Jan 31, 2005

Happier Returns: Review of Reviews, Vol. 2

Things are looking up after last week's brutal Review of Reviews. Without further ado, here's all the notices that were fit to print (I've made one update, adding a summary of reviews for Ethel Merman's Broadway):

Critics were very happy about HAPPY END, at Pacific Resident Theatre through Mar. 27. The Times' David C. Nichols' hailed director Dan Bonnell's production of this Brecht/Weill semi-classic as often "fantastic, beyond belief" (a well-applied quote from the show's "Bilbao-Song"), the cast nailing the show's "social satire and music-hall moxie." Back Stage West's Les Spindle wrote that the show "triumphs on all levels," leading off his review with an illuminating comparison: "Not since David Schweizer's inspired 1999 Actors' Gang revival of the chestnut Broadway have we seen such a flawless re-creation of 1920s-era musical-comedy stylization." The Weekly's Lovell Estell III agreed that Bonnell's "stylized touch is "a delight from start to finish," though he also makes the dubious claim that the piece represents "a delightful departure from Brecht's otherwise gloomy theatrical vision." So much so, in fact, that Brecht disowned it and put a pseudonym (the non-existent "Dorothy Lane") on the libretto. Whatever—I've sat through some pretty two-bit (or threepenny) stagings of this gangster drama just to hear the Weill score. How nice to hear that at last there's a production with something to relish between the musical numbers.

Corroborating the raves for the Chance Theatre's Maltby/Shire revue CLOSER THAN EVER was the Orange County Register's Eric Marchese, who wrote that the troupe beautifully rises to the challenge of the show's mix of "sophistication, cynicism and raw emotional vulnerability."

Receiving all-around critical hallelujahs is Tom Jacobson's THE ORANGE GROVE, at Westwood's Lutheran Church of the Master through Feb. 20. Grafting the valedicory framework of Chekhov's Cherry Orchard onto the sad tale of a disintegrating Lutheran congregation to my mind takes "special leap of imagination—a leap of faith, even," as I wrote in the Times, but I found Jacobson's deft writing and director Jessica Kubzansky's powerhouse cast up to the challenge of this "vivid, despairing portrait of a community in decline." Back Stage West's Travis Michael Holder was even more ecstatic, calling Jacobson's play "sweetly simple yet richly complex" and hailing the result of Kubzansky's work with a "remarkable cast" as "theatrical ambrosia." For my part, I desperately wish I'd had more space to parse and reflect on this extraordinary play and its many resonances—space that the Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris will almost certainly devote to the play, if there's any justice in this fallen world.

Audiences can't seem to get enough of funny nuns, and a new edition of Dan Goggin's NUNSENSE, at Hollywood's Theatre West Mar. 6, has been greeted warmly by critics, as well. "Unapologetically silly as ever," wrote the Times Philip Brandes of the production, singling out the "amusingly dotty" Betty Garrett, in the newly added role of Sister Julia, Child of God, and Barbara Malloy as Sister Mary of Amnesia. Back Stage West's Dink O'Neal noted that the show "may have seen crisper productions" than this, but it's a "must-see" solely for the opportunity to witness the "octogenarian powerhouse" Garrett strut her stuff. And the Weekly's Neal Weaver concluded that "the humor ranges from the outrageous to the primitive, but it’s undeniably funny."

"A rip-roaring exercise in devoted replication," as the Times' David C. Nichols put it, pretty much sums how critics feel about Rita McKenzie's ETHEL MERMAN'S BROADWAY, which reopens (after a run at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse) this week at the El Portal Theatre—excuse, me the "San Fernando Valley Playhouse," through Feb. 13. "McKenzie inhabits the gestures, expressions and bombastic energy of her subject as easily as she displays costumer Eric Winterling's glitzy get-ups," Nichols continued. Back Stage West's Les Spindle similarly raved that McKenzie "convincingly channels the famous belter, tapping into her humorous, egocentric, and notoriously brassy persona." Craving a bit less devotion and a bit more sass was Variety's Joel Hirschhorn, who wrote that the show's "uneven script… too often settles for reverence instead of the savage insight this legendary performer requires," though he related that the second act "wisely drops attempts to make Merman lovable."

Receiving strong notices was a children's entertainment that reportedly transcends the usual kiddie fare, FRACTURED FAIRY TALES FROM THE EAST, at the NoHo Arts Center through Feb. 26. Evan Henerson found writer/director Robert Kuhlman's adaptations of several Asian folk tales "quite delightful" and the cast "individually and collectively charming." Back Stage West's Terri Roberts hailed the show's "sense of sophistication mixed in with the goofiness, and nary a trace of condescending attitude." For her part, the Times' Lynne Heffley wrote that while the show "could be tighter," the "exotic tale-spinning is well-fueled with sly humor, varied, multilevel staging and skilled performances by an adult cast."

Critics welcomed Reprise!'s revival of the 1970s pop-musical sensation PIPPIN, at the Freud Playhouse through Feb. 6. The Times' Daryl Miller wrote that while the "Summer of Love vibe and Renaissance faire trappings freeze the show in time," it's still "fairly exhilarating," with director Gordon Hunt and choreographer evoking the "Fosse style" of the original " even as they personalize the production." The Daily News' Evan Henerson, who amusingly informs us that "Stephen Schwartz's score kicks serious tail," finds it "in fine mettle" under music director Gerald Sternbach, and while he admired lead actor Michael Arden and an ensemble that's "one of the most solid a Reprise! production has assembled," he quibbled with the casting of Sam Harris in the Ben Vereen-created role of Lead Player, whom he found "unpleasant more often than… seductive." We breathlessly await the pronouncements of Back Stage West's musical theatre maven Les Spindle, and—if he got the assignment—the Weekly's equivalent, Tom Provenzano.

Pasadena's Furious Theatre returns to form with Neil Labute's THE SHAPE OF THINGS, at its new Balcony Theatre Upstairs space (over the Pasadena Playhouse) through Feb. 20. The Times' David C. Nichols called it "icily effective," though he quibbled that "the sharp players sculpt the abrasive idiom with clinical precision, which causes some lapses in tempo." Back Stage West's Jeff Favre admired what he called director Damaso Rodriguez's "steady but appropriately deliberate pace," while pointing out that this may not be the misanthropic LaBute's best work. Frankly, his description of the play's overblown climax—"like someone stepping on an ant 20 or 30 times"—describes more or less my feeling about the majority of LaBute's rotely cynical exercises in bleaker-than-thou playmaking.

Big-name authors Penn Jillette and Steven Banks (of SpongeBob fame) drew critics to LOVE TAPES, at the Sacred Fools Theatre through Feb. 20, with high expectations. The Times' Philip Brandes found that despite its "edgy, outrageous" trappings, it's a "surprisingly sweet, old-fashioned love story" marred by a distracting audience-participation gimmick and a "disappointingly facile resolution." Back Stage West's Jeff Favre agreed, big-time, about the inadequate ending, but praised "fearless, multifaceted performances that are funny and heartwarming" and "Jessie Marion's loose, free-floating direction."

Writer/performer Charlayne Woodard's slave-narrative drama FLIGHT, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through Feb. 13, got respectfully mixed reviews, with the Daily News' Evan Henerson registering the most enthusiasm. He wrote that director Robert Egan's production "isn't just a good yarn; it's seamlessly performed and, on more than one occasion, rather heartbreaking." The Times' Lynne Heffley was a little less ecstatic, missing Woodard's presence in the cast and lamenting a "pedantic emphasis" in the writing, though she did describe some of the folk tales as being "salty, soulful and alive with wit. Back Stage West's Dany Margolies opined that Flight is "stitched together with the hand of a fine seamstress" but wrote that Egan's "static, cramped, and unimaginative staging" keeps the show "earthbound."

The Weekly's Deborah Klugman joined the consensus on Emily Mann's ANNULLA, at the Eclectic Company Theatre through Feb. 26. She wrote that the "warm, engaging presence" of lead actress Eileen De Felitta overcame Mann's writing, which "unfortunately comes laminated with schmaltz and a youthful writer’s adulation."

Steven Dietz's riff on The Seagull, THE NINA VARIATIONS at Company Rep in NoHo through Feb. 19, received kind but mixed reviews, with the Weekly's excellent Amy Nicholson admiring the show the most, calling it an "audacious experiment" that "sorta re-imagines, but more precisely re-fractures" The Seagull's final Nina/Treplev encounter. She thought that director Hope Alexander's extra-textual concept of splitting Nina among three actresses "is a gamble" but that the director makes it "pay off." In my Times review, I noted that while "Dietz's irreverent wit comes through in spades," particularly in the "fretfully funny" performance of Alan Altshuld as Treplev, the triple-Nina idea "proves more distracting than revealing," particularly because in the young Khamara Pettus, we have all the Nina we need. Back Stage West's Terri Roberts had no problem with the triplicate Nina and very much enjoyed Dietz's play, even though she felt that the competent actors "never quite rise to the remarkable height of his writing."

Two critics were split on the effectiveness of Reza de Wet's AFRICAN GOTHIC, at the Elephant Theatre through Feb. 20. While the Weekly's Erin Aubry Kaplan recognized the "real possibilities" of this mysterious play about incestuous siblings on an isolated South African homestead, she wrote that "midway through you hear the strain of all the muscle attempting to move this thing, physically and emotionally." Meanwhile, Back Stage West's Madeleine Shaner, while conceding that the characters' "weirdly disturbing relationship keeps the first act on its mystified toes," found the play, under Tamsin Rothschild's direction, "a stunning experience."

I feel even more alone on the topic of ANNA IN THE TROPICS, at Pasadena Playhouse through Feb. 13. I still stand by my qualified rave of the production, but the Weekly's Tom Provenzano shared my colleagues' distaste for it, writing that director "Richard Hamburger’s heavy-handed production rings hollow."

Joining his colleagues in praising the messenger but not the message of THE BLACKER THE BERRY THE SWEETER THE JUICE, at the Zephyr Theatre through Feb. 13, was Variety's Joel Hirschhorn, who agreed that while writer/performer Mario Burrell is "a triple-threat talent," his "unfocused, episodic" solo show "does him a disservice."

Agreeing with his colleagues that LYSISTRATA, D.C., at the Stella Adler Theatre through Feb. 5, is "short on talent," the Weekly's Martín Hernandez nevertheless found more forgiving words for this anti-war romp, concluding memorably: "Like a fuzzy kitten, it is cute, fluffy and very immature, so if you’re allergic to such things, it might be best to stay away."

The menu AT THE BROADWAY CAFÉ WITH SUBERB & FINE, at the Odyssey Theatre through Feb. 20, was found to be a bit lean by most critics. While the Weekly's Lovell Estell III admitted that John Cristy Ewing's drama about two old friends reminiscing "is not without charm," and that occasionally the dialogue is "cracking with humor," the show amounts to "a wispy sojourn." Back Stage West's Jenell Rae (a brand-new critic, as far as I can tell) was less forgiving, writing that while "the acting is at times noteworthy," the play's "fragmented scenes, contrived characters, and overused clichés about L.A. make the show seem to drag out over a short period."

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