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.

Not A Hard Knock Life (Stage Thoughts: Annie, The Hollywood Bowl)

30086_show_portrait_largeSeeing ‘Annie’ at The Hollywood Bowl last night was significant for me for a couple of reasons. First, ‘Annie’ was my very first Broadway show at age thirteen, so obviously it holds a special place in my heart. Second, this is my first time at The Hollywood Bowl, an iconic Los Angeles venue, on my six-month anniversary weekend since moving to Southern California. Plus, this show stars Lea Salonga as Grace Farrell, who I remember seeing playing the role of Annie when she was a young girl. So, essentially,  there’s all kinds of intertwined emotions here.

The nineteen piece orchestra (amplified to high heavens) sounded good, and the score sounds glorious in its hands. Kaylin Hedges is a wonderful Annie, with a voice of steel that the role requires (I read she was discovered via YouTube)  Call me an indulgent purist, though, but couldn’t her Annie have worn a curly red wig? That’s a major directorial choice I had a problem with. The rest of the cast worked well, with David Alan Grier a serviceable Daddy Warbucks, and Salonga more than fine Farrell (I wonder if the latter’s mid-century British/New Yawk accent was a directorial choice, though) Ana Gasteyer’s Miss Hannigan was more funny than menacing and that works for me. (I still get nightmares from  Nell Carter’s scary Hannigan from the 1997 revival) But the best performances for me were Roger Bart’s Rooster and Megan Hilty’s Lily St. Regis, both stealing all the scenes they were in. And adorable Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja captured the audience’s hearts as Molly. I love the diversity of the cast, representing the colorful landscape of now. Director Michael Arden manages to not have the venue dwarf the performances, and the book scenes never overstay their welcome.  He really doesn’t do any earth-shattering change in this production, which is most of the times all you need. (cc: James Lapine’s dark humourless take from 2014)

Surely, this is not my most ideal way of seeing this show, but as an experience, I would say this is one satisfied me at that particular moment of my life. A perfect breezy summer evening and overflowing wine contributed to the magical experience.  I went with my three best friends (we have all known each other since we were nine) and the whole time I was there, I kept on telling myself, ‘Life is good,’ because, truly, at times, it is.

The Voice (Stage Thoughts: Audra McDonald Live at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion 5/20/18)

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I have seen Audra McDonald in most of her Tony-winning performances but it is always a treat to just see Audra McDonald, the living legend. On Sunday at Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, she proved that she has one of the best voices singing anywhere nowadays (Stephen Sondheim said as much and as we all know, he is God)  and I think we can be assured that her recordings have not been ‘sweetened’ because her voice is just as luminous, expressive, and crystal clear live.

Her show mirrors, almost to the song, the repertoire from her latest live album, ‘Sing Happy’ And if, like me, you have been listening to the album since it came out, then the show may sound just a little familiar. But who cares, hearing her sing ‘It’s Lovely Up Here’ is glorious in any way possible. Plus, I think she has a great sparkling personality – funny, touching, down-to-earth that all in all, it doesn’t matter – you will feel like you have reached heaven just by having both of you breath the same air. The great theater repertoire is unmatched, starting with her ‘I Am What I Am,’ from La Cage Aux Folles. In some ways, this song feels more like a personal anthem of me loving theater music, unapologetically. Another particular highlight for me is ‘The Facebook Song,’ which I have not really heard prior to her recording it, and has now become one of my favorite tracks from the album. At Sunday’s performance, it was a highlight. McDonald’s voice may be highbrow, but works just as well screaming the F word. By the end of the concert, as she sings ‘Over The Rainbow,’ I was in a puddle of grateful tears. This is truly one of those days that I felt blessed to be alive, and able to experience the thrill of listening to live music. This show is an afternoon is something I will not soon forget.

Stephie From The Block (Television/Stage Thoughts: Stephanie J Block Live From Lincoln Center)

 

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I love theater. I love theater music, I love theater performers – the belters, the Ethel Mermans. So it’s no surprise that I loved ‘Stephanie J Block Live at Lincoln Center.’ This episode, taped last Dec 22, showcases one of the best voices on Broadway these days (she will be playing Cher in ‘The Cher Show’ opening soon on the boards) and this shows off her wonderful belting voice. I once saw her on a touring production of ‘Anything Goes,’ on the same production where Sutton Foster won a Tony, and the great thing about Block in that production was that I forgot about Foster’s performance, because Block made the role her own. Here, in this concert, she sings ‘Defying Gravity, and gosh darn you will ask ‘Idina who’ after hearing her version. I am not saying her version is better than Idina’s but you will definitely her version is different – and works just as well. And the thing I really appreciate in this show is how I saw a different side of Block – she has a sparkling sassy personality that you will want to just embrace. No wonder she is such a beloved figure in the theater community. For me, my two favorite numbers of hers here are the most personal ones for her  – when she sings about her husband in a medlette of ‘My Man/The Music That Makes me Dance,’ and when her husband, Sebastian Arcelus, duets with her with the gender-bending version of ‘Move On.’  This show made me miss New York.

The Chase For Emotions (Stage Thoughts: Chasing Mem’ries, Geffen Playhouse)

1498239703_info_image_ChasingMemries-206x270‘Chasing Mem’ries’ has been describes as ‘a different kind of musical.’ (Look at the poster – it’s even written there) But about fifteen minutes into the show, you realize this is not really a musical. This is a play with music, and well, the music could not be better, as they are songs with lyrics by the husband and wife team of Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

Tyne Daly is Victoria, whose husband of many years has just passed. It is the day of his funeral service, and instead of going down and facing the people who have come to pay respects for her husband, Victoria holes herself up in the attic to look at things her husband left behind. Their son is there, and (as a ghost) his husband is as well. We see her go through the physical things, and at the same time has to deal with all the emotions running through her.

Daly is sensational here, playing a woman she plays best – a tough but sweet no-nonsense woman relatable to a lot. Written by Josh Ravetch, the play is somewhat derived from Mr. Ravetch’s life experience, and the character is fleshed out realistically that you can sense that Victoria is real, and on Daly’s hands, become even more real. I love her singing here – more of an actress who sings and not the other way around – and her subtle delivery give more weight to the lyrics – more showy singing, for example, would make the number more sappy than they already are. By the time Victoria goes through a breakthrough, we feel we have gone with her on the same journey.

This is a small play, though. At ninety minutes, you really do not get (and expect) more than what you get. My favorite moment was revisiting ‘The Trouble With Hello Is Goodbye.’ I spent the hours after playing versions of the song in loop from Spotify.

Window Waves (Music Thoughts: Waving Through A Window Remixes)

dear-evan-hansen-waving-through-a-window-remixesI cannot remember a song from a Broadway show released a single from its cast album. And even more interestingly,  a mini album of three songs remixed by various DJs was released. From ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ its most popular song ‘Waving Through A Window’ got a Tony Moran Remix, which is my favorite from three.  It’s your typical club mix – house but not too heavy, and most appealing to me, you can sing along to the lyrics. Actually even on the two other remixes, by DJLW and Ludato and Joseph Duveen, the lyrics are always present and none of these three tracks are inaccessible. So the question is: who will want these in their lives. Loyal fans of the show would (and there are a lot of  them) For others, your mileage may vary.

Barbra At The Mall (Stage Thoughs: Buyer and Cellar, Wesport Country Playhouse)

1700982I saw a preview of ‘The Government Inspector’ and realize the one of my favorite actors nowadays in Michael Urie.  he can do no wrong – from Ugly Betty, Younger, and of course, Buyer and Cellar. This made me realize I never wrote about the Wesport Playhouse production that was shown on PBS earlier this year. I saw the Off-Broadway production when it first came out, and wanted to see if there were any different from this regional theater run.

It’s pretty much the same great play as I remembered (the only thing I noticed is that Alex More has a different shirt, still the same red pants though) And Urie, as Alex, seems even better in the role – he gives a more lived-in performance making his performance more textured – truly one of best stage performances in recent years. He never resorts to making the performance stereotypical, knowing when to hold back so Alex More doesn’t become cartoon. He is hilarious on the funny parts, and adding pathos to the more serious ones.  Of course, it helps a lot Jonathan Tollin’s writing is so smart. A lot of major Barbraphiles may take offense on some what may  feel like ‘takedowns’ on her,  but deep inside, you know that he is a major fan of her, you feel the love there.

This is a great souvenir for the play, and I am very glad it exists.