San Diego's Jazz

Pat Launer, Center Stage

Funding for "Center Stage" is provided in part by The Handler Family
  • “HEALING WARS” – La Jolla Playhouse

    “HEALING WARS” – La Jolla Playhouse

    All wars are different. All wars are the same.

    More American lives were lost in the Civil War than in any other hostilities since. Though technology -- both medical and military – has advanced enormously, the problems of field injury, survival, and adapting in the aftermath remain remarkably unchanged.

    This is among the many points being made by conceiver/director and co-choreographer Liz Lerman (a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient), in “Healing Wars,” a non-linear, multisensory dance/theater piece that kicks off the La Jolla Playhouse’s second, weekend-long Without Walls (WoW) Festival. It’s an auspicious beginning.

    Lerman is particularly interested in the intersection of art and science, and that’s underscored in this production, which is currently touring the country.

    Before the performance officially begins, the audience is led backstage, in small groups, through labyrinthine passageways, to witness some of the narrative elements of the Civil War stories, some static, some danced, from a new enlistee to letter-writing nurse Clara Barton to a digger on burial detail, which some considered a sacred task. The final vignette is a contemporary conversation with a Veteran amputee, who goes on to perform with the dancers – with and without his artificial limb.

    We meet, among others, a surgeon, who tells about old and new medical developments and laments his losses in the operating room and his impotence in the field; and a graceful, ethereal Spirit Woman who escorts the dead to the next world. We hear about the 400 females who disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War, and about the omnipresent inadequacy of post-combat government services.

    Interspersed with the text, which was co-curated by Lerman and actor Bill Pullman, whose wife is part of the eight-member ensemble, we watch angular, often gut-wrenching dance moves, backed by equally discomforting projections that feature quotes (historical and recent), video from current wars, and a field of flowing wheat, littered with bodies, like so many discarded husks. This is not for the faint of heart.

    With more narrative than dance, there’s enough information to leave you thinking long after – and grateful to be alive.

    “Healing Wars” runs through October 25, in the Forum Theatre of the La Jolla Playhouse.

    Aired: 10/9/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “IN YOUR ARMS” – The Old Globe

    “IN YOUR ARMS” – The Old Globe

    Dance musicals are tricky. Some, like “Contact” or “Movin’ Out,” have won Tony Awards. But many just don’t fly. Now, The Old Globe, which didn’t have great luck in 2006 with “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” is trying again, with the world premiere, “In Your Arms.”

    The 100-minute show was conceived, directed and choreographed by Christopher Gatelli, who won a Tony for “Newsies.” Tony winner Stephen Flaherty, best-known for the marvelous “Ragtime,” composed the original music. His long-time collaborator, Lynn Ahrens, wrote lyrics for the innocuous title tune.

    The unifying theme is Love and Loss, propelled by the Big Idea of inviting ten of the country’s most acclaimed playwrights to create brief dramatic segments. But there’s a flaw in this thinking: playwrights are master craftsmen whose medium is Language. Asking them to write without words is tying their dominant hand behind their backs.

    The most successful playlet, Carrie Fisher’s “Lowdown Messy Shame,” succeeds not only because it’s a truly funny bit, but because it uses Words, delivered by comic actor Jenn Harris, who portrays the playwright poking fun at herself.

    The rest of the pieces, like the generic music and choreography, are rife with cliché and devoid of nuance. Despite emanating from the imaginations of pen-wielding powerhouses like Marsha Norman, Alfred Uhry, Douglas Carter Beane, Lynn Nottage and Terrence McNally, these stories are startlingly trite, familiar or stereotypical.

    The 19 gifted dancers, like contestants on “So You Think You Can Dance,” are called upon to perform an eclectic range of styles, from flamenco to ballet, tango to jitterbug. The most imaginative moves are for ‘flying’ martial arts.

    The memory framing-device features brief and unnecessary appearances by two stars of the past: Donna McKechnie of “A Chorus Line” and George Chakiris of the “West Side Story” film. Neither is a dancer now, and McKechnie, alas, is not a singer, either.

    The only show-stopper is Olivia Sebesky’s magnificent projections. Otherwise, the segments veer from silly but not clever, to heavy but not deep.

    This show’s not for those who love innovative dance, or provocative theater. But it’s new and sentimental, and for some, that’s good enough.

    “In Your Arms” runs through October 25, in The Old Globe Theatre.

    Aired: 10/2/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “HELLO, DOLLY!” – Welk Resort Theatre

    “HELLO, DOLLY!” – Welk Resort Theatre

    You probably know a busybody or two – but maybe not a “professional meddler.” Dolly Levi loves to arrange things, as she sings, “like furniture and daffodils… and lives.”

    She doesn’t come around that often. So if you’ve missed her, say “Hello, Dolly!” at the Welk Theatre.

    Directed and choreographed by Ray Limon, the production bears some of the look, feel and moves of the Broadway original. The pared-down cast of 17 is infinitely flexible, and under Justin Gray’s baton, the four musicians manage to sound mighty – thanks to the added trumpet and reeds. The dancers, especially the men, are quite strong, with AJ Maynes and his amazing leaps a standout.

    Scott Arnold and Andrew J. Koslow make a delightful duo as Cornelius and Barnaby, the wide-eyed, overworked employees of “half-a-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder. While Dolly is busy arranging a marriage for Horace – with herself as the prime candidate – the two young guys treat themselves to a day off, taking a short train-ride from under-developed Yonkers to vibrant, turn-of-the-last-century New York, where they get in trouble and fall in love.

    The setting offers an opportunity for Crayola-colored costumes to enhance the wonderful score by Jerry Herman, with book by Michael Stewart, based on the Thornton Wilder play, “The Matchmaker.”

    The musical won a record-breaking 10 Tony Awards in 1964 and it remains a popular perennial, but the title character is a very challenging role, which requires a powerhouse voice and an overbearing personality. Cynthia Ferrer has the vocal chops, but is a little short on sheer chutzpah. The only other Equity actor in the cast, playing curmudgeonly Horace, is Randy Doney, a Broadway and TV vet who isn’t as gruff or oppressive as some, but he brings heart to the role. With her mellifluous voice, Charlene Koepf sparkles in Irene Malloy’s wistful ballad, “Ribbons Down My Back.”

    The women’s wigs and painted drops may be a tad cheesy, but there’s a lot to like in this lively and engaging “Dolly.”

    “Hello, Dolly!” runs through November 15, at the Welk Resort Theatre in Escondido.

    Aired: 9/25/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • GLOBE FOR ALL – The Old Globe

    GLOBE FOR ALL – The Old Globe

    The Old Globe is takin’ it to the streets. Well, maybe not the streets, but out of the theater box and into the community.

    Renowned producer Joseph Papp created the Mobile Shakespeare program in 1957, and decades later, Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein re-animated Mobile Shakespeare while he was at The Public Theatre, bringing the Bard to underserved communities.

    This fall, he tried out the concept in San Diego, with Globe for All, a free touring production of a Shakespeare play, brought to such varied venues as a military base, centers for the elderly, a homeless shelter and a correctional facility.

    The 90-minute production featured a cast of 10 professional actors, including recent alumni of the Old Globe/University of San Diego graduate theater program. Each facility was offered a one-hour pre-show workshop about the language, themes, characters and plot of the play.

    The intention, said Edelstein, is to “overcome whatever barriers – economic, geographical or cultural” prohibit some community members from seeing or appreciating Shakespeare. “Theater in general, and Shakespeare in particular, are necessary to living a full and rich life,” says Edelstein, who directed the project’s first production, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

    I saw the streamlined show at Father Joe’s Villages, San Diego’s largest residential service provider for the homeless. What was most impressive, besides the talent and commitment of the cast, was how well they interacted with the audience (dogs, infants and all), and how rapt most of the spectators seemed to be, catching all the humor and commenting freely on the action. It was a very exciting and energizing experience.

    If the Globe can once again secure funding from local Foundations, it intends to repeat the process next year, with another play and director.

    Here’s a toast to the Old Globe for helping to bring theater to every corner of our diverse county. Bravo!

    The newly-launched Globe for All will, hopefully, be an ongoing, annual program of the Old Globe.

    Aired: 12/5/2014 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2014 Pat Launer

For an archive of all of Pat's reviews, going back to 1990, use the 'search' function at

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