by Daren Scott
It’s not unusual for artists of any medium to produce with prolificacy during a dark time in their lives. Such was the case with Pablo Picasso, whose melancholy work between 1901 to 1904 is considered his Blue Period. Anyone with even basic knowledge of Picasso has heard of the Blue Period and is familiar with its most emblematic painting, “The Old Guitarist” from 1903. What they may not know was what plunged Picasso into this somber stage of his career.
The truth: an abiding but obsessive friendship, and more so the deterioration and loss of that friend. As dramatized in OnStage Playhouse’s world-premiere play "Blue Period," by Charles Borkhuis, a young Picasso’s best friend in Paris, Carles Casamegas, consumed his energies practically as much as his paintings. While the 19-year-old Picasso (Javier Guerrero) worked to establish himself in an art society where Matisse and Renoir reigned, his devoted yet troubled companion, Casamegas (Jose Balistrieri), teetered back and forth on the edge of self-destruction.
An in-his-mind failed artist himself, Casamegas also suffered from twin addictions: one to morphine, the other to Picasso’s ravishing model, Germaine (Claire Kaplan).
As the play directed by James Darvas opens, Casamegas is in high spirits in every sense of the word, prancing about in a mask (no symbolism there, right?) while his friend works on a portrait of a scarcely clothed Germaine. It is the most ebullient we will see Casamegas over the ensuing two hours as very soon it becomes apparent that he has little control over his demons or his emotions. If it were 2022 instead of 1900 he’d be classified as dangerously manic-depressive.
Because the character’s wild instability is so theatrical, Balistrieri overshadows Guerrero’s by-comparison-restrained Picasso, not to mention Kaplan or Herbert Siguenza as leering art dealer Pere Manyac, in Act One of “Blue Period.”
Act Two is a very different proposition, with the focus turned to Picasso, his depression and guilt, and how they compel him into tortured years of driven work that will ultimately alienate both Germaine, who loves him, and Manyac, who’s been acting as his agent.
What you have is almost two separate plays on stage – one playful then histrionic, the other as muted as the paintings of Picasso’s Blue Period. It’s not an easy narrative transition. The performances at OnStage help, though Guerrero never fully affects the degree of charisma that is associated with Picasso. Balistrieri owns the showcase part. His Casamegas is brokedown, nearly out of control.
The multitalented Siguenza, whose one-man show “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso” is as departed from “Blue Period” as could be, is underutilized in a relatively straight role. He is due some credit, however, for bringing this promising play to the attention of Darvis, who is OnStage’s artistic director.
Kaplan is magical as the model Germaine, in her way in love with Picasso, Casamegas and her husband in an open marriage. She is so beautiful and brimming with life that the resulting contrast with the brooding Picasso of Act Two is all the more dramatic.
Here and there “Blue Period” could stand a bit of trimming, but it’s a frequently inspiring mingling of art history and psychology. All that and Paris too.
“Blue Period” runs through Aug. 7 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista.
Eden Espinosa in "Lempicka." Photo courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse
More than once in the musical “Lempicka,” art student Tamara de Lempicka is decried by her teacher, the despotic Filippo Marinetti, as being a “difficult woman.” Women who are dauntless, ambitious and uncompromising, whether in the arts or not, are still being decried by threatened men as difficult, part of which makes Lempicka’s story as told in this dynamic new show at La Jolla Playhouse so contemporary and magnetic.
All the ingredients are here for “Lempicka,” which was originally planned to open in La Jolla in spring 2020, to be a Broadway-bound hit. Its director is Rachel Chavkin, who was at the helm of the hit “Hadestown” in New York. Its star is Eden Espinosa (“Wicked,” “Falsettos,” “Brooklyn the Musical”). Its cast includes Amber Iman, who portrayed Nina Simone on Broadway in “Soul Doctor.” Its staging in La Jolla is electric, with exciting choreography by Raja Feather Kelly, and stunning lighting (Bradley King) and projection (Peter Nigrini) design. It’s a production that’s as bold onstage as Tamara de Lempicka was in her turbulent life.
With a book and lyrics by Carson Kreitzer and book and music by Matt Gould, “Lempicka” made its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2018 in Massachusetts. Its subject: a Polish-born artist working prolifically in the Art Deco motif whose synthetic cubist portraits and nudes made her a darling of aristocrats, proto-feminists, and lesbians and bisexuals during the bohemian postwar ‘20s in Paris. Wow. That’s a foundation for a tale that begs telling.
It’s told in “Lempicka” with a few liberties from historical fact, but very much in the spirit of this woman’s career ascendance and personal-life complications.
After the introduction of a weary and cynical Lempicka (Espinosa) in L.A., land of “avocados and oranges” and plastic dreams in the early ‘70s, the narrative shifts back in time to the first of her many life-altering events. As a young woman, she is forced to flee her St. Petersburg, Russia, home with her husband, Tadeusz Lempicki (Andrew Samonsky) and their young daughter, upon the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Lempicki is arrested and is freed from prison only after an excruciating sacrifice by his wife, one he won’t learn about for years.
Settling ultimately in Paris as refugees, Lempicka goes to work scrubbing floors while Tadeusz finds employment in a bank. Turning to a passion from childhood, she begins painting. When a wealthy baron (Victor E. Chan) takes notice of Lempicka and her work, she wins a booster and enrolls in art school at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. There, she becomes that student of Marinetti’s (George Abud). The “difficult woman” in due course defies him, revolts and overshadows him in his own milieu.
Lempicka’s burgeoning career as an artist is only half the story. The other half is her infatuation with the prostitute Rafaela (Amber Iman) who becomes her lover, her model and her muse.
All this during a time of incredible creative energy in Paris and, as the years pass, the threat of another world war and a more deadly and treacherous enemy than before.
Spectacular projections and versatile set pieces (the art school, the “Dead Rat” and “Monocle” bars, Lempicka’s studio, et al) propel forward the storytelling and convey the passage of time and significance of events. Throughout, however, it’s Espinosa’s fierce portrayal of Lempicka that anchors this lengthy musical. This ferocity is no better expressed than in the Act One-closing “Woman Is,” in which she’s able to sing over the cascading orchestration conducted by Lorin Getline.
The performance of Iman, who’s playing the part of Rafaela through July 10, after which Ximone Rose assumes the role, is just as integral to the emotional potency of “Lempicka.” Her nightclub knockoff song about the foolishness of love and a jazzy solo later in Act One are highlights of the evening, the latter on opening night winning extended applause from the audience.
There’s also the simple connection between artist and muse vocalized in the tender “Stillness” number.
That all four of the above songs are heard in the first act suggests that the second act of “Lempicka,” focused as much on the love triangle (Lempicka, her husband and Rafaela) as on creeping Naziism, is the weaker of the two. It’s not that what happens in Act Two is necessarily inevitable, but the score lacks some of the punch delivered before intermission.
There’s also the issue of the Tadeusz Lempicki character, who aside from his good looks seems to me without the depth or fiber to make his wife’s choice between him and her lover so arduous.
Two other characters are broadly drawn, though much fun to watch: Marinetti, who comes to bond with fascism in the cause of cementing futurism, and Suzy Solidor (Natalie Joy Johnson), the provocative lesbian singer, also one of Lempicka's models, who gets to open her own nightclub.
Even with its imperfections, “Lempicka” is a fascinating and immersive musical that illuminates a flawed but compelling woman making art and making love during an unprecedented time in history.
"Lempicka" runs through July 24 at La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theatre.
Hip-hop gets the improv treatment in "Freestyle Love Supreme." Photo by Joan Marcus
You think improvisation is hard? Try improv rapping. Then try improv rapping to a prompt like “seasoned croutons.”
No sweat for the performers of “Freestyle Love Supreme,” the musical/improv show created by Anthony Veneziale, along with Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda. They take suggested words, phrases or stories from the audience and on a dime turn them into hip-hop numbers in a spontaneous creation technique known as freestyle.
It’s on full display at the Old Globe Theatre and is proof that you can make something up as you go along and get laughs doing it.
Often – well, possibly more often than not – improv based on audience suggestions can go awry, making for an awkward and seemingly interminable evening. While “Freestyle Love Supreme” is essentially a different show every night because each audience is different, its opening night on Wednesday was fast-moving, funny and enjoyable.
Sure, the troupe members sometimes lost the beat while inventing their raps on the spot, and some of the audience suggestions were so lame that not even the most imaginative hip-hopper on Earth could turn them into comedy gold. But the “FLS” ensemble is experienced and quick. Most of the time, they demonstrated why this show, which has been around since the early 2000s, is so popular and enduring.
The best opening-night bits included re-enacting in rap one audience member’s first date (which happened to be at this performance) and another’s childhood memory of being stalked by a cougar – his prompt suggestion that was the catalyst for the bit: “Being chased by a cougar, and not the good kind.”
Andrew Bancroft, as “Jelly Donut,” serves as MC among the troupe, with Mark Martin, as “Mandible,” specializing in ambient noises. Jay C. Ellis, as “Jellis J,” and the amazing Dizzy Senze, as “Dizzy,” are the most impressive rappers, somehow able to make spontaneous sound un-spontaneous. Morgan Reilly as the appropriately named “Hummingbird” is the featured singer, and on opening night she portrayed the cougar too (“not the good kind”).
The backdrop onstage is a wall of mighty tweeters and woofers, and the moody lighting suggests a trendy club.
At 85 minutes or so with no intermission, “Freestyle Love Supreme” zips right along. Its comedy can be snarky but never mean-spirited. Does one need to be conversant with hip-hop to connect with it? Probably. If you’re not, it’s about time you got conversant and “FSL” is an invigorating way to do so.
“Freestyle Love Supreme” runs through July 10 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
Dhora Da Luz and Samuel Shea in "Cinderella." Photo by Rich Soublet II
The songs remain the same: “Impossible.” “In My Own Little Corner.” “Ten Minutes Ago.” “The Prince is Giving a Ball.” “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” But the 1957 Rodgers & Hammerstein “Cinderella” with the 2013 book by Douglas Carter Beane puts a lot of new wrinkles into the show originally written for television that starred Julie Andrews.
Look and listen no further than the “Cinderella” onstage at Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista.
In Beane’s adaptation, Cinderella (Dhora Da Luz) wants more than love – she wants social justice. The poor villagers among whom she resides are being exploited by the royal regime soon to be ruled by a gentlemanly but un-woke prince (Samuel Shea). In Beane’s adaptation, one of Cinderella’s wicked (not really) stepsisters, Gabrielle (Kumari Small), is being wooed by a firebrand (Drew Bradford) fighting for the aforementioned social justice. In Beane’s adaptation, reconciliation rules the day at the end of the fairytale, with even Cinderella’s wicked (not really) stepmom (Eileen Bowman) receiving forgiveness.
None of this prevents Beane’s “Cinderella” or Moonlight’s lush production from being tremendous fun. If anything, the narrative changes minimize some of the tale’s mawkishness and, dare I say, add a dollop of relevance.
It helps that the staging directed by Noelle Marion with fanciful choreography by Jill Gorrie Rovatsos and steady music direction from Tamara Paige enjoys some highly entertaining performances. Bowman, a consistently scene-stealing musical-comedy actor, is chortle-out-loud hilarious as Cinderella’s stepmother, Madame. Another dependable performer on San Diego stages is Steve Gunderson, slyly amusing here as the prince’s advisor Sebastian. Anise Ritchie gets to belt out the musical’s best belt-out numbers as Marie, the senile woman-turned-Cinderella’s fairy godmother in Beane’s retelling.
Transformations are this production’s calling cards too, as when Marie’s rags turn to fairy garb and Cinderella spins from rags into gowns. Naturally a pumpkin becomes a coach and mice become coachmen. “Cinderella” wouldn’t be “Cinderella” otherwise.
Though dripping with sincerity from the moment they meet, this Cinderella (she’s Ella in Beane’s book) and her prince (called Topher, supposedly short for Christopher) make a likable pair. Both Da Luz (in her Moonlight debut) and Shea have lovely singing voices.
So this is a more than worthwhile night out for you and (if you have any) your kids. It’s too bad Moonlight couldn’t start the show earlier, however, at 7:30 p.m. if not 7. An 8 p.m. start with a finale after 10:30 makes it tough for the little ones to stay awake.
“Cinderella” runs through June 25 at Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.