Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Ahmanson Theatre

Extraordinary Intimacy: “The Humans” Excels at the Ahmanson

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L-R: Reed Birney, Cassie Beck, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Sarah Steele and Nick Mills in “The Humans” at the Ahmanson Theatre [Photo: Lawrence K. Ho]

The neatest trick to accomplish, when writing an intimate play, is to find that spark which ties the issues and personalties of a few people to something inherently a part of everyone. That very concept centers Stephen Karam’s “The Humans,” the Tony-winning play just opened with the entire original Broadway cast at the Ahmanson Theatre. Every single person, and virtually every single issue, has some element with which we are familiar. The problems and conflicts the characters have with each other are not on their own earth-shattering, but they are (as the playwright himself has said) the things which keep us up at night.

How these issues emerge, how they intertwine, and how these people – who essentially love each other – deal with them is the play. It is funny. It is wrenching. It leaves one with some curiosity about elements outside the frame. It is gently remarkable theater.

The Blake family has gathered for Thanksgiving at the New York apartment younger daughter Brigid is just moving into with her boyfriend Richard. Parents Eric and Deirdre come somewhat hesitantly from Scranton, bringing with them Eric’s mother – commonly referred to as Momo – who is in the later stages of Alzheimers Disease. Joining them is Brigid’s older sister, Aimee, a Philadelphia lawyer wounded by the breakup of her marriage, and by illness.

The apartment is almost a character – with a ground floor portion on entry and a stair down to a basement kitchen and dining area, and some very strange upstairs neighbor whose actions create enormous booming interruptions to the family proceedings. Trash compactors roar outside the lower door. The light bulbs seem to have a life of their own. And the furniture, with a couple of exceptions, has yet to arrive. As the family readies for and eats dinner, wrestles with issues of expectation, religion, aging, traditions large and small, and the nature of love, the audience is drawn in to sit with them, and to understand what it is driving some members’ lack of sleep.

Reed Birney has a feel for Eric’s combination of taciturn, teasing but loving care, and internal wrestling with a faceless fear. As Deirdre Jayne Houdyshell embodies that mother who fusses, radiates a specific sense of humor, wants to fix everyone’s problems, and yet wrestles with secrets of her own. Sarah Steele embraces Brigid’s combination of family loyalty and resistance, making her both a determinedly individual person and one connecting the varied personalities together.

Nick Mills gives Richard the semi-attached attitude of the observer looking in on a unit he is now becoming a part of. His attempts at connection are treated with the earnestness necessary to keep him on an edge but not rejectable. It’s a subtly tricky performance. Perhaps most remarkable is the performance of Lauren Klein as Momo. Late stage Alzheimers is tough to watch in real life, and even tougher to recreate, yet she makes the mumblings and particularly the moments of rage absolutely believable.

There is a reason this play won an award while still off-Broadway for ensemble performance. It is absolutely seamless, with characters as comfortable with each other as families are. Director Joe Mantello choreographs the thing as much as directs it, using David Zinn’s two-tiered set with real finesse. The sense of family, of separation and togetherness, of tension and softening, ebb and flow as such a gathering does. A nod also to Fitz Patton’s sound design, creating as it does the character of an upstairs neighbor we essentially never even see, but whose presence proves startlingly intrusive at oddly apt moments.

“The Humans” is fine, fine theater. It speaks to all the mistakes people who love each other make, all the expectations we have of each other and of ourselves, and yet does so by being small, intimate, and very character driven. This is not splashy fun, but it Is often very funny. This is not about the world’s problems, but it echoes a humanity full of flaws even if full of potential good. Its very familiarity is its strength, and will rest with you long after the play, which is performed without intermission, is done.

What: “The Humans”  When: Through July 29, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $130. Info: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org

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“Soft Power”: Politics, Music, Comedy and Manipulation

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L-R: Conrad Ricamora and Francis Jue in the world premiere of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power” at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

There is a moment in “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” which premiered this week at the Ahmanson, when the disquiet hits you. The  show has a lovely time acknowledging musical theater tropes, discussing the power of the musical to slowly convince people of an idea (this is what “soft power” is – gradual bending of minds), and expressing the outrage and increasing xenophobia which accompanied the 2016 election. However, it is also using that very soft power to behave like a propaganda machine. You become enthused, then disturbed by the fact you have been gently manipulated toward that very enthusiasm.

Which may be the point. David Henry Hwang, the remarkable Chinese-American playwright, and Jeanine Tesori, whose “Fun Home” was a highlight of the last Ahmanson season, have created a subtly complex theater piece in the guise of something far lighter.

As has been true in the past, Hwang makes himself a character in the piece – an American writer trying to work with Xue Xing, a television producer from The People’s Republic of China, without much success. The things which keep them at odds have a lot to do with differing views of family responsibility and love. In the midst of their attempted collaboration, Hwang, Xing’s American girlfriend Zoe, and Xing go to see “The King and I” and to a rally for Hillary Clinton. Only Xing, by line-jumping, actually gets to meet her, and even take a selfie.

Shortly after, a near catastrophe takes Hwang into a dream world. This dream is the musical, detailing how Xing would recount this episode of his life in later years, complete with a lot of spin. It is charming, tossing in all kinds of homages to the American musical form (including even the idea of using a dream sequence to advance the story).

In it, Xing and Hillary have a far less fleeting moment. She is seen as a commodity marketing herself in ways Miley Cyrus would approve of, and Xing’s condescending view of democracy seems underscored by the 2016 election outcome. Indeed, Hillary is herself romanced – at least for a while – by the description of order and intelligent leadership Xing presents as an alternative.

As Hwang awakes from this dream, he must wrestle with the images it carried. Though dealing with the rising xenophobia around him, he rises to a hopeful, emotionally satisfying musical conclusion. To an audience in California, where 2/3 of the voters picked Hillary and were as appalled as those onstage with the final results, this is an easy sell. Almost too easy. Songs bring people to their feet, exactly as they are expected to. Oh, how easily we are swayed.

Still, there is the fear, even in the show, that Xing’s version of events will win out, and as playwright Lillian Hellman pointed out in 1934, a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. It is this which one should actually be wrestling with here.

In the process, however, one finds a clever script filled with high humor and the occasional low comedy, and with music which resonates after the curtain falls. A highly versatile cast makes this extremely episodic and somewhat fractured story work.

Most particularly, Francis Jue gives Hwang the tone and aspect of the wry observer, who must in the end come to wrestle with both truth and hope. Conrad Ricamora gives Xing a vibrating confidence which makes his message all the more powerful and his humanity all the more charming. Alyse Alan Louis, as the progressive Zoe and the dream Hillary, finds a humanity in both even as her portrait of the former candidate must by the very nature of this piece be completely over the top.

A remarkable ensemble brings all the other characters to life, from stuffy old-boy senators, to Chinese media stars, American street hoods, and Hillary campaign supporters. Perhaps the most pointed standout is Kendyl Ito, whose portrait of Xing’s daughter provokes great laughter of recognition simply by body language. Still, there is no weak link in the entire cast.

Director Leigh Silverman has used David Zinn’s mobile set pieces to keep this rather various and deeply episodic piece flowing, funny, and consistently engaging. Choreographer Sam Pinkleton creates a sense of culture and space, while offering strong nods to the musicals this piece honors as much for their ability to sway as for their art. The costumes of Anita Yavich, with hair by Tom Watson, allow the quick shifts in ethnicity, age and status. Music supervision by Chris Fenwick continues the polish

Indeed, this is all done very, very well. Which is the most unnerving. From the start “Soft Power” is out to display the ability of song, which goes to the heart without necessarily passing the head, to instill belief systems, and create rallying cries. And it does.

What: ‘Soft Power”  When: through June 10, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 pm. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added 2 p.m. performance Thursday, June 7  Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles  How Much: $30 – $130  Info: (213) 972-4400 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

 

Hold Onto Your Funny Bone: “Something Rotten!” Roasts Both Shakespeare and Musicals

The cast of “Something Rotten!” at the Ahmanson Theatre through December 31, 2017. [Photo: Jeremy Daniel]

There are many different slants on what makes a Broadway musical worth seeing. In some cases, the focus is on message or depth of story line. In others it may be the music itself, or the choreography, or the star performing in it. In rare cases there is a moment of particular spectacle which cannot be duplicated in any other art form, and which proves so completely theatrical the entire production is put on pause until the roar of applause subsides.

Which is why, if you love musicals, you will do yourself a treat to take in Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick’s “Something Rotten,” now at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Wry, silly and satirical, it includes one of the most complete show-stoppers in recent memory: “A Musical” is almost indescribably silly, paying homage to virtually every possible style, form, or substance of Broadway musical from the past 70 years or more, all in six minutes. It is not to be missed.

Not only this, but the show starts with another number nearly as clever, and adds a third rollicking one toward its close.

A send-up of musicals, Shakespeare, vapid writing, and ever so many other things, “Something Rotten” welcomes you to the Renaissance England. There The Bard is literally a rock star, and Nick Bottom is trying to find a niche for himself and his brother Nigel as a duo of playwright and director before their patron pulls his financial backing.

Desperate, he goes to a rather scattered sooth sayer to find out what Shakespeare’s next great hit will be, so he can steal it. Armed with an imperfect answer, Nick embarks on “Omelet the Musical”. The results prove just as bad as that sounds, while Shakespeare sneaks in to steal the best lines for himself. But the story isn’t the point, which is good because it gets rather uneven by the end. Rather, the constant use of Shakespearean dialogue in non sequitur ways, the many references to the Broadway musicals (some of them delightfully subtle) and the constantly raging subtexts are the real focus.

Among a list of characters almost entirely sharing names with the rough peasants in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” or the protagonists of “The Merchant of Venice,” Rob Mcclure is the brashly ambitious Nick, played to the hilt as a man of rather hopeless ambition. Josh Grisetti gives the meek, poetic brother Nigel an innocent charm which plays well against the brash Nick.

As his love interest Portia, the rebellious daughter of a Puritan, Autumn Hurlbert matches Nigel’s earnest love of words and general niceness in ways which balance the crazy silliness of brother Nick’s storyline. As Nick’s practical wife Bea, Maggie Lakis delights, spending much of her time being a woman who dons men’s clothing (a regular Shakespearean trope) to work at jobs which support her husband’s dreams, later doing so again to save him in more direct ways. Nick Rashad Burroughs gives the occasional narrator, a minstrel, a compelling presence from the first curtain-rise.

Still, it is beyond these central characters that the true charm of this show appears. Blake Hammond proves a hoot as the somewhat iffy prognosticator, Nostradamus. Scott Cote, as Portia’s Puritan preacher father, makes subtle (and not so subtle) statements about the hypocrisy of many a religious fanatic, all with body language. Yet all these pale next to Adam Pascal’s Shakespeare, in leather jacket and bling, providing the slippery, stagey Elvis-like icon cashing in on presence.

Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw is the reason all this works so well. So much of the comedy is physical, and so much of the pacing is critical, that his direction is key to the success of the entire venture. In this he is aided by Gregg Barnes costumes, which emphasize the more unique aspects of Elizabethan era clothing, and Scott Pask’s layered quick-changing set.

Truth be told, “Something Rotten” is not a perfect musical, but it is often very entertaining, ranging from snicker-amusing to full-guffaw funny. And those ridiculously delicious spectacular numbers are worth it all. We could all use a laugh in these tough times. Anyone who loves the Broadway musical art form will find a lot to laugh at. Go see.

Stunning “Fun Home”: A Musical Balance of Whimsey and Heartbreak

The three Alisons, Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan and Alessandra Baldacchino in "Fun Home" at the Ahmanson [Photo: Joan Marcus]

The three Alisons, Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan and Alessandra Baldacchino in “Fun Home” at the Ahmanson [Photo: Joan Marcus]

It is rare to say that one has seen a musical without a flaw – or at least a flaw that doesn’t serve the purpose of the work – yet that is what must be said of the musical “Fun Home,” just opened at the Ahmanson Theatre. The winner of 5 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the show is adapted from the award-winning, autobiographic graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. On stage, one watches the tale that Bechdel told in her book, while at the same time watching the artist wrestle with its creation. This all works with a wit and pathos which proves engaging from start to finish.

“Fun Home” (a family euphemism for the family business – a funeral home) is the story of Bechdel’s coming of age in a tiny Pennsylvania town, focused on two competing forces: her relationship with her autocratic, esthete of a father (whose life in the closet informs his connection with his family) and her coming to terms with her own lesbianism.

Utilizing three versions of Alison at the same time, it features the 43-year-old cartoonist Alison, the 19-year-old “Medium Alison” in her discovery-filled first year at Oberlin, and the 10-year-old “Small Alison” trying to figure out the hows and whys of her particular, peculiar world. These three, played quite brilliantly by a wry Kate Shindle, a wide-eyed Abby Corrigan and an extraordinary Alessandra Baldacchino respectively, center the piece in its convoluted but engrossing character studies as Alison bounces off the people who formed her understanding of self.

Alessandra Baldacchino, Pierson Salvador, and Lennon Nate Hammond in one of the funniest moments from "Fun Home" [photo: Joan Marcus]

Alessandra Baldacchino, Pierson Salvador, and Lennon Nate Hammond in one of the funniest moments from “Fun Home” [photo: Joan Marcus]


As musicals go, this one defies some of the usual conventions. The songs of Jeanine Tesori, who composed the music, and Lisa Kron, who wrote the lyrics as well as the book, prove organic to the tale itself, moving with ease from delightful silliness to deep introspection in ways which may not be immediately hummable but rather become emotional touchstones within the larger tale. In their lighter moments, the charm is radiant, as one realizes early on when Small Alison and her two smaller brothers (Pierson Salvador and Lennon Nate Hammond) create their own ridiculously upbeat commercial for the funeral home, after being caught playing inside a casket.

In darker moments, they provide the vehicle for understanding the interior wrestlings of Alison’s parents, as they sing their inexpressibles. As her father, a popular local English teacher with an obsession for antiquities which extends to his museum-like restoration of their home, Robert Petkoff’s every move evokes subtle hints of the man’s internal struggles. Susan Moniz gives her mother, the ballast of this tense and exacting household, a particular form of rigidity rooted in both knowledge and anger.

As Alison’s college girlfriend, Karen Eilbacher moves with an ease which describes her comfortable self-knowledge, creating a door for Alison’s own. Robert Hager rounds out the cast, and underscores the father’s angst and sense of shame, as a series of separate and distinct young men who attract his illicit fancy. Which may give the impression that “Fun Home” is grim. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Though there are moments of deep sadness and guilt, this is essentially the story of self-discovery, and the joy to be found in being oneself.

Director Sam Gold keeps the thing fluid, as David Zinn’s costumes and sometimes minimalist sets make one able to look backward and forward at the show’s critical moments. Danny Mefford’s choreography utilizes the children’s gifts most remarkably, while Chris Fenwick’s musical supervision, and Micah Young’s musical direction of the onstage orchestra, links the real and the fantastical into a most satisfying whole.

“Fun Home” is, in the end, a whole-body experience. Played in 90 minutes, without intermission, its slow build keeps one enthralled until the shock and understanding of ending – one which tends to propel the watcher to his or her enthusiastic feet.

What: “Fun Home” When: Through April 1, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with added 2 p.m. performance March 30 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, in the Music Center 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $125 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“A View From the Bridge” – Disturbingly Current, Classically Miller

L-R: Catherine Combs (obscured), Dave Register, Alex Esola, Andrus Nichols (obscured), Frederick Weller and Thomas Jay Ryan in the Young Vic production of “A View From the Bridge at the Ahmanson Theatre. [Photo: Jan Versweyveld]

L-R: Catherine Combs (obscured), Dave Register, Alex Esola, Andrus Nichols (obscured), Frederick Weller and Thomas Jay Ryan in the Young Vic production of “A View From the Bridge at the Ahmanson Theatre. [Photo: Jan Versweyveld]

As anyone who has taken a basic college American literature course probably knows, one of the elements which always set the plays of Arthur Miller apart from those of his contemporaries is the connection of American male archetypes to the standard structure of Greek tragedy. Most especially, this involves the concept of the “fatal flaw” – the essential character glitch which leads a man down a path of destruction, entirely due to his own actions or understandings.

Now the intense New Vic production of one of Miller’s greatest works, “A View from the Bridge” has arrived at the Ahmanson straight from New York, where it won a host of honors, including two Tony Awards. As a production it is stunning: contained (both literally and figuratively), visceral and achingly tragic. Given the current political climate, it also proves disturbingly timely for a piece written in the mid-1950s.

The tale concerns life in an Italian-American neighborhood near the Brooklyn Bridge, one closely associated with the dockworkers at New York Harbor. Based on an actual tale told to Miller by a longshoreman, it concerns Eddie, who has developed an obsessive love for Catherine, the orphaned niece he has helped to raise. When his wife Beatrice arranges for two cousins to enter the country illegally from Italy, and Catherine falls in love with one of them, Eddie’s possessiveness explodes.

One of the things which sets this work apart from other Miller works is the use of a sort of chorus, or narrator. He appears in the form of Alfieri, the lawyer who grew up in the same neighborhood and now provides what legal help he can for those who run afoul of local law, immigration or other elements of this insular community. This addition is at once both clarifying and disturbing.

Director Ivo Van Hove has created a sense of watching a man in a cage of his own making, utilizing Jan Versweyveld’s box-like cube of a set to define the limitations of both Eddie’s understanding and ability to exercise the control he feels is necessary to his manhood. As a result, we as an audience are as much voyeurs as Alfieri is, watching a possibly preventable tragedy happen without being able to do anything about it.

Frederick Weller leads the cast as Eddie, played as a man constantly wound tight by his need for control. His whole body often seems to sock the air he walks through, as if to underscore his sense of manliness. This, contrasted with the two cousins hiding in his home.

Alex Esola’s Marco, a passionate and terrified family man arrived in the US to make money on the docks for his starving family at home, still operates with the ease of a man comfortable in his own physicality. Dave Register’s gentle Rodolpho moves with the lightheartedness of a man in love with life and the promise of a new country. Their intimidation factor, for Eddie, is thus as much a matter of muscle ease and tension as it is of plot.

As Catherine, Catherine Combs creates a girl at once childlike and womanly – still greeting the father-figure she sees in Eddie with a kind of girlish abandon, and yet smitten by Rodolpho’s enthusiasm for life.  Andrus Nichols’ Beatrice balances emotional fatigue, innate jealousy and observational disquiet as she watches the dangerous dance the rest of the cast engages in. All this is bound together by the contextual narration of Thomas Jay Ryan’s almost flaccid Alfieri – a man with knowledge, but no power over anything the play contains, and a lawyer’s understated admiration for the straightforward seething which provides the story’s foundation.

Through all of it are Miller’s searing words which pound in the individual struggles: the tension between family loyalty and rigid neighborhood codes of conduct, Eddie’s desperate need to justify his growing hatred of Rodolpho by suggesting his lack of manly qualities, the struggle of Catherine to be seen as a woman, and of Beatrice to be seen as a wife. And always Marco, moving in quiet desperation as his children starve back home.

In short, this is a very good production of a very good, if disturbing play. Van Hove’s choreographic direction creates an elemental rhythm which gives the production its heartbeat. The use of a classic requiem as background underscores the feel of watching the death of an entire world in small. And each member of this polished and gut-wrenching ensemble gets all one can from the characters one can’t take one’s eyes off of, like watching a spectacular car crash.

Miller is always worth watching. This production is up to the mastery of the words.

What: “A View From The Bridge” When: Through October 16, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with one 2 p.m. Thursday performance October 13 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $125 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup. org

“Gentleman’s Guide…” at the Ahmanson: A Must See

 (L-R)  Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella Hallward, Kevin Massey as Monty Navarro and Adrienne Eller as Phoebe D'Ysquith in perhaps the funniest scene from "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder." [Photo: Joan Marcus]

(L-R) Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella Hallward, Kevin Massey as Monty Navarro and Adrienne Eller as Phoebe D’Ysquith in perhaps the funniest scene from “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.” [Photo: Joan Marcus]

Just a few seconds into the first act of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre there is no doubt as to why it won the 2014 Tony Award for best musical. Cleverly written, charming to look at, and fall-out-of-your-chair funny at times, it embodies the wry satire one usually associates with the best British comedies. Add some truly stunning performances, and everyone who loves theater should be running, not walking to the box office to buy tickets.

To say that this is, essentially, the memoir of a man awaiting the verdict in his murder trial doesn’t say enough. To say this is the tale of the son of a woman disinherited by her noble family who plots to eliminate all those who stand in the way of his ascendency to the family Earldom would also not say enough. Combine all of this with the best elements of farce, commedia del arte, and the classic American musical, and that might come close.

Kevin Massey creates this man, one Monty Navarro, who finds out upon his mother’s death in 1907 that he is related to the extensive, noble, and extremely snobbish D’Ysquith family. Angered that his mother was disowned for marrying for love, he vows to get even. Massey gives his character an innate innocence, both in love and revenge, which makes him absolutely endearing and often extremely funny.

Balanced against Massey most often, the remarkable John Rapson creates the entire D’Ysquith family, distinct individual by distinct individual. When the chorus starts to sing “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?” the observer has met most of them and watched them go in ways which prove funnier and funnier as time goes on, thanks both to Rapson’s sense of abandon and to the delightfully creative staging of director Darko Tresnjak.

Of course, this isn’t just about murder. As Monty’s longtime passion, Sibilla, Kristen Beth Williams strikes just the right note of vapidity and egocentrism. Playing counterpoint as Phoebe, the D’Ysquith cousin increasingly drawn to Monty, Adrienne Eller proves bookish, charming, and dynamic by turns. Indeed, the high point of the entire show may easily be the second act song in which Monty must balance himself between Sibilla in one room and Phoebe in another while trying to keep either from finding out the other is there.

Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak’s songs underscore the show’s silliness and help keep the pacing crisp. Add to this an ensemble of significant talent, place the thing on Alexander Dodge’s fascinatingly Victorian-yet-mobile set, grace it with Aaron Rhyne’s often hysterically animated projected backgrounds, Linda Cho’s amazingly quick-changeable costumes, and director Tresnjak’s whipcrack pacing, and you have an absolute delight from start to finish.

In short, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” offers the best lighthearted moment in the theater one could possibly expect. And sometimes, particularly when it’s this clever, this is one of the great gifts good theater can give to a troubled time.

What: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” When: Through May 1, 8 p.m. ‘Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $130 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“An Act of God” at the Ahmanson: Faith, Cleverness, and a Challenge

Sean Hayes (center) certainly knows how to make an entrance, with James Gleason (L) and David Josefsberg (R) in “An Act of God. [Photo: Jim Cox]

Sean Hayes (center) certainly knows how to make an entrance, with James Gleason (L) and David Josefsberg (R) in “An Act of God. [Photo: Jim Cox]

It’s an interesting concept – one that could, I suppose, only be carried off by someone with the experience at satire and irreverence which comes from a background in such as “The Daily Show.” Bring God down to earth, have Him take the form of a well-known actor, and then let Him share, preach, pontificate and even hand down new commandments for the next 90 minutes, with a bit of angelic assistance. Give the enterprise impressive staging and special effects to enhance the humor, and then sit back to see which audience members laugh the most.

Those are the essentials of David Javerbaum’s “An Act of God,” just opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Sean Hayes, best known for his award-winning stint as Jack McFarland on “Will and Grace,” is God, or rather has been inhabited by God, who figures that being incorporeal might cause confusion. Hayes makes God chummy and snippy, intimate while offering up gossip, testy when crossed and ready to tackle everything from humanity’s false gods to its overarching judgementalism.

It’s a neat trick and Hayes pulls the thing off with a deceptive sense of ease, even on an opening night when his voice was giving him problems. Assisted by David Josefberg and James Gleason as the angels Michael and Gabriel respectively, he answers “questions” from the audience, interacts with Biblical stories and concepts, and chats about God’s kids – particularly Jesus whose visit to earth impressed his father for reasons you might not expect.

The thing is fairly static, as Hayes sits on a coach most of the time. Michael roams the orchestra section of the audience in order to give the impression of a question and answer session. Gabriel reads snips from the Bible, when asked, and shares God’s sense of humor over some of the more odd elements. Much of the dramatic element comes from Scott Pask’s otherworldly set design and Peter Nigrini’s extremely elaborate and animated projections. Under director Joe Mantello, the whole thing is more of a costumed lecture than a standard play.

But it works. At least, it works if you have some background in what the play is talking about, and a willingness to laugh at something many people are uncomfortable even questioning. The more skeptical, or at least liberal you are in relation to religious belief, the funnier you will find “An Act of God.” Also, the more you know of the items God references during the play, the more humor there is to be pulled from it.

Indeed, on opening night the audience seemed to fall into one of four categories: those who found just about every skewering of religion hysterical, those who laughed at the home truths encased within a discussion of the religion they believe in, those who were left clueless on occasion as they didn’t get the references, and those who were offended that someone would even write something like this. Thus, it depends on how well you handle satire related to – almost literally – sacred cows, as to whether you will find this comedy as funny as it often is.

It is very funny. Hayes is terrific, and at the very end achieves even greater humor in ways you have to see to totally “get.” Josefberg and Gleason enhance the tale with very specific senses of character without ever stealing focus from what has to be the main attraction. The show is fast-paced and engaging, and only when it ends to you realize how long you have been sitting still.

So, use the above as filter, but I thoroughly suggest going to see “An Act of God.” It’s worth it just to watch Sean Hayes do what he does so well, but it is also a chance – particularly for those whose religion is far more open-minded than what the media portrays as Christianity these days – to hear with great humor an alternative to the narrow conservative dogma which has so divided this nation. And yes, Javerbaum not only wrote for Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show,” he co-authored Stewart’s two “history” books with him. He’s good at poking fun at the stuffier elements of anything, but at this point in time getting people to lighten up on religion seems a good thing to aim for.

What: “An Act of God” When: Through March 13, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with one 2 p.m. performance Thursday, March 10 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $130 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“The Bridges of Madison County” at the Ahmanson: Great Songs, Elaborated Story

Andrew Samonsky and Elizabeth Stanley in the Tony Award-winning "The Bridges of Madison County" at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. [Photo: Matthew Murphy]

Andrew Samonsky and Elizabeth Stanley in the Tony Award-winning “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. [Photo: Matthew Murphy]

I admit to much anticipation about the arrival of Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown’s musical adaptation of “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Ahmanson. From everyone I’d talked to who’d seen it in New York, the music was extraordinary. Indeed, the Tony Awards it received were both to Brown for the insightful lyrics and music, and for the lushly emotional orchestrations. What nobody discussed much was the book of the thing – the script. Everyone knows “The Bridges of Madison County” from either the novel or the wildly popular 1995 film, yet this was rarely mentioned, perhaps in part because it is a variation on the known.

And herein lies the problem. For anyone deeply attached to the storyline as they know it from those other, older sources, award-winning playwright Marsha Norman’s spin will cause some awkwardness. Unlike the novel, this time the story is told strongly from Francesca’s point of view. And the tale covers much larger ground, taking us back to the Naples from which she came, and forward to the end – not just of the immediate romance – but the longer, more complex lives of the two protagonists. The emotional struggle is there, and perhaps even more mature than before, but the question marks are gone.

Having never seen the film or read the book, I was freed from expectation, though I did take someone with me who was familiar with both. Still, for those around me who were enthusiastic, it was obvious that the music was the thing. Brown, who is conducting during the Los Angeles run, even has his own fan base: clumps of young people raced to the orchestra pit at show’s end to have a word with him. And there’s reason. The word “rich” is overused for theatrical scores, but here it is absolutely correct. The combination of profound lyrics which move people and even plot forward and this emotional swirl of music which matches the timbre of character and passion so precisely creates the essential reason to see this show performed live.

As for story, it’s fairly well known by now. Francesca, a WWII war bride from Italy, lives on a farm in the small town of Winterset, Iowa. It’s 1965, and her husband Bud and teenaged children have taken a prize steer to a major competition leaving her behind – a situation which she is very comfortable with. When a National Geographic photographer named Robert comes to her door, lost while looking for the last of a series of local covered bridges he is to capture for the magazine, there is an instant rapport. This turns quickly into a whirlwind and heated romance – a kind of passion Francesca has never known before, and a connection which surprises Robert at its intensity. Then, as Bud and family return, comes Francesca’s choice. The difference this time is we see where that choice takes her.

Elizabeth Stanley is Francesca, convincingly a farm woman while still radiating a sense of tamped down expectation. Her operatic voice gives grounding to the songs of questioning and of discovery she sings. Andrew Samonsky’s ruggedly handsome Robert carries himself with a confidence born of independence, yet softens into songs of yearning (“Temporarily Lost” proves particularly heart-tugging) and of passion which round out his character in non stereotypical ways. In critical supporting roles, Cullen R. Titmas turns Bud into a deeply caring soul aware that his passion for his wife is not returned in the same measure, but loving her all the same. Mary Callanan is a hoot as the nosey, but empathetic neighbor who underscores for Francesca that she is not alone. David Hess, as the neighbor’s lightheartedly devoted husband has some great comic bits all his own.

What makes this musical work as much as it does, beyond that warm, enveloping score, is the quality and maturity of the lyrics. These are grown people handling grown yearnings – wistful, inquiring, loving, frustrated, passionate – and their complexity is reflected in what they sing far more than in what they say. Which is all to say that the reason to see “The Bridges of Madison County” is to be swept away by that element. Stage musicals have that capacity to make song into dialogue in a way which really doesn’t translate at the same power level to any other medium. Here it is key, and well worth taking the time to stop and listen, even if the way the story has been laid out seems somewhat dissonant, at least as it is carried further than the novel, from expectation.

What: “The Bridges of Madison County” When: Through January 17, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, except for December 24 and 25 and January 1 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $130 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“The Sound of Music” at the Ahmanson Shines Like New

Kerstin Anderson plays Maria, here surrounded by the Von Trapp children, in the brand new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’'s “The Sound of Music,” starting its national tour at the Ahmanson. [Photo: Matthew Murphy]

Kerstin Anderson plays Maria, here surrounded by the Von Trapp children, in the brand new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’’s “The Sound of Music,” starting its national tour at the Ahmanson. [Photo: Matthew Murphy]

Like most people of my generation, “The Sound of Music” has been a constant since childhood. I was taken to see the film during its first Hollywood run, complete with the Bill Baird puppets in the theater’s show window. Though generally not one to like a film of a Broadway show over the original, I admit to having been underwhelmed by the between 18 and 20 renditions of the original, stage version of the show I have seen since I hit adulthood. In my experience, that Broadway musical (including the “live” television production a couple of years ago) tends to lack the energy, romance and pathos which charged the later film.

Then came the new production just born at the Ahmanson, prior to an extensive national tour. The clearest metaphor I can come up with is that moment when an art curator cleans centuries of dirt and varnish off of a finely crafted painting: suddenly the thing looks bright and new. So does this venerable piece. And what a delight this metamorphosis is to watch.

The tale was adapted from the autobiography of Maria Von Trapp. As we all know, a young postulant named Maria is assigned from her abbey to become governess to the children of a distinguished and wealthy World War I naval officer. The Captain, his seven children, the wealthy and manipulative baroness interested in the Captain, the apolitical concert promoter, even the warmhearted housekeeper and nascent Nazis are all in place. The Rodgers and Hammerstein songs have become almost cliche they are so universally known, and the story’s underscore of love’s battle with self-focus and rising evil becomes remarkably fresh in this new rendition.

Of the many things this production does right, the absolute key is casting. Rather than going for big names who either don’t connect with each other or can’t get under the characters’ skins, this one goes for people who become organic to the story and create the elemental interconnection which makes the piece work so well.

Young Kerstin Anderson is Maria: radiating a genuine and unabashed innocence and enthusiasm which proves absolutely infectious. Ben Davis changes Captain Von Trapp from the usual frosty man in need of a dose of humanity into a deeply human but deeply hurt widower who has retreated into a world he can control. Thus, the life which bounds from him when he opens up makes the show shimmer.

Also importantly, the overtly privileged Baroness Schraeder and the charming but untrustworthy Max Detweiler, in the hands of Teri Hansen and Merwin Foard, bring back into focus the smarmy bits of the story: two people willing to adjust to invasion and domination as long as their own personal worlds remain afloat. Ashley Brown brings down the house as the Reverend Mother – finding humor and pathos in her unwieldy charge, and the need to referee among her larger flock. Darren Mathias and Donna Garner create rounded characters from the Captain’s servants, and Carey Rebecca Brown – as both the annoyed Sister Berthe and a surprised party guest – creates memorable moments in characters onstage for only short moments.

As for the children, they manage a genuine quality while singing and dancing like old pros. Most especially, Paige Silvester’s Liesl proves a breath of fresh air, as she makes the girl really look and act like a 16-year-old, rather than someone pretending to be that young. By contrast – and it is the only questionable casting in the piece – Dan Tracy’s Rolf may sing that he is 17, but he looks about 25, which gives a bit of a creepy undertone to his sequences with the young Liesl.

Still, to stop at casting would be to miss the totality which lies at the feet of director Jack O’Brien. It is he who has created the sense of ensemble and the flow of the piece. Indeed, his use of Douglas W. Schmidt’s fascinatingly mobile, modular set keeps the story moving in such a fluid way one is surprised time has flown so quickly. Costume designer Jane Greenwood seats her artistry clearly in both the period and the Austrian countryside, right down to the lederhosen (though Rolf’s don’t seem to fit quite right). Danny Mefford’s choreography manages the feel of the traditional without once becoming a copy of what one is used to.

In short, this “The Sound of Music” has tensions and realities left out of the filmed version. The Nazis are genuinely scary, and genuinely seductive to some of the characters. The threat to the Von Trapps, and even the tensions between the German military and the Gestapo lie just under the surface as the tale plays out. The songs have more of a point, and the innocent warmheartedness of Maria becomes both a healer and its own kind of threat to those who care only for themselves. And the singing is absolutely gorgeous.

So, go see “The Sound of Music,” as it will be unlike any other you have encountered, even for those of us who think we’ve seen it all. And then there are those for whom it is new. One of the evening’s most charming moments came as Maria is about to leave the Von Trapp family, and a patron in the row behind me, who had obviously never seen the thing before, began chanting under her breath, “Oh, don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.” Admittedly, this is a classic American musical of the kind they don’t make anymore. But Oscar Hammerstein was in his own way the first to put social commentary into what had been up until then mostly musical entertainment. To see that highlighted again – for the first time in a long time – is a joy indeed.

What: “The Sound of Music” When: Through October 31, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays with a 2 p.m. performance Thursday, October 29 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $150 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“Matilda” Delights: Roald Dahl-based musical proves it’s a hit

The kids win the day in "Matilda" at the Ahmanson [Photo: Joan Marcus]

The kids win the day in “Matilda” at the Ahmanson
[Photo: Joan Marcus]


Every once in a very great while a show turns up which absolutely transcends the usual enthusiasms for a work of theater. Such a production is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s outrageous, impressive blast of fresh air, “Matilda: The Musical”, Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s glorious take on the Roald Dahl novel. Very British, very edgy as only Dahl could be edgy, very raucously alive, the show is as theatrical as you can get. At the end its audience doesn’t applaud, they roar – cheering performance, message and musical all at once. No wonder it ran away with the British Olivier Awards, then picked up four Tonys.

Now, at the Ahmanson, this show’s first national tour begins. Don’t miss it, as this is quite simply a show you truly do want to be able to say that you saw.

The story isn’t simple. What Dahl story is? Still, the basics surround a brilliant young girl who, despite having the most ferociously plebeian parents, develops an absolute passion for reading, and for that innate sense of right and wrong she learns from books and her own inner voice. As she enters a very British school, she battles her proudly ignorant parents, as well as a child-hating headmistress, all the while enthralling the local librarian with her stories and her timid teacher with her unselfconscious brilliance.

Mabel Tyler in the National Tour of “Matilda The Musical.” [Photo:  Joan Marcus]

Mabel Tyler in the National Tour of “Matilda The Musical.” [Photo: Joan Marcus]

Mabel Tyler – who rotates with two other girls, Gabby Gutierrez and Mia Sinclair Jenness, in the part – makes a delightful Matilda: quick, tuneful and filled with directed energy which powers the rest of the production. Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfeld have an absolutely wonderful time as Matilda’s comically, yet recognizably loathsome parents. Ora Jones creates peaceful safe space as the appreciative, enthusiastic librarian. Jennifer Blood has an innate sweetness as the earnest young teacher.

The children, most particularly Luke Kolbe Mannikus as the somewhat heroic Bruce and Serena Quadrato as the spoiled but friendly Lavender, are absolutely amazing. Filled with energy, vocal expertise and dance skills which would power an adult chorus (and adult “older versions of themselves” do occasionally join), they bring to life some of the show’s best songs and most telling lyrics, and are generally so engaging one must step back to realize how young some of them are. Also worthy of note, Danny Tieger has fun as Matilda’s monosyllabic older brother, and Jaquez Andre Sims has a ball playing the mother’s ballroom dance partner.

Bryce Ryness is the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull in "Matilda: The Musical" at the Ahmanson  Photo by Joan Marcus

Bryce Ryness is the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull in “Matilda: The Musical” at the Ahmanson
Photo by Joan Marcus


Yet, most central to the story itself is Bryce Ryness’s evil headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. In keeping with the tradition of English panto – and this production was born out of that tradition, as an RSC holiday treat – this dominating figure is played by a man. Ryness uses his height to tower over the children, and becomes a kind of live cartoon in the best eerie sense of the word. It is a performance which must be seen to be fully processed.

The consistent quality of the main performers, and that of the impressive ensemble surrounding them, are accomplished on Rob Howell’s fantastical, yet recognizable set. He has also designed the costumes, making the more disgusting adult characters just enough outlandish to be seen through a child’s eyes at the same time the sympathetic characters have a special brand of shine. The illusions of Paul Kieve add to this even further. The polish is everywhere, and the sense of a unified whole helps the story charge along.

Indeed, that energy, that unity, that sense of empathy and of being on the edge of your seat even at the most outrageous moments comes in large part thanks to the vision of director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling. Between them they have created Dahl’s comprehensive world and brought it in all its gleaming newness to the public. It simply never stops moving, and that’s a good thing.

One caution, and it is an important one. The Ahmanson has some spaces, particularly along the edges of the orchestra where one ends up under overhangs, which can make it hard to hear clearly. This is unfortunate, as the lyrics are clever and propel parts of the story. Overcome that, and you will have the time of your life. Please note that this is appropriate for children (after all, that’s who Dahl wrote it for in the first place), although very young ones may not catch on all that well.

All in all, what “Matilda: The Musical” does is show off the qualities which keep live theater important. By bringing in a younger audience they are also training the audience of the future, and perhaps inspiring the performers of the future as well. As with all Dahl works, the show has things to say, this time about love and sacrifice, and quite a bit about parenting. Many an adult could afford to listen. Kudos to RSC for deciding to keep the show and its material singularly English. If the Harry Potter series taught us all nothing else, it taught us that American kids can translate all that better than adults think they can.

What: “Matilda: The Musical” When: Through July 12, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $175 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

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