Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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One does not have to have been a fan to realize that Ronald and Nancy Reagan were fascinating individuals. Their long and dynamic marriage, their shift from the world of Hollywood to the world of state and national politics, all of this had to begin somewhere. Enter a new one-act musical, “In A Booth At Chasens’s” now at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.
It’s an interesting idea. If only it lived up to the promise. Though producer John C. Herklotz goes on record from the start about how inspirational the Reagans were, it takes more artistry to turn that enthusiasm into live theater. If only this show met that challenge.
Ostensibly this is about Ron and Nancy’s first, blind date. What it actually is is a series of brief vignettes of stages in their romance, each one with at least one song and none so long as to allow for actual character development.
The entire enterprise is less a musical in the classic sense – telling an actual story – than a framework for this series of Al Kasha and Phil Swann’s songs, which take precedence over the few lines of Sam Bennett’s abbreviated script. In between these moments of potential plot two uncredited gents schlep furniture, bicycles and standing mirrors on and off the stage while the two cast members change clothes.
Kelley Dorney is Nancy Davis. Though she sings about being shy, this is not particularly in evidence in Dorney’s performance. Still, she has a lovely voice and gives a natural quality to the character she doesn’t get much of a chance to flesh out.
Brent Schindele is Ronald Reagan, and seems to struggle between being a fairly human, frustrated actor on the professional skids (which is mentioned in just about every scene) and being an icon. Particularly when called upon to define the Reagan world view, the icon takes over and he becomes a statue – he stops moving in order to make sure the message is delivered in icon fashion. When this bleeds over into the times he is just a guy, the whole show stalls.
However, this isn’t entirely Schindele’s fault. Director Kay Cole has simply given these characters too little to do. The fellows bringing furniture on and off do not – except in the scenes inside Chasen’s itself – supply them with much in the way of props to work with, and Cole hasn’t worked with them on motivation to do more than sing most of the time.
Even in Chasen’s, Cole doesn’t connect their physical behavior to the songs they are singing. Take as example the moment Reagan, standing by the title booth, sings that he needs to run after Nancy and keep her from walking out on him (she having just left), all the while standing stock still, and then stays in that same spot to sing another verse.
Which is all to say that this enterprise has labored mightily to bring forth a mouse. Andy Walmsley’s minimalist set pieces are backed by projection screens on which Daniel Brodie has designed an ongoing salute to late 1940s Los Angeles, using archival footage of Hollywood Boulevard, Wilshire and more. The band lead by Jonathan Tessero is solid, and gives drama to the pieces. Still, it just doesn’t work.
What: “In A Booth At Chasen’s” When: through November 25, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday November 15, 8 p.m. Friday November 16 and 23, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday November 17 and 24, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. November 18, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Wednesday November 21, 3 p.m. Sunday, November 25. Where: El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. How Much: $25 – $65 plus premium. Info: (818) 508-4200 or http://www.InABoothAtChasens.com
Note: This production has already closed, but somehow the review was never posted here. Thus, I post it now for the record.
If you are acquainted with Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” it is likely either through the 1950 film version with Betty Hutton (after Judy Garland was fired from the project) or various clips of songs from the show sung by their originator, Ethel Merman. If this is what you are looking for at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, it will take readjustment. Their production uses the script rewrites created for the Tony-winning revival in 1999. To some extent this is good news. To some extent, at least as presented, the jury is still out.
The revision restages “Annie…” as if it was in itself a show presented by Buffalo Bill, which is innovative, although it threatens to disrupt the flow of the tale itself. The ending has also been rewritten – a necessity for a modern audience, and some objectionable material ridiculing Native Americans has been removed. The costuming ignores most of the conventions of Annie Oakley’s actual period, but that becomes a part of the “it’s just a show” framework, and allows for a lot of lively dancing. The leads are solid (though one was obviously under the weather on opening weekend), and some of the supporting players are particularly fine. In all, it makes for a night of light entertainment, which may be a useful thing in a time like this.
The story grows from the tale of actual people. Famed sure-shot Annie Oakley was a star in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, among others. Sitting Bull, the famed Sioux chief, was also a part of the show for some of that time. She was originally discovered by another sure-shot, Frank Butler, whom she married. Although the Irving Berlin musical twists all these facts around to create a battle of the sexes, it sits on this foundation. In the Berlin version, Butler and Oakley become competitors, with Frank’s ego so bruised he leaves at one point for a rival show, and Annie struggling between proving her prowess and winning Frank’s love.
In the Candlelight production, Brent Schindele (who will be replaced by Johnny Fletcher as of March 23) plays Frank as the standard egotistical pretty boy unwilling to be show up by a girl. He sings with authority, but there is a certain lack of chemistry between him and Jamie Mills’ Annie. Mills gives a Annie an innate confidence and aura of backwoods practicality which works well. Her singing voice was gentled by illness opening weekend, but her understanding of how the songs need to affect the course of the storyline was on target.
Still, at least when shown for review, the best of the production were those backing up these leads. Randy Hilton makes his Buffalo Bill just bombastic enough, while Michael Lopez gives Sitting Bull a certain gravitas which keeps him from being awkwardly stereotypical. As the somewhat star-crossed lovers, Jacob Nancy also manages this balance as the half-Native young knife thrower whose love for his white assistant, played by Kylie Molnar, comes under scrutiny. These latter two have a great time as the exhuberant ingenues of the piece.
Another star is the choreography of Janet Renslow, who has reworked material by Graciela Daniele and Jeff Calhoun to fit the specifics of the Candlelight stage. Mitch Gill and Chuck Ketter have worked up a convertible set which allows for the many, many quick changes of scene, necessary for the direction of James W. Gruessing, Jr., who must deal with side bars usually staged in front of a scrim on a stage which really doesn’t have one.
In short, “Annie Get Your Gun” is a classic, reworked with intention and care. Its increasingly episodic nature – as characters slip in and out of storytelling to become the staff of the show telling the story – may sometimes interrupt the story’s flow or the humor of the piece. Still, there is charm there, and when all are healthy there are also those wonderfully belt-able songs which still ring in the ear: “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun” or “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)”. The change to the ending (the original of which even perplexed me as a child), and the respect for what Canadians accurately call First Nations People means adopting this reworking was a wise idea.
What: “Annie Get Your Gun” When: [see note at top of review] through April 14, doors open for the dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $63-$78 general, $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal-inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com