No two ways about it: The bloodthirsty, flesh-hungry plant Audrey II is the star of Little Shop of Horrors. When she (Eboni Muse) first bellows “Feed me!”, the horror side of Little Shop comes to startling life. Clad in a spectacularly garish costume designed by Amanda Quivey, Muse makes a wildly sinister diva queen.
New Village Arts’ Little Shop of Horrors directed by AJ Knox enjoys a delightful ensemble too, led by Sittichai Chaiyahat as the man-eating plant’s nerdy minder, Seymour. As his co-worker love interest Audrey, the dependable Cashae Monya brings out the lovelier side of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s kitschy songs, while a ubiquitous singing trio (Chris Bona, Natasha Baenisch and Patricia Jewel) evokes the ‘50s when socks were for hopping and B-grade horror movies reigned at drive-ins. Mr. Mushnik of the original musical is Mrs. Mushnik here, with Melissa Fernandes superb in the role, and Philip David Black nails it as sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello. After a strong opening act, the show bogs down a bit, but Audrey II satisfyingly chews the scenery throughout.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/19/19.)
Jamie Torcellini (left) and Larry Raben in "The Producers." Photo by Ken Jacques
Only a Mel Brooks show can still get laughs with the “Walk this way” sight gag. No one can get away with broad, irreverent and politically incorrect comedy like Brooks can, which makes The Producers musical based on his 1968 film such a guilty pleasure. The family-minded Moonlight Stage Productions has opened its 39th summer season with one for the grown-ups. Its staging of the 2001 musical does not disappoint either.
The production reunites actors Jamie Torcellini and Larry Raben, who played the lead and second banana respectively in Moonlight’s 2013 Young Frankenstein. This time around, Torcellini stars as sleazy Broadway producer Max Bialystock, with Raben (who also directs) as timid account Leo Bloom. They’re both in fine form, as are Josh Adamson, Luke H. Jacobs and Max Cadillac in uproarious supporting roles. Moonlight’s orchestra conducted by Lyndon Pugeda is big time, too. The Producers is an irresistible farce still capable of shocking first-time viewers.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/19/19)
At La Jolla Playhouse, the world premiere of Ike Holter’s Put Your House in Order takes a budding millennial-style romance and morphs it into a predatory horror story. The transformation isn’t completely seamless. Caroline’s (Shannon Matesky) and Rolan’s (Behzad Dabu) getting to know each other at her upscale suburban house (designed for maximum curb appeal by Arnel Sancianco) is a tiring exercise in riffing and flirty put-downs. The mood changes with the arrival of a wild-eyed neighbor, Josephine (Linda Libby), whose brandishing of a gun is only the start of the manic chaos that follows.
Playwright Holter’s end-of-the-world motif is heightened in this production by the sounds of sirens, gunshots and the unintelligible rumblings of a growing mob. Caroline and Rolan become survivalists, while Josephine completely whacks out (which has to be a total treat for Libby). Put Your House in Order is frankly more engrossing for its special effects and unseen dangers than in it is for those subject to them. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/12/19.)
Omoze Idehenre and Jonathan Walker in "What You Are." Photo by Jim Cox
JC Lee’s What You Are was developed last year in the Old Globe Theatre’s Powers New Voices festival and is now getting its world premiere as a full-blown production. Entwined in sociopolitical discourse, this high-anxiety play revolves around Don (Jonathan Walker), an angry, late-middle-age white guy who feels disenfranchised, put upon, picked on and victimized by just about everybody That includes the young employer (Adrian Anchondo) who, loathsome as he is, is justified in firing him. When not clinging to the vitriol of right-wing radio, Don is trying to justify himself to his very decent African-American wife (Omoze Idehenre) and his smart but lecturing daughter (Jasmin Savory Brown)
After much initial polemical exchange, the one-act What You Are directed by Patricia McGregor turns more inward and ominous, with Don’s self-destructive insecurity and paranoia at the fore. This fuels the Globe’s theater-in-the round with a palpable and most effective sense of dread about what may come.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/12/19.)
David Ellenstein (left) and J. Todd Adams in "A Walk in the Woods." Photo by Aaron Rumley
In its sedate but steely reflection on nuclear disarmament, Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods is both idealistic and cynical, if not fatalistic, at the same time. This is not merely because Soviet negotiator Andrey Botvinnik (David Ellenstein) and his American counterpart John Honeyman (J. Todd Adams) are of different minds. Each in his own way badly wants the strongman nation he represents to make concessions and to see the pathway to peace. But in Blessing’s 1988 play, now onstage at North Coast Repertory Theatre, the more diplomatically battle-scarred Andrey already knows what John, the relative newbie at high-level negotiations, soon learns: that the appearance of negotiating disarmament is the best they can do. It’s even, according to Andrey, the goal of their sensitive dialogues.
Are the madness of nukes and the fruitlessness of negotiation as relevant more than 30 years later? Look no further than the failed U.S.-North Korea talks (and of late, the deadly consequences, under Kim Jong Un’s reign, of that failure). Look no further than Donald Trump boasting of having the bigger nuclear button.
The polemics aside, A Walk in the Woods is a showcase for two actors given the chance to play vivid characters. Andrey is the larger-than-life of the two, a gesturing, charming fellow for whom formality is “argument with its hair combed.” Ellenstein’s portrayal is earnest, understated and full of fun – just the kind of fun that Adams’ sober American diplomat does not want to have. Occupying the less engaging role, Adams succeeds in ultimately conveying John Honeyman’s innate human frailties. Blessing was smart enough not to allow his character study to devolve into a sentimental, opposites-attract buddy story. Andrey’s and John’s bond is their mutual, agonizing frustration.
Richard Baird directs the production with respect for the material and for his actors, while the Swiss woods set by Marty Burnett, just an inviting bench in a bucolic forest clearing with birds chirping high in the trees, is a serene spot for an audience to spend two hours.
For a Cold War drama, A Walk in the Woods has no shortage of warmth.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/5/19.)
Jordan Berman’s problem isn’t so much that he’s looking for love in all the wrong places. It’s that his three best friends are looking and finding it, while he’s striking out. What’s an unlucky BFF to do?
Joshua Harmon’s “Significant Other,” which wraps up Diversionary Theatre’s 33rd season, takes a familiar romantic-comedy premise and adds much-needed nuance by changing up the character dynamics. All four friends are attractive, pushing-30 New Yorkers who work and party hard, but Jordan (Tom Zohar) is a gay male among his three female confidants: sassy, self-involved Kiki (Jamie Criss), oft-cynical Vanessa (Andrea Agosto), and sweet, protective Laura (Megan Carmiitchel).
What’s refreshing is that Harmon’s script does not dwell upon differences in gender or sexuality. These four support, cajole and counsel each other in matters of the heart (and other, more private parts of the body), which gives “Significant Other” its playfulness. Jordan, however, is by far the most needy. Early on, he asks Laura for the little sticker off her apple so that he can have something “to touch and to cling” to him.
As Kiki, Vanessa and finally Laura find the men they’re in search of, Jordan’s failure to find one of his own intensifies his insecurity and his neurotic impulses. Zohar skillfully mingles nervous energy and vulnerability along the way, playing best off Carmitchel’s Laura, who is the most fully drawn of the three women characters. Jordan’s and Laura’s emotional confrontation at her Act 2 bachelorette party is aching and credible.
While the cast directed by Anthony Methvin is a spirited one, it’s unable to compensate for some of “Significant Other’s” false starts and tired devices. Much is made in the first act of Jordan’s obsessive interest in a co-worker (Bryan Banville), only to have the potential connection just vanish from the story by taking another job. Kiki’s seeming ambivalence about her new husband similarly is left undeveloped. Meanwhile, Jordan’s going-vague grandmother (Dagmar Krause Fields) comes and goes to ask about his social life and dispense traditional grandmotherly advice. What she bestows near the end of the play is predictable and trite.
On the upside, Facebook and emails (remember those?) figure prominently in Jordan’s search for a significant other. (If Harmon’s 2015 play was updated for today’s singles, they’d of course be texting and Instagramming.) Jordan’s humongously over the top email following up a first date, and his manic anxiety about whether to actually send it, is hilarious.
The silliness that intrudes upon the more personal, internal drama of “Significant Other” is at the same time its best entertainment: the four friends’ singalongs and gyrating dances; the reactions at the various women’s wedding receptions; the snarky exchanges about the absurdity of dating itself. Zohar, Criss, Agosto and Carmitchel are having a blast on the Diversionary stage and in these antic scenes doing so without the relationshippy navel gazing so endemic to TV and movie rom-coms.
Hopeful but not naïve, “Significant Other” suggests that love may be fickle and elusive, but it is never insignificant.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 6/4/19.)
Jacque Wilke (left) stars in "Pride and Prejudice" at Cygnet Theatre. Karli Cadel Photography
Sorry, Jane Austen lovers, but “Pride and Prejudice” is just such a bore.
But thanks, playwright Kate Hamill, for putting some much-needed pizazz in the too-oft-told story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Just as she did previously with Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” and with William Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair,” Hamill created a contemporary adaptation for “Pride and Prejudice” that even the cynical at heart can appreciate.
Cygnet Theatre’s staging of Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice is long, but also long on spirit and ingenuity. From a purely subversive standpoint, it could be thought of as “The Pointer Sisters at Pemberley.” The R&B trio’s “Jump (for My Love)” is this production’s de facto theme song, symbolic not only of Lizzy’s empowerment but also of the Hamill adaptation’s abandoning of convention.
The original novel has not been abandoned, however. This Pride and Prejudice is very much true to what Austen wrote in 1813. The premise, simply put, is that Mrs. Bennet (Shana Wride) is bound and determined to marry off her eligible daughters, Elizabeth (played with pluck and conviction by Jacque Wilke) among them. The narrative takes many a twist and turn from there, with Elizabeth’s maturation leading her to understand herself and love. But this Pride and Prejudice, played out on an industrial-looking, quick-change set designed by Sean Fanning, choreographed by Michael Mizerany, and directed by Rob Lutfy, goes where no telling of the tale has gone before.
Actors Kevin Hafso-Koppman, Jake Millgard and Adrian Alita (beard and all) perform at times in drag. Notably, Hafso-Koppman portrays both Mr. Bingley and the consumptive-sounding Bennet daughter Mary. Pop tunes including Madonna’s “Material Girl” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” supplant Regency-period harpsichord music. Comic lines and unpredictable exits and entrances prevail.
Most of this activity is apt to generate grins and chuckles more than gales of laughter. The nature of most spoofs, whether in film, on television or on the stage, is that the results are hit and miss. Devotees of the novel shouldn’t be offended; the play is in its way a tribute, imitation being the highest form of flattery and all that.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 5/29/19)
Left to right: Brad Oscar, Jessie, Cannizzaro and Shay Vawn in "The Gods of Comedy." Jim Cox photo
Ken Ludwig’s The Gods of Comedy does not require of its audience a knowledge of Greek mythology. Just a sense of humor and an affinity for farce that from the very outset swings for the fences. The gods in Ludwig’s world-premiere comedy at the Old Globe Theatre are Dionysus, the God of Comedy (Brad Oscar, seen last year in La Jolla Playhouse’s The Squirrels) and Thalia, the Muse of Comedy (Jessie Cannizzaro). They’re inadvertently summoned from Mount Olympus to the modern day by a frazzled young academic (Shay Vawn), who is wearing a magical necklace that was given to her by a street vendor while abroad. Frolicking and cracking wise like a seasoned vaudeville duo, the gods are there to help poor Daphne recover a priceless ancient manuscript entrusted to her -- which she’s lost.
That’s the tension, such as it is, of the play, which is in actuality a pretext for Ludwig’s broadly conceived characters to cut up, quip, mistake identities and make frantic entrances and exits from the stage. Devotees of Ludwig’s wackier comedies such as Lend Me A Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo will be right at home with this new show. So will Old Globe patrons who recall Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery and Robin Hood! In previous engagements at the Balboa Park theater.
Predictably, Oscar and Cannizzaro walk away with The Gods of Comedy, emboldened by the go-for-broke script and some clever stage effects that allow them and George Psomas as the armored, uber-macho god Ares to show off their powers. But the supporting cast directed by Amanda Dehnert holds its own. The petite Vawn is thoroughly charming. Jevon McFerrin nimbly affects exasperation as the professor who first discovers the valuable manuscript (Euripides’ lost tragedy of Andromeda). Both Steffanie Leigh and Keira Naughton shine too as a vamping film actress and a donation-hungry college dean, respectively.
As is customary at the Globe, the sets are gorgeous. These are by Jason Sherwood. They create an autumnal playground evocative of a prestigious eastern college for the visiting gods and those in their sphere to provide two hours of familiar but enchanting entertainment.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 5/22/19.)
The athleisure clothing biz gets a skewering in Moxie Theatre’s production of Yoga Play, which also purports to being incisive about cultural appropriation and gender dynamics. But essentially Dipika Guha’s work, which premiered two years ago at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, is a high-level farce reliant upon stage antics and sight gags.
That’s not a problem. Quite the opposite. After a gabby first act, Yoga Play hits its comedic heights in the second act, notably in a scene in which a dippy yoga teacher (Tamara Rodriguez) is schooling the clothing company exec (Sri Chilukuri) who’s posing in ludicrously fake beard as a renowned yogi. This requires some explanation: When a public relations scandal hits, the new CEO of Jojoman (an obvious take on the athleisure outfit Lululemon) decides that the damage can best be minimized by having an authentic yogi speak for the company and its sincerest (wink wink) intentions. When the yogi who is recruited (Matthew Salazar-Thompson, intoning like Peter Sellers in “The Party’) turns out to be a fraud with his roots in Santa Monica, CEO Joan (Jo Anne Glover) drafts colleague Raj for the job. It’s a very contrived premise, but the Moxie cast directed by Callie Prendiville brings its “A” game to the stage.
Chilukuri proves more than up to the task of transforming himself from one of Joan’s two trusted execs (the other being Albert Park as Fred) into the awkward faux-yogi he’s coerced into portraying, which he deems offensive to his cultural heritage. Whether he’s enduring the enigmatic silences of the recruit by way of Santa Monica or the aggressive tutelage of the off-the-wall instructor Romola, Chilukuri’s comic exasperation never wanes. Fittingly, however, Raj facilitates the story’s consciousness-raising denouement.
Glover’s Joan is funniest when she’s fainting or on the verge of doing so, and Park’s Fred when he’s recounting dreams, particularly one about a talking bird using foul – or is it fowl? – language. As for Salazar-Thompson and Rodriguez, who are playing the broadest characters, each just goes for it.
Silly as it can be at times, Yoga Play successfully sends up the corporatization of mindfulness and the commercializing of dressing right, and at the right price, to achieve it.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 5/15/19.)
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.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat