Saturday, January 24, 2015

Company revived in Thousand Oaks

Review by Robert Roll
Company - Sondheim’s “Into the Oaks”

Don’t let the idea of another regional production of a 45-year-old Steven Sondheim musical put you off.  

Cabrillo Music Theatre’s current revival of the Tony-bedecked “Company” offers a shimmering evening’s entertainment at the Scherr Forum in Thousand Oaks.

If you know the composer’s oeuvre, this is the one with Side by Side By Side, Another Hundred People, The Ladies Who Lunch, and a half-dozen other hoppy, poppy show tunes delivered by a beautifully blended ensemble cast.  

The central character Robert, not so much celebrating his 35th bachelor birthday as dissecting the life that has led up to it, is delivered by Alexander Jon.  Jon’s strong voice serves him well in Sondheim’s soliloquies, as he navigates one of the most twinge-y personas in musical theatre.  This amorphous, uncommitted 70’s guy is really just the pivot man between George Furth’s series of one-acts about marriage and what it does to nice people.

Here is the karate-chopping Sarah and Harry.  Elissa Wagner and Michael Andrew Baker get genuinely physical with some bona fide body slams and back flips in real time.  Later we hang with tightly-strung Jenny and her mustachioed hubby David, lounging with Robert on a couple of authentic 70’s Naugahyde beanbag chairs with a bag of pot.  By the time Robert’s dreamy sexy chorus of current squeezes materializes to harmonize You Could Drive A Person Crazy, the cast and audience have started to party.

Highlights in this show come one after another.  Let’s single out, though, a coloratura turn by Cabrillo first-timer Chelsea Emma Franko’s Another Hundred People, and the damn-she’s-good Getting Married Today pattered to Gilbert and Sullivan perfection by Heather Dudenbostel as Jenny, the potentially runaway bride.

Cabrillo’s Artistic Director Lewis Wilkenfeld is fond of saying “It’s not musical theatre without live music”.  A nine-member orchestra conducted by Cassie Nickols is onstage/upstage for the entire three-hour performance playing with the cast, not at them.  Cate Caplin’s choreography turns this talented ensemble into a Broadway show line that delivers the tappin’ kicken’ goodie goods.

Here is a live show worth seeing.  In the  T.O. Civic Arts Plaza’s smaller (400-seat) venue, Lighting Designer Jean-Yves Tessier’s staccato illuminations flirt against Tom Buderwitz’ muscular set just as Jon’s character Robert toys with his trio of sweethearts.  

Drive out to T.O. and see this show.

The Cabrillo Music Theatre
Presented in the Scherr Forum Theatre
2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard
Thousand Oaks, CA 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Mutant Olive at The Lounge

Mitch Hara / Mutant Olive / Photo by Ed Krieger
MUTANT OLIVE written and performed by Mitch Hara

For any actor to tackle a one person show is admirable.  It’s like walking a tight wire without a net and wire walking is what Mitch Hara is doing for  an hour and a half currently at the Lounge on Santa Monica Boulevard.  That the venue is on Santa Monica is significant, even though some of his story takes place a couple of miles to the west in the heart of   WeHo.  The Lounge is an intimate little space of about fifty seats.  The old brick walls are bare with a long black velour up right that provides for an off stage area, though Hara, as his alter ego Adam Astra, actually enters from the lobby as though presenting himself for an audition for Death of a Salesman. Breaking the fourth wall, he engages in immediate audience interaction by asking a lady in the front row to take his photo ‘to remember the moment in case he actually gets the part.’ This presents a strange dichotomy of discomfort and luring the audience into his bizarre world. 

Bulk of the show turns on the title: Mutant Olive (He was forced to wear an olive green suit as a kid).  We hear how Astra was raised by wolverines, the unkind, but apparently accurate description of his parents.  His portrayal of his drunken and abusive father and distracted mother, the whore, startles and wears a little thin, but the wirewalking is cleverly directed by Terri Hanauer.  The bare bones stage: one ladder, five boxes, three folding chairs,  create Astra’s home, his mother’s boudoir, an encounter group, a dramatic car wreck that winds from Santa Monica Boulevard to Robertson through alleys to Melrose where all hell breaks loose and a hospital where an out of body experience reminds slightly of Angels in America.

Hara’s movements are stereotypically gay as he tries again and again to present his “pizza delivery boy” rendition of Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream.  His impressive mime is smooth as silk, as he dances his various characters throughout the piece.  

Performing such intimate autobiographical material is daring and for the most part works.  Recounting a drunken blackout on stage at the Matrix in David Rabe’s Hurly Burly and his rendering of a believable out of body experience make the sometimes overly profane and indulgent moments worth waiting through.  This is deep digging, at times a one person pity party that over all might work even better with some judicious cutting.

Mutant Olive written and performed by Mitch Hara
6201 Santa Monica Blvd.
Hollywood CA 90038
(corner El Centro, one block east of Vine)
 Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8PM
Through February 28, 2015
Tickets and Information: 
323 960 7861

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Let’s Mess With Texas!

ISC’s Dickens: Make time for a treat! Give yourself a present.

-->Most of us immediately think of Alastair Sim’s Scrooge in the 1951 movie version of A Christmas Carol about the time that the Thanksgiving dishes have been washed and put away.  The tradition of Scrooge and Marley and the Cratchits is one we’ve heard a hundred times and counting.  The true poetry of Charles Dickens is really in the story telling itself.  Of course, the movie and the sundry plays with top hats and empty scuttles of coal or even Bill Murray’s “Scrooged” come to mind.  Today I learned that the way the story really must be enjoyed is by hearing Dickens’ words.  Dickens’ words delivered by …   Dickens!  They must be narrated as well as acted out.  The poetry must roll from the tongue with a slight British accent; a little music, a little song and the warmth and spirit of Christmas.  Scrooge’s story must be gently spread before us like the wonderful feast it is.

I’m happy to announce that The Independent Shakespeare Company’s tradition of presenting A Christmas Carol With Charles Dickens in just such a manner fills the bill to the brim and over flows with poetry and drama in a way so charming, so professional and with so much joy that it simply must not be missed.

ISC’s tiny space in an industrial complex in Atwater goes to prove that it’s the work that comes first.  The imagination and the dedication to the story and the work of the director (smoothly conducted by Melissa Chalsma) is flawless.  With Mr. David Melville, as Scrooge as well as the sundry other characters, including Marley, the Ghosts and most of the Cratchits; assisted ably by the lovely Miss Julia Aks, ISC presents the tale of miserable Scrooge with gusto and verve and the great good humor that must be much like the way Dickens himself may have presented the story a hundred and sixty years ago. 

Program notes remind us (as we were recently reminded in last year’s The Invisible Woman with Ralph Fiennes as Dickens) that the man not only gave us a wealth of classic and memorable stories, but he was also an actor.  Evidently, he caused some women to faint when he portrayed Bill Sykes in his dark tale of Oliver Twist! As Dickens, Melville welcomes the audience though not all that happy to be in a dinky little space in Atwater and needs reminding to introduce his pretty assistant, Miss Aks.  Melville embraces Dickens as one might enjoy the embrace of an old familiar cloak.  He wears him and becomes him as he brings Bob Cratchit, his hard working ‘clark’ to life and then embarks on his journeys with the Ghosts:  Marley arrives with chains (sfx by Miss Aks) and tells Ebenezer that it’s time to assess his life and watch out for the Spirits who will visit him in the subsequent nights to come. Melville provides the dialog for all but a few of the well known characters, having a splendid time the Scrooge’s nephew, Fred and all.  We see Scrooge through the magic of The Ghost of Christmas Past and learn that his greed and ambition cost him the love of his fiancĂ©, Belle, played with tenderness by Miss Aks. 

The seats in the ISC space are more practical than comfortable, so bring a pillow, but whatever you to do treat yourself to fine theatre and the true spirit of Christmas this year, make it over to Atwater and enjoy Melville and Aks in A Christmas Carol!

A CHRISTMAS CAROL With Charles Dickens by Charles Dickens
The Independent Shakespeare Company
3191 Casitas Avenue  #168
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Only 4 performances   
Saturday December 13 at 2PM and 7:30PM
Saturday December 20 at 2PM and 7:30PM
**The performance 12/13 at 7:30 pm is SOLD OUT
**The performances 12/20 at 2:00 and 7:30 are SOLD OUT
Tickets and Information: 818 710 6306

Friday, December 5, 2014

Broomstick at The Fountain

Broomstick by John Biguenet

The Fountain Theatre in Hollywood chalks up another winner with Jenny O’Hara starring as “Witch” in the extended Broomstick.  
Jenny O'Hara as Witch / Photo: Ed Krieger
The last time I saw O’Hara on stage was here at The Fountain with her talented husband Nick Ullett in Steven Sachs’s brilliant “Bakersfield Mist.”  Sachs directs this one with a steady hand.  

I’ve always rejected the term ‘character’ actor because, in fact, every single character we’ve ever seen on stage or in the movies is a persona inhabited by a skilled (hopefully) actor who is acting out the part.  Jenny’s husband, Nick, actually played himself in his one person show, “Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard,” at the Matrix four years ago and in so doing, recreated himself to much acclaim. 

O’Hara takes Biguenet’s eighty minutes of rhyming couplets and spins them into tales: chilling and inquisitive.  At rise, Witch is visited by someone whom she ‘took in’ when he was a child and chides him for being shy. She goes on to tell how holding him off the floor by the hair of his head helped him calm down. This sets the tone for Biguenet’s couplets which O’Hara delivers with skill.

For over forty years on film, on television and on the stage, O’Hara has been a working actor.  She never holds back.  Indeed, in Broomstick, Witch, is an out there gal.  Witty and present, alive and feisty within her fairy tale hovel (brilliant Hobbit Hole set by designer Andrew Hammer, aided and abetted by Jennifer Edwards’ lighting that almost becomes another character in the play and Peter Bayne’s ebullient sound) where her story unfolds. O’Hara works her magic on an appreciative audience.

Witch recalls that she has always felt ‘misunderstood’ from the time she was a tiny child and goes on to relate an early romance with a beau whom she loved.  Losing him seemed to turn her toward discovery of her special powers.  The show has been extended, giving late comers, like me, the opportunity to see a well written show expertly presented in this, the 24th season of The Fountain. 

"Broomstick"  by John Biguenet
Fountain Theatre
5060 Fountain Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90029
8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays
2 p.m. Sundays. 
Extended to December 14, 2014
Tickets and information: (323) 663-1525  

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus at ISC

The language of Elizabethan times most familiar to us through the epic plays of Shakespeare captures essential English speech: iambic pentameter. It is easy. It’s  lyrical and at once familiar and arcane.  Melissa Chalsma’s direction of Doctor Faustus flows like quick silver with a talented cast doubling, tripling and multitasking like anything through the basic story of one man’s lust for power at the price of his own soul.   As Faustus, Adam Mondschein finds the groove of the language and runs with it.  Each of the ensemble members reflects the voice of training that has been a signature for the Independent Shakespeare Company.  This is a stage play.  It’s theatrical. Simply, it works

The entire ISC production under Chalsma’s precision guidance, (she adapted the script as well from two different versions of Marlowe’s play) understands not only the language, but in the company’s rough hewn stage on Casitas, makes beautiful use of the space.  It is this dedication to the play itself, not being restricted by the tiny area and limited tech (though the lighting by Bosco Flannagan and uncredited projections are just fine) that bring Marlowe’s text to life. 

Mondschein shines as the power obsessed German doctor who uses arcane magic to conjure Mephistopheles, the gorgeous and talented Suzan Crowley. Crowley brings her full bag of tricks as an actor.  With some features that favor Katherine Hepburn, her mane of auburn hair frames a benign face that speaks evil truths about being damned to Hell while seducing the eager doctor. Her command of the language is arresting.   Only Mondschein and Crowley remain consistent in their roles while the rest of the cast soldiers on as a well tuned ensemble.  Outstanding Ashley Nguyen as The Evil Angel and half a dozen other characters, tempts Faustus to stay true to his bargain with The Dark One.  Like a cartoon image of a little angel on the other shoulder, Sam Breen brings light as the Good Angel. Lexie Helgerson as both malevolent Lucifer and Helen of Troy as well as a very lusty Lust is, simply, hot! 
Faustus is given the gift of invisibility and bedevils Andrè Martin as The Pope, reflecting perhaps,  Marlowe’s contempt for religion.  Matt Callahan as Robin has a moment with his bladder and a bucket.  Each character in the doubling is crisp and well executed. The social commentary and the morality tale come together well.  The language, though not always easy to follow, flows beautifully.   
This fine ensemble, also well known for their free productions of Shakespeare in Griffith Park makes Elizabethan Theatre accessible.  The actors play as a unit, sharing the stage and creating their world in a tiny, but serviceable space.  Director Chalsma’s stage pictures are beautiful.

The lobby is a hallway with a TV tray as the box office.  No frills, just excellent theatre.  For an evening of professional acting and a story well told, don’t miss Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus at the Independent Shakespeare Company.  Bring a pillow.

DOCTOR FAUSTUS by Christopher Marlowe
Directed by Melissa Chalsma
Independent Shakespeare Company
3191 Casitas Ave. #168
Los Angeles, California 90039
Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30PM
Sundays at 2PM
Through November 23, 2014
Tickets and Information
818 710 6306

Saturday, October 25, 2014

WORLD PREMIERE: A or B? at The Falcon

Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theatre is unique.  The choices for productions vary and are always professionally presented in every aspect.  The World Premiere of Ken Levine’s A or B? is no exception.  In his program notes, Levine credits Marshall with virtually everything that his writing has come to, citing early episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show penned by Marshall and his writing partner, Jerry Belson as inspirational.  Certainly, situation comedy is at the forefront here, but with a bit of in depth soul searching that features well timed one liners (including a sly reference to Pretty Woman). It’s a comedy. A comedy with heart.

A or B?'s multifunctional set with New York skyline by Bruce Goodrich (who also did the appropriate costumes), with snazzy lighting by Jeremy Pivnik set the scene. Uncomplicated precision moves by director Andrew Barnicle keep the show moving a pace.  Sexy Jules Willcox as Abby Morgan and Jason Dechert as ripped Ben Steele: both superbly cast millenials, bring this somewhat bizarre piece to life.  
Jason Dechert and Jules Willcox in
A or B? at the Falcon Theatre.
Photo by Jill Mamey.

 The 1998 German film, RUN, LOLA, RUN captured the imagination by showing three different scenarios as the lithe redheaded Franka Potente as Lola sets out to save her boyfriend’s life by running to collect money to get him out of a jam.  Each time she sprints from her apartment, she has obstacles that make her frantic chase change. In each of the three episodes we see the minutes fly by as she dashes into three different futures. Levine’s play uses a somewhat similar approach by having Ben and Abby meet in slightly different ways.  Each character is the same person, but Abby is defined at first by a red dress and then by blue.  Each color then represents attitudes and even the same lines delivered with different approaches.  It works.  This is not Chekov it’s a modern take on relationships: business and romantic.  The twain shall meet and there’s the rub.

Levine says that television has pretty much defined his approach to writing and the situation comedy element is played here in broad strokes bringing gales of laughter from the opening night audience.  A or B?'s  cultural references and the use of cyber tools (“I hate ATandT!”) create a hip and happening atmosphere.  We open on Abby on the phone chatting with her cat making kissy sounds before getting back on with her mother in hometown Northwest USA discussing which dress to wear, hot red or cool blue,  to an interview with Ben for a position in his marketing analysis firm in New York City. The play asks the musical question, “Love or Ambition: A or B?  Choose one?” As the characters swap attitudes with sexual innuendo as well as in the sacko, we see the same characters under the influence of completely different takes on their lives, as well as a martini or two. It’s sweet and sour and bitter sweet as time passes and in the final analysis we see Abby in a purple dress, another shot at something special evolves as we may have hoped all along.

Supporting this professional theatre with a season ticket gets you invited to the Opening Night Performance and preferential parking.  Garry Marshall is a grand host and the goodies and champagne are not to be missed.  A or B? It deserves  an audience!!

A or B?
by Ken Levine
The Falcon Theatre
4252 Riverside Drive
Toluca Lake, CA 91505
October 24, to November 16, 2014
Tickets and information 
818 955 8101

Sunday, October 19, 2014

VILLA THRILLA by Anna Nicholas

Circle X at the Atwater has been invaded by a ‘merry band of madcap actors’.. more or less.  Anna Nicholas’s Villa Thrilla bounces off a recent trend of whodunit mystery parties that invite the guests to solve a heinous crime.  Murder most foul!  What works like a charm in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off! and Charles Ludlum’s The Mystery of Irma Vep takes the premise in a slightly different direction.

The theme of the entertainment at The Thrilla Villa (it’s a creepy old mansion owned by the Thrilla Family in the past) is a 1960s party complete with shaggadelic Austin Powers look-a-like Zachary (Gregory Gilford Giles), Carol Wayne Clone “Cleo”  (Erica Hanrahan-Ball) and a cast of actors ready with a script to enact an evening’s entertainment.  

At rise we discover a shady couple (Bruce Willis clone Brad Lee Wind as Tony Bonifacio / Oscar Fazzoli) and his Mercedes Ruehl clone wife, Donna / Jacqueline: Dayna LaBelle) at the spooky gate to the Thrilla  Villa.    It’s a dark and stormy night.  Great lighting and sound by Brandon Baruch and Peter Bayne set the scene as we learn that Tony and Donna are “connected” Italians (well, Tony is and Donna, apparently, is simply a browbeaten broad) arriving at the Thrilla Villa in search of an old acquaintance, “Mickey,” who has had plastic surgery and may be the connection to acquiring the old manse to take advantage of its New Jersey zoning for a casino/ entertainment destination.  They know nothing about the murder mystery event, but are welcomed as though they were expected.

Madison Rhoades' well turned set with scrim walls is elegantly tacky.  Seeing through the walls seemed to foreshadow something happening behind them.  It never did. 

Exposition and deliberately broad acting styles include the punked out and cynical Carolyn (Giulia Davis)
and her suave ‘uncle?’ Fredrick (Steven Connor).  The cast attempts to get along with the show with the Bonifacio/Fazzolis totally confused as to what’s going on.  All Tony/ Oscar wants to do is find the hidden passage and connect with his old pal, Mickey.

The opportunities for jokes are abundant, but few.  The set is loaded with doors for entrances and exits, but they are never really put to use as we might expect in a romp like Noises Off!  Why director Gary Lee Reed didn’t at least use the swinging door to the kitchen is a mystery of its own.  Andrew Villarreal as Tom, the house boy (who may have something going on with Zachary), camps to high heaven until the plot of the play within the play falls to pieces.  Rosalind (Carolyn Crotty) as the elegant hostess loses a contact lens, “Mickey” finally surfaces, the Voice of Doris Roberts is credited as the Voice of Camilla Thrilla, but her lines are difficult at best to understand…  as are the lines of some of the actors, especially in their guise of characters in the play within the play. 

This is a valiant effort at a silly premise, that with some work might fly through all the available doors a pace.  Keeping track of who’s who and the thread of the plot is reflective of Agatha Christie (Ten Little Indians is briefly referenced).  The fun of farce is the theatricality of it.  The mad nuttiness of Noises Off! is missing. The clever use of doubling in Irma Vep is missing, too.  With a bit more energy and enunciation by the actors and really using all those doors, it might become a clever romp. 

By Anna Nicholas
Produced by Bournos Productions
The Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM
Sundays at 3PM
Through November 23, 2014
Tickets and information
800 838 3006

2 Pianos 4 Hands Bach-to-Bach @ Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre

Reviewed 18 October, 2014 by Robert Roll

2 Pianos 4 Hands: a play with music, or a piano concert with a light comedy narrative, earned a Canadian Tony Award in 1996 when authors Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt projected the A Chorus Line treatment onto the rarified world of classical concert piano.  Here is a concept that will either hook you right away, or give you pause.

As the characters Rick and Ted develop from squirmy kid prodigies into master pianists, their stories are embroidered not with poppy “I Hope I Get It” show tunes, but with the music of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and a half-dozen other masters of classical music.  When you talk about an all-star score, this show has it in spades.

Christopher Tocco and Thomas Frey 
PHOTO CREDIT: Suellen Fitzimmons and Stratton McCrady

The current program’s fulsome and technically flawless musical performances alone make the show worth attending. In the four very capable hands of Thomas Frey and Christopher Tocco, the Rubicon Theatre Company offers an elevating musical evening of piano virtuosity and colorful character study.  

What’s really fun about this two-man cast is the effortlessness with which they hand off to each other both musically and dramatically in the roles of secondary foils to the main characters they play— seamlessly finishing each other’s thoughts both at the keyboard and in the storyline.

If you have ever been the beneficiary—or victim—of early-life musical training, 2 Pianos will strike a diminished G 7th chord in you.  Whether your childhood direction ran to youth soccer, math jams or any other parental-compulsive activity, the themes in this play ring equally true.

The show presents a story of two polite Canadian kids run through the wringer of competitive art at an early age.  They bridle at having to practice long hours, attend endless local competitions, and struggle to find their true selves while facing a blizzard of conflicting instructors, judges and well-meaning relatives.

Once the polite Canadian kids grow into polite Canadian piano virtuosos, they begin to discover enough about themselves to decide whether they may be great, or quite good, or good enough to ultimately be themselves.

With A Chorus Line, the producers had a certain latitude in casting great actors who could “dance a little”.  Any casting choices for 2 Pianos 4 Hands must place superb keyboard skills as foremost.  Frey and Tocco fill the musical bill handsomely, their skills with the light comedy and character changes are more than sufficient to round out a diverting evening.  Thomas Frey’s direction places musical performance exactly where it belongs, front and center. Past visitors to the Rubicon know that its converted 1920’s church with fewer than 200 seats is a more intimate venue than the grand concert hall the play might suggest, but Scenic Designer and Lighting Designer Steve Lucas crafts a setting exactly as advertised: 2 Pianos, elegantly framed, with a few stagecraft surprises that delight, never detract. 2 Pianos 4 Hands is a scintillating presentation in a jewel box setting.

2 Pianos 4 Hands Bach-to-Bach by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt
Rubicon Theatre
1006 East Main Street
Ventura, CA  93001
Wednesdays at 2 pm and 7pm
Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm
Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm
Sundays at 2 pm
Through November 16, 2014
Tickets:  $35 - $59
$20/students (under age 22 with valid student ID)