Monday, August 29, 2016

Gypsy and Titanic

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard
Two Musicals, Two
Both closing on Sunday, Sept 4
Catch ‘em while you can

Sunday, Aug. 28 I arranged a glut of musicals, as different as they can be, both excellently done. Both end their engagements this coming Sunday, so take action if you want some high quality musical action.

Gypsy at Cygnet Theatre

Front: Catalina Zelles. Standing: Josh Bradford, Claire Schepper,
 Giovanni Cozic, Hourie Klijian
                             Photo by Ken Jacques

I reviewed this show for Uptown News shortly after it opened July 23. In my remarks I stated that the part of Rose is a killer, praised Linda Libby for her prowess vocally and dramatically, and expressed concerns over the rigorous, 7-performances a week schedule at Cygnet. Thank God Libby, who became extremely fatigued, had an understudy in Melissa Fernandes, who recently wowed audiences as Dot in ion theatre’s Sunday in the Park With George. Fernandes replaced Libby numerous times and then it was announced that in order to give Libby a weekly rest, Fernandes would perform all remaining Sunday matinee performances.

When given a chance to return in order to hear Fernandes, I jumped at the chance. That two such splendid “Roses” bloom in the same city is a miracle. Unsurprisingly, the two, both heavyweight actors, handle the demanding role differently, though both present studies in what motivates stage mothers and the fallout in their children. Fernandes is less belt and more beauty, with glimmers of amazing vocal lushness breaking through. Her Rose is a bit softer and more likeable. Neither interpretation is wrong or right. They are merely different in subtle ways and we are the richer for having seen both.

The Rose we see on the stage in Arthur Laurents’ book musical (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) is extreme. In both cases, Manny Fernandes (who happens to be Melissa’s husband) is there, dependable and lovable, dispensing advice to the kids over the years, ready to defend and support Rose in any way needed, until finally he sees and is sickened by her ruthlessness, and realizes she can never be a wife to him. Manny Fernandes' performance is absolutely heartbreaking.

The production has deepened and Music Director Terry O’Donnell’s orchestra is even better than on opening weekend. An amazing, quality production, directed by Cygnet Artistic Director Sean Murray. You must see it before it closes.

Gypsy, A Musical Fable
Directed by Sean Murray
Wednesdays though Sundays through September 4
Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town State Park or 619-337-1525

Titanic at Moonlight Theatre
Robert J. Townsend as ship designer Thomas Andrews
Photos by Ken Kacques
I had despaired of seeing Moonlight's Titanic because of my relentless August schedule (as you may know, I write about classical music as well) and my reluctance to drive great distances at night (my eyes are 82 years old). However, two musical theatre aficionados of my acquaintance heard from friends how great Titanic is and asked me if I wanted to go up there with them Sunday night. So yes of course, even though it made a long day of musical sitting. However, for a Wagnerite, it was small sacrifice.

Anything you may have read about Titanic and the singers is true. It is absolutely glorious. Never have I heard more effective and beautiful choral singing outside an opera house, and even there such sounds are rare indeed.
Three Kates in Steerage
Sharia Knox, Katie Sapper, and Sarah Errington
Photo: Ken Jacques

The late Peter Stone (best known, perhaps, for 1776) wrote the book based on interviews with survivors, and Maury Yeston, wrote the music for this 1997 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical (best musical, best score, best book). Despite the awards, reviews were generally poor because the ambitious 
original designs were prone to failure; for instance, at one performance the ship refused to sink. What we see at Moonlight is a sensible re-conception eased by projections and audience imagination.

“Who the hell is Maury Yeston?” you might ask, as did one of my companions. In addition to Nine and Grand Hotel, Yeston wrote a distinctive Phantom (with a book by the great Arthur Kopit) that in my opinion is superior in every way to the popular Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. The timing was off (the other Phantom premiered in England first, and Yeston’s Broadway backers melted away). Nonetheless there have been more than 1,000 productions internationally, and I was fortunate to see two of them, one at Welk Theatre.
Jhnson and Stuber as Isador and Ida Straus

Richard Bermudez and Eric Michael Parker
as the Stoker and the wireless operator

For Titanic Yeston scored operatically, especially for the large ensemble company – it is truly an ensemble show that singles out various people whose stories are told. We meet RMS Titanic’s designer Thomas Andrews Robert J. Townsend, the ship’s owner J. Bruce Ismay (Steven Glaudini) and Captain Smith (Norman Large); the stoker, Frederick Barrett (knockout baritone Richard Bermudez, whose singing of “Barrett’s Song” and “The Proposal” are stirring to say the least); three Kates from Ireland (Sarah Errington, Shaina Knox, and Katie Sapper) in Steerage; and Isador Straus (Ralph Johnson and his wife, Ida (Susan Stuber), a long married couple in First Class, who choose, as the ship sinks (“Still”) to die together rather than be separated. And let’s not forget social climber Alice Beane (Bets Malone) in Second Class; Charlotte Cardoza (Christine Hewitt), who invades the men’s smoking room; Harold Bride, wireless operator (Eric Michael Parker), who tries so desperately to find another ship close enough to come to the rescue; First Officer William Murdoch (Johnny Fletcher) and the crow’s nest watch, Fleet (Bryan Banville), who first sees the iceberg destined to destroy the unsinkable ship. 

All these make indelible contributions to the whole, which utilizes 37 singer/actors and an orchestra of 26 conducted by Elan McMahan, all under the watchful and specific eyes of director Larry Raben, who does a truly remarkable job of staging this titanic musical. Lighting designer is Jean-Yves Tessier; sound designer, Jim Zadai; projection designer Jonathan Infante; make-up designer Kathleen Kenna; wig designer Peter Herman; and costume coordination by Roslyn Lehman, Renetta Lloyd and Carlotta Malone.

Titanic plays Wednesday-Sunday at 8pm or 760-724-2110

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Cabaret special

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard
He’s not benign, the chilling presence (the Emcee, played by Randy Harrison) that hovers over every scene in Roundabout Theatre’s touring production of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. With book by Joe Masteroff. Well worth seeing, the tour, which began this year, plays through Sunday at the Civic Theatre and comes to San Diego from Roundabout’s 2014-2015 Studio 54 production (a revival of one they originated in 1998, co-directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall). The current production, directed by BT McNicholl, is part of Broadway San Diego’s 40th anniversary season. And, I might add, in celebration of Roundabout’s 50 years. How’s that for complicated?  That’s not all.

The 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret (directed by Hal Prince) was based on John Van Druten’s play, I Am a Camera, which was in turn adapted from the 1939 Christopher Isherwood novel, Goodbye to Berlin. The 1972 film starred Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles, the British performer protagonist Clifford Bradshaw (the Isherwood character) falls in love with at the Kit Kat Club. If you have not read the source material, it is recommended you do so at your leisure.

Sally and the Kit Kat Girls

Photo courtesy Broadway
San Diego 

The most extraordinary effect of the Roundabout production (which is inspired by that of Sam Mendes in 1993 at London’s Donmar Warehouse) is the onstage over above Kit Kat Orchestra of 25 or more, partially augmented by cast members, who scurry up and down spiral staircases on either side of Robert Brill’s set. They make quite a sound, framed at times in Brill’s askew rectangle with running lights.

Much darker than the original, this production underscores Cliff’s homosexuality, his abhorrence of fascism, and his fore-knowledge of what’s about to happen in Berlin, which is in love with its own Weimar era decadence, blind to the red arm bands and intolerance that appear more and more frequently in their midst.

Cliff is played by Benjamin Eakeley and Sally Bowles by Andrea Goss. He is tall and gangly, she, extremely petite. He is certainly a competent and convincing actor, and she makes nice vocal contrasts in the last song, "Cabaret."

The love affair between the landlady, Fräulein Schneider (Shannon Cochran) and the Jewish fruit market owner, Herr Schultz (appealing Mark Nelson), is exceptionally touching. Cochran is an excellent singer a la the great Lotte Lenya, who created the role in 1966. Fräulein Kost (Alison Ewing) and her host of Sailors (revenue stream) provide comic relief from Cliff and Sally’s love affair and its attendant problems, for one thing an unexpected pregnancy.

And then, my dears, there are the songs: “Willkommen,” “So What,” “Mein Herr,” “Two Ladies,” “Money,” “Married,” “If You Could See Her” the chilling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” and the title song, “Cabaret,” sung by Sally, who refuses to leave Berlin, along with Herr Schultz, who will proclaim to the end, no doubt, “Nothing bad will happen to me. I’m a German.”

See this amazing musical history lesson. Hear the inspired score and see the spectacle. Tickets at or (619) 570-1100.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Love and Gutenberg

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard
Love’s Labor’s Lost at the Old Globe
Jim Cox photographer

Prepare yourself to be amazed by the beauty of the Old Globe’s production of William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost, as directed by Kathleen Marshall and made manifest by scenic designer John Lee Beaty. Beaty creates the “park” adjacent to the King of Navarre’s palace on the Lowell Davis Festival Stage. The park, or garden, is full of surprises.

The Company, the Park,  and the Muscovite Scene

You remember the setup. Young King Ferdinand (Jonny Orsini) is a much given to study and intellectual pursuits. In the first scene he and his young lords – Berowne (Kieran Campion), Dumaine (Amara James Aja), and Longaville (Nathan Whitmer) – sign a pact that forbids interaction with women and pledges adherence to a course of rigorous study, fasting and meditation for a period of three years.

The Princess (second from right), Boyet (third from right) and her Ladies
Oops, the King forgot the impending arrival of the Princess of France (Kristen Connolly), who is on embassy from the French king, her father, along with her three ladies, Rosaline (Pascale Armand), Maria (Amy Blackman) and Katherine (Talley Beth Gale).  Their officious attendant, Boyet, is “one of the girls” as well, at least in this production. Kevin Calhoun plays him slightly caustic, resplendent in a tricorn hat and a plethora of stereotypical gay behaviors.

Though he billets the Princess and her ladies some distance from the palace (with the Park in between) Ferdinand and the Princess immediately fall in love, as in short order, do the others, Berowne with Rosaline, Dumaine with Katherine, and Longaville with Maria. Poetry intended for the Princess and the dairymaid Jaquenetta (Makha Mthembu), sent by the king and the Spanish braggart Don Adriano de Armado (Triney Sandoval), respectively, are switched by the clown, Costard (Greg Hildreth). The duplicity of all involved is revealed, and, the pact broken, all proceed to woo accordingly.

Kieran Campion and Pascale Armand as
Berowne and Rosaline

In one scene created by Shakespeare, the men disguise themselves as Muscovites, thinking to woo the ladies thus. Boyet discovers their intent and warns the ladies, who in turn play a trick on the Russians The stalwarts enter to the Trepak from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. Their lack of dancing ability makes the staging exceptionally funny.

Shakespeare also writes two additional foolish characters in the form of two pedants, both superbly played, their scenes certainly highlighting the production: the schoolteacher Holofernes (Stephen Spinella, the original Prior Walter in Angels in America: The Millennium Approaches) and the curate Nathaniel (Patrick Kerr).
Methembu, Kerr, Spinella and Hildreth 

Marshall’s casting and directing instincts are appropriate for large scale Shakespeare outdoors. She moves groups of people amusingly throughout the show, which indeed ends with song and dance in the traditional manner of English companies.

Sadly, my expectation of romantic heat between the young lovers was dashed, causing me to wonder, at the denouement, which usually evokes tears, if any troth would survive the 12-month nuptial delay imposed by the King of France’s death. Nonetheless, Love’s Labor’s Lost provides an extremely enjoyable evening and marks an impressive first staging of a full Shakespeare production for Marshall.

Love’s Labor’s Lost continues Tuesdays through Sundays on the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Stage through September 18. Curtain time is 8pm through September 10, after which there are some 7pm curtains – so be mindful when purchasing tickets, which start at $29. or 619-23-GLOBE

Gutenberg! The Musical! at Diversionary
Photos by Studio B Photo Productions

Jessica John Gercke and Francis Gercke’s new theater company, Backyard Renaissance, presents the West Coast premiere of Gutenberg! The Musical! on Diversionary Theatre’s main stage through September 4. Directed by Kim Strassburger, the frantic two-hander stars a real-life married couple, Anthony Methvin and Tom Zohar, as writing partners Doug and Bud, who’ve created their third musical, which they consider a sure hit and bound to be a success.
Methvin and Zohar

At a backers’ presentation (among us, the audience, are Broadway producers), Doug and Bud do a sing-through, explaining what is a musical and the difficulty of writing a musical about the inventor of the printing press when so little is known. Thus, we wind up with a totally wacky fabrication in which Gutenberg is wooed by the wine maker’s daughter Helvetica, opposed and even hated by some residents including the Monk (who doesn’t want people to read The Bible for themselves), and celebrated by others, all identified by a yellow baseball cap with their names emblazoned above the bill.

The set features an enormous table on which all these caps are set, at the ready. Sometimes, in case of rapid succession of characters, or, say, a chorus line, multiple hats at a time may be used or worn.

Helvetica and Gutenberg
Numerous songs are begun and seldom completed (the best is “I had a dream,” which sounds vaguely familiar), the pace is so frantic, but never, well, hardly ever, is any cap lost or misplaced. 

In its eagerness to please, Bud and Doug's musical blatantly robs melodies and situations from Broadway shows, principally Les Miz. And it goes without saying that the actors  here at Diversionary are adorable and sing well and manage not to get lost despite the intended chaos. Medals to their able assistants, music director Lyndon Pugeda and an animal named Satan, played by the feline named Biscuit, apparently a veteran performer to judge by the program biography, but a bit static in her delivery.
Zohar and Methvin prepare to play
multple characters

As co-creator Brown says, “It’s really hard to write a musical! Even a bad one.” That reminds me of a funny story I cannot tell.

Those who attend – and you are urged to do so! – should go to Gutenberg! The Musical! without preconceptions. Just let yourself go with the non-sense of it all, and join in the fun whenever invited. You’ll go home heartened and simply entertained.

Gutenberg! The Musical! continues through September 4 at Diversionary, 4545 Park Boulevard.

Note: Helvetica typeface used here in homage to my favorite character.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Last Five Years and a Shrew

Charlene of the empty baskets
Thursday it must be Jason Robert Brown

Around 6pm on August 18, I drove around alot (seemed like five years!) seeking a parking space, and finally paid $5 to park in the lot next to ion theatre.

A friend and I were catching a bite to eat prior to seeing ion theatre’s production of Jason Robert Brown’s two-hand musical, The Last Five Years.

I think I liked the show better than my friend did. It concerns the break up of a five-year love affair, and it’s told by two people entirely in song and recit (she working backwards from the bitter end and he going forward from the beginning). I knew that already from having heard it before, somewhere in time, and did a bit of research to find that it was performed in 2009 at North Coast Repertory Theatre. That must have been it.

The two people in question at ion theatre are a guy, Jamie, a successful novelist, and a girl, Cathy, a struggling actor, played and sung, respectively, by Cory Hibbs and Sarah Alida LeClair. Their diction (blessedly without microphones!) is excellent and both have good voices, though hers is a bit easier on the ears. His tends, in certain registers, towards edgy and unlovely. Both, however, are extremely musical.
Photo courtesy of ion theatre

The two singer/actors alternate playing a huge and wonderfully adequate keyboard that is haunted by the ghost of San Diego artist/pianist Cris O’Bryon, who recorded vamps as part of the score to allow them to scamper from bench to playing area between songs, smooth as silk.

I’m not sure that Jason Robert Brown, who’s having quite a renaissance in New York of late (there was a recent production of The Last Five Years off Broadway), is an acquired taste, but I found that I enjoyed the songs, the scintillating lyrics and the unfussy production.

I’m also not certain why Hibbs and LeClair are playing an engagement that spans only ten days, August 11-21. Word of mouth is good, and so are the reviews, but even so, ten days leaves this excellent piece little time to build an audience. Go, for heaven’s sakes, if at all possible. Fri at 8pm, Sat at 4pm, and Sun at 2pm. Ion theatre Blkbox, 3704 Sixth Ave at Pennsylvania,  or 619-600-5020.

And in New York:

The Last Five Years – with Tony Award-winner Cynthia Ervivo and Tony Award nominee Joshua Henry – will be performed one night only in concert, with orchestra conducted by Brown. It benefits the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and takes place at Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St., NY NY. Tickets at Ticketmaster.

Inner Mission’s Shrew

Playing catch up, I dragged myself to Diversionary Theatre’s Black Box August 19 to see Inner Mission Theatre’s Taming of the Shrew, a play that I do not hate. The performance was well attended by an audience that found the entire proceedings guffaw-guffaw funny and screamed a great deal. I found it less funny than they – perhaps they were laughing at friends who played roles stereotypically, which was in some cases funny and in others, not so. In any case it was heartening to see so many people enjoying themselves so raucously.

There were highly praised performances that palled on me after a few scenes, and others that I expected to be terrible that were absolute acting breakthroughs for the people involved. However, I will say that at the top of the show in particular there are several ear-splitting scenes, and I feared it was going to be an entire evening of shouting. It was not. 

Pappas as Kate dresses down Castellaw as her father, Baptista
Photo by Adriana Zuniga-Williams
 There are many moments of excellence, surprise and enjoyment, primarily elicited by the performances of Kym Pappas as Katherina of Padua and Steve Froelich as Petruchio, he who “comes to wive it wealthily” and so enjoys his taming of the “forward” woman that no one else will have. I’ve seen this actor many times but was absolutely blown over by this performance, which is fascinating, forceful and virile and delivered with a subtle glee. Pappas is indeed a nasty Kate: Just witness her treatment of her younger sister Bianca (Jamie Channnell Guzman) and her father, Baptista (Joel Castellaw), and then, her ultimate melting and delivery of the so-offensive-to-some message at play’s end, so intelligently and directly delivered.
Pappas and Froelich -- a hot team
Photo by Adriana Zuniga-Williams 

Director Carla Nell’s concept works – a modern setting with numerous cases of gender–switched roles – and so does the speed with which scene transitions are made, the minimal props, the modern attire by Alanna Serrano (Lucentio’s suit is a dream, other costumes, amusing) and the let-down table for the scenes in Petruchio’s household, ingenious (scenic design by Michael McKeon). Bare bones indeed, but it works, at least for this Shrew veteran.

The Taming of the Shrew continues through August 27 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard. More info at