Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The last holiday hurrahs -- SDMT, Diversionary, NVA Lythgoe,

The Week in Theatre December 7-11

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard

Snow White a delightful surprise

Without hope of being wildly entertained, I went to the Lythgoe Family Panto titled Snow White Christmas that’s playing at San Diego Repertory Theatre through December 24. Though I wasn’t wildly entertained – when was the last time? The opening of Memphis? – the family friendly piece certainly exceeded my expectations, and I would see it again next year even though it’s not strictly Christmas entertainment.

Book writer Kris Lythgoe tells the story of a handsome prince (James Royce Edwards – heavy on the biceps, light on the brains) who must marry or lose his kingdom. The Wicked Queen (Yvette Casonhas just found out from her Magic Mirror (Neil Patrick Harris, projected in a descending frame) that she is no longer fairest of them all, and, hoping for replenishment of her coffers, sequesters her ward, the fairest Snow White (Olivia Stuck), so that handsome Prince Harry of La Jolla won’t see her. Meanwhile Snow has champions in the palace, adorable Muddles the Jester (Jonathan Meza, an appealing and adept physical comedian and singer and graduate of Coronado School of the Arts) and Herman the Huntsman (Neil Dale, best set of pipes in the show). Herman is ordered to take Snow into the forest and slay her. Fortunately he disobeys.
Olivia Stuck as Snow White, with the Seven Dwarves

Snow White instead hides in the forest, eventually at the cabin inhabited by the Seven Dwarves, who are played by charming and talented young folks in enormous fake heads.

It’s a darling show, easily followed by the youngest audience members and enjoyed by the adults – parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. A truly delightful, shared activity for all. There are 12 musical numbers, including “YMCA,” and a number of additional opportunities to sing along. You’re even invited to boo the villainous Queen. The show is directed and choreographed by Chris Baldock.

Presented Wednesdays through Sundays by San Diego Theatres in collaboration with San Diego Repertory Theatre, Snow White Christmas continues through December 24 in the Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza. Tickets at San Diego Theatres’ advance sales windows at 3rd and B (adjacent to the Civic Theatre), or via phone at (619/760/858) 570-1100 or http://sandiegotheatres.org/a-snow-white-christmas.

Diversionary presents The Mystery of Love and Sex

Diversionary Theatre Executive Artistic Director Matt M. Morrow once again shows his directorial chops with Bathsheba Doran’s The Mystery of Love and Sex, a highly praised off-Broadway comedy last season.

It’s an exceptionally funny yet profound, four-character work that explores how we love each other, make assumptions, and ultimately make room for one another's quirks in intimate relationships that matter, relationships with parents, best friends, and ourselves. Principally, it concerns how we discover ourselves as sexual beings, loving, and accepting who we are, who we are becoming, and in the process still forgiving self and others.

Howard (Mike Sears), the patriarch, is really pissed off at his daughter, Charlotte (Rachael VanWormer), because she gave up Yale attendance in order to attend a less prestigious university in a nearby southern town (there’s moss growing on the trees) to be close to Jonny (John W. Wells III in his Diversionary debut) who’s been her best pal since they were 9. In fact, the African-American boy has spent so much time at his home that Howard considers him another child).
John W. Wells III, Marci Anne Wuebben and Mike Sears
Photo: Courtesy of Diversionary Theatre

Howard’s wife, Lucinda (Marci Anne Wuebben), no longer loves him. He’s put her aside in many ways for at least seven years, too engrossed in writing hit detective novels and sleeping with others to pay her any mind. Lucinda has resorted at last to marijuana and booze to fill the void. She, too, loves Charlotte, and when Charlotte and Jonny invite the older couple to their college dorm room for dinner, the parental units begin projecting the future, which is not at all what they imagine.

Jonny, a closeted Baptist, is a virgin. Though she tries to seduce him in one of play’s funniest scenes, Charlotte is attracted to another woman.

All four characters have a lot of self-discovery and growing up to do, and they do it in the funniest and most endearing ways. Even Howard’s racism, superiority complex and patriarchal privilege are funny and forgivable because he is basically a good guy. But then, in the hands of Sears, how could it be otherwise?

VanWormer, Wuebben and Wells are edgy, adept and well used, and although the play does have its Act II longueurs, the evening is extremely humorous, with the humor emanating from character, and that’s the best kind. Lee Howeth contributes an admirable 11th hour cameo appearance Howard’s fatheras grandfather.

Bravo Elisa Benzoni’s costume design and Sean Fanning’s scenic design, which features a most fascinating tree emblematic of the lives so meticulously limned by the playwright.

The Mystery of Love and Sex continues Thursdays through Sundays through December 24 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, University Heights, diversionary.org or 619-220-0097.

New Village Arts The 1940s Radio Hour

It’s frightening to see a show you thought you’d seen and not recall a moment of it. This was the case with New Village Arts’ The 1940s Radio Hour, Sunday, Dec. 11. Relief came the next day when I found the title in last year’s schedule with a line drawn through it; if I recall it had something to do with scheduling conflict occasioned by a trip to San Francisco.

Be that as it may, I was delighted by the quality of this show, too, though Kelly Kissinger’s all-interior scenic design is nuts and bolts compared to Michael McKeon’s opulent set for SDMT. NVA’s is likely much more realistic, though I do recall the ambience of live audience radio shows of the era such as Don McNeill’s “Breakfast Club” as pretty opulent.
Wolfe and Levas, sweethearts of 1940s
Photo by Shaun Hagen, Top Shelf Photo

Writer Walton Jones sets his musical revue on Christmas Eve 1942 at WOV, New York City, where one of the characters, B.J. Gibson (appealing Zackary Scot Wolfe) is about to ship overseas in the hope of ending the war by Christmas 1944. His sweetheart, Connie Miller, is played by Danielle Levas, a zesty blond who is also choreographer. The two perform a lovely dance duet, and Levas has a patriotic tap number at the 11th hour. Dana Case directed the two-hour production.

The company of The 1940s Musical Radio Show
Photo by Shaun Hagen, Top Shelf Photo
Titular star of the radio show is the alcohol-infused Johnny Cantone (Eric M. Casalini), who fancies himself quite the ladies man. It’s intimated he’s bedded both his ingénues, played by Kelly Derouin and Marlene Montes. Other radio station staff and actor/singers in the radio show are played by Jake Bradford, Kevanne La’Marr Coleman, Tony Houck (music director, at the keyboard), A.J. Knox, Jack Missett, Trevor Mulvey (on bass), and Li-Anne Rowswell. Most all sing and dance as they present this dizzying array of characters, some of them wannabe performers. Especially complicated is the sudden en mass appearance of all, in a rush as they make their frantic entrances at the top of the show, all late because of a gathering blizzard.

This over-stuffed production (would that it were over-stuffed with consistently outstanding talent), though it has a Christmas tree, is not so much a holiday show as a variety show. There are five songs of the season among the 19 musical numbers and a brief reference to A Christmas Carol. Otherwise, it’s musical nostalgia about the WWII era.

The 1940s Radio Hour continues through December 31 at New Village Arts, 2767 State Street, Carlsbad Village. www.newvillagearts.org or 760-433-3245.

The Monday after

The week that was began anew on Monday, Dec 12 with attendance of Write Out Loud’s Voices of Christmas at Cygnet’s Old Town Theater. If I weren’t in the holiday spirit already, this marvelously rich entertainment would have put me there. With music by Celtic Echoes, the program of literary works included vocal solos by Walter Ritter and Kürt Norby, whose sweet and lovely rendition of “I’ll be Home for Christmas” closed the program, which included works by W.H. Auden, Katherine Ann Porter, among others, and Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” superbly read by Steven J. Warner. Other actor/readers were Mark Christopher Lawrence and Veronica Murphy.

The coming week is devoted to social activities, but  culminates in San Diego Symphony’s Noel Noel featuring Brian Stokes Mitchell. Then I am silent through the end of the year, but returning December 21 on my own dime and my own time to ion theatre’s wondrous The Normal Heart. It’s a good way to end the theatrical year.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Dybbuk and Houston Grand Opera

Charlene Baldridge Photo by Ken Howard
To all, a report from beyond
an odd mix of personal news and reviews

I just returned from chilly, wet Houston to chilly San Diego, making me wish I were still in Tampa, as I was several weeks ago.  All my travels lately have had to do with the music of Jake Heggie. Ah, the life of an 82-year-old groupie. What can I say? Jake and I met in 2000 just prior to the opening of his opera Dead Man Walking, and I’ve been a devotee of the man and his music ever since. Any reviewing of his work is marked by my high regard. 

The earlier Tampa trip was to hear three performances of the orchestral work Jake set on my late daughter Laura Morefield’s long poem, “The Work at Hand.” Two performances of this work (which was premiered in Carnegie Hall in 2015) have just been announced by the Mainly Mozart Festival, this year titled Finding His Voice: Beauty Through Adversity. Artistic director is Michael Francis, who conducted the premiere of the orchestral version by Pittsburgh Symphony and also the recent performances with his orchestra, The Florida Orchestra.

Andrew Shulman 

Deborah Nansteel

Performed in the chamber music version for mezzo soprano, cellist and piano, “The Work at Hand” will open the Mainly Mozart Festival June 2 and 3 at Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club and the auditorium of TSRI respectively. Mezzo soprano Deborah Nansteel, cellist Andrew Shulman and pianist Anna Polonsky will perform the work.

I am beyond happy about this development, and just as soon as my Houston to San Diego flight landed Sunday afternoon (December 4), I took Lyft to a Mainly Mozart Club Amadeus social event that presented recitalist Shulman, the cellist who will play "The Work at Hand" in June. He played two of Bach’s unaccompanied suites for cello.

Charlene at brunch the day following the opening
In Houston December 1-4

My trip to Houston, where I stayed at the Lancaster, a magnificent boutique hotel, was to attend the opening of Heggie’s newest opera, It’s a Wonderful Life. There I met my friends Nancy Meacham, her sister Mary Kay, and Sara, Mary Kay’s daughter. These women are Jake groupies too, all part of the wonderful life with which I have been blessed.-
Sara, Mary Kay and Nancy with mezzo soprano Talise Trevigne,
who portrays Clara, the angel who saves George Bailey

Just Before Leaving, 
an unusual wedding reception

Wednesday, Nov. 30 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, somewhere in the maze of the draperies that conceal ongoing renovation of the public areas, the inveterate theatregoer discovered a wedding reception for a couple named Hannah and Sam. The bridegroom had yet to appear, the bride was babbling incoherently, and a man who identified himself as Uncle Jerry had taken possession of the microphone by way of offering a toast, perhaps as a stalling device.

Add to this little paper plates with partially eaten wedding cake and a poured libation (sparkling apple juice) for those lucky enough to be at tables in front of the bandstand, which held a bewildered trio of fiddle, accordion and bass, who played an odd mix of Yiddish music, show tunes (heavy on Fiddler) and Christmas carols.

It was all part of The Dybbuk for Hannah and Sam’s Wedding, writer and director Todd Salovey’s attempt to make sense of a baffling, age-old legend told in S. Ansky’s play. Salovey’s written a one man tour de force for actor/clown Ron Campbell (R. Buckminster Fuller: The History and Mystery of the Universe), who plays all the wedding guests as well as the Dybbuk that has taken possession of the bride. Campbell is abetted by composer/ethnographer Yale Strom on fiddle, Mark Danisovsky on accordion, and Tim McNally on bass.

A Dybbuk is a super powerful spirit of a dead person who must take possession of another soul, or forever roam. The only way a Dybbuk in residence can be exorcised is by a super powerful rabbi, known as a rebbe. Fortunately, Campbell has a rebbe up his sleeve and thus the bride and her wedding to Sam are rescued, but not before the complicated and legendary folktale is explicated. Or not.

Ron Campbell as Uncle Jerry at al

It seems the bride’s and the Dybbuk’s parents were devoted, newlywed friends who promised that if one couple gave birth to a boy child and the other to a girl, then their children would be married from infancy. Something goes wrong, the boy dies…am I spoiling the story for you?  Really, it doesn’t matter. You get the idea.

I almost said “The casting is splendid,” as indeed it is, even though “they” at times seemed on opening night to be laboring a bit. Other credits: scenic design by Giulio Perrone, lighting by Sherrice Mogani, costumes by Anastasia Pautova, and sound and projection design byJoe Huppert.

The Dybbuk for Hannah and Sam’s Wedding continues through December 18 at the Lyceum Space, San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza. www.sdrep.org 619-544-1000

It's a Wonderful Life

Creating an opera based on a film classic is a formidable job (no matter what you do, no one will be completely
happy), so when composer Jake Heggie and his librettist Gene Scheer were commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco  Opera and Indiana University Jacobs School of Music to do It’s a Wonderful Life, they took extraordinary measures visually and dramaturgically to make sure it was not a regurgitation of George Bailey’s “wasted” life in fictional Bedford Falls.

They enlisted trusted colleagues – conductor Patrick Summers, director Leonard Foglia, scenic designer Robert Brill, projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy, lighting designer Brian Nason, and choreographer Keturah Stickann – plus costume designer David C. Woolard, and sound designer Andrew Harper – and strode off into territory that was far from the expected.

D’Ana Lombard, Winged Angel, First Class; Yongzhao Yu, Winged Angel, First Class; 
Talise Trevigne, Clara; William Burden, George Bailey; Zoie Reams, Winged Angel, First Class; 
Ben Edquist, Winged Angel, First Class Photo by Karen Almond
Photo by Karen Almond

In advance we knew that Clarence, the angel in the story that is sent to rescue George Bailey from suicide, would be female. Clara is sung/acted by Talise Trevigne, who created the role of Pip, the cabin boy, in Heggie’s Moby-Dick.  The role he has written for her is wondrous, taking advantage of her high voice and her sense of humor. While the other four Winged Angels, First Class (D'Ana Lombard, Zoie Reams,Yongzhao Yu and Federico De Michelis), are able to fly (they are marvelously endowed with enormous feathers) Clara has spent 200 years on a trapeze, waiting for her chance to be worthy. 

When prayers for Bailey (stupendous, effective tenor William Burden) start coming through to her she is selected to save him, but first must learn his life and motivations. To do this she must descend to earth and open a series of doors, each representing a day in his life. The unfolding of the familiar tale thus begins.

The opera beautifully cast and orchestrated, with plenty of ensembles and impressive singers, such as Rod Gilfrey, who portrays both the druggist, Mr. Gower, and the avaricious Mr. Potter, who owns most of Bedford Falls. Joshua Hopkins is terrific as Harry Bailey, George’s brother; tenor Anthony Dean Griffey (San Diego Opera’s Of Mice and Men), a marvelous actor, is well heard and exceptionally endearing as Uncle Billy; and soprano Andrea Carroll displays appealing vocalism as Mary Hatch, George’s beloved. The Bailey children are played by some terrific children, Levi Smith, C.J. Friend and Elle Grace Graper, who speak and cavort but do not sing.

To depart so radically from the reality of representation many operagoers expect is truly brave and bold. Whether Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life becomes the opera world’s much needed Nutcracker, as San Francisco Classical Voice suggests, remains to be seen. San Francisco Opera will present the West Coast premiere in the 2018 season. Next fall it will be produced at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

Happy holidays, everyone. See you next week.