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Your Musical Theatre Resource for Southern California!

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    Savion Glover and Joshua Henry. All photos by Ben Gibbs

    It’s official. I have a new favorite thing, and it is called Muse/ique. You would too if you’d been in the audience for GLOW/TOWN, the third in a 3-part series celebrating Motown and its roots Saturday night at Caltech. From the structure of the program to the sophistication of the environment, Artistic Director Rachael Worby and company have created a musical experience in a class by itself.

    Staged outdoors in a completely made up space on the lawn of Beckman Auditorium, Muse/ique is the epitome of smart entertainment. It reaches the senses on multiple levels, appealing to the intellect as well as the heart, while engaging the audience in the pure joy of the music. In this setting, any preconceived notions or stodgy expectations get blown apart. The party is written in the music and it moves you from the inside out. All you have to do is show up.

    This summer, Muse/ique’s series explored the road to Motown and what it represents in the fabric of America. The two earlier concerts looked at Motown’s connection to Latin rhythms and movement, and the evolution of Gospel music and its impact on Detroit in the sixties. In GLOW/TOWN, Worby connected all the dots by shining a breathtaking spotlight on the essential musical forms that ultimately manifested in Berry Gordy’s Motown Sound: jazz, blues, soul, and early rock ‘n roll, with a bit of pop thrown in for good measure.

    Savion Glover (left) and Joshua Henry (right) with Rachael Worby
    (center) and the Muse/ique Orchestra

    She is incredibly effective as a guide, both conducting the orchestra and also sharing the music’s back story. Using well-chosen, often little-known, gems of information, Worby can unlock a piece and create an enticing context for the listener whether or not they have any prior knowledge of the music. It is one of Muse/ique’s most intriguing elements. She also knows how to stack the deck when it comes to special guests.

    On this particular night, Hamilton fans had to make do with seeing his understudy on stage because Joshua Henry, currently starring as Aaron Burr at the Pantages, was one of two featured artists performing with Muse/ique. The other was tap phenom Savion Glover, considered the best tap dancer in the world by...well....everyone. And rightfully so. Sparks flew as these two remarkable musicians gave their heart and soul to the rhythm and the music, forging a bond between audience and artist that can only be achieved in a live performance setting.

    Joshua Henry

    It didn’t matter in which style he was singing, Henry burned up the mic in all of them. His version of Bricusse and Newley’s “Feeling Good” recalled the depth, danger, and defiance no one has been able to replicate since Nina Simone recorded it in 1965. He slipped into the soul shoes of Reverend Al Green for “Love and Happiness” and an infectious love groove culminating in a call and repeat with Glover that reverberated absolute joy with every pass back and forth. Please let a recording of the duo performing that song emerge because it was sensational.

    They pulled off the same magic during the tribute section to Thelonious Monk (“Round Midnight” and “Misterioso”), Glover dueting first with the clarinet in a laid back rhythm, whisper soft, both musicians completely simpatico. Then the orchestra turned sexy, Glover hit on an acapella ripple effect in his footwork, and began a playful volley back and forth with Henry, who displayed some fierce scatting on Alan Steinberger’s arrangement. By the way, all of Steinberger’s arrangements are outstanding.

    Henry continued to build the night’s momentum through Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” into the main Motown set, making it hard to imagine there is anything he can’t do vocally. He has a powerhouse set of pipes and the charisma of a comet. From the smooth groove of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me” to the wailing wonder he let loose on The Miracles’ “Please Don’t Leave Me Girl” to the joy he imbued in The Temptations’ extraordinary hit, “My Girl,” it was electric. By the time he reached Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in my Life,” the night had turned into one big dance party with audience members unable to sit still any longer. Yes, we were all in the aisles.

    And always there was Glover, moving in and out of program, displaying the rapturous kinship between his body and the rhythm. Tapping in counterpoint with the upright bass during Duke Ellington’s “Giggling Rapids” from The River Suite was as thrilling a jazz expression as any purely instrumental version you’ve ever heard. Worby later surprised Glover with a video clip of a “tap off” he’d had with Jerry Lewis during Jerry’s MDA Telethon twenty years ago, adding an endearing wink to a night packed with brilliance.

    Another highlight of the evening was the world premiere of Jed Feuer’s orchestral piece “Harambe” which means “all pull together” in Swahili. As prelude, Worby talked about how live music has the distinct power to pull us all together. Listening to his piece, you could feel Feuers vision. From the first poignant notes of the strings to the surging epic quality of its melodic themes, it was a gorgeous display of harmony in motion. The oboe solo, the violins, the way it made me think of living in Boulder and listening to Rifkin on Pearl Street so many years ago… if music can achieve peace in the world, this is the kind of composition to facilitate it.

    Muse/ique packed so much sexy, civilized, and stimulating artistry into the night that the 90-minute program literally flew by. You know those times you check your watch during a lull in a performance to see how much is left? There was none of that going on here -- only a sea of people wrapped in the sheer joy of the music.

    Muse/ique’s Summer of Sound may have ended but you can experience the unique style of Muse/ique this fall with theirUncorked Series (Tagline: A traveling party. Unconventional spaces. Fearless artists.)

    The first concert takes place on October 15th and is called ROCK/ANTHEM featuring iconic songs and the FREEDOM of togetherness. On November 12th, it’s FANCY/FREE, a celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th and the FREEDOM of music. Tickets will be available shortly on their website at After seeing what they did with Summer of Sound, you can bet my calendar is already set. 

    Heres a taste of what you missed.

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    Ian Littleworth and the Company. All photos by Ed Krieger

    The Palos Verdes Performing Arts production of Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is directed by Richard Israel and features musical direction by Sean Alexander Bart and choreography by Daniel Smith. With a lovable cast of quirky characters and guest spellers from the audience during each performance, this hilarious musical instantly spells fun. Now through October 1st at Norris Theatre, 27570 Norris Center Drive on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Tickets:

    Hajin Cho, Chris Bona, Jacob Nye, Gabriela Milo, Ian Littleworth and Tayler Mettra

    Jacob Nye and the Company

    The Company of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

    Jacob Nye and the Company

    Tayler Mettra, Jacob Nye and Gabriela Milo

    Chris Bona and Company

    Kelsey Venter, Tayler Mettra and Donovan Wright

    Kelsey Venter, Erik Gratton and Jacob Nye

    Jacob Nye and the Company

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    Hannah Elless and Bryce Pinkham

    The Old Globe has opened a window and let in a beautiful breath of fresh air in its latest world premiere musical, Benny and Joon, by bookwriter Kirsten Guenther, composer Nolan Gasser, and lyricist Mindi Dickstein. Based on the 1993 MGM film starring Johnny Depp, Mary Stuart Masterson and Aidan Quinn, it focuses on three characters, each insulated by their unique circumstances, and how they ultimately overcome their limitations to live the life they’ve always wanted. Love, family, compassion, and understanding are the foundation of the piece and, as they grow, so do we. 

    Joon (Hannah Elles) suffers from a form of mental illness that means she hears voices when she’s off her meds. Order is the key to her world and when that order is interrupted, it prompts uncontrollable outbursts, making her a danger to herself and others. Benny (Andrew Samonsky) is the older brother who has taken care of her ever since their parents died in a car accident ten years earlier. A mechanic with plenty of guy friends, but no love life, he dutifully shoulders his responsibility because he loves his sister but he also uses it as a reason not to get close to people. Outside of poker nights with the guys, his world consists of managing interruptions from Joon and little else.

    Enter Sam (Bryce Pinkham), the eccentric cousin of one of Benny’s poker buddies, and the catalyst who turns everything upside down. Sam’s unusual way of navigating through life helps Benny and Joon see that sometimes you have to look at the world a little differently in order to make it all work out. He uses humor and classic movie bits to diffuse tension in others and he does it so spontaneously that it works every time.

    Bryce Pinkham

    The musical’s task is accomplished with a fair amount of whimsy and a sensitive hand by the writers and director Jack Cummings III. They establish it from the get-go, with a paper origami bird, a miniature train, and the promise of a journey slightly askew. The beauty of the opening is that you know immediately what kind of musical you’re going to see and then it follows through and delivers on what it sets up.

    All of the film’s best moments are here, several of them staged so sweetly and with such a light touch that they seem to dance, even when there is no musical accompaniment. Some – like Sam’s famous dancing roll scene in the diner and his method of cooking grilled cheese sandwiches with an iron – are set quite effectively to instrumental music. Others receive full-on song development and move the story forward at an accelerated clip while expressing the characters’ inner dialogue in a way not available to their film counterparts. So many of the songs are winners.

    Dickstein’s lyrics are rich with insight and Gasser’s melodies capture the vastly different rhythms of each character, a complicated task in any musical but in this one it defines the characters on a whole other level. In “Safety First” we see why Joon feels compelled to stand in the middle of a busy intersection and direct traffic even though it makes her look crazy, and in “In My Head” we begin to understand the real reason Sam is obsessed with the movies. The driving rock inflections in the song express the pounding desperation inside Sam’s head and the escape that celluloid provided from a cruel world.

    Hannah Elless and Bryce Pinkham

    The choice to have Joon play the ukulele while singing “Happy” perfectly captures the gentle joy she feels in the moment (is there any friendlier sound than a ukulele?) and in the most unconventional of love songs, “It’s a Shame” sung by Joon and Sam, reveals just how perfect for each other these two unusual individuals really are.

    On the outside, Joon often seems “normal” and Elless achieves an interesting dichotomy with the character. When she is not completely in control of her surroundings or is showing a softer, more childlike side, Elless still includes Joon’s internal durability, just as when she is exercising her strength of will she also retains her fragility. It is a wonderful play on personality that creates a complex character the audience roots for without hesitation. She is delicate, determined, and delightful.

    As Sam, Pinkham takes the Johnny Depp role and reinvents the character into one audiences will talk about for years to come. For that reason alone you need to see the show. He sings beautifully, possesses the kind of comic and physical timing that can’t be taught, and does everything so effortlessly that you want him to repeat every scene again and again. Whether he’s rolling in on skates and pushing a kitchen cabinet or dancing with a mop, defending the rights of Baked Alaska or summoning up the courage to get a job, he is the imaginative link that fuels the show. Pinkham’s progression from insecure to confident in a single song (“I Can Help”) is a showstopper and his onstage chemistry with Elless is immediate. It is a darling performance, never precious, and so memorable there are sure to be award bells ringing in the future for the actor.

    Jason SweetTooth Williams and Bryce Pinkham

    In the category of things that need rethinking: Benny’s translation from film to stage doesn’t yet work. In the movie, it was always clear that Benny’s love for Joon was more important than anything else. Even at his most frustrated point, Aidan Quinn’s sincerity allowed the audience to remain sympathetic to him. Here, Benny turns into a phenomenal jerk when the conflict is highest and Samonsky hits the beat so viciously that he isn’t able to recover from alienating the audience, even with a song that explains his actions after the fact. Of course the frustrations he lets out in his tirade toward June are legitimate but it’s a fine line that still needs to be tuned.

    That, coupled with a lack of chemistry between he and Ruthie (January LaVoy) and LaVoy’s lackluster performance, makes this couple fizzle out before they even begin. She is the weak vocal link in an otherwise strong vocal ensemble. Without a more believable attraction, this secondary romantic storyline falls flat. 

    The supporting characters are also trying hard to make as much of their short stage time as possible but some of their performances come off as forced. Scenes with Dr. Cruz (Natalie Toro), in particular, could benefit from significant cutting. Her advice song “There Is No Secret” feels like it is inserted just to give her a solo and that’s not a good enough reason. Make the point in short dialogue and move on rather than turning it into a downer orchid sequence that may have looked good on paper but doesn’t translate well to the stage. The office scene and song “Wonder” is also too drawn out to hold our interest, and a reprise of the song sung by the doctor is an unnecessary comment.

    Hannah Elless and Andrew Samonsky

    The crux of the show is the relationship between Benny and Joon and Sam. When the focus stays on them the musical’s inherent sweetness blossoms and, when it doesn’t, it fades.

    Dane Laffrey’s primary set piece – a Google Earth-inspired map of Benny and Joon’s neighborhood – is a sleek and dramatic way to represent how the orderly appearance of a thing may not tell the whole story. There are times the three dimensional backdrop even resembles a storybook pop-up or a board game with the players all advancing according to the roll of the dice – two steps forward, one step back. A rolling track in the floor allows for the smooth transition of furniture and other items that set the individual scenes. Once you accept the repetitive device, you see how effectively it solves the question of how to cut quickly between many different locations.

    R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting lends intimacy as it creates the parameters of each space in the absence of actual walls. A breathtaking reveal late in the show takes the visual representation of freedom to a new level. The creative team’s thoughtful use of color, order, and function works for the kind of story being told. It should feel unexpected and it does.

    Regardless of our circumstances, we're all in search of a happy ending. Benny and Joon is a quirky new musical that will make you believe a happy ending is possible no matter what stands in your way. Fresh, inventive, and full of charm, it's a feel-good musical that will warm your heart.  

    September 7 – October 22, 2017
    The Old Globe
    1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park
    San Diego, CA

    L-R: Paolo Montalban, Jason SweetTooth Williams, Colin Hanlon, Andrew Samonsky,
    Hannah Elless and Bryce Pinkham

    Hannah Elless

    January LaVoy, Andrew Samonsky, Bryce Pinkham and Hannah Elless

    January LaVoy, Andrew Samonsky, Bryce Pinkham and Hannah Elless

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    Carolyn Hennesy and Landon Shaw II. All photos by Chelsea Sutton

    In 1970, Maria Callas posed for Blackglama’s iconic “What Becomes a Legend Most” ad campaign. The famous black and white Richard Avedon photographs shot against a simple gray background captured the glamour and allure of black mink featuring some of the most iconic faces in the world. It was indeed a look, and Callas knew it was for her.

    Callas talks about the importance of having a look in Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning play, Master Class, based on a series of vocal master classes the opera singer gave at the Juilliard School of Music in 1971 and ‘72. Though it is written for a cast of six, it is essentially a one woman play centering on Callas, La Divina, as she was known during her incredible singing career. She may say, in the first few minutes of the play, that it’s not about her, but the audience knows it’s all about her.

    She was a woman consumed by becoming a star and spent her life perfecting her voice and developing a catalog of roles that bridged the soprano repertoire in a way few have been able to do since. Callas could sing everything from Wagner to Verdi to Puccini to Bellini and adapt her voice to the requirements of each in turn. It isn’t any wonder singers still study her today in the hopes that a little bit of the Callas magic will rub off on them.

    Roy Abramsohn, Maegan McConnell, and Carolyn Hennesy

    Carolyn Hennesy takes on the role of Maria Callas in the first production at the new Garry Marshall Theatre, long known to its Toluca Lake neighbors as The Falcon. Rechristened, and sporting a redesigned lobby that could double as a sleek modern art gallery, it all but glistens with possibility. The choice, then, to begin the theatre’s first ticketed season with Master Class is a smart one. It’s definitely a way to make an entrance, another lesson offered by Callas in the pages of the play, and co-artistic directors Dimitri Toscas (who also directs the play) and Joseph Leo Bwarie have done themselves proud.

    But the real question is Hennesy as La Divina? Small, but mighty, poised, prickly, opinionated, disdainful, luminous, and utterly enthralling. There are times she is as cool and still as a statue but you can feel the volcano itching to blow just beneath the surface. Her resemblance to Callas (impeccable costuming by Michèle Young and wig design by Laura Caponera) is uncanny and when the light catches her just right, all you can think of is the phrase, “A face that launched a thousand ships.”

    Heartbreaking truths about the price Callas paid to become such a star are brilliantly delivered in flashback scenes and will surprise anyone not familiar with the details of her personal life. Nuanced and containing a world of colors, Hennesy reveals a sensitivity to the material that makes this one of the most striking performances of the 2017 theatre season. In perhaps the most devastating few seconds of the entire play, she attempts to sing. No matter how many times I have seen it, it is still always shocking in its vulnerability.

    The three young singers who participate in the master class display enough operatic training to satisfy those looking for authenticity. Maegan McConnell is Sophie, the giggling ingénue who must perform Amina’s aria from La Sonnambula, “Ah! non credea mirarti” if Callas will only let her get started.

    As Tony, Landon Shaw II proves he can shrug off his flirtatious tenor front and show that he’s serious about his career. When he finally sings Cavaradossi’s aria, “Dammi i colori” from Tosca and the last notes float away, we’re left with a haunting moment between he and Hennesy.

    Roy Abramsohn, Aubrey Trujillo-Scarr , and Carolyn Hennesy 

    Sharon Graham (Aubrey Trujillo-Scarr), the determined soprano who intends to sing the Letter aria and cabaletta from Verdi’s Macbethis the fiercest challenger to Callas’ composure. As the two spar off with increasing intensity and decorum goes out the window - along with any remaining humor - she will match Hennesy sting for sting.

    The gorgeous scenic design by Francois-Pierre Couturetakes into account the acoustics necessary in a concert hall and uses beautifully polished wood panels, warmly lit by JM Montecalvo, to achieve its effect. It allows Hennesy to use her sotto voce and still be heard in the house.

    Garry Marshall Theatre’s elegantly crafted production of Master Class is a gorgeous example of pairing the right actor with the right play at the right moment in a theatre’s evolution. Callas says one must know one’s assets in order to create art. Rest assured they do here.

    September 22 – October 22, 2017
    Garry Marshall Theatre
    4252 Riverside Drive
    Burbank, CA 91505
    Tickets: (818) 955-8101 or

    Carolyn Hennesy and Roy Abramsohn

    Carolyn Hennesy and Landon Shaw II 

    Maegan McConnell and Carolyn Hennesy

    Roy Abramsohn, Carolyn Hennesy, and Maegan McConnell

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    Dora Kiss, Will Thomas McFadden, Adam Bennett, Bob Turton and Paulette Zubata.
    All photos by Ashley Randall

    The title of the show tells you everything you need to know about The Actors’ Gang’s latest production: Captain Greedy’s Carnival, A Musical Nightmare. From it, you expect to see a circus-style entertainment with a dishonest ringleader, musical numbers, and no happy ending. That’s exactly what you get.

    Billed as a musical satire, it presents the glorification of greed and corruption in a twisted capitalist society where the rich get richer and the regular guy gets screwed (sound familiar?) through the lens of a carnival sideshow, which is itself the epitome of exploitation. In fact, the disclaimer at the bottom of the program even states, “Entry to Captain Greedy’s Carnival is at your own risk. The customer getting screwed is not our problem.” And the captain means it.

    For the next two hours and twenty minutes, he shows us all the ways the little guy gets fleeced, often by his own stupidity. There is no subtle symbolism here. The troupe’s sharp point of view blasts from every pore in the Gang’s broad presentational style of storytelling.

    Bob Turtin and Will McFadden
    Essentially, the show is a series of sketches loosely written around 23 songs and a reprise that tell the story of a family who gets played for suckers. The Wheel of Random Taxation, Home-buying Shell Game, Budget Cut Burlesque, and Foreclosure Arcade are a few of the mash-ups the cast tackles in what feels more like an enhanced musical revue than a book musical.

    Program notes by the playwright (Jack Pinter) say the songs and concept came first with the book following, which explains the episodic nature of the piece. It isn’t always easy to create a compelling arc when you write a plot to connect existing songs and that’s the case here. It was workshopped with the company before this world premiere but, even after its developmental phase, it feels like a work in progress.

    Missing is the precision that has made past Actors’ Gang productions so effective. Instead, scenes are sloppily executed, choreography is haphazard, and actors repeatedly mumble or flub their lines. The whole thing ends up feeling like a class exercise still finding its beats. The second time I saw the same ensemble member break character, grin, and roll her eyes at her own mistakes I realized the actors were either under-rehearsed, unfocused, or having an off night. Whichever the case, it didn’t serve the piece.

    And while the show is topical and timely, it also beats its subject to death without offering the audience a way out. It isn’t required to, but the Gang is preaching to the choir here. We know we’re being taken advantage of by the government and big business so there is a level of satisfaction missing from the experience when it pokes fun at the expense of the very people watching it.

    The musical is most successful in its satire and in well thought out characters like Bob Turton’s Pee-Wee Herman-esque big Talker and pontificating Professor Freemarket. Will McFadden, who also directs and is one of the Gang’s biggest assets, is on stage for almost the entirety of the show as the charismatic Captain Greedy, but a relatively quiet audience the night I attended seemed to thwart even his attempts to engage them.

    Bob Turton, Paulette Zubata and the cast 

    Roger Enos score consists mainly of song ditties sung in unison, although I could distinguish parts in the finale. None are particularly memorable after the final curtain however the ideas in them hit home. Lyrics with bad prosody (when the emphasis is on the wrong syllable) however, are inexcusable, and this show has a lot of them.

    The writers could easily edit out 6-8 of the songs, trim the running time to under two hours and produce it in one act. Moving the intermission carnival fun and games in the lobby to before the show (even if you needed to delay the curtain) would help ramp up the energy of the audience, especially on a low energy night like this one.

    But what Captain Greedy’s Carnival lacks in polish it makes up for in passion. McFadden’s closing speech is as blunt as they come, driving the message home that if you let yourself be distracted by the song and dance, you deserve what you get.

    The threadbare trappings of the production design by McFadden, Pinter, and Jason Lovett give the production a salty air. Projections by Cihan Sahin are shown on the surrounding circus tent backdrop to punch up the shows point of view. Bosco Flanagans lighting gives the carnival the glaring edge it needs to feel just seedy enough, as do Christie Harms’ costumes.

    Paulette Zubata and Dora Kiss

    September 30 – Saturday, November 11, 2017
    The Actors’ Gang
    9070 Venice Blvd
    Culver City, CA  90232
    Thursday Evenings – “Pay What You Can” 
    Tickets: 310-838-4264 or

    Bob Turton

    The cast of Captain Greedy's Carnival

    Will Thomas McFadden and the cast

    Mary Eileen O'Donnell

    The cast of Captain Greedy's Carnival

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    The Cast of Cagney the Musical. Photos by Carol Rosegg from the NY production

    When you think of James Cagney, one of two images comes to mind: the tough guy or the tapper. The public couldn’t get enough of his bad guy persona in films like The Public Enemy, G-Men, and White Heat but, for musical theatre lovers, nothing tops his performance as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. It was a match made in heaven when he was cast in the role. Both were Irish entertainers who came up through Vaudeville and were proud to be Americans. Both stood up for their principles and helped those in need, even when it wasn’t fashionable.

    Now, Cagney’s life and career are immortalized in a dynamic new bio-musical directed by Bill Castellino playing at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. The show has been in development for about the last 15 years and, in this current version, just concluded a successful 14-month run Off Broadway. It isn’t surprising. The painstaking work of writing and rewriting, and putting it up in front of different audiences in many places has resulted in a song-and-dance-packed traditional musical theatre production that is a fitting tribute to Cagney’s legacy.

    In real life, Cagney was a man with a heart, and the tough guy image was not how he wanted to be remembered. Bookwriter Peter Colley gives us a surprising level of insight into his character as he chronicles Cagney’s (Robert Creighton) rise to fame, including his relationships with the tyrannical Jack Warner (an excellent Bruce Sabath), his brother Bill (Josh Walden), his mother (Danette Holden), and the woman who would eventually become his wife, Willie Vernon (Ellen Z. Wright). 

    These scenes show us the heart of the man and they cover enough territory to give us an accurate picture but one in particular is a hard sell today. Shoving a grapefruit in a woman’s face for laughs in his breakout 1931 film The Public Enemy gave credence to the idea that it was okay for men to mistreat women, and it was a little disturbing to see it enacted in the musical given today’s prevalence of violence against women in the news. It is a pivotal part of Cagneys story and was handled as tastefully as it could be but I still cringed.

    L-R: Robert Creighton and Jeremy Benton

    The joy of the show, and where it really becomes something special, is in its dazzling production numbers. The stylish dance scenes and extended tap choreography by Joshua Bergasse (particularly in the Cohan numbers and a duet for Creighton and Jeremy Benton who plays Bob Hope) are the pièce de résistance. Creighton is as charming as he is fast on his feet, a ball of energy with a lovable smile and an earthy edge who has an endearing way of connecting with the audience. His supporting cast matches his energy every step-ball-change of the way.

    The score consists of three different song styles. Those written by Cohan – “Grand Old Flag,” the “USO Medley” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy – are high energy patriotic tap extravaganzas. Those by Creighton take a more sentimental turn as Cagney finds himself “Crazy ‘Bout You,” “Falling in Love,” and pondering “How Will I Be Remembered.” And the rest, by Christopher McGovern, are constructed using creative and interesting devices that musical lovers will really get into.

    “Black and White,” the opening number, is a take on the black and white movies of Cagney’s day that returns with a startling twist in the second act. In the writers’ room, he gives Bergasse the opportunity to choreograph a stellar pair of songs – “Warner at Work” and “Cagney at Work” that utilize seated tapping, intricately timed rhythms, and another twist that ties them together for a fantastic result.

    Musical director Gerald Sternbach’s 5-piece band upstage of the action packs a lot of sound in their few instruments and also helps visually fill in the space that James Morgan’s traveling scenic design doesn’t. Michael A. Megliola’s lighting also effectively adds dimension in the studio sequences and realistic scenes but the overall look of the stage flattens out during dance numbers. Thats also where Martha Bromelmeiers costumes look cheap in comparison to the otherwise well-done collection of period looks.

    If the show was to set its sights on Broadway, it would need to scale up the production design accordingly. As it is, the musical already succeeds in its loving tribute to a great entertainer and will put a smile on your face as you leave the theater.

    Robert Creighton (center) and the cast

    Bruce Sabath as Jack Warner

    A final note to the out-of-town producer. When youre producing a show in LA, you might want to rethink saying LA isnt a theatre town while hitting up the audience for investors in an exceedingly long curtain speech that should have been done at the after party instead of on stage following the performance. Rather than being cute, all you accomplish is alienating your audience.

    October 5 – 29, 2017
    El Portal Theatre
    5269 Lankershim Blvd
    North Hollywood, CA 91601
    For more about the show:

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    Can’t get tickets to Hamilton? Head on over to the Kirk Douglas Theatre for Spamilton, Gerard Alessandrini’s outrageous parody musical almost as popular as the original it spoofs. The show runs November 5 – December 31 and tickets for the west coast premiere are on sale now at

    The cast includes Glenn Bassett, Susanne Blakeslee, Dedrick A. Bonner, Becca Brown, John Devereaux, Wilkie Ferguson III, William Cooper Howell, Elijah Reyes and Zakiya Young, with choreography by Gerry McIntyre, music supervision and arrangements by Fred Barton, music direction by James Lent, set and props design by Glenn Bassett, costume design by Dustin Cross, lighting design by Karyn D. Lawrence and sound design by Adam Phalen. Here’s a look at the cast in rehearsal. Dont miss the fun!

    L-R: Cast members Dedrick A. Bonner, William Cooper Howell, John Devereaux,
    Elijah Reyes, Wilkie Ferguson III and Zakiya Young.
    All photos by Craig Schwartz

    William Cooper Howell

    Wilkie Ferguson III 

    Zakiya Young

    John Devereaux

    Glenn Bassett

    Dedrick A. Bonner

    Elijah Reyes

    L-R: Dedrick A. Bonner, Glenn Bassett, William Cooper Howell, Zakiya Young,
    Elijah Reyes, John Devereaux and Wilkie Ferguson III.

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    Theatres have a way of becoming an artist’s second home. It doesn’t matter if you are a director, designer, actor, or volunteer – the countless hours you invest and the close proximity in which you do your work often create friendships that last a lifetime. And each time you step back through those doors you feel like you’re coming home. No one knows this to be true more than Joseph Leo Bwarie, whose current home away from home is the Garry Marshall Theatre in Toluca Lake. Bwarie has been connected with the theatre (known formerly as The Falcon) and the Marshall family for many years, and he recently stepped into a co-artistic directorship of the newly-rechristened theatre, along with another longtime Marshall associate, Dimitri Toscas.

    Also on his dance card is directing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which opens later this month. It’s no wonder he’s spending almost every waking minute at the theatre. Joe talks about his relationship with Garry and also about the company’s plans for the new theatre that bears his name below.

    Joseph Leo Bwarie

    Joe, Forum is a lot of fun but an interesting choice for 2017. Why did you and Dimitri decide to include it in your first season?

    All of the shows in our first season speak to Garry in some way but they also center around art and the making of art. This show reflects the very broad comedy side of Garry with punch lines that deserve a rim shot. It is also the production that speaks to the art of “putting on a show.” It’s vaudeville, it’s burlesque. It’s a fun, raucous farce that has great music and lyrics. We are staying true to the essence of the piece but we’ve given the women more of a say and more power. They’re not just beautiful eye candy (and this cast is beautiful – inside and out). One of our designers said it best: “This is not your father’s Forum!” It’s still set in ancient Rome. It’s still the characters we love. They just have more to say. 

    Garry loved comedy and he was a funny guy, wasn’t he?

    Oh man, he was so funny. He would have given us a lot of pointers on what we could do to be funny with this show. 

    I understand he was a bit of a practical joker too.

    Garry wanted everything to be fun. He loved it if there was a way to play a practical joke on someone, or to throw a party, or celebrate a birthday, or have a parade, or dress up in a costume, or have a surprise visitor come to the theater or on set. He would always say it’s just a show, it’s just a movie.

    If broad comedy is his connection to Forum, how do the rest of the shows in the season fit in?

    Master Class and Forum and Occupant and Laughter on the 23rd Floor all speak to different disciplines of art and to exploring the way we experience art, whether it be the high classical form of opera or the broad stroke appeal of vaudeville, the visual art of sculpting or the craft of writing.

    Garry was a lover of opera. He worked with Terrence McNally on the screenplay and film adaptation of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and there was a strong connection between the two. They were like family. That’s why we wanted to open the season with Master Class. Also, it was one of Garry’s favorite modern plays, period.

    Occupant is about Louise Nevelson, the famous sculptor and outsider who changed the rules of the game – a theme that Garry always championed. And then the most direct tie to Garry is the writers’ room and the art of writing in Laughter on the 23rd Floor. They’re also all shows that break the fourth wall and direct address to the audience, which is a really cool layer for us to add – a true conversation with the audience.

    So your whole first season is really an extension of Garry.

    It is an extension and even an expansion of what he wanted to do. He loved that people would think of him and think of Happy Days and fun and jokes but he also loved anything that was really dramatic, really artful, and really playing with all the facets of the human condition. You can see that in his films, especially some of the earlier films like Beaches or Pretty Woman or even The Flamingo Kid. Relationships. It’s always relationships.

    Speaking of relationships, you’ve known Garry a long time, haven’t you?

    Long time, almost twenty years.

    You’ve been involved with the family program at the theatre for a long time as well. Is that one of the reasons you’re expanding it now?

    We wanted to bring it back in a bigger way. Garry used to always say he wanted something for kids. He wanted something at night that was maybe a little risqué that adults could handle and he wanted something on the weekend afternoons where all ages could come and enjoy a storytelling experience.

    It also helps build your audience.

    It does, but more importantly, it introduces the new generation to theatre. If we start when they’re young, really young, and they see there are live people telling a story, not a screen, and they like it, they’ll start to want to come. That’s how we want to develop new audience.

    What made you decide to say yes to being an artistic director at this time?

    I have had the great opportunity of being a performer for so many years and I’ve also had the great opportunity to write and direct and produce and record studio albums and each one of them is actually just an extension of me. Garry would always say to me, you’re not just a performer, you’re not just a singer or an actor. You need to write. You need to produce. You need to direct. If you can do all of it, you need to do all of it. That’s what he did and that’s what he would always say to me.

    As for why I said yes to being an artistic director now, that’s easy. I wanted to do this for Garry, I wanted to do this for the Marshall family, and I wanted to do it for the Burbank-Toluca Lake community that grew up in the last twenty years with Garry’s theatre. I wanted to make sure we were setting it up for the next more-than-twenty years. And I thought, well, if I’m going to take a few years of my life to do that, that’s a great investment because it’s not about me, it’s about something much bigger. We’re here because Garry brought us all together and that’s important to a community. It’s fun to be working with Dimitri too because we’re very like-minded and yet we’re very different, so we make a great complementary duo.

    How did the partnership come together?

    It happened at Joan’s on Third. It came from Kathleen Marshall LaGambina after many discussions she had with her siblings and with her mom. I had told them I would be here for whatever they needed as a consultant or to help point them in the right direction but we had never discussed artistic director. Then, at Joan’s on Third, she said to us (Dimitri and me): I decided I want you two together. You both bring so much to the table and will balance out everything we need to do. Garry respected you both as creative minds.

    I think I really understood Garry. I can say that confidently. We worked on many projects in a very collaborative way. I was his associate director on Billy & Ray that we produced at the Falcon and then at the Vineyard Theatre in New York. I learned Garry’s philosophy directly from Garry firsthand. No one had to tell me, well, Garry once said this. I lived it. So we’re keeping that alive.

    Paul Vogt (center) and the cast of Forum

    Forum has been a hit ever since it first opened on Broadway, with Pseudolus being a Tony Award-winning role for Zero Mostel in 1963, Phil Silvers in 1972, and Nathan Lane in 1995. Now funny man Paul Vogt is taking on the role. Was casting him a no-brainer?

    It didn’t even cross my mind that there were other people for the role because I knew he could jump in and be everything this part requires and then bring so much more freshness to it. He constantly makes me laugh. They all do. Paul is supported by a great cast, and figuring out how it all fits together in the rehearsal process with the whole company is exciting. We’re not trying to be other productions. We’re retooling what the show is for our specific space and this specific year with these specific actors.

    Is yours a traditional staging and design?

    I think what we’re presenting is a deconstructed and then reconstructed Roman cityscape. All of our designers agreed they didn’t want to create a cartoon. Funny doesn’t need to be shown in a cartoon. We wanted to give the actors the funny, not dress them as funny, and it will evolve as we get further into rehearsals. The sets are being installed right now, the costumes are being fitted as we speak, there are so many layers that are still going to be surprises for all of us and we will continue tweaking until the show opens.

    There is nothing like exploring a show like this in rehearsals.

    It’s great. We get to walk different lines. We get to say, okay this moment here, this is vaudeville ha-cha-cha, and this moment over here is like a subtle take we might see in a TV show, and this right over here takes the show somewhere totally unexpected. We get to play with all of that.

    Director Joe Bwarie and the cast in rehearsal

    It sounds like a fun way to lead into the holidays.

    It’s a perfect show for the holiday season. It’s so fun.

    So even though the Troubies aren’t part of your first season it’s still ‘comedy tonight’ at the Garry Marshall Theatre.

    Absolutely. The way everything rolled out has been beautiful for everyone. Garry himself often said, “Matt [Walker], you need to take the show somewhere bigger. You need to do a show in a bigger venue. It needs to grow and go and move on.” But how are you going to move on from this great little place, right? We’re starting something new and we have to give the “new” some attention while we work on finding new ways of collaborating with the many talented companies who were part of the first chapter.

    Does that mean we may see them back at the theatre in the future?

    At certain crossroads, there is often a WWGD moment. What would Garry do? From where I stand, I see future collaborations with my friends and I see great opportunity for growth. I know change is sometimes perplexing to people because it seems to mean something went wrong. Change doesn’t mean anything went wrong. Change is change. I’ll be honest, it’s been a really emotional journey to embark on building a brand new legacy theatre honoring an epic visionary man. Taking down the Falcon sign letters and making way for the next leg of the journey has been more emotional for those of us who are on the inside perhaps than it is to the public. Nothing has happened without great consideration and great thought. 

    And, as you expand, youll keep coming up with new ideas.

    It’s going to be a work in progress, as theatre always is. In the past we would not have done Master Class at this venue. It is sort of fascinating to watch the new programming. We had Norman Lear here last month to do our first Modern Masters series. We had the second screening of the Garry Marshall Movies at the Marshall series. We launched the Storybook Pages Saturday morning kids program, which isn’t even the full productions for families yet. We had a Caldecott Award-winning artist (Marla Frazee) here and it was beautiful. The kids got to ask her questions. Barbara said, “This is why Garry built this place.” So our family programming is opening up many avenues for kids to come and experience what a theatre is.

    How does Wood Boy Dog Fish fit into the season?

    Oh man, that is one awesome show. Carrying on that idea of different disciplines of art, this goes into that idea of the physical maneuvering of art live on stage. It has puppetry and original music and it is very story driven. It’s also a collaboration with another theatre company, which is something we’d like to do more of. We want to collaborate with all sorts of theatre companies – Rogue Artists Ensemble, Troubadour, whoever wants to explore a new idea or has a story that should be told. 

    What else do you have in the works?

    We have our first annual Founders Gala on November 13th. This is the first time we’ll host a gala because it’s the first year we’ve been a non-profit. We’re also doing a New Works Festival for new plays next spring that is open for submissions now. This is an idea that goes back to when the Falcon first arrived in 1997. There are so many talented creative people in Los Angeles who have not had a chance to have their work put up in front of an audience. We’re excited about bringing new material to the space, and we’re also looking forward to putting a new perspective on great existing material.

    We can’t wait to see what’s next. Even theatre as an art form evolves and adapts over time.

    It does. And the neighborhood is changing too. The streets, Riverside Drive, the restaurants, different types of families are leaving the neighborhood and new families are joining the neighborhood. It’s an evolution and we want to be part of that. I do know the other reality is, like any museum or restaurant, anyplace that offers a lot of different things that fit in that building, you’re going to like some things and you’re not going to like others but that’s the beauty of it. It’s all art. You’ll love some of it and, what you don’t, you’ll talk about and figure out why you don’t love it.

    Hector Elizondo sat down with me and he said, the best theatre makes you feel uncomfortable because you end up having to figure out why you felt something. That feeling is what art is supposed to do. There is great entertainment where you just laugh, laugh, laugh and it’s fun. But really, the idea that you can sit in a room with a bunch of strangers and all have different feelings at the same time is what theatre is. 

    There is a special kind of joy that comes from creating theatre.

    It is a joy. It was Garry’s passion. You know, he built this theatre from the ground up. A person would have to be fully committed to spend that kind of money and choose that kind of structure to build, and he did that. He was so passionate about it that he basically funded it his entire life. Now, in this new incarnation, it has become our passion project. I mean, I’m living here. I’m here twelve or more hours a day.

    But as a home away from home, it’s a pretty good place to be isn’t it?

    It’s so great, and honestly when people say, don’t you want to go do a Broadway show I say, yes I do, but not now. I also say that what I’m doing here is equally as important and has as much, if not more, of an impact on my life as performing. This is home.

    *      *      *      *      *

    A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs Nov. 17 – Dec. 31, 2017 at the Garry Marshall Theatre in Toluca Lake. Tickets are on sale now at

    More from rehearsals of Forum
    Photo credit: Michaelyn Straub

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    Ramón Garcia, Ron West, Chris Farah. All photos by Darrett Sanders

    Open Fist Theatre Company’s revival of Ron West and Phil Swann’s musical comedy deLEARious has a lot going on. The production contains three storylines in three different time periods twisted together in a fast-paced, boisterous style that was an award-winning hit for the company in 2008. Nine years later, it still packs in more story than you can possibly keep straight but it also offers up plenty of laughs to go along with it.

    You’ll need to know the basic plot and characters of Shakespeare’s King Lear before you get there and that King James was Shakespeare’s benefactor after Queen Elizabeth I died. From there, you’re basically in for three hours of rowdy playtime in a fractured fairytale world where Lear gets a happy ending, Shakespeare helps edit the King James Bible, and a modern-day pair of writers attempts to write a musical.

    The jokes are hit-and-miss, as are the performances, but the cast plows through with so much enthusiasm that the fun is infectious regardless of the show’s shortcomings. West stars as a loud-mouthed Lear and also directs. He directed the original production as well and there is a nagging sense he is using jokes and staging that got laughs for the cast the first time around. They aren’t always successful here but that may be partly attributed to the way the scenes cut back and forth so quickly the audience doesn’t always have time to catch up.

    Some of the punchlines have been updated to include references to things like texting and the Trumps however the contemporary thread of the story never fully steps into 2017. West uses astrology to explain how Elizabethan characters in 1603 could have knowledge of objects that only exist today but it too is a repetitive device, thin at best.

    Micah Watterson and Jason Paige

    On the flip side, you can never go wrong with a singing villain, and Jason Paige (Edmund the bastard) plays it straight and gets the funny right. He betrays his father, orchestrates the downfall of his brother Edgar (Micah Watterson), and forms alliances with Goneril (Robyn Roth) and Regan (Rachel Addington) all by hiding his true intentions behind a demeanor of comic sincerity. It’s a sly wink that he sings romantic ‘80s power ballads with Roth (a winner as Lear’s ball-busting eldest daughter) and then later morphs into an eccentric Frances Bacon, a character who has a great deal in common with Jerry Lewis’ nutty professor.

    Other standout performances include Scott Mosenson as a smooth William Shakespeare and Gina Manziello in a double turn as Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia, and Jasmine, a stripper Ron meets in a bar whose interpretive dance audition is unforgettably over-the-top.

    A coterie of actors playing numerous roles adds to the sketch comedy feel of the piece. Among the characters are an effeminate King James (Chase Studinski), a pissed off Anne Hathaway (Lane Allison with a lovely mid-range singing voice), the king’s Fool (Chris Farrah), and a host of other Earls, Scholars, Royals, and Scribes. When everything is firing on all cylinders we get clever scenes like the writers’ room of the Christian Brotherhood, a terrific combination of sitcom writing, smart lyrics, and well-defined characters.

    The cast of deLEARious

    Swann’s score is full of lusty musical numbers that cover everything from pop to Broadway to the blues, and musical director Jan Roper is the put-upon pianist who’s finally had it with Ron’s childish behavior. Her piano bench throne draped in red velvet is a cheeky touch by scenic designer James Spencer. Spencer frames the stage with cutouts that resemble giant chess pieces leaving an uncluttered playing area for the actors but firmly placing the action in court.

    deLEARious is a fun-loving musical comedy whose only goal is to make you laugh. Its kooky characters and good-time appeal easily get the job done.

    November 10 - December 16, 2017
    Open Fist Theatre Company
    Atwater Village Theatre
    3269 Casitas Avenue
    Los Angeles, CA 90039

    Rachel Addington and Robyn Roth

    Jason Paige and Scott Mosenson

    Gina Manziello and Ramón Garcia 

    L-R: Chris Farah, Rachel Addington, Ron West, Scott Mosenson and Robyn Roth

    Chase Studinski and cast

    Scott Mosenson and Micah Watterson

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    L-R: Zakiya Young, Wilkie Ferguson III, William Cooper Howell, John Devereaux and
    Dedrick A Bonner. All photos by Craig Schwartz

    For the last 25 years, Gerardo Alessandrini has paid homage to the Great American Musical in the best way he knows how, by skewering it relentlessly. It is an arena where nothing is off limits - no diva, no composer, and no quirk of the genre, which is why his Forbidden Broadway revues are as beloved as any book musical to grace the Great White Way.

    Musical lovers love their musicals, but they’re also quick to tell you what they hate. And what they hate, they love to make fun of. Therein lies the secret to Alessandrini’s success. For every fan of Les Mis who longs for the return of the turntable, there is another who secretly hopes the whole overblown affair will finally die in the wings.

    Now, the biggest game-changer since Rodgers and Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber, or Stephen Sondheim came on the scene, has given him fodder for a new installment in his popular franchise - Lin-Manuel Miranda and his multi-Tony Award-winning mega-hit, Hamilton: An American Musical. Reinvented as Spamilton: An American Parody, Alessandrini takes a giant leap forward in the way he spoofs Hamilton’s entire epic saga. The result is a buoyant thrill ride of hilarity that never lets up.

    In a happy coincidence, both productions are currently running in LA, one in Culver City and the other in Hollywood. I happened to see them both for the first time within a week of each other, which only made it more obvious how remarkable each is in its own right.

    L-R: Wilkie Ferguson III, John Devereaux, William Cooper Howell,
    Zakiya Young and Dedrick A. Bonner

    Without a doubt, Hamilton is the wave of the future, representing a Broadway that is inclusive, forward thinking, open to reinterpretation, and rich in musical forms that draw as much from popular styles as they do traditional ones. It is a masterful work, monumentally important at every level.

    The story, ripped from the pages of American history and told by a multiculturally diverse cast using hip-hop as its basis, was unlike anything Broadway had ever seen or knew it wanted (although In the Heights already proved Miranda was on to something). It’s no wonder it took over the musical theatre world like a speeding train.

    Both Hamilton and Spamilton are written to entertain, and both are smart, complex, and exciting works. But where Hamilton reinvents the genre itself and opens up conversations of many kinds, Spamilton’s goal is much simpler. Its singular reason for existing is to make you laugh, and because it sees everything about the Hamilton phenomenon as fair game, it takes its jabs wherever it pleases.

    Song by song, Spamilton deconstructs its object of affection and reinvents it, beginning with the iconic opening number “Alexander Hamilton,” which now sends up “Lin-Manuel as Hamilton” and turns “His Shot” into a crusade wherein he declares he is “not going to let Broadway rot.”

    Charismatic William Cooper Howell nails Miranda’s style and attitude with a knowing smile that never lets us forget he isn’t taking anything too seriously. That’s Wilkie Ferguson III’s role, channeling (beautifully) original cast member Leslie Odom Jr.’s intensity and competitive spirit as Aaron Burr.

    John Devereaux, in the Daveed Diggs roles of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette, turns the crowd-pleasing “What Did I Miss” into a bouncy “What Did You Miss,” poking fun at how fast Miranda’s lyrics go by. He also goes old school rap in a mash-up of “Guns and Ships” and Will Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song, now rewritten as “The Fresh Prince of Big Hair.” You get the idea.

    Zakiya Young handles all three Schuyler sisters as originally played by Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones, with the help of two Avenue Q-style puppets. Young has an impressive ability to change her vocal sound to match whichever character she is channeling, including heavy hitters like Audra McDonald and J-Lo, who also make appearances in the show. Miranda writes the personality of each sister into the way she sings her own name in Hamilton and it is particularly fun to hear how Young interprets those differences.

    L-R: Wilkie Ferguson III, Zakiya Young and Dedrick A. Bonner

    Glenn Bassett returns to play wacky King George, the role he originated Off-Broadway in a twist that finds the character pouting over the lack of gays on Broadway now that Hamilton has straightened things up. During the song, he invites the audience to sing a chorus along with him consisting of a single word, “gay, gay, gay, gay gay” and the absurdity of that moment brings home Alessandrino’s ability to cut right to the heart of the zinger.

    The Sondheim section gives Dedrick A. Bonner the spotlight as a Yoda-Ben Franklin who counsels Howell with wise words from Into the Woods, and later on, as the single biggest sight gag in the show. It is an automatic hold for laughs and traditional musical lovers will eat it up when they see it.

    In addition to the Hamilton parodies, the show also pays tribute to a host of other musical theatre gems in rapid-fire mentions. The King and I, Sunset Boulevard, Wicked, Gypsy, Assassins, Aladdin, and West Side Story are only a few of the many slipped in that speed by so quickly you’ll need to pay attention or you’ll miss them.

    The Beggar Woman (Susanne Blakeslee) from Sweeney Todd gets a running gag based on the high cost of Hamilton tickets but it is one of the few jokes that doesn’t gather much steam. Appearances by Liza Minelli and Barbra Streisand, though expertly recreated by Blakeslee, also don’t organically fit this new incarnation of parody musical as they have in past Forbidden Broadways. Here they feel more like filler and the show just doesn’t need it.

    Alessandrino’s stripped-down staging and Gerry McIntyre’s shorthand version of the original choreography is delivered with precision and boundless energy by the ensemble. Diction, specifics,’s all there. Musical director James Lent, at the piano, has polished this dime store dream until it shines like Tiffany glass.

    A central Spamilton show card serves as the lone backdrop to disguise the vast number of goofy props, eccentric characters, and other surprises that will emerge throughout the performance.

    Spamilton was tailor-made for the trivial pursuit-inclined musical theatre lover and for Hamilton fans who can’t get enough. If you fit into either of these categories, this is your show. If you don’t, the cast is so likeable and entertaining you won’t even care if you miss a few jokes. It’s a roller coaster ride with a ticket you can afford and a guaranteed good time to go with it. I couldn’t get enough.

    Nov 5, 2017 – Jan 7, 2018
    Kirk Douglas Theatre
    9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232
    Tickets: (213) 628-2772 or

    William Cooper Howell

    John Devereaux

    L-R: Wilkie Ferguson III, John Devereaux and Zakiya Young

    Glenn Bassett

    Wilkie Ferguson III

    William Cooper Howell and Dedrick A. Bonner 

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    Tyne Daly. All photos by Chris Whitaker

    The title of Joshua Ravetch’s new play Chasing Mem’ries: A Different Kind of Musical is misleading. It really isn’t a musical at all, though it does contain half a dozen songs written by lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman. Their collaborations with composers like Marvin Hamlisch, Johnny Mandel, and Michel Legrand produced some of the most well-known hits of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and garnered numerous awards throughout their lengthy career.

    “The Way We Were,” “Where Do You Start” and “Little Boy Lost,” are three such songs, all of which can be found in Ravetch’s latest work, now on stage at the Geffen Playhouse. But as beautiful as these wistful ballads are they, and the rest of the songs included in the piece, all have the same tone, tempo, and nostalgic longing within them, and that’s problematic.

    Rather than functioning in a storytelling capacity, they become resting points for Victoria (Tyne Daly) as she processes the pain of losing her husband of 57 years by triggering memories of long ago. Or, they linger as underscoring, which makes the piece feel even more like it’s trying to manipulate the audience’s emotional response. In both cases, the play languishes under the weight of its protracted sentimentality.

    Essentially, Chasing Mem’ries is a walk down memory lane that takes Victoria through all five stages of grief in the course of 90 minutes. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance each get their due, prompted by conversations with her son Mason (Scott Kradolfer) and dead husband Franklin (Robert Forster) who appears to her in the attic where Ravetch’s play is set.

    Victoria won’t go downstairs to the memorial service happening on the lawn because she isn’t ready to let go of him. It’s a foregone conclusion that she will by the end of the play and perhaps that is part of the challenge. We know where this story is going before it even gets started, and it doesn’t add anything new to the conversation about grief we haven’t heard before.

    Daly’s consummate skill as an actress is, of course, the reason to see this production and she doesn’t disappoint. She wrings every ounce of nuance possible out of the opinionated, wise-cracking widow’s dialogue but the play still can’t shake its own sentimental death grip.

    Tyne Daly and Robert Forster

    Tony Fanning’s set design is a gorgeous cutaway attic stuffed with forgotten items representing a life well-lived, complete with autumn leaves trailing across the shingled roof. It’s beautiful but it makes for challenging traffic patterns, and there are times Ravetch’s staging in the cramped space is restrictive and repetitive. That may be intentional but critical moments end up feeling contrived.

    Watching Victoria and Franklin dance with their hands hovering inches away from each other, not touching, is odd. We know he isn’t really there but she would be able to feel him in the intimacy of the moment, particularly since this is in her mind. Its puzzling rather than poignant because, if she couldnt feel him, that would certainly be a source of frustration.

    Scott Kradolfer and Tyne Daly

    For those who have lost a loved one, Chasing Memries may conjure up memories of their own, making Victorias journey a cathartic one. Without that connection, the play is nothing more than an old-fashioned love letter to days gone by.

    CHASING MEM’RIES: A Different Kind of Musical
    November 7 - December 17, 2017 
    Geffen Playhouse
    10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024
    Tickets: 310-208-6500 or

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    L-R: Christina Bennett Lind and Luke Forbes in Vesturport and The Wallis’
    The Heart of Robin Hood. All photos by Kevin Parry for The Wallis

    This year for the holidays, The Wallis has traded its typical musical theatre fare (Into the Woods/2014, Guys & Dolls/2015, Merrily We Roll Along/2016) for something a little less traditional but even more imaginative and fun - Vesturport Theatre’s The Heart of Robin Hood by playwright David Farr.

    Directed by Gisli Örn Gardarsson and Selma Björnsdóttir, it does contain music (beautiful songs by Icelandic pop star Salka Sól) but the hybrid production also incorporates elements like aerial and floor acrobatics and a unique floor-to-ceiling forest wall that allows the actors to slide in and traverse its trap doors and crevices like they’re on a crazy obstacle course. The heightened physicality adds a playfulness to the piece and the athleticism of its sword fights and combat scenes lend a rousing intensity. Deaths are grisly, romance is a given, and an underlying earthiness characterizes the passions that arise throughout.

    Heart is a twist on the tale of Robin Hood (Luke Forbes) going back to the days before he stole from the rich and gave to the poor when he and his merry men were merely self-centered thieves. The dour ruffian refuses to let women into his band with the explanation, “A woman causes tempests in the heart of a man.” While we never find out exactly what prompts him to adopt the rule, we know he will have a change of heart by the end of the tale, and that change will be inspired by a woman.

    Christina Bennett Lind

    The woman is Lady Marion (Christina Bennett Lind), the willful, independent daughter of the Duke of York (Ian Merrigan) who, to escape her impending marriage to the villainous Prince John (Eirik del Barco Soleglad), flees to the forest. Disguised as a boy and inspired by a disastrous earlier meeting with Robin, she decides to form her own gang of thieves. But unlike Robin’s marauding band of bare-chested brawlers, her mission is selfless. She distributes her spoils to those in need and quickly becomes the beloved champion of the downtrodden. When Robin finds out this new “Martin of Sherwood” is encroaching on his territory, he furiously vows to kill him.

    Farr (whose 2016 mini-series The Night Manager was a huge hit with television audiences) first directed his play at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011. His nods to Shakespeare are unmistakable and those who know the canon will find many parallels. Marion’s journey mirrors that of Rosalind’s in As You Like It. She is accompanied by her fool, Pierre (Daniel Franzese), an effeminate and comical twist on Touchstone, and in her guise as Martin, must hide her attraction to Robin in a Rosalind/Orlando rip-off.

    Borrowing from The Taming of the Shrew, Marion’s relationship with younger sister Alice (Sarah Hunt) has much in common with Kate and Bianca (although Alice is the shrewish one of this pair). If you know Twelfth Night, you’ll hear a callback to Malvolio’s last declaration in Prince John’s final words and, like all typical Shakespearean comedies, it ends in a wedding.

    The style is broad and rife with innuendo. Forbes and Lind spar both verbally and at opposite ends of a blade, causing sparks to fly on more than one level. He’s stubborn, she’s even more headstrong, and the hoops they end up jumping through on their way to a happy ending will give you the warm and fuzzy glow every hopeless romantic longs for by the time they lift off into the air in a final aerial pas de deux.

    The cast of The Heart of Robin Hood

    The score is a series of songs performed between scenes by Sól and her four musicians that capture the essence of what is about to happen on stage. The lovely singer has the kind of indie voice you can listen to all day and, as the action intensifies, so does her song style. In the early scenes, melodies meander with a folk lilt and quirky, winsome charm before giving way to a more insistent rap style. Lyrics can be difficult to understand so pay close attention.

    Brian Hsieh’s graceful soundscape evokes the stealth and joy of the forest in all its cycles. It is almost imperceptible at times but the way it effortlessly enhances the tone of a scene is quite beautiful. Scenic designer Börkur Jónsson’s set makes its grand entrance the minute you walk into the theater and is enough to take your breath away at the sheer amount of lush greenery that fills the stage. It transforms under Ken Billington & Ed McCarthy’s richly dramatic lighting in surprising ways.

    The Wallis never does anything halfway and with The Heart of Robin Hood they have taken another bold step forward in presenting first-rate live entertainment. This is a fairy tale with grit, sophistication, and the kind of devilish creativity a modern audience can go crazy over. (And it doesn’t hurt that you’ll find a rogue for every taste among the splendid cast).

    Nov 29 – Dec 17, 2017
    Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
    9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd.
    Beverly Hills, CA  90210

    L-R: Jeremy Crawford, Luke Forbes, Sam Meader, and Daniel Franzese

    The cast of The Heart of Robin Hood

    L-R: Luke Forbes, Kasey Mahaffy, Christina Bennett Lind, Jeremy Crawford, and Sam Meader

    Luke Forbes

    Salka Sol

    L-R: Kasey Mahaffy, Luke Forbes, Eirik del Barco Soleglad and Sam Meader

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    Geoff Elliott (center) as Ebenezer Scrooge and the cast of A Christmas Carol.
    Photo by Craig Schwartz

    Of all the holiday stories written, it would be hard to find one more well-known or popular than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The redemption of a miser named Scrooge whose heart has forgotten the meaning of charity has been adapted, musicalized, spoofed, and dramatized in every medium imaginable, and, like all good cautionary tales, returns as a warning each December. In these trying times, its message about the importance of caring for one’s fellow man is as necessary as ever.

    A Noise Within remounts its version of the holiday comfort food classic, starring Geoff Elliott as Scrooge, for the sixth year in a row. The adaptation is also by Elliott, who co-directs with wife, Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, and the production features many familiar faces from among the company’s pool of resident artists.

    Deborah Strang bustles in as the whimsical Ghost of Christmas Past looking like a child’s birthday cake topper, amid layers and layers of white flouncy ruffles. Jeremy Rabb, who plays Marley for the first half of the run, dons a fright wig and tattered suit bound with rag-strewn chains extending dramatically up into the balcony. And, as the Ghost of Christmas Present, Stephen Weingartner’s elaborately-festooned robe adorned with a Thanksgiving feast’s worth of fruit, autumn leaves, and even a miniature pumpkin, looks more like a mechanical set piece when he rolls in than merely a textile from the costume department.

    These are looks that make a statement in a production that unabashedly prides itself on its colorful pageantry. But you can’t act the costumes. Without a deeper dive into the soul of the characters you end up with a perfectly nice, generally adequate telling of the story; layers and layers of fluff but nothing underneath. To be unmoved by A Christmas Carol is disappointing indeed.

    Geoff Elliott and Deborah Strang

    It’s up to narrator Frederick Stuart (better known to ANW audiences as Freddy Douglas) to inject a sense of warmth in the tale, which he does with sincerity and a knowing twinkle in his eye. His short preludes to the five scenes are pleasing additions that successfully draw the audience in.

    Add some shadowy Victorian touches in the scenic and lighting designs by Jeanine A. Ringer and Ken Booth, respectively, to go with those wonderful costumes by Angela Balogh Calin and the pictures play like scene capsules sprung from the pages of a Dickensian pop-up book.

    Still, even if some of the performances get glossed over, the moment Scrooge shows up at his nephew’s (Rafael Goldstein) door and says, “Will you let me in, Fred?” don’t be surprised if you feel a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye. Reconciliation restores the hardest of hearts, especially at Christmas time.

    December 1 - 23, 2017
    A Noise Within
    3352 East Foothill Blvd.
    Pasadena, CA 91107

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    L-R (front): Kevin Matsumoto, Paul Wong, Julia May Wong, Daniel Koh, Marcel Licera,
    Peter Jeensalute. Rear: Cesar Cipriano, Daryl Leonardo. All photos by Ederson Vasquez

    You only have one more week to catch the striking revival of Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (playing through December 17th) and true Sondheim fans shouldn’t pass up the opportunity. The last time it made an appearance in Los Angeles was in 1998 when East West Players presented it in the company’s new 240-seat David Henry Hwang Theatre.  

    Chromolume’s theater seats only 49 but the production comes alive in this intimate space, achieving a gentle lyricism and uncluttered style under James Esposito’s direction that gives the musical’s emotional impact surprising weight. It is performed in a modified Kabuki tradition without the highly-stylized makeup and costumes but incorporating many of the form’s dramatic aspects and enhanced sensory elements. Choreographer Michael Marchuk beautifully tailors the movement to the small playing area.

    The cast, led by a mesmerizing Paul Wong as the Reciter (or narrator), handsomely communicates the subtleties in John Weidman’s book and Sondheim’s score but what is even more potent is how alive their silence is. The visual organization has a distinct presence and you can feel it shift as the tone changes from scene to scene. Focus is all.

    Paul Wong

    Musical director Daniel Yokomizo handles the difficult score with a delicate touch and capitalizes on the vocal eloquence of the cast’s ringer, Gibran Mahmud, whose cascading tenor voice bounces brilliantly off the surrounding wood panels. The acoustics of the theatre are quite good, even without mics, making it unnecessary for cast members to push (although a couple of the men fall into this trap in their eagerness to communicate during moments of heightened emotion).

    The story of Commodore Perry’s intrusion into Japan’s tranquility in order to open up the country for trade resonates like Pandora’s box – once the contents have been released they can never be put back. As the ceremony of life begins to unravel and priorities shift to make room for the West’s enticing commercialism, the resulting compromises become increasingly more disturbing. Sondheim’s final two numbers, “Pretty Lady” and “Next” are unsettling for completely different reasons but have as much in common with today’s issues of aggression, resistance, and progress as they did in these circumstances depicted in 1853.

    Pacific Overtures is some of the best work Chromolume Theatre has done to date. The production strikes a balance between economy of storytelling and dramatic effect to create a uniquely memorable experience. And while it may not be perfect, its level of sophistication is truly admirable.

    December 1 – 17, 2017
    Chromolume Theatre at The Attic
    5429 W. Washington Blvd.
    Los Angeles, CA 90016
    (Between the 10 Freeway and Hauser Blvd.)

    Cesar Cipriano

    Cesar Cipriano and Marcel Licera

    Cesar Cipriano and Daryl Leonardo

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    One glance at the program for Casa 0101’s Beauty and the Beast and you can see that it takes a village to put on a show - quite a large village, in fact. No less than three producing entities, an LA Councilman, three individual producers, an executive producer, a 19-person production team, and a cast of 25 had a hand in making sure the show goes on. That doesn’t even include the countless unnamed volunteers, parents, friends, and others who are also an important part of this homegrown Boyle Heights theatre company.

    Last year Casa 0101 produced a lovely dual language version of Disney’s Aladdin, which was so popular it extended its run and eventually transferred to a larger venue. Hoping to repeat that success, they have set their sights on another Disney classic but, this time, the production proves too ambitious an undertaking for the company. Since this is the holiday season, I thought I’d turn to the best gift giver I know to see if he might be able to help them out.

    Jacquelin Schofield (Mrs. Potts), Andrea Somera (Belle) and Omar Mata
    (The Beast). All photos by Ed Krieger
    Dear Santa,

    Casa 0101 has been very good this year so I wanted to ask if you could give them some extra special help with a few of the items below for their current production of Beauty and the Beast. Even without them, Andrea Somera has a lovely voice and makes a charming Belle, but any or all of these additions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance for your consideration.

    1. Please give Casa 0101 a way to cover the house right corridor so the audience does not have to watch the actors and stagehands make all of their crosses. It is very distracting and we would rather focus on what is happening on stage. Could you also take their backstage light (SL) that shines through the black curtain whenever someone turns it on? Maybe they won’t miss it.

    2. I would love it if you could you do something about the large cumbersome set pieces that roll on and off stage throughout the show. They’re loud, difficult to maneuver, and get in the way more often than not. Bigger isn’t always better and these make the scene changes ponderous affairs.

    3. If you could give the sound board operator a hand too that would be great. He or she caught up after a couple of numbers but it was an awkward beginning without the mics turned on. I didn’t miss the spotlight until it finally came on mid-number but maybe that should start at the beginning too. You know best.

    4. As this is a family musical, please give the costumer some pants for Gaston. His shiny black Lycra tights are so skin tight (SO skin tight) and his vest so short you can see every seam in his undergarments and a few things you wish you didn’t. It isn’t funny; it’s crude and feels inappropriate with so many young children in the audience.

    5. Would you also give the costumer a pair of scissors to cut the tag off Maurice’s scarf? When Belle puts it on her father, she says she made it for him but the store tag hanging from it begs to differ. Also, halfway through the act, one of the other characters comments that Cogsworth is turning more into a clock and has sprouted a windup key on his back. Problem is, the key was there from the beginning of the show. Maybe he was missing a piece of fabric to camouflage it? In any case, I’m sure you can help.

    L-R: Jeremy Saje, Omar Mata and Caleb Green

    6. Santa, could you also help Lumiere with his wig? It flew off during Act One and I thought it was accidental but, when the actor came back, he didn’t wear it the rest of the show. He didn’t wear it in the production photos either so I guess it was intentional. If that’s the case, maybe he just needs a jar of cold cream for his whiteface makeup...unless it was a statement. I really don’t know for sure.

    7. I also don’t know if the fights were meant to be comic or realistic. At times the sound effects came on the action and at others they came several beats after the action. I guess I was confused since it was inconsistent. At least I didn’t worry that anyone would get hurt, though, since I could see that the actors were making the sounds themselves.

    8. Maybe you could also let the cast know they don’t need affected voices or unnatural dialects to make their characters work. Even though this is a musical, the rules of acting still apply. You can’t go big unless you stay grounded and if your accent muddles your words the audience can’t understand you.

    9. And speaking of those kids in the audience, please add a stop watch to the director’s Christmas stocking. It’s a bit unrealistic to expect young children to sit through a first act that is an hour and a half long without giving them a way to exit the theater other than the doorway where actors make their stage entrances. The staff can make all the announcements they want about staying in your seats but when a child has to go, they’re going. I’d also have them take down the sign that says no one will be admitted once the show starts so don’t knock. Plenty of people were lucky enough to be seated once the show began so they really didn’t need it.

    10. Oh, one other thing...please give the 17-year old Salt Shaker a scholarship to a dance conservatory when he graduates from high school. He is well on his way to becoming a terrific professional dancer and I would like to see him have the opportunity to continue his studies.

    An avid theatregoer and musical fan

    Maxwell Peters and Andreas Pantazis

    December 8, 2017 – January 21, 2018
    CASA 0101 Theater
    2102 East First Street
    Boyle Heights, CA 90033

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    HAPPY HOLIDAYSfrom Musicals in LA!

    See you in 2018!

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    2018 is going to be a great year for musicals in Southern California so mark your calendars now and Ill see you at the theater!

    Isabelle McCalla and Adam Jacobs in Aladdin. Photo by Deen van Meer

    Aladdin – Hollywood Pantages
    Jan 10 – March 31, 2018
    The Hollywood Pantages Theatre begins 2018 with Disney’s Aladdin, a big, bright musical for the whole family starring original Broadway cast members Adam Jacobs as Aladdin and Michael James Scott as the Genie. Get ready to take a magical carpet ride into an exotic world of daring adventure, classic comedy and timeless romance in this new production featuring a full score, including the five cherished songs from the Academy Award-winning soundtrack and more, written especially for the stage.

    Cabaret – La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
    Jan 19 – Feb 11, 2018
    La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts opens its 40th anniversary season with Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret, directed by Larry Carpenter. Starring Jeff Skowron as The Emcee, Zarah Mahler as Sally Bowles, and Christian Pedersen as Clifford Bradshaw, and featuring musical direction by David O and choreography by Dana Solimando, its story is more relevant today than ever before. The seedy glamour of the Kit Kat Club with its bawdy Emcee provide an unsettling but fitting backdrop to the tale of the hard-living entertainer Sally Bowles in the decadent nightlife of Germany in the early thirties.

    Candide – LA Opera

    Jan 27 – Feb 18, 2018
    Kelsey Grammer and Christine Ebersole star in Leonard Bernstein’s funny, satirical whirlwind tour of human folly and foolishness. Brimming with youthful innocence, Candide is certain he lives in the best of all possible worlds. But an unrelenting series of ridiculously unfortunate events makes him question everything he has been taught. Kelsey Grammer takes on the delightful double role of satirical author Voltaire and optimistic philosopher Pangloss, with two-time Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole in the riotous role of the Old Lady. Bernstein’s brilliant score features some of musical theater’s greatest hits, from its exuberant overture, to the show-stopping “Glitter and Be Gay.” More info:

    The Hypocrites’ Pirates Of Penzance at Arizona Repertory Theatre
    courtesy of The Hypocrites

    Pirates of Penzance – Pasadena Playhouse
    Jan 23 – Feb 18, 2018
    Pasadena Playhouse turns its theater into a wacky beach party for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, as reimagined by the Chicago theatre hooligans, The Hypocrites. For the first time in its history, the Playhouse will be completely transformed into a new configuration. All of the orchestra seats will be removed, and in their place there will be a deck, making the entire orchestra level of the theatre a playing area with actors and audience sharing the space promenade style. Expect flying beach balls, rubber duckies, ukuleles, banjos, plastic swimming pools, and even a tiki bar, for a night you won’t forget as Frederic, an orphan mistakenly apprenticed to an ineffectual but raucous band of pirates, disavows the pirates’ way of life and falls for the beautiful Mabel. Adapted and directed by Sean Graney, co-adapted by Kevin O’Donnell, and featuring music direction by Andra Velis Simon.

    Million Dollar Quartet – 3-D Theatricals
    Feb 9 –18 (Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center)
    Feb 23 – March 4 (Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts)
    David Lober directs the 3DT production which goes back to when Sam Phillips, the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll” who launched the careers of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, brought the four superstars together at the Sun Records studio for the first and only time, in what became known as one of the greatest jam sessions in rock ‘n’ roll history. Starring Cole as Elvis Presley, John Countryman as Jerry Lee Lewis, David Elkins as Johnny Cash, and Michael Monroe Goodman as Carl Perkins, this one is sure to get the house rockin’.

    Allegiance – East West Players
    Feb 21 – April 1, 2018
    George Takei will be joined by Broadway cast members Elena Wang (Kei Kimura), Greg Watanabe (Mike Masaoka), Scott Watanabe (Tatsuo Kimura), and Janelle Dote (Hanako) for the LA premiere of Allegiance, produced by East West Players and Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. The production is directed by Snehal Desai with musical direction by Marc Macalintal and choreography by Rumi Oyama and performances will take place at JACCC’s Aratani Theatre. With gorgeous music and lyrics by Jay Kuo and a book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione, Allegiance tells the story of the Kimura family, whose lives are upended when they and 120,000 other Japanese Americans are forced to leave their homes following the events of Pearl Harbor. This is definitely a don’t-miss production.

    Dessa Rose – Chromolume Theatre
    Feb 2 – 25, 2018
    Chromolume Theatre’s first production of 2018 will be Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flhery’s Dessa Rose. James Esposito directs and the show will feature musical direction by Daniel Yokomizo and choreography by Michael Marchak. Dessa Rose is the story of a young black runaway slave (Shauntee Tabb) and a white abandoned mother (Abby Carlson) and their journey to acceptance in the antebellum South as they tell their story to their grandchildren.

    Daddy Long Legs – International City Theatre
    Feb 21 – March 11, 2018
    This two-hander by Paul Gordon and John Caird transforms Jean Webster’s novel into a charming and poignant musical that tells the story of Jerusha Abbott, an 18 year old young woman who has grown up at the John Grier Home for orphans. When a trustee of the home reads one of her essays and sees promise in her writing, he offers to send her to college to continue her education. His only requirements are that she must write him monthly letters, even though he will not write her back, and that she will never know his identity. Jerusha’s heartwarming journey to independence, education and romance is a journey every woman can understand. If you’re looking for the secret of happiness, you just may find it in this lovely musical.

    Violet – Chance Theater
    Feb 2 – March 4, 2018
    Set in the Deep South during the early days of the civil rights movement, this powerful musical by Jeanine Tesori tells the touching story of a young woman accidentally scarred on the face as a child. Hoping that a TV evangelist can cure her, Violet sets out on a long bus ride from her sleepy North Carolina town through Memphis to Oklahoma. Along the way, she meets two young soldiers who teach her about love, courage and the true meaning of beauty. Use online code “POKER” for 20% off tickets. Discount expires February 1st. Good for any performance before February 19, except opening.

    High Society – Musical Theatre Guild
    Feb 11, 2018
    Up next for Musical Theatre Guild is High Society, the 1956 musical film adaption of Philip Barry’s sparkling stage play The Philadelphia Story, which starred Grace Kelly, Bring Crosby and Frank Sinatra. The plot centers on pretentious socialite, Tracy Samantha Lord, who is planning to wed an equally pretentious executive when her ex-husband arrives to disrupt all her plans.

    Earhart: More Than A F-ing Mystery (A Musical Flight)
    Feb 18 & 20, 2018
    An original musical comedy by Manny Hagopian, this 50 minute show is the little known story of Amelia Earhart. For 50 years, Earhart has been known as only an unexplained mystery, but she was, and is, much more than that - especially today. Earhart delivers the story of a proud, kickass girl, who set out to change the world and to prove once and for all that she is more than an f-ing mystery.  

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    Adam Jacobs as Aladdin. All photos by Deen van Meer

    As Disney stage musicals go, the North American tour of Aladdin that just opened at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre is the big, splashy colorful delight kids and musical theatre lovers want to see. Dressed in a dizzying array of dazzle and glitz, it offers a top-of-the-line audience experience for fans of the beloved and well-known tale anxious to be whisked away to a dreamy world where the underdog gets the girl, the villain loses, and the comic relief holds court every time he steps on stage.

    Few can resist the charms of Disney’s 1992 animated film that preceded it, based on One Thousand and One Nights. Its songs by Alan Menken, the late Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice, have become part of the enduring Disney/pop lexicon and, along with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, it paved the way for a smarter, more independent kind of Disney princess.

    In order to adapt Aladdin for the stage, a number of deviations from the movie plot had to be made, mainly to simplify the action. Gone is the first scene where Jafar tries to retrieve the lamp using a thief named Gazeem, as well as his attempt to drown Aladdin, and later banish him. Jafar doesn’t trap Jasmine and the others in an hourglass and he doesn’t turn into a giant cobra to fight Aladdin. These are all smart changes we don’t miss, but there are others we do.

    Eliminating the animals – Aladdin’s pet monkey Abu, Jasmine’s tiger Rajah, and Jafar’s parrot Iago – and replacing them with human characters is a necessary logistical move but the results are mixed. In place of Abu, Aladdin gets three bubble-headed but energetic fellow thieves: Kassim (Mike Longo) the virile, not-so-smart one; Omar (Philippe Arroyo) the nervous effeminate one; and Babcock (Zach Bencal) the heavier, food-obsessed one. They add humor and sing well, particularly in their featured number “High Adventure” but they’re still all stereotypes. Rajah is replaced by a trio of nameless female attendants (Mary Antonini, Olivia Donalson, Annie Wallace) who are lovely but powerless, unlike the tiger. And in place of the greedy parrot Iago, we now have an annoying lackey (Reggie De Leon) who is such a cartoon it makes you wince. 

    Happily, the trio of leading actors shines brightly. Adam Jacobs, who originated the title role on Broadway, easily wins over the audience with his insouciant charm, dashing good looks, and winning vocals. Expanding the story from the film’s 90 minutes to 2½ hours for the stage meant three of the songs Ashman originally wrote with Menken (cut from the film after he died) were restored. One of those is Aladdin’s heartfelt I Want song “Proud of Your Boy” which explains why he wants to make something more of himself, and it’s a gem.

    Isabelle McCalla

    As Princess Jasmine, Isabelle McCalla favors the character’s strong, no-nonsense, independent streak rather than playing the more obvious romantic yearnings of an inexperienced young woman. In doing so, the romance that eventually blossoms between she and Aladdin feels earned and not simply a foregone conclusion. As written, Jasmine and Aladdin could do with some fleshing out but McCalla and Jacobs add so much life to their roles, that you can’t help but fall in love with them.

    Michael James Scott originated the role of Genie in Australia and he is the joyful one-man-show the audience can’t get enough of. It’s true that all roads lead to Rome and, while the musical starts out with some pretty snazzy numbers in Act I, it’s all leading up to Scott’s magnificent “Friend Like Me” at the end of the act. Another of the songs featuring lyrics by Ashman, this one is built to be a showstopper and stop the show it does. Offering up verse after verse of fabulous (and hilarious) reasons why Aladdin has just won the genie lottery, Scott lets loose with an endless stream of pop culture, musical theatre, and Disney references, attacking the number with gusto. The setting has just as much to do with the wow factor of the song as the music and choreography, and Bob Crowley’s cave interior is a floor-to-ceiling sparkling surprise with more than a few fun reveals.

    Michael James Scott

    Up until this point, the scenic design has been more compact but both this and his later rendering of Jasmine’s bedroom window and magic carpet ride through a spellbinding night sky are glorious. Aided by Natasha Katz’s gasp-inducing stars and Jim Steinmeyer’s flying carpet illusion, it satisfies every possible romantic notion as Aladdin and Jasmine sing “A Whole New World” and we finally see them fall in love.

    This is a musical the whole family can enjoy and director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw knows it and owns it. The pacing is tight, musicianship impeccable (under the baton of musical director Brent-Alan Huffman), and dance numbers athletically executed by an unusually handsome ensemble of dancers flashing swords, tossing silks, and investing themselves one hundred per cent in creating the fairy tale world of Agrabah. Disney has pulled out all the stops for this gorgeous musical. Go for the magic and you won’t be disappointed.

    Isabelle McCalla and Adam Jacobs

    January 10 - March 31, 2018
    Hollywood Pantages
    6233 Hollywood Boulevard
    Los Angeles, 90028

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    Jeff Skowron as the Emcee (center) and the company of Cabaret.
    All photos by Jason Niedle

    Even if all they do is take the expected route, most productions of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret are effective. Emphasize the sex and decadence rampant in Berlin during the end of the Weimar era as Hitler was coming into power and the show predictably succeeds in driving home its point – that distractions like the Kit Kat Klub helped people ignore what was happening politically until it was too late.

    But that isn’t this Cabaret.

    Everything about director Larry Carpenters blistering production of Cabaret is volatile in a way you’ve not seen before. An androgynous Emcee in face paint and a dress is familiar, but a tough guy Emcee in combat boots and a dress literally stalking the audience with every pounding step? That’s original. In this world, a knee through a chair isn’t just a choreographic move but a simulated sex act; a kick line isn’t beautiful but vicious; and a children’s song sung by a puppet isn’t innocent it’s horrific, rousing infantile listeners to almost demonic proportions.

    No, a smiling musical theatre song and dance show, it isn’t. And because of that, this Cabaret is a bombshell – rough, harsh, enticing, and never more than one beat away from abject terror. It’s a musical for today’s populace who, like the Germans refusing to acknowledge their world was changing in the worst way possible, are seeing a political climate that looks eerily familiar to the 1930s. It’s a musical for people who don’t like musicals because it has something powerful to say and it says it loudly by awakening the rebellious streak in all of us. Yes, art can imitate life and, in doing so, call attention to issues we cannot and must not forget. There is no way you’ll miss the point ofCabaret.

    Based on Charles Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel, Goodbye to Berlin, and its later stage adaptation by John Van Druten, I Am a Camera, it recounts Isherwood’s own experiences living in Berlin in the 1930s and the characters he meets there. Bert Convy played the writer in the original 1966 Broadway production, and the 1972 film version of the story starred a 30-year-old Michael York. The film also made Liza Minelli a star for her portrayal of nightclub singer Sally Bowles, and Joel Gray appeared as the Emcee both in the film and on Broadway, (in the original 1966 production and the 1987 revival).

    Jeff Skowron and company

    For McCoy Rigby, it is Jeff Skowron who anchors Cabaret as the Emcee. Well-known to Southern California audiences as an actor who digs deep for his roles, he is virtually unrecognizable, turning in a career-high performance that is unlike anyone you’ve seen do the role before, both in look and in attack. Dressed in an array of dual gender costume pieces (by David Kay Mickelsen) that fly in the face of anything close to convention, he represents more than simply the embodiment of all things sexual. There is a tangible sense of danger whenever he is on stage.

    Carpenter uses that danger to the show’s advantage. Cabaret has two kinds of scenes – those that take place inside the illusory world of the Kit Kat Klub and those that happen outside in the real world (like the train station, Cliff’s apartment, Fräulein Schneider’s boarding house, and Herr Schultz’s fruit shop). For Carpenter’s staging, even the real life scenes occur within the metaphorical reaches of the club.

    Scenic designer John Iacovelli creates a stunning optical illusion with a series of geometric frames set askew. Carpenter stages his club personnel to watch the real life scenes silently from the periphery, as if to say, in Germany, someone is always watching. This active observation has a chilling effect as we see them encroach more and more on the characters until everything reaches the tipping point. Josh Bessom’s sound design further emphasizes the change as air raid sirens and other loud intrusions become more frequent.

    Skowron moves in and out of both worlds, playing several additional small but critical roles at turning points in the story. In the club he is bold and unfettered; in the real world contained and almost deadly still. The driving intensity in his performance reaches an emotional pinnacle in Act II’s “I Don’t Care Much,” which becomes not just a torch song but something more, a bitter acknowledgement of the reality beneath the illusion. There is a storm brewing in his tortured voice and, alone on stage under a single spotlight, the moment is electric (lighting by Steven Young).

    Zarah Mahler as Sally Bowles

    Zarah Mahler also attacks the role of Sally Bowles. Rather than the default ‘little girl lost in search of the next party’ you often see, she plays a more interesting side of her personality – that of a survivor, aware of the danger around her but sidestepping it as best she can. She’s still damaged but what is so unique about her performance is the way she expresses Sally’s pent-up rage in the only place she can – on stage when she’s performing. The progression of her frustration gives her an arc the character doesn’t usually have and a dynamic presence that leaves a lasting impression.

    Even Fräulein Schneider (Kelly Lester) and Fräulein Kost (Erica Hanrahan-Ball), roles that can be throwaways in lesser hands, are infused with depth and insight. They are also women who have found a way to survive in a man’s world (a growing Nazi world) like Sally, but the cost is great. For Schneider, it means giving up her last chance at love with a kindly Jewish grocer (Jack Laufer) and for Kost, selling herself and selling out in order to scrape by.

    Jack Laufer and Kelly Lester

    Lester, a trained soprano, surprises by using her lower register to evoke a powerful range of emotions. Hanrahan-Ball is calculated, brittle, and the bullet the rest of the characters don’t see coming. Christian Pedersen (Cliff Bradshaw) learns that lesson the hard way.

    Musically, it’s a hot show, thanks in part to the way musical director & conductor David O propels it forward with his band. They’re set upstage behind a curtain that flies up when they play and every time they appear, they come out guns blazing.

    The score is a feisty mix of jazz and blues, warped vaudeville, and more traditional sounding musical theatre songs presented within the frame of German cabaret. Its sound was rougher than its French predecessor, smoky and low with a strong satirical bent in the material. This cast has the style down pat.

    There is moment in the score when the instrumental unravels into a kind of cacophony that can best be described as a musical scream. When a musical director can make an image like that come to life as a reflection of what the characters are going through, you know you’re watching someone who understands how to use music as a powerful tool. It’s an art, people, and not everyone can do it. Few realize how important a musical director is to a production. This is an example of one of the finest.

    Over and over again, Cabaret continues its grinding assault on your senses. Choreographer Dana Solimando fills her dance numbers with brash, overtly sensual, and sneakily comic moves. Her instincts are whip-smart, grounded, and her dancers execute every single one with unwavering precision.

    January 19 – February 11, 2018
    La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
    14900 La Mirada Blvd.
    La Mirada, CA  90638

    Jeff Skowron, Zarah Miller and company

    Jeff Skowron and Kit Kat Klub dancers

    Zarah Mahler (center) and dancers

    The company of Cabaret

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    All photos by Jenny Graham

    Say what you will, The Hypocrites have found a way to transform traditional theatre into a form of entertainment that appeals to folks whod rather go to a party than sit in a theater. And they’ve done it using Gilbert & Sullivans operetta The Pirates of Penzance. No joke.

    Gilbert & Sullivan were the satirists of their day, parodying everything from politics to grand opera (the pop music of the Victorian era) so it isnt surprising that the Chicago-based company would choose to reinvent their comic operas to fit the taste of current audiences. (Theyve also given the Hypocrite treatment to The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore.) From the production design to the adaptation and style of the performance, their novel approach is a stimulating example of how to deconstruct a classic and put it back together again in a fresh, fun, and thoroughly engaging manner.

    Trimmed down to a tidy 80 minutes (plus a one minute intermission) the ensemble tells its pirate story of love and adventure amid a beach party setting. Tiki torches and overhead strands of lights cast an inviting glow, a central winding boardwalk is shared by actors and audience, and an island bar sells drinks throughout the show.

    Most of the audience is seated “in the water” on colorful folding chairs atop risers painted Caribbean blue, proving that scenic designer Tom Burch knows how to be funny too. A fair number of general admission attendees experience the show promenade style, sitting or standing around the boardwalk’s central playing area. They’re encouraged to get up and move around, and the actors have a system in place to indicate when they are about to move into a space occupied by an audience member. It’s great fun whether you’re part of the boardwalk milieu or watching it from the risers and if you see the production multiple times, you’ll never get the exact same show twice. (Note: don’t get general admission tickets if you’re not prepared to change seats frequently and interact with the cast.)

    The fun begins the moment you round the corner to the stage where Burch has built a new floor extending out over the Playhouse’s theatre seats. It’s somewhat similar to the way Stephen Dobay reconfigured The Broad Stage for The Hypocrites production of Our Town starring Helen Hunt in 2012 (which was terrific) but much more colorful.

    The good-natured cast, directed by the company’s artistic director, Sean Graney, immediately indoctrinates you into the fun-loving atmosphere. They are a welcoming bunch, accompanying themselves on instruments like guitar, ukulele, clarinet, violin, spoons, and even a musical saw. Graney finds plentiful opportunities for humor in his playful approach and, in one particularly sly scene, he also uses the instruments to add to a joke.

    Doug Pawlik
    When Freddy (Doug Pawlik), a naïve but duty-bound pirate apprentice, meets Mabel (Dana Omar), a fetching young maid, the two fall instantly in love. The scene contains one of the show’s most popular songs, Poor wandring one sung by Mabel, and accompanied by Mabel on banjo and Freddy on guitar. Eventually, their infatuation leads them off-stage, though the song continues. Upon their return, the flushed pair has swapped instruments, and presumably a whole lot more, during their giddy romantic tryst. It’s a small but genius detail that merrily amplifies the subtext. Look for saucy touches like this throughout the show.

    Adapted by Graney and his co-adaptor Kevin O’Donnell, the story stays true to the original but takes judicious liberties with its construct. We meet young Freddy on the day he believes he will be released from servitude to the pirates who took him in as a boy. The mix-up occurred when his nurse, Ruth, (also played by Omar) mistakenly apprenticed him to a group of pirates instead of pilots, as originally intended. What follows is a whimsical story of boy meets girl, pirates stealing daughters, police clashing with pirates, and a pardon in the name of Queen Victoria that grants a festive happy ending to all.

    Pawlik is as fresh-faced as Omar is quirky. Matt Kahler gives a devilish spin to the buffoonery that is the Major-General and Shawn Pfatsch’s Pirate King is a congenial bad guy who’s really a pushover at heart. The absurd twists in the story provide hearty laughs, often prompted by choreographer Katie Spelman’s amusing moves.

    Though the cast is precise in action and intent, the new theatre configuration isn’t always conducive to hearing every line. It’s a shame to miss any of the humor in Arthur Sullivans lyrics but when the party descends into a noisy free-for-all, it can’t be helped. Musical richness also comes second to comic effect but, in this setting, it doesn’t seem to matter. The gist of the story always comes through and the fun of the experience makes up for any artistic shortcomings. Go ready to jump into the silliness and you’re guaranteed to have a blast.

    Should you need assistance at any time during the performance, just look for one of two stage managers roaming around the edges of the boardwalk decked out as lifeguards. It’s yet another comic touch, courtesy of costume designer Alison Siple, who gets the last meta-theatrical laugh.

    January 23, 2018 - February 25, 2018
    The Hypocrites at Pasadena Playhouse
    39 South El Molino Avenue
    Pasadena, CA 91101

    Dana Omar as Ruth

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