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  • "On the 20th Century" - Cygnet Theatre

    "On the 20th Century" - Cygnet Theatre

    In times of stress and distress, what you need is a diversion, maybe even a change of scenery. How about a nice train ride?

    Hop “On the 20th Century” at Cygnet Theatre, and prepare yourself for an evening of unalloyed bliss.

    This trip is engineered by some of the best, with book and lyrics by the legendary Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Cy Coleman, directed by Sean Murray and featuring the finest musical/comic talent San Diego has to offer. You’re guaranteed to be transported – without ever leaving your seat.

    The 20th Century was a famous, luxury train that ran between Chicago and New York. The cult musical, “On the 20th Century,” premiered on Broadway in 1978, and won five Tony Awards. It was revived to acclaim in 2015.

    It’s a madcap romp, a screwball comedy based on a non-musical 1930s play and film, deliberate distractions from the Great Depression.

    Oscar Jaffe, a formerly successful, downtrodden Broadway director, is dying for a comeback. His ticket to Hitsville, though he hasn’t even got a hot property to produce, is Lily Garland, born Mildred Plotka, whom he discovered, bedded, shaped and made crazy, before she escaped to Hollywood and became a superstar.

    Oscar has weaseled a drawing room on The 20th Century, so he can woo Lily back into his arms, and more important, onto his stage. He’s desperate; he’ll do anything, and he tries everything. He’s sometimes stymied by a bevy of nutso passengers who make the trip a doozy, while the clever songs make the audience roar with laughter.

    This may be Cygnet’s most impeccable, elaborate production. The physical comedy and comic timing are perfection. Murray’s direction, coupled with David Brannen’s fizzy choreography, make the 2½ hour trip fly.

    The musical accompaniment is superb, the Art Deco set is stunning; the lighting, sound, costumes and projections make it all pop. Every performance is flat-out fabulous, including Murray’s scenery-chewing Oscar, Eileen Bowman’s stratospheric-singing bombshell, Lily, and Michael Cusimano as her hunky lover, with his side-splitting physicality.

    Hurry and get on board. This is one musical, comical journey you don’t want to miss.

    “On the Twentieth Century” continues through April 30 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.

    Aired: 3/23/2017 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer

  • “THE BLAMELESS” – The Old Globe

    “THE BLAMELESS” – The Old Globe

    Playwright Nick Gandiello thinks his new work is a comedy. It isn’t. Although there are a few mildly amusing lines in his world premiere, “The Blameless,” the subject couldn’t be more serious.

    The Garcia family is still reeling from the murder of young Jesse a year ago. Now, on the anniversary of his death in a school shooting, they’re about to entertain the father of the perpetrator of the crime.

    Nobody’s able to cope, and everyone thinks maybe this wasn’t such a good way to foster compassion and catharsis. So, 17 year-old Theresa gets in trouble at school, and her parents wind up screaming at her and at each other.

    Into this maelstrom strolls Drew Davis, who also isn’t really sure why he’s there – though he’s not bothered by the reporters outside.

    So far, so dramatic.

    But the piece turns out to be more of a premise than a play. Maybe the point is that there just is no understanding of these monstrous acts. But onstage, at least, we crave some sense of completion, if not resolution. There’s a lot of buildup here, but no payoff.

    Drew isn’t a particularly well-drawn, fleshed-out character. Nor is Theresa’s nice-guy boyfriend. Even the core family is shallowly depicted, though the cast does their damndest to express their grief and pain.

    They certainly seem prickly and agitated, but none of them is believably from New York. There are so many loose or unexplained elements here, from the mention of Hanukkah to Drew’s unwillingness to take any political stand.

    The direction, by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, has Drew facing away from one side of the stage for an extended period. So we missed all of his one true emotional response. The White Theatre arena space was not efficiently or consistently used. And the mostly-tidy kitchen/dining room doesn’t look remotely like the “pig-sty” Theresa describes.

    There may be nothing worse than losing a child. And there’s little more horrific than senseless school violence. But this isn’t the play that goes deep enough to provide insight, enlightenment or any sense of how to hasten the healing.

    “The Blameless” continues through March 26, at The Old Globe.

    Aired: 3/10/2017 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer

  • “SEX WITH STRANGERS” – San Diego Repertory Theatre

    “SEX WITH STRANGERS” – San Diego Repertory Theatre

    Two authors meet-cute at a writer’s retreat in a secluded cabin. A Michigan blizzard conveniently guarantees that no one else will arrive.

    He’s a 20-something, aggressive and seductive. She’s a decade older, dubious and wary. He’s a sleazy blogging phenom, whose exploits have led to a wildly successful, salacious book and movie deal. She’s still smarting from the marketing misstep that caused her dazzling first novel to tank.

    But before you can say Joyce Carol Oates, the title delivers on its promise – though fortunately, not in plain sight.

    “Sex with Strangers” is about a lot more than its name suggests. The 2011 comedy by Laura Eason, who’s a writer/producer on “House of Cards,” is certainly about the vagaries of the literary life. Moving on from failure – or success. Tangible vs. e-books. Ambition and ideals vs. compromise. But maybe most of all, it’s about identity – real and online, public and private.

    Ethan has read Olivia’s book. He thinks it’s brilliant, and that in itself is an aphrodisiac. Olivia is extremely protective of her second novel, and won’t show it to anyone. But he wants to publish it electronically, to promote his blog and secure literary significance for both of them.

    It looks like things are about to go seriously south. But what you expect doesn’t happen. And some of what does is unexpected.

    This unpredictability keeps the play interesting. And the San Diego Rep production keeps us keenly engaged.

    Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg brings her prodigious wit, sensitivity and deep sense of character to the piece, which is enhanced by her dynamic cast, both doing their very best work.

    Connor Sullivan, too often cast as the clueless nice-guy, has become the consummate ripped, macho, misogynistic Bad Boy, insufferable but irresistible. Lisel Gorell-Getz is smart and sassy but also vulnerable, wounded, self-protective … and ambitious. These are deliciously rich, detailed portrayals.

    Brian Redfern’s set is a wonder, moving from cozy cabin to book-lover’s refuge. The lighting and sound provide excellent ambiance. There’s snow outside the window. But the heat inside is palpable. And the ambiguous ending leaves us, too, just a little bit breathless.

    “Sex with Strangers” continues through March 19, at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.

    Aired: 3/9/2017 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer

  • “THE ILLUSION” – North Coast Repertory Theatre

    “THE ILLUSION” – North Coast Repertory Theatre

    “The Illusion” is steeped in wizardry and awash in words. In its play-within-a-play structure and its luxuriant language, it’s all about the magic of theater.

    While he was working on his deep, dark, AIDS-era masterpiece, “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner diverted himself by adapting a 17th century French comedy, “L’Illusion Comique.” It’s a humorous, sumptuous feast, in which there may not be a direct translation of even one of Pierre Corneille’s original words. But c’est la vie…

    With his exuberant lexicon and amorous orchestrations of verbiage, Kushner has brought his linguistic alchemy to the story of a bull-headed, hard-hearted father who banished his son years ago, and is literally dying to find out what happened to the sprout, so he can, at long last, designate him heir.

    In a subterranean cave, he seeks out a world-weary sorcerer, who conjures scenes from the young man’s life, where he makes his way as an impoverished orphan. The focus of these scenarios is the many faces of love – eternal, parental, unrequited, denied and refused.

    The phantasms at North Coast Repertory Theatre, while delightfully designed, enacted, lit and costumed, pale before the luxuriance of the language. Where else will you hear invectives like “presumptuous humuncula” or “fountain of dreadful metaphors?”

    The butt of those effusive expletives is flamboyantly portrayed by Andrew Ableson, part of the masterful ensemble amassed by skillful director David Ellenstein.

    The accomplished and welcome Kandis Chappell, in a role most often played by a man, is a commanding presence as the dread-locked sorcerer, and John Greenleaf is excellent as her sometimes-mute Amanuensis. Michael Polak, who also served as fight director, is superb as the swaggering, womanizing son, Calisto, and John Herzog is his hidebound father. All under ever-changing names, Calisto’s two paramours are the splendid Christina Flynn and lovely Sharon Rietkerk. Paul Turbiak is another of his ostentatious rivals.

    There’s much fun to be had in this lavish love letter to actors and their craft. And there are more than a few things to ponder: the artifice and enchantment of theater, for example. The mutability and fragility of life. And the inevitable evanescence of both.

    “The Illusion” continues through March 19, at North Coast Repertory Theatre.

    Aired: 3/1/2017 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer

  • “FREAKY FRIDAY” – La Jolla Playhouse

    “FREAKY FRIDAY” – La Jolla Playhouse

    It’s a wonderful old adage: You never really understand someone till you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Or, according to a Native American proverb, in their moccasins.

    That’s the premise of “Freaky Friday,” where a battling mother and daughter are forced to inhabit each other’s bodies – and lives -- for 24 hours.

    From the Mary Rodgers children’s novel, Disney created two film versions of the story – in 1976 and 2003.

    Now, in association with the Cleveland PlayHouse and Houston’s Alley Theatre, the La Jolla Playhouse is presenting a new musical by the same name, also produced by Disney. The creative team boasts heavy-hitters, with music and lyrics by the Tony and Pulitzer –winning team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, who won their acclaim for the dark musical, “Next to Normal.” The book is by Bridget Carpenter of TV’s “Friday Night Lights,” and the production is helmed by Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley.

    The energy is high, almost frenetic. The cast is excellent, with Heidi Blickenstaff giving a knockout performance as the mother.

    Unfortunately though, it’s a missed opportunity.

    It’s fun and likable, the score is pleasant and the choreography, by Sergio Trujillo, is terrific. The band is superb.

    But in the end, it’s superficial and shallow. There’s no edge, and no attempt to posit broader implications. At a moment when we need that moccasin message more than ever, the show is just not quirky enough or incisive enough for a one-note setup and a nearly 2½ hour run-time.

    A few plot-points aren’t sufficiently explained, and there are platitudes galore. But there are some strong numbers, like “What You Got,” “Busted,” and the slightly offbeat “Women and Sandwiches.” More like that, and a shorter first act, would help. Also, fewer stereotypes and movie tropes – the Asian sidekick, the African American cop, etc.

    For mostly mindless, frothy fun, it’s a winner. The production is impeccable. But these creative talents, especially the composer and lyricist, are capable of diving so much deeper, and hitting raw nerve. A little more nerve would serve this musical well.

    “Freaky Friday” continues through March 19, at the La Jolla Playhouse.

    Aired: 2/9/2017 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer

  • “MY FAIR LADY” – The Welk Resort Theatre

    “MY FAIR LADY” – The Welk Resort Theatre

    It’s a classic by any definition: brilliant, timeless and definitive.

    “My Fair Lady” is musical theater perfection, with a sterling, provocative story, adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” which was in turn adapted from Ovid’s mythology. And it boasts a spectacular score by that dazzling duo, Lerner and Lowe.

    The 1956 masterwork can, however, be a bit long for modern tastes; several local productions have lingered three hours. But at the Welk Resort Theatre, under the expert direction of Kathy Brombacher, it clocks in at a fleet 2½ hours. The only song omitted, though it’s listed and mis-named in the program, is the cringe-inducing misogynist rant, “A Hymn to Him,” which posits the annoying question, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Lerner’s lyrics are eminently clever, but he displays his genius in many other songs. Also, Shaw was a major supporter of women’s suffrage, and Brombacher gives a charming nod to that in her production.

    Henry Higgins, you may remember, is the arrogant, pedantic English phonetician who bets his buddy that, given six months, he can turn a grimy Cockney flower-seller into a duchess, who can pass in high society. He’ll teach her manners, along with upgrading her vowels and practicing inane utterances like “The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly on the Plain.” And by George, she gets it.

    In this incarnation, Higgins is more petulant than pompous, but Lance Arthur Smith gives him a broader range of emotion than is typical. Shaina Knox is a superbly feisty Eliza Doolittle, making a stunning class transition from to street-talk to upper crust. The vocal power of the 16-member cast is strong, though the band sounds a little tinny.

    Orlando Alexander’s delightful choreography is amusing and inventive. Randall Hickman offers added humor with his robust portrayal of Eliza’s father, that hard-drinking, amoral moralizer, Alfred P. Doolittle.

    The rented costumes look wonderful, though the well-lit sets are variable. Most of all, the nonstop effervescence makes the show seem both fresh and ageless.

    “My Fair Lady” continues through April 2, at the Welk Resort Theatre in Escondido.

    Aired: 1/11/2017 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer

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

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