A hearty welcome to readers of my new weblog, a long-overdue by-product of my years covering and opinionating about life on and behind the "wicked stage," particularly here in Los Angeles, where good live theatre thrives against steep odds and even deeper indifference.
For this blog, I've revived the title of my old column for Back Stage West, which I started and ran for 10 years (1993-2003), but of course I didn't invent the phrase. I took from the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein song from "Show Boat," "Life Upon the Wicked Stage," which I had Megan Mullally sing at an awards show in 2001 or so. (Those were the Garlands, by the way--awards which are still bestowed by Back Stage West critics, minus the show.)
My main gig now is reviewing theatre on a freelance basis for the Los Angeles Times and the Downtown News, where I learned the newspaper trade (and covered the '92 riots) back in the days when desktop publishing was new and the dotcom bubble had barely begun to form. I also write about theatre for American Theatre, Variety, and LA Stage. I hope to either link to my reviews and features online or work out an arrangement with my editors by which I can post them for viewing.
I hope this site is a destination for anyone who loves and hates the theatre enough to care, and who, like me, isn't content for theatregoing to be a passive experience. I often enjoy the discussions and dish sessions I have about plays I've seen more than the plays, and on the other hand there's nothing more exciting than to spread the word about a great new show you feel has been overlooked.
Herewith I'll kick off the first regular feature of this weblog: My weekly Review of Reviews, in which I'll sum up all the theatre reviews published this week at major papers in the Los Angeles market, and list them in descending order, with the best-reviewed shows at the top, and on down from there. I've provided links where I can; note that all the LA Times links require registration (a pretty easy process if you're already a daily paper subscriber, or know someone who is), though there are well-substantiated murmurs that calendarlive.com's notorious firewall is not long for this world. Without further ado...
The high-concept satire A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT at Santa Monica’s Powerhouse Theatre has critics buzzing with barely contained glee, as if to say: Someone finally got away with this! The Times’ David C. Nichols pulled out his Roget’s to praise this “mix of pastorale, Dianetics demo and Bill Melendez Peanuts special,” while Back Stage West’s Paul Birchall came up with his own list of comparisons in calling it a “provocative mix of Christmas-pageant sincerity, Christopher Durang-like irony, and unexpected rage.” The LA Weekly’s Steven Mikulan offered his own literary analogy: “The evening plays out like a comedy about mind control as written by Nathanael West.” All the critics raved about the young grade-school troupers who put across the show’s irony with straight faces. (I've got a piece in this coming Sunday's Weekly Variety about how this show and HOLLYWOOD HELL HOUSE represent a new kind of religious satire, and how these shows are being received by the shows' targets.)
GRAND HOTEL at the Colony in Burbank received mostly grand reviews for its silk-purse treatment of a late-’80s tuner more beloved for Tommy Tune’s stylish direction than the show itself. The Daily News’ Evan Henerson admired director Peter Schneider’s scaled-down revival, conceding that the material is less than “a terrific musical. But it's lively, short and—in Schneider's hands—quite vibrant.” The Times’ Daryl H. Miller likewise wrote that “by subtly streamlining the story and gently coaxing forth its emotions, Schneider has uncovered riches heretofore unsuspected in this transparent story and only intermittently infectious music.” Only Back Stage West’s Les Spindle filed a more mixed notice, calling Schneider’s work “irreproachable” but dismissing the show as what we’d see “if Ship of Fools was watered down into a Love Boat episode.” All the critics applauded Jason Graae’s against-type turn as a dying bookkeeper.
Two positive verdicts have come in on HEART OF A DOG at the Lillian Theatre. The Times' Daryl H. Miller pretty much loved Michael Franco's adaptation of Bulgakov's 1925 novella, about a dog with human characteristics, calling it "as funny as it is provocative" and lauding particularly Joe Fria's lead turn as a canine "so eager and feisty that you want to reach out scratch its ears." Back Stage West’s Les Spindle was also impressed, if more reserved, lauding Franco’s ambition and calling the “complex material absorbing” but probably best suited to “those well-versed in Russian culture and political history.”
The Matrix Theatre returns to the scene with the U.S. premiere of Martin Crimp’s DEALING WITH CLAIR, a Pinteresque play about a brisk real-estate agent brokering a house sale, with unexpected personal complications. The Weekly’s Steven Leigh Morris, in a Pick of the Week review, was taken with the show’s “craft and polish,” with its study of “high-toned hypocrisy,” and with Gregory Itzin’s “nuance-laced performance.” I also invoked “nuance” in my review for the Times (scroll down)—in my case, I referred admiringly to the play’s “nuanced suspense”—though I quibbled slightly with director Andrew J. Robinson’s occasionally over-emphatic direction. Back Stage West’s Dany Margolies went to see both casts of this double-cast show, two nights in a row, a luxury I couldn’t afford; we can expect her review next week.
Reviewers have highlighted the relevance of a new revival of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1970 twist on Odysseus, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WANDA JUNE at the Actors’ Gang in Hollywood. The Times’ David C. Nichols said its anti-war elements give director Greg Reiner’s production a feeling of “déjà vu,” and called the overall result “more crazed cartoon than finished play.” (He meant it as a compliment.) Back Stage West’s Terry Morgan lauded a cast of “terrific actors… who perform their roles just as they would have been performed when the play opened—but with a level of energy that galvanizes the work.” He particularly singled out William Russ’ turn as a gun-toting man’s man as “one of the most assured and entertaining performances of the year.” The Weekly’s Miriam Jacobson noted the production’s “quirkiness” as its most prominent element, writing that “what the production lacks in tension, it makes up for in the eye candy of Sibyl Wickersheimer’s over-the-top taxidermy scenery and Ann Closs-Farley’s perfect swinging-’60s costumes.”
A revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s feminist epic THE HEIDI CHRONICLES at the Long Beach Playhouse got politely mixed reviews, with the Long Beach Press-Telegram’s Alessandra Djurklou lamenting the “talky” script and the lead character, played by Amy Wiese, who “doesn’t come across as interesting enough to really engage the audience.” Back Stage West’s Shirle Gottleib likewise wondered “if this play makes an impact today, even if given a perfect production,” in which category she clearly didn’t place director Phyllis B. Gitlin’s rendition. She did, however, praise Joseph LeMieux’s “superb” turn as Scoop Rosenbaum.
Critics aren’t swooning over THE DAME OF NEW ORLEANS at the Egyptian Arena Theatre in Hollywood, in an adaptation by writer/director Natalija Nogulich of Alexandre Dumas’ Camille. The LA Weekly’s Deborah Klugman said its elements of Victorian melodrama just “seem downright silly,” while Back Stage West’s Madeleine Shaner pulled out the big guns, calling the show “loud, forced, and arch, shrilly derivative, and loaded with stereotypes,” and noting with dismay that “Southern accents are butchered like Thanksgiving turkeys.” Both critics praised Shon LeBlanc’s period costumes, but that’s not exactly news.
NOTE: These have just been summaries of this week’s new reviews, and only of shows with more than one new review this week. (I haven’t included Daily Variety’s reviews because I don’t have a subscription—I’ll be working on a way to summarize those reviews, too.)
I do plan to update these summaries over the coming days and weeks to reflect the critical consensus, or lack thereof, about all shows currently running in L.A. and environs, so keep checking back.
UPDATE: Your comments, on and offline, have been appreciated. My favorite is from a former colleague, the critic Kerry Reid, who reviewed for Back Stage West from San Francisco and is now based in Chicago. She was among the best and liveliest writers I ever had the pleasure to edit, and this may give some idea of what I mean. Kerry wrote:
"I turn 40 on Election Day. If you need ideas for the perfect gift, here's a
hint: My name is on it."