Saturday, December 9, 2017

Ion’s “Cabaret”: A Treat, A Feast and A Horror Show All In One

One can never fault Ion Theatre Company for shirking its duty when producing a show be it drama, historical event or musical. For its latest up and running production of the Kander, (music Ebb (lyrics) and Masteroff (book) “Cabaret” all the stops are unplugged.

From beginning to end, the audience becomes part of the performance inside the Kit Kat Klub, that den of iniquity where most of the action takes place. Cabaret tables are set up along the front row of the tiny space on 6th Ave. and patrons are treated to some refreshment.
Linda Libby as Emcee
Those not in the front were equally treated as patrons even before the house lights dimmed as the Kit Kat girls and or boys mingled among the guests and held small conversation.

Other cast members took their places or walked around. All the while commotion and excitement rippled throughout the theatre resembling a party like atmosphere on opening night.

And then drum roll…The Mistress/ Emcee and her/his muse/Nazi Youth (Linda Libby and Scotty Atienza) begin the party by welcoming everyone in. “Willkommen” “Leave your troubles outside.”

Linda Libby, a talent of many things wonderful, once again impresses as the omnipresent Emcee (“We are here to serve you”) dressed in top hat, tails and velvet knickers (Keira McGee) with lipstick smeard on her lips. Her fate is predetermined, but no spoilers here.
Scotty Atienza
Young Scotty is made up to scare the bejeasus out of the most seasoned theatregoer. He is dressed looking somewhat like a Chaplinesque character or someone out of a circus playbook as he claps his small cymbols while shuffling notoceably throughout the comings and goings,  somewhat an irritant  to the elder Emcee.

The setting is Berlin, 1929-30 before the onset of the war and just before Hitler came into power. At tht time Germany was a country where decadence was the norm; where anything and everything was acceptable. 

Things were about to change.

Christopher Isherwood’s 1929 book, “Berlin Stories is the basis for the work. “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking”. In it he described one of the characters as a ‘glamorous but eccentric English woman known as Sally Bowles.

In the 60’s director Hal Prince ‘revolutionized the story by putting Sally in a cabaret and then making the cabaret a metaphor for Weimar Germany’. Joel Grey was the Master of Ceremonies in this new incarnation with music by John Kander and Fred Ebb and book by Joe Masteroff. Some might recall the movie version with Liza Minnelli as Sally and Gray as the Emcee.
The play has been tweaked to fit the times, but the underlying themes of prostitution, abortion, drugs, homosexuality, promiscuity, anti-Semitism and the rise of Nazi Germany are all still in tact.  
Cashae Monya and Drew Bradford
Ion’s splendid production stars the invincible Cashae Monya (“Maybe This Time”) as young Sally Bowles and handsome but young looking Drew Bradford playing Cliff Bradshaw (“Perfectly Marvelous”).

Bowles (“You have to understand the way I am Mein Herr”) the lead singer at the Kit Kat Klub, is not in touch with the outside world and strives to keep her job against all odds.

Big as a minute Cashae is a stunner as she moves through the moods and changing times (“I Don’t Care Much”) of her unsettled world. What a great choice and what an intellegent and stirring performance.

The opposite ends of the spectrum of romanitc interests with underlying themes being played out between Bowles and Bradshaw features Fraulein Schneider (an irresistable Li-Annie Rowswell), the German woman who rents out apartments and her Jewish romantic interest, (“It Couldn’t Please Me More”/”Married”). Herr Schultz (charming Ed Hollingsworth) who owns a fruit stand and shows his love with hard to come by fresh fruit. (“A Pineapple”) And a Jew who refuses to accept the unthinkable.
Ed Hollingsworth and Li-Anne Rowswell
The American Bradshaw, caught up with the eccentric Sally Bowles, offers English lessons to Ernst Ludwig (a convincing Patrick Gates) an acquaintance he met on the train to earn extra cash to support his love interests habits. (“Money Makes The World Go Round”)

Later Ludwig uses Bradshaw to launder money for his new cause, the rise of The Third Reich, unbeknownst at first to the writer.  Bradshw is furious when he sees the handwriting on the wall (Ernst wearing an Nazi armband) and urges Sally to leave with him before things get worse. (“Tomorrow Belongs To Me”)

The world as they knew it collapses on Schultz and Schneider when Ernst tells her that their marriage cannot happen because Schultz is Jewish. Remember the Nazi’s are trying to get the ‘Jewish Problem’ solved. (“What Would You Do?”)

Exceptional performances by the Cabaret Boys, Bobby (a subtle reference to his homosexual connection to Cliff), Victor, Hans and Herman (Dallas Perry, Steele Severson and Patrick Gates) who take on multiple roles singing and dancing to the athletic choreography of Michael Mizerany
Kit Kat boys and girls with Linda Libby
By time the Emcee sings his/her villainous “If You Could See Her” duet with the lady gorilla that ends with … she doesn’t look Jewish at all’, the die is cast.

What hits us over the head is when the young Emcee, an amazingly talented and scarry looking fourteen year old Scottie Altienza (Le Miz award recipient from San Diego Theatre Critics Circle) comes out after the Nazi’s take the Emcee and Kit Kat Girls away, and dons his red baseball cap with a Nazi Swatsticker on his arm singing a reprise of “The Future Belongs To Me”, there is a collective gasp!

The sinking feeling that smacks you in the gut is indicative of what’s to come. And even though we know the outcome before we enter the theatre, it still sours our taste buds. The sad part about ‘history repeating itself’ is that today, right now, history is spinning out of control toward an end that I pray will not repeat itself.

Production values will wow you. Under the deft direction of Claudio Ragoza who designed the set, Chad Oakley the lighting, with outstanding musical direction by Morgan Carberry at the piano (she also steps up as a Kit Kat girl Frauein Kost ), the all person orchestra does double and triple duty as just about everything else. 

Did I mention prostitutes and or lovers? Ooops!
Cashae Monya as Sally Bowles
When our guard is let down and we are stuck in the Kit Kat world of dancers, singers, actors and the love life or not of Sally and Cliff, the unfolding romance of Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider there’s an unsettling feeling of gloom and doom as the show gathers steam, but still…we sit, we watch, we laugh, we cry foul, we wait.

This is one "Cabaret" you will not want to miss. It's exciting, new and raw.

“There was a Cabaret… And there was a master of ceremonies…And there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany…It was the end of the world…And I was dancing with Sally Bowles And we were both fast asleep…

In 1933 it was a sad commentary on Germany, the German people and the world that allowed it to become.

In 2017 what are we doing to prevent another Holocaust?

If you look at it through my eyes… ‘you wouldn’t feel comfortable/safe at all’.

See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Dec. 23rd
Organization: Ion Theatre Company
Phone: 619.600.5020
Production Type: Musical
Where: 6th Avenue At Penn, Hillcrest, CA 92103
Ticket Prices: Start at $18.00
Venue: Ion BLCKBOX
Photo: Daren Scott

Friday, December 8, 2017

“Tarrytown”: Fun, Clever, Brand Spanking New Musical And Must See On Your Holiday List.

 Gather your skirts, hitch your trousers and head yourself out to see the world premiere production of Backyard Renaissance exciting entrance into the…well, holiday… (Halloween) spirit with the musical “Tarrytown” at Diversionary's Blackbox through Dec. 17th, directed by Francis Gercke and Anthony Methvin with an eye for fun, wit and cleverness and a bit of a fright factor. It’s all so now!

Playwright Adam Wachter, book, music and lyrics, crafted together a modern day “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, as a premise to move his classic tale forward.

You remember the story of Ichabod Crane who lived in Sleepy Hollow. He vies for the hand of the daughter of the wealthiest man in town, Katrina.  His one rival Brom wants to get rid of Ichabod for wooing Katrina.

On the way home from a party at Katrina’s Ichabod is chased by a Headless Horseman (aka a Revolutionary War Soldier) gets smacked in the head, falls off his own horse and disappears. The ghost of the headless horsman  rises from the dead each Halloween and looks for his head. (Short story in a nutshell)

For his updated version and a bit more detailed, Wachter is giving us a sing through with the very same characters all out of the Irving playbook.
Bryan Banville, Tom Zohar and Kay Marian McNellen
The three protagonists meet up in Tarrytown, NY after Ichabod Crane leaves the fast lane living of Manhattan and heads of to the quite of Tarrytown as the new music teacher at Tarrytown High. (“The Streets Of Tarrytown”)

Katrina (Kay Marian McNellen) is the high school principal’s assistant and her husband Brom (Bryan Banville) a sports enthusiast, teaches history at a nearby college.

Katrina and Ichabod form an instant bond and many dinners follow.  (“My New Gay Best Friend”).

When Brom, whose marriage to Katrina has been going downhill since their wedding day (there’s a story there), finish their first dinner together (“Dinner For Three”) he pulls Ichabod aside to watch football on TV with him. Ichabod (“When He’s Near”) who knows nothing about sports agrees and swoons in his presence. Brom feels the heat.

In Irving’s “Legend”, the two men vie for Katrina’s hand. That issue of who gets whose hand is sorted out when we first meet the three. Katrina and Brom are already married and Ichabod is more interested in Brom as a potential lover than as a romantic interest for Katrina’s hand. It's all so gay and funny. 

The production under the crafty direction of Francis Gercke with musical director Steven Withers, Katie Whalley Banville’s snappy choreography, Curtis Miller’s superior lighting design and Kristen Flores’ capable scenic design in the v e r y small playing black box space using scrims to highlight changes in scenery, all come together for a griping off the wall fun and fast paced (no intermission) new musical that has the potential to gather speed as it is seen by more and larger audiences. 

It’s in the modern day setting that morphs and lures us into a creepy realistic and startling (“Ghost story’s terrify me”) hair raising finale that we find Ichabod in the graveyard (supposedly waiting for Brom) hearing horses galloping with silhouettes of the animals behind scrims. It did give this gal a shiver or two. It happened all so fast.

The chemistry between the three, Tom Zohar, Kay Marian McNellen and Bryan Banville is phenomenal. The music could fall into the categories of catchy, romantic and song talk. The story takes place over the course of twelve days.

Tom Zohar is at his all time personal best as the confused Ichabod “man in the middle” (“Dinner For Three”) attraction. At times he’s like the deer in the headlights confessing his lack of understanding of sports (“Four Downs To The Ten Yard Line”). Other times he bemoans his fate as a recovering addict who has fallen off the wagon.  

Kay Marian McNellen is simply charming with comportment to match. Her voice catches every nuance and she convinces, amuses and pleases.
Bryan Banville and Kay Marian McNellen
Banville’s Brom (“On The 20th Century”, “My Fair Lady” “Animal Crackers”) has just the right balance as the macho sports guy who does in fact question his own sexuality (but quickly recovers) and still can’t quite figure out what went wrong with his marriage even as Katrina tells him over and over again.

Writer composer Adam Wachter  (“Dog and Pony”) ‘New York City based composer/lyricist, music director orchestrator, arranger etc., etc., etc., has blessed our fair city to launch his first original musical thanks to BRTC Ex. Director Jessica John Gercke’s insistence on bringing Wachter’s musical back to San Diego after she got a peek of an earlier version showcased at The Old Globe.

The lyrics are word stories; clever, entertaining and I wouldn’t say you could sing them on the way out of the theatre, but catchy none-the-less.
Bryan Banville, Tom Zohar and Kay Marian McNellen
It’s one of the most entertaining and surprise productions/musicals of the season. Sondheim it’s not, but it does have the Sondheim touch.  

And tales are told in a sleepy place called Sleepy Hollow, “a place where imagination rules and reason fails.”

I'm not in the habit of a thumbs up/down recommendation, but for this it's a sure thumbs up!

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Dec. 17th
Organization: Backyard Renaissance Company
Phone: 619.977.0999
Production Type: Musical
Where: 4545 Park Blvd. San Diego, CA 92116
Ticket Prices: Start at $20.00
Venue: Diversionary’s Black Box Theatre
Photo: Studio B Photo Productions

Sunday, December 3, 2017

“Black Pearl Sings!” In A Rousing Production at San Diego Rep.

I didn’t know of Minka Wiltz before I went to see “Black Pearl Sings!” by Frank Higgins, now at the San Diego Repertory Theatre through Dec. 17th in the Lyceum Space, but I do now, she has a voice that soars, laments and is soulful! “Trouble So Hard”.

As Pearl in “Black Pearl Sings!” Wiltz teases, tantalizes and plays with us until she unleashes the full extent of her vocal chords in an array of soulful tunes, bringing us to our collective feet at plays end with “African Song”. 
Minka Wiltz
The story, set in 1933/34 of “Black Pearl Sings!” is based on a little known researcher by the name of Susannah Mullally (Allison Spratt Pearce), a musicologist who was hired by the Library of Congress to research long forgotten people and their legacies through music; “If I can find a song that came here on the slave ships…we can prove to the world that a song can be stronger than slavery chains.”

Pearl didn’t come looking for Susannah; she’s ten years into her sentence in a Texas prison for the murder of the man who raped her daughter.  No, Susannah sought out Alberta Rose in the prison after all the women the warden recommended didn’t have what Susannah what looking for.  

“Why you’re in prison is none of my business. But you sing better than the other women. People with good voices usually know a lot of things.” “I’ve found that prisons are a good place to look for old songs.”

“Black Pearl Sings!” is based on the story of Huddie Ledbetter AKA Lead Belly. Originally musicologist John Lomax began making ‘field recordings of various folk music styles’ with the help of Lead Belly.

Harvard folk musicologist Lomax and guitarist/singer Belly made the lecture circuit on the east coast with an eventual recording contract then went on to record over forty songs for the company, but they never sold well.

In playwright Frank Higgins’ current incarnation Lomax and Belly now the women Susannah and Pearl as protagonists seems right as he might have smelled the changing times and put Susannah right in the middle of a, before her time, feminist and a strong voice/movement for women fighting the cultural tide. 

And I confess while I have not heard Belly sing, I can attest to the showmanship and voices on stage with both Pearce and Wiltz, and you won’t hear any complaints from me.

The story pretty much follows the cat and mouse game the women play as they flush each other’s motives out. Susannah is woman of independent mind, very unusual for a woman of her time, whose spirit and chutzpah make her a perfect candidate portraying what it takes to be a strong woman living man’s world.

Allison Spratt Pearce and Minka Wiltz
Pearce is that strong woman and although she has such a marvelous voice herself (“Sound of Music”, “Gypsy” “My Fair Lady”) she is Pearl’s advocate and she excels in that role. She sings in her clear soprano voice some Gaelic folk songs she learned from her families cook as a tease for her next musical role. (conjecture on my part) 

“History can be made through music… and a song can be stronger than slavery shackles.”

Pearl wants to get paroled, find her 22-year old daughter that she left behind in Houston and bargains with Susannah to that end.

On the other end of the spectrum, Pearl has to fight to get what she wants as a black woman in a white (wo)man’s world. And sing she does, with almost two- dozen songs in the song list; she pretty much captures the audience with jaws dropping.

The two find themselves seesawing back and fourth faces softening as they make plans for Pearl’s ultimate release and Pearl giving Susannah almost what she wants. Ms. Wiltz, an accomplished musician in all fields including opera, stunned and surprised with her powerful vocals.

Under director Thomas W. Jones II deft direction their story unfolds fairly true to form with Wiltz’s Pearl as some match for Pearce’s Susannah, but both holding their own contrasting views.

In the first act we meet up with Pearl as she enters, locked into a ball and chain singing, “Down on me Lord, Down on me” crashing the ball and he foot on the floor as she walks around the stage finally stepping up and meeting Susannah.
Allison Spratt Pearce and Minka Wiltz
It’s serious business, this bargaining back and fourth, but in between we have the privilege of being witness to some terrific acting and even at one time when they both strut their stuff to the tune of “Little Sally Walker”… ‘put your hands on your hips and let your backbone slip.’ “Now shake it to the east. Now shake it to the west. Shake it to the one that you love best.”

After intermission we find that Pearl is released from prison. The two are sharing Susannah’s Greenwich Village flat and getting ready for recordings and concerts. They still have conflicting views on how the concerts will go but as long as Susannah keeps her end of the bargain and does all she can to look for clues about Pearl’s daughter, Pearl conforms, sot of.

And short of ruining all her chances of singing before large academic groups oft times going off at the mouth, she succeeds in giving in to Susannah for the most part but saving the very last treasure for herself.  
Minka Wiltz and Allison Spratt Peaece
 Credits go to Mary Lawson’s for her great period costume design, Sherrice Mojgani’s lighting, Matt Lescault-Wood, sound, and Victoria Petrovich projections that filled the walls around the prison office and Susannah’s Greenwich Village apartment and changed the face of the moveable columns designed by Sean Fanning.

Battling for what women want takes courage, perservance, and moxie. Both women had what it took then.

It’s an uphill battle still given the references in the play that Susannah would have to pay dearly for Pearl’s parole, as covert inferences during some exchanges, were explicit during the give and take between phone talk with Susannah and the warden.


For a modern day drama with historical references, this should whet your appetite.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Dec. 17th
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Phone: 619.544.1000
Production Type: Musical
Where: 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown San Diego, 92101
Ticket Prices: $25.00 and up
Venue: Lyceum Space

Photo: Daren Scott