Feb 20, 2005

Catch Up If I Can

Apologies for the light blogging. I had a couple of big features due this past week—check the Sunday Calendar on Feb. 27 for my piece on music man David O, and check newsstands in March (I think) for my piece on Martin Landau for a new magazine called Moving Pictures.

I'm in the midst of a four-show weekend—well, a long weekend, if you count Monday evening—so I have time only for an abbreviated version of my Review of Reviews. I've been diligently gathering the notices for the past two weeks (yes, I'm that far behind), and what I can offer is the following brisk sum-ups of everything that's out there, sans links (those take at least a third of the time with these things) but more or less in order of most recommended to least liked…

Snagging a pair of strong reviews is Dael Orlandersmith's YELLOWMAN, at the Fountain Theatre through Mar. 26. This tragedy set in the 1960s South, according to Steven Mikulan, is "a bruising journey through intra-racial bigotry and alcohol-fanned resentments." He found Orlandersmith’s writing "by turns profane and sentimental, cruel and soothing," and Shirley Jo Finney's direction "assured." Back Stage West's Madeleine Shaner likewise wrote that "this scorching memory play attacks its theme with a raw passion that never cringes from its uncomfortable truth," directed with "enormous power and insight" by Shirley Jo Finney. Both critics unstintingly praised leads Diedrie Henry (whom I witnessed do extraordinary work over a few seasons at Oregon Shakes—it's good to have her here) and Chris Butler.

"The Actors’ Gang of lore"—and of yore—is recalled, according to the Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris, by director Jon Kellam's new commedia-style TARTUFFE, through Apr. 9. "From the opening tableaux, the ensemble seizes the stage and never lets go," Morris continues, quibbling only that Kellam "draws out his puppet-show style at the expense of momentum, so that this silken classic sometimes feels like it’s made of burlap." (I noticed a rather ticklish typo, though: Morris referred to title performer Andrew Wheeler's "facial ticks," which we must assume in context is praise for Wheeler's skillful twitching, not cause for the city health department to check in on the Actors' Gang's dressing rooms.) Back Stage West's Hoyt Hilsman had no problems with Kellam's take, calling it "a lively and effervescent rendition of Moliere's encomium to religious hypocrisy." (Doesn't Hoyt mean "satire of"?) And, praising David Ball's "sassy" new translation, the Times' David C. Nichols raved that "Jon Kellam's staging ingests the un-PC vulgarity, civic point and wicked ad-libs of Ball's text with rapt vitality."

I added my encomiums to the generally positive reviews for THE KNIGHTS OF MARY PHAGAN, at Theatre 68 through Mar. 20. In the Times, I wrote that director Scott Mlodzinski's "powerful, unfussy staging" is "almost unavoidably meaty," given the subject matter—the disgraceful Leo Frank trial and lynching of 1913.

Garnering two reviews with a breathtaking contrast in critical authority was BAAL, staged by Yale Cabaret Hollywood at the M Bar through Mar. 6. In one corner, there was the Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris, who wrote that "Peter Mellencamp beautifully directs his own translation in a cabaret’s plush environs," and that as the womanizing lead poet, Elijah Alexander "has a James Dean charisma." Then there was Back Stage West's Jenelle Rae, who informs us in her lead that "Bertolt Brecht, one of the many playwrights who paved the way for 'experimental theatre,' used experimental techniques, such as 'irregular verse,' that were quite novel for their time." Wow! Her verdict: "For a fair price, the spectator can enjoy a tasty meal and flowing drinks… The show moves quickly, but, if one is not familiar with Brecht, it may be more cumbersome than it's worth. This is not the show one might expect at a dinner theatre, which may mislead those who are expecting something more traditional." I'm sure that irregular verse doesn't help with digestion.

Two out of three ain't bad for RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL, in a revival at the Hudson Mainstage through Mar. 13. Back Stage West's Terry Morgan called it this campy riff on stage ambition "delightfully twisted" and "hilarious," while the Weekly's Deborah Klugman wrote the show "pumps wry humor from a familiar theme." She did concede that "the show recycles the same jokes too often," while I, in my Times review, found the whole thing "a "flimsy, self-conscious exercise in low camp." None of us faulted the performers. (And let me make a correction here: I referred in my Times review to eight actresses—there are eight characters in the show but only six performers, one of them a man in drag. A girl can't help making mistakes now and then.)

The Colony Theatre's ACCOMPLICE, through Mar. 13, got evenly divided reviews, with the Daily News' Evan Henerson and Back Stage West's Terry Morgan in the plus column for Rupert Holmes' twist-heavy murder mystery/comedy, and myself (for the Times) and Variety's Joel Hirschhorn finding the show too clever for its own good, particularly in the suspense department.

Les Weider's SOJOURNER, at the Hudson Backstage through Mar. 27, was mostly cheered by critics, with Back Stage West's Dink O'Neal calling this "inspiring overview" of 19th century civil rights activist Sojourner Truth "a treat… a perfect balance of edifying artistry." The Weekly's Erin Aubry Kaplan did note that "the pitfall of this show is a tendency toward nobleness and historical line-readings," but she especially enjoyed Angeles Echols' "robust" take on Truth.

The production got raves, less so the show, in the case of FLOYD COLLINS, Adam Guettel and Tina Landau's musical about an early American trapped-in-a-well media frenzy, at West Coast Ensemble through Apr. 3. Echoing the consensus, The Times' David C. Nichols called lead actor Bryce Ryness "amazing" but noted a disconncet: "Guettel's shimmering songs propel, whereas Landau's gravelly book impedes." The same verb popped in Miriam Jacobson's Weekly review: "The musical’s corny tone impedes the suspense," she wrote. Back Stage West's Les Spindle pegged the problem as a lack of "thematic continuity," though we went out of his way to praise the effort as "one of West Coast Ensemble's most ambitious and accomplished efforts." Finally, Variety's Joel Hirschhorn similarly called it "a sensitively directed but problematic musical." (I must correct one statement in Joel's review: that this is the show's West Coast premiere. In fact it premiered at the Old Globe in 1999.)

Garnering respectable but mixed reviews is yet another play by Renaissance Man Dakin Matthews, THE SAVANNAH OPTION, at the New Place Theatre through Mar. 13. The Times' Philip Brandes raved that it's "refreshingly literate and articulate new play" about evolutionary psychology, with "insightful staging" by director Anne McNaughton that brings its "intellectual and emotional" elements "to an unexpectedly poignant convergence." Back Stage West's Terri Roberts, starting her review with one of her classic deep-thought generalizations ("Hurt clashes with fear, sorrow smacks up against despair, and grief concerning what has been lost colors everything"), admired the play's "cerebral exchanges" but yearned for it to explore more than the "single-minded landscape of the head alone." Meanwhile, the Weekly's Steven Mikulan groused that the lead characters' "chats usually sound like seminars."

Getting respectable if not ecstatic reviews is THE CHEKHOV MACHINE at the Open Fist through Mar. 5. The Weekly's Neal Weaver called this free-flowing discourse by and about Chekhov's dissatisfied characters "a fascinating experiment," and Back Stage West's Madeleine Shaner likewise labeled it "a swirling, funny, very human coming-together." The Times' Philip Brandes was less sanguine, calling the result of playwright Matei Visniec and Florinel Fatulescu's efforts "a mixed bag: an atmospheric, edgy and often provocative journey whose limitations nevertheless become obvious in comparison with its source of inspiration."

PROOF at East West Players through Mar. 6 has gotten a strange mix of positive, mixed-positive, and one outright negative review. What's strange is the lack of consensus on key elements: The Times' Lynne Heffley loved the lead performance of Kimiko Gelman, while Back Stage West's Wenzel Jones found the performance "oddly costume-dependent, " and the Daily News' Katherine Karlin called her "an acquired taste." Most critics enjoyed the performance of David J. Lee as her love interest. The overall verdict: Jones called it "a vexingly inconsistent outing of David Auburn's lovely play," while Karlin called it "a beautiful staging of a top-drawer play," Heffley called it an "accessible new staging" that "plays up the intimacy, placing the resonance of familial and personal tragedy at the forefront." Only Luis Reyes at the Weekly questioned the merit of Auburn's Pulitzer winner—"a bland account," he called it—while also deploring a production "pocked with awkward blocking." Still, it must be doing well for East West, as the Mar. 6 closing date is an extension.

Another baffling critical Rorschach is Peter Hall's staging of AS YOU LIKE IT at the Ahmanson Theatre through Mar. 27. Previous reviews have been divided; newer ones follow the trend, with the Daily News' Evan Henerson calling it a "troubling production… a perilous journey" that emphasized the piece's "melancholy" at the expense of "zip," and the Weekly's Neal Weaver finding it "a handsome production, spoken with clarity and élan, and expertly acted," whose main liability was its length and its "dangerous reliance on charm." The Orange County Register's Paul Hodgins likewise had problems with the show's butt-testing duration, writing that "after three hours, the heavy green canopy of Arden turns oppressive."

I grumpily weighed in on BUS STOP at Fremont Centre Theatre through Mar. 20. Other critics enjoyed it but I found Inge's play "almost cartoonishly corny" in patches, and director Matthew Solari's production "faithful, plodding."

Not quite getting ringing endorsements was BROTHER JONES at the Lyric Hyperion Theatre through Feb. 25. Garth Stein's family-reunion drama, according to the Weekly's Tom Provenzano, "sounds like a less poetic Tennessee Williams, with characters brimming with intensity." He concluded: "The entire spectacle moves from provoking an initial sense of overacting to a final realization of bravura performances." Back Stage West's Jennie Webb wasn't persuaded; she wrote that this premiere staging "is even more dysfunctional than the relationships onstage."

Critics shrugged at the Sinatra revue MY WAY, at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through Feb. 27. Back Stage West's Melinda Schupmann was quite disappointed, calling it a "surprisingly bland picture" of a colorful man, a "tame anthology." The Times' Daryl H. Miller likewise labeled the show, directed by Nick DeGruccio, "swank if insubstantial."

Getting some of the worst reviews of the year is a show variously called QUEEN AND FRIENDS (in the LA Weekly) and QUEEN OF THE BLUES (in Back Stage West), at the Stella Adler through Mar. 13. The Weekly's reliable Amy Nicholson led the charge, writing that Jerry Jones' musical-revue bio of Dinah Washington, not to be confused with the Yvette Freeman vehicle Dinah Was, is burdened with "leaden pacing, lack of plot and surfeit of middling talent," which she called "a pity, because Margarett Floyd invests her Dinah with the randy sass of an original diva (before the definition was reduced to prima donna) and a sinuous voice that could transfix a lion." Back Stage West's Jeff Favre was more blunt, calling the show "an unmitigated disaster" and "a disgrace." (Nicholson, by the way, also related a horrifying fact: that the show started 50 minutes late on the night reviewed. What a difference a near-hour makes.)

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