Pat Launer, Center Stage
“A CHRISTMAS CAROL” – Welk Resort Theatre
There’s something about the Welk Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” that made me think of Disney on Ice.
First, because the songs have such a familiar sound; the melodies were composed by Oscar-winner Alan Menken, who’s scored most of the blockbuster Disney musicals. One or two songs could have come right out of “The Lion King,” which he wrote three years before this 1994 musicalized “Christmas Carol.”
Another reason it smacks of IceCapades is the swirling, constant motion of the Welk production, directed by Larry Raben and choreographed by Karl Warden.
The game cast of 15 plays 100+ roles, but at 90 minutes, it’s so busy being busy, it’s too busy to stop and give us a moment to think. Many of the words come directly from Dickens – though the book is by Terrence McNally and Lynn Ahrens, and the lyrics are by Fred Ebb, superstars all. But frankly, the classic lines are more potent when spoken, so we and the characters get a chance to absorb and reflect on them. Because this story is all about self-reflection.
Here, we get a sunny sweetness, almost a cartoonishness that undermines the darker elements of this timeless saga of spirits, forebodings and second chances.
Two timely elements stand out in this year’s heated political climate. When the Ghost of Christmas Present warns Scrooge to be especially wary of Ignorance, “which will be mankind’s doom,” there was a discomfited ripple in the room.
A little less felicitous was the insensitive moment when Scrooge, delighted with his redemption, celebrates with his maid by slapping her rear. An unfortunate choice in this era of revelations about male misbehavior.
The look of the production is attractively Victorian, though the women spend too much time in their pantaloons, and the conceit of a plucky theater troupe putting on a performance doesn’t quite hold up. There’s also a good deal of over-acting. But everyone seems earnestly committed.
Though this is far from a definitive “Christmas Carol,” it may be a fitting farewell to the Welk Theatre, and its 36 year history of 216 productions. As the space closes down for renovations, let’s hope this production isn’t the last.
“A Christmas Carol” runs through December 31, at the Welk Resort Theatre in Escondido.
Aired: 12/9/2017 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer
“CABARET” – ion theatre
Past productions of the classic musical, “Cabaret,” have always been a chilling reminder of the waning days of the decadent, pre-Fascist Weimar Republic.
Now, ion theatre artistic director Claudio Raygoza has made the brilliant musical into a timely cautionary tale.
He has the young ‘’secondary’ Emcee don a red baseball cap, like the ones we’ve seen so much of in the past year. Anachronistic, yes. But also frighteningly pointed. And when the budding writer, Cliff, tells Sally Bowles, the head-in-the-sand libertine, “The party’s over,” it sends a shiver down our collective spine.
Written by the incomparable team of composer John Kander and the late lyricist Fred Ebb, with a book by Joe Masteroff, “Cabaret” has always played out on two levels simultaneously. In ion’s intimate space, there are even some cabaret tables down front, as there were in the acclaimed New York revival.
The cabaret acts are commentaries on the story, which is based on the semi-autobiographical work of Christopher Isherwood: A callow American writer arrives in Berlin in 1930, hoping to find inspiration for a novel. On the train, he encounters the friendly but cagey Ernst, and at the Kit Kat Klub that night, he meets the irrepressible headline singer, Sally Bowles, who immediately insinuates herself into his life. Cliff’s plans for their future together don’t exactly work out as he imagined.
The same can be said of an older couple’s romance, after Ernst suggests to the landlady that it’s not such a good idea for her to be marrying a Jew.
As the Nazis make their presence increasingly obvious and unavoidable, we get mental flashbacks to Charlottesville this past summer, with the marching White Supremacists, spewing hate about the Jews.
Raygoza’s directorial choices are superb, including the quadruple-duty singing/dancing/instrument-playing actors; the haunting, sinister double-casting of veteran actor Linda Libby and spectacular 14 year-old Scotty Atienza as the Emcee; and the magnificent Cashae Monya as Sally, less dissolute than others, but unequivocally irresistible.
This stellar production underscores the tawdry, hyper-sexualized ambience of a country rotting at the core.
“If you’re not against this,” Cliff warns, “you’re for it.” We’d better listen up.
“Cabaret” runs through December 23, at ion theatre in Hillcrest.
Aired: 12/8/2017 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer
“BLACK PEARL SINGS” – San Diego Repertory Theatre
We hear Minka Wiltz before we see her, and her voice is what we will remember of “Black Pearl Sings!,” a 2009 drama-with-music by Kansas City playwright Frank Higgins.
Wiltz plays Pearl, and her aching contralto gets us in the gut from her first notes.
Alberta Johnson, called ‘Pearl,’ is at a southeast Texas women’s prison work camp. Her rich voice is heard by cultural anthropologist Susannah Mullally, who’s seeking out pre-slavery folk songs.
These two indomitable women, butting heads repeatedly, are both, in a sense, slaves to the system. Ten years ago, Pearl mutilated a man for his advances on her young daughter, who she’s now desperate to find. Susannah lost a Harvard teaching job, because a male supervisor took credit for her work. Their alliance will serve both their needs.
Higgins based his story on a factual 1930s relationship: between ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and his greatest ‘find,’ the folk-and-blues singer, Lead Belly.
The shift from male to female was an interesting choice, adding gender issues to the racial concerns and questions of cultural documentation vs. appropriation.
But the characters are unequally drawn. Susannah is ambitious, tightly-wrapped, devoted to her work and academic advancement. That’s about all we know of her, except her unexplained estrangement from her wealthy family. Pearl is a much more complex and compelling character.
As Susannah, Allison Spratt Pearce, who has prodigious acting, singing and dancing talents, only gets one beautiful Celtic number, and an unnecessary few chords on an autoharp.
The rest of the a capella songs – and most of the show – are owned by Wiltz, an Atlanta-based powerhouse whose gorgeous gospel voice conveys all the ache, anguish and longing of African American history.
There’s a fussiness to the rest of the production, directed by Thomas W. Jones II, from the imposing set with its oddly mobile pillars, to the on-the-nose sound and lighting punctuation, to the superfluous ‘suitcase dance’ of the second act. The projections are evocative.
Wiltz makes the play well worth seeing. She gives a thrilling, virtuoso performance.
“Black Pearl Sings” runs through December 17, at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza.
Aired: 12/7/2017 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer
“THE SECRET GARDEN” – New Village Arts
There’s an adage in the theater that you never want to see a show the day after opening. The cast puts out 200% on that night, and parties afterward, so they’re not always in top form the next day.
Perhaps that accounts for the tamped-down feeling of “The Secret Garden” at New Village Arts. And the fact that almost everyone seemed to be straining to reach above their vocal range.
Everyone, that is, except the robust-voiced Samantha Rose Steinberg and Samantha Vesco. Steinberg, with her crystalline soprano, plays Lily, the ghostly aunt of young Mary Lennox, who’s forced to leave colonial India after everyone she knows dies of cholera.
When she arrives at her uncle’s gloomy Misselthwaite Manor, it’s Vesco’s hearty chambermaid, Martha, who helps her “Hold On.”
The beloved Frances Hodgson Burnett children’s novel is the source material for the 1991 musical, with a book by Marsha Norman and a lush, romantic score by Lucy Simon. Music swirls around the action – but so does a bevy of ghosts, who appear in nearly every scene, repetitively circling the stage and hovering over the dramatic proceedings.
Rosina Reynolds, a native Brit and formidable director, has focused attention on the Yorkshire accents, which are so thick, at times they’re unintelligible.
There’s a binary tone in this piece: the dreary manor, where both humpbacked Archie and his doctor-brother, Neville, still mourn the loss of Lily, whom they both adored.
And there’s the magic of Dickon, who talks to birds, conjures spirits and can make anything grow – including Sarah Mahaffey’s Mary Lennox, who arrives as a spoiled, sour brat and ends up transforming the household, and bringing both her aunt’s garden and her young cousin, Colin, back to life.
The most stirring moments are the reunion of Jacob Farry’s Colin and David Humphrey’s Archie, and the heart-rending duet of Archie and Lily at the end.
With lovely costumes and lighting, and a strong band, and given time for the cast to rest their voices, relax into their roles, and take some joy in their interactions, this will likely settle into a fine, solid production.
“The Secret Garden” runs through December 24 at New Village Arts in Carlsbad.
Aired: 11/16/2017 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer
“THE SEASON OF LOVE” – Scripps Ranch Theatre
‘Tis the season – for food, family and friends. It’s also the season of anxiety, conflict and conflagration.
But local playwright James Caputo isn’t really interested in the dark underside of the holiday lights. His new work says it all: “The Season of Love.”
He’s put together four of his award-winning short plays to examine the ages and stages of amour, from new love to stale love, love that’s going – or gone. Tentative, unlikely love that begins with the camaraderie of a shared space – even if it’s a refrigerator box.
In the four vignettes, the characters overlap and intersect in sometimes surprising ways. The stories range from humorous to heartful, forward-looking or retrospective, even delightfully literary. Some of the laugh-lines are predictable, but the intent, emotions and dialogue are solid.
At Scripps Ranch Theatre, John Tessmer directs a stellar cast, maintaining a light touch and crisp timing. The versatile Paul Morgavo is effective in every scene, first as a newly dating divorced mensch, and later as an educated, literate hopeless and homeless person, perfectly, if inadvertently, matched by Julie Clemmons as a street-wise, whip-smart optimist.
The most poignant segment is between Jill Drexler and Eric Poppick, as a long-married couple who’ve stagnated in the humdrum of their lives. Both think they want out. But then they think again. It’s unnecessary, and interrupts the flow, for them to talk to the audience. Still, they have a lot to say about marriage, acceptance, and the comfort and contentment of a warm body – a presence, as they call it.
Sherri Allen, Grace Delaney and Rhiannon McAfee also contribute creatively, though there are moments when their characters lean toward caricature.
Some of Caputo’s language is clever and organic; some feels more forced, but it’s all delivered well, within a cunningly rotating set.
So, as the holidays descend upon us, this quartet of stories can serve as an impetus to contemplate what love and relationship mean to you – whether you have them or not.
The world premiere, “The Season of Love,” runs through December 10, at Scripps Ranch Theatre, on the campus of Alliant University.
Aired: 11/15/2017 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer
“SOMETHING ROTTEN” – Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa
Welcome to the Renaissance, an exaggerated Elizabethan era where a vainglorious William Shakespeare is introduced to adoring throngs as “the man who put the I AM in iambic pentameter.”
While he brags of his staggering “Will Power,” he complains that “It’s Hard to Be the Bard.” He much prefers the glamour of fame to the drudgery of actually doing the writing that got him there. So, he steals as much as he can from others, notably, the struggling, impoverished writing team of Nigel and Nick Bottom.
So far, so near-brilliantly good.
The first act of “Something Rotten” is flat-out fabulous – filled with groaning, clever puns and a bevy of Shakespeare characters. There’s a fantastic show-stopper, “A Musical,” that pays homage to dozens of Broadway shows, in uproarious ways.
But after the Bottom brothers bottom out, they consult Nostradamus, to look into the future and discern what Shakespeare’s most famous play will be. He doesn’t quite get it right, so they embark on an inane endeavor to stage The Next Big Thing, a musical called “Omelette,” dancing eggs and all.
The whole dazzling setup seriously devolves and deflates in the second act, and gets way too silly.
Overall, the national touring production is superb, with tons of talent, most especially, Rob McClure as Nick Bottom. San Diegans were treated to his amazing physical comedy when he played Chaplin at the La Jolla Playhouse in xxx. Josh Grisetti as his poetic, amorous brother, and Scott Cote as the hilariously hypocritical Puritan, Brother Jeremiah, are also noteworthy. Though the still-hunky Adam Pascal looks great strutting around as Shakespeare, his performance is too restrained, not half as flamboyant and arrogant as it should be.
Still, you can’t help but love the knockout singing, the killer costumes, and the fabulous direction and choreography by Tony Award-winning former San Diegan Casey Nicholaw.
If only the creators, Karey Kirkpatrick, John O’Farrell and Wayne Kirkpatrick, could have sustained their comic genius through two acts. Where there’s a Will, there’s a way.
The national tour of “Something Rotten” runs through November 19 in Orange County. and then opens at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A., continuing through the end of the year.
Aired: 11/14/2017 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer
“SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN” – Lamb’s Players Theatre
If you like bluegrass, or gospel, or impressive musicianship, you’ll love “Smoke on the Mountain,” at Lamb’s Players Theatre.
This impassioned play is a Lambs’ perennial, stretching back decades. It’s a spirited, spiritual visit with the fervent, singing Sanders family, making a comeback appearance, after a 5-year hiatus, at the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in North Carolina.
Fresh-faced preacher Mervin Oglethorpe is happy to have them. It’s 1938, and times are tough; folks are being laid off from the pickle factory, and the store down the street has the temerity to sell beer. But, he says, it maybe it’s time for “us Baptists to push on into the modern world.”
There isn’t much story in Connie Ray’s 1988 Off Broadway musical; it’s mostly about making a Joyful Noise.
Under Kerry Meads’ expert direction, a terrifically talented cast carves out dimensional, credible characters. For every number, they trade off instruments, switching dexterously from piano to standup bass, guitar, mandolin, ukulele, banjo, autoharp, harmonica, even washboard and spoons. Oh, and coconuts.
It’s mind-blowing how versatile these performers are, and how beautifully they sing -- in solos, tight harmonies, a capella or accompanied.
Witnessing and testifying are important to this family, so we hear from each of them, all about their dreams or sins or, in the case of scruffy Uncle Stanley, their 18-month incarceration. Through it all, the humor runs high.
The San Diego favorites are wonderful, as always: Deborah Gilmour Smyth, as the slightly ditsy, Bible-quoting matriarch she first played 25 years ago; Brian Mackey as the puppyish preacher; Katie Sapper, animatedly interpreting the songs in sign language; and multi-instrumentalists Steve Gouveia and Rik Ogden as the downtrodden uncle and the kind-hearted paterfamilias.
The two young surprises are L.A.-based Beau Brians, hilarious in his uptight demeanor and measured gait; and as his twin, ebullient 18 year-old Annie Buckley, daughter of the gifted scenic designer, Mike Buckley.
There’s a subtle thematic thread of encouraging open-mindedness and acceptance of differences… certainly a worthy message these days.
If you take joy in music, you won’t go home unfulfilled or unredeemed.
“Smoke on the Mountain” runs through November 19, then picks up again in January, at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.
Aired: 10/26/2017 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer
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