Pat Launer, Center Stage
“HAIR” – OB Playhouse & Theatre Company
Ah, the late ‘60s – the best of times, the worst of times.
The youth revolution was an age of unparalleled camaraderie and anti-war simpatico, punctuated by battles with parents over hair, music, tuning in and turning on. It was flower power and free love. That was the great part.
But the downside was the Draft, and guys you knew going off to Vietnam and maybe not coming back.
“Hair,” the groundbreaking 1967 Tribal Rock Musical by Galt McDermott, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. And though some of its references are dated, it captures that freedom-seeking hippie zeitgeist.
The plucky O.B. Playhouse perfectly captures that heady time, in all its fringed, bell-bottomed, counterculture extravagance.
Alas, the love and peace didn’t last, and all the critical issues – race, equality, pollution, war, colonialism, stereotyping – remain unresolved today.
Another sad thing is that a really good production exposes the flaws in the musical. “Hair” has some great songs: “Let the Sunshine In,” “Aquarius.” But it also has plenty of clunkers – and too many songs altogether, with too little dialogue and almost no plot.
But director Jennie Gray Connard and musical director Kirk Valles have pulled out all the stops, marshaling a vocally potent 15-member cast that really looks the part. Their sexy writhing and stoner haze feel real and organic. Even the famous nude nanosecond is there. The show is totally uncensored, with all its provocative racial, sexual and political language.
At the center, Justin Tuazon is terrific as Berger, the Tribe’s ringleader, drug-dispenser and resident bad-boy. His antic moves and singing are great. Chris Chiles has the wide-eyed beatific look of Claude, the spiritual but ambivalent seeker whose lengthy hallucination re-enacts seminal moments in American history – with extreme bias and often hilarious exaggeration.
Though it does go on, it’s still really good fun – with a rockin’ four-piece band, flowers for all, and performers cavorting with the audience.
This production is ebullient and trippy, a smoky snapshot of a wild, crazy, love-filled and ultimately disenchanted time.
“Hair, The Tribal Rock Musical” runs through July 1, at the O.B. Playhouse
Aired: 6/9/2018 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2018 Pat Launer
“NATIVE GARDENS” – The Old Globe
“Native Gardens” touches on a ton of hot-button topics: racism, classism, sexism, ageism, colonialism, entitlement, land ownership, territoriality, stereotyping, and the risks and benefits of fences or border walls.
And yet, the play manages to make a molehill out of this mountain of issues.
The setup is potentially intriguing: a young couple and an older couple, with adjacent yards, and a dispute about the property line between them.
The young couple is successful, well-educated, ambitious, Democratic and Latino. The older folks are white, privileged, long-time residents—and Republicans.
In re-landscaping the garden, the young, pregnant newcomer is fiercely committed to the use of “low-maintenance, high impact” native plants that will help the environment. She’s aggressively opposed to her neighbors’ proper English garden, with its neat, pristine, non-native plants and flowers that discourage bees, bugs and butterflies.
There are definitely some funny lines here, as when the older man, Frank, asks incredulously and indignantly, “Are you calling my plants immigrants?”
But the argument becomes so petty, shrill, spiteful and immature, escalating into a four-way scream-fest, that it undermines the seriousness of the situation. It was, after all, the ubiquity of neighbors’ property disputes that inspired the playwright, Karen Zacarías.
While her play is mostly very realistic and on-the-nose, the direction, by Edward Torres, is often highly stylized, with exaggerated slo-mo action and synchronized movement that is only sometimes effective—most amusingly with the nearly identical, bearded Latino workmen.
And then there’s the ending: a strangely sharp tonal shift that ties everything together with a big red bow – playing out every character’s fantasies in a stylistic mismatch with the rest of the play. A fantasyland finale, indeed.
The comedy is making its West coast premiere at the Old Globe which presents a beautifully understated, cleverly constructed design. But there’s a considerable amount of overacting, and the piece comes off as sophomoric, trivializing the crucial and amplifying the trivial.
“Native Gardens” runs through June 24, in the Old Globe’s White Theatre.
Aired: 6/7/2018 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2018 Pat Launer
“A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS” – The Old Globe
“The only skill you need,” her mother tells young Mariam, is “Tahamul.” Endurance.
And endure Mariam must – a tormented rural childhood followed by an abusive, barren marriage.
And then Laila comes into her life: free-spirited Laila, who is urban, privileged, educated and blissfully happy – until a bomb destroys her home and family. Desperate and penniless, she agrees to marry Mariam’s monstrous husband – becoming his younger, more fertile second wife.
The place is Kabul. The time is 1979 to 2001, during the Afghan civil war, just before the U.S. invasion.
In “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” adapted from the marvelous 2007 novel by Kabul-born Californian Khaled Hosseini, we watch Mariam try to sabotage her rival. But over time, and of necessity, they become friends, allies, mutually supportive survivors. They are the only light in a bleak, brutal country ruled by violent men and vicious Taliban extremists, who repress women in every possible way.
Against the harsh cruelty of their surroundings, these two women exhibit resilience, defiance, indomitable spirit and the indestructible power of maternal love. Along the way, a few caring men help or nurture them, but the horrors they endure are many, and their simple joys are few.
Ursula Rani Sarma’s adaptation was commissioned by the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where it premiered last year. At The Old Globe, the A.C.T. and Theatre Calgary production is as splendid as its poetic title.
The story plays out simultaneously on a large and small canvas, reflecting both the big political picture and its horrific personal costs.
The mountainous landscape is beautifully, imagistically depicted. The superb staging, by A.C.T.’s soon-to-be-former artistic director, the innovator Carey Perloff, keeps the action and set pieces moving seamlessly.
The cast is marvelous, anchored by the two gut-wrenching, heart-breaking central performances of Nadine Malouf as Laila and Denmo Ibrahim as Mariam.
Heightening the mood is David Coulter’s hauntingly beautiful score, much of it played on the musical saw, well paired with evocative lighting and sound.
You’ll be appalled and horrified, and yet there is such admirable endurance – Tahamul— here, and heroism and humanity, too. And always, the enduring hope of a better, freer life.
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” runs through June 17, at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
Aired: 5/24/2018 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2018 Pat Launer
“THE MADRES” – Moxie Theatre
“The Madres” is perfectly timed to this #MeToo moment.
The rolling world premiere, written by Stephanie Alison Walker, is part of the National New Play Network. It opened first in L.A., then moved to Chicago, and heads to Austin after its San Diego premiere.
The “Dirty War” is raging in 1978 Argentina. People are being ripped from their homes—murdered, incarcerated or ‘disappeared.’ Before it’s all over in 1983, the military dictatorship will have killed somewhere between 10 and 30 thousand citizens.
It’s the women who protest and speak out, taking enormous risks to march in the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday for years, up until today, demanding the truth about their missing children and grandchildren.
These are The Mothers of the Disappeared, or Madres de los Deseparecidos. They are fierce and fearless.
“The Madres” is the story of one family—three generations of women—a grandmother, mother and the missing daughter who’s eight months pregnant.
Old friends—including a priest and a soldier—come to the house to visit. But they’ve become complicit with the grisly regime, and can’t be trusted. The grandma and mother lie to them, cheerfully entertaining, while silently seething.
One of the greatest strengths of this Moxie Theatre production is the subtlety and nuance teased out of every thoroughly believable actor by co-directors Maria Patrice Amon and Moxie artistic director Jenifer Eve Thorn.
Every one of the five compelling characters has a multiplicity of layers and loyalties. Each has something to hide, and their true emotions, roiling beneath the surface, occasionally emerge to reveal their fear, guilt or ruthlessness.
The new play gets a bit didactic in the first act, but the final half hour is tense and intense, a powder-keg about to blow, one way or another.
The design elements are strong, and the timely message comes through loud and clear. Brave women will come forward; they won’t cower. They’ll confront their tormenters, while marching and chanting ‘Nunca Más,’ Enough is Enough.
“The Madres” runs through June 10, at Moxie Theatre near SDSU.
Aired: 5/23/2018 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2018 Pat Launer
“THE WIND AND THE BREEZE” – Cygnet Theatre
Rap is all about agility and facility with words. Using it to stunning effect, to punctuate his world premiere, “The Wind and the Breeze,” award-winning playwright Nathan Alan Davis makes it clear that he’s punch-drunk on language.
Sam is the fulcrum of the piece. Everyone in his small African American family-by-choice pivots around him. But he’s rooted to one spot—a lawn-chair on the State Street Bridge in Rockford, Illinois. He first saw fireworks there with his father, who said, “Don’t move,” and he’s taken that to heart. It’s February, but he’s waiting for the 4th of July, to see “the sky explode” again.
In his little world, Sam is a legend, a prophet, a hero. As a rap master-poet, he can “rhyme with the best of them.” But he’s stuck in his past; he’s lost his mojo. His friends snag a long-desired studio recording session in Atlanta, and beg him to come along, but he stays in place.
Every one of these colorful characters is at an existential crossroads, Sam most of all, and each of them tries to pull him out of his funk and help him re-think his life.
The push-pull of change and patience courses through this provocative, extraordinary play, which is about friendship, love and acceptance of who you are and where you’re going. At the enigmatic ending, we’re not sure what Sam will do, but change is gonna come.
For six years, Cygnet Theatre associate artistic director Rob Lutfy has been with this slice-of-life drama, and he’s made it a wonderful, aching experience.
His cast is outstanding, and they nimbly handle the gorgeous metaphorical language. The design is superb, with its beautifully lit skyline and bridge, underscored with textural, contextual sound.
Once again, Lutfy has brought an unusual play to Cygnet and made it sing. He’s one of the finest directors in town, taking risks and enticing the audience to accompany him—to places they wouldn’t imagine they’d go. As one character puts it, in a question that could apply to theater, or life: “Why not turn on all the lights in your house?”
“The Wind and the Breeze” runs through June 10, at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
Aired: 5/22/2018 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2018 Pat Launer
“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
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