Pat Launer, Center Stage
“BLUE DOOR” – Moxie Theatre
Lewis is having a bad night. He’s got a wicked case of insomnia, his wife of 25 years just walked out on him, and the ghosts of his ancestors keep appearing to remind and berate him.
In “Blue Door,” by Tanya Barfield, Lewis admits that he resists looking at himself. He tends to compartmentalize. And intellectualize. An erudite African American mathematics professor married to a white woman, he’s cut himself off from his personal and cultural history.
“I divide myself from myself,” he admits. The parts are about to start coming together in this intense, occasionally amusing, 85-minute reckoning.
First to show up in his bedroom is Lewis’ great-great grandfather, Simon, a slave who says he’s “just passin’ down stories.” And so he does, along with Lewis’ grandfather, Jesse. Lewis’ long-estranged, late father puts in a violent appearance. Most confrontational of all is Rex, Lewis’ brother who died of an overdose, and snarls: “You’re turning your back on everything that made you black… You’re afraid to be black.”
The catalogue of family horrors is a recounting of African American history –beating, burning, lynching, imprisonment, sexual and physical abuse. His whole life, Lewis has fought against the oppression and failure of his past, obsessing on success and achievement. Now the legacy ends; he has no descendants. There’s no one left to tell the stories to.
Especially about a blue door which, his great grandma used to say, “keeps the bad spirits out and the soul-family in.”
In this era of brutality against African American men, in this month commemorating African American history, Moxie is on the cutting edge. Artistic director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg has brought us an important story about the effects of history and heritage – or trying to escape them.
Her production is outstanding and her cast is superb; Vimel Sephus brings gravitas, a resonant voice and a haunted, wild-eyed look to Lewis’ existential crisis. And Cortez L. Johnson, playing everyone else, expertly carves out memorable, dimensional characters.
The set is a metaphorical jumble of branches and tangled roots. This powerful piece resonates deeply and, like your own past, should not be
“Blue Door” continues through March 5, at Moxie Theatre, near SDSU.
Aired: 2/10/2017 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer
“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
“MOBY DICK” – South Coast Repertory
Prepare to be swallowed up in the belly of the beast. “Moby Dick” is thoroughly immersive.
Not only does the set resemble both the ribcage of a great whale and the hull of a whaling ship, but the spectacular sound and lighting, the astonishing theatricality and escalating suspense reel you in, and then, in one of many magnificent coups de théâtres, a semblance of the gargantuan white whale floats in over our heads. This jaw-dropping production is literally breath-taking.
Three theater companies came together to co-produce and share this exceptional experience with their respective audiences: Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and lucky for us, South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. What they’re sharing is the stupendous Lookingglass Theatre Company production that premiered in 2015 to near-universal acclaim.
Founded in 1998, the Tony Award-winning, Chicago-based Lookingglass Theatre is renowned for its ingenious adaptations of literary classics. In association with the Actor’s Gymnasium, a circus and performing arts group, they’ve included in their “Moby Dick” acrobats and aerial artists who scramble up and swing from the ropes and rigging, and spin and dangle impossibly from silks and straps.
But all of this would be mere spectacle if it didn’t serve Melville’s 1851 masterwork. Adapter/director David Catlin has done an extraordinary job of capturing the mythic scope and religious allusions of the colossal novel, including the rabid obsession of the monomaniacal Captain Ahab; the ardent morality of his first-mate, Starbuck; the exotic humanity of the tattooed Islander, Queequeg; and the self-titled outcast, the hapless narrator who calls himself Ishmael, in one of literature’s most famous opening lines.
In addition to a heart-thumping soundscape, some of it created by the performers, Catlin adds three golden-voiced, tightly harmonizing Sirens, other-worldly women who lure and curse, protect and reject the whalers on the Pequod.
This brilliant production invites you to project your own symbolic, satiric or cautionary interpretation on the meaning of the white whale and the mad demagogue’s frenzied quest for power and revenge.
“Moby Dick” continues through February 19, at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.
Aired: 2/2/2017 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer
“ALTAR BOYZ” – Coronado Playhouse
To borrow a phrase from Public Radio’s Michael Feldman, “innuendo and out the other.” Double entendres abound in “Altar Boyz,” which spreads the Good Word by using angelic voices in devilishly clever ways.
The silly, spoofy musical, which satirizes boy bands and Christian music tropes, debuted Off Broadway in 2005 and ran for five years, subsequently becoming a sensation around the world.
With book by Kevin Del Aguila and music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, it’s a bit gay and a trifle risqué.
“The “Boyz” are five formerly troubled guys in a fictional Christian band. A highlight of the minimally-plotted proceedings is when each tells his version of the group’s Genesis -- deeply personal Gospels according to band members Matthew, Mark, Luke and Juan … and Abraham, their fervent lyricist, who sports a super-sized Jewish star.
Also amusing is their goofy electronic Soul-Sensor DX-12, which gauges the number of people in the theater “burdened by sin.” The aim of the 90-minute evening is to get that digit down to zero by show’s end.
The piece falls a little flat when it tries to get more serious and dramatic. When the show stays light and fizzy, it soars heavenward.
This is Michael Mizerany’s third go-round with the piece. In 2012, he choreographed the Diversionary Theatre production. Last year, he helmed a concert version at the Coronado Playhouse, to see how the typically conservative community would respond. The show was received with rapture.
This time, in full production, Mizerany has directed and choreographed, with sharp, stylized boy-band moves that are a holy hoot. He’s amassed a blessedly talented cast of ‘triple-threats,’ who zealously sing, dance and act. The four-piece band is divine.
This uplifting show, which heralds the 71st season of the Coronado Playhouse, enlightens us about Jesus, who apparently keeps up-to-date with technology. And as for takeaways, in these troubling times, it’s good to keep in mind that, now and for eternity, ‘hatin’ rhymes with Satan.
“Altar Boyz” continues through February 19, at the Coronado Playhouse.
Aired: 1/31/2017 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer
“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
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