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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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    Charity Angél Dawson, Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman.
    All photos by Joan Marcus

    Can eating a pie be a religious experience? It can if it was made by Jenna, the diner waitress in the Broadway musical Waitress, who turns ordinary ingredients like butter, sugar, and flour into mouthwatering slices of life in a pie tin.


    Her magical creations run the gamut from Deep (Shit) Dish Blueberry Bacon Pie and Mermaid Marshmallow Pie, to Lonely Chicago Pie and I Can’t Have No Affair Because It’s Wrong and I Don’t Want Earl to Kill Me Pie. Each one encapsulates an incident ripped from the headlines of real life and together they create the backbone of this heartwarming story of female empowerment.

    The musical was inspired by the 2007 indie film starring Keri Russell as Jenna, the pie baker stuck in an abusive marriage who finds the courage to reach for something better, along with Cheryl Hines and Adrienne Shelly (who also wrote and directed the film). It opened on Broadway in March of 2016, where it is still enjoying great success, and its national tour - a quietly radiant production - is now playing at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through August 26th. An Australian tour is planned for 2020. There’s no denying this brand of sugar is a popular commodity.

    The story mirrors that of the film and a great deal of the dialogue is incorporated into the stage adaptation by bookwriter Jessie Nelson, who has a gift for writing dialogue that actually sounds like the characters. Nelson retains the film’s folksy charm but adds more comedy and a few new personal details with amusing payoffs.

    Lenne Klingaman, Desi Oakley, and Charity Angél Dawson

    For instance, Jenna’s new gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart) is “off sugar” when he meets Jenna (Desi Oakley) during her first pre-natal visit, a character trait I don’t think he had in the movie (or if he did it wasn’t nearly this comical), but it fits his quirkier stage personality and sets up a clash between them from the start. He’s no match for Jenna’s baking, however, and one taste of her pie has him eating out of her hand...and forgetting about his sugar-free diet.

    Of course, their attraction comes with complications. They’re both married - he to a doctor doing her residency in Jenna’s town, she to a disagreeable husband, Earl (Nick Bailey), whose obsessive behavior has choked the joy right out of her life. It isn’t long before a secret romance begins.

    The musical builds on the film’s inherent eccentricities and delivers its message with warmth, honesty, and a heaping helping of heart. Much of its sensitivity can be attributed to pop songstress and storyteller Sarah Bareilles (“Love Song,” “Brave”) who wrote the score for the show. Her soulful sound and open-hearted lyrics are an alluring combination that helps create characters who sing what they think in individual musical styles that match their unique personalities.

    Oakley, who plays Jenna, has a voice as sweet and rich as Bareilles herself and is the emotional center of the show. Jenna’s journey from the resigned acceptance of a “happy enough” life to a renewed desire for real happiness is a heartfelt one and Oakley has the depth, likeability, and dry wit to make you want to come along with her. She is dubbed the “Queen of kindness and goodness” by her friend and fellow Waitress, Dawn (Lenne Klingaman), a fitting title for the woman whose pie keeps bringing people together and Oakley wears it as comfortably as a second skin. Each of her songs is a knockout but her eleven o’clock number “She Used to Be Mine” is the best of the best. Oakley sings a lifetime into four and a half minutes that will alternately break your heart, lift you up, and echo your own inner longings.

    Klingaman’s Dawn is a socially awkward, self-deprecating single girl who Jenna and Becky (Charity Angél Dawson) finally convince to try online dating. Her five minute date is a bust but Ogie (a wacky, overly-caffeinated Jeremy Morse) knows they were meant for each other and shows up the next morning with flowers and a declaration of love.

    Lenne Klingaman and Jeremy Morse

    Never has an actor earned a reprise with more panache than Morse does with his over-the-top “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.” Klingaman is hard-put to resist him when she finds out he has done even more Revolutionary War reenactments as Paul Revere than she has as Betsy Ross. Watching these two misfits fall in love on stage is geeky to the core and wonderfully sweet.

    Dawson is also blessed with great pipes and a don’t-mess-with-me attitude as Becky. She’s an R&B belter who can grind out the high notes and throw a mean side eye with enough sass to check you when you least expect it. Becky is married (it’s complicated) but is secretly carrying on with Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), the short order cook at the diner. When she sings “I Didn’t Plan It” we see how life has thrown each of the characters in Waitress a curve and we come to understand that the true beauty of living is in how we manage its messiness.

    Director Diane Paulus and choreographer Lorin Latarro work this idea into the fabric of the show. Scenes, and scenes within scenes, blend into each other like a dance as set pieces roll on and off (including the excellent band) in a flurry of coordinated motion. Impulses for movement come from the body itself, often like a heartbeat pulsing softly and sweetly from within. It’s a very fluid style built on externalizing the internal that creates an exquisite expression of the complex emotions people don’t reveal. To see it coordinated flawlessly is quite beautiful. In this ensemble, every single member is important to the overall effect and there are no loose threads among them.

    Even Joe, the finicky owner of the diner has his own way of coping with life’s endless annoyances. Larry Marshall captures the spirit of this gruff old curmudgeon who’s secretly hiding a heart of gold, at least where Jenna is concerned. Maiesha McQueen (Nurse Norma) is memorable in her short stage time as the no-nonsense nurse who knows what’s going on and is determined to get some pie of her own out of that knowledge.

    Maiesha McQueen, Desi Oakley, and Bryan Fenkart

    Vocally, the show sounds terrific. Ryan Cantwell has finessed the material until its nuances shine through with an easy grace. Harmonies, particularly among the main trio of waitresses, are sublime, and will stand out to musicians who love the sound of voices shimmering when they resonate together.

    So much ingenuity and heart has gone into the making of Waitress by its all-female creative team, a Broadway first but hopefully not the last, that you’re bound to leave feeling a whole lot better than when you walked into the theater. That’s worth it every time, in my book. And if pie-pop heaven is a thing, I’d say Waitress has taken us there and served up a slice of its finest counter goodness.

    WAITRESS
    August 2 – 26, 2018
    Hollywood Pantages Theatre
    6233 Hollywood Blvd
    Los Angeles, CA 90028
    Tickets: www.hollywoodpantages.com

    Nick Bailey and Desi Oakley

    Desi Oakley and Larry Marshall

    Ryan G. Dunkin and the ladies of Waitress

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    L-R: Dawnn Lewis, Michael Starr, Kelley Dorney, Larry Cedar and Valerie Perri

    Somewhere between its opening of
    Sweet Charity in late June and the end of July, Reprise 2.0 postponed its second scheduled production of its inaugural season, Victor/Victoria. In its place, the company has mounted a revival of Kander & Ebb’s musical revue, The World Goes ‘Round, and, while it isn’t a rarely revived book musical, which has always been Reprise’s focus in the past, it does contain a score derived from some of the best songs in the classic Kander & Ebb catalogue (think Chicago and Cabaret).

    Director Richard Israel sets the revue in a chic upscale nightclub where five singers decked out in evening wear reflect on life and love in the familiar cabaret style. Backing them, and placed on stage in full view, are musical director Gerald Sternbach and his 7-piece all-male orchestra. It’s a rare opportunity to watch the musicians in action along with the singers, and a hallmark of Reprise’s singular style.

    Israel’s production is impressively sleek, with comedy in the movement, courtesy of his and choreographer John Todd’s creative tongue-in-cheek approach, and a winning cast of five distinct personalities: Dawnn Lewis, Valerie Perri, Larry Cedar, Kelley Dorney, and Michael Starr. Todd does a nice job of adding choreography for “singers who move” plus a couple of specialties for those with a little more dance training, but the big focus is on the singing.

    Valerie Perri

    Each cast member brings a unique quality to the show, with Lewis and Perri as the doyennes of the group commiserating about the deterioration of morals and manners in the entertaining duet “Class” from Chicago and acknowledging their individual longings in emotionally-rich solos. Lewis uses a hard brassy belt on the opening title song “And the World Goes ‘Round” from New York, New York and an even stronger power belt on “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret to convey her determined resilience, while Perri loses herself in the poignant and fragile memories of “Isn’t This Better” from Funny Lady and The Rink’s“Colored Lights.”

    That particular number shows off a gorgeous lighting effect byJared A. Sayeg in which colored lights are sprayed across the stage ending with a pink spotlight on Perri and a brilliant rainbow of colors suspended over her. It’s one of a number of breathtaking effects Sayeg creates where lighting takes on the function of a living, breathing character in its own right but he never overplays it.

    In lesser hands, the lighting for a song like the title number from Kiss of the Spider Woman would most likely replicate a spider web but instead Sayeg only suggests it. He uses a geometric pattern that doesn’t hit you over the head but still effectively adds a mysterious vibe to the song. It’s elegant and refined work that balances subtlety with front-and-center concepts to create a big impact.

    Photo by Ellen Dostal

    His lighting also makes scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s sophisticated nightclub set look expensive. Ornate openwork wood panels hang above the orchestra, which is positioned on an elevated platform behind the singers and framed with a warm cutout railing. The wall-to-wall stairs and floorshow area in front of it are where the singers strut their stuff.

    When not performing, cast members watch the show while seated at one of two cocktail tables on either side of the stage, along with the audience. The illusion is of an intimate setting that opens up to sustain the larger emotional worlds contained in the music with only a change in Sayeg’s lighting. As a team, Gifford and Sayeg are hard to beat. If there was such a thing as the “Dynamic Duo” of Design, they’d be breaking out their superhero capes on a regular basis and saving visual atrocities on stages from Gotham to the City of Angels nightly.

    An energetic Dorney is most effective when she plays it simple, as she does for her best song of the night, “A Quiet Thing” from Flora, The Red Menace. Starr’s high notes are a stretch but it almost doesn’t matter. He’s the bare-chested beefcake that makes Perri’s life worth living in “Arthur in the Afternoon” from The Act, a little-known star vehicle Kander & Ebb wrote for Liza Minelli that won her a Tony Award. It’s unlikely you’ll remember anything else he’s done in the show after he takes his shirt off but that, of course, is the point.

    Cedar’s easy manner as a singer (and yes, dancer) is beautifully understated, which makes a pleasing contrast to the belting and fast-paced attack in many of the other songs. His love song to pastries - “Sara Lee,” also from The Act - is priceless. In “We Can Make It” from The Rink, he plays it smooth and lets the lyricism of the song inspire the audience. And, in his most recognizable solo - “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago - he again uses his natural charm to gain empathy without turning the song into a big presentational number.

    The cast of The World Goes 'Round

    Five soloists with five different vocal styles means the blend doesn’t always gel when they sing together but it is the solos and small numbers that make the show memorable and, in their own corners, each artist excels.

    It’s also great to hear these lesser-known Kander & Ebb songs infused with so much life, since the musicals themselves aren’t often produced. Perhaps there is a New York, New York, Funny Lady or Woman of the Year waiting in the wings to be produced on the west coast at some point. For now, Reprise’s The World Goes ‘Round is as close as you’ll get to hearing the songs that made Kander & Ebb famous in a theatrical setting.

    The World Goes ‘Round is conceived by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman, and David Thompson, and presented by Reprise 2.0 in association with the UCLA TFT Department of Theater.

    Dawnn Lewis



    THE WORLD GOES ‘ROUND

    September 5 - 16, 2018
    Reprise 2.0 at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse
    UCLA - North Campus
    245 Charles E. Young E Drive
    Los Angeles, CA 90095
    Tickets and info: 800-982-2787 or www.Reprise2.org
    Photo credit: Michael Lamont

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    L-R: Jenni Marie Lopez, Brooke Van Grinsven, Leslie Rubino and Samantha
    LaBrecque. All photos by Corwin Evans

    How much rage would a person need to feel to kill two people with 29 whacks of an axe? The short answer is, a lot. That’s the number Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby actually sustained in 1892 - not the 81 immortalized in this haunting nursery rhyme.

    “Lizzie Borden took an axe,
    And gave her mother forty whacks;
    When she saw what she had done,
    She gave her father forty-one.”

    To this day, no one knows who committed the murders although Andrew’s youngest daughter, Lizzie, has always been guilty in the court of public opinion. She was acquitted at trial but rumors followed her to her grave. What we do know is that a crime of passion enacted with this much violence can only mean there is more to the story.

    LIZZIE, by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner, draws its own conclusions about what might have fueled Lizzie Borden’s rage to the point of committing murder, and Color & Light Theatre Ensemble brings that rage to the forefront in a ballsy 90-minute musical character study that is part throat-ripping rock concert, part riveting theatre invention. This is rage rock at its finest and the four women who tell the story have the vocal ability and acting intensity to deliver a moving tale with unrelenting ferocity.

    Jenni Marie Lopez and Leslie Rubino

    Revelations of incest, a forbidden lesbian love affair, and a stepmother with no love for her husband’s children make up the bones of the piece. Director Joanna Syiek’s minimalist staging shows a wicked sense of humor and an ability to create visuals that are streamlined but set to stun.

    Poisonous steam billows from an innocent tea cup, a tangle of dead pigeons cling to a bloodstained sheet, and the meaty flesh of two watermelons makes an enactment of the murders as deliciously spoof-worthy as it is sobering.

    An act break would have come in handy at this climactic moment to help facilitate the tonal shift (and ensuing cleanup). As presented, the current version of the piece is done without an intermission. I’m not certain that’s the right choice.

    Leslie Rubino

    At the center of this macabre universe is an explosive Leslie Rubino who plays Lizzie. Slight of stature and sporting a punk pompadour with a blood red streak, as if to presage later events, we see both her vulnerability and the rage that erupts when the weight of betrayal finally cracks her open. It is a charismatic high-voltage performance, the kind that matters when you consider that stories about sexual abuse and men attempting to suppress a woman’s voice are still staples of the modern daily news cycle.

    In her orbit are three equally fierce women: older sister, Emma (Brooke Van Grinsven); next door neighbor and Lizzie’s eventual lover, Alice (Jenni Marie Lopez); and Bridget, the Borden’s cheeky Irish maid (Samantha LaBreque). Van Grinsven attacks her role with the intensity of a bomb going off and never lets up. Lopez lends balance to the driving assault on your senses in softer scenes with Lizzie but lets it rip when the emotional angst of a number requires her to grind it out. LaBrecque is an amusing addition to the foursome playing a servant with a mind of her own. She’s smarter than she lets on and her face is a running commentary on what is really happening at any given moment.

    L-R: Brooke Van Grinsven, Leslie Rubino and Samantha LaBrecque

    The venue is Resident LA, a club in the DTLA arts district, which adds to the rock concert feel of the evening. It’s the right place with the right atmosphere and it also means the band, led by musical director Jennifer Lin, makes as powerful a statement as the characters. There are only four of them - Lin on keys, Johanna Chase on bass, Carlos Flores on guitar and Nicole Marcus on drums but they sound like they’re opening up the gates of hell. Besides, who doesn’t love seeing a girl drummer?

    Of course, the sound is loud but I appreciated how well the sound team (Corwin Evans-sound design, Eric Huff-sound engineer, James Graham & Kyle Ormiston-sound mix & tech) created a balance that made it still possible to understand the lyrics. That’s incredibly important because the production is sung-through and those songs tell the story.

    Tyler Ledon’s lighting is dramatic and quite saturated. Costumes by Samantha Teplitz do more than simply set the period. They reflect a great deal about each character. For example, Emma is cinched in so tightly at the waist that it seems she’ll burst at any moment from the pent-up rage within her, and Lizzie starts the show in demure black and white but a flash of her tights foreshadows a future Lizzie you know won’t be content to live by the constraints of Victorian repression.

    As the costumes slowly transform to contemporary rock-inspired looks, the show also begins to transcend time and place and connect the sins of the past with the sins of the present. It may be subtext but we can hear it loud and clear. We’re pissed as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.

    All of it adds up to a production that doesn’t compromise its message or back off in the way it delivers it. It’s an altogether gripping experience.

    LIZZIE
    September 14-29, 2018
    Color and Light Theatre Ensemble @ Resident LA
    428 S. Hewitt St., Los Angeles, CA 90013
    Tickets and info: www.lizzielosangeles.com
    For more info about Resident: Residentdtla.com


    Brooke Van Grinsven and Samantha LaBrecque

    Leslie Rubino and Samantha LaBrecque

    Jenni Marie Lopez and Leslie Rubino

    Jenni Marie Lopez, Leslie Rubino and Brooke Van Grinsven

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    Michael J. Feldman (center) with Sheila Carrasco, Greg Worswick,
    Burl Moseley, and Tina Huang. All photos by Jeff Lorch

    Ammunition Theatre Company ventures into the wacky world of fractured fairy tales for its latest production, Fairy Tale Theatre 18 & Over: The Musical. Written and narrated by Michael J. Feldman, with original songs by Jason Currie, the show consists of four sketch comedy skits performed in 90 minutes, no intermission, by a group of energetic actors with mostly stand-up and television backgrounds.

    Singing ability is mixed but the performances are really a showcase for Feldman’s episodic writing and the quirky characters he’s created. What sets them apart from other fairy tale parodies is the playful way he addresses contemporary issues like gender stereotypes, unrequited love, and our obsession with celebrities. Annie McVey, who has directed all of Feldman’s previous installments of Fairy Tale Theatre, once again brings her eye for keeping it real to this current iteration of the series.

    L-R: Sheila Carrasco, Greg Worswick, Burl Moseley, Cloie Wyatt Taylor,
     Jess McKay, and Michael J Feldman

    Two of the best sketches are The Tale of Lucky the Service Dog and The Tale of the Lonely Star. In the former, Feldman transfers the polarizing topic of white privilege to dogs, specifically to those who enjoy “vest privilege” as service dogs and to those who do not. By recreating the prejudices and lack of consideration found in humans, but applying them to our canine friends, he is able to deliver the message that, “Just being aware of your privilege isn’t good enough,” in a story that audiences can laugh at but still get the point.

    In the latter, a lonely star in the sky looks to connect with others to feel less alone. He encounters many groups during his search, each with its own requirements for being part of the gang. In one, all you have to do is “accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” In another, the emphasis is on being physically fit. In yet another, it’s all about the dysfunctional family unit, and Feldman - quite literally - blows it apart. “Can’t we all just believe what we want to believe and get along with each other,” he asks as the journey becomes more complicated than he ever thought it could be.

    This piece also skewers social media and how living our lives through a series of selfies and carefully curated Instagram posts does everything but make a real connection. Think of it as a kind of existential comedy with a goofy cosmic edge, goofy being the operative word.

    Greg Worswick (center) with Sheila Carrasco, Cloie Wyatt Taylor, and Burl Moseley

    Stephen Rowan’s costumes are a dream, created on what can only have been a shoestring budget. It’s hard to pick a favorite from among the silliness but some of the standouts include Greg Worswick’s Unicorn garb (perfect for Greg’s way-out-of-left-field performance), Tina Huang as a melting glacier, all of the dogs, and Michael Feldman’s Blue Star. It’s also uncanny how dressing up Sheila Carrasco as a Silent P or a fish highlights how much she resembles Troubie company member Beth Kennedy. They even make the same crazy faces. Somebody please write the story that puts them in the same show together. Please. It would be comedy gold.

    All of the cast members take their turn in the spotlight and music theatre lovers will be happy to hear references to the Stephens - Sondheim and Schwartz - in a couple of numbers. It’s a lively 90 minutes with an appealing group of funsters who go for it every time they step onstage. More than anything, Fairy Tale Theatre is an escape. And that’s something we all need now and again, along with a reminder to check our assumptions at the door and get over ourselves.

    FAIRY TALE THEATRE 18 & OVER: THE MUSICAL
    September 14 - October 7, 2018
    Ammunition Theatre Company at The Pico
    10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90064
    Tickets and info: (323) 628-1622 or AmmunitionTheatre.com
    Ticket Link

    L-R: Matt Cook, Jason Rogel, Jess McKay, and Tina Huang

    Jess McKay, with an amazing Eskimo puppet, and Tina Huang

    The Cast of Fairy Tale Theatre 18 and Over: The Musical - and yes, it is

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    Dorothy

    On Sunday, October 27th,
    Theatre West presented a beautiful new addition to the urban art landscape in Los Angeles with the unveiling of local artist Levi Ponce’s latest mural featuring Judy Garland. Painted in full color and pictured with the Emerald City behind her, the portrait immortalizes one of the most beloved singers of all time in her signature role – Dorothy Gale from the classic 1939 MGM musical, The Wizard of Oz.

    Drivers going south on the 101 freeway through the Cahuenga Pass will get a gorgeous view of the mural off to the right as they pass by the theater. Those familiar with the artist’s body of work will recognize his vivid images and unique style, one that has come to signify the very culture of Los Angeles.

    As part of the event, Ponce received an honorary lifetime membership to Theatre West, which is the longest running theatre company in Los Angeles. Founded in 1962, it has been home to such artists as Betty Garrett, Lee Meriwether, Jack Nicholson, Ray Bradbury, Richard Dreyfuss, Sherwood Schwartz, Sally Field, and Beau Bridges.

    During the presentation, an emotional Ponce talked about his early work, saying he didn’t start out trying to become famous as a muralist. He was “just trying to clean up my street and help my community.”

    Levi Ponce

    His first mural to attract public attention was an image of actor
    Danny Trejo painted on the side of a building in Pacoima where Ponce grew up. Over the next seven years, his murals began to appear all over Los Angeles, from Pacoima to Reseda to Venice. And when Hollywood came knocking, his art gained an even larger following.


    Along the way, he also found that he liked helping other people discover what they’re good at doing too. He has inspired neighbors to work together on community art projects and believes the future is bright when communities work together for common goals. “All the good things that came to me happened because I was participating in my community,” he says. “The best is yet to come.”

    Following the unveiling, the theatre hosted a reception, costume contest, and sing along screening of The Wizard of Oz.

    The artist signs his work

    Lee Meriwether and Levi Ponce

    Levi Ponce and the "Mayor" officially cut the ribbon

    Levi Ponce and David Johnson

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    A storm is brewing in Walt Disney Concert Hall and on November 8, 9 & 10th it will ring to the rafters with gale-force intensity. That’s when director Barry Edelstein and The Old Globe’s major new production of THE TEMPEST lands on stage.

    Susanna Mälkki conducts Sibelius’ evocative music for Shakespeare’s masterpiece about a shipwreck on a magical island, featuring a cast of 27 actors, singers, and dancers, plus the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The fully-staged performance starsLior Ashkenazi as Prospero with Tony Award nominees Beth Malone (Ariel) and Tom McGowan (Caliban), and award-wining stage and screen actor Peter MacNicol (Sebastian) among its cast.

    Drinks in The  Garden special discount:
    For the Friday, November 9th performance, use promo code SOUNDINGPOINT for 20% off terrace-section seats. Then come early Friday night (beginning at 6:30 pm) and enjoy complimentary drinks and a unique view of the DTLA skyline from the Garden. It’s a great way to end your week on a high note.


    SIBELIUS AND SHAKESPEARE: THE TEMPEST
    LA Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall
    111 South Grand Avenue
    Los Angeles, CA 90012
    CLICK HERE for tickets and more information.

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    L-R: Nathan Nonhof, James Ferrero, Emma Zakes Green, Betsy Moore,
    Megan Rippey  and Ashley Steed. All photos by Mauricio Gomez.

    Maureen Huskey’s new one act play with music The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man takes place wholly in the moment before death. Conceived as a 90 minute suspension of time in which Alice B. Sheldon (Betsy Moore) watches her life pass before her eyes, it blends music, movement, sound, and text to create as enigmatic a piece as the life of its central character. Thats not necessarily a good thing.

    Sheldon was a woman who never felt comfortable in her own skin. Under the pen name James Tiptree, Jr., she would become known as a pioneering science fiction writer whose stories delved into the dark reaches of the human soul. Gender discrimination, violence against women, and issues like genocide and racism would inform her works, fueled by her own experiences in the suffocating social constructs of a male-dominated world.

    Born in 1915, she was 6 when her parents first took her on safari to Africa, a troubling expedition that confirmed she had no power to express herself or make sense of the questions she had about the world. During her teen years she began to explore her previously repressed attraction to women but, at 19, Sheldon eloped and spent the next several years in an abusive marriage that would eventually end in divorce.

    In 1942, she joined the Army as a WAAC and later the CIA, where she met and married a man ten years her senior, Huntingdon Sheldon (Alex Wells). “Ting” as she called him, was aware of her sexual orientation and although the two did not share a romantic relationship, they were comfortable and relatively happy together. He encouraged her to write and, at the age of 50, with the protective barrier of a male pseudonym, she found the personal and creative outlet she’d always longed for.

    L-R: Ashley Steed, Paula Rebelo and Betsy Moore

    Huskey’s examination of the woman whose inner demons eventually got the better of her is a worthy one and imagining it as a departure from one of Tiptree’s sci-fi stories is an interesting way of presenting it. But the play meanders through Sheldon’s life as memories enacted by younger versions of herself (Isabella Ramacciotti at 6, Paula Rebello at 19) while a bewildered Moore looks on. It isn’t possible to discern if the purpose is for clarity, understanding, or simply to review a life that never let her forget she didn’t fit in. And with an ambitious array of performance disciplines employed to tell the story, which unfortunately often stretch beyond the wheelhouse of its ensemble, it loses its impact amid all the confusion.

    The musical background is by world music artist Yuval Ron and is more of a soundscape than a song score. There are songs but all are forgettable within the larger context of the play, instead folding into the kind of generalized cosmic sound you’d expect to hear in a sci-fi film. The overall effect is artsy but ultimately does little to emotionally engage the audience.

    Set designer Eli Smith conjures foggy images of the galaxy and Sheldon’s time machine/space ship with a minimal number of elements. A complicated series of cords is used for characters to step in and out of time periods and create visual interest in the small space. The optics work well within this abstract theatrical world Huskey has created, along with Rose Malones amorphous lighting. As the story starts to short circuit around Sheldon, Martin Carrillo’s evocative sound design takes on an urgency that underscores the play’s impending conclusion.

    Though the sum of its parts does not yet add up dramatically, The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man does fit somewhat more effectively in the landscape of a theatrical tone poem. There the freer style of its content allows more room for the playwright to explore Sheldons fascinating life journey and tragic end without limits. 

    THE WOMAN WHO WENT TO SPACE AS A MAN
    October 27 – November 18, 2018
    Son of Semele
    3301 Beverly Blvd.
    Los Angeles, CA 90004
    Tickets: www.sonofsemele.org

    L-R: Nathan Nonhof, Betsy Moore, Isabella Ramacciotti, Anneliese Euler,
    Robert Paterno, Megan Rippey and Ashley Steed

    L-R: Nathan Nonhof, Betsy Moore and Paula Rebelo

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    Julie Makerov. Photo by Shawn Flint Blair

    How does a busy soprano balance career, family, motherhood, and art? If that soprano is Julie Makerov, it’s all about scheduling and planning ahead of time. Makerov, who will be appearing as one of four soloists with LA’s Verdi Chorusthis weekend at First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica, says that’s the key to managing all of her commitments.

    In a nutshell, “It’s about not saying yes to too much. I recently started my first year teaching two classes at Orange County School of the Arts. I also have seven private voice students and I’m on the board of directors at OperaWorks. It is a juggle but it’s worth it.”

    With an impressive international career to her credit, Makerov admits she loves to travel but says the current phase of her personal and professional evolution means she is entering a period of less time on the road and more time spent closer to home. “I slowly decided that’s what I wanted. I have my hands in a lot of things but I wanted to make sure that my family life was taking priority. That’s hard for me to do when I’m traveling a lot. Plus, I felt really strongly that this was the next phase of my artistry; to take what I’ve learned and help other people.”

    Which brings it back to her students. Makerov is often asked how she takes care of her voice and her advice is the same as that which she observes herself. At the top of the list are the big three: “I make sure that I’m hydrated systemically, so lots of water, good nutrition, and lots of sleep. You have to get a lot of sleep and that’s very difficult to do when you’re trying to balance being a busy mom, a busy teacher, and having a busy life with taking care of the instrument enough to perform well. I remind my students to use their air when they speak and cultivate those really good habits throughout the day so that when they go to sing the voice is there for them already.”

    As for who helps her get dinner on the table, a forthright Makerov laughs and says, “It’s called a crockpot! Ask me who does the laundry too – I do.”

    Julie Makerov as Rusalka with the Canadian Opera Company.
    Photo courtesy of the artist.

    Over the course of her lengthy career, Makerov has played a wide range of characters. On the upcoming program with Verdi Chorus, she will be portraying a queen, a courtesan, a simple girl who poisons her mother and drowns her child, and a woman who leaves home rather than marry a man she doesn’t love and eventually throws herself off a cliff. Dramatic? Yes. It’s the stuff opera is made of. And, although she has not lived the same experiences as these particular characters, Makerov says creating them is all about making an emotional connection. It’s a thoughtful approach, one she says is required of every singer.


    “None of the characters I’ve played have much to do with my day to day life. I can, however, draw upon their emotion. For example, I’ve sung Butterfly [from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly] several times and, at the time, I was in my late twenties/early thirties, Caucasian, and 5’9” – not necessarily what one would think of as Butterfly, right?

    Two things: first of all, the music does an incredible amount of the work for you. So, if you sit back and let the composer do what he intended to do, that takes a lot of the weight off of you. The second thing is that if a singer goes through and ingests the words, if you really digest what you’re singing and find a way to relate to it personally, it is very possible to connect with the emotions rather than the specific story.

    Take the scene in which Butterfly is waiting for Pinkerton to come back. She’s holding a picture with two hands and she says, ‘He with heart swollen/to hide from me the suffering/smiling he answered/tiny little wife/I’ll return with the roses in the season serene/I’ll make the nest says the robin/he’ll return/he’ll return/say it with me/he’ll return.’

    Now, does that have anything to do with my life? No. Can one relate with a girl standing there waiting for somebody to return to her who she has basically given everything for and is convincing herself, and everybody around her, that he’s going to come back and love her? Yes. That’s very easily relatable, but the singer has to delve into the music and the words. When they do, it doesn’t take long before a person begins to feel for these characters.

    Our job is to take the audience on an emotional journey, and if we are not specific about guiding the audience through that journey they won’t be guided. If we’re not thinking about what we’re saying, if we’re not familiar with it, we can’t actually move our audience at all. Any career takes discipline. We all have deadlines. We all have things we have to do. We have to discipline ourselves for that. But, beyond that, very specifically, in our business our job is to move an audience.”

    Julie Makerov as Tosca with Brandon Jovanovich (Cavaradossi) in the
    Canadian Opera Company production of Tosca. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

    So, can she tell in performance when that happens? “A hundred per cent. Because the energy of the collective audience shifts. You know when they get it, when they are invested in what you’re saying, and, when they’re not, a hundred per cent of the time it’s because the singer is not thinking about where they are, what they’re doing, who the character is, what the show is. They’re not in it. They’re thinking about their voice and themselves.”

    All of the pieces she will be singing this weekend on the program for Verdi Chorus’ Passione! Opera! Concert are ones she loves but she has a special affection for two of the arias. “L’altra note in fondo al mare [from Mefistofele] was one of the pieces I sang that got me to the top ten in the Met competition in 2003, so it’s dear to me and I love it. And I sang Ebben? Ne andrò lontana [from La Wally] in a production in Frankfurt and it is just beautiful.”

    Rest assured, there will be no shortage of gorgeous music on November 10 & 11th as Makerov and her fellow artists join Anne Marie Ketchum and the Verdi Chorus for an evening of red hot passion, the kind only opera can do best.

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


    THE VERDI CHORUS: Passione! Opera!
    November 10 (7:30 pm) and November 11 (2:00 pm)
    First United Methodist Church
    1008 11th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90403
    Tickets: $10 - $40 (800) 838-3006 or www.verdichorus.org
    Founding Artistic Director: Anne Marie Ketchum
    Guest soloists: Julie Makerov, Janelle DeStefano, Todd Wilander, and Gabriel Manro
    Accompanist: Laraine Ann Madden

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    Mandy Foster stars as Emma. All photos by Benjamin Busch.

    Jane Austen’s enduring love story comes to life in this enchanting musical comedy. Emma, a well-meaning, but disaster-prone matchmaker who ignores her own romantic feelings sets out to find a suitor for her friend Harriet. Her efforts lead to comic complications but, in the end, all adds up to happy romance. It’s just the thing to make you feel good this holiday season and perfect for the entire family, ages 4 and up. Now through December 23rd at Chance Theater. Tickets: www.chancetheater.com

    Mandy Foster as Emma and Jeff Lowe as Mr. Knightley

    Zoya Martin and Kristofer Buxton as Harriet Smith and Robert Martin

    Megan McCarthy as Jane Fairfax, Gavin Cole as Frank Churchill,
    and Kristofer Buxton as Robert Martin

    Mandy Foster as Emma and Coleton Ray as Mr. Elton

    Glenn Koppel as Mr. Woodhouse and Jeff Lowe as Mr. Knightley

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    The Company of Come From Away. All photos by Matthew Murphy

    My one big recommendation this holiday season is an easy one – go see Come From Away at the Ahmanson. That’s it. The world’s a tough place right now and this musical will restore your faith in humanity in every way possible. Best of all, it doesn’t do it with glitz and tricks and over-the-top extravaganza. It does it by telling a story of simple people with good hearts whose kindness during a horrific disaster serves as an inspiration for us all.

    When 38 planes were rerouted to Gander, Newfoundland following the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th, this small town cared for the thousands of frightened and confused “plane people” as if they were members of their own family. The world had never seen such selflessness but, in their minds, the citizens of Gander were just doing the right thing. It’s a lesson we desperately need to be reminded of this Christmas as we look around and find ourselves in the midst of a country burdened by divisive rhetoric and inhumane actions.

    Writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein capture the spirit of the pragmatic, cheerful townsfolk in both story and score, the former narrated by characters speaking directly to the audience and also recreating the various quick-cut scenes, the latter a jovial blend of folk, Celtic, and upbeat rock themes with straightforward lyrics. Thankfully, there isn’t a pretentious bone in this musical’s body.

    The cast of Come From Away

    It unfolds on a simple but beautiful set, designed by Beowulf Boritt and lit by Howell Binkley, that functions as a scrolling canvas against which scenes play out like a collage come to life. The driving forward motion of the show succeeds in adding urgency without turning melodramatic. And, at its center is a big, old beating heart that encompasses everyone within its reach.

    Christopher Ashley won a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for his work on Come From Away and watching how he weaves together all of the elements so intelligently, and with such sensitivity, is worth the price of admission alone, but it doesn’t stop there. The acting company offers one of the finest examples of ensemble integration in a musical, with each of them an essential part of the show. Most play multiples roles, swapping characters and accents with detailed precision.

    Each of their stories lands its own blow to that swelling heart, from Becky Gulsvig (Beverly), singing about the incredible feeling being “the first female American captain in history” to James Earl Jones II (Bob), who is sent to take barbeque grills from all of the locals’ backyards convinced he is going to get shot, to Nick Duckart, the Muslim chef humiliated beyond belief in the interest of security.

    Becky Gulsvig and the cast of Come From Away

    Two mothers (Julie Johnson-Beulah and Danielle K. Thomas-Hannah) find solace in their shared understanding of what it is to have a firefighter son, while two other passengers (Christine Toy Johnson-Diane and Chamblee Ferguson-Nick) unexpectedly find romance. Mayor Claude (Kevin Carolan) and Garth (Andrew Samonsky), head of the bus drivers’ union, clash over local differences but are quick to set them aside to assist their “come from aways” (what islanders call anyone not from their town) during the emergency. Even the animals find a champion in Bonnie (Megan McGinnis), a resolute young woman who isn’t about to let anyone stop her from caring for their needs as well.

    The generosity of these kind and quirky characters, and all of the others brought to life in Come From Away, give hope that there are good people in the world who know what it is to be a decent human being. Kindness takes courage and, in a time of adversity, the islanders of Gander, Newfoundland showed the world a shining example of what is best in us all. As we continue to celebrate the holidays, with their messages of peace on earth and goodwill to all, may we not forget how much it is still needed now.

    COME FROM AWAY
    November 28, 2018 – January 6, 2019
    Ahmanson Theatre
    601 W Temple Street
    Los Angeles, CA 90012
    213-972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org

    Center: Christine Toy Johnson (Diane), James Earl Jones II (Bob)
    and Harter Clingman (Oz) with the cast of Come From Away 

    Nick Duckart and Andrew Samonsky as Kevn and Kevin (foreground),
    Kevin Carolyn as Mayor Claude (center) and the cast of Come From Away

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    The countdown to Christmas begins and ends with an all-out love blitz this year in For the Record’s latest world premiere, Love Actually Live a hybrid entertainment that blends scenes from Richard Curtis’ 2003 film Love Actually with live performances of the movie’s soundtrack. Co-produced by the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, it is a celebration of love in all its messy, complicated, wonderful glory in a Las Vegas-style vision designed to impress.

    Multiple screens are incorporated into an enormous breakaway set (scenic design by Matt Steinbrenner, lighting by Michael Berger, video design by Aaron Rhyne) that opens up in a number of exciting ways to create the many interiors and exteriors, intimate moments, large production numbers, and quirky configurations needed for the performance. An exceptional 15-piece orchestra frames the stage with most of its members positioned on a raised landing on either side of a twinkling Christmas tree. Strings, and conductor Jesse Vargas (who is also responsible for the musical supervision and terrific arrangements and orchestrations), are located downstage in their own box. The effect is overwhelmingly beautiful.


    Add 17 singers whose American Idol-ized vocals drew catcalls and much applause on opening night and the result is a fusion of elements that embodies what For the Record does best - create uncommon theatrical entertainment that begins and ends with a film and its music.

    This is a continuously moving performance, which doesn’t often stop for a breath, as film sequences cut to snippets of live singing, or overlap in a layered set of simultaneous scenes and songs. The downside is a tendency for ensemble singers to overdo their facial expressions and push their vocals in a desire to make the most out of their short stage time.

    On the plus side, you get an Aurelia (Olivia Kuper Harris) whose smoky, indie sound is a luscious surprise as Jamie’s (Steve Kazee) Portuguese housekeeper, and a jazzy “White Christmas” sung by B. Slade (Peter) that will take your breath away. Rumer Willis disappears into her dual roles of Peter’s fiancée Juliet (played by Keira Knightly in the film) and office vixen Mia with chameleon-like skill (and an assist from two great wigs by Cassie Russek). Zak Resnick will break your heart as Daniel (Liam Neeson’s role), the stepdad navigating fatherhood on his own. Carrie Manolakos power belts her way to the end of Act I on Kelly Clarkson’s “The Trouble With Love Is” leaving the audience on a blistering high.

    Rex Smith and backup girls

    But the character who wraps the audience around his little finger every time he steps on stage is lovable Rex Smith as aging rock star, Billy Mack (played by Bill Nighy in the film). Smith pulls out all his star power and comic gusto for a show stopping opening number and final scene you’ll be talking about all the way out to the parking lot.All of the characters are represented - yes, even the porn couple - so if you’ve only watched the film on cable recently rest assured they don’t get edited out here.

    Director Anderson Davis has an elegant solution for their scenes which makes the production appropriate for ages 13 and over but note that there is still brief nudity on screen. Davis also incorporates some of the film’s most charming surprises into his direction and the results live are equally as lovely on stage. Even if you know they’re coming, in the moment they will delight you.

    As entertainment goes, For the Record’s Love Actually Live is a dazzling spectacle of celluloid and sound, music and magic, brightly packaged for the romantic in us all and best shared with someone you love.

    LOVE ACTUALLY LIVE
    December 4 – 31, 2018
    Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
    9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd
    Beverly Hills, CA 90210
    Tickets: www.thewallis.org


    Photos above by Lawrence K. Ho
    Photos below by Kevin Parry

    Rumer Willis

    B. Slade

    Steve Kazee

    Sean Yves Lessard and Carrie Manolakos

    Love Actually Live

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    The cast of The Year Without a Santana Claus. All photos by Ed Krieger

    What would Christmas in LA be without the Troubies? A lot less funny.

    Happily, artistic director, writer, and head jokester Matt “Mashup” Walker and his coterie of clowns aren’t about to let anyone down. Not only are they back with their seventeenth annual holiday show, they’re proving just how smart they really are when it comes to delivering a performance that has its finger on the pulse of what’s happening now.

    That being the case, it’s the women who save the day in this year’s holiday extravaganza, The Year Without a Santana Claus, specifically a spicy Mrs. Claus (Giana Bommarito) and a sexy Mother Nature (Cloie Wyatt Taylor). Typically content to remain in the background, these two partner up to save Christmas in a modern day twist on the 1974 Rankin & Bass stop-motion television special, adapted by Walker and fleshed out by the improv talents of the jovial ensemble. It’s a 2018 update that is so clever it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been done before.

    The whole inclusive nature of the show also makes it a perfect Christmas story for the many flavors of our multicultural city. Throw in some circus-style enhancements, great choreography, and a few magic tricks, and it’s Christmas Troubie style, the most pun-derful time of the year.

    Rick Batalla on guitar

    The show stars a waggish bare-chested bilingual Santa Claus (Rick Batalla) playing Santana’s greatest hits on his electric guitar and bemoaning the world’s lack of Christmas spirit. In a Troubie show, individual talents always come into play and the reveal that Batalla is actually good on that red Stratocaster is this year’s jewel in the crown. That the house band sounds like they’re ready to go on the road is no surprise either. The musicians showcased in every Troubie production, and the (uncredited) arrangements they play, give these kooky parodies actual street cred. For this show it is Ryan Whyman on keyboards, Matt Hornbeck on guitar, Blake Estrada on bass, and Nick Stone on percussion who elevate the proceedings into classic Latin rock territory on nearly a dozen Santana favorites.

    Retooled songs like “Oye Como Va” which opens the show and makes a splashy, colorful introduction; Mother Nature’s bluesy “Black Magic Woman”; and “No One to Depend On” sung by a disgruntled little girl named Judy (Chelle Denton) who feels Santa has abandoned her, are creatively worked into the characters’ storylines.

    Dueling brothers Snow Miser (Beth Kennedy, when she’s not playing a googly-eyed elf named Jingles) and a petulant Heat Miser (one of many terrific offbeat characters Walker plays) each have their own full-on production number. Of course Snowy gets the Santana/Rob Thomas megahit “Smooth” as Kennedy brings back yet another winter figure to portray the role in a long-running annual gag regulars will love.

    It takes a fair amount of artistic license to get the job done and that is exactly what the audience is looking for. “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh!” like the song says. This latest holiday confection does that and more. It’s safe to say, if you don’t have a good time it’s yer own dang fault.

    THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTANA CLAUS
    December 8-30, 2018
    Troubadour Theater Company at
    The El Portal Theatre
    11206 Weddington Street
    North Hollywood, CA 91601
    Tickets: (818) 508-4200 or www.elportaltheatre.com

    Jess Coffman and Luis "L.T." Martinez as Dancer and Prancer
    with Rick Batalla and Giana Bommarito

    Beth Kennedy and Matt Walker

    Rick Batalla and goofiest bunch of elves you've ever seen

    Beth Kennedy, Rick Batalla, Ginan Bommarito and Matt Walker

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    Phil LaMarr (Tin Woodman), Mackenzie Ziegler(Doroth), Juan Pablo
    Di Pace (Lion) and Jared Gertner (Scarecrow)

    Catch the world premiere of Lythgoe Family Panto’s The Wonderful Winter of Oz now through December 30th at Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Bring the whole family and enjoy a fun-filled modern twist on the story of Dorothy Gale, who finds herself swept away by a freak Kansas blizzard (instead of a tornado) and winds up in the land of Oz where Kermit the Frog is the wizard with all the answers. Tickets: www.thepasadenacivic.com Photos by Philicia Endelman.

    Kermit The Frog as The Wizard of Oz

    Marissa Jaret Winokur (Glinda), Mackenzie Ziegler (Dorothy) and
    The Youth Talents of Los Angeles as The Munchkins

    Juan Pablo Di Pace (Lion), Jared Gertner (Scarecrow) and Phil LaMarr (Tin Woodman)

    Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer as The Wicked Witch of The West

    Pickle C. Irwin as Toto and Mackenzie Ziegler as Dorothy

    Marissa Jaret Winokur as Glinda and Kermit The Frog as The Wizard

    Phil LaMarr (Tin Woodman), Juan Pablo Di Pace (Lion) and Jared Gertner (Scarecrow)

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