Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.
Category Archives: Blog
September 30, 2018Posted by on
Fate plays tricks on one, now and again. Change can arrive bidden or unbidden, and the consequences are not always predictable. Take this site, for instance. Originally my son arm-twisted me into creating it, concerned that the medium of print news was disappearing. Still, my theatrical critiques continued to appear in the Pasadena Star-News, the first daily I ever wrote for, as well as other related papers: a list which grew longer and longer as the parent company morphed into the Southern California News Group. The size of the once proud and independent Star-News shrank from a historic building bustling with reporters, editors, workers in the basement press room, and all the others who make a newspaper go, to three guys in the back of a modern building doing local reporting while everything else was handled by some editor or business exec at one of various other sites. Still, one of those editors (it changed over time) okay’d my assignments, and my critiques still showed up in print.
Now print news – at least major outlets’ version of it (NY Times, LA Times, Washington Post, etc.) – is making a comeback in the era of “Oh my God! What kind of crazy is going on in Washington?”, but the damage has already been done to the smaller papers, who have been bought and consolidated, and then consolidated again, until what were once the voices of local information have been homogenized nearly to the point of pointlessness. Online sources (Pasadena NOW, for instance) have taken over some of that, though their journalistic skill can vary greatly.
And what of coverage of the arts? In the case of the SCNG, the Lifestyle pages, once the home of critiques of theater, dance, restaurants, film, etc., are now all apparently controlled from a single desk for all papers in the chain. Local is out. This is why all theater criticism disappeared from those pages in August. They were still available online, though you had to be a detective to find them (as I heard over and over again from those who couldn’t figure out to get there). Then it was determined that too few people were visiting those online pages (see above, though that wasn’t apparently part of the discussion), and it was concluded that nobody wanted to read theater criticism anymore. So… no more critiques will be offered in any SCNG papers.
Thus it turns out my son’s urging was a very good thing. My reviews will still appear here, and linked to my new Facebook page, called rather obviously “Reviews by Frances Baum Nicholson”. There will be a monthly preview column which will appear in only the San Gabriel Valley-area papers as well, but it will be mostly a preview of what’s coming up, rather than any evaluative tool.
There may be other connections. I’m still looking into other avenues for my work to get out there. What will come of that I do not know. In the meantime, here I am. Please go to the “Contact the Author” section of this website to see how to receive word of reviews, go “like” my FB page, or subscribe by email in order to see what I’ve posted, if you are interested.
Thank goodness for the Internet, I guess. It is seen as being the death of the daily paper, but it has to be acknowledged as where the majority of Americans find their information these days. Of course, you do need to be careful and find trustworthy sources in order to avoid being led by the nose. In that vein, and to be helpful, I offer the chart below. Critiques or no, being able to access accurate information has never been more critical, and I find this chart, created by a nonpartisan organization, is valuable to have on hand. Yes, this is me wearing my “other hat” as a teacher of US government, but there ya go. Sometimes the two parts of my life blend.
July 27, 2018Posted by on
The classic screwball comedy films of the 1930s and 40s have remained popular from that time on because of four basic elements: the ridiculousness of the essential storyline, the crisp and evocative dialogue, the quality of and apt casting of the performers, and timing – always the fast-paced, pinpoint timing of the lines and scenes which makes the whole thing memorably funny. This is what playwright Norm Foster wants to celebrate in his play “Screwball Comedy,” now receiving its U.S. premiere at Theatre Forty in Beverly Hills.
Although Foster himself has created a play which honors all the above, with dialogue only slightly more ridiculous than the real thing, and just as deliciously improbable a plot, the current production does little with the rest. With a few exceptions the casting (or at very least character interpretation) is problematic, and the direction by Howard Storm profoundly uneven.
The play follows all the classic tropes. A rough-around-the-edges newspaper editor sends his star reporter (whose ego and nightlife have begun to erode his gifts) and an earnest young woman trying to get hired off to cover the society wedding of the son of the paper’s wealthy-widow owner. What they find is conniving on all fronts, which in turn leads to a certain amount of romantic sparks between the two.
The highlights of performance in this piece come mostly from the performers who seem to have grasped the timing aspect, even if those around them don’t always. Gail Johnston, as Jones, the editor’s secretary, is keen and consistently funny in ways one hopes the rest of the show will emulate. As the wealthy widow, Sharron Shayne has a flamboyance which works well, and an energy which powers points in the production which would otherwise wobble. As the son, hiding his gifts to keep his mother happy, Niko Boles charmingly underplays his part, making it stand out in lovely ways.
Although Lane Compton, as the egotistical ace reporter, has conquered the style of that specific kind of comedy part, he often plays against people whose timing is so slow it remains somewhat difficult to assess his gifts in that regard. As his supposed foil, the prospective cub reporter, Kate Whitney lacks that immediacy of delivery so necessary in this kind of script, where lines need to jump on top of each other to create the humor. As the gold digger trying to marry money, Jean Mackie also supplies little to play off of, as her way to embrace her character’s constant state of inebriation is to slow things down.
Daniel Leslie, as the editor, seems to struggle with his lines, though his characterization proves fitting. George Villas, as the man trying to marry the widow, is so off from the feel of the play he isn’t even giving his lines at the same volume as the rest, booming them out with overelaborate zest. David Hunt Stafford, as the grumpy, bumbling butler, is indeed funny, but funny like a recurring burlesque joke, and thus out of keeping with the rest of the tale.
Much of this lands at the feet of director Storm. Indeed, even among those doing a good job, they are flying solo – there is no sense of directorial coordination of the humor. On the other hand, the set by Jeff G. Rack uses the stage space remarkably well. The costuming by Michele Young misses at important moments, especially in over-dowdying Whitney’s character, though it generally seems to be roughly in that early 40s period. Brandon Baruch does a fine job with the lighting, absolutely necessary when you place different rooms on different parts of the set.
In short, there is nothing horribly wrong with “Screwball Comedy,” except that it doesn’t seem to have any feel of ensemble, and ensemble is what made the great screwball comedies work. It is sometimes quite funny, but not anywhere near as funny as it could easily have been.
What: “Screwball Comedy” When: Through August 19, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Reuben Cordova Theatre on the campus of Beverly Hills High School, 241 S. Moreno Drive in Beverly Hills How Much: $35. Info: (310) 364-0535 or www.theatre40.org
June 5, 2017Posted by on
It’s the start of June. It’s the start of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. It’s… well, there’s a lot of theater going on out there. So, why is nobody hearing from me? Because I’m not in Los Angeles at the moment.
As anyone who has read the “About Me” part of this blog-thing knows, I teach high school. Last week was finals week. Then Friday morning way, way, way too early, I got on a plane to Salt Lake City, Utah… not because I wanted to see the sites (though there are sites to see) but because I was meeting with over 700 other teachers and professors of US Government to score the nation’s Advance Placement American Government and Politics exams. This year there are 320,000 to be read.
I do this for a lot of reasons. First, I teach the course and the best way to know how to prepare my students is to see how students respond to the questions, how those essays are being evaluated (i.e.: what the rubric looks like), and what nuances are implied in the process of scoring which will let me read between the lines of what the people who write this stuff are really emphasizing.
I also came this year because the curriculum is changing, as is the test, in a year or so and I want to know lots of details about that.
And, of course, they are paying me. Not the only reason to come, but it helps.
I do not get to choose when this happens, and it just so happens that this time it completely coincides with the start of the great wave of show openings which become the Fringe every year. And the opening weekend of Whittier Community Theatre’s last show of the season. And a lot of other fascinating things.
So, I’m sorry to have been silent. Look for me again closer to the end of June, when I will be back in action. And in the meantime, go look at the Hollywood Fringe website, find something which looks interesting, and go. You can tell me all about it.
August 4, 2016Posted by on
I’ve been away, so let me catch you up. The last post I left here explained that I had gone in for a knee replacement (officially a “complete right knee arthroplasty” for those who embrace technical accuracy). And, that I did, on June 15.
I had no idea how long recovery would take, but got a reality check just before they wheeled me in, as the anesthesiologist explained “This is the most painful operation you can have, because of what they do to the bones, so don’t get behind on your pain medications afterward.” Truer words were never spoken. Now, seven weeks since the operation, I begin to feel like myself again, am off the prescription pain med, and – though a little shaky of balance, but improving – ready to resume something vaguely like a normal life.
I am seeing a couple of shows this coming weekend, and will post the reviews here as soon as is appropriate, given my contract with print media as well. Then, well, I may take some more time because my day job starts up again and I will have to measure my stamina to some extent. Anyway, every theater I usually cover is opening something in September, so you’ll be hearing a lot from me in the near future.
While in recuperation mode, I have been watching a lot of films made from plays. I have come up with some musings on the subject of when that works and when that doesn’t work… but I think I’ll save that for tomorrow. Suffice it to say that I’m really glad to be getting back to being creative, thanks in part to no longer being hindered by medication which – though necessary – left me really a bit fuzzy around the edges (I keep hearing my former husband, after receiving an opioid to enable a biopsy, saying “You mean people PAY to feel like this?!”).
With that fuzziness departed, I’m climbing, albeit slowly, back into the saddle. Thanks for hanging in there. Thank you also to those of you who sent sympathetic and/or encouraging messages. That was lovely. Now I can look forward to walking again without being distracted by constant knee pain. And that makes the rest of this summer worthwhile.
June 19, 2016Posted by on
Greetings. Just a word to let all those who read this blog know that I had knee replacement surgery on June 15. Because of this, and the recovery necessary to be able to sit comfortably in any chair, theatrical or otherwise (not to mention getting past the use of the walker which would make that even more complicated), I must take a short hiatus from theatrical reviewing.
I hope to be back in a few weeks, and will gladly make contact with all those companies/press reps who wish me to cover their productions as soon as I know I’ll be able to attend. In the meantime, enjoy your summer and may all your productions sparkle, or spark important thought, or both. Live theater is the true magic in the world.
June 7, 2016Posted by on
I have two children. They are grown now – one is about to turn 29, and the other is 25. Both are married – actually got married about two months apart. Both, as children, were members of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, touring Europe, singing with the L.A. Philharmonic, the Pasadena Symphony and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and becoming child chorus members (even featured performers) and supernumeraries in productions of the Los Angeles Opera.
Being a part of LACC taught them a lot, and not just about music. They acquired a sense of professional discipline, a more global world view (when I asked my daughter about singing at the Vatican, all she wanted to discuss was what it was like to be in the streets of Rome the night Italy won the World Cup), and the virtues and rewards of hard work. They also learned to love the process of theater, and both were in school musicals in high school long after they’d left LACC behind. My son, as he grew older, began to focus more on computers, though he now helps run a company which provides services to the film and television industry.
My 25-year-old daughter, who ran the stage crew through the latter half of high school, has landed closer to her family’s theatrical roots. (Her dad and I met in the drama department of the University of the Pacific.) A bit more than a week ago, she graduated from San Francisco State University as a Technical Theatre major. She helped operate the scene shop, ran or helped run shows large and small (the most recent, tech directing a full-blown production of “Urinetown”) and is a techie to the core.
During this past year she has also been an intern at San Francisco’s Circus Center, where people learn how to perform circus acts. Just after graduation, she jumped into a gig as a house manager for a music festival. And on it goes. In this industry what she has accomplished is important. She’s, well, a she. She’s not quite 5’5″. She doesn’t tower over people and she’s not the strongest person in the shop, but she has proved over and over again, in a very male-dominated part of the theater business, that she knows what she’s doing and can get it done.
So, I’m a very proud mom. Congratulations, Mary Kate Nicholson-White. Who knows where she will land eventually, as her husband is an active-duty Sergeant in the US Marine Corps. But wherever she goes, she will be the woman in the room who can use all kinds of power tools, build a stable structure (even a multi-story one), understand how to run a production, and… well… do a whole lot of behind-the-scenes things. Yup. That’s my girl.
August 3, 2015Posted by on
Over the past couple of months there has been a significant discussion in theater circles about the concept of basic theatrical etiquette. By this I do not mean how performers and/or crew behave backstage, but rather, the increasingly boorish actions of some audience members. The general question appears to have two foci: whether or not some audience members have forgotten how to appreciate a live performance in a group setting, and how addicted people in the US have become to electronics.
And here comes the moment when I begin to sound like a curmudgeon, which I really am not. However, my observations over time have made the most recent events in New York seem recognizable (regrettable, but recognizable), particularly when I see echoes of the behavior here, closer to home.
To begin, the problem of inattention or distraction due to electronics is not new. I can remember, a good 25 years ago and more, being startled to see parents take their tween children to shows, only to allow them to listen to their headphones the entire time. I kept wondering what made that experience any better than leaving a kid with a babysitter? And that was before the onset of our most addictive convenience, the cell phone.
Cell phones have become an increasing annoyance for actors and audience members alike. I can remember several searing moments of theatrical drama which were interrupted by a loud electronic cha-cha, deep in someone’s purse. And you know how that one goes: first the quieter but annoying music, then the dive-and-dig by the phone’s owner, leading to the much louder musical interlude before the phone can finally be silenced. Best of all is the person who just denies the call, and thus must face that exercise all over again about ten minutes later when the person at the other end calls back.
But now many of us Americans see phones as our appendages – something which must be on, or even out, all the time. YouTube is full of union-violating cell phone footage of, say, Idina Menzel’s last night as Elphaba in “Wicked,” or someone or other’s stellar curtain speech, even though the program specifically states (and sometimes so does an announcer at show’s start) that the taking of photographs and videoing is strictly prohibited. And, of course, even if not recording the performances onstage, texting with its ensuing glow can distract actors and audience-members alike, particularly if something intense is supposed to be happening in the production itself but the audience is full of little, glowing screens… and audience members are looking at them instead of the stage.
Hence the reaction of most in the industry to Patti LuPone, who, on July 9 – having been annoyed by the glow of cell phones all through a matinee of “Shows for Days” – had finally had enough. That evening, a young woman in the front row spent the entire first portion of the play looking at her phone, and LuPone was done being nice. As she exited – as she usually did – through the audience, she reached over, pocketed the woman’s phone, and gave it to a stage manager so it could be returned at the end of the show.
The reaction was swift, and dual. When I mentioned this outside the theatrical community, there was outrage: “She had no right to do that,” was the common reaction. On the other hand, from those I know who are theater lovers, the reaction was congratulatory. Indeed, the overall impression was similar to that I felt when watching those kids with headphones: she (or someone else) paid a lot for that seat. Why did she come if she didn’t want to watch the show? And maybe, just maybe, those around her learned a lesson about how to be an audience. I tend to lean toward the latter, but I do understand that swiping someone’s possession, even temporarily, is fairly extreme.
But some audience members these days evoke the extreme. In that same week, also in New York, just before the start of an evening’s performance of “Hand to God,” an audience member climbed up on stage to plug his cell phone into the electrical plug on the show’s set. The plug was a fake (because… it was part of the SET), but the opening had to be delayed while a stage manager came out and cleared the phone. The general reaction to that was “What was that guy thinking?” Ironically, you can see this on YouTube too, because someone… wait for it… filmed it on his or her cell phone.
To simply finger-wag at the obsessive and tech savvy, however, would miss a larger point. We are growing into a people who simply do not know how to behave when in large groups. We see movies in our own homes, where we can talk to our partner, get up and walk around, even take the show we want to watch into a different room on our tablet. There is no longer, unless we’re willing to pay top price, even a chance for seeing films in the communality of a darkened theater. And when people do go to such places, top theaters such as the ArcLight chain have someone come in to gently remind people they are not at home and quiet is expected. Because you have to say that now.
Theaters are apparently the same way. That man who thought a piece of set was there for his personal convenience is symptomatic of the “I’m seeing it in my living room” philosophy. This lack of consideration for those around you has been experienced in a number of live productions – the drunks at the dinner theater I discussed a few weeks ago, the mother who chatted with her young daughter (who should have been learning how to behave in a live performance space) and handed her snacks from noisy bags all through a production of “Wicked” I attended a couple of years ago. These are symptomatic of a larger lack of empathy and/or respect for the communal wonder of live theatrical performance.
My mother, who taught middle school for a generation, used to say that for people in that age group (say, 12-14) the world is a movie put on for their benefit. When they walk out of a room, they intuitively believe that nothing happens until they walk back in. Teachers and such don’t have home lives, because that’s not how the students know them. Consequences come as a surprise, because all around them is – in their minds – really only going on in their heads.
The problem is, this attitude seems to now be spreading to adults, and live theater is most especially vulnerable, and thus having to deal with the results.
So, why am I writing about this just now? I’ve recently seen a few egregious bits of audience behavior which seem to underscore both the obliviousness and the electronics addiction of modern audience members, and I found it particularly annoying. The most recent came while attending a show at a small, but increasingly professional theater. I watched as a group of people in the front row, at one edge of the stage, proceeded to put their water bottles, and even a purse, on the stage itself, like it was a nearby shelf. Fortunately, their possessions were out of the area in which an actor would have to stand. On the other hand, their detritus was on full view to the rest of the audience. Besides, that was just extremely tacky.
Of course, audiences have been a trial at times since the days of Shakespeare and before. In those days they’d throw garbage at actors they didn’t like, and pour beer on each other. Then, and clear into the 19th century, audience members of the wealthier classes could actually sit on the stage, and interrupt as they felt was warranted. But it was assumed we had outgrown some of that foolishness – certainly the more we got into realism as an acting and production style.
Of course, the point could be made that even if they were throwing fruit, it was because they were engaged with the production, even if on an insult level. What bothers me the most about the obliviousness factor of today is that it means they are disengaged from the very thing they have come to watch. The patrons who have come to the theater with the intent to immerse themselves in the sights and sounds and insights on the stage lose out because of those who aren’t able to be fully present.
What can be done? As usual – and I admit I’m doing it – it’s easier to complain and highlight than to solve. Change will be a matter of group effort, I suppose. Perhaps the widespread publicity created by both Ms LuPone’s action and that idiot who thought a set was just another room created for his convenience will be a start. Perhaps these will spur people into thinking about how to appreciate what legitimate theater is: a communal experience of art and expression with a treasured immediacy no other medium can produce.
That would certainly be nice. In the meantime… wait. That was my cell phone. I think my editor has an assignment for me. BRB…
March 10, 2015Posted by on
The process of reviewing About… Productions’ original piece “Properties of Silence” became a specifically interesting bit of discernment when I began discussing the play with some of my high school seniors, who saw it a day or two before I did. As a part of their programmed educational outreach, people from About… had come to their English classroom to try to elicit from the students what they felt various elements of symbolism in the work (and there are many) meant. When I saw it, I developed my own sense of what its central message was. Then I heard two of the playwrights (one of the stars and the director) of the play discussing it on KUSC. All of us had different spins on what the play was trying to say.
So, one of the central questions becomes, is that okay? If an audience sees something different from the author’s intent, does that make the intent skewed, the audience dense, or does it simply mean it has a depth which can be uncovered in different ways? For the students – many of whom were very confused indeed – can we say all windows through which to see the piece are okay to open, even if they may lead down a path the authors did not intend?
I have encountered this discussion before, of course. Not only have I had people write to tell me my assessment of a play – not of the production but the play itself – is off base, meaning different from theirs, but I’ve been startled by interpretations of my original writings as well. In my life as a published poet I have heard and read people discussing my poems, finding a meaning in it I never meant myself. Still (when I back away from ownership) I can see these alternate views have a validity. In the end, I tend to find such an encounter fascinating.
Indeed, I keep hearing the line from a favorite classic film, “The Philadelphia Story”, when a struggling novelist discovers his novel on the shelf of a wealthy acquaintance and says, startled, “You are a man of unexpected depth!” There’s something both satisfying and scary in having your work disentangled by someone with a different sense of what it looks like.
I had a professor in college, Dr. Sy Kahn, who made everyone taking his reader’s theater course buy his poetry chapbook. His contention was that, when students read pieces from that book they would have someone who could advise them on what the poems actually meant. As someone raised around the words of Shakespeare, I found this deeply disturbing. When you consider all the ways in which any Shakespearean line can be read, and has been read and interpreted over the last 400 years or so, that would not be possible if everyone had instructions on what to think about what they were going to say from the Bard himself. Most certainly, that openness to interpretation is what keeps his work, Elizabethan as it is, fresh and alive.
So, this is my point. My students are looking for guidance – looking for someone to start them on the processing of an art form (particularly in this rather surreal play) they are not used to. If I give them one piece of the puzzle, and the creative team from the production gives them an alternate one, it may seem confusing but in essence it underscores the very root of art itself: that no two people will necessarily see or hear it the same way.
Which is why theater, or writing, is a living thing. Guidance can be useful, but it is not to be taken as handing down the great tablets – the single expected understanding – if a work is serious, poetic and aspiring to depth. Of course, the meanings in a French farce (for example) are far simpler, but true art can be absorbed many ways. That’s what makes it possible to attend many different productions of a classic and never see quite the same thing twice. Or why a playwright and a critic may encounter completely different elements which catch and inspire them at a particular time.
As for my students, they were frustrated at not being told a single answer, but they’ve been in my IB Theory of Knowledge class, so they’ve learned (annoying though it might be) that there’s always more than one way to view almost anything. They are gradually learning to find their own way, based on that theory, in the world of theater, and that is actually quite exciting.
September 29, 2014Posted by on
So, as I wrote last week, when my print editor – the person responsible for the features sections of three papers which have carried my work for years – was let go, I was given to understand that all the critiquing associated with those papers was going online. My new editor, who was described to me as my “new, online editor” works from a paper owned by the same company, but located at the other end of the 710 freeway. Personal interaction would have an electronic distance, but then it was all electronic anyway.
Okay, I wrote about it, but felt that this was just one more adaptation one was to make in the modern world. I’ve gotten kinda good at adaptation.
Then I opened Friday’s Pasadena Star-News and saw, in print, two of my reviews (and one by another critic – usually of opera – whom I have known for many years). Okay…
I’ll be frank. I have no idea what’s happening. Did the critiques appear in print because of hue and cry? Did they simply have extra room? Or, was the information I was handed by those supposedly “in the know” (who were very close to, if not on top of, the decision-making) not particularly accurate.
So, apparently certain random reviews of mine will make it into print. Yay, I guess. In any case, they’ll all be here, including the ones that don’t appear anywhere else.
And the personal state of flux continues. On the other hand, I did see 8 shows in 10 days, and with the exception of those I must wait to publish so they can appear online at the papers first, they’re all up. Stay tuned for the installment of “had to be elsewhere first” material which will appear on Thursday.
As for the rest, it’s just wait and see and wait.