San Diego's Jazz

Pat Launer, Center Stage

  • “BUDDY: THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY” – OnStage Playhouse

    “BUDDY: THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY” – OnStage Playhouse

    “Oh Boy,” as Buddy Holly used to sing. His sure was a fast, short but influential ride.

    During his tragically brief career, the rock and roll pioneer had 10 hit records over the course of just 15 months. His band name, The Crickets, inspired the Beatles moniker; and his death, at age 22, in a 1959 plane crash that left behind “a widowed bride,” who was also pregnant, was considered by singer/songwriter Don McLean to be “the day the music died.”

    He was a major influence on The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and many others.

    “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” created by Alan Janes in 1989, is considered to be the first jukebox musical, which ran for 12 years in London’s West End.

    Now it’s back in San Diego, after several previous visits, at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista.

    The show chronicles the indomitable spirit and revolutionary professional life of Charles Hardin Holley. The Texas-born, glasses-wearing (which was an onstage first) country-turned-rockabilly singer who upended early rock ‘n’ roll, sounded black. So, the Crickets proved to be the first white group ever to play The Apollo Theatre in Harlem.

    That’s the only moment that rings false in this otherwise excellent production – since the band members here are all Latino – oddly enough, all part of a local Beatles tribute band, The Rollers.

    They’re terrific – as are the two added horn players. And amazingly, Austin Gatus, the acrobatic stand-up bass player, just learned the instrument for this show! Also worthy of mention is knockout vocalist Stephanie Nesbitt.

    Director Teri Brown really scored with Noah Zuniga-Williams as Buddy. He has the look, the pipes and the guitar chops. This guy’s a keeper.

    The energy and commitment of the 15-member cast are palpable. It’s impossible not to clap and sing along with Buddy hits like “Peggy Sue,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Every Day” and Maybe Baby.”

    This strong production provides a rockin’, rollin’, rollicking good time. Rave on, Buddy!

    “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” runs through August 6 at Onstage Playhouse in Chula Vista.

    Aired: 7/28/2016 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2016 Pat Launer



    The society may be different, but the sentiments remain the same.

    “Sense and Sensibility” was Jane Austen’s first novel, begun when she was 20, published in 1811, when she was 36.

    It’s about love and marriage, wealth and social standing, patriarchy and property, in the rigidly structured, male-dominated culture of the late 1700s England.

    Her original title was “Elinor and Marianne,” clear evidence that her focus was on character. Reason and restraint were embodied in Elinor; impetuosity and emotionality in her sister, Marianne. In the end, it’s clear that neither sense nor sensibility is preferable; a balance between the two is required for a fulfilled and fulfilling life.

    Watching these marriageable teens navigate the vagaries of romance and the desire for love and happiness in a mercenary world, has remained irresistible for two centuries. The greed, hypocrisy and social climbing they resist are still ubiquitous today.

    Now, Tony-nominated composer/lyricist/librettist Paul Gordon, who brought his musical version of Austen’s “Emma” to The Old Globe five years ago, returns with the West coast premiere of a new musical, “Sense and Sensibility,” presented at the Globe in association with the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, where it premiered last year. This production maintains most of the original cast, and the director, Barbara Gaines, founder and artistic director of Chicago Shakes.

    The minimalist, abstracted set features a modern, metallic swoop suggesting a spiral staircase, or perhaps the coiling and unraveling of relationship. It seems odd, given the period costumes and naturalistic approach to the satiric material.

    Gordon’s score is lush and lyrical. Many of the songs have a similar sound, but the odes to women and age – “Elinor,” “Lydia,” and “Wrong Side of Five and Thirty” – are standouts.

    No new ground is broken here, but the musical is charming and endearing. The singing and performances are strong and the unseen onstage orchestra, excellent as is the lighting.

    It seems that Austen-mania will never abate – not as long as there are women and men and money and meddlers and marriage in our midst.

    “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” runs through August 14 at The Old Globe.

    Aired: 7/21/2016 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2016 Pat Launer

  • “THE LAST TIGER IN HAITI” – La Jolla Playhouse

    “THE LAST TIGER IN HAITI” – La Jolla Playhouse

    There’s a recurring line in the blockbuster musical, “Hamilton,” that applies to the Founding Father as well as the fictional characters in Jeff Augustin’s haunting world premiere, “The Last Tiger in Haiti.” “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

    This provocative new play at the La Jolla Playhouse is all about storytelling, and memory, and story ownership.

    Set in Haiti, 2008, it relates the shocking reality of restaveks, the child slaves who are given to other families because their family can’t afford to raise them. They’re starved, overworked, and often abused. What keeps them going, at least in Augustin’s view, is storytelling, part of a long oral history in Haiti, where 16% of children still self-identify as restaveks.

    In Act I, we meet five of these young people, huddled in a tent, all owned by the dreaded Mister and his wife. In the candle-lit darkness, they take turns telling stories, invoking a call-response tradition that includes the invitation, “Krik?” and the go-ahead, “Krak.” It’s how they ward off fear and create a sense of family, retelling their folktales and history.
    The youngest is 11 year-old Rose, loved and protected by Max, who’s about to turn 18 and win his freedom. She idolizes him, and dreads his departure.

    We don’t realize until Act II, when we re-encounter Max and Rose, that the first act is exclusively her recollections. He demands that she strip away the artifice and confront the Truth of what really happened back then.

    Which raises compelling questions about who ‘owns’ the truth, who gets to tell it, its effect on others, and the weight of a power differential.

    Skillful director Joshua Kahan Brody, a UCSD alum like the dexterous, lyrical playwright Augustin, helms an outstanding cast, each creating a colorful and heartbreaking character. But in the interest of authenticity, the Haitian accents seem overly strong, which proved daunting for some listeners.

    Design wizardry creates a palpable sense of dread and an impressive location transformation. The drama has certainly evolved from last year’s DNA reading at the Playhouse… if only more people could understand it. The play is gripping and unsettling; it deserves a long and productive life.

    “THE LAST TIGER IN HAITI” runs through July 24 at the La Jolla Playhouse.

    Aired: 7/14/2016 9:05:00 AM

    Copyright © 2016 Pat Launer

  • “SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE” – ion theatre

    “SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE” – ion theatre

    “Art isn’t easy.” That’s a lyric, and the through-line, in Stephen Sondheim’s audacious 1984 musical, “Sunday in the Park with George.” It also applies to the audacity of tiny ion theatre in undertaking this massive project – in a delightfully apt collaboration with the San Diego Museum of Art, where the piece is staged.

    The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, one of the master’s masterworks, has never been professionally produced in San Diego. The show premiered exactly 100 years after the painting that inspired it: Georges Seurat’s 1884 pointillist magnum opus, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”

    The show’s about what it takes – and what it costs – to be an artist. The obsessive dedication to the work, which results in isolation and alienation.

    The tricky structure of the show, with book by James Lapine, sets the first act in the 1880s, focused on Seurat and his lover, the delectable, illiterate, cleverly-named Dot. The real Seurat had a lover, Madeleine, but no daughter and no great-grandchildren.

    The second act, in 1980s America, features Seurat’s fictional great-grandson, George, also an artist struggling with color, light, relationship – and a desire to create something new and important. Sondheim’s brilliant observations on the creative process are deeply moving.

    Ironically, ion’s potent production flips expectations: here, the second act is more sharply focused than the first, where the characters and their connections are not as clearly delineated.

    Jon Lorenz, the taciturn Seurat in the first act, seems to be stretched beyond his vocal range. But he comes alive in 20th century Act 2, where the ensemble also seems more comfortable.

    Melissa Fernandes is sensational throughout. This is her show, as the fiery Dot and then her feisty, 98 year-old daughter, Marie, who encourages George, a laser-sculptor, to revisit the family tradition. Marvelous projections and wonderful piano accompaniment by musical director Mark Danisovszky enhance the production.

    Co-directors Glenn Paris and Kim Strassburger have marshaled a very talented cast, but Act I feels a little too languid, and we lose track of the clandestine connections. But when the cast assembles itself as the Seurat painting, it’s a thrilling moment of theater.

    “SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE” runs through July 16 in the James S. Copley Auditorium of The San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park.

    Aired: 7/7/2016 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2016 Pat Launer

  • “MACBETH” – The Old Globe

    “MACBETH” – The Old Globe

    In an effort to enhance, re-set or deconstruct Shakespeare’s plays, concept often overrides the spirit, the story or the poetry. So it is with the current production of “Macbeth” at The Old Globe.

    Nothing about it feels Scottish, but there is a great deal of red – on the oddly circular floor; in a shower-curtain-like affair that’s pulled, ever so slowly, across the curved rear wall of the set; and in the lighting, every time a death occurs – which in this bloody tragedy of ruthless power-mongering, is pretty often.

    There’s also a lifesize, puppet-like doll that stands in for Macduff’s son, whose poignant, plaintive questions to his mother, moments before their savage murder, are unaccountably voiced by Macbeth, as he slowly circles the stage, just as his wife did earlier with that curtain.

    The setting suggests World War I, with somber gray-blue uniforms and long bulky coats. The heavily bandaged witches reside in a military hospital, though in the second half, they’re chained and straitjacketed like asylum inmates.

    British actor Jonathan Cake makes for a potent, if not always nuanced Macbeth. Some of his line readings are unpredictable; others, inexplicable. As his wife, Marsha Stephanie Blake is not up to the daunting task – neither in language nor physicality; there’s a decidedly 21st century vibe in her casual American stance, gait and speech. Their connection is palpably sexual, though. Her stage-circling sleepwalking scene is her best.

    It appears that there’s just too much going on in director Brian Kulick’s head – as well as on his stage – to make this a coherent production. Still, there’s strong work by the ensemble, especially Timothy Stickney as the stalwart Banquo, who is compelling as witness to the witches’ prophesies and posthumous ghost that haunts the king-killing, guilt-ridden Macbeth. The sound design tends toward the ear-splitting, and most of the attempts at humor are either inept or ineffectual.

    In sum, too much shtick, not enough substance. Macbeth deserves better.

    “MACBETH” runs through July 24 on The Old Globe’s outdoor Festival Stage.

    Aired: 6/30/2016 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2016 Pat Launer

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

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