Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST Proves Too Ambitious for CASA 0101

One glance at the program for Casa 0101’s Beauty and the Beast and you can see that it takes a village to put on a show - quite a large village, in fact. No less than three producing entities, an LA Councilman, three individual producers, an executive producer, a 19-person production team, and a cast of 25 had a hand in making sure the show goes on. That doesn’t even include the countless unnamed volunteers, parents, friends, and others who are also an important part of this homegrown Boyle Heights theatre company.

Last year Casa 0101 produced a lovely dual language version of Disney’s Aladdin, which was so popular it extended its run and eventually transferred to a larger venue. Hoping to repeat that success, they have set their sights on another Disney classic but, this time, the production proves too ambitious an undertaking for the company. Since this is the holiday season, I thought I’d turn to the best gift giver I know to see if he might be able to help them out.

Jacquelin Schofield (Mrs. Potts), Andrea Somera (Belle) and Omar Mata
(The Beast). All photos by Ed Krieger
Dear Santa,

Casa 0101 has been very good this year so I wanted to ask if you could give them some extra special help with a few of the items below for their current production of Beauty and the Beast. Even without them, Andrea Somera has a lovely voice and makes a charming Belle, but any or all of these additions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance for your consideration.

1. Please give Casa 0101 a way to cover the house right corridor so the audience does not have to watch the actors and stagehands make all of their crosses. It is very distracting and we would rather focus on what is happening on stage. Could you also take their backstage light (SL) that shines through the black curtain whenever someone turns it on? Maybe they won’t miss it.

2. I would love it if you could you do something about the large cumbersome set pieces that roll on and off stage throughout the show. They’re loud, difficult to maneuver, and get in the way more often than not. Bigger isn’t always better and these make the scene changes ponderous affairs.

3. If you could give the sound board operator a hand too that would be great. He or she caught up after a couple of numbers but it was an awkward beginning without the mics turned on. I didn’t miss the spotlight until it finally came on mid-number but maybe that should start at the beginning too. You know best.

4. As this is a family musical, please give the costumer some pants for Gaston. His shiny black Lycra tights are so skin tight (SO skin tight) and his vest so short you can see every seam in his undergarments and a few things you wish you didn’t. It isn’t funny; it’s crude and feels inappropriate with so many young children in the audience.

5. Would you also give the costumer a pair of scissors to cut the tag off Maurice’s scarf? When Belle puts it on her father, she says she made it for him but the store tag hanging from it begs to differ. Also, halfway through the act, one of the other characters comments that Cogsworth is turning more into a clock and has sprouted a windup key on his back. Problem is, the key was there from the beginning of the show. Maybe he was missing a piece of fabric to camouflage it? In any case, I’m sure you can help.

L-R: Jeremy Saje, Omar Mata and Caleb Green

6. Santa, could you also help Lumiere with his wig? It flew off during Act One and I thought it was accidental but, when the actor came back, he didn’t wear it the rest of the show. He didn’t wear it in the production photos either so I guess it was intentional. If that’s the case, maybe he just needs a jar of cold cream for his whiteface makeup...unless it was a statement. I really don’t know for sure.


7. I also don’t know if the fights were meant to be comic or realistic. At times the sound effects came on the action and at others they came several beats after the action. I guess I was confused since it was inconsistent. At least I didn’t worry that anyone would get hurt, though, since I could see that the actors were making the sounds themselves.

8. Maybe you could also let the cast know they don’t need affected voices or unnatural dialects to make their characters work. Even though this is a musical, the rules of acting still apply. You can’t go big unless you stay grounded and if your accent muddles your words the audience can’t understand you.

9. And speaking of those kids in the audience, please add a stop watch to the director’s Christmas stocking. It’s a bit unrealistic to expect young children to sit through a first act that is an hour and a half long without giving them a way to exit the theater other than the doorway where actors make their stage entrances. The staff can make all the announcements they want about staying in your seats but when a child has to go, they’re going. I’d also have them take down the sign that says no one will be admitted once the show starts so don’t knock. Plenty of people were lucky enough to be seated once the show began so they really didn’t need it.

10. Oh, one other thing...please give the 17-year old Salt Shaker a scholarship to a dance conservatory when he graduates from high school. He is well on his way to becoming a terrific professional dancer and I would like to see him have the opportunity to continue his studies.

Sincerely,
An avid theatregoer and musical fan

Maxwell Peters and Andreas Pantazis

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
December 8, 2017 – January 21, 2018
CASA 0101 Theater
2102 East First Street
Boyle Heights, CA 90033
www.casa0101.org

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Monday, December 11, 2017

Review: Chromolume Theatre Presents Memorable Revival of PACIFIC OVERTURES

L-R (front): Kevin Matsumoto, Paul Wong, Julia May Wong, Daniel Koh, Marcel Licera,
Peter Jeensalute. Rear: Cesar Cipriano, Daryl Leonardo. All photos by Ederson Vasquez

You only have one more week to catch the striking revival of Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (playing through December 17th) and true Sondheim fans shouldn’t pass up the opportunity. The last time it made an appearance in Los Angeles was in 1998 when East West Players presented it in the company’s new 240-seat David Henry Hwang Theatre.  

Chromolume’s theater seats only 49 but the production comes alive in this intimate space, achieving a gentle lyricism and uncluttered style under James Esposito’s direction that gives the musical’s emotional impact surprising weight. It is performed in a modified Kabuki tradition without the highly-stylized makeup and costumes but incorporating many of the form’s dramatic aspects and enhanced sensory elements. Choreographer Michael Marchuk beautifully tailors the movement to the small playing area.

The cast, led by a mesmerizing Paul Wong as the Reciter (or narrator), handsomely communicates the subtleties in John Weidman’s book and Sondheim’s score but what is even more potent is how alive their silence is. The visual organization has a distinct presence and you can feel it shift as the tone changes from scene to scene. Focus is all.

Paul Wong

Musical director Daniel Yokomizo handles the difficult score with a delicate touch and capitalizes on the vocal eloquence of the cast’s ringer, Gibran Mahmud, whose cascading tenor voice bounces brilliantly off the surrounding wood panels. The acoustics of the theatre are quite good, even without mics, making it unnecessary for cast members to push (although a couple of the men fall into this trap in their eagerness to communicate during moments of heightened emotion).

The story of Commodore Perry’s intrusion into Japan’s tranquility in order to open up the country for trade resonates like Pandora’s box – once the contents have been released they can never be put back. As the ceremony of life begins to unravel and priorities shift to make room for the West’s enticing commercialism, the resulting compromises become increasingly more disturbing. Sondheim’s final two numbers, “Pretty Lady” and “Next” are unsettling for completely different reasons but have as much in common with today’s issues of aggression, resistance, and progress as they did in these circumstances depicted in 1853.

Pacific Overtures is some of the best work Chromolume Theatre has done to date. The production strikes a balance between economy of storytelling and dramatic effect to create a uniquely memorable experience. And while it may not be perfect, its level of sophistication is truly admirable.

PACIFIC OVERTURES
December 1 – 17, 2017
Chromolume Theatre at The Attic
5429 W. Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90016
(Between the 10 Freeway and Hauser Blvd.)
www.crtheatre.com

Cesar Cipriano

Cesar Cipriano and Marcel Licera

Cesar Cipriano and Daryl Leonardo

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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Review: A Noise Within Rings in the Holidays with A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Geoff Elliott (center) as Ebenezer Scrooge and the cast of A Christmas Carol.
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Of all the holiday stories written, it would be hard to find one more well-known or popular than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The redemption of a miser named Scrooge whose heart has forgotten the meaning of charity has been adapted, musicalized, spoofed, and dramatized in every medium imaginable, and, like all good cautionary tales, returns as a warning each December. In these trying times, its message about the importance of caring for one’s fellow man is as necessary as ever.

A Noise Within remounts its version of the holiday comfort food classic, starring Geoff Elliott as Scrooge, for the sixth year in a row. The adaptation is also by Elliott, who co-directs with wife, Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, and the production features many familiar faces from among the company’s pool of resident artists.

Deborah Strang bustles in as the whimsical Ghost of Christmas Past looking like a child’s birthday cake topper, amid layers and layers of white flouncy ruffles. Jeremy Rabb, who plays Marley for the first half of the run, dons a fright wig and tattered suit bound with rag-strewn chains extending dramatically up into the balcony. And, as the Ghost of Christmas Present, Stephen Weingartner’s elaborately-festooned robe adorned with a Thanksgiving feast’s worth of fruit, autumn leaves, and even a miniature pumpkin, looks more like a mechanical set piece when he rolls in than merely a textile from the costume department.

These are looks that make a statement in a production that unabashedly prides itself on its colorful pageantry. But you can’t act the costumes. Without a deeper dive into the soul of the characters you end up with a perfectly nice, generally adequate telling of the story; layers and layers of fluff but nothing underneath. To be unmoved by A Christmas Carol is disappointing indeed.

Geoff Elliott and Deborah Strang

It’s up to narrator Frederick Stuart (better known to ANW audiences as Freddy Douglas) to inject a sense of warmth in the tale, which he does with sincerity and a knowing twinkle in his eye. His short preludes to the five scenes are pleasing additions that successfully draw the audience in.

Add some shadowy Victorian touches in the scenic and lighting designs by Jeanine A. Ringer and Ken Booth, respectively, to go with those wonderful costumes by Angela Balogh Calin and the pictures play like scene capsules sprung from the pages of a Dickensian pop-up book.

Still, even if some of the performances get glossed over, the moment Scrooge shows up at his nephew’s (Rafael Goldstein) door and says, “Will you let me in, Fred?” don’t be surprised if you feel a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye. Reconciliation restores the hardest of hearts, especially at Christmas time.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL
December 1 - 23, 2017
A Noise Within
3352 East Foothill Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91107
www.ANoiseWithin.org

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Monday, December 4, 2017

Review: The Wallis Searches for THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD

L-R: Christina Bennett Lind and Luke Forbes in Vesturport and The Wallis’
The Heart of Robin Hood. All photos by Kevin Parry for The Wallis

This year for the holidays, The Wallis has traded its typical musical theatre fare (Into the Woods/2014, Guys & Dolls/2015, Merrily We Roll Along/2016) for something a little less traditional but even more imaginative and fun - Vesturport Theatre’s The Heart of Robin Hood by playwright David Farr.

Directed by Gisli Örn Gardarsson and Selma Björnsdóttir, it does contain music (beautiful songs by Icelandic pop star Salka Sól) but the hybrid production also incorporates elements like aerial and floor acrobatics and a unique floor-to-ceiling forest wall that allows the actors to slide in and traverse its trap doors and crevices like they’re on a crazy obstacle course. The heightened physicality adds a playfulness to the piece and the athleticism of its sword fights and combat scenes lend a rousing intensity. Deaths are grisly, romance is a given, and an underlying earthiness characterizes the passions that arise throughout.

Heart is a twist on the tale of Robin Hood (Luke Forbes) going back to the days before he stole from the rich and gave to the poor when he and his merry men were merely self-centered thieves. The dour ruffian refuses to let women into his band with the explanation, “A woman causes tempests in the heart of a man.” While we never find out exactly what prompts him to adopt the rule, we know he will have a change of heart by the end of the tale, and that change will be inspired by a woman.

Christina Bennett Lind

The woman is Lady Marion (Christina Bennett Lind), the willful, independent daughter of the Duke of York (Ian Merrigan) who, to escape her impending marriage to the villainous Prince John (Eirik del Barco Soleglad), flees to the forest. Disguised as a boy and inspired by a disastrous earlier meeting with Robin, she decides to form her own gang of thieves. But unlike Robin’s marauding band of bare-chested brawlers, her mission is selfless. She distributes her spoils to those in need and quickly becomes the beloved champion of the downtrodden. When Robin finds out this new “Martin of Sherwood” is encroaching on his territory, he furiously vows to kill him.

Farr (whose 2016 mini-series The Night Manager was a huge hit with television audiences) first directed his play at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011. His nods to Shakespeare are unmistakable and those who know the canon will find many parallels. Marion’s journey mirrors that of Rosalind’s in As You Like It. She is accompanied by her fool, Pierre (Daniel Franzese), an effeminate and comical twist on Touchstone, and in her guise as Martin, must hide her attraction to Robin in a Rosalind/Orlando rip-off.

Borrowing from The Taming of the Shrew, Marion’s relationship with younger sister Alice (Sarah Hunt) has much in common with Kate and Bianca (although Alice is the shrewish one of this pair). If you know Twelfth Night, you’ll hear a callback to Malvolio’s last declaration in Prince John’s final words and, like all typical Shakespearean comedies, it ends in a wedding.

The style is broad and rife with innuendo. Forbes and Lind spar both verbally and at opposite ends of a blade, causing sparks to fly on more than one level. He’s stubborn, she’s even more headstrong, and the hoops they end up jumping through on their way to a happy ending will give you the warm and fuzzy glow every hopeless romantic longs for by the time they lift off into the air in a final aerial pas de deux.

The cast of The Heart of Robin Hood

The score is a series of songs performed between scenes by Sól and her four musicians that capture the essence of what is about to happen on stage. The lovely singer has the kind of indie voice you can listen to all day and, as the action intensifies, so does her song style. In the early scenes, melodies meander with a folk lilt and quirky, winsome charm before giving way to a more insistent rap style. Lyrics can be difficult to understand so pay close attention.

Brian Hsieh’s graceful soundscape evokes the stealth and joy of the forest in all its cycles. It is almost imperceptible at times but the way it effortlessly enhances the tone of a scene is quite beautiful. Scenic designer Börkur Jónsson’s set makes its grand entrance the minute you walk into the theater and is enough to take your breath away at the sheer amount of lush greenery that fills the stage. It transforms under Ken Billington & Ed McCarthy’s richly dramatic lighting in surprising ways.

The Wallis never does anything halfway and with The Heart of Robin Hood they have taken another bold step forward in presenting first-rate live entertainment. This is a fairy tale with grit, sophistication, and the kind of devilish creativity a modern audience can go crazy over. (And it doesn’t hurt that you’ll find a rogue for every taste among the splendid cast).

THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD
Nov 29 – Dec 17, 2017
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA  90210
Tickets: www.thewallis.org

L-R: Jeremy Crawford, Luke Forbes, Sam Meader, and Daniel Franzese

The cast of The Heart of Robin Hood

L-R: Luke Forbes, Kasey Mahaffy, Christina Bennett Lind, Jeremy Crawford, and Sam Meader

Luke Forbes

Salka Sol

L-R: Kasey Mahaffy, Luke Forbes, Eirik del Barco Soleglad and Sam Meader

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Review: Tyne Daly Deals with Loss in CHASING MEM'RIES: A Different Kind of Musical

Tyne Daly. All photos by Chris Whitaker

The title of Joshua Ravetch’s new play Chasing Mem’ries: A Different Kind of Musical is misleading. It really isn’t a musical at all, though it does contain half a dozen songs written by lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman. Their collaborations with composers like Marvin Hamlisch, Johnny Mandel, and Michel Legrand produced some of the most well-known hits of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and garnered numerous awards throughout their lengthy career.

“The Way We Were,” “Where Do You Start” and “Little Boy Lost,” are three such songs, all of which can be found in Ravetch’s latest work, now on stage at the Geffen Playhouse. But as beautiful as these wistful ballads are they, and the rest of the songs included in the piece, all have the same tone, tempo, and nostalgic longing within them, and that’s problematic.

Rather than functioning in a storytelling capacity, they become resting points for Victoria (Tyne Daly) as she processes the pain of losing her husband of 57 years by triggering memories of long ago. Or, they linger as underscoring, which makes the piece feel even more like it’s trying to manipulate the audience’s emotional response. In both cases, the play languishes under the weight of its protracted sentimentality.

Essentially, Chasing Mem’ries is a walk down memory lane that takes Victoria through all five stages of grief in the course of 90 minutes. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance each get their due, prompted by conversations with her son Mason (Scott Kradolfer) and dead husband Franklin (Robert Forster) who appears to her in the attic where Ravetch’s play is set.

Victoria won’t go downstairs to the memorial service happening on the lawn because she isn’t ready to let go of him. It’s a foregone conclusion that she will by the end of the play and perhaps that is part of the challenge. We know where this story is going before it even gets started, and it doesn’t add anything new to the conversation about grief we haven’t heard before.

Daly’s consummate skill as an actress is, of course, the reason to see this production and she doesn’t disappoint. She wrings every ounce of nuance possible out of the opinionated, wise-cracking widow’s dialogue but the play still can’t shake its own sentimental death grip.

Tyne Daly and Robert Forster

Tony Fanning’s set design is a gorgeous cutaway attic stuffed with forgotten items representing a life well-lived, complete with autumn leaves trailing across the shingled roof. It’s beautiful but it makes for challenging traffic patterns, and there are times Ravetch’s staging in the cramped space is restrictive and repetitive. That may be intentional but critical moments end up feeling contrived.

Watching Victoria and Franklin dance with their hands hovering inches away from each other, not touching, is odd. We know he isn’t really there but she would be able to feel him in the intimacy of the moment, particularly since this is in her mind. Its puzzling rather than poignant because, if she couldnt feel him, that would certainly be a source of frustration.

Scott Kradolfer and Tyne Daly

For those who have lost a loved one, Chasing Memries may conjure up memories of their own, making Victorias journey a cathartic one. Without that connection, the play is nothing more than an old-fashioned love letter to days gone by.

CHASING MEM’RIES: A Different Kind of Musical
November 7 - December 17, 2017 
Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024
Tickets: 310-208-6500 or www.geffenplayhouse.org

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Friday, November 17, 2017

Review: Hamilton Who? SPAMILTON Reigns Supreme at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

L-R: Zakiya Young, Wilkie Ferguson III, William Cooper Howell, John Devereaux and
Dedrick A Bonner. All photos by Craig Schwartz

For the last 25 years, Gerardo Alessandrini has paid homage to the Great American Musical in the best way he knows how, by skewering it relentlessly. It is an arena where nothing is off limits - no diva, no composer, and no quirk of the genre, which is why his Forbidden Broadway revues are as beloved as any book musical to grace the Great White Way.

Musical lovers love their musicals, but they’re also quick to tell you what they hate. And what they hate, they love to make fun of. Therein lies the secret to Alessandrini’s success. For every fan of Les Mis who longs for the return of the turntable, there is another who secretly hopes the whole overblown affair will finally die in the wings.

Now, the biggest game-changer since Rodgers and Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber, or Stephen Sondheim came on the scene, has given him fodder for a new installment in his popular franchise - Lin-Manuel Miranda and his multi-Tony Award-winning mega-hit, Hamilton: An American Musical. Reinvented as Spamilton: An American Parody, Alessandrini takes a giant leap forward in the way he spoofs Hamilton’s entire epic saga. The result is a buoyant thrill ride of hilarity that never lets up.

In a happy coincidence, both productions are currently running in LA, one in Culver City and the other in Hollywood. I happened to see them both for the first time within a week of each other, which only made it more obvious how remarkable each is in its own right.

L-R: Wilkie Ferguson III, John Devereaux, William Cooper Howell,
Zakiya Young and Dedrick A. Bonner

Without a doubt, Hamilton is the wave of the future, representing a Broadway that is inclusive, forward thinking, open to reinterpretation, and rich in musical forms that draw as much from popular styles as they do traditional ones. It is a masterful work, monumentally important at every level.

The story, ripped from the pages of American history and told by a multiculturally diverse cast using hip-hop as its basis, was unlike anything Broadway had ever seen or knew it wanted (although In the Heights already proved Miranda was on to something). It’s no wonder it took over the musical theatre world like a speeding train.

Both Hamilton and Spamilton are written to entertain, and both are smart, complex, and exciting works. But where Hamilton reinvents the genre itself and opens up conversations of many kinds, Spamilton’s goal is much simpler. Its singular reason for existing is to make you laugh, and because it sees everything about the Hamilton phenomenon as fair game, it takes its jabs wherever it pleases.

Song by song, Spamilton deconstructs its object of affection and reinvents it, beginning with the iconic opening number “Alexander Hamilton,” which now sends up “Lin-Manuel as Hamilton” and turns “His Shot” into a crusade wherein he declares he is “not going to let Broadway rot.”

Charismatic William Cooper Howell nails Miranda’s style and attitude with a knowing smile that never lets us forget he isn’t taking anything too seriously. That’s Wilkie Ferguson III’s role, channeling (beautifully) original cast member Leslie Odom Jr.’s intensity and competitive spirit as Aaron Burr.

John Devereaux, in the Daveed Diggs roles of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette, turns the crowd-pleasing “What Did I Miss” into a bouncy “What Did You Miss,” poking fun at how fast Miranda’s lyrics go by. He also goes old school rap in a mash-up of “Guns and Ships” and Will Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song, now rewritten as “The Fresh Prince of Big Hair.” You get the idea.

Zakiya Young handles all three Schuyler sisters as originally played by Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones, with the help of two Avenue Q-style puppets. Young has an impressive ability to change her vocal sound to match whichever character she is channeling, including heavy hitters like Audra McDonald and J-Lo, who also make appearances in the show. Miranda writes the personality of each sister into the way she sings her own name in Hamilton and it is particularly fun to hear how Young interprets those differences.

L-R: Wilkie Ferguson III, Zakiya Young and Dedrick A. Bonner

Glenn Bassett returns to play wacky King George, the role he originated Off-Broadway in a twist that finds the character pouting over the lack of gays on Broadway now that Hamilton has straightened things up. During the song, he invites the audience to sing a chorus along with him consisting of a single word, “gay, gay, gay, gay gay” and the absurdity of that moment brings home Alessandrino’s ability to cut right to the heart of the zinger.

The Sondheim section gives Dedrick A. Bonner the spotlight as a Yoda-Ben Franklin who counsels Howell with wise words from Into the Woods, and later on, as the single biggest sight gag in the show. It is an automatic hold for laughs and traditional musical lovers will eat it up when they see it.

In addition to the Hamilton parodies, the show also pays tribute to a host of other musical theatre gems in rapid-fire mentions. The King and I, Sunset Boulevard, Wicked, Gypsy, Assassins, Aladdin, and West Side Story are only a few of the many slipped in that speed by so quickly you’ll need to pay attention or you’ll miss them.

The Beggar Woman (Susanne Blakeslee) from Sweeney Todd gets a running gag based on the high cost of Hamilton tickets but it is one of the few jokes that doesn’t gather much steam. Appearances by Liza Minelli and Barbra Streisand, though expertly recreated by Blakeslee, also don’t organically fit this new incarnation of parody musical as they have in past Forbidden Broadways. Here they feel more like filler and the show just doesn’t need it.

Alessandrino’s stripped-down staging and Gerry McIntyre’s shorthand version of the original choreography is delivered with precision and boundless energy by the ensemble. Diction, specifics, timing...it’s all there. Musical director James Lent, at the piano, has polished this dime store dream until it shines like Tiffany glass.

A central Spamilton show card serves as the lone backdrop to disguise the vast number of goofy props, eccentric characters, and other surprises that will emerge throughout the performance.

Spamilton was tailor-made for the trivial pursuit-inclined musical theatre lover and for Hamilton fans who can’t get enough. If you fit into either of these categories, this is your show. If you don’t, the cast is so likeable and entertaining you won’t even care if you miss a few jokes. It’s a roller coaster ride with a ticket you can afford and a guaranteed good time to go with it. I couldn’t get enough.

SPAMILTON
Nov 5, 2017 – Jan 7, 2018
Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232
Tickets: (213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

William Cooper Howell

John Devereaux

L-R: Wilkie Ferguson III, John Devereaux and Zakiya Young

Glenn Bassett

Wilkie Ferguson III

William Cooper Howell and Dedrick A. Bonner 

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Monday, November 13, 2017

Review: Open Fist Theatre Company Gets DELEARIOUS on Stage

Ramón Garcia, Ron West, Chris Farah. All photos by Darrett Sanders

Open Fist Theatre Company’s revival of Ron West and Phil Swann’s musical comedy deLEARious has a lot going on. The production contains three storylines in three different time periods twisted together in a fast-paced, boisterous style that was an award-winning hit for the company in 2008. Nine years later, it still packs in more story than you can possibly keep straight but it also offers up plenty of laughs to go along with it.

You’ll need to know the basic plot and characters of Shakespeare’s King Lear before you get there and that King James was Shakespeare’s benefactor after Queen Elizabeth I died. From there, you’re basically in for three hours of rowdy playtime in a fractured fairytale world where Lear gets a happy ending, Shakespeare helps edit the King James Bible, and a modern-day pair of writers attempts to write a musical.

The jokes are hit-and-miss, as are the performances, but the cast plows through with so much enthusiasm that the fun is infectious regardless of the show’s shortcomings. West stars as a loud-mouthed Lear and also directs. He directed the original production as well and there is a nagging sense he is using jokes and staging that got laughs for the cast the first time around. They aren’t always successful here but that may be partly attributed to the way the scenes cut back and forth so quickly the audience doesn’t always have time to catch up.

Some of the punchlines have been updated to include references to things like texting and the Trumps however the contemporary thread of the story never fully steps into 2017. West uses astrology to explain how Elizabethan characters in 1603 could have knowledge of objects that only exist today but it too is a repetitive device, thin at best.

Micah Watterson and Jason Paige

On the flip side, you can never go wrong with a singing villain, and Jason Paige (Edmund the bastard) plays it straight and gets the funny right. He betrays his father, orchestrates the downfall of his brother Edgar (Micah Watterson), and forms alliances with Goneril (Robyn Roth) and Regan (Rachel Addington) all by hiding his true intentions behind a demeanor of comic sincerity. It’s a sly wink that he sings romantic ‘80s power ballads with Roth (a winner as Lear’s ball-busting eldest daughter) and then later morphs into an eccentric Frances Bacon, a character who has a great deal in common with Jerry Lewis’ nutty professor.

Other standout performances include Scott Mosenson as a smooth William Shakespeare and Gina Manziello in a double turn as Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia, and Jasmine, a stripper Ron meets in a bar whose interpretive dance audition is unforgettably over-the-top.

A coterie of actors playing numerous roles adds to the sketch comedy feel of the piece. Among the characters are an effeminate King James (Chase Studinski), a pissed off Anne Hathaway (Lane Allison with a lovely mid-range singing voice), the king’s Fool (Chris Farrah), and a host of other Earls, Scholars, Royals, and Scribes. When everything is firing on all cylinders we get clever scenes like the writers’ room of the Christian Brotherhood, a terrific combination of sitcom writing, smart lyrics, and well-defined characters.

The cast of deLEARious

Swann’s score is full of lusty musical numbers that cover everything from pop to Broadway to the blues, and musical director Jan Roper is the put-upon pianist who’s finally had it with Ron’s childish behavior. Her piano bench throne draped in red velvet is a cheeky touch by scenic designer James Spencer. Spencer frames the stage with cutouts that resemble giant chess pieces leaving an uncluttered playing area for the actors but firmly placing the action in court.

deLEARious is a fun-loving musical comedy whose only goal is to make you laugh. Its kooky characters and good-time appeal easily get the job done.

deLEARious 
November 10 - December 16, 2017
Open Fist Theatre Company
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039
www.openfist.org

Rachel Addington and Robyn Roth

Jason Paige and Scott Mosenson

Gina Manziello and Ramón Garcia 

L-R: Chris Farah, Rachel Addington, Ron West, Scott Mosenson and Robyn Roth

Chase Studinski and cast

Scott Mosenson and Micah Watterson

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