Monday, February 13, 2017

Blue Door and 9 to 5

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard
Blue Door at Moxie

As part of my catch-up endeavor, I attended Tanya Barfield’s Blue Door Friday, Feb. 10 at Moxie Theatre. On the surface, the play would appear a radical departure from the theatre’s mission to produce women’s work, being that the two-person acting company is all male. However, as Jennifer Eve Thorn pointed out in a pre-show chitchat, be that as it may, the production provided more opportunities for female designers and technicians than any of the shows in Moxie’s 12-year history. 

”One of the ways we fulfill our mission is by defying stereotypes,” it is written in the program, “whether related to what women write about (in this case men) or whether it’s about what jobs they excel at. So this play is about men AND it’s brought to you by a whole host of really fierce females. How MOXIE is that?”
Vimel Sephus as Lewis
Photo by Daren Scott

The astonishing two-hander is directed by Founding Artistic Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and features Vimel Sephus as the protagonist, Lewis, a highly educated mathematician, university professor and author, whose wife (unseen but voiced by Sephus) is leaving him because he refuses to participate in the 1995 Million Man March on Washington D.C. She thinks his participation might re-connect him with his own blackness. Playing other characters, including Lewis’s ancestors, is Cortez L. Johnson.

Cortez Johnson as Simon
Photo by Daren Scott
Both men are Moxie veterans. Sephus, a San Diego native, played in Moxie’s peerless and Our Lady of Kibeho, and Johnson played the title role in Kimber Lee’s Brownsville Song (b-side for Tray). Bringing these two together for Blue Door is the most powerful match-up of two black actors since ion theatre produced (and Sonnenberg directed) Susan Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog with Laurence Brown and Mark Christopher Lawrence in 2012.

Lewis has been plagued by insomnia ever since his wife left and he was placed on forced sabbatical. Principally, the nightly storytellers include his great-grandfather, Simon, a slave in love with Katie Maddox, who works on a neighboring plantation; his grandfather, Jesse; his abusive, drunken father, Charles; and his brother, Rex. Lewis is the only one in this long line of intelligent ancestors who went to college, and he’s very proud of it. But now, things are falling apart.

The richness of the storytelling, even though Lewis doesn’t want to hear it, is what ultimately restores the man and allows him to stop hating. How this unfolds is brilliant, exacting, and precise, splendidly paced and performed and interlaced with song. The onlooker is stunned by the truth that has kept Lewis prisoner for so long.

Bravo to director, playwright and actors for this satisfying and grueling journey (played without interval), and special thanks to the women artists who built it: Victoria Petrovich, scenic design; Shelly Williams, costumes; Sherrice Mojgani, lights; Emily Jankowski, sound, Angelica Ynfante, props; and Leigh Scarritt, vocal coach and pianist.

Blue Door has just been extended through March 5 at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego. or 858-598-7620.

9 to 5 at San Diego Musical Theatre

Having seen Topher Payne’s 1950s era play, Perfect Arrangement (Intrepid Theatre at Horton Grand Theatre) the night before, I felt catapulted to another era again (this time the ‘70s) when I witnessed a Sunday matinee of Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 at the Spreckels Theatre. Based on the hit film with Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, the piece is surely one of the silliest and most hyperactive musicals ever gestated, and it is held together by a rock score with a decidedly country feel (played at the Spreckels by a fine 12-piece band conducted by Music Director Don LeMaster). It’s tailor made for Parton fans, because she wrote music and lyrics. Patricia Resnick wrote the book.
The infamous toking scene
Alison Spratt Pearce, Joy Yandell and Karyn Overstreet
Photo Ken Jacques

The production at the Spreckels is that of San Diego Musical Theatre, playing through February 26. Interesting to note that actor who played the detested boss, Franklin Hart, Jr., in the 2009 Broadway premiere of 9 to 5 was Marc Kudisch, who played the beloved boss in the world premiere of Thoroughly Modern Millie at La Jolla Playhouse.
David S. Humphrey as Hart, Karyn Overstreet as Doralee
Photo by Ken Jacques
Hart is portrayed here by David S. Humphrey, and I must admit to not recognizing him immediately and to forgetting what a great voice he has, robust, well produced and musically accurate. It’s a Broadway quality piece of work, and so are the performances of the three women protagonists. This is what we’ve come to expect of San Diego Musical Theatre.

If you recall the original film, the Parton role is Doralee (here, Karyn Overstreet), a bountifully endowed blonde rumored to be having affair with the married Mr. Hart. The Fonda role is recently deserted and divorced Judy (Allison Spratt Pearce) who arrives for her first day of work at Consolidated Companies and is taken under the wing of Violet (Joy Yandell in the Tomlin role), a vibrant redhead and longtime employee.
Yandell in "One of the Boys"
with the male ensemble
Photo by Ken Jacques

Quite by accident, the (powerhouse singers) three gain control of the company (Hart is held captive in his own home), and make changes (they forge Hart’s signature), gaining the love of their co-workers and approval of the company’s board chairman (a wonderful cameo by Paul Morgavo), who exiles Hart to a South American branch, and elevates Violet to CEO of this one.

Over the course of this unfolding tale, directed by Cynthia Ferrer and choreographed by Tamlyn Shusterman (some wonderful tap ensembles), we meet many co-workers, including Candi Milo as Roz, Chaz Fuerstine as Joe, and Wendy Waddell as Margaret. Others in the company are Danielle Airey, Scott Arnold, Jordi Bertran, Gerilyn Brault, Caitlin Calfas, Ryan Dietrich, Steven Freitas, Donny Gersonde, Siri Hafso, Catie Marron, Shayne Mims, Alex Nemiroski, Janissa Saracino, Kaleb Scott, Tara Shoemaker, Bethany Slmka, Kendra Truett, and Austin Wright. Christina J. Martin is lighting designer; Janet Pitcher, costume designer; and Kevin Anthenill, sound designer.

9 to 5 plays at 7:30pm Thursdays, 8pm Fridays and Saturdays, and 2pm Sundays, Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, Downtown, $32-$72 (discounts for students, children, seniors, under 30 and groups), or 858-560-5740.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Of Music and War (Mozart and An Iliad)

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard
A Weekend of Challenge

Of Music

John Adams’ 1996 duet for two pianos titled Hallelujah Junction is named after a truck stop on the California-Nevada border near a cabin owned by the composer. The challenging (all the way around) minimalist work capped Anne-Marie McDermott and Christopher O’Riley’s Mainly Mozart Spotlight Series two piano recital in La Jolla’s Auditorium at TSRI February 4. Before they played the notoriously fraught work McDermott urged the audience, “Wish us luck.” Such is the difficulty of the relentlessly demanding work, which repeats dense patterns rhythmically based on “ha-le-LU-jah” (as the composer says, not so much “ha” at first, but eventually it encompasses the entire iteration of the word.
Christopher O'Riley
Courtesy of Mainly Mozart

The repetitions progress tonally and motifs are tossed back and forth, yet so tightly interwoven that woe betide any pianist who gets lost. If either artist got lost Saturday night, it was imperceptible to this listener, awestruck that they could possibly play the work at the end of such a challenging program, which included Camille St. SaĆ«ns’ Variations on a Theme of Beethoven, Robert Schumann’s intensely conversational Andante and Variations, Opus 46; and Sergei Rachmaninov’s lusciously operatic Suite No. 1, Opus 5.

Anne-Marie McDermott
Courtesy of Mainly Mozart
Curator of the Mainly Mozart Spotlight Series since 2012 and affiliated with Mainly Mozart since 1996, McDermott is both impeccable and fierce, a brilliant artist who wears many musical hats, among them artistic director of Colorado’s Bravo! Vail Music Festival. She and O’Riley played a two-piano recital last season and it was so popular that patrons insisted on an encore performance. Both Avery Fisher Career Grant recipients, they are perfect foils for one another in passion, precision and personality. The engaging O’Riley, host of NPR’s From the Top, was recently named director of the Tipper Rise Art Center, a 12,000-acre center outside Fishtail, MT. His first season of concerts took place last summer.

For those who wondered: O’Riley’s “page turner” is a foot pedal connected to the score-containing laptop he set up on his piano. McDermott’s page-turner was a human being.

The Meandering Quartett
Courtesy of Mainly Mozart
Next up at Mainly Mozart: The Mandelring Quartett from Germany returns March 11 and 12 playing two individual programs that feature works by Haydn, Victor Ullmann, Dvorak, Mozart and Brahms. The TSRI concert is at 7:30 Saturday, with Sunday concerts at 2:30 pm at St. Elizabeth Seton Church in Carlsbad and at 6pm at the Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club. Saturday and Sunday concerts are not identical. Each evening program is preceded by a wine reception an hour before the concert. The concert, played straight through, is followed by a brief Q and A.

Of War

An Iliad at New Village Arts
Linda Libbey as Poet
Photo by Daren Scott

In their preface to the script of An Iliad (based on Homer’s epic tale as translated by Robert Fagles) co-authors Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare say it’s a play about war, and that the Poet/Storyteller is a “compendium of war” that has been telling the story of the Trojan War and others for centuries. Apparently, the Poet was there. They caution not to take the play as pro-war or anti-war, that the piece is neutral and concerns humankind’s proclivity for war and fascination with (addiction to?) the rage inherent in conflict. As the poet says, “Every time I sing this song, I hope it will be the last.”
The Poet and her Muse (Gunnar Biggs)
Photo by Daren Scott

War weary Poet
Photo by Daren Scott

Nonetheless, I believe that each who witnesses this one-person narration takes a side and terms it what he or she will. I call it a great anti-war piece, and I came home with severe battle fatigue, immediately passing out in my recliner, having fought at least this 9-year war with the Poet (profoundly splendid Linda Libby).

Serious San Diego theatregoers last saw An Iliad at La Jolla Playhouse in August 2012 with the estimable Henry Woronicz (marvelous actor and former artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival) as the Poet. The gender change matters not at all. In fact, the authors encourage it. To have seen two such superb actors in the role of the Poet in one lifetime is indeed a privilege.

That is not to say the piece makes for an easy evening in the theatre. It is relentless, compelling and devastating. Libby and director Jacole Kitchen’s collaboration bears wondrous fruit, and the enlistment of bassist Gunnar Biggs as the Muse is brilliant. Melanie Chen is sound designer; Alex Crocker-Lakness, lighting designer; and Mary Larson, costume designer.

The Poet is as war weary as the thousands of Greek warriors camped or anchored at Ilium. The Trojan Horse and the return of the raped Helena to Troy (her abduction was said to have launched these thousand ships) are yet to come. The Poet limns each hero, fallen soldiers, and in so doing celebrates and mourns heroes throughout history. In one telling sequence, the Poet names earth’s wars, which stack upon one another as they are projected upon the ships’ sails in John Anderson’s scenic design. How long till the singing is not needed is the question.

Libby fans rejoice in the “singing,” passionately delivered narration, which utilizes all ranges of her voice as pertains to pitch and intensity. She plays upon her own vocal cords with reasoned discipline, for the play is about rage. It is a stunning performance, clearly the pinnacle of the actor’s craft.

Achilles, Hector, Priam, Patroclus, Andromache, and Helen are just a few of the characters to whom the Poet gives voice, abetted by her Muse (Biggs) as she relates the
vital and timely tale. They represent all the lost sons, husbands and lovers of our eternity. Especially now.

An Iliad
By Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare
8pm Thursdays-Saturdays; 3pm Saturdays; 2pm Sundays through February 26
New Village Arts Theatre, 3787 State Street, Carlsbad Village or 760-433-3245

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Matilda the Musical

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard
Matilda the Musical at Civic Theatre through Sunday

Wednesday night I complied with a friend’s request to take him to the Broadway San Diego presentation of the Broadway touring production of the Matilda the Musical. He is a fan of Roald Dahl, who wrote the 19988children’s book upon which the 2010 musical is based.

Like almost everyone in the world, I’m aware of British author Dahl, in my case principally because of his book turned film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which starred my all-time favorite screen actor, Gene Wilder. How I missed reading Dahl’s books when I was younger is a mystery to me.

At any rate, the musical is a showcase for the heroism of one small English girl, (Matilda, played opening night by Jenna Weir) who uses her own considerable powers to change the outcome of her unhappy life. She is being raised by her mother, Mrs. Wormwood (Darcy Stewart) a self-involved blond more interested in Rudolpho (Stephen Diaz), her Latin dance partner, than in Matilda or Mr. Wormwood (Matt Harrington), an entrepreneurial schemer who insists on referring to Matilda as “He.”
Company of Matilda
Photo by Joan Marcus

Already able to read and speak several languages, the 5-year-old, largely self taught Matilda is sent to a boarding school run by the outrageously cruel Miss Trunchbull (Dan Chameroy, playing in drag), where her champions are the kindly librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Keisha T. Fraser), and her teacher, Miss Honey (Jennifer Bowles). The school is attended by all manner of equally mistreated youngsters, who do a bang-up job singing and getting the words across, a ­­criterion insisted upon from the beginning by the musical’s director Matthew Warchus and creators Dennis Kelly (book) and Tim Minchin (music and lyrics).

All the lead performances are excellent, especially that of the indefatigable Weir as Matilda (she shares the role with two other girls here in San Diego). Chameroy is fabulous in his drag role, treading the thin line between too much and just enough much, and I was particularly enamored of Bowles as Miss Honey, who also has a line to tread, too sweet and treacly or just right. Despite his inhumanity, the cuckold Harrington (a graduate of Pt. Loma High School) manages to find a grain of humanity in Mr. Wormwood.

Despite some wonderful songs (“When I Grow Up” is among the best) there are numerous so-so songs (the kids in the audience didn’t mind a bit) and throughout the evening the decibel level is so high that the show grows quite fatiguing as it slowly creeps toward a satisfying denouement. Judicious cuts would bring it in at a much more manageable length. This is not an original thought.

Jenna Weir, Jaime MacLean and Hannah Levinson 
all star as Matilda.  
Photo  ©2016, Joan Marcus


opening night, Musical Director Bill Congdon conducted a travelling and local orchestra comprising union musicians. Rob Howell is the set and costume designer, Peter Darling the choreographer, Simon
Baker the sound designer, and Hugh Vanstone the lighting designer.

Matilda the Musical
San Diego Civic Theatre
Through Sunday, February 5 or 888-937-8995