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Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

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Part 3 – The Play’s the Thing… but the Movie Musical…

NOTE: This piece was begun in April, 2020, and recently rediscovered by me (which tells you a lot about my mental state mid-pandemic). A lot has happened between then and now obviously, but I figured I should end this three-part commentary as originally planned. I promise, more timely commentary soon.

I love the origin story of Singing in the Rain, which AFI and others have dubbed the greatest movie musical. According to the introduction to the published script (found in an obscure corner of my university library when I was an undergrad) the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and their respective spouses, were renting a house in the Hollywood Hills which had once belonged to a silent screen star whose career had tanked. MGM producer Arthur Freed called them into his office. He handed them a great wad of songs he had written in the earliest days of the talkies, and told them to go away and write a movie script which would use them. As they struggled to come up with something, they realized that they were literally living in their inspiration: the house, whose original owner’s career came to an abrupt end in 1929, when films suddenly had sound.

Of course, that is the story of a musical created for motion pictures. However, Comden and Green were specifically brought to Hollywood by Freed to adapt their highly successful Broadway musical, “On the Town” for the movies. Much, much later they would work in New York to adapt the film of Singing in the Rain for the stage, too. The connection between stage and film, particularly when it comes to the American musical, has seen some wild cross-over successes, and some stunning flops. Once again, a lot depends on understanding the difference between what can be done cinematically that won’t work in a live performance, and vice-versa. Beyond that, some issues arise from an understanding, or lack thereof, of the actual construction dissimilarities between a show with an intermission in the middle and the continuous flow of a movie. (Note: a few classics, like Man of La Mancha, and a number of more recent stage musicals are designed without an intermission. Obviously, the issue above doesn’t apply in those cases.)

I first became aware of this as a teenager reading the notes on the back of the record album (you know, an LP) of the filmed West Side Story. (I was a student involved with a high school stage production at the time.). Along with discussing how the piece was set and cast, it talked about what was needed to create a movie rather than what had been so successful on the stage. It was quite simple, really. A standard musical has two acts, and there must therefore be two arcs to the story: one to bring the audience to an admittedly anticipatory stopping place for intermission, and one which ramps things up again in the second act to lead one to the denouement. In a film, even if an “intermission” is injected in early big-theater showings, it won’t appear after the initial run of the film, so the storyline is to remain linear – one curve ramping up and then down for the end of the piece. This demands some rewrites of the stage script, or at least some repositioning of songs to keep the arc more constant.

There are also physical practicalities. I remember a discussion I had with award-winning choreographer Rikki Lugo as she was prepping a stage production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The one thing that the film was known for was its lengthy, macho dance sequence wherein the brothers show off, pick brides they want, and then run off with them. Rikki pointed out that the sequence was possible on film because there were so many cuts: no dancer had to do that entire thing without stopping. On stage replicating that sequence exactly was essentially impossible. It couldn’t be that energetic for as long as that sequence lasts without putting dancers at risk through sheer exhaustion, so her task was to make it look just as macho with more breaks for breathing.

I have already touched on the essential difference between a production of any kind put on stage, where an audience has no trouble “seeing” settings which are not there, and the more literal landscape of film. The cinematic version of Man of La Mancha, whose Broadway staging was so engrossing, was done in (and it truly was awful), by realism as much as anything else. I devoutly believe that nobody will ever produce the brilliant Come From Away for film in any other way than filming the stage production, as was done for Our Town in the early days of television. It has virtually no set at all, a small cast creating dozens of characters, and an onstage band which is also part of the action. Moving that to film in a realistic way would lose the charm and energy which has made the show a stunning, universal hit.

Even Hamilton succeeded on Disney+ because it was a film of the stage production. This was heartening, actually, as so many of my friends who had been unable to see it live, and many who had, were both satisfied, even thrilled, with what they saw. Still, one of my favorite tributes to that show came from my daughter with the B.A. in technical theatre, who upon seeing it during its first run in Los Angeles kept texting me during intermission about how awesome the set was – something not fully appreciated in a camera shot.

There is an important point to make at the end of this 3-part commentary: It is, and always will be, important to see live theatrical productions and cinematic ones as two separate entities. If one is moving from film to stage, or from stage to film, keeping in mind what is possible, what made it effective in its own genre, and what made the original something worth repeating are essential. Attempts to film musicals in television studios, harking back to the early days of TV as much as to their stage beginnings, has had rather uneven results for a number of reasons, including casting, but also because they sometimes end up being neither fish nor fowl.

When it is possible to get back to live performance on stage in front of a physically present audience, and when it is easier to film a work than it currently appears to be (remember Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson fighting COVID-19 during filming in Australia), this will matter. Both will struggle to return to the place they once held in American culture, and each must remember how to rest on what they do best. Here’s hoping that happens soon.

Part 2: The Play’s the Thing: What Audiences Will Believe

As I continued to think about my theme: things which make films different from theatrical productions, I realized I had left out what I personally consider the most egregious “did you not understand the point of a single set?” moment I have run into in film. I have added it as an addendum to Part 1, so feel free to wander back and check it out.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about stage productions is their ability to convince audiences they are seeing things which aren’t there. This is not new. Shakespeare had to deal with it all the time, as the concept of a set as we now know it was unavailable to him. When people in the modern era cut the Bard’s plays it is often to get rid of what my mother (who taught and wrote about theater), often referred to as the “here we are in the forest of Arden” speeches, because in his day you had to explain the setting, as it wasn’t really there. (One of the most famous begins Henry V, wherein the chorus enjoins the audience to, among other things, “think, when we speak of horses, that you see them…”)

In time, sets became the norm, and in the 18th Century theater stages became elaborate pieces of machinery so that gods could descend from the heavens and things could rise from the depths. Literal was in, image-wise, to the point where, in the early 1910s, my grandmother saw a stage production of Ben Hur which actually had horses running on treadmills for the chariot race.

The shift back came when theater, for the first time, had to compete with film. In the same way that photography allowed the rise of the impressionist and then expressionist, etc., art world (you didn’t need to paint a tree that looked like a tree anymore, you could take a picture of it instead), the rise of film and television, once seen as a death knell of theater, forced it in many cases to return to what it had been in the beginning. It became, by the mid-20th Century, the last great bastion of suspension of disbelief. Today, theater is in many cases the imagination’s great collective gift.

The following is not even vaguely a retrospective of innovative productions, but snapshots on a few which captured my attention simply because the lack of set, or the development of a set-within-a-set, and an audience’s willingness to go along with and “see” what wasn’t there proved essential in the play’s success.

Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 play Our Town is an especially good illustration of this. In the innovative period of New Deal idealism, this encapsulated portrait of a small New England town was most notable for its study of human nature, and for its staging. The narrator or chorus was the stage manager of the theater, and the “fourth wall” separating the action onstage from the audience was nonexistent – a style Wilder embraced. The set, such as it was, consisted of a few chairs, a couple of tables, and two ladders. Leaning at the top of the ladders, teenaged love interests Emily and George talked out the bedroom windows of their neighboring houses. A couple of chairs created a front porch to sit on and snap beans together. Formal rows of chairs held the occupants of the graveyard.

None of those places existed except in the narrator’s explanation and the minds of the audience, but that audience saw them nonetheless. Through all the revivals on and off Broadway, even college productions, minimalism and that removal of the 4th wall has remained elemental. This stark format made it ripe for radio broadcasts, and there were several in the days before television took off. A television version of the play aired live in 1955, with major Hollywood stars, but kept to the simplicity of the original staging, as had the only theatrical film in 1940 (though it changed the ending at the studio’s insistence). Indeed, the one time I saw the play with actual sets, the power diminished almost exponentially.

Wilder did not invent the modern version of this concept, of course, nor was he the only innovator of his time. Indeed, Bertolt Brecht among others was doing similar things in Germany between the wars, and with the escape from Nazism many European avant garde artistic and theatrical innovations cross-pollinated with their American counterparts.

Fast-forward to the 1960s. As live theater worked to reclaim its space in American culture from television, sets, in general, tended to become less literal. Of course, one possible reason might be that having no set was cheaper. The ultimate example of this would be the 1960 debut, way, way off Broadway, of the musical The Fantasticks. In its tiny space it also made use of a ladder or two, and a mime who made and removed an invisible wall in the middle of the action. The musical, with its simple comparison of romanticized vs trouble-filled life was infectious, and still holds the record for consecutive performances in the US, at 17,162. This without really having a set at all. (And yes, I saw a production which included an elaborate set and an expanded score from the two-piano original. It fell flat as a pancake.)

On the big Broadway stage, however, it was and is not the cost of a set, but the ability to move quickly from concept to concept, place to place, or even in and out of an author’s head, without having to move much of anything. A stellar moment in this concept has to be the musical “Man of La Mancha,” which though following some rules of a standard American musical, broke its own ground.

When it came to setting, the story-within-a-story played out not with the shifting sets of Brigadoon or the elaborately intertwined noir vs modern Hollywood set pieces of the later City of Angels, but on a single stage. The shift was in the audience’s mind, for the entire play was set in a prison filled with people awaiting trial by the Spanish Inquisition. Yet, though that gave the tone its immediacy, it was the story spun by prisoner Miguel de Cervantes which took over the space. Within that one set, using bits of dark wood and a few costumes and props, the tale of Don Quixote de La Mancha came to life. As if to point out what was happening, every once in a while the workings of the prison come back to break up the fantasy, but it proved easy to pull everyone, including the audience, back into the fantasy world.

Recently, three differing productions have stood out to me, as they pointed to the use of this hugely simplistic style of set (although that is really usually the result of very not-so-simple, subtle design). Berkeley Rep’s pared down “Into the Woods”, placed all the performers, many of whom doubled as musicians, in chairs lined the edges of the stage, coming into the piece as required. There have been enough concert versions of Sondheim musicals, so this is not surprising, but it differs greatly from the elaborate costuming and visuals of the original, and it was – if anything – more powerful as a result.

Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” fresh from Broadway, lined up its cast under a screen where projections in Yiddish and English (Brecht would be proud) helped one through the true story of a famed Yiddish playwright whose one popular work, which had made him famous in Europe, was destroyed by the hesitant culture of New York theater in the 30s. With virtually no set, the lights and the actors created theater stages, intimate homes, and rich communal spaces, and once again the audience went right along. The projections even allowed the performers to quote the play in the original Yiddish, by creating supertitles evocative of many modern opera productions, and – again – the audience just moved right along with it all.

Finally, the continuing (once the COVID-19 virus has run its course) tour of the brilliant “Come From Away” uses one simple set, chairs and tables to create everything from a plane to a bus to a school hallway to… anywhere else needed, while the small acting company, simply by donning a hat or a jacket, became the many, many people who lived in or arrived in Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11. It lost out in the Tony Awards to the fine, but highly set-and-projection-driven Dear Evan Hanson. Still, it is by far the show most likely to stand the test of time, in part because it is powered by the sparking of audience imagination.

And that is what the theater can do: plug the audience’s imagination into the workings onstage, creating something larger than any bit of wood and canvas could possibly achieve. “We are such things as dreams are made of” says one of Shakespeare’s characters, speaking not only to the play it is from but to the whole idea of theatrical performance.

Of course, as with my concerns from the first part of this musing, when you take something from the stage and, rather than filming a stage performance, turn it into the usually more literal format of classic movie-making, adjustments must be made. Doing it right can create a classic. Doing it wrong, or doing it with the wrong stage piece – one so dependent on the audience’s imagination that trying to fill in those blanks weakens the whole – can ruin the thing, even perhaps to the point of making folks not want to see the original stage version anymore.

However, that is for the next segment of this. Stay tuned for Part 3.

Part 1: The Play’s the Thing. The Movie? Sometimes great, sometimes… nah

UPDATE: ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY – See at the bottom of this post

Note: Having come through a move across country, holidays, and the replacement of my right knee, I was just getting ready to reach out to local theater, and local press in my new town about coverage, etc., when the coronavirus became a concern for us all. So, instead of writing about current productions, I thought I’d offer up some musing on what we can use to entertain us.

Many theater lovers across the nation are settling in for a significant withdrawal period, as COVID-19 makes crowding into plush or not-so-plush seats to experience live events idiotically dangerous. Some are discussing watching time-honored plays and musicals in the versions created for Hollywood over the years. In some cases this may prove the perfect antidote, but the relationship between stage and screen has often been fraught, for a number of reasons.


To start with, of course, there were the olden days of the Hays Office, which developed rules of “decency” for the film industry. Though now chuckled over (remember all those early television shows like “I Love Lucy” where married couples slept in twin beds), those rules sometimes hamstrung an attempt to get a powerful stage production accurately on the screen.

Take, for example, the first film of Lilian Hellman’s breakthrough play, “The Chidren’s Hour.” The centerpiece of her theme – that a lie spoken often enough becomes the truth (a commentary on what was happening in Hitler’s Germany) – was a reference to possible lesbianism in a time when that was not considered “decent.” That first film of the play, in 1936, could not mention lesbianism, so had to change the supposedly shocking transgression between the two women, and even though Hellman worked on the screenplay herself, the impact was significantly reduced. Only the remake, in 1961 is true to the original thematic content and thus power of the original.

On the other hand, and perhaps because of the control exerted by Katharine Hepburn, the 1940 film of “The Philadelphia Story”, for example, is in large part simply a gentle expansion of the Philip Barry play which, with Hepburn in the leading roll, had literally saved New York’s Theater Guild, and with it her own reputation. (She had come back to New York after being labeled “box office poison” as a result of a series of flops following her 1934 Best Actress Oscar for “Morning Glory.”)

Always savvy in business, Hepburn had purchased the film rights to the play herself, with the help of Howard Hughes. This let her negotiate with MGM to produce the film. She was able to shepherd the adaptation for screen, and get the director she felt would be best for both her and the content. As a result the play becomes even better as it is able to physically wander farther than the few rooms in which the stage play was set, and even gently maneuver around the Hays restrictions regarding discussions of marital relationships.

The central point to Hepburn’s story is that she had enough control to keep the feel of the play, as well as the content, true. This, in part, because of her ownership, and because the director, George Cukor, was someone she knew well enough to know he would respect what had made the play work. Sometimes, the same director who directed the play directed the movie, and if the director understood both genres well, that could also work, even while wrestling with Hays.

Understanding Why The Play Was Set As It Was

Take as prime example, Elia Kazan, who was Tennessee Williams’ favorite director, for both stage and film versions of his work. (We will put aside here, Kazan’s testimony in front of the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, naming names and making himself somewhat of a pariah in chunks of the theatrical and film industry.) Kazan understood Williams’ vision, as can be readily seen in “A Streetcar Named Desire” both on stage and in the 1951 film version with Vivian Leigh and (reprising his stage role) Marlon Brando. Again, with the decency rules in effect there were certain things which could only be hinted at, but the atmosphere kept to the essence of the play: that the characters lived in very close contact, in a heated, claustrophobic atmosphere, a breeding ground for extremes of passion, particularly the baser ones.

Sadly, though this film version worked, the later 1984 made-for-television one, directed by John Erman didn’t. The reason was that he did not clue to that very claustrophobia. When Blanche Dubois is trapped not only in her own imagination and memory, but in this closed, hot, teeming apartment complex, everything bleeds out. It is the nature of confinement. When Blanche wanders all over New Orleans voicing her fantasies about the genteel nature of her life to this point, in the open air, by the sea, under the sun, surrounded by a beautiful city, it didn’t work, despite Ann-Margaret’s very solid performance. If Blanche isn’t literally and figuratively backed against a wall, the rising tension has time to dissipate. She has to be stuck for it all to work.

Although it was handled better, shifting in the movie from a single-set beauty parlor to more of the small town it exists in, in “Steel Magnolias” was also in danger of losing the punch of the play. This, because women knew (and in some places still know) that the one place men will not ever come – and thus a true sanctuary – was that beauty parlor. That was, to be frank, the point of the play: that sense of gender-specific community.

Which is enough for today. I do have more, though. Part 2 will focus on those things done on stage which simply cannot translate to film with the same effectiveness because they depend upon the audience’s suspension of disbelief, a thing which does not appear in the same way in a movie theater. I mean you may be able to believe, as long as the film lasts, that Luke Skywalker grew up on a planet with two suns, or even in The Force, but not in many of the kinds of things stage directors use to charge the imagination. But that’s for next time.

UPDATE: A day after writing and posting this, it hit me that I hadn’t mentioned the film adaptation from a single-set play which frustrated me the most, perhaps because I fell in love with the play and the adaptation hurt the film so much that nobody, seeing it first, would ever think of seeing it in any form again. That was Romantic Comedy, based on Bernard Slade’s 1979 Broadway play.

The play, as with Slade’s best work, is episodic in nature, and deals with the emotional connections between two people who are not, in the classic sense, a couple. In this case, an older and fading male playwright takes a young female writer under his wing. Their first collaboration turns out to be a terrific hit, and they became a writing team. On the stage, the play takes place virtually entirely in the room in which they write. The older playwright’s wife comes in and out on occasion, as does the younger woman’s male love interest. Their theatrical agent hovers sometimes like a mother hen. Still, this is their room and what they do there defines more than anything else who they really are, in a relationship which is characterized as being far more intense than a marriage.

When this was adapted for film in 1983, and directed by Arthur Hiller, all of that was lost. I won’t get into the casting of Dudley Moore as the lead, which was also a detriment, but when you take intensely important, intimate speeches, and literally chop them up so that a few lines are in the room, a few are in front of Lincoln Center, and a few are in the house of a theater during rehearsals, you remove that intense intimacy, and you end up doing a travelogue of theatrical New York which is a total distraction from not only the speech itself, but the sense of sanctuary for two intense and intelligent writers which is the core of the play.

As a result, it was plodding, over-long, and unfocused. Its ratings were poor and it has all but disappeared. When a film becomes such box office poison, the play its based on is tarred with the same brush, which is hopelessly unfair in this case. If you get a chance to see it done onstage, go. Sometimes Hollywood digs its own hole, and this was one of those times.

Adjusting To The New: Musing on Life and Art

I was reading a review by theatrical critic Laura Pels in the New York Times, and was struck by my immediate resonance with her lead paragraph: “When classics get adapted or updated, I often find myself asking: What’s the added value? What do you get from Shakespeare with penguins that you don’t get better from Shakespeare straight up?”

I suppose this is because, to some extent, I’m trying not to see my life as “Shakespeare with penguins”, for I have left my well defined, life-long comfort zone of Los Angeles County for another land: Louisville, Kentucky. It is much smaller (I’m trading a county of over 10 million for a county of just over 700,000), but still an artistic hub, and it is where my wife grew up and many members of her large extended family still live. And I am retired from the day job, so it is right to be in a state of reinvention. I just don’t want it to be too random, or worse, get in the way of who I am or what I want to achieve.

On the other hand, this resonated with me because Pels’ questions are ones I have often had to ask as a critic as well. Looking, as she was, at Shakespeare… or Moliere, or even Ibsen, Williams or Miller, I am well acquainted with the fine line between innovation which makes the story relevant to a new audience, and the kind of “messing with the original” which becomes a distraction. (You’ll notice nobody seems to do this with Shaw, and I’m sure it is because any decently superstitious director/adaptor knows that Bernard Shaw will rise from the dead to slap you silly if you mess with his work. He was a remarkably adamant man.)

When I think of this, two instances come to mind. In the first, one director I used to review frequently was obviously so sure that nobody would get Shakespeare’s jokes that she had fairies do gymnastics as they talked, or “rustics” (peasants) engaging in constant slapstick. Not only was this exhausting for the performers, it meant you really couldn’t hear the lines to see if they were funny or not.

Granted, there is a long, supposedly clever speech toward the end of As You Like It which every director would like to cut, but can’t because of a costume change. It may have been funny in Elizabethan times, but its entire context is lost on a modern audience… and there you could have the character stand on his head or juggle and it would make the scene a whole lot better. On the other hand, the rustics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the watchmen in Much Ado About Nothing, if performed by people who know how to speak Elizabethan English naturally, can be very funny indeed, because the lines actually are.

The second involves a production group which fell into the habit of putting in costume non-sequiturs where they made no artistic sense: bowler hats or batwing glasses in what are otherwise naturalistic, clearly 18th Century settings of definitely and comfortably period plays. Like… is this supposed to tell us it’s a comedy? Certainly, playing with time period and construction, especially when it comes to costuming, is a thing, but there should be a reason for it, not just a pair of out-of-place glasses that add absolutely nothing to either the character or the play.

This does not mean I am opposed to taking, say, Shakespeare out of its time period. I have a friend in Britain who apologized for taking me to the RSC theater in Stratford, because it wasn’t going to be “real Shakespeare” because it wasn’t being done in doublet and hose. (It was a terrific production of As You Like It that even the 16-year-old me knew was extraordinary.) Adaptations of time period that work can create a freshness which brings a great work to a new generation. Orson Welles’ 1930s production of a “Voodoo Macbeth,” or his Julius Caesar set in Mussolini’s Rome, or a great and far more recent Julius Caesar at the Mark Taper Forum set in the time of Kennedy, were historically powerful. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s addition to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, a production of Much Ado… reset in in the glamour of the Restoration period, was magical. More recently, Ian McKellen’s Hitlerian Richard III was stunning onstage (though deadly on film, but that’s another discussion).

Which brings me back to my own situation. I have made a big life shift, and I’m not done thinking it through. I don’t want to paste things on which will turn out to be superfluous. I am – for the first time in 15 years – a home owner. That’s not superfluous. I have references from theatrical friends and my editor to reconnect with theater here, from a local dinner theater to Actors Theatre of Louisville, a highly respected regional company. How I reconnect with that side of my life, now that I’m settled in, will either result in penguins or profundity. Still evaluating the approach. And, of course, it being Kentucky, there is politics. Living in a blue city in a red state has its own drama. Is that a penguin for my life, or a chance to make change?

Today it is exactly three months since I first set foot in my new home. Still, I still find my L.A. roots are a part of me. In any case, I’m not in Los Angeles anymore, though I still receive emails from press representatives for shows I would love to see… Ah well. A shout out to my friends and colleagues in the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. A shout out to my friends and colleagues at Pasadena’s Blair High School, which once again avoided budget-related shuttering. That life goes on without me. Now it’s my job to figure out what this new life is really going to be all about. I’ll let you know. Hopefully, it will not include penguins.

Our new (to us) residence, on the outskirts of Louisville, KY

Did You Fall Off the Face of the Earth… or What?

I know, it certainly seems like that. I was here, and then suddenly I wasn’t. It wasn’t intentional, but rather a result of being completely overwhelmed by the (to me, anyway) monumental shifts in life which seemed to all hit at once.

I owe a huge apology to Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont for not ever writing the review I intended to write about their fine production of Steve Martin’s “Bright Star,” a Eudora Welty-ish tale of class, hate and redemption in the South. I hope some of you went. It was disturbing in places, but strong, well directed, and filled with the bluegrass-tinged music that always reminds me of the musical based on Welty’s “The Robber Bridegroom” which I adored in my 20s.

I also owe an apology to the Ahmanson, for seeing and then never writing about the touring production of “Falsettos” which landed there. It was, to be frank, a bit disappointing to see how dated this had become. What were once triumphant, charming, and sad facts about life in gay America in the early 80s had become dry and thus somewhat slow, stating so many things now painfully obvious. Still, the performers were good and deserved to be celebrated.

So… what was I doing instead? Well, I was becoming a retired person. Not, at least not immediately, from theatrical criticism, but from the day job. After a total of 40 or so years as an educator, the last 35 of which have been spent at Blair High School in Pasadena (a treasure of a public school which never gets the credit it deserves), on May 31 I literally left the building.

Prepping for this is when I discovered my classroom (including the boxes full of stuff which had been schlepped from place to place as we moved out of our main building so it could be refurbished and remodeled) was essentially my attic.

Thus I have been sorting through nearly 40 years of educational stuff I had saved, some so old they were printed in purple ditto ink, and tossing away outdated paperwork, sample history textbooks, academic competition format materials, pirated VHS recordings, worksheets, workbooks, and an awful lot of “why the hell did I save that?” bits and pieces. The things which still had value were handed off to those who will be teaching what I have been teaching. It was weird to be divesting myself of so much, but it was time to go. I still love teaching, and care deeply about my students, but it is hard on the body to stand on linoleum over concrete day in and day out, and my oomph was not optimum.

Anyway, on top of this I had promised my wife that when I retired we could move closer to her family. Once she knew retirement was near, her family chimed in with “when you move to Louisville…” advise and comments even before we had decided to return to what was her home town. So, we’re returning to her home town (where I also went to grad school, so it is not entirely foreign territory). That meant that what of the last month and a half or so has not been involved with the details of retirement, and passing various educational batons, has been dedicated to house-hunting. This has meant flying back and forth, lots of document-gathering, etc. Found a nice place too, at a ridiculous price for anyone used to housing costs in SoCal.

Now I have been coming to grips with leaving my own home town. Let’s face it, I love California. I love Los Angeles County. I love the theater culture here, and the extraordinary diversity of people, cultures, arts organizations, languages… all of it. I have roots here dating back to the 20s. To walk away from this is a huge shift in some elemental personal paradigms. Still, it is time for a new, and frankly affordable adventure.

So, what happens to me, the drama critic? Well, I’m not gone yet and there are still some things to see. Still, my son is already talking about a redesign of this blog space to reflect a theater writer talking about Louisville (Actors Theatre especially) and the comparatively nearby regional theater world of Cincinnati. We’ll see. I may end up writing more philosophically about theater, its role in culture, and the need for its preservation. Nothing is yet completely decided, and – of course – the artistic world I move into will have to decide I’m worth listening to. This is never a one-way street.

So, that’s where I’ve been. That’s where I’m going. I am getting over the overwhelming redefinition of my day to day, predicated by walking away from one profession I have practiced for nearly 2/3 of my life, and am beginning to look at what awaits on the horizon. I’ll let you know what I find along the way. You may end up as surprised as I probably will be at the results.

In the meantime, expect a few more reviews from the L.A. area before I leave town. Expect some from some part of the country even after that, if I can manage it. I am preparing to move, not die, and I’ve been writing about theater at least as long as I have been teaching – perhaps even a bit longer. This labor of love, which has survived the curtailing of newspaper publication and the shifts in Equity rules, is not ready for a final curtain.

As for the school I’m leaving behind? I am most proud to have helped found the Gay Straight Alliance there in 2005, and worked hard to create the school’s currently touted “open and accepting” atmosphere, where being a nonconformist in any one of a number of ways is welcomed and appreciated. I am also proud of my work with their strong and creative student government (the ASB). I am told the administration intends to name the ASB room after me, which is touching and humbling. Still, this is a public school district, where bureaucracy can sometimes thwart intent. We’ll see.

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t: SCNG Gives Up Printing/Posting Reviews

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.


Tribute play “Screwball Comedy”: great potential, shaky comic timing

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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

Musings: Theater and the Observant Outsider: the importance of feedback in the production process

One of the more memorable moments from my college years has to be the day I happened upon Mel Brooks in the lobby of the then-brand new Hyatt Regency in San Francisco’s Embarcadero District, filming a sequence from “High Anxiety.” He was starring in it, of course, as he often was in his movie-making days, but after each shot he would dash over to a video screen to watch what had just gone on.

Had he done what he wanted to do? Was everyone in the right place? Was it as funny as he had hoped? Nope. Discussion with the actors. Discussion with the cameraman (the video camera shadowing what the film camera was doing). Back for another take of the same scene, with a few adjustments both to himself and the others involved, to make it better.

On and on it went, until finally he called it a wrap and they began packing up to move to a new location.

This is the elemental advantage of film, for a man like Brooks. He can be in his creation and direct his creation and have eyes in both places, as the camera becomes his surrogate. Behind the scenes, he will take the rushes from his filming and fiddle with them, pass them by producers and editors who will offer advice and expertise, and the end result will be something that is very much his, but also well vetted.

The same is not possible on the stage, really. The very immediacy which makes stage performance so emotionally satisfying means that a director cannot be in two places at the same time. If you are on stage performing with others, you cannot watch yourself in the moment. If you are off stage, in director mode, you are not allowing those you perform with to do what they need to do in relation to your character.

This is, if anything, more intense when one is performing solo, as the entire piece is just the performer, obviously unable to stand out front or in the wings to watch him or herself. Even the great solo performances – Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, or Robert Morse as Truman Capote, for example – most definitely had someone else direct. Having more eyes involved with the creation of the final product allows the actor to practice his or her craft with that vital second opinion – a different eye – to avoid the traps of ego or of simply being too close to the material.

Interestingly the same can often be said of the relationship between writing and directing. Particularly in smaller theaters, it is not uncommon to see a director who is working with his or her own material. In theory this can be a good thing, but the concept often has fatal flaws.

(I cannot help but remember the professor in a class on readers theater who made us all buy his poetry chapbook “because when you read those poems I can tell you exactly what the author meant”. This created issues because many of those poems became subjects of ridicule among us, meaning we simply wouldn’t want to read them aloud – as we actually understood them – to the man who was giving us a grade. We were not allowed to edit, and trust me, they needed work even this college junior could see.)

So let’s face it: in reality (and I do not discount this in myself) any author has a strong tendency to fall in love with the work he or she has written to the point where it is tough to see the flies in the ointment. Editing is tough without feedback. Feedback rarely comes most efficiently from oneself, particularly in the admittedly ego-driven world of performance. The American greats from Arthur Miller on down did not direct their own iconic dramas. Neither did the likes of Neil Simon, whose comedic view of the mid-20th century is startlingly timeless.

Sometimes this is an obvious choice, as many writers are more cerebral than physical in their view of what their play is trying to say. In other words, a person proficient with words isn’t necessarily proficient with the physical interplay of bodies in a stage space. The added plus of an outside director, beyond a more visual artistic understanding, can be the work of an editor. What looks good on paper doesn’t always translate to what captures an audience from the stage, and the director is there to illuminate that.

For over 50 years there was a small amateur theater company in Altadena, California which devoted itself to producing untried plays. Theatre Americana would advertise in college newspapers and literary journals, and would sort through the hundreds of scripts they received annually to find four plays which would each be “put on its feet” every year. Their structure underscored this need for a writer to be open to outside input.

Their contract with the authors insisted they be allowed to edit the work, and they often did. Those who would not agree were told that TA was not interested in their work. Even with edits it was often obvious that playwrights tend to write more than the stage can stand. (As my mother would have said, perhaps George Bernard Shaw could get away with plays which were really more “costumed panel discussions” but nobody else can.) But then that was what TA’s mission was all about. They always invited the authors to come and take a look at the results, and thus to take away some sense of where the play needed to be worked on next.

Sadly, in these days when getting people into a theater is tougher than ever, and getting them into a community theater is even harder, the last members of Theatre Americana found it difficult to pass their legacy on to a new generation. Just as this was dawning on them, the County saw fit to remove them from the building they had, in the first part of the 20th century, been instrumental in getting built in a local county park. Finally, the enterprise shut down, though still stating a wan hope of revival. I admit I miss their energy. It was an education to see their productions, not only for the playwrights, but for this then-much-younger theatrical critic.

All of which to say that I have seen several productions over the past year where the critical objective eye was missing in some way. The person who wrote was directing and pretty much running the show. The person directing was also the star. In each case, the loss of an independent critical eye meant that some amount of potential went unrealized. I cannot claim this is always, universally true. Still, that desire to save money or make something totally one’s personal vision, or whatever causes such foreshortening of the elemental staffing of a theatrical production should be approached with deep caution. In the theater, perhaps more than most other art forms, independent observation is key.

So… Where Have I Been?

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.

Okay, so… I’m kinda back! Thanks for waiting.

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.

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