Which Witch (Stage Thoughts: Witch, The Audrey Skirball Theater)

12There’s a witch at the Audrey Skirball Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, and she is played by Maura Tierney (of TV’s ‘E.R.’)  in ‘Witch,’ which is Jen Silverman’s retelling of the play ‘The Witch of Edmonton’ by Rowley, Dekker, and Ford. The play – revised with today’s ‘speak’ – begins with her lamentation that she is not really a witch, but the villagers have anointed her as one. So of course the Devil (Evan Jonigkeit) tries to recruit her to sell her soul to him, but she is proving to be a tough sell. An easier target is Cuddy Banks, who is a ballet dancer son of a King looking for an heir, so he is threatened by another young man seemingly favoured by his father. The inventive stage design is pieced in two, and the goings on at the palace is sprightly and interesting, while down below the witch and the devil develop a relationship. I thought Tierney was kind of bland, but maybe it’s a directional thing. All in all, it’s wicked in a good way, and the small production gives a bigger memory.

Not Throwing Away The Shot (Stage Thoughts: Shooting Star, Hudson Theater)

Screenshot-277-e1558969206901I could go all ‘critic’ on ‘Shooting Star,’ the ‘revealing new musical’ playing at the Hudson Theater in Los Angeles. Written by Florian Klein (known in the gay adult industry as hans Berlin,’ the show is, to be frank, on the bland side, and that is maddening because the gay porn industry is supposed to be scintillating and sexy in and of itself. And since this is a musical, I would have to say that the songs (by Thomas Zaufke with lyrics by Erik Ransom) should really be better. Looking at this on the surface level, it really is a bore.

But thank God the direction by Michael Bello lifts everything up. And the cast, led by Taubert Nadalini (as Taylor Trent) is top notch so the show makes for an enjoyable evening.  Nadalini’s voice soars, even as he sings some pretty insipid lyrics. You don’t care, because he has charm to spare, and has sizzling chemistry with Nathan Mohebi, who plays Jesse Apollo. Bello’s directorial touch is mostly light, probably because he know there’s not much meat to the story (your typical farm boy to porn star tale) that there’s no sense extracting juice from something bone-dry. You will recognize a lot of talent on stage (My fave was Carson Robinette, who plays JR Andrews, ‘America’s Most Famous Bottom’) so everything else will be forgiven. Plus, they all look legitimate-stage ready, so really, what’s the harm? Check pretensions at the door, and I bet you will have an orgasm watching this.

Isn’t It Funny? (Movie/Stage Thoughts: Funny Girl, The Orpheum Theater, Manchester)

onesheetI have never seen a production of ‘Funny Girl.’  I saw a concert version a couple of years back with different Fannys, but I don’t think that counts. Of course, I have seen the film, but I haven’t in the last decade. I had heard accolades of the London production which originated at the Menier Chocolate Factory directed by Michael Mayer, and I know it moved to great success on West End. I had wanted to see that, but when I was at London last year, it had already left to tour.

So when I found out that the production was filmed and to be presented at cinemas nationwide, I knew I wanted to see it. Of course, ‘Funny Girl’ is the kind of show wherein you have to have someone in the title role who is not only triple threat, but has to be vulnerable, and funny. And by God, do we have that and more in Sheridan Smith. I was astounded by how good she is. Streisand will always be the gold standard in which you measure anyone doing this role, but for a brief second there, I forgot her. Her ghost still mostly haunts, but when Smith is on stage, it seems like it is only hers. In a way she is almost the anti-Streisand, her singing more in the vein of  “an actress who sings,” eschewing the usual ‘stand and belt’ style that most actresses would use for this role. And her physical look fits the character better – a lot less self-aware, and it makes the ‘ugly duckling falls in love with the prince’  story line more believable and even more heartbreaking.  The dependent/victim role has never looked more appealing in Sheridan Smith’s hands.

Harvey Fierstein, in his rewriting of the book, has made the show feel a lot more like a book musical. Funny Girl, as it stood, felt more like a concert (I heard David Merrick wanted to cut all scenes without Fanny in them. ) but in this version, the story flows better, making the songs mean more. ‘People,’ here is more casual, not an aria but more akin to Carousel’s bench scene, essaying that exact moment Fanny realizes how it feels to finally fall for someone. For me, it is the best song and scene of the show, sort of like that moment you realize that she is doomed and destined for a real heartbreak as you tell yourself, ‘this will end in tears.’  Mayer’s direction is spare, and he gives his actors a lot of room to breathe.  Darius Campbell as Nick Arnstein feels less one -note, beneath his dashing gambler persona, you can sense an insecurity, at times even a longing – he is given a point of view like never before – they made ‘Who Are You Now’ a duet to give him a voice, for example.  Styne’s score is really a mixed bag – but the highs are up there. At this point, the familiar songs can be overly familiar, t it’s always good to see and hear them in their natural habitat, which is musical theater.  Also, the show’s creaks are more evident, too: without a great star performance, there’s not much there in the show – it’s really Gypsy-lite.

The film was shot well, with enough closeups so we can feel the characters more. I certainly feel fortunate to have seen this production, as it made me realizes how much I needed to see Smith’s performance, and well, people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.

But Just For Me (Movie/Stage Thoughts: An American In Paris, London Cast, Dominion Theater)

AAIP_Playful_420x5881I am really loving this trend of Broadway productions being shown at movie theaters. Perhaps because I am no longer in New York City, and this gets me close to my beloved theaters. I saw a screening of ‘An American in Paris’ and quickly jumped to get a ticket. In this case, this is from the 2017 West End production which closed January 2018, with the same production team, and it even ‘imported’ the two principal actors: Robbie Fairchild and Leanne Cope (he from New York City Ballet, she from Royal Ballet Company)

I saw the Broadway production and fell in love with the show instantly.  I loved the direction and choreography of Christopher Wheedon, who seamlessly incorporated ballet into the show. Here the ballet is so prominent it is as if it was another character in the story. I thought Fairchild was so fantastic in the role and cannot imagine the show without him, so it’s great that the show is being ‘preserved’ like this with him on the role.

I cannot imagine the last time I had a smile on my face for a straight two hundred and fifty minutes. And my biggest takeaway from the production? That it is one of the most romantic shows I have seen in recent years. The show was beautifully shot – with closeups on intimate moments, and great aerial shots so we can fully appreciate the artistic fluidity of the dancing. And the Gershwin songs got to me, even if I have heard those  songs a million times. I kind of miss Max Von Essen and Brandon Uranowitz from the original Broadway cast, but David Seadon Young’s ‘But Not For Me’ is just as haunting.  The movie, and show, is a treat.

The Emotions of Baking (Stage Thoughts: The Cake, Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater)

1531166572_front_image_TheCake-206x270Now is the time of Trump, and now is the time when the Supreme Court has declared that a baker can discriminate against a same-sex couple, giving him the right to refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding. I personally would not want someone like that to bake my cake anyway but I know that yes it just isn’t right – someone’s hate should not be celebrated, as Trump and the Republicans do. That is where I stand as I enter the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse to watch ‘The Cake,’ a play written by Bekah Brumstetter. I learned from her bio that Brumstetter writes for ‘This Is Us,’ and I am still unsure if that was a good or bad thing.

I liked ‘The Cake.’ It flips the famous Supreme Court Case by having a lesbian couple be rejected by a baker (played by Debra Jo Rupp)  I always say that these case become more ‘human’ when it starts to affect people you know, and that is exactly what happens here. The baker has known one of the brides she childhood, and is desperate to bake her that cake, so we see her internal struggle. But, she also follows the bible and her church, and they are telling her otherwise – that it is a sin to do it.  I can get pretty closed-minded on things, and this play has an appealing actress play someone I normally would not like. So I listen to the other side, and I disagree, and I try to understand her. The play makes the case for civility and common sense, something that is lacking in society nowadays more often than not. There are aspects of the play I disliked – why all the senseless nudity? – but I have to admit it opened my eyes very briefly in understanding ‘the other side.’

Take Me To The World (Stage Thoughts: The World Goes Round, Reprise 2.0 at The Freud Playhouse, UCLA)

CORRECT+PHONE+-+NO+DISCOUNT+SOCIAL+MEDIA+CARDOne of the things I miss most about living in New York is theater. To say there is less theater in LA is an understatement. You have to dig deep to find something here,  and what you get can be not necessarily worth it (I refuse to see touring companies, and yes I admit I am a snob) But once in a while, you do get something worth your while, and I found that in the Reprise 2 series production of Kander & Ebb’s ‘The World Goes ‘Round’ at the Freud Playhouse at UCLA.  I remember the Off-Broadway production well, at the Westside Theater in Midtown West, before all the gentrification there took place. Look at who was involved at the original production – Scott Ellis directing, Susan Stroman doing choreography, and look at the cast: Robert Cuccioli, Karen Ziemba, Karen Mason among others. It was a memorable evening.

I am a realist, and did not expect this cast to be as memorable. And to be frank, they aren’t. Dawnn Lewis (from the television show ‘A Different World’) and Valeri Perri (she was in the 2nd National Tour of Evia in the 80s)  are both fine, and the latter gets the showcase-y songs (‘Isn’t It Better’ from Funny Lady, ‘Colored Lights’ from The Rink) The rest of the cast is dependable enough, if at times forgettable: Larry Cedar, Kelly Dorney, and Michael Starr. Okay so maybe Starr’s is a bit more hard to forget after he plays a naked ‘Arthur’ in ‘Arthur In the Afternoon’ (his muscles are fine)

All in all, not a bad night of theater, f we go by Los Angeles standards. I am mostly marveling at the songs, as it is always nice to have these songs sung live. Richard Israel’s production skews more cabaret than musical theater (A lady next to me asked her companion – ‘are they just gonna sing’) but I’ll take what I can get, and this isn’t too bad.

My Fault, I Fear (Stage Thoughts: Side By Side By Sondheim, The Odyssey Theater Ensemble)

side-by-side-by-sondheimI would be the first to admit I am a theater snob. I am a big theater fan, of course, and since I used to be in new York I would see the best of the bests. I still have no time for touring companies (I always say these are the people not good enough to be on the boards) and there were times I would scoff at local productions. But fate has landed me in Los Angeles, and it’s Tinseltown here all day all night that there isn’t much of a theater scene. Still, there are some small gems to be found if you look hard enough. The Odyssey Theater Ensemble in West Los Angeles is doing a production of ‘Side By Side by Sondheim’ and it has piqued my interest. This is a piece that is not touched frequently, and the only thing I know of it is from an Original London Cast Recording. It’s a mostly chamber piece, and to be honest, it has been ages – decades – since I last listened to that cast recording. So my interest was certainly piqued, though of course I wasn’t expecting too much. I told myself, at the very least, I will be hearing Sondheim songs being sung, and that’s much better than Netflix and Chill (theoretically, of course)

That’s my fault, I fear. This is a small diamond production. It is not of the highest grade, but it does well with what it has got, and the production serves the brilliant material well. The cast of four (Rachel McLaughlan, Chris Kerrigan, Sarah Busic, and Mark Kaufman) sing on pitch, and on some numbers even shine on their interpretations. But I sense some greenness – Busic has a little tendency to oversell a song (such as in ‘Losing My Mind’) and McLaughlan has minor tics that distract (she winks at wrong moments) Kerrigan fares better mostly, and has a vocal range that can navigate the intricacy of Sondheim’s music. Kaufman has a lot less to do, essaying the narrator part, and is mostly unmemorable. All in all, they are competent, though, frankly, not top notch.

But that’s me being a showqueen bitch. This is a small production, and it provides enough joys for an evening, It’s better than an episode of ‘Queer Eye’ on Netflix on a random Saturday night, and in my book, that is good.