Pat Launer, Center Stage
“SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ” – OnStage Playhouse
San Diego is laying out the welcome mat for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
The legendary songwriting team is being celebrated at two local theaters within a year’s time.
“Smokey Joe’s Café,” a Tony Award nominee and Grammy Award winner, features three dozen of the pair’s Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rhythm & Blues classics, like “”On Broadway,” “Stand By Me” and “Kansas City.” Leiber and Stoller were the kings behind the kings, providing hits for icons like Elvis, Ben E. King, The Coasters and The Drifters.
The show became Broadway’s longest-running musical revue, opening in 1995 and running for more than 2000 performances. It’s more a cabaret show than a musical. There’s no dialogue, and no particular unifying theme or organizational structure. Just one heartfelt or humorous song after another: Got “Poison Ivy?” Cure it with “Love Potion #9.”
Right now, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is at the OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. Come winter, it’ll be in Carlsbad at New Village Arts, in a whole different production.
OnStage guest director and choreographer Shirley Johnston is the best part of this production. She’s the strongest dancer, and she scorches sexy numbers like “Don Juan” and “Some Cats Know.”
Dominique Dates and Belinda Pickens are real finds – both new to musical theater, with powerhouse voices. Pickens, a lifelong church singer, kills a slow-burning “Hound Dog.” The ladies band together for a hot rendition of “I’m a Woman.”
Other performance standouts: Reggie Hutchins’ “Spanish Harlem,” Kyle Leatherbury’s “I (Who Have Nothing)” and Raymond Stratford III’s “Young Blood.”
Emma Rose Tarr works that fringe in “Teach Me How to Shimmy,” and Jake Strohl nails “Jailhouse Rock.” Alexander Salazar-Dunbar adds his bass to the mix.
The costumes aren’t always flattering and the dance moves are elementary. The reviewed performance had several miking and sound balance problems. But the knockout six-piece band, under the direction of Michelle Gray, really makes this music sing.
If you’re a Baby Boomer, you’ll love spending time in “Smokey Joe’s Café.” And at any age, if you dig early pop and R&B, you’ll rock out, too.
“Smokey Joe’s Café” runs through June 9, at the OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista.
Aired: 5/10/2018 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2018 Pat Launer
“SOUTH PACIFIC” – San Diego Musical Theatre
San Diego Musical Theatre’s “South Pacific” is somewhat less than “101 pounds of fun.”
Though it’s a big production -- high energy and enjoyable -- there’s virtually no dancing in what should be a dance-happy musical. Numbers like “Bloody Mary” and “There is Nothing Like a Dame” should be choreographic show-stoppers. Here, there's only the most basic of movement throughout.
The 1949 musical certainly retains a whiff of cultural insensitivity. It’s a show of its time, though the very pointed message about racism and prejudice being “carefully taught,” not inbred, remains painfully relevant today.
Rodgers and Hammerstein creations may age, but they always contain a nugget of truth about humanity. Adapted from James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Tales of the South Pacific,” the musical is set on a small South Seas island, where sailors and Marines are waiting, stalled on the periphery of World War II military engagement. In the meantime, they generate a ton of fun and mischief.
Though the sets, lighting and costumes provide color and context, there are some vocal weaknesses among the principals.
This production’s strongest element, by far, is Robert Townsend as the sophisticated French planter, Émile de Becque, who falls hard for Ensign Nellie Forbush, the naive nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas. Townsend towers over everyone else, vocally and dramatically. He has the perfectly rich, warm baritone to make songs like “This Nearly Was Mine” bona fide heart-breakers.
Carolyn Agan is amiable as Nellie. Her most successful number is “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” which she plays with the giggly girlishness of new romance.
In the character roles, Agustine Wells is a minimally macho Luther Billis, and this schemer falls short of a dominant comic powerhouse. Gigi Coddington is a formidable Bloody Mary, the huckster islander whose wily salesmanship outsmarts the Seabees, as she searches for a suitable mate for her lovely young daughter, Liat.
Director Kirsten Chandler offers some creative moments, but no new insights. The 15-piece orchestra is excellent, and the choral singing is compelling.
“South Pacific” has some dark themes. As a counterbalance, the show should have ebullient, dynamic dance. Without it, this production is only sometimes an “enchanted evening.”
“South Pacific” runs through May 27, at the Horton Grand Theatre downtown.
Aired: 5/9/2018 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2018 Pat Launer
“PETER AND THE STARCATCHER” – Lamplighters Community Theatre
When you were young, didn’t you wish you could fly? Then disaster struck: you grew up.
Everyone’s favorite airborne sprite, the one who never grew up, is back, in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which is the creation legend of Peter Pan.
The wildly imaginative play by Rick Elice, based on a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, was first seen locally as a Page-to-Stage workshop at the La Jolla Playhouse. Later, the national tour came to the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A., after the show won five Tony Awards on Broadway.
In all honesty, I enjoyed the Lamplighters Community Theatre production more than the tour. It’s funnier, more inventive, with great set and sound design and hilariously fanciful costumes. Even the cultural/topical references are more laugh-worthy, with callouts to Starbucks, “Hamilton,” millennials and ‘alternative facts.’
Then there are all those smart, witty alliterations and literary allusions. As Molly, the 13 year-old heroine of the story, puts it, “We love words for their own sake.” Hence, a comically competitive rhyming match staged in a boxing ring.
Molly is one of the world’s 6½ Starcatchers (she’s only an apprentice when we meet her). The magical ‘starstuff’ is enchanted, and Molly’s on a mission to destroy it.
On the way, she encounters orphans, pirates and a giant crocodile. Ultimately, we find out how Peter got his name, how the Captain got his hook, and how the croc got his clock.
Okay, the mermaid and mollusk segments get a little silly, and the songs, by Wayne Barker, seem extraneous.
But director Raylene Wall does a marvelous job of keeping the pace sprightly, the humor bouncy and the goofiness in check.
She’s aided by an ebullient cast of 18, anchored by Brian P. Evans’ fey, funny and fierce pirate, Black Stache, and Emily Candia’s indomitable Molly.
The play offers a few messages: Be Bold. Don’t give up your dreams. Steer clear of reptilian men and animals. Most important, for us grownups, always remember: “To have faith is to have wings.” Clap if you believe.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” runs through May 13, at Lamplighters Community Theatre in La Mesa.
Aired: 5/3/2018 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2018 Pat Launer
“NOISES OFF” – Lamb’s Players Theatre
“Noises Off” has “Nothing On.”
That is to say, the wild and wacky 1982 farce by Michael Frayn, “Noises Off,” has a play within the play called “Nothing On.” Both are equally ludicrous. Together, they’re hilarious.
We start out at a rehearsal for the cheesy comedy being performed by a 3rd-rate English theater company that tours to far-flung holes-in-the-wall. It’s the night before opening, and everything that could go wrong, does.
But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Act II takes place during a performance a month later, where we see extremes of mania and madness backstage.
By the time Act III rolls around, two months later, we’re watching the complete deterioration of the production; all hell has broken loose into an unhinged delirium of jealousy, revenge and ax-wielding.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, Ross Hellwig has to jump around with his pants around his ankles. Brian Mackey has his shoes tied together in a spiteful prank, and is forced to hop up and down a staircase, and later tumble down those same steps.
Under the direction of Robert Smyth, with superb movement and fight choreography by Jordan Miller, the madcap cast provides gut-busting craziness – from the ditsy, sardine-obsessed Deborah Gilmour Smyth, to the line-dropping inebriate Jim Chovick, the airhead-in-underwear Charlene Wilkinson, and the lunacy added by Omri Schein, Jessica John, Fran Gercke and Cynthia Gerber.
On opening night, the first act fell flat, too frenzied and less impeccably timed than the rest.
But boy, do the next two acts deliver: from slamming doors – all seven of them! – to missed cues, botched costumes, missing props, and interpersonal intrigue of amazing variety.
During the two intermissions,you can watch Mike Buckley’s inventive set being rotated, piece by piece, to shift our onstage/backstage perspective.
“Noises Off” is one of the world’s funniest farces, hilariously satirizing every part of theater: actors, director, writer, stage manager.
Funny thing is, over the years, I’ve actually witnessed just about every one of those laugh-inducing onstage gaffes. Now you can, too. Prepare to giggle and guffaw.
“Noises Off” runs through May 20, at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.
Aired: 4/19/2018 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2018 Pat Launer
“HOW THE OTHER HALF LOVES” – North Coast Repertory Theatre
He may be England’s most prolific playwright: 82 plays and counting over the last 60 years. He may be a knight. He may create juicy and colorful characters. But the comedies of Sir Alan Ayckbourn are rife with cynicism – especially about marriage.
And despite the fact that his 1982 diversion, “How the Other Half Loves,” is as clever as his other works, it does not fit comfortably in this #MeToo moment of how men should treat women.
Among the three couples onstage, there’s one affair, one rumored affair, and one potential affair. The preferred domineering-male response to such an eventuality is the intention to hit his wife. But the women do seem to triumph in the end. Sort of.
One thing Ayckbourn does flawlessly is muck with dramatic structure. He loves to have multiple scenarios and timeframes occurring at once.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, two contiguous living rooms overlap, so a partner in one home may be sitting next to her rival on the sofa in another house. And when two dinner parties are portrayed simultaneously -- with the same two guests -- it’s hilarious how the visitors react to one pair of hosts and then the other, in practically the same sentence.
This triumph of timing is due to the splendid skills of director Geoffrey Sherman and his superlative cast.
These may not be likable characters, but they certainly are believable.
The wealthy couple, with a corporate head who seems to be losing his memory and mind (not really a great source of humor any more), are wonderful James Newcomb and imperious and devious Jacquelyn Ritz.
The middle-class pair features Sharon Rietkerk as a beleaguered, slovenly spouse who belittles her baby, and Christopher M. Williams as her caustic, two-timing mate.
The young up-and-comers are nerdy but overbearing Ben Cole and Noelle Martin as his mousey, nail-biting wife.
The quick-paced, quippy, often sarcastic dialogue makes for comical interactions. The sound design and costumes are spot-on late ‘60s.
If you don’t flinch at the misogyny, you’re likely to find it all fun.
“How the Other Half Loves” runs through May 13, at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
Aired: 4/17/2018 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2018 Pat Launer
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