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Your Musical Theatre Resource for Southern California!

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    Bill Berry. All photos by James F. Dean

    In Bill Berry’s solo show The Brick: A One Man Musical, Berry isn’t addressing the audience in a theater. He’s on a beach having a two-way conversation with his dead mother and we are the accidental eavesdroppers who witness their complicated relationship unfold piecemeal. The convention is more akin to a play than a typical solo performance, a smart decision that sidesteps many of the pitfalls solo artists often fall into. It isn’t self-indulgent, doesn’t require that the audience be his scene partner, and lets each person take the journey with him by not establishing a foregone conclusion.

    We meet Berry carefully picking his way over the rocks on an unnamed beach. There is a pained determination in his eyes as he lays out his beach towel, places his cooler, and pulls out his guitar. The purpose of his visit is to have a conversation with his mom to decide whether he will speak her name for the last time, at which point she will have experienced her third death.

    The idea is part of neuroscientist David Eagleman’s theory of three deaths. The first occurs when a person physically dies, the second when they are buried, and the third, when their name is spoken for the last time, thus completing the cycle of death.

    For Berry, the decision means telling the truth about a past no child should have to endure. A workaholic father and an alcoholic mother who demeans her son by repeatedly calling him a loser might set the stage for a one-sided accusatory tale. But rather than a simple blame game, Berry is more thoughtful in his approach.

    He decides to tell her what it was like growing up from his perspective as a child left to fend for himself. The stories are poignant, unsettling, and often wickedly humorous despite their regrettable subjects. A boy wading through a grown-up world without the tools to maneuver it instilled by a good parent can easily fall prey to those who would take advantage, as his experience with a gardener ten years his senior reveals. Berry’s gift is in finding the humor in the pain and, because he is disarmingly honest, we instantly empathize with him.

    He divulges the bleak reality of his home life in a memory about an electrical blackout. In his home, they sit silently by a single candle casting only enough light for his mother to see her bottle. At an opportune moment he escapes to his friend’s house where he finds the family having an ice cream party, eating all their ice cream before it can melt. Asked if he wants mint chip or fudge ripple, Berry is so taken aback at the laughter and joy he sees that he can’t even answer. “Is this what a normal family is like?” he wonders.

    In ten songs and 85 minutes, he continues to get down and dirty with his mom as he tries to resolve the puzzlement of his formative years and how they impacted all of his decisions in life. The unfortunate (and comic) consequences of a one night stand, a night in jail after “stealing Steve Martin,” and a cockfight that saved his life show him to be a masterful storyteller regardless of the style of song. His insightful lyrics capture the essence of a fragile moment (how odd that other parents have time in the afternoon to watch their sons play baseball) as easily as a highly-charged one (“you can tell a lot about a man by what he uses his brick for”).


    As an actor, Berry is naturally open and vulnerable. As a musician, he flies. At this performance, the audience was so acutely tuned to his energy I don’t even think they realized they were singing softly along with him on “Two Crows,” a haunting song about the wisdom of age. That kind of organic connection is something that cannot be manufactured and I found it to be incredibly powerful. It helps that he knows how to write a song with a hook that stays with you even after you’ve left the theater.

    The metamorphosis that takes place on this cathartic musical journey is a rich one and it is beautifully directed by Kelly DeSarla. What could become a dark descent into hell instead shimmers with a light touch making the show’s poignant message all the more powerful in its subtlety. Berry never overplays his hand but holds firm in the truthfulness of his narrative. Feet firmly planted in the sand like a kid, armed with six strings and his soul, he is an inherently likable human being and one helluva writer. Bonus - the guy knows how to tell a good joke.


    If you’re in Canada this summer, you can see Berry’s musical in one of two locations: The Regina International Fringe Theatre Festival (July 11-15) or The 37th Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival (August 16-26). Youd be crazy to miss it the next time he presents it in LA. For more information about upcoming local performances, go to www.billberrymusic.com.

    THE BRICK: A ONE-MAN MUSICAL
    February 1, 2018 (closed)
    Whitefire Theatre 13500 Ventura Blvd. 
    Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
    www.billberrymusic.com

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    L-R: John Countryman, Michael Monroe Goodman, Cole, and David Elkins
    All photos by Caught in the Moment Photography

    3-D Theatricals recreates a pivotal moment in rock and roll history in their latest production, Million Dollar Quartet. It’s the date (December 4, 1956) four legendary musicians – Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash – would all end up at Sun Records in Memphis on the same day and take part in one of the most famous jam sessions of all times.

    Carl was there to record a new song Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips hoped would revitalize his career, with the addition of a young, unknown piano player named Jerry Lee Lewis. Elvis dropped by with his girlfriend to get some advice from the man who discovered him, and Johnny, who’d been avoiding Phillips in recent weeks, stopped in for a heart-to-heart while June and kids were out shopping. Get that many artists with a passion for music in their souls together and it’s only a matter of time before they start to jam.

    John Countryman, Michael Monroe Goodman, Cole, and David Elkins

    Luckily, an engineer rolled tape and captured the foursome shooting the breeze and singing familiar hymns and country songs for the next several hours. It was the one and only time the King of Rockabilly, the Killer, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, and the Man in Black would ever play together and that alone makes it one for the books. Dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet by the press in an article about the event, this high-energy musical is a dramatization of that day.

    Only a handful of the 22+ songs in the show by creators Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux were actually recorded that afternoon but the stage musical features many of their greatest hits including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Real Wild Child,” “Matchbox,” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Don’t start to leave during curtain call because some of the best songs take place during the encore in a finale that literally had the audience at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center on its feet cheering and bopping to the beat (no small feat in this location).

    David Lober recreates Mutrux’s original direction and the production uses many of the official technical elements from the National Tour, including props and guitars, Derek McLane’s original set, and costumes based on Jane Greenwood’s original designs. If you saw Million Dollar Quartet at the Hollywood Pantages in 2012, you’re sure to have a happy moment of déjà vu when the most surprising element of all drops from the ceiling like a gift from the gods.

    Omar Brancato, David Lamoureux, Cole, and Zachary Ford

    The show is narrated by Zachary Ford as Sam Phillips (albeit with a little too much Barney Fife gusto), who relates how he discovered each of the artists when they were young and poor. In addition to the music, there is drama in the studio as Jerry Lee and Carl clash, and secrets come to light that will affect the future of Sun Records. The four actor/musicians who play the artists in question are immensely talented and all of them have appeared in numerous productions of the show in cities like Las Vegas and Chicago, and around the country on its National Tour. Each steps into his icon’s unique energy and personality like a second skin and all sound eerily like their counterparts.

    John Countryman grabs hold of Jerry Lee’s cocksure, showy style and never lets go. Cole has Elvis’s hip-swiveling, swoon worthy moves down to a science, and Michael Monroe Goodman adds a charismatic intensity to Perkins’ guitar picking that shows why musicians are among the sexiest beings on the planet. As Cash, David Elkins is quietly charming and impresses by replicating the singer’s signature bass vocals as few can. When they lay back into effortless 4-part harmony on spirituals like “Down by the Riverside” it is breathtaking. Omar Brancato (as Jay Perkins) on upright bass and David Lamoureux (Fluke) on drums back the headliners with reckless abandon.

    Adrienne Visnic
    The odd man out is actually a woman, Adrienne Visnic playing Dyanne, an eye candy character based on one of Elvis’ many girlfriends, since no one knew who the real woman at the session was until more recently. Visnic has a lovely voice but oversings her biggest number, “Fever” most famously recorded by Peggy Lee. Shes a young actor playing at being sexy with generic poses and a constant smile that keep her in trivial territory.

    But it hardly matters. This show belongs to the boys and this cast is the real deal. Million Dollar Quartet is a rock and roll thrill-ride-a-minute brought to life by four incredible musicians emulating four amazing musical icons. That’s all you really need for success.

    John Countryman as Jerry Lee Lewis

    Michael Monroe Goodman as Carl Perkins and David Elkins as Johnny Cash

    MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET
    Feb 9 – 18, 2018
    Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center
    Feb 23 - March 4, 2018
    Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts3-D Theatricals
    Tickets: www.3dtheatricals.org

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    The Little Mermaid - Sound Stage Live!
    March 15 – 18, 2018
    What’s the newest way to experience Disney’s The Little Mermaid? Sound Stage Live’s first-ever immersive musical theatre event combining live actors, projected animations that surround the audience, and a new way to use your mobile device to interact with the show. Directed by Karl Warden and starring Chassey Bennett, the performances are hosted by YouTube sensation Todrick Hall. VIP ticketholders will have the chance to meet Todrick, attend a special Q&A, and get front row seats. In this new format, you’re encouraged to bring your cell phone to the party, rather than put it away. Co-producer Jeff Cason says, “We’re bringing cutting edge technology and storytelling together to put our guests in the middle of the action. Your phone will let you see and hear the fish under the sea, join the musical chorus that get Ariel and Eric to fall in love, and even help Ariel defeat Ursula with the power of the trident.” A red carpet, themed snacks, and games in the lobby start the festivities. The pre-show will feature Todrick Hall’s fan favorite videos of his performances, plus a lip sync battle in which guests can join him onstage at the El Segundo Performing Arts Center to showcase their own talents. Tickets: www.soundstage.live/tickets


    Hollywood Revisited – MTG at the Colony Theatre
    March 26, 2018
    Musical Theatre Guild presents Hollywood Revisited, a one-of-a-kind musical revue, as a benefit to raise funds for its youth outreach programs. The show is an homage to the movies with the cast singing and dancing while wearing the ORIGINAL Hollywood movie costumes worn by legendary stars of the Golden Age. You’ll see costumes worn by Marilyn Monroe, Ginger Rogers, Julie Andrews, Gene Kelly, Bette Davis, Donald O’Connor, Mae West, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland and more, all from the collection of curator Greg Schreiner. Greg is director of special collections at the Hollywood Museum and also serves as musical director and narrator for this unique revue. Expect to see MTG members on stage as well as some surprise guests, all directed by Joshua Finkel. Tickets: Web.ovationtix.com/HollywoodRevisited


    WaistWatchers The Musical! – El Portal Theatre
    February 28 to March 4, 2018
    Alan Jacobson and Vince Di Mura’s WaistWatchers The Musical! follows four forty-something women in their quest to lose weight while managing all the pitfalls of a busy life. The ladies discuss everything from food, diets, and exercise, to friendship, love and sex in much the same spirit as Menopause the Musical. The show takes place inside Miss Cook’s Women’s Gym where the women share their marital pitfalls, body size issues, and a common weakness for sweets. Original music by Vince Di Mura includes songs like “Viagra” and “I Went to the Buffet Line.” Tickets: www.elportaltheatre.com

    L-R: Jennifer Bevans, Spencer Harte, Rio "Soulshocka" Wyles, Rex Lewis-Clack,
    August McAdoo, Alan Davis, Patrick Storey, Jonetta Ward, Igor Zaninovich

    Lost in the Light – CRE Outreach
    April 13 – May 12, 2018
    CRE Outreach presents Lost in the Light, a world premiere play by Pelita Dasalla with original songs by Laurie Grant and Chloe Copoloff. This is the company’s inaugural production at its new home, The Blue Door in Culver City. Performed by Theatre by the Blind, the only blind theater company in the country, and musicians with autism from Rex & Friends, it is the story of Angel Taylor, blind since birth, who learns about a rare opportunity to restore her vision through an experimental surgery. As she grapples with the conflicting notions of what is and what might be, the budding journalist must come to terms with a future she never expected. Directed by Greg Shane, the production challenges conventional expectations about the capabilities of individuals who live without sight, who struggle with movement, or who have difficulty understanding the complexities of social interactions. Tickets: CREoutreach.org/lostinthelight

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    Ashley Ruth Jones and Dino Nicandros. Photos by Tracey Roman

    It can be a wonderful adventure to watch two people falling in love, particularly when they themselves don’t realize it’s happening. When the adventure takes place on stage – as in John Caird and Paul Gordon’s musical two-hander Daddy Long Legs– the audience has an advantage because they get to see the relationship develop from both points of view. The misunderstandings are more poignant, the coincidences even more delightful. By the time it becomes apparent to the couple in question, we’ve already fallen in love with them and are cheering them on to their eventual conclusion. Add music and the whole emotional journey becomes a romantic dream come true no fairy tale could tell better.

    That’s the story of Jerusha Abbott and Jervis Pendleton, the two charming characters in Daddy Long Legs, who easily succeed in working their way into our hearts by the time they arrive at their happy ending. It’s a return to Southern California for the musical, which debuted at the Rubicon Theatre in 2009 as part of its rolling premiere. It then played venues like La Mirada Theatre, The Broad Stage, and Laguna Playhouse (I saw them all) before taking flight to London, New York, and beyond.

    Caird’s adaptation of Jean Webster’s novel is an intimate and delicately balanced conversation for two, carried out in letters. She is an 18-year-old orphan with dreams of becoming a writer. He is a trustee of the orphanage who has seen promise in her writing and has decided to send her to college. His terms: they will never meet, she must write him monthly, and he will not write her back.

    It’s worked perfectly well for the boys he has previously helped to educate but he finds that Jerusha has a curious effect on him. As she begins to discover a whole world she never imagined, her thoughtful, inquisitive, and often humorous observations break through his self-imposed isolation and reconnect him with the world.

    What so impressed me about the musical in the past is how effortlessly it communicated the joy and pain of life by setting up two completely isolated realities - his and hers - and eventually merging the two into one. Their letters are the threads that tie them together with a singular intimacy that is only available because they move in parallel, not intersecting, worlds (until specific plot points deem it necessary).

    International City Theatre’s production, directed by Mary Jo DuPrey, takes a different approach. DuPrey sets up the two worlds and then breaches their integrity by having the characters walk into each other’s space. Jervis (Dino Nicandros) watches Jerusha (Ashley Ruth Jones) for long sections of the musical, at times only inches away from her while she’s singing. She dances around him and wanders into his library at will. In one of the most invasive and puzzling moments, she drops a book on his desk for no apparent reason while he is sitting there.

    The director’s desire to make the staging theatrically interesting has instead given us actors who are performing for the audience rather than speaking to each other, or to themselves, in the stream of consciousness narrative style Caird has written. It imposes an artificial quality on the piece, particularly since the characters are also not reading or writing letters at all. That in itself is confusing because it is difficult, especially in the beginning, to know whether they are speaking their own thoughts or reading the other person’s.

    Nicandros is charming and has a lovely voice but encounters some difficulty with his high notes. Jones gives Jerusha an awkwardness that is endearing in its own sweet way yet it still feels like she is performing rather than carrying on a private conversation. Her most effective moments come when she keeps it simple. Gordon’s articulate and expressive score is full of soaring melodies and graceful lyrics that do much of the actors’ work for them, if they will trust what is written. Musical director Bill Wolfe’s onstage chamber trio (consisting of piano, guitar and cello) creates an elegant ambiance.

    Despite its heavy-handed direction, there is much to love in this appealing romance of minds and hearts. If you are coming to the musical for the first time, doubtless you will be swept away as I was originally by its inherent charm.

    DADDY LONG LEGS
    Feb 21 - March 11, 2018
    International City Theatre
    Long Beach Performing Arts Center
    330 East Seaside Way, Long Beach, CA 90802
    Tickets: 562-436-4610 or www.InternationalCityTheatre.org




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    George Takei as Sam Kimura. All photos by Michael Lamont

    After nearly nine years, Allegiance has come home to Southern California. The co-production by East West Players and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center opened to a sold out crowd on Wednesday night, less than half a mile from the Japanese American National Museum where it had its first reading in 2009.

    Additional workshops and readings followed before the production’s world premiere in 2012 at The Old Globe in San Diego. In 2015, it moved to Broadway for a 4-month run, which was filmed and screened in cinemas across the country. Not bad considering most musicals of this size and scale never make it to the finish line.

    But Allegiance is special. It has historical significance and the potential to educate generations of Americans about a part of our past we cannot afford to forget. You have only to look around at what is happening in our country today to see how important it is that we remember to bring our better selves to the table and not jump to conclusions when it comes to our fellow man.

    The cast of Allegiance

    Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and FDR’s subsequent signing of Executive Order 9066, approximately 120,000 Japanese American citizens were removed from their homes and relocated to government-run internment camps. Allegiance is the story of how one family endures in a country that now views them as the enemy, even though they had nothing to do with the war. It highlights the incredible resilience of the human spirit and its never-ending ability to carry on, make due, and above all, survive.

    The musical is a legacy piece for George Takei who was only a child when he and his family were sent to the camps. It was his story that inspired Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione to write Allegiance and for whom they created the central role of Sam Kimura/Ojii-chan. He has played it in all of the previous productions and does so again, with humor and heart, in LA accompanied by several of his Broadway castmates and a capable local cast directed by East West Player’s artistic director, Snehal Desai. The performance style is heightened and dramatic, at times a bit overly so, but the ensemble is sincere in its desire to communicate how deeply this story resonates with them.

    L-R: Ethan Le Phong, George Takei, and Elena Wang 

    Energetic Ethan Le Phong plays the younger version of Takei’s character, an all American boy full of youthful verve and idealistic optimism. Elena Wang is his sister Kei, sounding like a Disney princess about to get her warrior wings, and Scott Watanabe is their gruff and unwavering father, Tatsuo. Greg Watanabe takes on the controversial role of real-life Japanese Citizens League representative Mike Masaoka who was used by the government to secure cooperation among the camps.

    Kuo’s score is full of power ballads and galvanizing anthems that the characters deliver with stirring authority, despite the fact that some of the lyrics are set rather awkwardly to music. The occasional boogie-woogie dance number or delicate Japanese folk melody is interspersed among the more typical musical theatre-sounding songs.

    An 11-piece orchestra conducted by musical director Marc Macalintal provides thrilling accompaniment, nowhere more affecting than in the dissonances that underscore conflicting passions. The vocal sound is perennially bright, amplified by an abundance of treble in the sound system that pierces even when it doesn’t need to.

    The story, which spans a 60-year time frame, plays out on a sparsely decorated set (scenic design by Se Hyun Oh, lighting by Karyn Lawrence) against a compelling backdrop of grainy black and white historical images, sepia-toned photographs, and full-color projections (by Adam Fleming). Its combined visuals create a starkly dramatic foundation for Allegiance’s underlying human story of family, loyalty, and honor.

    Though the story is largely fictional, the historical context is not. It happened. It wasn’t right. It’s up to us not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Consider Allegiance a musical reminder that we have a social responsibility to each other, “…with liberty and justice for all.”

    Greg Watanabe

    Elena Wang

    Eymard Cabling, Elena Wang, and George Takei

    L-R: Scott Watanabe, George Takei, Jordan Goodsell, Elena Wang, and Ethan Le Phong

    Natalie Holt McDonald and Ethan Le Phong

    L-R: Miyuki Miyagi, Chad Takeda, Janelle Dote, Eymard Cabling (center) as
    Frankie Suzuki, Sharline Liu, Cesar Cipriano, and Grace Yoo

    ALLEGIANCE
    February 21 – April 1, 2018
    East West Players at JACCC’s Aratani Theatre
    244 S. San Pedro Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012
    Tickets and Info:AllegianceMusical.com/LA

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    There are only two more performances left of this poetic flight of fancy but, if you can take the time, I highly recommend you get to The Wallis and see it. The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is the theatrical love story of early twentieth century Russian artist Marc Chagall and his wife Bella told with a feather-light whimsy and lyrical sophistication that will take your breath away. Marc Antolin stars as Chagall and Daisy Maywood as his wife in this intoxicating production written by Daniel Jamieson, directed byEmma Rice, and produced by Kneehigh and Bristol Old Vic. Passionate, and full of thrillingly optimistic theatre magic, it captures the couple’s romance set against a dramatically changing world in a time of war and revolution. The original score performed by composer/musical director Ian Ross and James Gow is light as air and as poignant as Chagall’s own journey. The entire 90 minutes was a lovely surprise. Tickets: www.thewallis.org 

    Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood. All photos by Steve Tanner














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    Hamburg Company of Love Never Dies. Photo courtesy of Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

    Love Never Dies – Hollywood Pantages Theatre
    April 3 – 22, 2018
    Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to The Phantom of the Opera begins its North American Tour at the Hollywood Pantages next month. This new production reflects changes made since the Australian premiere in 2011 and is directed by Simon Phillips (Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical). The year is 1907, ten years after the Phantom escaped from the Paris Opera House and made a new life for himself among the screaming joy rides and freak shows of Coney Island. With Christine’s marriage to Raoul on the rocks, the Phantom seizes one last opportunity to win back her love with an invitation to perform at a New York Opera House. www.hollywoodpantages.com

    L-R: Playwright David Henry Hwang, Conrad Ricamora, Billy Bustamante,
    Jon Hoche, Kendyl Ito, and Francis Jue 

    Soft Power – Ahmanson Theatre
    May 3 – June 10, 2018
    Center Theatre Group has announced the cast for its upcoming world premiere of Soft Power by David Henry Hwang (play and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music and additional lyrics) produced in association with East West Players. Leigh Silverman directs, choreography is by Sam Pinkleton and musical direction is by David O. The title comes from China’s current quest for international cultural influence, known as “Soft Power” and tells the story of a visiting Chinese executive who falls in love with a good-hearted U.S. leader following the 2016 election. The cast includes Billy Bustamante, Jon Hoche, Kendyl Ito, Francis Jue, Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee, Alyse Alan Louis, Jaygee Macapugay, Daniel May, Paul HeeSang Miller, Kristen Faith Oei, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Geena Quintos, Conrad Ricamora, Trevor Salter and Emily Stillings. www.centertheatregroup.org

    Blues in the Night – The Wallis
    April 27 – May 20, 2018
    Yvette Cason stars in Blues in the Night, conceived and directed by Sheldon Epps, a production he originally staged in a small Off-Broadway theater in the early 1980s and at Donmar Warehouse in London. Now Epps returns to bring the soul of the blues back to life in The Wallis’ Lovelace Theatre. Joining Cason are Bryce Charles, Paulette Ivory, and Chester Gregory in 26 hot and torchy numbers by the likes of musical icons Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, and Harold Arlen that fuel the story of three women and the men who have done them wrong. You know it’s the blues so the night is sure to sizzle. www.thewallis.org

    South Pacific – La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
    April 20 – May 13, 2018
    Glenn Casale will direct Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts this April. John Cudia stars as French plantation owner Emile De Becque and Stephanie Wall as Navy nurse Nellie Forbush in this classic musical theatre masterpiece dealing with romance and racism in the South Pacific during wartime. Musical direction is by Brent Crayon and choreography by Peggy Hickey. The cast also includes Jeff Skowron (Luther), Jodi Kimura (Bloody Mary), Matt Rosell (Lt. Cable), and Hajin Cho (Liat). Prior to its run in La Mirada, it will play four performances at The Soraya in Northridge, April 13 - 15. Tickets: www.lamiradatheatre.com and valleyperformingartscenter.org/SP

    The Hunchback of Notre Dame – 5-Star Theatricals
    April 20 – 27, 2018
    5-Star Theatricals in Thousand Oaks presents The Hunchback of Notre Dame (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Peter Parnell), starring managing director Will North in the title role, at the Kavli Theatre. This gorgeous musical is based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel and the Disney film of the same name, and contains some of Menken’s most beautiful music The cast also includes Cassandra Murphy as Esmeralda, Justin Michael Wilcox as Clopin, Gregory North as Frollo, and Adam Hollick as Phoebus. Musical direction is by Dan Redfeld, choreography by Michelle Elkin, and Misti B. Wills directs. A signed performance for the deaf and hard-of-hearing will take place on Saturday, April 21 at 2pm, followed by a post-show discussion with the cast and staff.  5startheatricals.com

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    Meghan Picerno as Christine Daaé and Gardar Thor Cortes as The Phantom.
    All photos by Joan Marcus

    Romance based on obsession is a challenging tale in today’s world. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 hit musical The Phantom of the Opera might have had a more difficult debut if it had taken place today amid the #MeToo movement. But it didn’t, and the British composer’s masterpiece went on to conquer the West End, Broadway, and the rest of the world, creating legions of fans in its wake.

    Now its sequel, Love Never Dies, is making its world tour, but lightning, as they say, isn’t striking twice for this continuation of the Phantom/Christine saga. Curiosity and the unwavering affection of those impassioned fans seem to be the main reasons audiences are flocking to the Hollywood Pantages Theatre for the musical’s short stay. Indeed, the women sitting behind me could barely contain their excitement at seeing the production, a sentiment that didn’t diminish throughout the night.

    And much like the Phantom’s fixation on the chorus girl with a golden voice he abducted to turn into a star, Lloyd Webber has been obsessed with turning Love Never Dies into a success.

    He began work on the story four years after Phantom premiered in London. It took another seventeen years before he would start composing the score and another three years with multiple collaborators before Love Never Dies finally opened in the West End, albeit to disappointing reviews. He reworked the troubled production, replaced the set, brought in a new director and lyricist to fix trouble spots, and reopened what he felt was a more vibrant musical. Still, it never aroused the same excitement as Phantom. Its London engagement was shorter than anticipated and plans for a Broadway run were scrapped. Productions scheduled to run in other countries also went through significant changes.

    The version on stage at the Pantages is one that was reworked for the 2011 Australian premiere, complete with lavish sets and costumes, gorgeous operatic voices, and an orchestra that fills the art deco house with glorious sound. These attributes alone make Love Never Dies a thrill for musical lovers, but you’ll need to overlook a story that tampers with your recollection of the events in Phantom. They say you can’t rewrite the past but, in the case of Love Never Dies, you’d never know it.

    It seems that Christine was actually in love with the Phantom, and more happened during the gondola ride to his subterranean lair than they let on. At the end of the musical, miraculously, Madame Giry saves him from the angry mob we thought killed him. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

    Front L-R: Richard Koons (Squelch), Katrina Kemp (Fleck), Stephen Petrovich
    (Gangle) and the Ensemble in The Coney Island Waltz

    When the sequel opens, it is 1907 and ten years have passed (yes, the math is off). Erik (Gardar Thor Cortes as the Phantom) isn’t dead but alive and well and living in Coney Island where he runs a commercial concert hall among the fantasy world of boardwalk freaks and outsiders, still pining for his darling soprano. The lovers, Christine (Meghan Picerno) and Raoul (Sean Thompson) are unhappily married with a 10-year-old son (Casey Lyons at this performance), and young Meg Giry (Mary Michael Patterson) is now a glorified singing, dancing stripper who performs in the burlesques at Erik’s show palace while sleeping with the investors her mother finds to fund Erik’s venture.

    Madame Giry’s (Karen Mason) objective is to secure their future with the Phantom’s fortune and everything is going according to plan until the announcement that the now-famous soprano is coming to America to perform a concert for Oscar Hammerstein. When Erik learns of the trip, he intervenes to bring Christine and her family to Coney Island. Cue the music. Cue the lights. You can bet there is a mirror waiting in her future that casts more than her own reflection in it.

    Though the production’s spectacle is impressive – this is an expensive touring set and the costumes are divine (both by Gabriela Tylesova) – no amount of glitz can compensate for the melodramatic book or performances. The operatic gestures and posturing are stilted and director Simon Phillips doesn’t seem to notice or care, although he does create some heavenly stage pictures.

    Gardar Thor Cortes and Meghan Picerno

    One of the problems is that Ben Elton’s book and Lloyd Webber’s repetitious score stretch moments across minutes like schmaltzy grand opera. The dramatic throughline isn’t interesting enough, nor are Glenn Slater’s* lyrics transcendent enough, to sustain such slow development so, no matter how hard the actors try to make it natural, it just isn’t possible.

    The second problem is that the score doesn’t present a cohesive vision. In Phantom, the composition style was operatic and the “performance” scenes at the opera house were also operatic, because of the location. Here, the setting is a completely different musical world, one that can’t help but sound jarring when you pit its flimsier ditties against the richer sound of opera.

    To further complicate things, Lloyd Webber undercuts his own melodies. Rather than building them to soaring heights in an upward trajectory, something he so beautifully did in Phantom, in Love Never Dies he repeatedly uses descending falling phrases that stifle the bloom in the voice. Even his title song, the pièce de résistance for Christine, is full of such phrases. Happily, when Picerno finally does get to let loose in the upper stratosphere of her range it is the kind of luscious soprano magic that makes audiences swell with applause.

    Meghan Picerno

    David Cullen and Lloyd Webber’s orchestrations are rich and full and the orchestra, led by music director/conductor Dale Rieling, sounds superb.

    Though this alternate reality for the Phantom and Christine may ultimately disappoint the discerning musical lover, the visual extravagance and vocal virtuosity of the piece will not. Those riches are fully on display.

    *Additional lyrics by Charles Hart

    LOVE NEVER DIES
    April 4 – 22, 2018
    Hollywood Pantages Theatre
    6233 Hollywood Blvd, 
    Los Angeles, CA 90028
    Tickets and more info: www.hollywoodpantages.com or 800-982-2787

    Mary Michael Patterson and the ensemble

    L-R: Mary Michael Patterson, Meghan Picerno, Karen Mason and Sean Thompson 

    Richard Koons, Katrina Kemp, and Stephen Petrovich 

    Casey Lyons and Gardar Thor Cortes

    Sean Thompson and Gardar Thor Cortes

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    The Verdi Chorus today

    Aristotle once said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Nowhere is that phrase truer than with a choir. When individual voices, each unique in character and personality, begin to resonate together they create an entirely new, and often thrillingly exciting, sound. If you’ve ever experienced the goosebumps that come from hearing a choir in action, you know what I mean.

    For the past 35 years, members of The Verdi Chorus have celebrated their shared love of music, and their ability to raise those goosebumps, by lifting their voices in song. This spring, they will mark their milestone anniversary with two special concerts on April 28th and 29th at the First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica. On the program: nothing less than four passion-filled scenes by Verdi from I Lombardi, La Forza del Destino, Nabucco, and La Traviata, plus a big finish from Johann Strauss’ effervescent operetta, Die Fledermaus.

    No other choral group in Southern California performs their particular repertoire and, as any chorister will tell you, it is an experience like no other. Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked for life and on Monday nights you’ll find more than fifty singers, age 22 to 80, rehearsing under the direction of Anne Marie Ketchum. Among its members are four unique individuals who represent the average, everyday folks who populate the sections. They sing because they love it. Meet Bobbi Mapstone, Rana Ebrahimi, Patrick Mack, and Peter Goldman.

    The Verdi Chorus at Ristorante di Musica in the early days

    Bobbi Mapstone (alto), one of the original members of the group, is a photographer who couldn’t read music and only sang folk songs while plunking her guitar when she started. She enjoyed opera but says she had an untrained voice. Then, 35 years ago, she happened to attend a friend’s wedding reception at Verdi Ristorante di Musica in Santa Monica. She says, “While we were there, Bernie Segal, the owner, invited everyone to join a brand new opera chorus and no audition was required. That sounded too good to pass up and, before I knew it, I found myself in the soprano section. Singing in the shower was a favorite activity, but to sing opera in my shower was thrilling. Soon I discovered I was not a real soprano and moved through the voice ranks until I landed happily with the 2nd sopranos - the women’s bass section.

    Verdi Ristorante had become a proving ground for many singers but, when it closed, the chorus sadly came to an end. By then, passion had exceeded the quality of our singing and when a few enterprising members asked Anne Marie if she would continue the chorus privately she agreed, with one important condition. Everyone had to audition. This was nerve wracking for me but singing with Anne Marie was addictive and she wanted to create a group that would contribute to the music of Los Angeles.

    Auditions and artistic control made all the difference; without them there would be no Verdi Chorus today. It’s been a large learning curve and I feel privileged to sing glorious opera music with talented singers and soloists. I enjoy the struggles with language, speed, and dynamics and the nerves and often panic as the performance approaches. Then it’s that special weekend. We dress in black and bling, and the energy is high. The church has excellent acoustics and there are stunning moments when our sound soars to the rafters giving us chills and thrills. My 35 years with the Verdi Chorus has resulted in a greater love of music, and new skills and friendships. Attending opera can be difficult; we know so many choruses that it is hard not to sing along!”

    The Verdi Chorus, from the archives

    Rana Ebrahimi (soprano) is a student who was born in Iran but moved to the U.S. in 2013 to pursue her dream of becoming an opera singer. She was already a flutist and a classical singer back home but she enrolled in the Music Program at Pasadena City College to gain performance experience. In Iran, there had been little to no opportunity to perform.

    Rana says, “It was at PCC that I met Anne Marie Ketchum de la Vega. She was the opera director there and she also taught classes. Words cannot describe how much I learned from this amazing woman. Aside from vocal technique, she helped me come out of my shell and find confidence on stage, mainly because I was new to the U.S. and hadn’t made any friends yet. When I realized she was also the director of Verdi Chorus, I asked her if I could join. Luckily, I was accepted. In Verdi Chorus people support and help each other in every way they can. That’s why we sing with a lot of passion. It is not just a chorus to me. Verdi Chorus is my music family and I am so fortunate to be a member!”

    Patrick Mack (tenor), a travel consultant, has been singing with Verdi Chorus for fifteen years. He found the group by way of a friend’s suggestion but he never thought he’d join another choir. “I ran into a colleague at a work function who had heard I was an opera singer. She started babbling on about this ‘Verdi Chorus.’ Well, I had sung in the chorus with the Baltimore Symphony for two years and figured that part of my life was over. I was riding a very high horse called, ‘I’m a soloist.’

    My colleague continued to harass me every time she saw me for the next 7 YEARS (!) until I finally came in for an audition and found this musical family. I’m constantly astonished at the musicianship our director, Anne Marie Ketchum, achieves. Her level of preparation and her constant attention to detail are obvious in our performances. Many of us are just people who really love to sing. In the years I’ve been with the chorus, I’ve gotten to perform some of the greatest music ever written for the voice, and no one complains I’m too loud!”

    Peter Goldman (bass) is a publicist by day, singer by night. The Verdi Chorus first came into his life as a client for Davidson & Choy Publicity where he works. Peter says, “I always like to think new and exciting things will continue to come into my life if I’m just open to them, but it really was beyond my wildest dreams that I would ever have the opportunity to sing opera alongside first rate opera singers. Initially, I went to their annual summer party strictly to learn more about the group we would be representing. But, two things happened at that party. First, I was gobsmacked by the talent and genuine camaraderie and family spirit of the group. It seemed every walk of life was represented there and they all had one thing in common - an incredible love of the music.

    The second thing that happened, which stunned me to no end, was that I was encouraged to audition the following month to join the chorus. While scared to death, (I hadn’t sung since college and that was decades ago) I gathered the courage to give it a go figuring nothing ventured, nothing gained. To my absolute surprise and joy, I made the cut, and I am continually amazed how being part of such a dynamic musical group has changed my life.”

    Of course, none of this would be possible without the woman they all sing the praises of, Founding Artistic Director, Anne Marie Ketchum. In 1983, Anne Marie was one of over 20 professional opera singers at Verdi Ristorante in Santa Monica, an elegant high-end Italian restaurant where a handful of soloists would perform on any given night.

    She says, “Grant Gershon, the Artistic Director of The Los Angeles Master Chorale was one of the pianists and Evan Kleiman, who is known for being the ‘fairy godmother’ of the LA food scene through her show Good Food on KCRW, was fresh out of culinary school and working in the kitchen. Needless to say, the food was fantastic, and singing on a stage surrounded by commissioned art of all the Verdi opera characters in such a beautiful space was a wonderful thing.

    The owner of the restaurant came up with the idea of starting an opera chorus comprised of the patrons from the restaurant, and as I had a background in conducting, asked me to lead it. We wound up with about 30 singers, and while no auditions were required - and the sound of the chorus reflected that - everyone had a great time and the performances were packed with family and friends.

    When the restaurant closed, as restaurants will do, the singers didn’t want to stop. Tom Redler, Peter Kahn and Walter Fox were members of the chorus as well as incredible philanthropists. They were instrumental in raising funds so the chorus could go on. I was asked to continue as Artistic Director, and I agreed, under the condition of having full artistic control, and instituting auditions for all members to bring the Verdi Chorus up to the next level musically.

    Over the years, the Verdi Chorus has evolved on every level. There truly was no way of knowing what we would grow into as a performing arts organization. We’ve not only long outlived the restaurant where it all began and where we first started presenting opera choruses in concert, we have also become a force in the L.A. classical music community and are proud to be able to provide career development opportunities for young professional singers.”

    For a look at their upcoming program, tickets, and more information, visit their website at www.verdichorus.org. Parking is free and a reception follows each concert where you can meet the artists.

    THE VERDI CHORUS: The Force of Destiny
    April 28 (7:30 pm) and April 29 (2:00 pm)
    First United Methodist Church
    1008 11th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90403
    Tickets: $10 - $40 (800) 838-3006 or www.verdichorus.org
    Guest soloists: Shana Blake Hill, Karin Mushegain, Alex Boyer, and Ben Lowe
    Accompanist: Laraine Ann Madden

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    Stephanie Renee Wall and John Cudia. Photo by Michael Lamont

    Glenn Casale directs this Rodgers & Hammerstein gem dealing with romance and racism in the South Pacific during World War II. The score is classic R&H, a musician’s dream list of gorgeous melodies and keen lyrics performed with tremendous sensitivity by its intelligent cast and a sterling14-piece orchestra led by musical director Brent Crayon.

    As the tropical breezes blow, two sets of lovers wrestle with what it means to follow your heart despite a lifetime of learning to hate anyone who is different. It is an issue that makes South Pacific as relevant today as when it was first written. In fact, Rodgers and Hammerstein specifically adapted James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Tales of the South Pacific to highlight racial injustice so that audiences would be forced to confront their own behavior. At the time, it was a pretty bold limb to go out on, and it is still as necessary to tell this story now as it was then. I guarantee it will shock you at least once in the course of its nearly three hour tale.

    Stephanie Renee Wall is Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, who falls in love with a Frenchman escaping his past (John Cudia as Emile de Becque) but bolts when she learns he has children by a native woman. Matt Rosell is Lt. Joe Cable, a blue blood Ivy leaguer who gives his heart to a Tonkinese girl (Hajin Cho as Liat) until he realizes he can never take her home to meet his family.

    In each case, their worlds begin far apart but, like any cathartic experience, they increasingly intrude upon each other until opinions change and growth happens. Their stories are bittersweet and show the best and the worst of humanity.

    The company does six performances a week and at the matinee I attended performances were technically spot-on but didn’t connect emotionally as they could have. My sense was that the cast was tired since it was the last performance of the week. South Pacific has an effervescence to it that moves in partnership with its heavier undertones and that was missing on Sunday.

    Cudia and Rosell’s voices are bright, rich, and beautifully resonant but their acting is stiff. The former sounds like he is continually making a speech to someone across the room and the latter could use a shot of personality. Wall is a likable awkward young woman who brightens the stage whenever she arrives, making it all the more shattering when her bigoted behavior is revealed.

    Stephanie Renee Wall and Jeff Skowron, Photo by Michael Lamont

    Jodi Kimura’s experience with the role of Bloody Mary (she’s played it many times before) makes her a standout in this production. Her ballsy demeanor covers a mother’s desperate desire to provide a better life for her daughter and you can see it in her watery eyes. Jeff Skowron’s Luther Billis is less comic relief and more wry wheeler-dealer but his “Honey Bun” with Wall is an all-out winner. A rousing bunch of male chorus members add immediate energy with Peggy Hickey’s boisterous choreography when they arrive for “There is Nothing Like a Dame.”

    SOUTH PACIFIC
    April 20 – May 13, 2018
    La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
    14900 La Mirada Blvd. La Mirada, CA 90638
    Tickets: (562) 944-9801 or www.lamiradatheatre.com

    Matt Rosell and Jodi Kimura. Photo by Michael Lamont

    John Cudia, Araceli Prasarttongosoth, Lucas Jaye and Stephanie Wall
    Photo by Austin Bauman

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    L-R: Paulette Ivory, Bryce Charles and Yvette Cason.
    All photos by Lawrence K. Ho

    Somewhere in a cheap hotel in Chicago, circa late 1930s, three women are singing the blues. Two have been around the block and seen it all. One is woefully wise beyond her years. All have been burned by the flames of desire and lovers who have done them wrong.

    This is the set-up for Blues in the Night, the musical revue conceived and directed by Sheldon Epps, playing through May 20th in the Lovelace Studio Theater at The Wallis. Epps first directed it in 1980 at Playhouse 46 in New York where it was intended to be a late-night companion piece to a jazz play the theatre was producing. A brief run on Broadway followed in 1982, which scored it a Tony nomination for Best Musical.

    Gregory Hines originally assisted with the choreography and for the Los Angeles production it is Jeffrey Polk who adds his unique flair to Epps’ sleek staging. It isn’t a dancy show but the two have found a simple yet extremely effective way of physically communicating humor and innuendo. And because Epps also starts the show quietly, it leaves the piece room to grow, both in volume and emotional intensity.

    With no dialogue or plot to speak of, the show rests on the singers’ ability to sell a song. Lord know the blues ain’t easy. You need life experience and a voice that can deliver a universe of pain, passion, and pride in a single note. If you don’t feel it, you can’t sing it, and these three leading ladies have got the goods.

    Yvette Cason

    Each embodies a particular type. Yvette Cason is the aging Lady from the Road, a performer living on memories stashed in her steamer trunk along with old show costumes. She’s loaded with personality and is as adept at comedy (“Take Me For A Buggy Ride” and “Kitchen Man” will have you shaking your head) as she is in bringing out the sorrow in a song like Bessie Smith’s devastating “Wasted Life Blues.” Best single musical moment of the night, pianist Lanny Hartley’s one chord transition in “Lover Man that spins the song from wistful longing to sultry despair, which Cason uses to splinter her heart across the floor of her tiny room.

    Paulette Ivorys stylish Woman of the World is a looker whose appetite for romance and liquor has left her constantly disappointed. She has a luscious, creamy voice, and she can bend a note and pull it back from the air like the sound is bridging worlds. The muted trumpet and upright bass intro to “Stompin At The Savoy” tells you everything you need to know about her character in only two bars. Her “Lush Life is a rich dish served elegantly steamy and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” is a vulnerable acknowledgment of the illusory life she’s created that could be a whole musical by itself.

    Bryce Charles

    Bryce Charles is the sweet, sad-eyed Girl with the Date, too young to already be so misused by love. She’s two parts sunshine, one part baby doll, with a sparkling voice that is delicate one moment and sassy the next. She’s young but her career will be one to watch.

    When the three of them sing in harmony, it is divine. They’re backed by Hartley’s 6-piece jazz combo (Kevin O’Neal on bass, Randall Willis and Louis Van Taylor on reeds, Fernando Pullum on trumpet, Lance Lee on percussion, and Hartley on piano). Act Two opens with the group jamming and soloing on Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues, a theme that runs throughout the show. Music direction by Abdul Hamid Royal unites all musical elements - voice, instruments, tone, character, and emotion - to create one of the most luxurious musical experiences on a stage in Los Angeles. It may be the blues but there is as much joy, fun, and fortitude in Blues in the Night as there is suffering.

    Attractive period costumes by Dana Rebecca Woods flatter each woman’s assets. If they never sang a word you’d know exactly who each one was by the garments she wears - a sensual satin peignoir for Ivory, a young girl’s day dress for Charles, and an endless array of theatrical accents for Cason to charm the audience with.

    Chester Gregory and Paulette Ivory

    The cast also includes one man (
    Chester Gregory) who represents a tunnel-visioned male perspective on the trio’s love troubles, but he is negligible. Though he has a few smooth moves, this show belongs to the ladies.

    Jared A. Sayeg floods the stage with jewel-toned lighting to intensify the emotional punch of each character’s inner life. John Iacovelli creates the “Four Walls (And One Dirty Window) Blues” setting as three distinct rooms fitting each woman’s present circumstances connected by a central memory world they step into to connect with the audience or to wander back into a dream. Since music is the lifeblood of the show, the band is always visible behind the women, as if to call them home.

    Blues in the Night is a decadently rich musical experience built on some of the best early jazz and blues standards you’ll ever hear. Guaranteed to satisfy a lover of great songs, in my book, it’s two hours of musical heaven.

    BLUES IN THE NIGHT
    April 27 – May 27, 2018
    Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
    Lovelace Studio Theater
    9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA, 90210
    Tickets: www.thewallis.org

    Bryce Charles and Paulette Ivory

    Chester Gregory

    Yvette Cason

    Bryce Charles, Yvette Cason, Paulette Ivory
    and Chester Gregory

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    Rob Colletti and the cast of School of Rock. All photos by Matthew Murphy

    As kid musicals go, School of Rock isn’t half bad. It falls somewhere between Annie and Matilda on the Richter scale of stories about downtrodden kids overcoming obstacles to win in the end. It’s got enough emotional oomph to tug on your heartstrings and it gives you plenty of reason to happily cheer the underdogs on. It’s also making stars out of its young cast members, right and left.

    It should. These pint-sized phenoms are über-talented, both as actors and musicians. An announcement at the top of the show informs the audience that they are all playing their instruments live, which puts to rest what would have been the all-consuming question throughout the performance.

    Rob Colletti and Vincent Molden

    Instead of wondering whether Vincent Molden (Zack) is actually shredding that electric guitar himself, you can sit back and enjoy how well he’s doing it. A girl bass player? Yes, please, and Theodosia Silverman has the chops to kill it, along with the rocker attitude. Lovable Theo Mitchell-Penner is a monster on the keyboard and, in his final hour, proves to be quite the showman as well, while Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton tears it up on the drum kit every chance he gets.

    There are big, bright performances by Iara Nemirovsky as an annoying goody two-shoes turned band manager, Huxley Westemeier as a pre-teen costume designer destined to give Project Runway’s Michael Kors a run for his money, and Grier Burke, who blossoms from the shy new girl to a determined young lady who knows she’s lead singer material. Back-up girls Olivia Bucknor and Alyssa Emily Marvin have some surprisingly hip moves, and it keeps going right on down the line.

    Hernando Umana and Rob Colletti

    Their goal is to enter and win the Battle of the Bands contest, a secret school project led by their fake substitute teacher, Dewey Finn (Rob Colletti). They don’t know he’s really an out of work, wannabe rocker who’s been thrown out of the band he created and who happened to hijack a substitute teaching gig meant for his best friend, Ned (Matt Bittner). Dewey pretends to be Ned thinking it will be an easy way to make the rent money he’s behind on so Ned’s fiancée (Emily Borromeo) won’t throw him out.

    But this is no gravy gig. He’ll need to pull out all the stops to keep up the charade in front of the militaristic principal, Rosalie (Lexie Dorsett Sharp), and the rest of the school. It’s a set-up for plenty of laughs as Dewey goes from being a loser to the kids’ champion, and everyone - kids, parents, teachers, and even Dewey - get an education they never expected.

    The family-friendly musical is based on the 2003 beloved Jack Black comedy and while Colletti doesn’t have Black’s childlike charm, watching him improvise under cover is a lot of fun. The upbeat score consists of music from the film and new songs by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Glenn Slater. Two of the best are “You’re in the Band,” a rousing ensemble number built to reveal each student’s talent and “Stick It to the Man,” which becomes the kids’ show anthem. Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, gives the book a youthful excitability.

    The cast of School of Rock

    The touring design has the electrified, amplified look of a traveling after school special and morphs nimbly from school to home to the concert hall.

    Direction by Laurence Connor pushes everything to a feverish pitch, which can sometimes feel like an assault on your senses. Everyone speaks loudly in a high-pitched voice (where diction tends to suffer) and the adult performances have a harsh edge to them that isn’t always necessary. Regardless, there’s no denying that School of Rock is a hyper-energetic crowd-pleaser.

    Take the kids, take the family, and go have fun!

    SCHOOL OF ROCK
    Hollywood Pantages Theatre
    6233 Hollywood Boulevard
    Los Angeles, CA 90028
    Tickets: www.hollywoodpantages.com

    Theodosia Silverman and Rob Colletti

    Theo Mitchell-Penner

    Rob Colletti and Vincent Molden

    Rob Colletti and Lexie Dorsett Sharp

    Rob Colletti and the teachers of Horace Green

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    Conrad Ricamora and Alyse Alan Louis

    Playwright David Henry Hwang and composer Jeanine Tesori are pushing buttons and challenging conventions with their new work, Soft Power, now in its world premiere at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre. Commissioned by CTG for its 50th anniversary season and produced in conjunction with East West Players and The Curran in San Francisco, it has been described as both a play with a musical and a musical within a play.

    I see it a little differently, rather as a musical with two unconventional prologues – a 20-minute expository prologue at the top of the show and a 10-minute commentary that prefaces Act II.

    The former starts in 2016 with a Hollywood meeting between Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), a Chinese producer, and DHH (Francis Jue) – standing in as the playwright in one of many meta twists – the most famous Chinese writer at the time. DHH has written a television pilot set in Shanghai that Xing wants to produce but, before he signs off, he wants a few changes.

    Conrad Ricamora and Francis Jue

    The big sticking point is in DHH’s depiction of Shanghai, which leads them to a discussion of the merits of soft power, a country’s method of exerting influence by attraction rather than force. DHH favors a realistic portrayal of the city but Xing prefers a more carefully constructed version of the truth that shows China in the most favorable light, much like he says the United States presents itself. Each makes his case but they are unable to come to an agreement until DHH suggests casting Xing’s girlfriend, Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis), in the show.

    Cut to later that night, downtown Los Angeles at the Music Center after a performance of The King and I, where a Hillary Clinton fundraiser is taking place. Xing and Zoe debate the differences between, and benefits of, democracy vs. communism and Xing’s heady response to the musical they’ve just seen. Zoe is emphatically explaining that musical theatre is the best emotional delivery system ever when a Hillary sighting prompts an admiring Xing to rush to meet her.

    Then it is election night and, in two harrowing twists, Mrs. Clinton loses, and DHH is stabbed in the neck while walking home, another plot twist born from a similar event that actually happened to the playwright. As one theatrical world gets ready to morph into another, we hear the first clashing warm-up notes of the orchestra. Suddenly, we are smack dab in the middle of a musical fever dream, and, while DHH is unconscious, everything that has taken place up until now becomes the basis of a Chinese musical fantasy. 

    What happens during that first 20 minutes is pretty dense storytelling so be prepared to dive in and go with it rather than trying to figure out how all the pieces are going to fit together. They do, but if you spend your time analyzing it against traditional musical theatre construction as it unfolds, instead of experiencing it for its own unique structure, you risk discounting its innovation without cause. 

    From this point on, the writers and their ingenious director Leigh Silverman, begin to send up love and romance, politics, the United States’ opinion of itself, how our country is seen by others around the world, and a whole list of well-known musical theatre-isms those familiar with the genre will particularly enjoy.

    Conrad Ricamora and Kendyl Ito

    Miss Saigon has its helicopter. Soft Power has its airplane, and it descends from the rafters in all its massive glory as Xing, the star of this reverse King and I story, prepares to fly to Hollywood Airport, America.

    There he’s greeted by all manner of American stereotypes from shoot-em-up cowboys straight from the O.K. Corral to West Side Story’d street kids twerking in hip hop hyper-drive. A bully named Tony Manero (Jon Hoche) bears a striking resemblance to Biff in Back to the Future and the Golden Arches of McDonald’s are glorified in a Broadway showstopper that introduces none other than a singing and dancing Hillary Clinton (also played with verve byLouis).

    She makes her grand entrance atop a giant quarter pounder executing Sam Pinkleton’s showgirl choreography that includes disco, tap, karate kicks, a sexy Fosse-esque trio, a kick line, and a circus-style bit balancing French fries on her forehead. By the time she reaches her final costume reveal (there are a number of layers each one-upping the last) and finishes in a Wonder Woman superhero bodice, it’s clear that nothing is going to be sacred in this musical nightmare. The creative team’s work is sharp, on point, and set to stun. David Henry Hwang is on fire.

    Alyse Alan Louis (center) with L-R: Francis Jue, Conrad Ricamora, Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee,
    Jaygee Macapugay, Billy Bustamante, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Geena Quintos, Paul HeeSang
    Miller, Jon Hoche, Kristen Faith Oei, Daniel May and Kendyl Ito

    Jeanine Tesori’s score is a marvelously layered concoction that draws from both east and west influences. I am in awe of the way she can create a 4-note melisma on the word “green” when Ricamora sings about the trees in “Fuxing Park” that instantly, and ever so delicately, transports the listener to Shanghai, and then tweak it later to alter its sensibility. The blistering book and lyrics by Hwang (with additional lyrics by Tesori) are filled with an enviable abundance of zingers that slap you upside the head at every turn.

    Whether he is maneuvering the cast and orchestra through a big bombastic musical statement or a quiet intimate realization, musical director David O’s dexterity in bringing the score to life is vividly on display. The sound is lush and the expert vocal work leaves nothing wanting.

    Ricamora, a favorite on the ABC television series How to Get Away with Murder, has a beautiful voice and is so grounded in his dual roles that it anchors this whirling dervish of a show and keeps it from spinning out of control. His is a richly detailed portrayal filled with subtlety and unwavering honesty. Jue narrates, leading the audience through this most unique story with an almost bewildered grace, and Louis is sensational in her politically-charged, outspoken roles delivered with non-stop Energizer Bunny gumption.

    L-R: Raymond J. Lee, Jaygee Macapugay, Austin Ku, Kendyl Ito and Jon Hoche

    The shorter prologue to Act II serves a dual purpose: to get audience members back in their seats and to reveal that the musical we have been watching is taking place fifty years in the future. Soft Power has become part of the enduring lexicon of musical theatre history and a panel is discussing the show’s cultural impact on its 50th anniversary. In yet another example of how Hwang is holding a mirror up to the audience to give context to how Asian culture has long been appropriated, a lone white panelist tries to set the record straight when the other Asian members reframe the American impact of the show to fit their preferred reality. It’s been happening in the reverse for years.

    There are musical and lyric references to “Trouble” from The Music Man that Tesori and Hwang have turned into a “problems” sequence (hilarious), and Pippin moves that appears in the satirical “Good Guy with a Gun” number (performed with gusto by Raymond J. Lee and a first-rate ensemble). A La La Land Fred and Ginger duet set against the Hollywood night sky (yellow dress included), a big Rent finish à la “Seasons of Love”, and Anna and the King’s waltz in The King and I all get their moment. Even the eleven o’clock number is spoofed in Hillary’s eleven o’clock number, “Democracy.”

    The visual contrast between worlds is heightened by scenic designerDavid Zinn’s use of bold color and brash oversized set pieces. The giant rolling burger, gold-encrusted statues with bright chandelier headpieces, that amazing plane, and the massive Budweiser cans that form the pillars of the White House are all whip-smart decisions meant to provoke an instant response from the audience. Costume designer Anita Yavich’s roller skating waiters in short burgundy rompers comically add to the lavish joke.

    L-R: Conrad Ricamora, Austin Ku, Francis Jue, Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante
    and Raymond J. Lee 

    It takes an incredible amount of work to create a new musical, and to dream up one that is different from any other musical already written is an even more complicated developmental process. The blood, sweat, tears, and years that go into it are not for the faint of heart. And if, by some chance, you do create something truly unique and it actually gets to opening night, there’s still no guarantee of success. That’s why it is especially exciting to see a new musical like Soft Power that fearlessly breaks the mold, smashes conventions, and sets out to turn the genre on its head. It dares to think beyond the content, form, structure, and politics of the past and envision something unique. For me, that is always a big deal.

    From here, Soft Power will move to The Curran in San Francisco presumably with additional shaping, as it eyes a future run on Broadway. Catch it while it’s here in Los Angeles. It’s definitely one you won’t forget.

    SOFT POWER
    May 3 – June 10, 2018
    Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center
    135 N. Grand Avenue
    Los Angeles, CA  90012
    Tickets: www.centertheatregroup.org

    L-R: Maria-Christina Oliveras (obscured), Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante, Conrad
    Ricamora, Jaygee Macapugay, Jon Hoche and Daniel May

    L-R: Kristen Faith Oei, Raymond J. Lee (obscured), Austin Ku, Daniel May, Geena
    Quintos, Jon Hoche, Paul HeeSang Miller, Jaygee Macapugay, Billy Bustamante (obscured),
    Maria-Christina Oliveras and Kendyl Ito

    The cast of Soft Power in  the"Democracy" finale

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    Carrie Compere, Adrianna Hicks and the cast of The Color Purple
    All photos by Matthew Murphy

    That joyful noise you hear coming from the Hollywood Pantages Theatre this month is the thrilling sound of female empowerment, and it is reverberating like thunder from the heavens in the dynamically robust national tour of The Color Purple.

    Director John Doyle’s Tony Award-winning reinvention of the musical - which took Broadway by storm in 2015 - rings like a clarion call to arms for every woman who’s ever been violated, abused, or otherwise kept down by a man, and, on opening night, the powerful women heading the cast proved themselves more than ready to lead the charge.

    Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the subsequent Steven Spielberg film starring Whoopi Goldberg are the basis for the musical, which takes on a renewed directive in the face of today’s #MeToo and “Time’s Up” movements. And while real change happens in fits and starts, women are collectively circling up to protect their own, putting on notice anyone who still thinks domination without consent is okay.

    Carla R. Stewart (Shug Avery), Adrianna Hicks (Celie) and Carrie Compere (Sofia)
    and the cast of The Color Purple

    To her credit, Marsha Norman’s book doesn’t shy away from the hopeless resignation in Walker’s novel, or from the undercurrent of violence that ran through the Deep South during the first half of the twentieth century when the story takes place. To the credit of the rest of the musical’s creative team, neither do they.

    What they have done is strip down the story to its essence, consciously exposing the emotional trauma of a life with few choices and a long road to hoe without padding the production with extraneous departures.

    Celie (Adrianna Hicks) is forced to marry a man who thinks she is ugly by a father (J.D Webster) who has impregnated her twice and separated her from her babies. Her sister Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) runs away to escape sexual assault by both her father and Celie’s husband, Mister (Gavin Gregory). Sofia (Carrie Compere) suffers vicious consequences for merely speaking her mind within a society that demands she play by white rules meant to keep black people down. Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart) knows her physical assets will fade in time so the singer drinks to keep the good times rolling and to postpone the inevitable a little while longer.

    As each woman asserts herself within the context of her own set of circumstances, the audience urges her on with ardent applause and stirring callouts of unity. It is a wondrous night at the theater to witness the strength in such connection. Go, if you’ve never seen this musical and go if you have. Go, if you want to feel the power of theatre to move an audience. Bottom line - just go.

    The cast of The Color Purple

    The production is set on an almost bare stage, backed by three towering abstract wooden panels stacked with tear-away boards and rustic chairs used as props by the actors. The staging is often presentational, creating pictures that seem suspended in space, neither time-specific nor detail-driven. What resonates always is a powerful well of emotion underscored by some of the best musical theatre belting you’ll find in town right now.

    The score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray traverses the Blues/Pop/Gospel globe of the rural South, igniting a fire of defiance in songs like Compere’s ballsy “Hell, No!” and Hicks’ exhilarating ‘declaration of independence’ showstopper, “I’m Here.” Stewart lets it all hang out in a titillating gin joint performance of “Push da Button” and a trio of church ladies (Angela Birchett, Bianca Horn, and Brit West) will not be ignored. Every single woman in this cast is a powerhouse with something to prove and the amount of soul they put into their vocal work alone is a lesson in stepping up and standing out.

    The cast of The Color Purple

    Contrast that with the sudden cool breeze of the title song or the tenderness of “Too Beautiful for Words” and the emotional journey in this climb out of the shadows is as satisfying as it gets.

    Following its run at the Hollywood Pantages, The Color Purple will move to Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, June 19 - 24.

    THE COLOR PURPLE
    May 29 - June 17, 2018
    Hollywood Pantages Theatre
    6233 Hollywood Blvd.
    Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028
    Tickets: 800-982-2787 or www.hollywoodpantages.com

    June 19 - 24, 2018 
    Segerstrom Center for the Arts
    600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA 92626
    Tickets: www.scfta.org
    For more info about the tour visit www.ColorPurple.com

    Adrianna Hicks

    L-R: N’Jameh Camara, Bianca Horn, Angela Birchett, and Brit West 

    Carla R. Stewart and Adrianna Hicks with the cast of The Color Purple

    Gavin Gregory (Mister) and J. Daughtry (Harpo)

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    Alex Nee (center) and the cast of Cabaret

    Kander & Ebb’s political musical Cabaret captures a horrific period in history. Set in 1929-1930 as the Nazis were coming into power, it is an unsparingly direct window into the deterioration of a country systematically brainwashed by the lunacy of a madman. It could never happen here, right? But history has a way of repeating itself, particularly when lessons have not been learned, and Celebration Theatre, director Michael Matthews, and the entire company of Celebration’s revival of Cabaret have one word for the audience – #Resist – or suffer the consequences.

    The original source material is Charles Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin, which was later adapted for the stage by John Van Druten as the Broadway play I Am a Camera. But, unlike a camera that photographs what it sees without opinion or judgement, leaving it up the viewer to interpret, Matthews has constructed a pressure cooker of a show, using it as an allegory of our own American political journey. The way he ties Cabaret’s Emcee to the message is equal parts disturbing and beautiful. From the initial picture that opens the show to the final monstrous ending image, this one will chill you to the bone.

    Alex Nee is the dirtiest Emcee in recent memory. He’s the kind of strung out character you don’t want to stand too close to, for a variety of reasons. A demonic presence given to frequent ferocious outbursts, he is the product of a frightening time, and Nee invades this world with all the harsh superiority of an animal ready to pounce. It is strong character work that delivers on the promise Matthews makes at the top of the show and doesn’t let up until the final curtain.

    Into this lair comes a naïve writer (Christopher Maikish as Cliff) who experiences Berlin much like Isherwood did in the ‘30s. He’s passing through, drinking from a cup he has no idea will poison him in the end. A chance meeting with a businessman (John Colella as Ernst) on the train lands him at the Kat Kat Klub where another chance meeting with a neurotic nightclub singer, Sally Bowles (Talisa Friedman), and their subsequent romance, opens his eyes to the bitter realities he’s been oblivious to.

    Alex Nee and the ensemble

    One choice that is rarely made for Cabaret is to cast singers and dancers who don’t look and sound like typical musical theatre performers. Matthews’ ensemble has a degenerate edge and it works really well for his concept. The voices are rougher and pushier, the choreography more manically driven by inner angst than by a need for every move to be executed in perfect alignment.

    Don’t get me wrong – the dancing is terrific but, this time, I believe that the girls are down-and-outs that Max, the club owner, found in back alleys and compromised rooms. I believe that he’s bedded them all and each is here because life has dealt them a bad hand with no hope of trading it in for something better. Choreographer Janet Roston gives the production a physical language through dance and movement that outwardly reflects the ensemble’s collective rage as well as their reckless abandon when it comes to scratching the itch of the flesh.

    It fits remarkably well on Stephen Gifford’s extraordinary set, which feels like the kind of extravagantly appointed cabaret club you’d find within a dying bordello. The ingenious part is how much he packs into the space: a jewel box stage within a stage, surrounded by audience, designed upward to invoke high ceilings, balcony façades, an orchestra loft, a diorama-like cutout insert for exterior scenes that take place beyond the confines of the club – and all of it done with Gifford’s uncanny ability to make it look effortless…and in a space that should not humanly be able to contain it all.

    It’s a bit like the optical illusion of an empty room that looks small but, when you move in and furnish the darn thing, it all of a sudden seems to have gotten bigger. Sometimes less is more but, in this case, more is everything, and the fabulous detail of what he has created thrusts you into the Weimar era the moment you walk into the theater.

    Here’s how versatile it is – lighting designer Matthew Brian Denman adds a single light to the set in exactly the right place and now you have a train. He creates a perpetual haze that permeates the club like a smokescreen to deflect attention from the world outside, and there are times Denman makes the stage look as menacing and visually rich as a Fritz Lang film.

    L-R: Christopher Maikish, John Colella, and Talisa Friedman

    Musical director Anthony Zediker sets a crisper than normal pace with the band, which works to the show’s advantage in close quarters. It also plays against the heaviness of the story by lifting the humor, moving the action along, and allowing the big showstopper ballads to strike with more weight.

    Still, the show isn’t without its blemishes. Dialects are inconsistent and some of the performances don’t quite land. Herr Schultz (Matthew Henerson) sounds more like a guy from the Bronx in Guys and Dolls than a German Jew and making Fraulein Kost (Katherine Tokarz through 7/15) pregnant weakens Sally’s big reveal. Cliff’s energy should be in direct contrast with the rest of the characters but a handsome Maikish leads with his earnest musical theatre presence rather than trusting it isn’t necessary. Colella portrays Ernst as neither outwardly threatening nor quietly sinister.

    Casting Fraulein Schneider (June Carryl) as a woman of color however adds a wonderfully new layer to the character. Her moral dilemma becomes even more poignant when we see the extent of what it will cost her. It’s all in the eyes.

    Now, more than ever, Cabaret serves as a call to action. The time for good people to do nothing is past and Celebration Theatre is sounding the alarm in as loud a voice as possible. #Resist  

    CABARET
    May 25 – July 15, 2018
    Celebration Theatre
    6760 Lexington Avenue, Hollywood, CA  
    Tickets: (323) 957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com

    Talisa Friedman (center) and the cast

    Christopher Maikish and Talisa Friedman

    Christopher Maikish and June Carryl

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    Krystal Joy Brown, Laura Bell Bundy, and Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer.
    All photos by Michael Lamont.

    When Reprise! Broadway’s Best closed its doors in 2012, musical theatre lovers heaved a collective sigh. The resident company at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse had gained a reputation for producing outstanding performances of classic musicals featuring stars from the worlds of live theatre and television, similar to those done by Encores! in New York. Everyone felt the loss.

    Now, after a seven year hiatus, the company is back with a new name – Reprise 2.0– once again led by producing artistic director, Marcia Seligson. Met with an overwhelmingly positive reception on opening night, it proved how happy the community is that Reprise is partnering with UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television to again celebrate a shared love of musicals.

    As its first production of the season, Seligson and her artistic staff have chosen a sparkling sixties classic by Cy Coleman (music), Neil Simon (book) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics) – Sweet Charity– that follows the mishaps of an optimistic but unlucky in love dance hall hostess named Charity Hope Valentine.

    The musical is based on Federico Fellini’s 1957 Italian film Nights of Cabiria, which starred his wife Giulietta Masina, and was originally adapted as a musical by Bob Fosse for his wife Gwen Verdon. Shirley MacLaine famously played the role in Fosse’s film version of the musical.

    Laura Bell Bundy and Robert Mammana

    Reprise’s production stars Laura Bell Bundy (Broadway’s original Elle Woods in Legally Blonde) in an eternally-perky performance that doesn’t lack for enthusiasm but that proves a little too daunting for the singer’s stamina.

    The rehearsal period for these more modestly staged presentations is shorter than for a full production of the show so a great deal is packed into a short span of time. That may be why  Bundy had difficulty controlling her voice during the performance. By the time she got to opening, she’d already blown it out and was unable to observe dynamics or reach the notes in her higher range. As if to compensate, she puts on an ear-to-ear grin and assumes an “aw shucks” self-deprecating manner that essentially turns the luckless leading lady into a bimbo in a giant Shirley Temple wig.

    It’s problematic because Simon’s dated book is already difficult to stomach. Charity is of an era where double standards for men and women were acceptable, and a woman was defined by her relationship to, or the absence of, a man, as well as by her perceived purity. But times have changed and the dialogue, as written, is definitely passé.

    Terron Brooks and the ensemble

    Luckily, director Kathleen Marshallhas choreographed dance numbers that are lively and full of effervescent charm, particularly the large ensemble numbers, “Rich Man’s Frug” and “Rhythm Of Life,” which capture the essence of Fosse on an abbreviated scale. The former is a stylized party sequence divided into three distinctly different parts (The Aloof, The Heavyweight and The Big Finish), and the latter is a crazy hippie revival that resembles a psychedelic acid trip. If you’ve never seen Sammy Davis, Jr. as Daddy Brubeck, Google him and watch it on YouTube. It’s fantastic. For Marshall’s production, it is a fabulous Terron Brooks who plays Daddy, a hep cat who leads a church service of questionable intent where the neurotic Oscar (Barrett Foa) takes Charity on their first date.

    In one of the best songs of the night, Charity’s pals Nickie (Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer) and Helene (Krystal Joy Brown) give the musical some good old guts and honesty in their duet “Baby Dream Your Dream” as they imagine the possibilities of life outside the dance hall knowing full well their pipe dream may never come true. It’s a welcome dose of truthful artistry in a production that spends  most of its time selling itself as a frenetic song and dance show built on splash rather than depth.

    Jon Jon Briones with Laura Bell Bundy, Barrett Foa and the cast

    Their boss, a wonderfully flippant (and underused) Jon Jon Briones as Herman, turns “I Love To Cry At Weddings” into an upbeat comic going away party for Charity, who looks like she just might have a happily ever after, after all, by the end of the story. Alas, it is not to be, as Oscar, like many a schmuck before him, dumps her in the park where we first met her and she’s once again on her own.

    Music Director/Conductor Gerald Sternbach leads a 14-piece onstage orchestra from the piano that sounds great playing Coleman’s score. They’re nicely highlighted in full view on scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s streamlined stage, which uses projections to communicate where scenes take place, and lighting by Jared A. Sayeg andBrian Monahan to define the space within each locale.

    If you can look past the dated story line, or are a fan of Ms. Bundy, you’ll likely love Reprise’s presentation of Sweet Charity. We’re certainly glad to have the company back as part of the L.A. theatre season and look forward to their upcoming productions of Victor/Victoria starring Carmen Cusack directed by Richard Israel and choreographed byJohn Todd (September 5 - 16), and Grand Hotel – The Musical directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman and choreographed by Kay Cole (October 24 - November 4).

    SWEET CHARITY
    June 20 – July 1, 2018
    Reprise 2.0 at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse
    Macgowan Hall, 245 Charles E Young Drive E
    Los Angeles, CA 90095
    Tickets and more info: www.reprise2.org

    Laura Bell Bundy and Barrett Foa

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    Kaylin Hedges and David Alan Grier

    Get ready musical lovers – everyone’s favorite singing orphan is coming to town and she’s taking over the Hollywood Bowl! ANNIE, the Tony Award-winning musical by Charles Strouse (music), Martin Charnin (lyrics) and Thomas Meehan (book) will play three performances July 27, 28 & 29th and is directed by Tony Award-nominated Michael Arden, conducted by Todd Ellison and choreographed by Eamon Foley. Every night is a great night at the Bowl and this one is sure to please the whole family.

    Kaylin Hedges stars as the comic strip character brought to life whose optimism turns the tables on Miss Hannigan (Ana Gasteyer) and her cronies “Rooster” Hannigan (Roger Bart) and Lily St. Regis (Megan Hilty), while serving up some of the best classic musical theatre songs ever written.

    “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” “N.Y.C.” and “Tomorrow” are just a few of the gems you’ll hear from the cast of Broadway and television personalities, which also includes
    David Alan Grier (Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks), Lea Solanga (Grace Farrell), Steven Weber (Franklin D. Roosevelt), Ali Stroker (Star-to-Be) and Amir Talai (Bert Healy).



    Tickets are available on the Hollywood Bowl’s website HERE so get ready to have a little fun on “Easy Street” or at least enjoy an easy night out celebrating summer at the Bowl. Its one of the great joys of living in L.A! 

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    Mauricio Martinez and Christie Prades. All photos by Matthew Murphy

    Those of us who lived in Miami in the 1980s know firsthand the phenomenal rise of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. They were already hometown favorites prior to the release of “Conga” but, when that song hit, it changed everything. You couldn’t go to a club on South Beach or turn on a local radio station without hearing the upbeat dance song, and you couldn’t stay in your seat once it started playing. It was a joyful dance call to action, a rousing anthem to get up and get out on the dance floor regardless of age, ethnicity, or ideology. Those opening three notes – D D# E minor – had power, and it was impossible to resist them.

    You could “name that tune” (as the old ‘70s TV show challenged) in only three notes, two if you were paying attention, but their record label wouldn’t even produce it because the lyrics were in English. They were already stars in the Latin music world but, in typically shortsighted fashion, their producer scoffed at the group’s desire to crossover into American pop music. Still, Emilio Estefan knew it was a hit and in a quintessential grass roots campaign, he took the song to every public party and outing possible to prove it.

    Mauricio Martinez, Christie Prades and Devon Goffman

    The milestone is captured in the Act I finale of On Your Feet!, a vivacious bio-musical based on the lives of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, in a montage that shows them performing “Conga” at a Bar Mitzvah, an Italian wedding, and a Shriner’s convention before Phil (Devon Goffman), their producer, finally sees the song’s wide appeal. The scene closes on a high note as the actors’ conga line spills down into the aisles from the stage of the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, where the touring production is currently playing, picking up audience members as it dances its way to the lobby with a 1-2-3-kick.

    The Estefans’ story is a natural fit for the jukebox musical format and is packed to the brim with chart-topping hits like “Turn the Beat Around,” “1-2-3,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” and “Get On Your Feet,” the song that inspired the show. It follows both their professional and personal life, from Cuba to Miami and the early days of Emilio’s Miami Latin Boys, to their slow burn of a romance which took two years to finally ignite.

    Conflict comes from within Gloria’s own family as her mother Gloria Fajardo (Nancy Ticotin) remains the lone holdout against her daughter pursuing a career in music. As a young girl, she too had dreams of being a singer but when her father refused to let her sign a contract to become the Spanish voice of Shirley Temple, she was devastated.

    L-R: Joseph Rivera, Adriel Flete, Jeremey Adam Rey, Nancy Ticotin
    and Hector Maisone

    We see, in a flashback to her last club performance in Havana, that her mother was a talented singer who would quite possibly have become a star in her own right, had it not been for the Cuban revolution. But, when Castro seized power, her husband saw to it that she, little Gloria, and Gloria’s grandmother Consuelo (Debra Cardona) were able to escape the country, even though he could not leave, and her dreams as an artist came to an end. Ticotin transfers all her fire and passion into the role displaying a spicy temperament grounded as much in a mother’s fierce love as it is in a lingering unhappiness at the opportunities denied her.

    As Gloria, Broadway understudy Christie Prades lights up the stage. She isn’t a sound-alike for the iconic singer but there are moments when you’d swear she’s the real thing. Her endless energy and natural innocence captures the appealing essence of the superstar making it easy to fall in love with her. Mauricio Martínez (NBC Universo’s TV series El Vato), who plays Emilio, is all charm and tenacity as he spits out the unique speech pattern of the brains behind the Estefan empire, a source of much humor in the show. Plus, the pair has the kind of chemistry that makes their long, slow attraction pay off when romance finally blossoms.

    Christie Prades, Mauricio Martinez and cast

    In Act II, the timeline jumps to 1990 and the horrific bus accident that could have left Gloria paralyzed, were it not for her determination to not end up in a wheelchair like her father who suffered from MS in his later years. Things turn sentimental when she sees her father and grandmother in a dream while unconscious and Emilio pours out his heart in the emotional “Don’t Wanna Lose You Now.” Once she regains consciousness after her back surgery, there is reconciliation with her mother and painful physical rehabilitation. Six months later, she makes a triumphant return to the stage at the 1991 American Music Awards, singing “Coming Out of the Dark.”

    Bookwriter Alexander Dinelaris (who won an Academy Award for the film Birdman, but is also credited as the writer of the less fortunate The Bodyguard Musical) necessarily shortcuts events in the interest of time, but most of the show’s best moments take place within the songs.

    Director Jerry Mitchell and choreographer Sergio Trujillo ratchet up the emotional impact with a cavalcade of Cuban dance rhythms, festive concert performances, and heart-driven ballads that will leave you wanting more. You’ll get an exciting addendum in the encore medley of songs at the end of the end of the show that includes reprises of several upbeat numbers plus “Turn the Beat Around” and “Everlasting Love” so dont leave early.

    Christie Prades, Adriel Flete and the cast

    The touring design is awash in the colors of Cuba and Miami Vice pastels, making it as visually stimulating as is the sound of the music (costume design by Emilio Sosa, scenic design by David Rockwell, lighting design by Kenneth Posner). And happily, the fantastic orchestra includes five members of the Miami Sound Machine, including musical director Clay Ostwald. They open the show so don’t be late. It’s quite a moment and you don’t want to miss it.

    If ever there was a story that epitomizes the fulfillment of the American Dream through hard work, dedication, and sheer determination, it is On Your Feet! I’ll never forget seeing Gloria Estefan on her concert tour after the accident. The titanium rods implanted in her back had given her the support to heal and left her with ramrod straight posture. They swung her out over the audience on a lift and we were dumbstruck by how effortless she made it look, even after all shed been through. 

    What a gloriously inspiring way to leave a legacy.

    ON YOUR FEET
    July 6 – 29, 2018
    Hollywood Pantages Theatre
    6233 Hollywood Blvd.
    Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028
    Tickets: 800-982-2787 or www.hollywoodpantages.com

    The company of the national tour of On Your Feet!

    Adriel Flete and Mauricio Martinez


    On  Your Feet! Band featuring members of the Miami Sound Machine:
    Clay Ostwald (music director/keyboard), Jorge Casas (bass), Edward Bonilla
    (percussion) and Theodore Mulet (trombone)

    (center) Christie Prades, Jordan Vergara and Mauricio Martinez

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    Ben Palacios, Max Wilcox, Garrett Marshall, Ryan McCartan, Amanda Leigh Jerry
    and Gabriel González. All photos by Daren Scott

    Singing strays and the humans who love them are the focus of the world premiere musical Mutt House, currently on stage in a guest production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The cute, sweet story about learning to believe in yourself isn’t a musical for deep introspection, but it does offer a good time with its charming songs, lovable mutts, and a fun production design.

    Stephen Gifford creates human-sized cages with detached rolling doors to fit the actors playing dogs in the dilapidated shelter but edges them in bright neon tubing (lighting by Matthew Brian Denman), perhaps as an indicator that these unfortunate mutts could be the show dogs of their dreams if only given the chance. Happily, they do get to strut their stuff with songs that highlight each of their unique personalities and they sound terrific under musical director Anthony Lucca’s guidance.

    For Pepe (Gabriel González), an energetic Chihuahua, it is a Latin-flavored up-tempo number. For Donna (Amanda Leigh Jerry), a mutt from the Bronx, it’s a sassy comedy beach-rock song. Sophie (Valerie Larsen), an award winning poodle with breeding, gets a smoky laid-back jazz cut and when Digger (Ben Palacios), the coolest and happiest of Golden Labradors, takes over the lead it morphs into a speak-singing number that’s not quite rap, not quite lyrical, but completely infectious and winning as can be. Max (Max Wilcox) is the resident sweet, comic Corgi, and Bradley (Garrett Marshall), the lovable Eeyore of the group, plays a sadsack Pit Bull.

    Garrett Marshall, Ryan McCartan, and Ben Palacios

    The songs are written by Tony Cookson, creator and bookwriter of the show, who enlists the aid of John Daniel, Robb Curtis Brown and David O to help create the 16+ numbers that make up the score. Most of them exist as stand-alone songs and are orchestrated by David O, which means the vocals come packed with lovely harmonies and melodies that are pleasing to the ear.

    Cookson’s juvenile book, however, still needs depth and polish. At the moment, it is better suited for the After School Special crowd rather than for adults looking for the next smart, sophisticated musical. Sincerity will get you part of the way but a show needs more than that to give it legs.

    The story isn’t complex. Eddie (Ryan McCartan), an insecure young man who works at the local shelter and is able to talk to the animal,s must summon up his courage and come to the aid of his friends – the dogs – when the city decides to shut them down. A love interest emerges in Hannah (Claire Adams), the girl Eddie had a crush on in junior high and who now works in the repulsive mayor’s (Heather Ott) office. We also learn that Eddie was bullied in school and that his boss Gerry (Boise Holmes) is a nice guy with a secret crush of his own. It’s a foregone conclusion that Eddie will eventually save the day and find romance in the process.

    Valerie Larsen, Ben Palacios. Gabriel González and Garrett Marshall

    The dogs are adorably decked out by Allison Dillard (costumes, hair & make-up). Janet Roston’s cute choreography adds pizzazz but dialogue scenes are flat in comparison. Scene transitions are choppy, with director Ryan Bergmann staging set-up movement for the next scene in the dark on one side of the stage while the lit scene we’re watching is still going on. The problem is, we can see them moving and it distracts us from what we should be watching. Some scenes end abruptly; others feel sketchy as they move to the next one without transition music or a sense of completion. In a smaller house, it might be possible to overlook the ragged edges but, on the Douglas’ larger stage, everything is exposed.

    And yet, we do love a dog musical. Animals have a way of making a beeline straight to your heart and Mutt House’s fetching mongrels are no exception. These singing and dancing four-legged friends are sure to make you smile.

    MUTT HOUSE
    July 10 – August 5, 2018
    Kirk Douglas Theatre
    9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232
    Tickets: 213-628-2772 or www.MuttHouseTheMusical.com

    Amanda Leigh Jerry and Ben Palacios

    Boise Williams and Ryan McCartan

    Claire Adams and Ryan McCartan

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    Cori Cable Kidder and Michael Butler Murray. All photos by Gina Long

    One thing’s for sure - country musicals are an awful lot of fun. There aren’t very many of them and, if you can name one at all, it’s most likely The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas or The Robber Bridegroom. But there is another rarely produced gem that is just as enjoyable – Pump Boys and Dinettes - the fun-loving retro revue written by its original cast (John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, and Jim Wann).

    The year is 1972, according to the giant Farrah Fawcett poster on the piano, and the place is Highway 57, between the town of Frog Level (yes, it’s an actual town) and Smyrna, North Carolina. There, the Double Cupp Diner and the Pump Boys’ filling station share a cozy corner of the asphalt just a spittin’ distance apart, and if its hometown hospitality you’re lookin’ for you’ve come to the right place.

    Sisters Prudie (Emily Kay Townsend) and Rhetta Cupp (Cori Cable Kidder) run the diner; Jim (Michael Butler Murray) and his buddy L.M. (Sean Paxton) run the garage. The boys also have a band that includes their buddies Jackson (Jimmy Villaflor), Eddie (Kevin Tiernan) and Bobby (Jim Miller), good old boys who don’t take life too seriously. Sometimes they work on cars but mostly they just enjoy taken’ life slow.

    They’ll tell you about it too in songs - twenty of them - that reflect the values and goings on of life in a small town, with all its quirks and heart. The music is anything but pretentious and the characters are typical no-nonsense Southerners who aren’t above teasing each other whenever they get the chance.

    The ladies know the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach so you’ll always find the coffee hot and the pecan pie fresh. Jim is sweet on Rhetta and Prudie has a thing for L.M., which means a fair amount of flirtatious banter gets thrown back and forth. Jackson is a charmer and Eddie doesn’t say much. They’re all friends, and there is something comforting about a group of pals watching out for each other and telling it like it is.

    Cori Cable Kidder and Emily Kay Townsend

    Murray introduces the lot and narrates with an easy manner, much like a local tour guide pointing out all the best tidbits only an insider knows. Villaflor is the eye candy of the group, sporting an aw-shucks grin that would melt any woman within fifty yards. L.M. is often cast as a nerd but Paxton plays up his suspicious, silent side so when he gets to “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine” it makes the story even more endearing. Kidder is the “Wynonna” belter and Townsend sings sweetly.

    Collectively, they have a good command of the style and personality necessary to make the music come alive and sound best when they don’t oversing. Murray’s “Mamaw” and Kidder and Townsend’s “Sister” are two examples of letting the melody and lyrics do the work for you. In fact, the whole show works best when it doesn’t try too hard.

    Great songs like the boys’ acapella “Fisherman’s Prayer” need to lay back so we can hear the barbershop harmonies and “Vacation” turns harsh if the singers start to scream-sing. What makes this show so special is how the story songs connect with the audience.

    There are times Allison Bibicoff’s choreography and staging try to make the show a bigger musical presentation than it is organically. Less is more, especially since there is an innocence to the show that gets lost when you “musical theatre-ize” it too much. It’s all about the lyrics and the stories. When you let it be easy, it lands every time, like the final chords in “Closing Time.”

    Emily Kay Townsend, Jim Miller, Jimmy Villaflor, Mike Murray,
    Cori Cable Kidder, and Sean Paxton

    The production design incorporates the ‘70s orange and vinyl touches that make the period authentic. Jeff G. Rack’s set design is a playful roadside double wonder with room for both garage and diner, including half a ‘50s muscle car mid tune-up, onstage booth seating for a few lucky audience members, and a fun Florida vacation insert. He even gives lighting designer Derek Jones room to create an unexpectedly lovely working night sky.

    I love this musical and, if you can sit and listen to great story songs all day like I can, you will too. From its fun opening to its hushed final notes, Pump Boys will win you over hook, line and sinker.

    Emily Kay Townsend and Sean Paxton with Mike Murray,
    Kevin Tiernan, and Jimmy Villaflor

    Emily Kay Townsend and Cori Cable Kidder

    Jimmy Villaflor, Mike Murray, Cori Cable Kidder and Emily Kay Townsend

    PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES
    Now through August 12, 2018
    Sierra Madre Playhouse
    87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, CA 91024
    Tickets: (626) 355-4318 or www.sierramadreplayhouse.org
    Free parking behind the theater.

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