Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Composer Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” Completes San Diego Opera Season.

It was twenty -four years ago almost to the month that Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s opera “Rappaccini’s Daughter” made its U.S. debut at the Civic Theatre under the auspices of The San Diego Opera. His “Amazonas” became the first Mexican opera to be produced by a professional opera company. 
Elaine Alverez
Now in a return visit with his “Florencia en el Amazonas”, the opera season winds down with another first; “Florencia en el Amazonas” was the first opera in Spanish to be commissioned by an opera company in the U.S. It premiered in Houston in 1996.

‘Florencia’ with libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain and characters by Columbian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, (Based loosely on his novel ‘Love in the Time of Cholera) with the central character Florencia Grimaldi (soprano Elaine Alveraz), a famous opera star who is returning to her homeland in Brazil.
Cast of "Florencia en el Amazonas"
She, along with other passengers, are on a steamboat journey making their way down the Amazon. She is engaged to sing at the opera house in Manaus; they hoped to hear her sing one more time.  There she also hoped to connect with her former lover Cristóbal, a butterfly hunter who disappeared into the jungle. She hasn’t seen him in twenty years but still longs for those times.   

On the boat there are several other characters that fill in with a subplot that holds the story, thin as it is, together.  Her interaction with the others is almost nonexistent.  She broods and sings of her sadness and longing to meet up with her former lover.
Maria Fernanda Castillo and Daniel Montenegro
Her arias are beautifully executed but always soulful.  It’s not a bad thing when you are listening to Alveraz’ gorgeous and soaring soprano voice but for the most part, she pretty much plants herself along the steamboat rails or stairway and sings her heart out.  She was flawless on opening night but it all became repetitive after a while.

Under other circumstances I could listen all day to her impassioned pleas of loneliness and hope. Her voice is simply stunning. But it does leave some void as far as the thinly veiled story is concerned.

Desire to hear Grimaldi one last time connects those on the journey to her. That she is among them traveling in disguise is another matter. Everyone sings about her but no one seems to recognize her until much later.
Levi Hernandez and Adriana Zabala
Rosalba, (Soprano Maris Frenenda Castillo is another voice with which to be reckoned) is a journalist planning to write a book about Grimaldi, and to her surprise and almost astonishment, she becomes enamored with the steamboat captain’s  (Baritone Hector Vasquez is perfect) nephew Arcadio (Tenor Daniel Montenegro) who has somewhat of a jaded past but proves himself worthy after a storm grounds the ship.

On a lighter side Paula and Alvaro (Mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala and Levi Hernandez) appear to be the more mature and all too married couple along to hear Grimaldi sing.

They bicker almost throughout about lost opportunities; pride and crisis adding needed levity to this all too heavy hitting piece. Zabala’s mezzo voice is beyond magnificent. Of the women she is the most animated and, I must add, the most three-dimensional.

Luis Elejandro Orozco
This is all on the human side of Catán’s opera. What fascinates, however is the dream like quality of the setting beneath the waters.  Ríolobo, (Baritone Louis Alejandro Orozco) the ships mate acts as both narrator and later shows up as one of the river spirits.

His baritone voice is almost larger than the man himself, etched in tattoos, commanding in his head -dress and focusing all our attention to him. His rich voice is like a magnet and his wonderful energy makes up for the lack of it in the libretto.

The magical scenes (Mark Frederic Smith) dimly lit by Todd Hensley set the eerie mood with Candace Evans direction and choreography, and Linda Pisano’s costumes that bring a fairy tale look to the under water creatures, which are in stark contrast to the light- weight linens of the earthly folks and the realistic and functioning two -story steam -boat that pretty much becomes its own character. The underwater dwellers rolling around next to the boat however were a major distraction to yours truly.
Luis Alejandro Orozco and inderwater nymphs
Conductor Joseph Mechavich was in full charge of his orchestra that played flawlessly. Bruce Stasyna’s opera chorus was on top of their game, but there wasn’t very much for them to do.

In Cátan’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” poisonous plants become the focus of his attention. Now underwater creatures, a magical rainforest, sea nymphs, and butterflies pave the way for some rich arias, dreamy atmosphere and hope of new beginnings.

Hats off The San Diego Opera for bringing new operas with quality and skilled musicians, across the spectrum, to our community.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Fri. March 23rd at 7 pm, Sunday (mat) March 25th at 2pm
Organization: San Diego Opera
Phone: 619-533-7000
Production Type: Opera
Where: 3rdAvenue and B Street
Ticket Prices: Start at $35.00
Venue: Civic Theatre
Photo: J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Phil Johnson’s “A Jewish Joke”: Serious Business in A World Gone Mad

Sadie, an elderly Jewish lady, is leaving the garment district to go home from work. Suddenly a man who has been walking towards her stands in front of her, blocks her path, opens up his raincoat and flashes his wares in all their sordid glory. Sadie looks at him and says: 
"You call that a lining?’’ Badda Boom!

Funnyman, writer, comic, actor, husband, father and mensch (a person of integrity and honor; noble character) come to mind when thinking about Phil Johnson.
Phil Johnson as Bernie Lutz
So it was no coincidence that the character, Bernie Lutz, Phil Johnson plays in his (and Marni Freedman’s) bitter sweet comedy drama “A Jewish Joke”, now making a revival at Moxie Theatre through April 8th, is asked by his mother (in the play) to show up as a mensch in his poverty stricken childhood home, and be the one to go out and earn a living for the family. He was the youngest of the children and the father was out of work.

Fast forward to 1950 and the world as many of us once (I remember it well) knew was under attack from none other than predecessor to Donald Trump (think Hispanic),  Joseph McCarthy, head of the House Committee on Un American Activities. He was looking for Commies under every bed, highway and byway and especially in the entertainment industry paying close attention the Jewish entertainers.

It was no secret that by 1947 a Hollywood Blacklist or 'Hollywood 10' including Hollywood directors, writers, and actors who were suspect of having their works inspired by communism or were known to have attended meetings or donated to those meetings were rounded up, like criminals, and forced to give testimony before the committie. 

There was a pamphlet that came out in 1950 “Red Channels or The report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television” listing suspected “Red Fascists, and their sympathizers”.

You can do your own research on which of the sanctimonious gave the committee names of their peers ruining their lives, families and robbing them of their livelihoods. It pains me too much to print their names in my blog.

In Johnson’s Jewish Joke” Bernie Lutz is a successful 54 year old business man. He is a writer and jokester, somewhat full of himself character on the verge of having one of his and his longtime partner and childhood friend Morris Frumasky’s projects, The Big Cashbah” a new comedy from MGM, opening to a world premiere that night.
Hovering over his joy and excitement in the next step of his successful career, and soon to be Hollywood premiere and walk of fame down the Red Carpet, is a letter he refers to is ‘this meshuggenah commie letter business. Lutz considers himself apolitical but admits that he did attend a fundraiser with Morris. No biggie, he but claims innocence when asked about it.

Throughout, Johnson’s Lutz fields one phone call after another from friends, acquaintances, producers, not so friendly friends, directors, FBI Agents, lawyers, his wife and a G-Man willing to ‘make a deal with Lutz.  

The one call he does not get is from his partner Frumsky. Keeping in mind the time frame. In between calls, he finds time to pull a series of 3x5 cards with jokes on them and deliver them to the audience. Funny thing, nothing was funny about what was about to happen to him as the play progresses. Another funny thing, it is well documented that comedy soothes the Jewish soul. 

There were no Caller ID’s; no call waiting and for the most part everything went through an operator or front desk secretary. The waiting for Frumsky or anyone of his friends or adversaries to call back and get answers to any number of his concerns, most importantly MGM that was cancelling his contract, was driving him crazy.

He also had contracts with a Marx Brothers film he was writing and a new sit -com for Danny Kaye. Other projects in the works were being siphoned off to other sources.
Even his conversations with the FBI, one almost had the feeling that Bernie wasn’t quite sure about his role in this investigation. He was funny man, wasn’t he? Politics was not his game. Forget that his own father was suspect of setting fire to a building during a long union strike. Stuff happened that is now coming back to haunt and ruin his career. If Bernie named names, he would be free and clear. It was, according to the FBI, the right thing to do.

But lets get back to that nagging Yiddish word: Menchkite. It doesn’t happen over night. It’s a learned behavior practiced over the years. And just as we thought Bernie was fed up with Morris, who by the way lied to him about his attendance at the ‘meetings’, that he would name names including Morris to the UHAC…Well like I said…

In a moving, well timed, well calculated tour de force performance Johnson crosses all his  T’s and dots all his I’s. This ‘comedy/drama’, under the direction of David Ellenstein, is not only unforgettable it’s what theatre is all about; stories that some minds might have forgotten and bringing them to the fore.

Yes there were movies about this particular time in history. But you are hearing from someone who actually lived through them and watched them on her small 12” RCA Television (“Have you no decency, sir?”) set. 

But this is one play with one man on stage for no less that 80 minutes giving it to you chapter and verse and pouring out all his energy into his experience. You will laugh, gasp in horror or cry at the dishonesty and injustice of it all, and applaud for the guts it took to stand up for what was right. BTY. Where are the righous now?  Not a mensch among them. 

In the right hands, and with a bravura performance as we were privileged to see just recently with Johnson at the forefront, its no wonder that this particular show is at the center of an old storm of rising new anti-Sematic discourse that has increased to new levels of concerns right here, right now.

With Matt Lescault-Wood’d sound design (conversations directly from the hearings) and Chloe Oliana M Clark’s lighting, Jordan Smiley’s brown generic 50’s suite on Johnson and a cluttered office room (no credits) and a nagging phone that doesn’t rest (Bonnie Durban (properties) the visuals are just right for the Moxie Space.

In 2016 “A Jewish Joke” was part of the S.D. Repertory Theatre’s 23rd Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival. That’s when yours truly first saw this piece and was moved beyond tears it was so exquisitely told. Seeing it again for the second time, I am no less impressed by its importance. 

Some things have been added. I can't remember if anything was left out. One addition is a schtick about a cat we never see. No need for that bit, but otherwise the story of his love and devotion he carries for his wife Elaine is beautifully told. 

Hats of to Johnson and The Roustabouts Theater Company. Its next move is to off-Broadway after this current run.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through April 8th
Organization: Roustabouts Theatre Co.
Phone: 619-728-7820
Production Type: Comedy/Tragedy
Where: 6663 El Cajon Blvd. Ste. N, San Diego, CA 92115
Ticket Prices: Start at $38.00
Venue: Moxie Theatre
Photo: Eric Woolsey

Friday, March 16, 2018

South Coast Rep’s “Cambodian Rock Band”~ Where Genocide and Music Collide.

Run, don’t walk to South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa to be among the first to catch Lauren Yee’s world premiere production of “Cambodian Rock Band” running through March 25th.

It’s not unusual to learn of war and the horrors of war years after the damage is done. Stories of soldiers returning from WWII, according to their children, never wanted to talk about their experiences in the war, they just wanted to get on with their lives here in their newly adopted country or back home to families waiting.  We are still hearing stories of the  six million Holocaust victims now told in movie reels.

Just recently San Diego audiences were privileged to see the San Diego Premiere of playwright Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone”. Nguyen, a first generation Vietnamese, writes about his Vietnamese parents and in particular his father, a helicopter pilot during the war who was trained in the states, and his heroic rescues during the evacuation of Vietnam when Saigon fell to the North.

It took Nguyen, now a grown man and playwright, years after the war to finally get his father and I suspect other Vietnam War veterans and Vietnamese-Americans to talk about their war experiences.Evidence of the effects can be seen all around in the faces of the homeless on the streets of any major city.

But the experiences and feelings his father finally blurted out to him gave another side to the American version of “Why are we trying to save a country no other nation succeeded at doing? It seems we were everywhere in Southeast Asia. We came we fought, we left.

We were also in Cambodia from 1970-75-78 with forces and money to boost and give assistance to the Cambodian Government of Prince Sihanouk to ‘promote human rights and foster economic development among others things but mainly to keep the Khmer Rough on the straight and narrow. For a short time some modernity returned to the country ushering in the era of rock and roll and the musical influences of other outside nations.

In 1975 the Khmer Rough under Pol Pot’s Regime came swooping in arresting citizens for crimes against the government.  Music was barred and all roads out were shuttered. Western influenced rock music or the Cambodian Rock scene was all but hijacked, the musicians were imprisoned and that was the night the music died.  

A majority of those who did manage to leave when early warning signs were seen settled for the most part in Long Beach Ca.  After the final roundup no one could leave the country. Thousands were thrown into Cell S 21 where, over the next four years three million Cambodians were exterminated. Eight of those held in S 21managed to leave, somehow. One unidentified, was believed to be out there.

Our story picks up in Phnom Penh, Cambodia thirty years later and travels back and forth in time between then and now. Yee’s ‘Band’ story is a father daughter revelation about not knowing ‘what daddy did in the war’ thirty years later. Following a high- energy concert with the musicians in the band our M.C. Dutch (Diasuke Tsuji) hops up on stage and introduces himself to us.
Brooke Ishibashi and Joe Ngo
Neary (Brooke Ishibashi) a Cambodian American, born and raised in the states is in Cambodia working for the UN uncovered facts about the killings in Cell S 21. On this day she was to hold a news conference describing the horrors about the exterminations that happened in S 21. She thinks she has located the names of seven believed to have escaped. She is now on the trail of the eighth. 

Much to her chagrin, her father Chum (Joe Ngo) arrives in her hotel room unexpectedly and tries to convince her he is there on vacation.  Unbeknownst to her, thirty years earlier he was the leader of the Cyclos, the band he and his friends Rom (Abraham Kim), Ted (Raymond Lee) and Pou (Jane Lui) founded is in Phnom Penh. Now he’s back demanding his daughter come home with him and forgo her news conference attend Yale Law School and forget about the entire S 21 matter.

When she tells him of her findings and how much research she has done to bring the story forward and she suspects her father was the eighth to have escaped, he challenges her to spend one night in the cell alone and then tell him what she thinks and why he has chosen to leave the past where it belongs. 
Cast of "Cambodian Rock Band"
Six characters take on multiple roles as musicians/ prisoners/ friends/ and torturers. All are band members who sing, play and act out  in the Cambodian Rock Band performing about 13 songs from the popular Cambodian Rock Group Dengue Fever. Along the way they morph into two or more other characters helping to ferret out the story filling in the time frames from the beginnings of a relatively free society to a dictatorship where no one was safe.  

Under director Chay Yew’s watchful eyes and Matthew MacNelly’s keen musical direction with David Weiner’s psychedelic lighting and Sara Ryung Clement’s mix and match early 60’s jumpsuits to bell bottom’s to present day costumes no stone was left unturned including a slideshow of faces of some of those murdered flash before us.

As far as the ace acting is concerned, each and every cast member taking on dual characters is more than believable. Joe Ngo is the nerdy Dad, Chum we first meet in the present but back in the day he was the beaten and abused Chum held prisoner in S 21. We first meet Daisuke Tsuji’s Dutch as charming M. C. and former math instructor who took pleasure as the Hitler like S21 Commandant. All are on board as musicians singing and playing their hearts out.
Daisuke Tsuji as Duch
As one who is not that familiar with the music, has never been impressed with the whole psychedelic scene, had never heard of Cambodian Rock, I’m now a believer. Yee’s play will move you beyond the music, beyond the high- energy performances of the band to a place of both sadness and joy.  

On our way out my theatre buds and I were a bit overwhelmed by the sheer velocity of the two-hour plus production we had just seen. We wondered among ourselves why we hadn’t known about this particular genocide (although “The Killing Fields” did come up). It matters not who tells the stories, it’s important that they be told, and  in the first person. 

Hats off to Yee and her impressive, explosive “Cambodian Rock Band”

South Coast Repertory Theatre commissioned this work now in a world premiere production that is as ready for prime time as is any tried and true theatre piece. Playwright Yee, a UCSD MFA Alumni has current commissions from The Geffen Playhouse as well as The La Jolla Playhouse.

It’s well worth a trip north or south depending on your geography to catch this before it goes out on tour.
See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through March 25th
Organization: South Coast Repertory Theatre
Phone: 714-708-5555
Production Type: Musical Drama
Where: 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Ticket Prices: Start at $23.00
Venue: Julianne Argyros Stage
Photo: Jordan Kubat/SCR