San Diego's Jazz

Pat Launer, Center Stage

Funding for "Center Stage" is provided in part by Sandi and Harvey Benenson
  • “SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM” – North Coast Repertory Theatre

    “SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM” – North Coast Repertory Theatre

    They say every picture tells a story. But not every song. Unless it’s written by Stephen Sondheim, musical theater’s most revered living composer/lyricist.

    With his dazzling wordplay, he conveys a character, an emotion, and a very particular moment in time. Sondheim has actually said that, without those pieces of information, he can’t even begin to write a song.

    Many evenings of theater have focused on his funniest and most poignant creations. The first such revue was in 1977, “Side by Side by Sondheim,” which features songs from the master’s early work, including “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “A Little Night Music,” “Company” and “Follies,” as well as some with lyrics by Sondheim, but music by other composers, like Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” and Jule Styne’s “Gypsy.”

    The setup is three singers, two pianos and a Narrator. At North Coast Repertory Theatre, under the clever and whimsical direction of David Ellenstein, the singers are superb – in solos, duets and trios, with the bonus of an excellent Narrator – Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper – who can sing, too, bringing passion to the iconic anthem, “Being Alive.” Angelina Réaux gets the classics, “Send in the Clowns” and “I’m Still Here,” and she brings a singular spin to both. Rena Strober is hilarious in “Not Getting Married” and heartbreaking in “Losing My Mind.” She and Randall Dodge pair marvelously in the cynical marital screed, “The Little Things.” Dodge is inspired in his every number, including his drag turns. A consummate performer, this is his San Diego swan song, as he moves his family to the Midwest. Our enormous loss is their gain.

    The wide-ranging two-act show adds up to one giant musical delight – with all the genius, wit, sophistication, elegance and sly humor of Sondheim, backed by outstanding accompaniment and enjoyable projections. The sound is crisp and the choreography is simple but serviceable.

    Not all singers can sing Sondheim. Those who can bask in the brilliance. Now you can, too.

    “Side by Side by Sondheim” runs through August 16, at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.

    Aired: 7/24/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “KISS ME, KATE” – The Old Globe

    “KISS ME, KATE” – The Old Globe

    You don’t have to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” to enjoy “Kiss Me, Kate.” But the more familiar you are with “The Taming of the Shrew,” the source of this brilliant 1948 musical, the more you’ll relish it.

    The clever book is by Sam and Bella Spewak, with its crafty play-within-a-play structure. The gorgeous score is by Cole Porter, smart/satiric wordsmith extraordinaire. Darko Tresnjak, former artistic director at The Old Globe, now head of Hartford Stage, helms this dazzling co-production.

    The show is chock-full of double entendres. Tresnjak has chosen to underscore and highlight the innuendo, presumably as part of his effort to update the comedy. The result is not necessarily puerile, but it’s definitely penile, as if the suggestive lyrics and Elizabethan codpieces weren’t enough. There’s all manner of low physical comedy, and even phallic-shaped arches painted on the two multi-windowed, towers that flank the set during the show scenes.

    We’re watching a second-rate traveling theater company touring its raggedy production of “Shrew.” The two diva leads, playing Shakespeare’s harridan Katherine and blowhard Petruchio, are a divorced duo who can’t live with or without each other. Their offstage characters are as overblown as their onstage ones. They take their battles and jealousies into the show, which also inadvertently features two hilarious gun-toting thugs. In addition, there’s a wonderful secondary couple, the squeaky-voiced sleep-around starlet and her Bad Boy hoofer beau.

    But all the characters are played so over-the-top from the get-go, there’s no room for nuance. So we don’t care too much about any of them.

    Fortunately, they all sing marvelously, so the spectacular music carries us along. Every main character gets a sizable number, with “Tom, Dick or Harry” and “Always True to You in My Fashion” as show-stoppers. The dancing is exceptional, as is Peggy Hickey’s superb choreography.

    It’s hard not to get sucked in by this effervescent production, with its endless theater in-jokes and its excellent costumes, lighting, sound and musical accompaniment. For the Globe, it’s another opening, another big summer show.

    “Kiss Me, Kate” runs through August 9, in The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.

    Aired: 7/17/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “ALWAYS… PATSY CLINE” – OnStage Playhouse

    “ALWAYS… PATSY CLINE” – OnStage Playhouse

    She sold 10 million albums in 2005, though she’d been dead for over 40 years. Patsy Cline recorded timeless songs like “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Walkin’ After Midnight.”

    Now, she’s making a comeback locally, at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista.

    “Always…Patsy Cline” is a 1988 jukebox musical framed as fan-mail, a love-note from an adoring devotee who got to meet her idol one night in 1961.

    That part of the show is true. Houston housewife Louise Seger actually did interact with Patsy Cline directly, and after some late-night bonding, they continued to correspond for the last two years of Patsy’s life, up to her tragic plane-crash death, at age 30.

    As conceived by Texan Ted Swindley, this is Louise’s story. Recalling that night 30 years ago, Louise gushes, burbles, recounts and rehashes, while attending Patsy’s concert or listening to her on the radio, which offers opportunities for some 27 Patsy Cline songs.

    Though the show has been seen in San Diego before, there’s one new element here: This marks the directing debut of Melinda Gilb, a beloved local performer who has actually played both roles in this two-hander. She does a commendable job, especially with Louise, who’s charmingly, engagingly and delightfully inhabited by Susan Bray.

    The more problematic role is Patsy Cline, who’s something of a singing prop in the show. She barely moves, rarely talks, and changes costume often. Mostly, she just stands there and sings.

    Debbie David has an appealing voice, probably more smoothly trained than Patsy, who confesses that she “can’t read music and doesn’t even know what key” she’s singing in. But there was a heart-piercing, raw-emotion quality to her voice that’s hard to replicate. You knew she’d felt all the anguish she sang about.

    The honky-tonk band is terrific, but the show would be better shorter. Still, for those who like old-time torch-song country singers, and a fan’s fantasy-come-true story, this is just the ticket.

    “Always… Patsy Cline” has been extended to August 1, at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista.

    Aired: 7/10/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “TWELFTH NIGHT” – The Old Globe

    “TWELFTH NIGHT” – The Old Globe

    One line in “Twelfth Night” seems to have inspired the entire production at The Old Globe.

    “By the roses of the spring/ I love thee so,” the countess Olivia says to the young man who’s really a young woman in disguise.

    Red roses are everywhere in Rebecca Taichman’s stunning, sunny staging. Petals fall from hats doffed and hair unfurled. They’re brought in by the wheelbarrow-full, to clutter a meandering stream upstage.

    Though the play ends on a somewhat somber musical note, there’s little darkness here, even in the cruel jest at the expense of Olivia’s supercilious steward, Malvolio. His anger explodes for a moment, and then he’s gone.

    This production is all about light and love, hearts and flowers, and falling wildly, passionately into adoration. Of course, there’s confused identity and misplaced affection along the way. And everyone learns a little about temperance and balance in ardor and elsewhere. But it all gets sorted out ultimately, and like any good comedy, especially of the Shakespearean sort, it ends with multiple matchups and marriages.

    Taichman and her stellar ensemble seem to be having a ball with the material. The language is expressed with crystal clarity, the humor is broad, physical and often hilarious. The costumes and lighting and music are beautiful.

    In a cast of strong performers, several merit special mention: TV's “True Blood” and “Hannibal” star Rutina Wesley, with her adorably spunky Viola-turned-Cesario; Sara Topham’s somberly grieving, majestically regal Olivia, who dissolves into a giddy, love-besotted adolescent; Patrick Kerr’s rubber-legged goofball, Sir Andrew Aguecheek; and multi-talented Manoel Felciano as probably the best Feste I’ve ever seen, a consummate singer, fiddler and wise fool.

    The nearly three hours fly by in this fleet-footed presentation. And on opening night, an extra touch of magic brought the evening to a close. Just as Feste started singing “The Wind and the Rain,” a light sprinkle came down from the sky. As they say in theater, and in comedy, ‘Timing is everything.’

    “Twelfth Night” runs through July 26 on the Old Globe’s Festival Stage in Balboa Park.

    Aired: 7/3/2015 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

  • “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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