San Diego's Jazz

Pat Launer, Center Stage

Funding for "Center Stage" is provided in part by Audrey Geisel and the Dr. Seuss Foundation
  • “THE WHALE” – Cygnet Theatre

    “THE WHALE” – Cygnet Theatre

    Everyone is adrift in “The Whale.” Each character is flailing, drowning, in Samuel D. Hunter’s deep, moving and multilayered drama. They feel abandoned, disenchanted or betrayed.

    The play is laced with symbolism and allegory. The Whale of the title is not just its 600-pound centerpiece, Charlie, who’s been eating himself to death since the devastating demise of his tortured Mormon boyfriend. There are multiple references to Moby-Dick and the Biblical Jonah. And just in case we don’t get it, the on-the-nose sound design at Cygnet Theatre repeatedly gives us a background of crashing waves, roiling between grindingly monotonous piano riffs.

    But that is the only weakness in Cygnet’s superb production, skillfully designed by Sean Fanning, beautifully, sensitively directed by Shana Wride. The magnificent ensemble is anchored by Andrew Oswald’s Charlie, the supersized man with an aching, failing heart, ever in pursuit of his own elusive mammal, his angry, hate-filled teenage daughter, whom he hasn’t been allowed to see for 15 years. Also floating in and out of his life are his conflicted nurse-friend Liz, his bitter ex-wife Mary, and a young Mormon on a mission, who’s more in need of saving than able to save.

    Religion and unexpected humor figure prominently in the work of the young, MacArthur “Genius” grant-winning, New York-based playwright, who sets most of his dramas in his native Idaho. But these floundering folks could be anywhere, grasping for a lifeline even as they refuse it.

    At the center, the dying Charlie remains a mountain of positivity. He can find little gems even in the awful essays written by his Twittering online college students. He knows the life-changing power of story, whether in great literature, or the Book of Mormon. And only he could ask the play’s most profound question: “Do you ever get the feeling that people are incapable of not caring?”

    Despite the heartbreaking, unmoored nature of these surprisingly sympathetic characters, in their own pitiful ways, all are reaching out for connection, and we can take some comfort in that.

    “The Whale” runs through June 14 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.

    Aired: 5/29/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “ARMS AND THE MAN” – The Old Globe

    “ARMS AND THE MAN” – The Old Globe

    What could be better than punching holes in the grandiosity of the rich, the absurdity of war and the inanity of romanticized ideals of love? Having all this skewering come from the witty, acid-dipped pen of George Bernard Shaw, that’s what.

    “Arms and the Man,” which premiered in 1894, is an early work by the brilliant Irish playwright, who happens to have founded the London School of Economics. It’s less acerbic and didactic than some of his later creations. And, in a gorgeous production at The Old Globe, it’s unabashedly amorous – though it calls itself an “anti-romantic comedy.” Despite the ridiculous posturing and pomposity of its misguided characters, this is a completely romantic romp.

    Once you strip away the artifice of idealized love, the real thing can happen – even crossing the ostensibly insurmountable boundaries of country and class.

    It all takes place in a rustic, faux-luxurious Bulgarian mansion, during the short-lived 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian war.

    Raina, perfectly embodied by Wrenn Schmidt, has a wildly unrealistic vision of nationalism, heroism and l’amour. She’s engaged to a Major, the majorly mustachioed Sergius, a bumbling, bombastic buffoon hilariously played by Enver Gjokaj. Raina is disabused of her illusions by the no-nonsense Swiss mercenary, Capt. Bluntschli, who climbs a drainpipe to escape the fighting, seeking refuge in her boudoir. As Bluntschli, Zach Appelman is adorably adroit; the man abhors battle, and carries sweets instead of bullets in his ammo bag. And so, the dreamy but steely Raina dubs him her “chocolate cream soldier.” Other members of the supposedly high-end household include a couple of disgruntled servants and their pretentious masters.

    A few mis-communications, stolen moments and hidden mementos later, all the appropriate hookups sort themselves out, to satisfying effect.

    Director Jessica Stone wrings all the humor and hypocrisy from the 19th century classic, which in its anti-war sentiments remains eternally relevant.

    The ensemble, design, costumes and roving violinist are a sheer delight. It all adds up to a confection as irresistible as chocolate cream candy.

    “Arms and the Man” runs through June 14 in the Old Globe Theatre.

    Aired: 5/22/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “CABARET” – Welk Theatre

    “CABARET” – Welk Theatre

    When I heard that the Welk Theatre was doing “Cabaret,” I thought, ‘This is gonna be a squeaky-clean, watered-down version with no sex or drugs. Both are intrinsic to the superb Kander and Ebb musical set in 1931 Berlin, on the cusp of the Nazi takeover. Well, I’m happy to say, it’s an outstanding production, which the theater itself rates PG-13.

    There’s plenty of innuendo and sexy moves, but no drugs, though the flighty, high-spirited chanteuse, Sally Bowles, is an addict in most versions of the 1966 megahit. Here, she merely drinks gin and her nauseating hangover antidote: a raw egg and Worcestershire sauce.

    The story, based on the John Van Druten play, “I Am a Camera,” which was, in turn, adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel, “Goodbye to Berlin,” tells of a young writer, Cliff Bradshaw, who’s come to Berlin for inspiration. On the train, he encounters the affable Ernst, who turns out to be a virulent fascist. Through Ernst, Cliff meets irresistible but unstable Sally, who impetuously moves in with him and steals his heart.

    Our omnipresent host is the deliciously decadent, androgynous Emcee, who’s part of every magnificent musical number – each a commentary on the action, which includes a doomed late-life romance and the encroaching takeover by Hitler and his Henchmen.

    Director/choreographer Ray Limon hews close to the two Broadway revivals starring Alan Cumming, while adding some bold choices of his own.

    At the center of it all is Jeffrey Scott Parsons as the Emcee. In stormtrooper garb or in drag, this expert hoofer displays musical, dramatic and emotional range, and a cynicism belied by his toothy smile. The rest of the leads are potent, though the accents are erratic. The deadpan, ambisexual Kit Kat chorus is excellent, and the 5-piece band, under the direction of keyboardist Justin Gray, is perfectly brash and brassy.

    The final image is chilling. As Cliff tried to tell Sally, “the party was over.” But the fizz of this “Cabaret” will leave you with fond memories – and political indigestion.

    “Cabaret” runs through July 26 at the Welk Resort in Escondido.

    Aired: 5/15/2015 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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