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  • “BLACKTOP SKY” – Ira Aldridge Repertory Players

    “BLACKTOP SKY” – Ira Aldridge Repertory Players

    A young black man has taken up residence on a park bench in the midst of the projects. He hunkers down in a hooded parka, though it’s the height of summer. Crates and bags of his accumulated stuff surround him.

    Ivy, a recent high school graduate, passes him every day. He piques her curiosity and impetuous nature. She starts talking to him, though she’s still reeling about another guy on the street who was roughed up by the cops and hit with a taser. He’s still in a coma.

    The homeless person everyone calls Pigeon Man knows all this – and a lot more – about the street, the projects, the foster care system… and Ivy. He has moments of seeming madness and moments of poetic lucidity.

    Ivy’s possessive boyfriend, several years older and in a stable job as a car mechanic, doesn’t want her having anything to do with this guy. She can’t help or save him. But she persists, and he finally opens up, telling her his name, Klass, and a bit of his dreadful history.

    Between her domineering mother, her controlling boyfriend, and the confines of her living conditions, Ivy feels constrained and constricted. She desperately wants to escape, to go to college, to be unfettered, to see the sky.

    Over 36 short scenes in 80 minutes, we learn a good deal about the projects and the relationship between the residents and the police. “Blacktop Sky,” Christina Anderson’s 2010 drama, is about poverty and opportunity, about looking versus seeing, about coming of age and taking responsibility for your own life.

    Calvin Manson, founder of the 33-year old Ira Aldridge Repertory Players, directs the intense and unsettling drama, with assistance from local actor Vimel Sephus.

    The 3-person cast is deeply committed and thoroughly credible. They draw us into their hothouse world, and leave us with uncertainty about just how – and if – these dramatic events will resolve. A fitting ending, since there’s no end in sight for the privation-police dynamic.

    This is a searing and unnerving play, and a forceful, discomforting production.

    “Blacktop Sky” continues through June 25 at Educational Cultural Complex in East County.

    Aired: 6/15/2017 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer

  • “THE SPITFIRE GRILL” – North Coast Repertory Theatre

    “THE SPITFIRE GRILL” – North Coast Repertory Theatre

    Down-home music and a feel-good story.

    “The Spitfire Grill,” set in the tiny fictional Wisconsin town of Gilead, is a balm to the audience, as much as the central character is a balm to the hamlet and its inhabitants.

    Recently released after five years in prison, Percy is seeking a new beginning. She sees an ad in a travel magazine and thinks she’s headed for Paradise.

    But Gilead is a downtrodden place, having lost its biggest employer, the quarry. So men like Caleb are angry and dispirited. And Shelby, his wife, is abused, beaten down and unhappy.

    The Spitfire Grill, the only café in town, is run by surly, brittle Hannah, who harbors a long-held secret. So does the hermit in the woods. Hannah’s been trying to sell the Grill for a decade.

    Feisty Percy to the rescue. Though she’s guarded and defensive, she’ll help everyone to reveal and heal. She’ll even come up with a clever strategy to unload the Grill: a national lottery.

    Caleb and the town busybody are skeptical. But the sheriff takes a shine to her.

    The 2001 musical, based on the 1996 movie, is sweet and sentimental, but not too gooey, even though it has a happier ending than the film.

    The country-twanged music, by James Valcq, and the sometimes imagistic lyrics of Fred Alley, celebrate the bounty of small-town life.

    It’s all about redemption and second chances, forgiveness, hope and the power of female friendship.

    The solid North Coast Repertory Theatre production boasts an effective and committed cast, who carve out credible characters. The singing is mostly strong, with Meghan Andrews’ lovely soprano a standout. As Shelby, her voice pairs nicely with the warm mezzo of Aurora Florence, a spitfire herself as Percy. Surprisingly, New York director Jeffrey B. Moss provides very little staging or movement during the songs, which makes them feel static.

    The 4-piece band is excellent, under the direction of Alby Potts, with the cello especially noteworthy. The set, lighting and sound add to the cozy, country feel.

    There’s an old-fashioned sensibility to this musical, but it’s pleasant and poignant and well-produced.

    “The Spitfire Grill” continues through June 25 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.

    Aired: 6/14/2017 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer

  • “ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE” – La Jolla Playhouse

    “ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE” – La Jolla Playhouse

    Like a catchy Jimmy Buffett tune, “Escape to Margaritaville” doesn’t go deep, but its laid-back vibe is infectious. You walk out smiling and singing – but the slightly spiked sugar-high soon wears off.

    In the manner of most jukebox musicals, this is a forced effort to wrap some sort of story around a catalogue of songs. And the book, by TV veterans Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, offers a maddening, on-the-nose foreshadowing of just about every number.

    So there’s a character who’s eternally “searching for his lost shaker of salt.” Of course, the protagonist, a Buffett stand-in, wears flip-flops. There’s a soon-to-erupt “Volcano” on the remote tropical island where the Margaritaville Hotel resides. Three men obsessively watch soccer. Another likes “Grapefruit [and] Juicy Fruit.” All these, if you’re not a Parrothead, are lyrics in the musical’s two dozen Buffett songs, including two new ones the singer wrote just for the show.

    But the sum is a mishmash of themes, including a potato-driven energy plan and one woman’s body image issues. Incomprehensibly, there’s a tap-dancing chorus line of zombie insurance salesmen. Not to mention a one-eyed Viagra-popping old pilot who doesn’t really fit in at all.

    The central, reluctant couple makes sense, at least: she’s a Type A workaholic; he’s a guitar-playing beach bum. Their vacation fling doesn’t look like it’ll last. Then it does.

    A lot of the story-song shoehorning is just silly. But the music remains irresistible. Smooth-voiced, effortless Paul Alexander Nolan is excellent in the lead role. His chemistry with charismatic Alison Luff is palpable. As their sidekicks, Charlie Pollock and Lisa Howard are funny and well-matched.

    The design is colorful, and imaginatively varying. The sound, lighting, band, costumes and Flying by Foy energize the production. Christopher Ashley’s direction is energetic, but Kelly Devine’s choreography seems overanxious to please. The whole show kind of feels like that.

    The talent ratio is high and the singing is exemplary. But, except for the legions of Buffett fans, I just can’t see this show making it on Broadway, where it’s reportedly headed. Then again, I said that about “Mamma Mia,” too.

    “Escape to Margaritaville” continues through July 9 at the La Jolla Playhouse.

    Aired: 6/2/2017 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2017 Pat Launer

  • “THE MUSIC MAN” – Welk Resort Theatre

    “THE MUSIC MAN” – Welk Resort Theatre

    There are several essential ingredients for a successful production of “The Music Man”: powerful voices, strong dancers and rat-a-tat timing. Check, check and check. The Welk Resort Theatre has it all.

    Director/choreographer Ray Limon moves the show along at a sprightly clip, with especially well-timed, well-articulated work on the delectable syncopated, moving-train opener, “Rock Island,” and the fast-paced snake-oil sales of “Trouble.”

    David S. Humphrey, with his creamy baritone, makes for an attractive, seductive Harold Hill, the fast-talking flimflam man, a traveling salesman who goes around the country selling a bill of goods – in the form of a boys’ band. He always takes the money and runs.

    But this time is different. When he lands in River City, Iowa, the savvy town librarian, Marian Paroo, isn’t buying. Yet, when Hill’s con transforms the whole town, and he even opens up Marion’s taciturn young brother, she softens and falls. And Hill, for the first time in his life, falls too.

    The musical classic is awash in small-town, mid-century, Middle American nostalgia, complete with the requisite gossiping busybodies. And the oft-repeated “chip-on-the-shoulder stubbornness of Iowans.” The little burg needed some shaking up. And so did the reluctant lovers.

    The newly married Charlene (Koepf) Wilkinson brings her gorgeous voice and pitch-perfect standoffishness to the role of Marion. The singing, dancing and acting are strong throughout, but there’s no chemistry between the town Bad Boy and the Mayor’s daughter, though they both dance terrifically.

    Alex Allen is comical and agile as Marcellus, Hill’s former partner in crime, and Robin LaValley is amusing as the Mayor’s wife. The sound balance could be better. But the sets and costumes are just right.

    It’s a shame that the Welk has decided to discontinue live music, but if ever a show called for a big, brassy orchestral sound, it’s this one, so the taped music is less offensive than usual.

    Overall, it’s a delightful production of a show that, with its fun story and fabulous Meredith Willson score, never goes out of style.

    “THE MUSIC MAN” continues through July 30, at the Welk Resort Theatre in Escondido.

    Aired: 5/19/2017 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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