San Diego's Jazz

Pat Launer, Center Stage

Funding for "Center Stage" is provided in part by Sandi and Harvey Benenson


    Fasten your seatbelts. It’s a bumpy ride: an intergalactic space flight that is a mishmash mashup of B-level 1950s sci fi, The Bard and 1960s music. Sounds wacky, right? It is. And not always in a good way.

    At New Village Arts, “Return to the Forbidden Planet” has a far better cast and production than it deserves. This jukebox musical spoof, created by playwright Bob Carlton, premiered in England and unbelievably, won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical in both 1989 and 1990.

    The plot is convoluted, obliquely inspired by “The Tempest,” though the quotes come from all over the Shakespeare map. Some are cleverly employed (“Live Long and Prospero,” for example). Others, not so much (“Two beeps or not two beeps? That is the question.” Or, “Out, damned Blob!”). Thud. And groan.

    I guess if you’re an early sci-fi fan, you’ll grok it. The clips from cheesy, low-budget productions past are a hoot in Blake McCarty’s excellent projection design.

    The direction, choreography and musical direction highlight the capable cast. But the sound is problematic; dialogue and lyrics were often overpowered and unintelligible the night I was there.

    There is a story, of sorts, but it’s buried in all the space and plot detritus: Prospero, marooned in space with his young daughter Miranda, abandoned by the wife/mother, Gloria. The ship we’re on is drawn to the planet by force. The crew has to deal with a snakelike monster, a potent ‘X-factor’ drug, “reverse polarity” and a “Teenager in Love,” before finding out that G-L-O-R-I-A” may not really be the villain of the piece.

    Performance standouts are Kevane La’Marr Coleman as a deliciously robotic Ariel, and Kelly Derouin as an adorably oversexed Miranda.

    A sound-track and fake onstage guitar player accompany a boatload of songs, very well executed, ranging from “Good Vibrations” to the annoyingly recurring “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” I suppose that could be the theme song of this show. And I guess I just didn’t get it.

    “Return to the Forbidden Planet” runs through September 6, at New Village Arts in Carlsbad.

    Aired: 8/28/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “SHREK” – Moonlight Stage Productions

    “SHREK” – Moonlight Stage Productions

    We all know it’s not easy being green. Just ask Kermit – or Elphaba. But it’s even harder if you happen to be a scary ogre with a soft heart.

    Poor Shrek has had a rough life. Now, all he wants is solitude, and a nice piece of swamp to call his own. But he’s invaded by a horde of Fairy Tale characters, led by a belligerent Pinocchio and a feisty Gingerbread Man, who rope him into a journey – to petition the Prince, the nasty homunculus, Lord Farquaad, who first requires Shrek to complete a quest: slay a dragon and rescue a princess. Then Farquaad can marry her, become Tyrant in Chief.

    Meanwhile, Shrek has attracted a clingy, smartass Donkey, who falls for the fire-breathing dragon. Shrek, of course, is smitten by neurotic Princess Fiona, who turns out to be… well, why ruin it, in case you haven't seen the 2001 Oscar-winning animated film.

    But don’t miss Moonlight Stage Productions’ knockout presentation of “Shrek, the Musical,” with its kid-friendly story and sly adult humor.

    The 22-member cast boasts terrific actors, singers and dancers, cavorting in a mind-boggling array of rented costumes and sets.

    Recent Tony Award-winner Jeanine Tesori composed the music, with book and lyrics by acclaimed playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. The result is a clever and engaging show, with its sprightly, singable score excellently played by a 15-piece Moonlight orchestra.

    As directed and choreographed by David Vaughn, the first act drags at times, until Fiona appears. Then it kicks into high gear – and stays there. Electrifying performances by T.J. Dawson and Michelle London make the Shrek/Fiona connection enchanting. Marc Ginsburg is amusingly narcissistic and obnoxious as Farquaad, and the Fairy Tale characters are lovable and comical. A special shoutout to big-voiced 14 year-old Jaidyn Young as Teen Fiona.

    If you haven’t got any young kids to bring, go anyway. We never outgrow our affection for fairy tales – or our need to be reminded not to judge anyone by stereotype or outward appearance.

    “Shrek, The Musical” runs through August 29 at Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista.

    Aired: 8/21/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “UP HERE” – La Jolla Playhouse

    “UP HERE” – La Jolla Playhouse

    Did you ever look at someone you thought you knew and wonder, ‘What is going on inside your head?

    Well, the world premiere musical “Up Here” gives us an inkling of what’s ‘up there’ for one nerdy, shy, smart, introverted guy: Dan, the computer-man, engagingly played by Matt Bittner.

    We meet all the conflicting, disruptive characters in his mind – who sing, dance, cavort and keep him from living his life or making any real connection – especially with adorable, irresistible Lindsay, adorably played by Betsy Wolfe.

    The new musical has a powerhouse braintrust behind it: book, music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez, who, separately or together, gave us the music for the animated megahit, “Frozen,” and the Tony Award-winning “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Mormon.” Their director is the wunderkind Alex Timbers and the in-demand Broadway choreographer is Joshua Bergasse. So, what happened?

    The on-again/off-again love story parallels the lives and personalities of the Lopezes. The piece has been in the works, and in the creators’ minds, for a long time, and it’s vastly overstuffed. In fact, it’s over-stimulating and hyperactive.

    Act I starts out with the dynamic title song, and the show remains pretty much at that feverish, frenetic pace for two-plus hours.

    Along the way, we meet the Critic, the Humbug and the Can-Do Guy inside Dan’s head, not to mention dancing cacti, jousting medieval knights, New Zealand Haka warriors, clowns, acrobats, puppets, manic psychedelic lighting – and a rock. That rock, and the young boy who talks about it, need to go. Likewise, the non-contributory B-plot, about Lindsay’s neuro-atypical brother and his unlikely love interest.

    There are real kernels of truth and depth in the show – about how our minds can sabotage our choices and relationships. But the good stuff is buried under the avalanche of outrageous costumes and anthemic songs. The score overall is pleasant, and it’s extremely well sung, played and orchestrated. But by the end, all you feel is sensory exhaustion. You just kind of wish all those voices would pipe down, so Dan and Lindsay can go off into the sunset, and you can get a moment to quiet and clear your own busy brain.

    “Up Here” runs through September 6, at the La Jolla Playhouse.

    Aired: 8/14/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “BASKERVILLE” – The Old Globe

    “BASKERVILLE” – The Old Globe

    Who let the dogs out? That monstrous, murderous hound is back, in “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” at The Old Globe.

    This West coast premiere is the brainchild of Ken Ludwig, the award-winning comic playwright best known for “Lend Me a Tenor.”

    Here we have a deliciously campy riff on the classic 1902 Arthur Conan Doyle story, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Hewing surprisingly close to the original, Ludwig’s version, which debuted earlier this year, is a complex, multi-layered, multi-character piece performed by five actors playing some 40 wildly disparate roles. We’ve seen this sort of thing before, in “The 39 Steps” and “The Mystery of Irma Vep.” Why are these wacky shenanigans always set in gloomy England?

    The arena stage in the White Theatre is ringed by miniature versions of Victorian houses, whose roofs ingeniously flip open to create a tea tray or a hotel desk. Top hats fall from above and umbrellas spring up from the floor. Theater magic abounds. The endlessly imaginative design elements feature ominous lighting and sound, and phenomenal costumes, which require incredibly quick, gender-bending changes, sometimes right before our eyes.

    Sherlock Holmes devotees may find their idol sullied by the silliness, but there’s plenty of suspense, too, and chasing and racing around, often in, on and through the audience.

    Of course it’s ridiculous at times, but it remains an intricate mystery, filled with murder and mayhem, secrets, lies and unlikely love.

    It makes sense to have a Broadway choreographer direct, and Josh Rhodes marshals an incomparable ensemble. Euan Morton is a solid Holmes though he is not really the main character. Usman Ally is a delightful Dr. Watson, our sometime narrator. But it’s the myriad costumes, accents, characters and antics of Liz Wisan, Andrew Kober and especially Blake Segal that keep us riveted and amazed.

    Sherlock Holmes never seems to go out of style. There’s barely an entertainment genre that hasn’t tapped into his appeal. “Baskerville” is another winning contender. For Watson and the rest of us, there’s nothing “elementary” about it.

    “Baskerville,” staged in The Old Globe’s White Theatre, has been extended through September 6.

    Aired: 8/7/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “WEST SIDE STORY” – Lamb’s Players Theatre

    “WEST SIDE STORY” – Lamb’s Players Theatre

    Anyone who thinks a 58 year-old musical won’t resonate should consult the daily news. There are still street gangs, and violent turf battles. One line in “West Side Story” says it all, chillingly. The hardened New York cop snarls at the Puerto Rican kid: “I’ve got the badge and you’ve got the skin.” Tell me that’s not relevant.

    Fortunately, love still crosses impossible boundaries and fosters unexpected alliances. “West Side Story” is a brilliant musical riff on “Romeo and Juliet,” set on the tough streets of 1950s New York. In both the 16th and 20th century tragedies, there’s still hope at the end that some good will grow from the seeds a fearless young couple has sown.

    Now, Lamb’s Players Theatre takes on the musical behemoth, composed by Leonard Bernstein, with book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim. His clever, cunning humor is evidenced in the comical “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a show-stopper in this production, thanks to a spectacular performance by Daniel Kermidas as the Jets’ Action.

    Michelle Alves, who performed the role in the national tour, is terrific as Anita, with her sexy moves and bittersweet, hard-won wisdom. Colleen Kollar-Smith’s choreography is wonderful, paying tribute to the iconic Jerome Robbins original, with its own spin. The dance ensemble is excellent and energetic, and the singing is superb, backed by a first-rate, onstage orchestra, helmed by Patrick Marion.

    At the center are Kevin Hafso-Koppman as a gentle, sensitive Tony, and Olivia Hernandez as wide-eyed, ingenuous Maria. They connect effectively, but their voices are a mismatch: his a smooth Broadway sound; hers operatic, with excessive tremolo.

    Under Deborah Gilmour-Smyth’s direction, the acting dominates; all the characters and interactions are convincing, though the immigrant accents are variable, and absent in the Sharks’ leader.

    The lighting, sound and costumes enhance the bi-level, metal and chain-link set. Jordan Miller’s fight choreography deserves special mention.

    While this pared-down production isn’t flawless, it’s robust, and will likely solidify during the run. If only the murderous story would become outdated.

    “West Side Story,” at Lamb’s Players Theatre, runs through August 30.

    Aired: 6/26/2015 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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