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“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

Do I Hear a Waltz? I Do! – “Cinderella at the Ahmanson”

Paige Faure and Andy Huntington Jones in the reimagined Rogers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella"

Paige Faure and Andy Huntington Jones in the reimagined Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella”


For anyone who grew up in the particular age of television that I did, one of the two or three annual television events you waited for was the re-airing of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” remarkable at the time for being the only major musical written for television. Along with “The Wizard of Oz” and “Peter Pan,” it was one we could all sing along with – or even giggle at, as we got older and more “sophisticated.”

Of course, the one we all adore was neither the first R&H “Cinderella” for TV, nor the last. A live broadcast of a somewhat different rendition was the original, filmed in New York on a Monday in 1957. That’s when Broadway musical stars – including its first Cinderella, Julie Andrews – were sprung from their usual nightly performances. It was cut and changed some for the 1965 Leslie Ann Warren version we all knew, and then the show was rewritten again, slightly, for Brandy’s 1997 broadcast.

Now it’s on stage, and at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Using a new book by Douglas Carter Beane (a radical thing for the normally protective Rogers and Hammerstein Trust) and injecting music by Rogers and lyrics by Hammerstein gleaned from their archives as well as the more familiar pieces, this “Cinderella” aims to appeal to a different age. This prince is more nuanced. This Cinderella is somewhat more responsible for her own future. One of the step-sisters is even nice. It takes some adjustment, but after awhile one must admit this newer-than-new version has great visual and emotional appeal.

Paige Faure makes a delightfully likable Ella (or Cinderella) – smart, if somewhat despairing and more wowed than swept off her feet. Andy Huntington Jones gives the prince (and he gets a nickname too: Topher) a youthful bashfulness which works far better than the overt sense of privilege one usually sees. Branch Woodman provides the conniving senior minister, and Antoine L. Smith the noble, but surprisable town crier.

Aymee Garcia makes a deliciously ridiculous step-sister, voicing every spoiled child’s misguided attitude. Kaitlyn Davidson gives an interesting turn as the other step-sister, whose love for an earnest social critic allows her perspective on both her sister and Cinderella. David Andino makes an interesting addition as the somewhat bumbling revolutionary.

Indeed, all the cast do well. The show proves to be a festival of singing and colorful dancing, with characters kept just stereotypical enough to be fun and lighthearted. The one real question mark in the casting is the venerable Fran Drescher as the evil stepmother. Thing is, she really can’t sing. That famous raspy voice may be comic, but is a sign of vocal damage. In a show which is all about music, she just isn’t up to the rest of the cast.

Still, this “Cinderella” has many charms. One of the best is the Tony-winning costuming of William Ivey Long, which is quite literally magical. And, of course, even as there is more social commentary, and a significant increase in political correctness, there is the classic Broadway choreography of Josh Rhodes sweeping through the piece under the watchful eye of director Mark Brokaw, who still leads us to the romantic magic of it all.

So, go. Take the kids. There are special treats for them, and it’s just the kind of swoony thing they’ll remember for a long time. Just ask my companion, who looking back to our youth, was singing along with the most romantic pieces (albeit under her breath).

What: “Cinderella” When: Through April 26, 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: $125 – $40 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

What a Way to Go! – “Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye” at the Ahmanson

 Barry Humphries in  “Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye – The Farewell Tour.”  [Photo: Matt Jelonek]

Barry Humphries in “Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye – The Farewell Tour.”
[Photo: Matt Jelonek]

For the past 60+ years, the extraordinary character of Dame Edna Everidge has been a larger-than-life satiric send-up of megalomania and excess on stages large and small throughout the English-speaking world. Beginning in Melbourne, Australia in the 1950s, this wild creation of Barry Humphries has developed a fan base which includes the British royal family and celebrities from Joan Rivers to Burt Reynolds among a host of others. She won a Tony, too, along the way. Always literally glittering, with her signature flamboyantly bat-winged glasses and her “naturally purple” hair, Dame Edna is unmistakable, as audience after hysterically-laughing audience can attest.

Yet, she, and her 80-year-old creator, are also deciding to slow down. Thus, “Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye: The Farewell Tour” has landed at the Ahmanson Theatre. After stints in Australia, Britain, and “all the major cities,” the show has hit Los Angeles, which Dame Edna dubs the home of “some of the smartest people”, to allow us all one last glimpse of a unique talent, and a dying, vaudeville-esque art form exquisitely done. This is something to be celebrated – Dame Edna has lost none of her bite or her panache.

From her opening salvos (looking out at the audience, “you’ve aged!”), to honoring “the paupers” in the upper balconies and abjuring them to hold on tight so they don’t fall out of their seats, to the ribbing of front-row patrons for the size of their houses, their fashion sense, or their age, she is sharp, pointed, occasionally a bit scatological, and consistently, bitingly funny. Humphries has underscored in interviews that satire is the process of saying exactly the opposite of what you mean in order to point out the ridiculousness of your opposition. Dame Edna is expert at that, and the pace never wavers.

In the second half, Dame Edna admits to having returned from an ashram in India where she claims to have found wisdom and given up “the cult of celebrity.” Indeed, she assures her “possums” – as she calls her audiences – that she had been “following a false god.”

Dame Edna celebrates her ashram experience

Dame Edna celebrates her ashram experience

Of course, her version of eschewing celebrity still comes with a quartet of dancers (Ralph Coppola, Brooke Pascoe, Eve Prideaux and Armando Yearwood, Jr.), a most glamorous, vaguely Indian outfit, and ostrich feather fans. That’s how this comic icon finds her bliss.

And this is and has always been the essence of Dame Edna. From her silly songs, accompanied by Jonathan Tessero on the piano, to her pointed skewering of the pompous, the self-righteous, or the faddish, she has become such a rounded character that, as she flings out her signature gladiolas for everyone to wave and “tremble,” the audience follows her in cheerful glee. The energy never stops for a moment. As she disappears near the end, replaced by a remarkable video of Dame Edna’s long career, Humphries himself appears, in jaunty Victorian smoking jacket and rakish fedora. He speaks with fondness of his creation and his long career, and though it appears it must be, doesn’t quite close the door on the idea that he and Dame Edna may only be saying farewell for now.

Dame Edna is not Humphries’ only creation, though she is the most famous. And though she may be retiring, Humphries does not intend to disappear from the public eye, though the spoken goal is for this octogenarian to slow down, devote more time to his painting, and perhaps – at least close to home – take out one of his other creations for an occasional spin. Still, Dame Edna is a powerful thing to lay aside – so real that her 90s memoir “My Glorious Life” ended up on bookstores’ non-fiction shelves. Though we say farewell, there is always the vague hope we will meet again. On the chance that might not happen, don’t fail to take in her Glorious Goodbye. You won’t regret it for a second.

What: “Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye” When: through March 15, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. Sundays, with additional performances at 6:30 p.m. Sundays February 8, 15 and 24, 8 p.m. Tuesdays February 10, 17 and 24, and 2 p.m. March 5 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $115 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“Blithe Spirit” at the Ahmanson: Spiritualism, Cynicism, Comedy, and a Star

Angela Lansbury, in her Tony-winning role, headlines the cast of "Blithe Spirit" at the Ahmanson

Angela Lansbury, in her Tony-winning role, headlines the cast of “Blithe Spirit” at the Ahmanson

When a classic play is revived, there are several reasons to go see it, if it’s done well. The first is to rediscover an old friend, particularly a beloved one. The second is, in the case of a major professional production, often to see a famous person or persons play a part he or she has wanted to do a long time. If the results of either desire are met, the show can be considered a satisfying success. Of course, sometimes the results can stun – become more powerful than either of the expectations above would prepare one for – as in Cecily Tyson’s recent “The Trip to Bountiful” – but one should not expect that. More often, as in the production of “Blithe Spirit” which has just arrived at the Ahmanson, the result proves satisfying in large part because of the juxtaposition of an experienced actor or actress having fun, and an old friend of a play: well done, even if not stunning.

The Noel Coward classic appears here in a touring production fashioned on the 2009 revival which won Angela Lansbury her fifth Tony Award. Well produced, the result is funny and almost appealingly grating, just as it should be. The story itself has much to say about relationship – a theme to which Coward returned with absolute regularity.

Charles Condomine, a skeptical novelist living in a British village, invites the local medium to conduct a seance at the house he shares with his second wife, Ruth, as part of research into a new book. In the process of the seance, and to his shock, his first wife’s ghost appears, but only to him. The misconstructions and chaos begin almost immediately, witnessed by the seance’s other participants – a practical doctor and his wife. The anxieties which erupt are only exacerbated by an uptight village girl-housemaid. You know this is not going to end well.

Director Michael Blakemore allows tight timing and, thanks to Simon Higlett’s set, just enough special effects to keep the story moving and increasingly funny. The performers make the characters, though as comic as they need to be, also as real as the situation and script will allow. This is important in a Coward play.

Charles Edwards exudes confidence and charm as the novelist. Charlotte Parry gives his wife that genteel but not glamorous look required of the part, and the straight-spined society edge. Simon Jones and Sandra Shipley provide such a classic “country doctor and wife” they looked as if they stepped out of a late-30s British film.

Jemima Rooper, as the ghostly first wife, Elvira, has an absolutely delightful time – in many cases, it is her energy which emphasizes the comedy and sets the pace for the entire piece. Likewise, Susan Louise O’Connor, as the dim, literal, and countrified maid provides a certain amount of understated commentary on stuffiness, just through her presence and the occasional wry look.

And then, of course, there is Angela Lansbury, the actress whose 70-year acting career (she was in “Gaslight” at age 18, believe it or not) has brought her to this theater, this part and this celebration. She’s having a ball, which is both a good thing and perhaps a bit dodgy for the play itself on occasion. As Madame Arcati, the once-celebrated London medium residing in Condomine’s village, she is supposed to be a bit unique and over the top. Her abandon, and that of the now unrestricted Elvira, provide balance to the ordered structure of everyone else’s lives. And Lansbury does “odd” well. The trick is not to do it too repetitively or for too long at a stretch, and sometimes she dances pretty near the limit.

Special kudos to the meticulous work of Higlett’s, Bill Butler’s and Martin Pakledinaz’s costume designs, which place the piece neatly into a specific period. Most particularly the costuming of the ghost (later, ghosts) proves clever without being overly dramatic. The production is brilliantly set, with quoted notes from the original script between acts, terrific Coward music recorded in period, and an overarching sense of time, place and attitude.

And that is why to go: go for the technical accuracy, the clean and crisp production, and the well performed, tight, humorous, charming little play. It says nothing new, but it says what it has always said in what is mostly describable as the best possible way. And go for Lansbury, for even when she oversteps a bit, she does so with a kind of panache worth taking in. Certainly, at 89, she can be granted a little license.

What: “Blithe Spirit” When: Through January 18, 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 – $140 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“We Will Rock You”… Not: Queen musical at the Ahmanson an epic fail

Ruby Lewis and Brian Justin Crum lead the cast of "We Will Rock You," the Queen musical at the Ahmanson [photo: Paul Kolnik]

Ruby Lewis and Brian Justin Crum lead the cast of “We Will Rock You,” the Queen musical at the Ahmanson [photo: Paul Kolnik]

First, let me say that I love the music of Queen. It was the soundtrack of my college years. I have been a Freddie Mercury fan a long time, and mourned his passing. I even made sure my children, as they hit teen status, knew and respected the band’s work. I do not hate loud music, gratingly amazing guitar riffs, or rock concert lighting effects. I need to say this lest anyone feel that my take on “We Will Rock You,” the musical with story and script by Ben Elton using music by Queen, has anything to do with being a fuddy duddy and just not liking the atmosphere or the music.

I say this so you will believe me when I tell you “We Will Rock You,” just opened at the Ahmanson, takes band-tribute musicals to a new low. It’s worse than boring: it’s stupid. The jokes sound like they were written by a junior high class clown just discovering sex. The dialogue was purloined from a bad Disney Channel sitcom. The script is riddled with cliches, and steals (rather badly) from a dozen film and television plots. All of this is gussied up with elaborate effects and fantastical costumes and wigs, but it doesn’t matter. It still has no soul, and – worse when discussing this sophisticated band’s work – no intellect.

The story, which must be explained in super-titles before the curtain rises, is that we are visiting a post-apocalyptic earth run by a thinly disguised Microsoft (Globalsoft, in the script), which has banned all instruments, and anything but computer-generated pop music as well as having created a world where people’s relationships are entirely online. This world’s rebels (bohemians, of course) try to escape torture and reeducation by the rather Tron-like enforcers led by Khashoggi, a man who looks like Max Headroom with feet, working for Globalsoft’s narcissistic leader, even as they search for genuine life through something they’ve heard of called rock music.

Our hero, who has given himself the name Galileo Figaro (get it?), hears the lyrics of every possible kind of rock song in his head, and spews them forth in notebooks. He escapes his society along with a female loner he dubs Scaramouche, and they run to Las Vegas and the crumbling Hard Rock Cafe (only one of several product placements in this thing) to find a bohemian group who have named themselves after stars of our era – including a dumb, muscly man known as Brit (for Britney Spears, because that’s funny) and his ditsy female sidekick Oz (for Ozzy Osborne, cue more laughs). They and their friends, especially the deep voiced Buddy (yes, Holly and the Crickets), gather rock-and-roll memorabilia they proudly mispronounce and wait for “the one” who will help them find the last remaining instrument on earth.

The cast of this thing approaches it earnestly enough, though the dialogue doesn’t give them much to work with. Brian Justin Crum, as Galileo, does sing just close enough to Mercury’s stylings to make the songs he sings work. He gives his character an earnest energy, as if by sheer dint of belief he could turn this show into something worth all that effort. Ruby Lewis, as Scaramouche, has little genuine chemistry with Crum, but that may be in part because there is not much in the script to help. She sings with great power, though a few of the great lines get swallowed.

In a particularly odd moment, protagonists ride a motorcycle toward the audience, while the road moves swiftly the opposite direction, behind them.

In a particularly odd moment, protagonists ride a motorcycle toward the audience, while the road moves swiftly the opposite direction, behind them.


The chorus, which has a phenomenal number of costume changes, sings and dances with abandon, even as – on occasion – their costumes break. Jared Zirilli does what he can to make Brit a dopey kind of funny. Ryan Knowles has the best timing of anyone as Buddy, and a kind of wired gleefulness which makes him engaging even as what he’s saying isn’t. Jacqueline B. Arnold proves imposing as the “Killer Queen,” leader of the bad guys, but has issues singing the low parts of some songs. Everyone is trying here, including the designers of the elaborate video backdrops and the over-the-top costumes. It just isn’t worth the effort, at least in-between musical moments.

Thankfully, there are those great songs, at least most of the time. In the early scenes Elton has seen fit to rewrite the timeless lyrics to fit into his lame storyline – an unfortunate choice. Still, the band, led by conductor Nate Patten, is very good indeed, and some of the famed solo riffs live up to one’s anticipation.

Of course, the best and most famous of Queen’s work is saved for last. Unable to fit “Bohemian Rhapsody” into the weird storyline, they actually use supertitles to convince the audience to stay for an encore, because it will be that – the one song everyone has waited all night to hear. And this becomes the revelation: when all they have to do is render a song, this cast is actually very good. Why in heaven didn’t they do that all night long, rather than dampening everyone’s spirits with such a lame plot and script?

How this musical won an Olivier is beyond me. Makes me a little nervous about what is being considered quality in London these days, if it was for anything other than a technical element.

What: “We Will Rock You” When: Through August 24, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $120 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“Harmony” at the Ahmanson: fascinating true story a la Manilow

(L-R): Will Blum, Douglas Williams, Will Taylor, Matt Bailey, Shayne Kennon and Chris Dwan in“Harmony,” a new musical, with music by Barry Manilow and book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

(L-R): Will Blum, Douglas Williams, Will Taylor, Matt Bailey, Shayne Kennon and Chris Dwan in“Harmony,” a new musical, with music by Barry Manilow and book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

With much fanfare, “Harmony,” the new musical by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman has opened at the Ahmanson Theater. A long-held dream by its creators, it offers up charm and history, pathos and laughter, and a lesson we should have all been aware of, about a group of men who broke barriers just before that became impossible. And it works, with one moderately irritating exception.

The story is incredible and, allowing for a bit of artistic license, true. It concerns the Comedian Harmonists, a group of six close-harmony singers who took Germany, then Europe, and then the US by storm in the 1920s and 30s. The composition of the group was eclectic in many ways, including the fact it had both Jewish (including a former rabbi) and non-Jewish members. Their style was a combination of the close-harmony jazz which grew out of barbershop, the like of which one hears in early film recordings, combined with the silliness of the Marx Brothers. Their art was amazing, including their political satire, and they were as wildly popular in their day as the Beatles were in their own.

Then the Nazis rose to power, and even their popularity could not save them from the consequences.

Sussman’s book handles the necessarily episodic tale with enough flow to make it seem like one story instead of a series of vignettes. Even as you pop from place to place and time to time, you get to care a good deal about the six men and the women who loved them. Director Tony Speciale has gathered a cast of fine comedic and musical talent, and the result is a treat to watch. It’s a visual treat too, as Darrel Maloney’s projections onto Tobin Ost’s angular period-evocative sets and costumes pull you into place and time.

Matt Bailey is unemployed actor Harry Frommerman, the group’s optimistic and energetic founder, who placed an ad in the paper inviting others to join his group. Will Taylor is “Chopin” Bootz, his co-founder and the group’s talented pianist, whose love for a Jewish radical gets him into trouble at the end. Will Blum has a particularly silly time creating Bulgarian singing waiter Ari Leshnikoff, while Chris Dwan gives voice to Erich Collin, the medical student disappointing his upper crust Jewish family by going on the stage. Douglas Williams oozes profundity as operatic bass Bobby Biberti, and Shayne Kennon pretty much owns the stage as Josef Cykowsky, the Polish former rabbi whose story centers the tale. All these men sing, ham it up and connect with each other with a special kind of energy which makes the show work.

Indeed, the whole enterprise is a visual treat. Manilow’s music includes perhaps one or two too many angsty show-stoppers, but they are done very well, and the richly evocative “Where You Go”, sung by Leigh Ann Larkin as Cykowsky’s supportive, converted German wife and Hannah Corneau as Bootz’s more angry one, is a highlight worth seeing the show for. As for the performance pieces the Harmonists sing as a group, it is there that trouble follows. They sing them with great art, and sometimes great intentional silliness, but the style they are given is not quite the style that made the Comedian Harmonists famous.

In a recent interview, Manilow said he needed to adjust the kind of music they were singing, as the original seemed too close to the music behind Mickey Mouse cartoons. And therein lies the rub. One cannot escape the fact that the kind of music early animated films used was recordings of the popular song styles of the day – a sound similar to the Harmonists. To dismiss that sound is to dismiss what The Comedian Harmonists actually were (go listen on YouTube). Instead, in “Harmony” they sound at times like artificially antiquated Manilow. That’s not a bad sound, but it is not the Harmonists’ sound.

Still, and despite this distracting element, the story remains compelling. The choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter is goofy and creative, and the harmony on stage and in song that these characters achieve is impressive. In an era when the memory of that generation is fading, and the witnesses are mostly gone, it is also a uniquely personal look at what the Nazis did to German art and culture. Imagine what would have been, if the creative heart of that generation had not been declared degenerate. As a side note, today in Germany the Comedian Harmonists’ records and films are considered treasures. Time tells.

What: “Harmony” When: Through April 13, 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 downtown Los Angeles, at the Music Center How Much: $20 – $105 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“A Word or Two” – Christopher Plummer’s festival of language

Christopher Plummer in "A Word or Two" at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Christopher Plummer in “A Word or Two” at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]


I love Shakespeare. His words are spoken music, and the music of words – be they poetry or well written prose – has been central to me for as long as I can remember. Christopher Plummer, who for my contemporaries is mostly remembered as the movies’ Captain Von Trapp, was my first “Hamlet.” I was 9. It hooked me.

So, you can imagine my anticipation at hearing of “A Word or Two,” Plummer’s one-man show, telling his own story in the words of great poets and prose writers, Shakespeare included. Now at the Ahmanson, “A Word or Two” lives up to the hype. Born years ago at the Stratford Festival, it has become a signature piece for Plummer, and with reason.

Here is one of North America’s greatest actors using some of the greatest words written in the English language (and a few other languages as well) to paint the stage with one bright image after another. Like a great concert, the emotional upwelling (and the occasional urge to mumble the words along with him) proves as satisfying as the construction and art of his performance on the stage.

A true reflection of his world, and a passionate plea for preserving the sophistication and beauty of language, the piece was written and arranged by Plummer himself. Directed by Des McAnuff with an eye to keeping the whole thing from becoming a static lecture, and performed on Robert Brill’s artfully simple set, “A Word or Two” becomes a sort of whole-body experience.

And the words are as diverse as they are addicting, including bits from from Shaw, Shakespeare and Coleridge and Marlowe to Milne, Rostand, Auden and Leacock, among others. These intertwine with Plummer’s own story, from his northern Canadian roots through a lifetime of performance in a culture of the poetic.

Plummer’s energy throughout proves impressive. One forgets, for the interim, his 84 years, as his eyes glow in the sheer enjoyment of language. His purpose for this show, from the start, has been to remind people about the language which seems to be disappearing from our artistic conversation. It’s a solid argument, making it doubtful that anyone comes away from this piece satisfied with the truncated communication common in our Twittering world.

What: “A Word or Two” When: Through February 9, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles at The Music Center How Much: $20 – $90 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Deep Laughter: The Sunshine Boys at the Ahmanson

Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch reunite in "The Sunshine Boys" at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch reunite in “The Sunshine Boys” at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

One thing perhaps most interesting in wandering through Neil Simon’s remarkable career as a playwright has to do with the increasing sophistication of his plays. Originally, he wrote sweet human comedies, but even as he brought his talents to a wider range of human conditions, the humor remained underneath. Indeed, what keeps what are essentially dramas from being tragedies – in Simon’s hands – is the inevitable tension-breaking quip, or ironic sigh, which lightens the burden.

One is reminded powerfully of this very thing when watching one of his finest, “The Sunshine Boys,” at the Ahmanson Theatre. Most certainly, the small cast is just about perfect: a nostalgic reunion of comedic favorites in a play about the potential reunion of comedic favorites. The crisp direction, the evocative set, and those ever-present, tension-lifting quips which keep a tale of diminishment and bitterness from being maudlin, make for something most enjoyable to watch.

Central to the piece are Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch as Willie Clark and Al Lewis – The Sunshine Boys – longtime vaudeville stars estranged for over a decade, and facing the struggles of advancing age. Now Willie’s nephew, reluctant guardian and agent has been approached about a TV special honoring giants of comedy. Can the Willie and Al do it? Will they? Can they still be funny after years of not speaking to each other?

DeVito has all the snappy quips and slightly crazed but diminishing aspects of a longtime professional clown losing definition. Hirsch’s grumbling, faded gentility offers immediate contrast to the scruffy intensity of his counterpart. Indeed, this defines unspoken elements of their relationship’s failure – an aspect Simon often explores in his work.

Backing up these two legends are Justin Bartha as the nephew losing his patience and his tolerance, and Johnnie Fiori as the nurse who has Willie’s number, as she looks after him late in the play. Also important are those who assist in filming the best known Clark and Lewis sketch, Matthew Bohrer as the intently patient television production assistant, Annie Abrams as a “nurse” right out of burlesque, and Gibby Brand as the fictional patient who becomes the butt of some of the best of the sketch’s jokes. Frank Kopyc’s voice adds to the silliness as the offstage television director.

Director Thea Sharrock has both honored the material and the quality of her actors as she emphasizes the more nuanced aspects of Simon’s characters. This is greatly enhanced by Hildegard Bechtler’s precise and evocative set, and appropriately disparate costumes. As a production, the details show particular care.

“The Sunshine Boys” are cantankerous and impossible. Yet they are also very human, and in exploring the failure of a partnership in some ways more intimate than a marriage, it offers a window – no matter how humorous on occasion – into the breakdown of all relationships. And that, in the end, is Simon’s greatest gift: make us laugh even as we see the grief the human race can bring to itself, one person at a time.

What: “The Sunshine Boys” When: Through November 3, 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 matinees at 2 p.m. Thursday October 24 and 31 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20-$115 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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