Saturday, May 19, 2018

Review: New Musical SOFT POWER Smashes Conventions

Conrad Ricamora and Alyse Alan Louis
All photos by Craig Schwartz Photography

Playwright David Henry Hwang and composer Jeanine Tesori are pushing buttons and challenging conventions with their new work, Soft Power, now in its world premiere at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre. Commissioned by CTG for its 50th anniversary season and produced in conjunction with East West Players and The Curran in San Francisco, it has been described as both a play with a musical and a musical within a play.

I see it a little differently, rather as a musical with two unconventional prologues – a 20-minute expository prologue at the top of the show and a 10-minute commentary that prefaces Act II.

The former starts in 2016 with a Hollywood meeting between Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), a Chinese producer, and DHH (Francis Jue) – standing in as the playwright in one of many meta twists – the most famous Chinese writer at the time. DHH has written a television pilot set in Shanghai that Xing wants to produce but, before he signs off, he wants a few changes.

Conrad Ricamora and Francis Jue

The big sticking point is in DHH’s depiction of Shanghai, which leads them to a discussion of the merits of soft power, a country’s method of exerting influence by attraction rather than force. DHH favors a realistic portrayal of the city but Xing prefers a more carefully constructed version of the truth that shows China in the most favorable light, much like he says the United States presents itself. Each makes his case but they are unable to come to an agreement until DHH suggests casting Xing’s girlfriend, Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis), in the show.

Cut to later that night, downtown Los Angeles at the Music Center after a performance of The King and I, where a Hillary Clinton fundraiser is taking place. Xing and Zoe debate the differences between, and benefits of, democracy vs. communism and Xing’s heady response to the musical they’ve just seen. Zoe is emphatically explaining that musical theatre is the best emotional delivery system ever when a Hillary sighting prompts an admiring Xing to rush to meet her.

Then it is election night and, in two harrowing twists, Mrs. Clinton loses, and DHH is stabbed in the neck while walking home, another plot twist born from a similar event that actually happened to the playwright. As one theatrical world gets ready to morph into another, we hear the first clashing warm-up notes of the orchestra. Suddenly, we are smack dab in the middle of a musical fever dream, and, while DHH is unconscious, everything that has taken place up until now becomes the basis of a Chinese musical fantasy. 

What happens during that first 20 minutes is pretty dense storytelling so be prepared to dive in and go with it rather than try to figure out how all the pieces are going to fit together. They do, but if you spend your time analyzing it against traditional musical theatre construction as it unfolds, instead of experiencing it for its own unique structure, you risk discounting its innovation without cause. 

From this point on, the writers and their ingenious director Leigh Silverman, begin to send up love and romance, politics, the United States’ opinion of itself, how our country is seen by others around the world, and a whole list of well-known musical theatre-isms those familiar with the genre will particularly enjoy.

Conrad Ricamora and Kendyl Ito

Miss Saigon has its helicopter. Soft Power has its airplane, and it descends from the rafters in all its massive glory as Xing, the star of this reverse King and I story, prepares to fly to Hollywood Airport, America.

There he’s greeted by all manner of American stereotypes from shoot-em-up cowboys straight from the O.K. Corral to West Side Story’d street kids twerking in hip hop hyper-drive. A bully named Tony Manero (Jon Hoche) bears a striking resemblance to Biff in Back to the Future and the Golden Arches of McDonald’s are glorified in a Broadway showstopper that introduces none other than a singing and dancing Hillary Clinton (also played with verve by Louis).

She makes her grand entrance atop a giant quarter pounder executing Sam Pinkleton’s showgirl choreography that includes disco, tap, karate kicks, a sexy Fosse-esque trio, a kick line, and a circus-style bit balancing French fries on her forehead. By the time she reaches her final costume reveal (there are a number of layers each one-upping the last) and finishes in a Wonder Woman superhero bodice, it’s clear that nothing is going to be sacred in this musical nightmare. The creative team’s work is sharp, on point, and set to stun. David Henry Hwang is on fire.

Alyse Alan Louis (center) with L-R: Francis Jue, Conrad Ricamora, Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee,
Jaygee Macapugay, Billy Bustamante, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Geena Quintos, Paul HeeSang
Miller, Jon Hoche, Kristen Faith Oei, Daniel May and Kendyl Ito

Jeanine Tesori’s score is a marvelously layered concoction that draws from both east and west influences. I am in awe of the way she can create a 4-note melisma on the word “green” when Ricamora sings about the trees in “Fuxing Park” that instantly, and ever so delicately, transports the listener to Shanghai, and then tweak it later to alter its sensibility. The blistering book and lyrics by Hwang (with additional lyrics by Tesori) are filled with an enviable abundance of zingers that slap you upside the head at every turn.

Whether he is maneuvering the cast and orchestra through a big bombastic musical statement or a quiet intimate realization, musical director David O’s dexterity in bringing the score to life is vividly on display. The sound is lush and the expert vocal work leaves nothing wanting.

Ricamora, a favorite on the ABC television series How to Get Away with Murder, has a beautiful voice and is so grounded in his dual roles that it anchors this whirling dervish of a show and keeps it from spinning out of control. His is a richly detailed portrayal filled with subtlety and unwavering honesty. Jue narrates, leading the audience through this most unique story with an almost bewildered grace, and Louis is sensational in her politically-charged, outspoken roles delivered with non-stop Energizer Bunny gumption.

L-R: Raymond J. Lee, Jaygee Macapugay, Austin Ku, Kendyl Ito and Jon Hoche

The shorter prologue to Act II serves a dual purpose: to get audience members back in their seats and to reveal that the musical we have been watching is taking place fifty years in the future. Soft Power has become part of the enduring lexicon of musical theatre history and a panel is discussing the show’s cultural impact on its 50th anniversary. In yet another example of how Hwang is holding a mirror up to the audience to give context to how Asian culture has long been appropriated, a lone white panelist tries to set the record straight when the other Asian members reframe the American impact of the show to fit their preferred reality. It’s been happening in the reverse for years.

There are musical and lyric references to “Trouble” from The Music Man that Tesori and Hwang have turned into a “problems” sequence (hilarious), and Pippin moves that appears in the satirical “Good Guy with a Gun” number (performed with gusto by Raymond J. Lee and a first-rate ensemble). A La La Land Fred and Ginger duet set against the Hollywood night sky (yellow dress included), a big Rent finish à la “Seasons of Love”, and Anna and the King’s waltz in The King and I all get their moment. Even the eleven o’clock number is spoofed in Hillary’s eleven o’clock number, “Democracy.”

The visual contrast between worlds is heightened by scenic designer David Zinn’s use of bold color and brash oversized set pieces. The giant rolling burger, gold-encrusted statues with bright chandelier headpieces, that amazing plane, and the massive Budweiser cans that form the pillars of the White House are all whip-smart decisions meant to provoke an instant response from the audience. Costume designer Anita Yavich’s roller skating waiters in short burgundy rompers comically add to the lavish joke.

L-R: Conrad Ricamora, Austin Ku, Francis Jue, Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante
and Raymond J. Lee 

It takes an incredible amount of work to create a new musical, and to dream up one that is different from any other musical already written is an even more complicated developmental process. The blood, sweat, tears, and years that go into it are not for the faint of heart. And if, by some chance, you do create something truly unique and it actually gets to opening night, there’s still no guarantee of success. That’s why it is especially exciting to see a new musical like Soft Power that fearlessly breaks the mold, smashes conventions, and sets out to turn the genre on its head. It dares to think beyond the content, form, structure, and politics of the past and envision something unique. For me, that is always a big deal.

From here, Soft Power will move to The Curran in San Francisco presumably with additional shaping, as it eyes a future run on Broadway. Catch it while it’s here in Los Angeles. It’s definitely one you won’t forget.

May 3 – June 10, 2018
Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center
135 N. Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA  90012

L-R: Maria-Christina Oliveras (obscured), Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante, Conrad
Ricamora, Jaygee Macapugay, Jon Hoche and Daniel May

L-R: Kristen Faith Oei, Raymond J. Lee (obscured), Austin Ku, Daniel May, Geena
Quintos, Jon Hoche, Paul HeeSang Miller, Jaygee Macapugay, Billy Bustamante (obscured),
Maria-Christina Oliveras and Kendyl Ito

The cast of Soft Power in  the"Democracy" finale

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Saturday, May 5, 2018

Review: Three Cheers for the Talented Kids in SCHOOL OF ROCK

Rob Colletti and the cast of School of Rock. All photos by Matthew Murphy

As kid musicals go, School of Rock isn’t half bad. It falls somewhere between Annie and Matilda on the Richter scale of stories about downtrodden kids overcoming obstacles to win in the end. It’s got enough emotional oomph to tug on your heartstrings and it gives you plenty of reason to happily cheer the underdogs on. It’s also making stars out of its young cast members, right and left.

It should. These pint-sized phenoms are über-talented, both as actors and musicians. An announcement at the top of the show informs the audience that they are all playing their instruments live, which puts to rest what would have been the all-consuming question throughout the performance.

Rob Colletti and the cast

Instead of wondering whether Vincent Molden (Zack) is actually shredding that electric guitar himself, you can sit back and enjoy how well he’s doing it. A girl bass player? Yes, please, and Theodora Silverman has the chops to kill it, along with the rocker attitude. Lovable Theo Mitchell-Penner is a monster on the keyboard and, in his final hour, proves to be quite the showman as well, while Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton tears it up on the drum kit every chance he gets.

There are big, bright performances by Iara Nemirovsky as an annoying goody two-shoes turned band manager, Huxley Westemeier as a pre-teen costume designer destined to give Project Runway’s Michael Kors a run for his money, and Grier Burke, who blossoms from the shy new girl to a determined young lady who knows she’s lead singer material. Back-up girls Olivia Bucknor and Alyssa Emily Marvin have some surprisingly hip moves, and it keeps going right on down the line.

Hernando Umana and Rob Colletti

Their goal is to enter and win the Battle of the Bands contest, a secret school project led by their fake substitute teacher, Dewey Finn (Rob Colletti). They don’t know he’s really an out of work, wannabe rocker who’s been thrown out of the band he created and who happened to hijack a substitute teaching gig meant for his best friend, Ned (Matt Bittner). Dewey pretends to be Ned thinking it will be an easy way to make the rent money he’s behind on so Ned’s fiancée (Emily Borromeo) won’t throw him out.

But this is no gravy gig. He’ll need to pull out all the stops to keep up the charade in front of the militaristic principal, Rosalie (Lexie Dorsett Sharp), and the rest of the school. It’s a set-up for plenty of laughs as Dewey goes from being a loser to the kids’ champion, and everyone - kids, parents, teachers, and even Dewey - get an education they never expected.

The family-friendly musical is based on the 2003 beloved Jack Black comedy and while Colletti doesn’t have Black’s childlike charm, watching him improvise under cover is a lot of fun. The upbeat score consists of music from the film and new songs by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Glenn Slater. Two of the best are “You’re in the Band,” a rousing ensemble number built to reveal each student’s talent and “Stick It to the Man,” which becomes the kids’ show anthem. Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, gives the book a youthful excitability.

The cast of School of Rock

The touring design has the electrified, amplified look of a traveling after school special and morphs nimbly from school to home to the concert hall.

Direction by Laurence Connor pushes everything to a feverish pitch, which can sometimes feel like an assault on your senses. Everyone speaks loudly in a high-pitched voice (where diction tends to suffer) and the adult performances have a harsh edge to them that isn’t always necessary. Regardless, there’s no denying that School of Rock is a hyper-energetic crowd-pleaser.

Take the kids, take the family, and go have fun!

May 3 - 27, 2018
Hollywood Pantages Theatre

6233 Hollywood Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90028

Theodora Silverman and Rob Colletti

Theo Mitchell-Penner

Rob Colletti and Lexie Dorsett Sharp

Rob Colletti and the teachers of Horace Green

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Friday, May 4, 2018

Review: BLUES IN THE NIGHT, a Spectacular Showcase for Three Incredible Women

L-R: Paulette Ivory, Bryce Charles and Yvette Cason.
All photos by Lawrence K. Ho

Somewhere in a cheap hotel in Chicago, circa late 1930s, three women are singing the blues. Two have been around the block and seen it all. One is woefully wise beyond her years. All have been burned by the flames of desire and lovers who have done them wrong.

This is the set-up for Blues in the Night, the musical revue conceived and directed by Sheldon Epps, playing through May 20th in the Lovelace Studio Theater at The Wallis. Epps first directed it in 1980 at Playhouse 46 in New York where it was intended to be a late-night companion piece to a jazz play the theatre was producing. A brief run on Broadway followed in 1982, which scored it a Tony nomination for Best Musical.

Gregory Hines originally assisted with the choreography and for the Los Angeles production it is Jeffrey Polk who adds his unique flair to Epps’ sleek staging. It isn’t a dancy show but the two have found a simple yet extremely effective way of physically communicating humor and innuendo. And because Epps also starts the show quietly, it leaves the piece room to grow, both in volume and emotional intensity.

With no dialogue or plot to speak of, the show rests on the singers’ ability to sell a song. Lord know the blues ain’t easy. You need life experience and a voice that can deliver a universe of pain, passion, and pride in a single note. If you don’t feel it, you can’t sing it, and these three leading ladies have got the goods.

Yvette Cason

Each embodies a particular type. Yvette Cason is the aging Lady from the Road, a performer living on memories stashed in her steamer trunk along with old show costumes. She’s loaded with personality and is as adept at comedy (“Take Me For A Buggy Ride” and “Kitchen Man” will have you shaking your head) as she is in bringing out the sorrow in a song like Bessie Smith’s devastating “Wasted Life Blues.” Best single musical moment of the night, pianist Lanny Hartley’s one chord transition in “Lover Man that spins the song from wistful longing to sultry despair, which Cason uses to splinter her heart across the floor of her tiny room.

Paulette Ivorys stylish Woman of the World is a looker whose appetite for romance and liquor has left her constantly disappointed. She has a luscious, creamy voice, and she can bend a note and pull it back from the air like the sound is bridging worlds. The muted trumpet and upright bass intro to “Stompin At The Savoy” tells you everything you need to know about her character in only two bars. Her “Lush Life is a rich dish served elegantly steamy and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” is a vulnerable acknowledgment of the illusory life she’s created that could be a whole musical by itself.

Bryce Charles

Bryce Charles is the sweet, sad-eyed Girl with the Date, too young to already be so misused by love. She’s two parts sunshine, one part baby doll, with a sparkling voice that is delicate one moment and sassy the next. She’s young but her career will be one to watch.

When the three of them sing in harmony, it is divine. They’re backed by Hartley’s 6-piece jazz combo (Kevin O’Neal on bass, Randall Willis and Louis Van Taylor on reeds, Fernando Pullum on trumpet, Lance Lee on percussion, and Hartley on piano). Act Two opens with the group jamming and soloing on Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues, a theme that runs throughout the show. Music direction by Abdul Hamid Royal unites all musical elements - voice, instruments, tone, character, and emotion - to create one of the most luxurious musical experiences on a stage in Los Angeles. It may be the blues but there is as much joy, fun, and fortitude in Blues in the Night as there is suffering.

Attractive period costumes by Dana Rebecca Woods flatter each woman’s assets. If they never sang a word you’d know exactly who each one was by the garments she wears - a sensual satin peignoir for Ivory, a young girl’s day dress for Charles, and an endless array of theatrical accents for Cason to charm the audience with.

Chester Gregory and Paulette Ivory

The cast also includes one man (
Chester Gregory) who represents a tunnel-visioned male perspective on the trio’s love troubles, but he is negligible. Though he has a few smooth moves, this show belongs to the ladies.

Jared A. Sayeg floods the stage with jewel-toned lighting to intensify the emotional punch of each character’s inner life. John Iacovelli creates the “Four Walls (And One Dirty Window) Blues” setting as three distinct rooms fitting each woman’s present circumstances connected by a central memory world they step into to connect with the audience or to wander back into a dream. Since music is the lifeblood of the show, the band is always visible behind the women, as if to call them home.

Blues in the Night is a decadently rich musical experience built on some of the best early jazz and blues standards you’ll ever hear. Guaranteed to satisfy a lover of great songs, in my book, it’s two hours of musical heaven.

April 27 – May 27, 2018
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Lovelace Studio Theater
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA, 90210

Bryce Charles and Paulette Ivory

Chester Gregory

Yvette Cason

Bryce Charles, Yvette Cason, Paulette Ivory
and Chester Gregory

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Monday, April 30, 2018

Review: Romance and Racism are Testy Bedfellows in SOUTH PACIFIC

Stephanie Renee Wall and John Cudia. Photo by Michael Lamont

Glenn Casale directs this Rodgers & Hammerstein gem dealing with romance and racism in the South Pacific during World War II. The score is classic R&H, a musician’s dream list of gorgeous melodies and keen lyrics performed with tremendous sensitivity by its intelligent cast and a sterling14-piece orchestra led by musical director Brent Crayon.

As the tropical breezes blow, two sets of lovers wrestle with what it means to follow your heart despite a lifetime of learning to hate anyone who is different. It is an issue that makes South Pacific as relevant today as when it was first written. In fact, Rodgers and Hammerstein specifically adapted James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Tales of the South Pacific to highlight racial injustice so that audiences would be forced to confront their own behavior. At the time, it was a pretty bold limb to go out on, and it is still as necessary to tell this story now as it was then. I guarantee it will shock you at least once in the course of its nearly three hour tale.

Stephanie Renee Wall is Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, who falls in love with a Frenchman escaping his past (John Cudia as Emile de Becque) but bolts when she learns he has children by a native woman. Matt Rosell is Lt. Joe Cable, a blue blood Ivy leaguer who gives his heart to a Tonkinese girl (Hajin Cho as Liat) until he realizes he can never take her home to meet his family.

In each case, their worlds begin far apart but, like any cathartic experience, they increasingly intrude upon each other until opinions change and growth happens. Their stories are bittersweet and show the best and the worst of humanity.

The company does six performances a week and at the matinee I attended performances were technically spot-on but didn’t connect emotionally as they could have. My sense was that the cast was tired since it was the last performance of the week. South Pacific has an effervescence to it that moves in partnership with its heavier undertones and that was missing on Sunday.

Cudia and Rosell’s voices are bright, rich, and beautifully resonant but their acting is stiff. The former sounds like he is continually making a speech to someone across the room and the latter could use a shot of personality. Wall is a likable awkward young woman who brightens the stage whenever she arrives, making it all the more shattering when her bigoted behavior is revealed.

Stephanie Renee Wall and Jeff Skowron, Photo by Michael Lamont

Jodi Kimura’s experience with the role of Bloody Mary (she’s played it many times before) makes her a standout in this production. Her ballsy demeanor covers a mother’s desperate desire to provide a better life for her daughter and you can see it in her watery eyes. Jeff Skowron’s Luther Billis is less comic relief and more wry wheeler-dealer but his “Honey Bun” with Wall is an all-out winner. A rousing bunch of male chorus members add immediate energy with Peggy Hickey’s boisterous choreography when they arrive for “There is Nothing Like a Dame.”

April 20 – May 13, 2018
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
14900 La Mirada Blvd. La Mirada, CA 90638
Tickets: (562) 944-9801 or

Matt Rosell and Jodi Kimura. Photo by Michael Lamont

John Cudia, Araceli Prasarttongosoth, Lucas Jaye and Stephanie Wall
Photo by Austin Bauman

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

THE VERDI CHORUS, A Musical Family Related by the Love of Opera

The Verdi Chorus today

Aristotle once said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Nowhere is that phrase truer than with a choir. When individual voices, each unique in character and personality, begin to resonate together they create an entirely new, and often thrillingly exciting, sound. If you’ve ever experienced the goosebumps that come from hearing a choir in action, you know what I mean.

For the past 35 years, members of The Verdi Chorus have celebrated their shared love of music, and their ability to raise those goosebumps, by lifting their voices in song. This spring, they will mark their milestone anniversary with two special concerts on April 28th and 29th at the First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica. On the program: nothing less than four passion-filled scenes by Verdi from I Lombardi, La Forza del Destino, Nabucco, and La Traviata, plus a big finish from Johann Strauss’ effervescent operetta, Die Fledermaus.

No other choral group in Southern California performs their particular repertoire and, as any chorister will tell you, it is an experience like no other. Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked for life and on Monday nights you’ll find more than fifty singers, age 22 to 80, rehearsing under the direction of Anne Marie Ketchum. Among its members are four unique individuals who represent the average, everyday folks who populate the sections. They sing because they love it. Meet Bobbi Mapstone, Rana Ebrahimi, Patrick Mack, and Peter Goldman.

The Verdi Chorus at Ristorante di Musica in the early days

Bobbi Mapstone (alto), one of the original members of the group, is a photographer who couldn’t read music and only sang folk songs while plunking her guitar when she started. She enjoyed opera but says she had an untrained voice. Then, 35 years ago, she happened to attend a friend’s wedding reception at Verdi Ristorante di Musica in Santa Monica. She says, “While we were there, Bernie Segal, the owner, invited everyone to join a brand new opera chorus and no audition was required. That sounded too good to pass up and, before I knew it, I found myself in the soprano section. Singing in the shower was a favorite activity, but to sing opera in my shower was thrilling. Soon I discovered I was not a real soprano and moved through the voice ranks until I landed happily with the 2nd sopranos - the women’s bass section.

Verdi Ristorante had become a proving ground for many singers but, when it closed, the chorus sadly came to an end. By then, passion had exceeded the quality of our singing and when a few enterprising members asked Anne Marie if she would continue the chorus privately she agreed, with one important condition. Everyone had to audition. This was nerve wracking for me but singing with Anne Marie was addictive and she wanted to create a group that would contribute to the music of Los Angeles.

Auditions and artistic control made all the difference; without them there would be no Verdi Chorus today. It’s been a large learning curve and I feel privileged to sing glorious opera music with talented singers and soloists. I enjoy the struggles with language, speed, and dynamics and the nerves and often panic as the performance approaches. Then it’s that special weekend. We dress in black and bling, and the energy is high. The church has excellent acoustics and there are stunning moments when our sound soars to the rafters giving us chills and thrills. My 35 years with the Verdi Chorus has resulted in a greater love of music, and new skills and friendships. Attending opera can be difficult; we know so many choruses that it is hard not to sing along!”

The Verdi Chorus, from the archives

Rana Ebrahimi (soprano) is a student who was born in Iran but moved to the U.S. in 2013 to pursue her dream of becoming an opera singer. She was already a flutist and a classical singer back home but she enrolled in the Music Program at Pasadena City College to gain performance experience. In Iran, there had been little to no opportunity to perform.

Rana says, “It was at PCC that I met Anne Marie Ketchum de la Vega. She was the opera director there and she also taught classes. Words cannot describe how much I learned from this amazing woman. Aside from vocal technique, she helped me come out of my shell and find confidence on stage, mainly because I was new to the U.S. and hadn’t made any friends yet. When I realized she was also the director of Verdi Chorus, I asked her if I could join. Luckily, I was accepted. In Verdi Chorus people support and help each other in every way they can. That’s why we sing with a lot of passion. It is not just a chorus to me. Verdi Chorus is my music family and I am so fortunate to be a member!”

Patrick Mack (tenor), a travel consultant, has been singing with Verdi Chorus for fifteen years. He found the group by way of a friend’s suggestion but he never thought he’d join another choir. “I ran into a colleague at a work function who had heard I was an opera singer. She started babbling on about this ‘Verdi Chorus.’ Well, I had sung in the chorus with the Baltimore Symphony for two years and figured that part of my life was over. I was riding a very high horse called, ‘I’m a soloist.’

My colleague continued to harass me every time she saw me for the next 7 YEARS (!) until I finally came in for an audition and found this musical family. I’m constantly astonished at the musicianship our director, Anne Marie Ketchum, achieves. Her level of preparation and her constant attention to detail are obvious in our performances. Many of us are just people who really love to sing. In the years I’ve been with the chorus, I’ve gotten to perform some of the greatest music ever written for the voice, and no one complains I’m too loud!”

Peter Goldman (bass) is a publicist by day, singer by night. The Verdi Chorus first came into his life as a client for Davidson & Choy Publicity where he works. Peter says, “I always like to think new and exciting things will continue to come into my life if I’m just open to them, but it really was beyond my wildest dreams that I would ever have the opportunity to sing opera alongside first rate opera singers. Initially, I went to their annual summer party strictly to learn more about the group we would be representing. But, two things happened at that party. First, I was gobsmacked by the talent and genuine camaraderie and family spirit of the group. It seemed every walk of life was represented there and they all had one thing in common - an incredible love of the music.

The second thing that happened, which stunned me to no end, was that I was encouraged to audition the following month to join the chorus. While scared to death, (I hadn’t sung since college and that was decades ago) I gathered the courage to give it a go figuring nothing ventured, nothing gained. To my absolute surprise and joy, I made the cut, and I am continually amazed how being part of such a dynamic musical group has changed my life.”

Of course, none of this would be possible without the woman they all sing the praises of, Founding Artistic Director, Anne Marie Ketchum. In 1983, Anne Marie was one of over 20 professional opera singers at Verdi Ristorante in Santa Monica, an elegant high-end Italian restaurant where a handful of soloists would perform on any given night.

She says, “Grant Gershon, the Artistic Director of The Los Angeles Master Chorale was one of the pianists and Evan Kleiman, who is known for being the ‘fairy godmother’ of the LA food scene through her show Good Food on KCRW, was fresh out of culinary school and working in the kitchen. Needless to say, the food was fantastic, and singing on a stage surrounded by commissioned art of all the Verdi opera characters in such a beautiful space was a wonderful thing.

The owner of the restaurant came up with the idea of starting an opera chorus comprised of the patrons from the restaurant, and as I had a background in conducting, asked me to lead it. We wound up with about 30 singers, and while no auditions were required - and the sound of the chorus reflected that - everyone had a great time and the performances were packed with family and friends.

When the restaurant closed, as restaurants will do, the singers didn’t want to stop. Tom Redler, Peter Kahn and Walter Fox were members of the chorus as well as incredible philanthropists. They were instrumental in raising funds so the chorus could go on. I was asked to continue as Artistic Director, and I agreed, under the condition of having full artistic control, and instituting auditions for all members to bring the Verdi Chorus up to the next level musically.

Over the years, the Verdi Chorus has evolved on every level. There truly was no way of knowing what we would grow into as a performing arts organization. We’ve not only long outlived the restaurant where it all began and where we first started presenting opera choruses in concert, we have also become a force in the L.A. classical music community and are proud to be able to provide career development opportunities for young professional singers.”

For a look at their upcoming program, tickets, and more information, visit their website at Parking is free and a reception follows each concert where you can meet the artists.

THE VERDI CHORUS: The Force of Destiny
April 28 (7:30 pm) and April 29 (2:00 pm)
First United Methodist Church
1008 11th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90403
Tickets: $10 - $40 (800) 838-3006 or
Guest soloists: Shana Blake Hill, Karin Mushegain, Alex Boyer, and Ben Lowe
Accompanist: Laraine Ann Madden

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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Review: LOVE NEVER DIES Finds its Happily Never After

Meghan Picerno as Christine Daaé and Gardar Thor Cortes as The Phantom.
All photos by Joan Marcus

Romance based on obsession is a challenging tale in today’s world. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 hit musical The Phantom of the Opera might have had a more difficult debut if it had taken place today amid the #MeToo movement. But it didn’t, and the British composer’s masterpiece went on to conquer the West End, Broadway, and the rest of the world, creating legions of fans in its wake.

Now its sequel, Love Never Dies, is making its world tour, but lightning, as they say, isn’t striking twice for this continuation of the Phantom/Christine saga. Curiosity and the unwavering affection of those impassioned fans seem to be the main reasons audiences are flocking to the Hollywood Pantages Theatre for the musical’s short stay. Indeed, the women sitting behind me could barely contain their excitement at seeing the production, a sentiment that didn’t diminish throughout the night.

And much like the Phantom’s fixation on the chorus girl with a golden voice he abducted to turn into a star, Lloyd Webber has been obsessed with turning Love Never Dies into a success.

He began work on the story four years after Phantom premiered in London. It took another seventeen years before he would start composing the score and another three years with multiple collaborators before Love Never Dies finally opened in the West End, albeit to disappointing reviews. He reworked the troubled production, replaced the set, brought in a new director and lyricist to fix trouble spots, and reopened what he felt was a more vibrant musical. Still, it never aroused the same excitement as Phantom. Its London engagement was shorter than anticipated and plans for a Broadway run were scrapped. Productions scheduled to run in other countries also went through significant changes.

The version on stage at the Pantages is one that was reworked for the 2011 Australian premiere, complete with lavish sets and costumes, gorgeous operatic voices, and an orchestra that fills the art deco house with glorious sound. These attributes alone make Love Never Dies a thrill for musical lovers, but you’ll need to overlook a story that tampers with your recollection of the events in Phantom. They say you can’t rewrite the past but, in the case of Love Never Dies, you’d never know it.

It seems that Christine was actually in love with the Phantom, and more happened during the gondola ride to his subterranean lair than they let on. At the end of the musical, miraculously, Madame Giry saves him from the angry mob we thought killed him. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Front L-R: Richard Koons (Squelch), Katrina Kemp (Fleck), Stephen Petrovich
(Gangle) and the Ensemble in The Coney Island Waltz

When the sequel opens, it is 1907 and ten years have passed (yes, the math is off). Erik (Gardar Thor Cortes as the Phantom) isn’t dead but alive and well and living in Coney Island where he runs a commercial concert hall among the fantasy world of boardwalk freaks and outsiders, still pining for his darling soprano. The lovers, Christine (Meghan Picerno) and Raoul (Sean Thompson) are unhappily married with a 10-year-old son (Casey Lyons at this performance), and young Meg Giry (Mary Michael Patterson) is now a glorified singing, dancing stripper who performs in the burlesques at Erik’s show palace while sleeping with the investors her mother finds to fund Erik’s venture.

Madame Giry’s (Karen Mason) objective is to secure their future with the Phantom’s fortune and everything is going according to plan until the announcement that the now-famous soprano is coming to America to perform a concert for Oscar Hammerstein. When Erik learns of the trip, he intervenes to bring Christine and her family to Coney Island. Cue the music. Cue the lights. You can bet there is a mirror waiting in her future that casts more than her own reflection in it.

Though the production’s spectacle is impressive – this is an expensive touring set and the costumes are divine (both by Gabriela Tylesova) – no amount of glitz can compensate for the melodramatic book or performances. The operatic gestures and posturing are stilted and director Simon Phillips doesn’t seem to notice or care, although he does create some heavenly stage pictures.

Gardar Thor Cortes and Meghan Picerno

One of the problems is that Ben Elton’s book and Lloyd Webber’s repetitious score stretch moments across minutes like schmaltzy grand opera. The dramatic throughline isn’t interesting enough, nor are Glenn Slater’s* lyrics transcendent enough, to sustain such slow development so, no matter how hard the actors try to make it natural, it just isn’t possible.

The second problem is that the score doesn’t present a cohesive vision. In Phantom, the composition style was operatic and the “performance” scenes at the opera house were also operatic, because of the location. Here, the setting is a completely different musical world, one that can’t help but sound jarring when you pit its flimsier ditties against the richer sound of opera.

To further complicate things, Lloyd Webber undercuts his own melodies. Rather than building them to soaring heights in an upward trajectory, something he so beautifully did in Phantom, in Love Never Dies he repeatedly uses descending falling phrases that stifle the bloom in the voice. Even his title song, the pièce de résistance for Christine, is full of such phrases. Happily, when Picerno finally does get to let loose in the upper stratosphere of her range it is the kind of luscious soprano magic that makes audiences swell with applause.

Meghan Picerno

David Cullen and Lloyd Webber’s orchestrations are rich and full and the orchestra, led by music director/conductor Dale Rieling, sounds superb.

Though this alternate reality for the Phantom and Christine may ultimately disappoint the discerning musical lover, the visual extravagance and vocal virtuosity of the piece will not. Those riches are fully on display.

*Additional lyrics by Charles Hart

April 4 – 22, 2018
Hollywood Pantages Theatre
6233 Hollywood Blvd, 
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Tickets and more info: or 800-982-2787

Mary Michael Patterson and the ensemble

L-R: Mary Michael Patterson, Meghan Picerno, Karen Mason and Sean Thompson 

Richard Koons, Katrina Kemp, and Stephen Petrovich 

Casey Lyons and Gardar Thor Cortes

Sean Thompson and Gardar Thor Cortes

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