Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Center Theatre Group

Powerful “Dear Evan Hanson”: Ethics and Angst in the Digital Age

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L-R: Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen,’ Aaron Lazar as ‘Larry Murphy,’ Christiane Noll as ‘Cynthia Murphy’ and Maggie McKenna as ‘Zoe Murphy’ in the First North American Tour of “Dear Evan Hansen,” now at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles

When news hit that the Tony-winning “Dear Evan Hansen” was headed for L.A. on its first national tour, a dash for tickets seeming mildly reminiscent of the “Hamilton” frenzy began. Such enthusiasm can spark a certain amount of skepticism from someone like me, who has seen a goodly share of musicals come and go. Even a Tony only means it was the best that year on Broadway, not necessarily that it will stand the test of time.

I needn’t have worried. This is a musical for the next generation: youthful isolation, the economic divide, the power of social media to empower or increase that isolation or make a lie seem true, all of these have a place in “Dear Evan Hansen.” What proves remarkable is how well this material is woven together into a touching, warm and real piece of musical expression. Yes, it is deeply emotional, and yes, that is just fine.

Evan Hansen is a self-conscious, awkward, and lonely teenager walking into his senior year of high school. When – under pressure from his worried single mom, and his therapist – he writes a supposedly encouraging letter (though it turns out not to be) to himself and prints it out in the school computer lab, an angry, tormented bully swipes it. When that bully then kills himself with the letter in his pocket, it is taken as a suicide note addressed to Evan, and a fiction begins that gradually changes Evan’s life.

Much of what makes this work is Ben Levi Ross’s Evan. With a strong, yet youthful voice and a remarkable sense of the physical awkwardness which defines Evan’s world, he manages to become complex and vulnerable and mature as the show goes along. Marrick Smith, as Connor, the bully, is able to shift from tormented and angry young man to Evan’s interior alter-ego, again in subtle changes of vocal tone and physical carriage.

Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll, as Connor’s heartbroken and vulnerable parents, and Jessica Phillips, as Evan’s sometimes desperate, loving mother, offer the balance of adult perspectives in this tale. Jared Goldsmith as the tech geek and Phoebe Koyabe as the pushy planner provide the outsiders who fall into or help expand Evan’s increasing online life, giving focus to the immediacy of the teenage experience. As Connor’s conflicted sister and the object of Evan’s yearning, Maggie McKenna provides the general skepticism which grounds the story.

Yet all these serve the larger production, as Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songs drive the piece and wrench the heart, telling Steven Levenson’s story. Director Michael Grief has molded a technological staging to match the ever-present media which powers Evan’s rise and fall, and illustrate the runaway quality of anything posted on the ‘net. David Korins, as set designer, and Japhy Weideman’s projections bring that online world into the physical reality of the stage in fascinatingly immersive ways.

Austin Cook, as music director, directs an onstage band of power and presence. The songs themselves, especially those which essentially end each act – the powerful “You Will Be Found” which leaves few dry eyes in the the audience, and the gently loving reassurance of family in “So Big/So Small” tie together a piece rooted in emotional connection, and in the ways in which those connections fail and can be mended.

“Dear Evan Hansen” will move you. That is a given. It is for and about a generation musicals rarely work to reach. If you know young people who were thrilled by “Hamilton,” let them see this and recognize, if not themselves then people they have known along the way. It is that kind of show, and its not-completely-happy ending still resonates hope, growth and wisdom.

Note that Stephen Christopher Anthony plays Evan on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday matinees, and Sunday evening performances.

What: “Dear Evan Hansen”  When: through November 25, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m and 8 p.m., 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance 2 p.m. Wednesday, November 21 to compensate for no evening performance on November 22 (Thanksgiving Day) Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles’ Music Center  How Much: $99 – $285  Info: 213-972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

 

 

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Funny, Bitter, Powerful, Unforgettable: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” at the Taper

Aisling O’Sullivan and Marie Mullen in the Druid production of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" by Martin McDonagh, directed by Garry Hynes. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Aisling O’Sullivan and Marie Mullen in the Druid production of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” by Martin McDonagh, directed by Garry Hynes. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


There seems to be a pattern in modern Irish drama – one both constructed (in part) by and reflected in the work of playwright Martin McDonagh – of developing characters of great richness and charm, in situations which can appear darkly humorous until these same characters prove invested with fantastically fatal flaws. Such a work is “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” just opened at the Mark Taper Forum.

This production by the Druid theater company of Galway, features essential elements of their premiere of the work in the 1990s: from director, and Druid Artistic Director, Garry Hynes (the first woman to win a Tony for directing, for the New York production of this piece), to award-winning actress Marie Mullen, who created one role in the original production and returns to play another. Add to this strong new performances by from Druid regulars, and you have a work steeped in modern Irish thought and culture, filled with unforgettable characters recognizable as funny, infuriating, and, on occasion, grippingly awful.

Maureen Folan, in her 40s, is the sole caregiver to her somewhat hypochondriacal and seriously manipulative mother, Mag. At a celebration nearby, she reconnects with the elder of two brothers from a neighboring farm, Ray, and begins to dream about a life outside of the drudgery of her current situation. Mag’s interference brings up implications both imaginary and real, as Ray’s immature younger brother Pato is called upon to act as go-between when Ray returns to work in England. Each of these connections, fraught with friction, may lead to either happiness or terror.

Central to the piece is Aisling O’Sullivan’s Maureen, edgy and consistently, sharply, seething with resentments. Balancing this sharpness is the wry charm, and devious maneuvering of Mullen’s Mag, the sort of full-body performance (oh, those facial expressions) one can easily recognize as remarkable. Indeed, she manages to make the audience like Mag and despise her all at once.

Aaron Monaghan creates, in Ray, an open, decent man whose straightforward nature provides a profound contrast to the roiling complexities of the Folan household. As the character often central to the comic relief, Marty Rea’s Pato radiates a constant restless energy and an obtuse, silly and selfish view of things which balances out the tensions and deviousness of the rest of the play.

Hynes knows these characters from long acquaintance, bringing an organic feel to the play as if it rises out of its very setting, Francis O’Connor’s decayingly gray country cottage. The aura of looming darkness and the moments of lighthearted humor seem likewise to have a sense of natural flow, and her respect for the language itself and the rich roundness of the characters brings with it a deep humanity which connects across all barriers of culture and framework.

Like other great works examining the affect of fatal flaws on humankind, from Chekhov to Miller, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” reflects a potential truth far beyond its context, yet in this case uses the specifics of Irish life, accent and cultural framework to create something at once pointed in its beauty and disturbing in its implications. This is, in short, a true work of art, both as written and as performed.

This is the first stop on Druid’s U.S. tour of this production.

What: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” When: through December 18, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. No performance on Thanksgiving Where: The Mark Taper Forum, at the Music Center 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 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

“Women Laughing Alone…”: Salad and the Absurd at the Douglas

L-R: Dinora Z. Walcott, Lisa Banes and Nora Kirkpatrick in “Women Laughing Alone With Salad.” [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

L-R: Dinora Z. Walcott, Lisa Banes and Nora Kirkpatrick in “Women Laughing Alone With Salad.” [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

As was patently obvious in Sheila Callaghan’s play “Everything You Touch,” which had its world premiere at The Theatre at Boston Court, one huge focus in Callaghan’s writing is the body image messages American women get and perpetuate, and the damage that does. Now, in her new work, “Women Laughing Alone With Salad,” receiving its west coast premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, she uses absurdism to emphasize this theme, and just perhaps give the first hints of societal shift.

For Callaghan, and most certainly for her characters, salad is a metaphor for all of the denials women hand themselves when they obsess over staying youthful, or thin, or “fit” in the unhealthy ways some elements of society seem to demand. When one character sits between two totally normal-looking others at a lunch counter, sure it will show her to advantage because one neighbor is more full figured, and the other is comparatively older, then brags about being full because she ate a grape, the absurdity comes front and center.

Yet “Women Laughing…” also explores what these female obsessions do to the men they encounter. Why would a man respect a woman who is willing to destroy her natural self to shave off a few years, or who cannot enjoy a celebration without bending over a toilet by the end? What does this do to skew his view of women in general? How can such a man face a more enlightened female with any sense of understanding?

The extremely versatile four-person cast creates an extraordinary ensemble, allowing for the quick-change energy which powers this episodic piece. Each plays a host of small, nameless parts, which create the atmosphere for the main characters who waft in and out of the somewhat convoluted storyline.

Lisa Barnes makes fascinating work of Sandy, the successful mother of Guy (David Clayton Rogers), whose wholehearted beauty regimen shifts from anti-aging creams and potions to totally ridiculous measures, all the while leaning upon (perhaps because if his celibacy) a Catholic Monsignor in her building.

Nora Kirkpatrick plays Tori, Guy’s girlfriend, a young woman with an eating disorder, trained to bend her desires to a man’s wishes. In expressing Tori’s phobia about weight, Kirkpatrick offers a straightforward quality to her willingness to point out the flaws in other female bodies, lending to an understanding that she simply doesn’t realize how her own disease colors her world.

Dinora Z. Walcott is Meredith, a lovely woman with a less bony body – a body Guy finds attractive for its comparative fullness, even as he – trained as he has been – cannot see past her physique to anything else. Walcott makes this woman more comfortable in her own skin, even as she yearns for a time when her body type would have been more the norm.

Rogers, as the show’s sole, rather ordinary male, provides a sense of the damage done to a man raised by a woman obsessed with her looks, who sees all other women in terms of their vulnerability and sexual attractiveness. He is left with no clue to who women are or what they can do other than that constant sense of inadequacy he sees displayed by those closest to him, and with an exaggerated sense of his own power, based on nothing more than his maleness.

This plays out spectacularly in a second half devoted to putting this entire scenario in a blender. Indeed, it is in reversing everything that the ridiculous superficiality of society becomes most evident. Interestingly, it is also – as written – the least absurdist portion of the piece. Here staging makes for the statements instead.

Director Neel Keller coordinates and choreographs the constant shifts of scene and character to create a pacing and an interconnectedness that ties the larger story and the short vignettes together into a single message. The second half’s character shifts are handled with a startling authenticity which both increases the humor and emphasizes the point.

Keith Mitchell’s moving panels and Keith Skretch’s at once mysterious and yet impactful projections also assist in the flow and progression of the play in subtly important ways. It’s stark, particularly in the first half, but it works. However, starkness has its price: the constant use of the same images over and over, and the rushing and episodic nature of the first half, creates its own problems. This, particularly when tied to the less fevered second half, underscores the somewhat “lecture-y” nature of the proceedings.

On comparison, the messages made in “Anything You Touch” may have been somewhat easier to unravel, though anyone who appreciates the absurd cannot help but approve the way “Women Laughing…” takes the bitter concepts of women’s self image in modern America and runs it out to its extremes. Yet, extreme characters are harder to connect to emotionally – a side effect of absurdism which may temper an audience’s response.

Do be aware that the nature of this play concentrates on sexuality and on sex, though there is no actual nudity. If this bothers you, this is not the play for you.

What: “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” When: Through April 3, 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 Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City How Much: $25 – $55 Info: (213) 628-2772 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

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

Chekhov For Laughs! – Christopher Durang’s great, comic “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”

Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole and Mark Blum in Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning  “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”  [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole and Mark Blum in Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Christopher Durang’s plays have always been remarkable for their unique combination of wry humor, human insight and respect for the craft of theater itself – the things you can do with a play you can’t as easily do in any other medium. He also makes fun of his own genre with as much artfulness as is possible to mount, which I first encountered in the 1981 one-act “An Actor’s Nightmare”, and now in his terrifically funny, Tony-winning send-up of Anton Chekhov, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

Now at the Mark Taper Forum, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” smashes together the most telling elements from any number of Chekhovian works, and transplants it to the modern U.S., where it all begins to appear fairly ridiculous. In the process, the play makes fun of the film industry, bad writing, Disney, and any number of other things, ending up so full of cultural references that they alone makes the show roaringly comical. For the Chekhov aficionado, and I admit to being one, the production actually is (and usually I hate using this term, as it is so often misapplied) absolutely hysterical at times.

Vanya, Sonia and Masha are the now-aging children of college professors who named them after Chekhovian characters. While Masha has been off becoming a famed film star, Vanya and Sonia have stayed behind in their Bucks County home. There they nursed their parents through their final years, but then ended up staying on unsure of how to proceed. Now, Sonia reflects on her empty life and her status as the adopted child, making an occupation out of negativism and despair. Vanya quietly longs for companionship, and mourns the treasures of youth.

David Hull appalls Kristine Nielsen with a hilarious "reverse strip tease", as Spike [photo: Craig Schwartz]

David Hull appalls Kristine Nielsen with a hilarious “reverse strip tease”, as Spike [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Then Masha comes home for a rare visit, trailing a dim, physically gorgeous young aspiring actor names Spike in her wake. He, in turn, meets the girl visiting next door: Nina, the very young, would-be actress who idolizes Masha even as Masha sees her as a threat. All the while, the cleaning woman, Cassandra, offers up messages of foreboding, in a crazed mix of ancient Greek, voodoo, modern television references and observational wisdom.

And that doesn’t tell you the half of it. Mark Blum’s Vanya has the wistful yearnings of his namesake, a calm which ties the piece together some, and then utters a most delightfully out-of-control Russian-style harangue against modern society with a rich and memorable passion. One will never look at postage stamps, a repeated reference, quite the same way again. Kristine Nielsen proves absolutely brilliant as the morose Sonia, turning her melancholy on and off like a switch, and at one critical point offering up the best Maggie Smith imitation you can imagine – by itself fall-down funny.

Shalita Grant as the wise and weird Cassandra [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Shalita Grant as the wise and weird Cassandra [photo: Craig Schwartz]


Christine Ebersole gives Masha an interesting balance of self-absorbed emotional hyperbole and practical sense, in both verbal and physical presence. David Hull’s hunky young Spike, played as thoroughly for stereotype as possible, makes nice, upbeat, simple contrast to the angsty characters around him, as does Liesel Allen Yeager’s wide-eyed, innocent enthusiasm as Nina. Shalita Grant proves a true treasure as the sharply defined, practical and self-contained Cassandra.

Director David Hyde Pierce builds upon the original direction of Nicholas Martin with the expectedly sure sense of comic timing and contrast. The beautiful coordination of all these very recognizable characters into a single whole which neither neglects the subtle comic nudges nor overdoes a one of them is a wondrous thing in itself. David Korins’ set design creates a very real space for these characters to cling. Costume designer Gabriel Berry gets a special nod for creating exactly the right costume-party costumes at a pivotal moment in the storyline.

Indeed, what proves most lovely and relaxing about “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” has to be the sheer quality of every aspect of the thing. Acting, writing, directing, and every visual component work together to create a single moment of intelligent wit, filled with satisfying surprises and a few bits of ardent social commentary. In the midst of the upheavals of daily existence, I cannot think of a better way to spend a couple of hours.

What: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” When: Through March 9, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $90 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“Bring it On: The Musical” – It actually does bring it (who knew?)

The cast of the national tour of "Bring It On: The Musical"

I have seen shows which left me elated. I have seen shows which left me pondering a message. I have seen shows which left me humming tunes for weeks. I’ve rarely seen one which left me exhausted. At the end of “Bring it On: The Musical” just opened at the Ahmanson Theatre, that was me. The show, based loosely on the 2000 film, ends up a cross between an uplifting after school special, a lesson on tolerance and individuality, and a wildly energetic circus act.

You know something important about the show when you read the bios of the “ensemble,” most of whom have extensive cheerleading experience. The poses, the extensive use of elaborate throws, and the distinct sense of watching acrobats working without a net get one’s adrenaline popping from the moment the curtain rises. In the midst of all these acrobatics, the simple – one might say simplistic – story ends up shining as well.

It’s a predicable plot. A girl whose life has revolved around cheerleading at her stereotypically upper middle class white suburban school is suddenly transferred to a far more diverse, poor and inner city one. What begins as a rather uncomfortable (at least to the audience) dose of racial and urban stereotypes evolves into a lesson on individuality and tolerance. This girl, who thinks she knows everything, has a lot to learn. When she does, she uses what she’s learned to build a team which can teach the rest of the cheerleading world a thing or two.

Almost all of this is told in song, and in a style which helps define each setting. The music and lyrics of Tom Kitt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Amanda Green capture the flavor of high school life, from pop to hip-hop. That comes together with a sound design by Brian Ronan that lets the the music get loud enough for modernity, yet allows for the lyrics to not only stand out but be understandable. Put this together with the wild cheerleading moves and the whole is positively captivating, in a kind of unassuming way.

Taylor Louderman leads the cast as Campbell, the insulated kid whose dreams are dashed by her transfer. She sings with authority and handles her many elaborate routines with energy and style. Elle McLemore makes fun work of the deceptively innocent sophomore who plots Campbell’s downfall for her own ends. Adrienne Warren rises above the stereotypes to make Danielle, the “crew” leader of Campbell’s new school, an amusing and sympathetic character.

Along with these strong leads, standouts in the enormous cast include Ryann Redmond as the earnest but heavy Bridget, Nicolas Womack energetically individual as the guy she can’t believe finds her attractive, and Gregory Haney bringing humor, dignity and enthusiasm to the transsexual among Danielle’s followers.

A nod must also go to David Korins’ entirely video-based “set,” in which a series of screens swoop and weave between and around the performers, shining as walls, landscapes, score boards, and anything else necessary to the action. Indeed, the set sometimes appears as energized as the actors.

“Bring it On: The Musical” is certainly not “Les Miserables,” or even “South Pacific.” It has few illusions to any kind of sophisticated grandeur, literary or otherwise, leaning more on being a very fast-paced and entertaining spectacle. Yet, in the midst of all the intensity, gentle and often humorous reminders to look more than skin (or income) deep give a moral nudge toward respecting the individual. In the end, it does have something to say.

To be frank, I dreaded going to see “Bring it On,” which I assumed would be either trite or ponderous. That it is only mildly the first, and definitely not the latter was a startling surprise. You just can’t help but smile at this thing, which I believe is great family fare, at least if you’re in the kind of family which wants kids to learn about tolerance and not prejudging people. And the gymnastic feats really are absolutely breathtaking.

What: “Bring it On: The Musical” When: Through December 10, 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., at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $120 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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