Oct 31, 2004

"Blue Dove" Flies Away

As I reported in my recent Review of Reviews, the musical BLUE DOVE has gotten consistently dismissive reviews (scroll to bottom of list).

According to a friend who's in the cast, the musical's "indefinite" run has become more definite: It will close next weekend. It's been playing at the mid-sized Ivar Theatre in Hollywood--not a cheap rental, or a cheap union arrangement. As my friend wrote in an email: "So much for Equity gigs in L.A. The producer is apparently hemorrhaging money keeping it open for mostly comp audiences, so the rude awakening came during the show last night." My friend conceded "there are big issues with the script, but the
performers are all great and the music is lovely." She was hoping to get her friends to come out.

I have to wonder: Is this the only spiritually themed musical playing at an oversized house in Hollywood that got bad reviews, is having trouble filling its seats, and may not have a future beyond its Hollywood run? Thank God contracts aren't carved in stone.

Lyrics From Hell

There are a lot of execrable musicals out there whose biggest fault is cheesy music written by hacks or incompetents--people who either know the form too well and cynically turn out the same pump-organ crap every time (Jerry Herman comes to mind) or people who don't understand the form at all and write songs with zero theatrical traction (the through-sung poperas of Boublil and Schoenberg, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jonathan Larsen, ad nauseam).

But by far the most glaring deficit of bad musical theatre is lyrics. Just as the music of musicals needs to have a self-evident reason for being--an extreme emotional state is a good one--lyrics should somehow sound like a kind of heightened dialogue, sung by characters to other characters or, occasionally, to us. They must also be intelligible on first listening, which is why prosody--the way lyrical phrases sit on musical beats--is an essential skill for a lyricist.

Too many lyrics for musical theatre not only lack any trace of this basic craft, they lack any sense of specificity or urgency or need to be sung. Bad musical theatre lyrics traffic heavily in abstraction, cliche, tastelessness, and basic meaninglessness.

I'm no lyrical snob, mind you--I don't believe that rhymes have to be perfect ("time" and "fine" is OK by me), or that lyrics even have to rhyme at all ("A Bowler Hat" from Pacific Overtures is a great example). But lyrics shouldn't sound like third-grade forced-rhyme doggerel, and I'm afraid the form has been so debased that audiences now expect bland, generic, often ridiculous lyrics--lyrics that sound, as Michael John LaChiusa put it in a very circumspect consideration of Lloyd Webber's ouevre in American Theatre a few years back, like they've been translated from another language (as, in some cases, they have).

I have already noted some of the infelicitous phrases perpetrated by THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. I will herewith share with you some of my favorite examples of bad lyrics from musicals I've had the misfortune of hearing.

"Monotony past, suburbia departed
Who could ever be fond of the back of beyond?"

"Yeah, just one shell and governments fall like flies, kapow, die
They stumble and fall, bye bye
Backs to the wall, aim high
We're having a ball
The tank and bullet rule as democracy dies"

"Eyes, hair, mouth, figure
Dress, voice, style, movement
Hands, magic, rings, glamour
Face, diamonds, excitement, image"

"More bad news from Rome; she met with the Pope
She only got a rosary, a kindly word
I wouldn't say the Holy Father gave her the bird
But papal decorations, never a hope
She still looked the part at St. Peter's, caught the eye"

"Rollin' rollin' rollin', rollin' rollin' rollin'
Rollin' rollin' rollin', rollin' rollin' rollin'
Rollin' rollin' rollin', rollin' rollin' rollin'
Rollin' rollin' rollin', rollin' rollin' rollin' "

"There is evil, ever around
Fundamental system of government
Quite incidental"

"I could find job satisfaction in Paraguay"

--From "Evita"

Ughhhhh- I can't think
Ughhhhh- I need a drink"

"You want to produce films and write songs?
You need somewhere to do it!
It's what we used to dream about
Think twice before you pooh-pooh it"

"Take your powder
Take your candle
Your sweet whisper
I just can't handle"

"Excuse me if I'm off track
But if you're so wise
Then tell me
Why do you need smack?"

"You're a sensitive aesthete
Brush the sauce onto the meat
You could make the menu sparkle with rhyme
You could drum a gentle drum
I could seat guests as they come
Chatting not about Heidegger, but wine!
Let's open up a restaurant in Santa Fe
Our labors would reap financial gains
We'll open up a restaurant in Santa Fe
And save from devastation our brains"

Moo with me"

"A tiger in a cage
Can never see the sun
This diva needs her stage
Baby - let's have fun!"

"You're always preaching not to be numb
When that's how you thrive
You pretend to create and observe
When you really detach from feeling alive"

--From "Rent"

"Tell me what you think about your friends at the top
Who you think besides yourself's the pick of the crop
Buddha, was he where it's at? Is he where you are?
Could Mohammed move a mountain, or was that just PR?"

"One thing I'll say for him
Jesus is cool"

--From "JC Superstar"

"Buffy at your service
Ever open wide
My microwave is cooking to warm you from inside
A lotta locomotion will do the trick
Come and bite my burgers
I'm hot and cheap and quick"

--From "Starlight Express"

"It's easy to be royal
If you're already leonine
It isn't just my right
Even my left will be divine
The monarchy is waiting to go zing
Oh, I just can't wait to be king"

"He called us slobbering!
Said we were mangy!
Did I hear stupid?
Tell us again-- gee
It's so incredible
That you're so rude
When you're so edible
When you are food!"

"So prepare for the coup of the century
Be prepared for the murkiest scam
Meticulous planning
Tenacity spanning
Decades of denial
Is simply why I'll
Be king undisputed
Respected, saluted
And seen for the wonder I am
Yes, my teeth and ambitions are bared
Be prepared!"

"Yeah, you're our savior, thanks a bunch
But how about some lunch?"

--From "The Lion King"

"Something is missing
I'm looking for something
Something not clear"

"Waiting for someone
Someone to touch me completely
Someone to set my heart free
From all of this waiting"

"Where does it go, the purity?
Where does it go, the innocence?"

--From "Dorian, the Musical"

I invite you to send me your favorite bad lyrics from musicals you love to hate. If we can't laugh about this stuff we'd have to cry.

Oct 30, 2004

Review of Reviews, the Halloween Edition

My thinking on Los Angeles theatre, overall, is that there’s too damn much of it, and while some folks I’ve spoken to about this think that’s a good thing because it offers so many more choices, I think it’s only good if you really immerse yourself in the scene and have some reliable sources to guide you. I’ve always believed that essentially 80 percent of any art form is disposable, and the remaining 20 percent is really worthwhile. In L.A. theatre, I feel like the ratio is more 90/10. Identifying and seeking out that worthy 10 percent, and stepping over the stink of the other 90 percent, is the goal, and while I wouldn’t say critics have all the answers, we do have a lot to say, particularly if you take us altogether.

Early October had so many plays opening at once that critics spent the rest of the month catching up. That’s why, for instance, reviews of a major opening like The Conquest of the South Pole, which opened Oct. 2 at the Odyssey Theatre, didn’t hit till this week.

Conquest is among the more unanimously praised shows in this week’s edition of my Review of Reviews, which also includes updates from last week’s list of shows if another critic has weighed in. I’ve more or less ranked the shows in order of critics’ enthusiasm, top to bottom, though there’s no science to this.

In his full-length theatre feature this week, The LA Weekly’s Steven Mikulan also saw fit to connect a pair of religion-themed shows as I’ve done here. He adds another rave to an unbroken streak of recommendations (scroll to end) of recommendations for A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT at the Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica, calling the show “a beguiling blend of amateurism and blind innocence… expertly assembled by [director Alex] Timbers,” though he did qualify his praise by noting that “at 50 minutes, the show can only scratch an already soft target.” He also added his voice to the chorus of approval for Julia Sweeney’s LETTING GO OF GODat the Hudson Backstage in Hollywood, calling the former Groundling “that rare performer who brings technical talent and contemplative powers to her live stage shows.” Mikulan’s no easy touch, though: He called the show “about 15 minutes too long” and called out a few of Sweeney’s “emotional gimmicks.” Still, according to L.A.’s critical community, these are two shows worthy of an altar call.

As I mentioned above, Manfred Karge’s weirdly compelling play about unemployed German miners play-acting THE CONQUEST OF THE SOUTH POLE received unanimously strong reviews. In the Times, I called it an “extraordinary if ungainly political parable” with “bold, often blunt direction” by Steve Pickering that “extracts the most from this strange brew.” The Weekly’s Sandra Ross likewise praised Pickering’s “stylized direction,” writing that “the sheer inventiveness of the play-within-the-play—stuffed animals for sled dogs, laundry for walls of ice—provides the humor in Karge’s dark tale of economic depression.” Dany Margolies found it “simultaneously whimsical and gut-wrenching” She conceded that the play is occasionally “heavy-handed” and “impenetrable,” but she ultimately found it a paean to the power of imagination.

Moving a few notches up the list is DEALING WITH CLAIR at the Matrix Theatre in Hollywood, based on Dany Margolies’ rave. To report fully on this double-cast production, Margolies did what none of the rest of us (scroll down) did: saw both opening nights. She was thus able to admire what she called “an exquisite study of acting choices.” More importantly, she wrote that Martin Crimp’s gnomic unfurling of a real estate deal is given a “production that shames us, shakes us,” and “makes us think about our priorities, moralities, responsibilities, and pathologies.” Most theatregoers won’t get the chance to see it twice, but given that performers are mixed and matched willy-nilly throughout the run rather than in two alternating “A” and “B” casts, Margolies’ review is indispensible.

Pasadena’s Theatre @ Boston Court continues its ambitious first season with the world premiere of Jean Claude Van Itallie’s LIGHT, which recounts the unconventional 18th-century love triangle among Voltaire, Emilie du Chatelet, and King Frederick of Prussia. The Times’ Philip Brandes found it a “remarkably compelling story… beautifully performed” under Jessica Kubzansky’s “stylish direction.” His one quibble—that the playwright “relies extensively on monologues, which make the piece a bit talky”—was a bigger problem for the LA Weekly’s Amy Nicholson, who felt these potentially “combustible” characters are “boxed in by soliloquies,” which she called “impeccably written and entirely constraining.” She did, however, praise the actors—Lenny Von Dohlen, Jeannie Hackett, and John Hansen—as “stage wonders.”

Michael Gianakos’ gently absurdist comedy THE ARCHITECT OF DESTINY at the Zephyr in Hollywood got gracious reviews for its zany portrait of a confused young man besieged by crazies. I called it “funny” and “featherweight” (scroll down) in my review for the Times, noting that the cast effectively maintains the play’s “delicately jokey momentum” and comparing the overall effort to “a live-action rendition of a particularly good animated sitcom.” The Weekly’s Neal Weaver also happily went along with the play’s “hilarious, demented ride,” though he thought that “the frenzy is too intense to be sustained.” We both admired Mark L. Taylor’s direction and Nathan Matheny’s cartoony sets.

The LA Weekly’s resident Russophile, Steven Leigh Morris, was less impressed than his colleagues by HEART OF A DOG at Elephant StageWorks in Hollywood. He found this adaptation of Bulgakov’s “novel, with its vicious satire of all things Red, akin to beating a dead dog,” and while he called director/adapter Michael Franco’s production “intriguing,” he wrote that it “wobbles slightly between realism and farce—which may be a consequence of his ensemble’s varying acting styles.” He did agree with his peers (scroll down) that Joe Fria’s “metamorphosis from beast to man is simply magical.” Count this DOG scolded but still yapping.

Tom Grimes’ SPEC at the Alliance Rep in Burbank has gotten mixed-positive reviews for its blend of Hollywood satire and topical humor about the current war. The Weekly’s Neal Weaver wrote that “the clever script is full of quotable one-liners whose comic exaggerations reflect current realities,” and that “Grimes and director Scott Campbell deserve credit for stirring up a storm of tragi-farcical mayhem with only five actors.” The Times’ Philip Brandes agreed but wrote that “its relentless absurdity (scroll down) sometimes puts it at odds with its own darkening tone.” For his part, Back Stage West’s Wenzel Jones thought it looked like a staged screenplay, writing that “Grimes' cynicism and observations thrill, but Scott Campbell's direction dulls the stingers, sort of like Preston Sturges on Prozac.”

Another Hollywood-meets-militarism satire, Larry Gelbart’s MASTERGATE at the Actors Circle Group Theatre in Universal City, divided a pair of critics: Both the Weekly’s Erin Aubry Kapan and the Times’ F. Kathleen Foley praised Gelbart’s “furious wordplay” and “sardonic double-talk” in depicting a Congressional hearing inspired by the Iran-contra scandal. But while Foley called it “a moldy leftover from the Cold War era” with uneven performances, Kaplan found the play “relentlessly witty and well-observed” and the performances “expert all around.”

R.S. Call’s story about a pedophile priest, DAMAGES at the Hudson Mainstage in Hollywood, got one blessing and one damning. The Times’ Daryl H. Miller wrote that the production “teeters between stomach-clenching topical drama and middling melodrama (scroll down), between therapeutic inquiry and sheerest exploitation,” while the Weekly’s Sandra Ross was far more forgiving, writing that while Richard Scanlon’s direction was often “sluggish” and the script too “talky,” the show “achieves some nicely creepy moments” and has a “trio of exceptional performers” in the central roles.

The Belfast-themed SCENES FROM THE BIG PICTURE, The Furious Theatre Company’s first outing at Pasadena Playhouse’s Balcony Theatre Upstairs, got consistently reserved reviews. The Times’ David C. Nichols praised a “literally tireless” 21-member cast executing director Dámaso Rodriguez’s “ultra-choreographed scene changes,” but lamented that the “hyper-kinetic staging dominates to distraction, blurring the accrued overview.” The Weekly’s Steven Mikulan, while praising Rodriguez’s “solid” work with a “fine ensemble,” dimissed Owen McCafferty’s play as “essentially a Belfast soap opera” and an “overlong evening of tantrums and tears.” Back Stage West’s Jennie Webb was more encouraging to “the young, ambitious” company, though she praised the effort rather faintly as “a completely respectable production of Owen McCafferty's careful but often surprising drama,” and concluded diplomatically, “It may not be everyone’s cup of tea.”

Critics didn’t quite see the point of the exotically titled HYENAS, OR THE MONOLOGUE OF THEODORE-FREDERIC BENOIT at Stages Theatre Center in Hollywood, a solo show about a young French murderer starring Eric Szmanda. Back Stage West’s Dink O’Neal wrote that Szmanda “has an almost choreographic take” on the character that “challenges us—nay, dares us to explain why we are seated before him.” The Weekly’s Neal Weaver admired Szmanda’s talent for holding attention but found the piece “extremely French,” by which he meant “placing intellectual thrust above emotional appeal and generating little empathy.” Touché.

Another in a spate of spiritually themed plays, BLUE DOVE at the Ivar Theatre in Hollywood, hasn’t received much love. The Weekly’s Judith Lewis wrote that in attempting to musicalize the “complicated life” of guru J. Krishnamurti, composer/playwright Peter Wells has “squandered… the sparkling gifts” of his singers and actors and “reduced Krishnamurti’s exquisite humor and wisdom to a sappy, smiley-faced tract set to mundane melodies and moon-June lyrics.” (Her samples were priceless: “I don’t want to be/some kind of deity/stuck in celibacy,” and “Christians and Muslims and Jews . . . We’re all here together, sharing this planet!”) Back Stage West’s Jeff Favre agreed and added that “director Mark Papp has his cast overacting to such an extent that several scenes accidentally cross over into camp, eliciting laughs where none are intended… Krishnamurti may have a story worth telling, but this isn't the way do to it.”

Hilburn Follies

OK, OK, I know—this is ostensibly a theatre-related blog. But anyone who knows me slightly knows that I’m a musician of sorts. Those who know me very well know that among my idiosyncrasies is my regular ranting about Robert Hilburn, the LA Times pop music “critic.”

Ever since I’ve been reading his prose—starting nearly 20 years ago, I hate to admit—I have heard from those who’ve met him that he’s an extremely nice man; just last week, a Times acquaintance of mine confirmed that he’s probably “the nicest person” she knows in the whole company.

So I hate piling on, but this weekend’s Calendar has him weighing in—for the umpteenth time—on the prospects of this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees. Does anyone on this green earth care as much as Hilburn about who gets into and who’s excluded from this bogus organization? Do sports writers even care this much about the Baseball Hall of Fame?

My quarrels with Hilburn’s writing are many—my biggest being that he doesn’t write about music but about significance, heart, commitment, passion, anything but what the music is like as music. But nowhere does he reveal his irrelevance to the actual practice of music-making, and music-enjoying, more than in his making of lists, pantheons, percentages (he used to actually calculate the odds of various bands making it into the Hall of Fame), and other maddeningly tidy classification systems. I don’t often quarrel with his taste—I, too, have appropriate reverence and occasionallly even passion for Presley, Dylan, the Beatles, U2, Springsteen, Hendrix, and so on—but I do deplore the obtuse way he writes and thinks about the medium he’s covered since its heyday.

For example, in this weekend’s comically earnest article about ’80s acts who are now at last eligible (oh joy!) for Hall of Fame consideration, Hilburn adds another droplet to his deluge of meaningless praise for U2:

“With its distinctive guitar sound and inspirational themes, the Irish quartet is filled with such ability, ambition and competitive spirit that my belief is it would have battled the Beatles and the Stones on both the sales chart and the year-end critics' lists if it had gone head to head in the '60s. John Lennon and Bono would have adored each other. They might not have just written songs together but also teamed for social causes.”

Wow, a rock band “filled with ability”! That would have just torn up the charts in the ‘60s. And sure, John Lennon simply adored bands “with ability” and a social conscience; he was a veritable font of generosity to his peers throughout his public life. And I’m glad to know at last what the Beatles were all about: ability, ambition, and social causes.

Or how about this jaw-droppingly sexist double grouping, to cover the all-important female demo:

The Pretenders and Patti Smith — It's hard to separate these entries because the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, through her charisma and seductive voice, and Smith, with her poetic vision and strong will, both helped convince rock 'n' roll that it wasn't just a man's world.”

Chicks can rock, too! Forget for now that apart from their gender and their hair color, Smith and Hynde are about as similar musically as Lou Reed and Paul Weller. What’s important, in Hilburn’s checklist-driven critical thinking, is that both challenged the prevailing paradigm (still implicitly honored by Hilburn, who once reviewed a Liz Phair show in terms of how her pregnancy affected her indie cred) of rock ‘n’ roll as an endless male adolescent rebellion against authority and commercialism. No wonder Hilburn has never really given Prince, Bjork, Bowie, Sonic Youth, the Pixies, or Outkast—just off the top of my head—their full due. They just don’t register on his significance-meter.

For all their blind spots, writers lke the NY Times’ Jon Pareles and Kelefa Sennah kick Hilburn up and down the street, while my favorite writer on all kinds of music remains not only eminently readable but easily available. Indeed, in a piece last summer, the New Yorker's Alex Ross put into words better than I can what’s wrong with Hilburn’s approach:

“Pop-music scholars spend a lot of time describing the messages that become attached to songs, and this is a necessary part of the history of listening. Yet, when music passes from one generation to another, it leaves most of its social significance peeling off dorm-room walls, and its persistence is best explained with reference to beats, chords, and raw emotion. Which is why pop writers have to find a new way to describe musical events, and not just by offering dopey imitations of classical musicology. No one would give much credence to a style of art criticism that alluded to paintings without mentioning their shapes and colors, or an architecture criticism that refused to say whether buildings were made of stone or metal.”

And don’t even get me started on the critical void at the helm of another LA Times department.

Oct 27, 2004

Ka-wote for the Day

"I don't know karate
But I do know ka-razy."
--James Brown

Blogging forecast: Clear sky with cold front moving in. Downpour throughout the weekend.

Oct 25, 2004

Mixing It Up

The following shows didn’t receive faint praise, exactly, but overall got the kind of notices that fell short of outright raves—illustrating, I'd say, the difference between “Critic’s Choice” and “Recommended”.

I call these the ”Mixed Positives” (and in case you’re wondering, I put them alphabetical order), and the general idea is: If you like this sort of thing, it's for you.

A revival of Joseph Heller’s own stage version of his classic novel CATCH-22 at West Coast Ensemble in Hollywood has received respectful reviews particularly noting its relevance to our current war. In my Times review, I wrote that the “U.S. Army Reserve soldiers who refused a delivery mission in Iraq [recently] might have been channeling the spirit of Capt. Yossarian,” and while I qualified that director Claudia Jaffee’s production “noticeably strains, particularly in its second half, to keep up with Heller's overpopulated adaptation, there's heft and bite in its timeless portrait of a man at war with war.” Back Stage West’s Brad Schreiber had similar reservations, agreeing that “it is a tall order making this sprawling, hilarious, and devastating book work onstage,” but that “when it works, it’s a delight.” And the Weekly's Miriam Jacobson found Jaffee's direciton "seamless" but concurred that "there’s no overcoming the sameness of Heller’s amped-up quirky characters, who all follow the same mad Alice in Wonderland logic." On the night I went, there seemed to be a number of fans of the book, including my plus-one. He, and they, seemed to find the evening worthwhile, if not a knockout punch.

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 Weekly Pick 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.

Sacred Fools is back on the anti-Bush campaign trail with DUBYA 2004, which pleased like-minded critics in varying degrees. The Times’ David C. Nichols enjoyed its “unbridled provocation” and “scabrous tabloid vulgarity” but took its “valid core questions” quite seriously, summing it up as a “dark cautionary in cartoon camouflage,” even “an electoral wake-up call” (for whom, exactly, I don’t know). The Weekly’s Erin Aubry Kaplan, comparing this installment with the “2000” rendition, said the new edition “has all the bite of the original, if a bit less focus.” Still, she agreed “Dubya is a real satire, as sobering and frightening as it is savagely funny.” Back Stage West’s Dave De Pino wrote that writer/director Joe Jordan “tinges this multi-styled, cluttered, and somewhat clumsy piece with dark melodrama, sheer buffoonery, college camp, gross-out shtick, and even touches of some pleasantly surprising profundity.”

The conclusion of playwright Levy Lee Simon’s trilogy about the Haitian revolution and its aftermath, despite the rather ungainly title FOR THE LOVE OF FREEDOM, PART III: CHRISTOPHE (THE SPIRIT) PASSION AND GLORY, has received plaudits from critics, who seem impressed above all that he and the Robey Theatre Company followed through with all 13 years of the epic story (1806-1820). The Times’ F. Kathleen Foley wrote that director Ben Guillory “again fills the space with military efficiency in a rich staging full of sound, fury and fitting ferocity,” and that whereas Parts I and II were “occasionally overstated and factually blurry,” the conclusion is “far more dramatically taut, a gripping ending to… a formidable theatrical achievement.” The Weekly’s Steven Mikulan found the piece overlong but conceded that it “has an undeniable power, thanks to Karl Calhoun’s strong performance in the title role and to Ben Guillory’s flawless direction of a committed ensemble.”

A slightly more tightly focused view of the past is provided in THE HISTORY OF FAIRFAX ACCORDING TO A SANDWICH, Leon Martell’s play about L.A.’s mid-town walking district, predomoninantly known as a Jewish haven, which is running at the Greenway Court Theatre in the heart of said district. The Times’ Don Shirley called it ”an excellent model for other neighborhood-themed plays,” covering Fairfax’s evolution from roughly 1814 to the present with a “chamelonic cast.” Shirley admitted that “this inherently episodic play isn't consistently terrific, but it's lively and funny enough to warrant a visit by anyone interested in L.A. history.” The Weekly’s always circumspect Steven Leigh Morris especially noted the fortuitous location, writing that “when you walk out onto Fairfax after the play, you can feel how Martell has enriched our appreciation of it with his ghost stories.” Back Stage West’s Madeleine Shaner, whose other gig is writing for Park La Brea News, was less impressed, saying this “potentially worthy play” needs trimming “to become more of a theatrical event and less of a rather dry history lesson.”

The Taper’s presentation of John Kani’s NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH received more praise for its noble intentions and Kani’s own stirring performance than for the play itself. The Times’ Daryl H. Miller compared some of its family revelations to “an overheated soap opera” but called the performances “always fresh and real.” The Weekly’s Steven Mikulan likewise wrote that “although Kani is flawless as the aggrieved Sipho… Nothing But the Truth remains a static piece of oratory that sounds more like a radio play than a story of decisions and consequences.” Back Stage West gave it a Critic’s Pick but the review isn’t available online; neither is my review for the Downtown News, though I can cull this quote from my own archives: I called it an “an impassioned if negligibly dramatic Socratic dialogue inspired by the complicated legacy” of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “There is more than just truth-telling in Nothing But the Truth, but not very much more.”

The Times’ always-blurbable David C. Nichols loved Patricia Kane’s spoof of barely repressed 1950s lesbian paperbacks, PULP at the Celebration Theatre in Hollywood, writing that it “takes a walk on the wild side of lipstick-smeared laughter, and its pert players score a comic bull's-eye.” Back Stage West’s Hoyt Hilsman called it only “half-silly,” with “solid performances” but “a shaky script and muted direction by Pamela Forrest." And the Weekly's Tom Provenzano quibbled with the decision to include musical numbers, which he said "stop the action cold"; luckily, he wrote, "Kane’s homage... has other strengths, namely the subject matter and the hard-boiled dialogue."

NEXT: If I have time I’ll give a quick summary of last week’s “one-offs”—reviews of plays taken on by only one publication, with no consensus to report. Or I might just wait for this coming week’s reviews and hope that more consensus emerges.

Doing the Splits

There’s no accounting for tastes, it’s said, but that doesn’t stop us ink-stained wretches from tallying up the pluses and minuses of the lively arts. What Taper director once called “healthy disagreement” among critics—the occasion for his comment was Back Stage West presenting him with Garland Awards two years running for shows that had received poor reviews in Back Stage West—is alive and well among the critical brother- and sisterhood and L.A. And that’s what makes horse races (so they say—I wouldn’t know.)

The following “split decisions” (the newest update in my first catching-up edition of my Review of Reviews) are divided into two categories you should recognize if you’ve done any review-reading at all.


James J. Mellon’s musicalization of Oscar Wilde’s classic The Picture of Dorian Gray resets the action in contemporary New Orleans, and the result, DORIAN at NoHo Arts Center, has most critics raving. Back Stage West’s Les Spindle could barely contain himself, calling the show "highly original, intelligent, tuneful, provocative, and [packing] a powerful emotional punch. Even the persnickety Wilde would have approved of this Oscar-worthy adaptation." Meanwhile the Weekly's Tom rovenzano was excited by the sow's " fresh jazz-blues score paired with sensual and literate lyrics," and wrote that the show feels "like a huge Broadway production trying to burst out of the confines of this small theater." Well, to say that I dissented from this praise (scroll down) in my Times review would be an understatement. "Alternately turgid and bland" were some of the nicer words I used, though I did agree with my colleagues that the ultra-talented Armelia McQueen is "the show's secret weapon" as a waterfront madam.


The ironic fundamentalist-mocking chill-fest HOLLYWOOD HELL HOUSE at Center For Inquiry West in Hollywood (running, appropriately, through Halloween night) was described in pretty much similar terms by critics—it was just a question of whether they liked what they saw. The Times’ David C. Nichols was swept up in this “scant, vivid trek” through “Grand Guignol gore,” summing it up as a “hot-button cultural touchstone for the polarized present.” The Weekly’s Lovell Estell III didn’t particularly warm to what he called “a hokey, haunted-house serving of blood, guts, demons, gargoyle-like specimens, and fallen men and women,” while Back Stage West’s Terry Morgan split the difference, diplomatically calling it "an amusing, if not outstanding, experience."

BSW’s Morgan was also the dissenting voice on a revival of Pinter’s THE HOMECOMING at Glendale’s A Noise Within, on which The Times’ Lynne Heffley bestowed a glowing review (no longer available online) and the Weekly’s Steven Leigh Morris raved that director “[Sabin] Epstein’s stylization is perfect,” that “[Ben] Livingston’s Lenny is particulary fine—an English Conan O’Brien,” and that “he meets his match in [Abby] Craden’s razor-hearted Ruth, who looks a bit like Liza Minnelli and carries a crate of subtext in her transformation from Madonna to whore.” In his review, Morgan acknowledged some “terrific performances” but thought that director Epstein let the Pinter-esque pauses “swamp the pacing, which dissipates the necessary tension.”

An Irish twist on mustache-twirling melodrama, Theatre Banshee’s THE HUNT FOR RED WILLIE at the Gene Bua Theatre in Burbank attempted to delight and mostly exhausted the critics. The Times’s F. Kathleen Foley found it “light-hearted, fluffy—and just a tad belabored,” while the LA Weekly’s Amy Nicholson wrote that playwright Ken Bourke has “packed the stage with unlikable pests who irritate rather than entertain.” For her part, Back Stage West’s Terri Roberts seemed quite un-irritated: She particularly enjoyed the performance of “the hilarious and hugely talented” Matt Foyer, in a variety of roles. Indeed, she wrote that “he should be teaching a class on playing multiple characters.”

Neatly dividing a pair of scribes was MONSTER, Neal Bell’s riff on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica. Both Back Stage West’s Paul Birchall and the Weekly’s Neal Weaver admired what Birchall called director Andy Mitton’s “glitteringly imaginative staging full of organic acting,” but while he felt that the “enjoyable stagecraft… serves only to point up” the shortcomings of the Bell’s “dreary and overwritten text,” Weaver enjoyed Bell’s “sexual spin” on the tale and wrote that Mitton “turns the piece into delectable Halloween fare.”

Critics adored Nicole Blaine, the co-author and star of the solo show PIPE DREAMS at the Hudson Guild in Hollywood, but they were less taken with the show she penned with her director/husband Michael Blaine. The Weekly’s Tom Provenzano called Nicole “a remarkable young actor with brains, beauty, and rich comic delivery,” but summed up her piece—about Blaine’s struggle with her mother’s crack addiction—as “90 percent standup and 10 percent bathos.” Back Stage West’s Madeleine Shaner agreed that the show’s “stream-of-consciousness writing does not lend itself to a perceptible dramatic arc” and constructively offered that “it needs tighter structuring.” Still, Shaner felt that “the truth shines out” of Blaine’s “heartfelt… pleasantly familiar tale.”

Shaner was also the odd one out on TAKE ME OUT at the Geffen Playhouse. Richard Greenberg’s Tony winner about a pro baseball player coming out as gay was met with a Times Critic’s Choice (Don Shirley’s review is no longer available online) and with approval of the Weekly’s Steven Leigh Morris, who wrote that director Randall Arney had forged a “gentle, eloquent production that snags the characters’ contradictions with tender humor.” BSW’s <Shaner conceded many of the the production’s charms but quibbled that the Greenberg shouldn’t assume that “baseball-ese is everyone's first language,” and she wrote this his “dialogue has little to do with the way jocks, or anyone without a script, talk, but it's poetry for the literary senses, and when it gets real in Act Two, it's as stirring as a winning homer.” She cagily closed with the caveat “what might be considered a surfeit of in-your-face male nudity, extreme wordiness, and flawed dramaturgy--which consists mainly of narration--lessen the play's effect.” For his part, the Weekly’s Morris admitted that “the author’s intellectual voice is perhaps too pronounced in a play about jocks… but a play is a play, after all.”

Now there’s a suitably uncontroversial closer.

NEXT: The "mixed positives."

Not So "Grand" Word of Mouth

I’ll preface this post by saying I haven’t seen GRAND HOTEL at the Colony, but the coincidence is too strong: I received two unsolicited, and strongly negative, opinions from a pair of actresses whose opinion I respect within the space of a few hours.

The first was an actress I ran into while reviewing another play. She asked me if I’d seen GRAND HOTEL, and then gave her own review: “Horrible.” She thought the 90-minute intermissionless version excised any of the darker shades that made the original interesting. She did add that Michael Eisner was sitting behind her, and that he and the rest of the audience leapt to their feet at show's end.

The Twilight Zone” is how another actress whose opinion I take seriously described her feeling of disconnect between the show’s quality and the audience’s reaction; her email was waiting for me when I got home. “Truly pathetic… like a high-priced high school production that managed to get a few really good actors involved with a really bad director.”

Ouch! She got specific: “The telephone scenes are blocked behind the columns, and the big love scene is played, standing, downstage center. I couldn't see ANY of the actors during the telephone scene because I was seated on the side, and saw only the Baron's back in the love scene. There was a perfectly good piece of furniture onstage that was completely ignored. The Ballerina's song involved her swooping about the stage flailing her arms. It was like watching the lower-ranked figure skaters at the Olympics.” So she was stunned, she said, when the audience greeted this with a standing O. “Are L.A. audiences really so used to bad theatre that something mediocre strikes them as great?”

The reviews have been mostly stellar (scroll down), I should point out. And we all know that actors can be their peers’ harshest critics. I was just too struck by this pair of non-recommendations to let them pass without comment—and of course, this kind of disagreement among theatregoers is exactly the sort of thing that will make me more, not less, likely to check into this GRAND HOTEL.

I’ll keep you posted.

UPDATE: In case you're wondering, I don't plan on making a habit of publishing unattributed negative comments about shows I haven't seen. I'll make the choice to do so--or to post unsolicited recommendations, for that matter--on a case-by-case basis.

Oct 24, 2004

Long Memories

“The Greeks and Shakespeare never wrote an original play,” proclaims Charles L. Mee Jr. in a provocative piece in today’s Sunday Times. His PERFECT WEDDING opens the new Kirk Douglas Theatre (a.k.a. the Spartacus Theatre) on Nov. 7. He’s now among the most-produced playwrights in the country, including here in L.A., where his BERLIN CIRCLE opened the Evidence Room’s Downtown space 1999, whose BIG LOVE was a hit at Pacific Resident Theatre, and whose WINTERTIME (oops--see note below) was a much-underrated recent delight at the Boston Court. Mee goes into some detail in explaining what might be called a post-structuralist (or is simply structuralist?) theory of creativity: “The culture writes us first, and then we write our stories… Whether we mean to, the work we do is both received and created, both an adaptation and an original at the same time. We re-make things as we go.” He talks about a phenomenon we’ve all felt, in this information-saturated time: how in political arguments with friends he realizes he and they are often simply spouting and recycling things they’ve read, heard on TV, etc. That’s OK, Mee says, and maybe it’s why his plays also resonate with audiences: With their mix of (in Mee’s list) “songs and dances, pieces of found text, overheard conversations, classical plays, dances from Bollywood, opinions that come straight off a television talk show, stuff from the Internet. My plays feel like my life — a life lived inside my head and in the world at the same time.”

Also in the today’s Times are a pair of letters taking issue with Mary McNamara’s recent profile of Peter Schneider, the former Disney studio chief and theatrical impresario who directed GRAND HOTEL at the Colony. One, by former Colony publicist Bob Canning, justifiably slams Schneider’s former colleague Tom Schumacher for dissing the 276-seat Colony as an “equity-waiver theatre.” (I found Schumacher’s implied comparison of doing L.A. theatre to a “Waiting for Guffman thing” even more offensive.) The other recalls that while at Disney, Schneider once similarly dismissed L.A. theatre as, according to letter writer Will Campbell, “little more than a theatrical wasteland.”

And people say no one in this town remembers anything older than last week’s box-office figures.

UPDATE: Apparently my own memory is pretty short. As Ravi's comment points out, it was SUMMERTIME, not WINTERTIME, that ran at the Boston Court earlier this year. I've left the error intact in the spirit of full disclosure. And why am I not surprised that Ravi was the first to comment here?

The Ironies of Being Earnest

Has L.A. got religion? There seems to be a recent mini-bumper crop of shows that don’t just treat the topic of religion but give it a kind of earnest, un-cynical reckoning, whether their creators’ intention is to satirize its absurdity, interrogate its purpose, even simply celebrate it.

To me this approach couldn’t be more welcome; as a lifelong Lutheran who went to a Jesuit high school—in other words, as someone who was raised in two of the more benign, un-stark Christian traditions, in my view—I’ve always taken religion, and the case for and against it, more seriously than many of my educated friends, while at the same trying to recognize that for many of them religion looks like mania at best, fascism at worst. Many folks I know either have reasonably rebelled against a harsher tradition than the one I’ve known, or have simply taken at face value the uglier aspects of ascendant fundamentalism. To me, the latter is just a lamentable sign that in the battle to define religious observance, the hard-liners always win in popular perception as the most devout, the most representative of the “true” core of the faith, with the rest of us mainliners being somehow lapsed or watered-down from the “real” thing. Bruce Bawer has an excellent, justifiably shrill book on this, Stealing Jesus; for him as for me, it’s nails on a chalkboard to hear the Christian right and its political agenda called simply “Christian.” Whatever you think of that so-called “family values” platform, it’s simply not true that it represents any monolithic “Christian” worldview. (This would be news, for instance, to Martin Marty, Peter Gomes, or Huston Smith, three wise, circumspect old men who don’t lead a movement--though maybe they should.)

Which is why I respect Julia Sweeney’s LETTING GO OF GOD so much, and why it often reduced me to helpless giggles. She takes on the topic from the inside rather than scoffing from the outside; as she says late in the show, as she bids farewell to the deity she’s decided she can no longer believe in: “It’s because I take you so seriously that I can’t bring myself to believe in you. That’s really sort of a compliment, don’t you think?” It is, and it’s a compliment to the audience, too.

This more straight-faced approach is also behind two other much-talked-about new shows, HOLLYWOOD HELL HOUSE and A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT. I wrote an article on these two plays for Weekly Variety, which has not appeared (and may never, apparently), in which the comment of SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT co-creator/director Alex Timbers seems like these shows’ central principle: “Almost all the information in the show is taken from their own literature. We thought that the best way to satirize the Church of Scientology was to let the Church speak for itself.”

Likewise the creators of HOLLYWOOD HELL HOUSE, Maggie Rowe and Jill Soloway, have used as their raw material actual text from real fundamentalist “hell houses”—Halloween walk-throughs that use blood and guts and special effects to illustrate the wages of such sins as homosexuality, abortion, Harry Potter, raves, or happening to have the wrong religion. Among the leading impresarios of these scarefests is Pastor Keenan Roberts at Destiny Church in Arvada, Colo., from whom Rowe bought a “hell house” kit for a “youth group in West Hollywood.” When I spoke to Pastor Roberts, he was upset that Rowe had misrepresented herself, and he was miffed above all that the HOLLYWOOD version didn’t represent the full production value of his original. He wasn’t particularly bothered by the fact that Rowe and co.’s intention was to satirize his fire-and-brimstone beliefs—indeed, he said he was grateful for the publicity for his own “hell house” kits.

That would seem to be a danger of doing this stuff with a relatively straight face; Rowe told me she’s had Christian fundamentalists attend and not get the joke: “We’ve had a couple of Christain groups come and think it’s a real hell house. We had a woman come up to us and tell us, ‘You are doing such a good thing. Girls need to know what happens if they get an abortion or go to a rave. This is such a great service!’ ” Rowe, herself a more-or-less recovered Baptist, laughs a little uneasily at this, but for Timbers and SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT co-creator/playwright Kyle Jarrow, this kind of misunderstanding is the highest tribute such a satire can receive. Said Timbers: “The basic principle that guides us is that the ultimate sign of success would be if [the Church] embraces [‘Pageant’] and wants to stage it for themselves.” (That’s unlikely: the Church of Scientology spokeswoman I spoke to, Chel Stith, said dismissively, “This is nothing,” and then delivered the ultimate blow to the credibility of any Scientology critique: “This is not litigation material.”)

Towering above all these critiques and satires with its own extraordinary brand of earnestness is THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, a smashing example of an increasingly rare cultural commodity: unintentional camp on a grand scale. There’s no winking here, no self-conscious acknowledgement of its own cheesiness, which somehow makes it all the more stunning. I went because Weekly Variety was interested in a story from the scene of a purported train wreck—there were reports that its performances had been cut back in response to bad press, and fresh talk that its planned January run at Radio City Music Hall in New York has been “postponed.” (Souvenir item of the year is a $7 totebag, for sale in the Kodak lobby, with the “Val Kilmer IS Moses” artwork and the following optimistic itinerary: “Hollywood New York Chicago Boston Las Vegas.”) Frankly, it doesn’t look like a train wreck; it looks a well-oiled vehicle utterly confident of its destination. It’s a crazy train, surely, but it shows no signs of going off the rails.

That is, except in the lead performance of Val Kilmer, who seems genuinely humbled by the scale of the show. He’s not a natural stage performer; he has a reticence that can draw us in on-screen, and while it’s often weirdly compelling onstage, he seems to be not entirely present but simply lets the show wash over him and take him. At one point on the night I saw it, while the cast was booming a closing number about saying a prayer for the children (favorite lyric, from the just-down-from-Sinai-with-the-tablets Moses: “Beyond right and wrong, we’re all the same”), Kilmer put his head down and stopped singing for about 30 seconds, either in sincere prayer or exhaustion. You just don’t see this on American Idol.

Spotted in the audience, by the way, was hack director Joel Schumacher, no doubt collecting ideas for the next Batman movie (though he bolted at intermission after buying a bag full of souvenir items), and Carson from Queer Eye, surely picking up some fashion don’ts.

And so the stages of L.A.—home of everything from the Kabbalah Center to the Zen Center, from the Lake Shrine to my own spiritual home of choice—is talking the talk, and walking the walk (or catwalk, as the case may be), of the region’s rich spiritual life.

Can I get a witness?

If God Were Dead, He'd Be Rolling in His Grave

“There’s a shadow on this house
You can turn this thing around.”

“We think his God is real
You better strike a deal.”

“This really ain’t that funny.”

--lyrics from “The Ten Commandments,” a.k.a. “Val Kilmer IS Moses”

Coming soon: A real post about a mini-spate of earnest religion-themed shows in L.A.

Oct 23, 2004

Ravi Recommends

I don't agree with all his assessments, but the notoriously passionate L.A. theatre maven Ravi Narasimhan is always worth listening to. He's got a recommendation for a show I won't be able to see due to previous commitments, but I thought I'd post his rave for anyone who's up for it:

"I wanted to notify you about a spectacular one-woman performance of Sophocles's ANTIGONE taking place at the International Latino Theatre Festival which opened this weekend at the indoor space of the John Anson Ford Theatre. Teresa Ralli, a legendary actress from Peru, delivers a spellbinding performance in a poetic adaptation of the Greek text by Jose
Watanabe. She assumes and expresses all of the major roles with a
voice alternately booming as Creon and soft as Antigone with
dancelike physicality using only a couple of nondescript props. She
had the full house in her thrall from start to finish. Hers is a
rare gift and one not to be missed. She performs in Spanish with
supertitles projected in English. Ms. Ralli is part of the troupe
Yuyachkani, which has been a leading theatre company in Peru since
the mid-1970s. There are only two performances left, tonight (Saturday) at 8pm and a Sunday matinee at 3pm. Ticket availability may be difficult but it
is eminently worth the effort."

I've seen very few convincingly stirring productions of this play, which is so popular as a sort of "protest" statement (confusedly so, in my opinion), so if any of you go, let me know what you think.

Starting at the Top

Believe it or not but I’m usually flummoxed, nonplusssed, and otherwise stupid when people ask me, “So what should I see?” A recommendation is always, or should be, a personal thing; there are some shows I would recommend to one and all, regardless of genre or ticket price, and others I would recommend on a case-by-case basis (like, say, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, which is a must-see extravaganza for a certain kind of had-to-be-there culture vulture who can swing a comp ticket—namely, folks like me--but is to be avoided like a plague of frogs by most everyone else).

But now, after sputtering a few titles, I can point these on-the-spot questioners to this weblog, where they can sift for themselves (and follow the links for more info) and not take my word for it.

At the Times I have three categories by which I can rank shows: Critic’s Choice, Recommended, and Not Recommended. These rankings determine where in the Thursday and Sunday listings the shows appear (thankfully the “Not Recommended” shows are never stamped with that opprobium; you have to infer it by their not being included in the “Choice” or “Recommended” column). My informal guidepost for these three rough categories is: A “Critic’s Choice” is one of those shows everyone should see, a “Recommended” is for those who like that sort of thing (and one hopes at least a critic’s description of the show, apart from his opinion of it, will clue in like-minded readers), and “Not Recommended” is for family, friends, and other unlucky house-paperers.

As I get caught up with what will be my weekly Review of Reviews feature, I’ve started by summing up currently running shows that have received unanimous accolades in every venue I can find (again, the reviews in Variety still elude me, and I’ll redress that oversight in the future). These are shows which, if you haven’t seen already you should (and, in all too many cases, I must confess, so should I.)

For months running it’s been the must-see show of the year; it opened in May and is running through Dec. 18. Athol Fugard’s EXITS AND ENTRANCES at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood--a sort of two-person memoir/tribute to a late, great white South African actor who inspired him as a young man—is a Critic’s Choice in The Times, an LA Weekly Pick, and, though the review is no longer available online, a Critic’s Pick in Back Stage West (I know because I was that lucky critic’s non-reviewing “plus one” on opening night).
I was unclear, then, how Morlan Higgins, who gives in E&E the performance of a lifetime, could also appear in DEALING WITH CLAIR last weekend, and through December, at the Matrix. It’s double-cast, certainly, but don’t some of the performances overlap? I asked Fountain publicist Kim Garfield, who reported that Higgins must be appearing in DWC on Sun.-Tues. and in E&E Fri., Sat., and Sun. (a matinee). I’m still confused, since I saw Higgins in DWC on a Saturday night.
I bring all this up only because the Fugard play is not one in which to see an understudy; before you go to the Fountain, make sure that Morlan has not left the building. The play is beautiful but Higgins’ performance is the show here.

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 tiny Black Dahlia Theatre in midtown L.A. has bloomed into a reliable desination for the sort of plays you’d expect to see at South Coast’s old Second Stage or Off-Broadway. The Dahlia’s newest, the L.A. premiere of David Schulner’s affecting AN INFINITE ACHE, details the rise and fall and gentle denouement of a marriage with deceptively simple stagecraft, and the performances of Steven Klein and Suzy Nakamura are dead-on. The Times’ David C. Nichols called it "a deft populist construct with wisdom at its core”; the LA Weekly’s Lovell Estell III labeled it “a richly dimensional portrait of love in all its emotional, psychological and spiritual layers,” and Back Stage West’s Dink O’Neal praised the actor’s “unhurried choices and some of the best technical wizardry I've ever seen in a venue this intimate,” referring to Christopher Siebels’ extraordinarily versatile set. It may not be a first-date play, but it’s a surefire take-someone-you-love thing.

Believers and non-believers alike should rush to Julia Sweeney’s new one-woman show LETTING GO OF GOD at the Hudson Backstage in Hollywood, in which she recounts her journey from a comfortable Catholic faith to a less comfortable but more honest state of disbelief. I called it "brave, hilarious, and ultimately moving" in my Times review, while Back Stage West's Wenzel Jones pleaded that his "vocabulary is deficient in superlatives" (well, he was able to come up with "the funniest, most insightful show to have played the area in quite some time"). The Weekly's Steven Mikulan, always a cool customer, described the show as "at times... gruesomely funny" (which he means as a compliment, don't you know), and though he found it overstuffed with information, he allowed it this negative virtue: it "avoids the stagy, existential-lite moping associated with such public quests." Well, thank God--or whatever--for that.

The impish Leslie Jordan’s solo show, the colorfully titled LIKE A DOG ON LINOLEUM at the Elephant Asylum Theatre in Hollywood, recounts his growing up gay in the Deep South. Back Stage West’s Paul Birchall, no pushover he, gushed that Jordan “has the audience eating out of his hand from the first to last, and his assured script engrossingly balances revelation with the ability to entertain.” The Weekly's Martín Hernández riffed on Jordan’s title, comparing his “endearing and boundless energy” to a that of a chihauhua. And The Time’s David C. Nichols raved that “this compact dynamo pulls us into his confidence with house-shaking hilarity and heart-tugging candor.”

Glendale’s A Noise Within has apparently found fresh life in Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, according to Back Stage West’s Travis Michael Holder, who praised the production’s “remarkable starkness and a muscular simplicity,” and the Weekly’s Sandra Ross, who called it a "sumptuous, visually arresting production," noting that "Angela Balogh Calin’s whimsical, inventive sprite costumes explode in a riot of Day-Glo colors." Cool.

Among the most intensely discusssed offerings in town is Tom Jacobson’s OUROBOROS at North Hollywood’s Road Theatre. It’s a play about the spiritual quest of two American couples in Italy that runs its scenes in reverse order on alternate weekends to create two separate evenings under the titles, “A Nun’s Tale” and “A Priest’s Tale.” The Times’ erudite Philip Brandes wrote that director Michael Michetti’s “impeccable staging makes it easy to appreciate this new work in all its dazzling ingenuity.” The Weekly’s equally thoughtful Steven Leigh Morris called the play(s) an “enchanting metaphysical etude… a highbrow Twilight Zone and a comedy of opposites ever so carefully and symmetrically balanced.” Back Stage West has it listed as a Critic’s Pick but the review is no longer available online.

Likewise, THE TANGLED SNARL & MURDER ME ONCE, a double bill of film noir spoofs, has unanimous picks and raves but only one review is still available online, the Weekly’s, by Martín Hernández, who calls its “uproarious,” mixing “Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Mel Brooks” under James Reynolds’ direction.

Finally, 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.

Next update: Such critical “split decisions” as DORIAN, HOLLYWOOD HELL HOUSE, and THE HOMECOMING.

Oct 22, 2004

Sometimes it's a sad little town

Just had my LA Times assignment for tonight changed at the last minute. It looks like I'll be heading off to the Odyssey to see Conquest of the North Pole, directed by Steve Pickering, whose Among the Thugs (scroll down) was a highlight of last year's theatre.

The thing is, when I chatted with Don Shirley, who gives me my assignments, about the play I had originally been assigned and for which I'd reserved tickets, which will now be reviewed by another critic later in the weekend, Don told me that the show's publicist said something like, "Now, hypothetically, a show that's not selling out might try to fill the house on the night the Times critic comes..." In other words, the producers of the show I won't be seeing tonight (which shall remain nameless here) have no doubt been scrambling over the last hour to call their friends and get them to reschedule for the performance at which the Times critic will show.

This can be a cruel business–even, say, a wicked one.

Quote for a Day

I hesitate to say "quote for the day," because that sounds like there will be one every day, and what if I run out of good quotes? I don't want to be a tease.

"Old songs are more than tunes. They are little houses in which our hearts once lived." –Ben Hecht

Making My Entrance Again

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."