Saturday, June 15, 2019

“What You Are”: The Truth On Our Fast Changing World.

In this fast changing world, who you are can be as complex as what you are in the stories told in JC Lee’s newly commissioned play “What You Are” now up and running on the Sheryl and Harvey White Stage through June 30th.

For most of us, as the world turns, we tend to go with the flow. But if it keeps turning in ways that sweep us under the rug and we become invisible, we wake up one morning and find there is no place left to go.
Omoze Idehenre
Don:  “It’s hard to not know what’s alright to say one day isn’t the next, that you’re a bigot because you don’t think transsexuals should go in any bathroom they want, or that the joke you used to tell isn’t okay anymore. It piles up. One thing after another until you’re so goddamned confused and frustrated you feel like your head’s gonna explode.”
If that sounds like something you might have heard recently, imagine how Don (Jonathan Walker) felt when everything he held dear, or thought was true almost all his life, was erased with the swipe of a broad brush stroke when he went to interview for a new job.  
Fifty- something year old Don was raised and grew up on his family farm in a small Nevada town. The farm and the town have gone to seed and by buying up all the unused property, the new kids on the block build algorithms to capture mass markets. Don does odd jobs and deliveries; some work for the new company now occupying space next to where his ranch once was.

The start up already had 365,000 subscribers when Don applied for a job. While trying to learn how to use his cell phone to further enhance his productivity, he learns from his new young boss, Hector (Adrian Anchondo) that so far his ratings are only a four on a scale of five stars. It’s at this juncture that a war of words, misunderstandings and hostility turns into world war three.

Jonathan Walker and Adrian Anchondo
Don and Hector come from opposite ends of the population spectrum; one an old white man who never had to do anything to prove himself because his country catered to white men like himself, the other, a young Latinx who graduated summa cum laude from Stanford and had to prove himself all his life.

Hector sees in his conversations with Don coded words and “racist bullshit” when he thinks Don expects entitlements. “I deserve better than that than to have a math problem tell you what I’m worth. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve watched you guys turn this place …whatever it is…”

“I’m sorry, Don, the whole point of what I do is to intentionally upend the world run by people like you who think by virtue of their privilege, everything ought to be theirs.”  If he sounds like a prick, well he is, but that’s for later.

When Don returns home after being let go for a number of reasons, not the least being that in a frustrating temper -tantrum, he crashed Hector’s glass desk to smithereens with the one chair in the office, his daughter, Katie (Jasmine Savoy Brown) and wife Sigourney (OmozĂ© Idehenre) are speechless after they hear his story. Both are supportive, but for different reasons.  

The Old Globe commissioned Lee who also writes for TV, theatre and film. In a Playbill interview the playwright commented on how his father’s job was eliminated because of the economy. That, and a speech he heard by then candidate Donald Trump at the Republican Convention when he tried to understand the candidates appeal. Lees father was completely devastated; “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with my life now.”

Adrian Anchondo and Jasmin Savoy Brown
To say that Lee’s play touches on every aspect of the economic, racial, political, tribal, age, and patriotism variety would be an understatement. Hector sees Don as a conservative and racially bias old white man without knowing he has been married to Sigourney, an African-American for over thirty years. He has a biracial daughter Katie about the age of Hector. Along the way she proves herself to be a perfect foil against Hector’s own racially and politically charged attitudes. As one who knows, she sees right through him.  

In a series of short scenes we find both Sigourney, who has some back problems, and Katie who put off going to college to care for her mother, going to bat for their husband/father. Sigourney brings beautiful pie as a peace offering and Katie offers a piece of herself and then something else that will help Don and devastate Hector. And so it goes.

Don hooks up with his old time buddy Randy (Mike Sears) who adds to the good old boys chit chat about the changing tides and how his son came out to him and how he keeps referring to a-gay, not quite understanding the whole thing. But it’s the trust and understanding the men have in common that’s missing in today’s world of iPhones, iPads, television ("His TV is bigger than my double bed") and the Alt right radio stations that cement their friendship. Randy is a bit softer and less affected by the change, Mike Sears’s natural way convinces.

Mike Sears and Jonathan Walker
Lee might make Don look like the die was cast for the Trump loyalists, feeling left out of the American dream, but Hector is something else. Lets just say he is not who he shows up to be. As politically correct as he might think he is, he is the complete opposite. He’s arrogant, hateful, revengeful, out of touch, and just plain mean spirited.

On some level both Don and Hector are cut from the same cloth, they just reach for different stars in the heavens to complete their journeys. It’s mind -boggling and incongruent that two opposites can be the same.

Director Patricia McGregor is so damn on spot with all of her actors that it sparked conversations well into the evening. On some level, I was almost sympathetic with Don, as the left behind generation. Silly me. That’s the genius of being an in touch director. She knows her characters well and gives them the latitude to be who they are in every situation.

Leading up to Don’s outburst because of what Don describes as a misunderstanding and Hector sees as racially charged, the lightheartedness and playfulness of Hector’s showing Don how to log into his phone, McGergor has them in reversal mode changing the mood from one of simply ‘this is how you do it’, to I’m calling security if you don’t leave immediately.  Her intent is quite obvious here.

Walker’s Don can come off as sympathetic at first, but as the charges against him by Hector close in on him, he goes on to do some pretty despicable stuff. On the other hand, he does have a soft spot especially for his family that is clearly missing in Hector’s character.

Anchondo’s Hector, is the confidant, up and coming filling the American dream 30 something college grad. When we first meet him he seems right for this new company. He shows up to the minute success in anything electronic. He seems personable at first. At an outside glance he appeard everything you might expect the younger ganeration. 
Omoze Idehenre and Jonathan Walker
But a few nasty reveals puts Hector in the least likely to be loved category. He tells Sigourney, who is collecting disability checks for getting hurt on her last job, to get off her butt and get a job.

He’s bringing Don to court for a simple misunderstanding and he can’t wait to tell Don that he bedded his daughter. His scorn for everything he deems wrong brings out a superiority he doesn’t deserve.  Nope. No stars for that behavior.

Mike Sears is the perfect guy for Don to reminisce with and still be trusted while remaining friends. Jasmin Savoy Brown is a moving target for speaking her liberal thoughts and acting on them. Her performance brought into being a new generation of thinkers not afraid to be who they are. Omozé came in with a soft and warm motherly heart and remained true to herself throughout.

Rachel Myers set is almost bare bones, but doesn’t detract, Sherrice Mojgani lighting and Luqman Brown’s sound leaves unanswered questions at the very end of this one act challenge that you don't want to end. Elisa Benzoni’s costume design fits every age group,

Lee considers ‘what you are’ as a lead off challenge. Is who you show up to be what you are, or is there more to it?

With a strong ensemble and a ready for prime time discussion “What You Are” is an up to date window into a world that’s changing and most are not ready

Two thumbs up!

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through June 30th
Organization: The Old Globe
Phone: 619234-5623
Production Type: Drama
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
Ticket Prices: Start at $30.00
Venue: Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre
Photo: Jim Cox

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Moonlight’s Season Opener “The Producers” To Standing Ovation

It’s been 39 years since Moonlight Stage Productions began mounting musicals under the stars in Vista. This year’s season opener is the Mel Brooks Musical “The Producers” staring Broadway veterans Jamie Torcellini as Max Bialystock and director of this production, Larry Raben, his partner in crime Leo Bloom.

Both have stacked up numerous awards in their acting careers, so no doubt, the masters of producing a loser of a show on Broadway, and winning the approval of opening might audiences, reinforces the power of theatre. Only in American fiction can this happen. But listen up!

Brooks wrote the music and lyrics and he collaborated on the book with Thomas Meehan. The staged musical is set in 1959 and is based on the movie version set earlier that was much darker. Brooks’ shticks in the musical are over the top, vulgar, off the wall, outrageous; shameless and you name it. Sorry folks!
Cast (photo KJ)
That said it never stopped audiences from eating it up. In 2002 the Broadway Musical went on to win 12 Tony Awards. Moonlight’s success in all areas of this production has to do with the extraordinary talent and large ensemble of dancers and singers on stage and the fact that Brooks is inherently an oddly funny guy who seems to get away with well... “Springtime For Hitler”.

Think “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein”. He is also an equal opportunity offender; Jews, gays, schtupping ladies old and young alike, you name it.    

“The Producers” is about a down on your luck Broadway producer, Max Bialystok. He has a knack for producing shows that are so bad that he first cons and then fleeces ‘little old ladies’ into financing his failures and then takes off with the profits of the failed shows. Consider his musical version of “Hamlet” which he called  “Funny Boy” that opened and closed in a day.

When his nebbish accountant Leo Bloom (Raben) sees how much money he is losing (in the cooked books) on these flops, Bloom comes up with the idea that by producing the worse shows in history they can legitimately lose money and can write off and still come out ahead. Max jumps at the chance.

Larry Raben and Jamie Torcellini (Photo AZ)
The two form a partnership, Bialystok & Bloom Theatrical Producers. Their first order of business is to produce a sure fire loser. After rummaging through a list of plays from hell, they decide on a disaster called “Springtime for Hitler, a Gay Romp” with Adolph and Eva at Berchtesgaden” written by wacko neo-Nazi pigeon aficionado, Franz Libkind (Luke M. Jacobs). Keep in mind, the bigger the flop the bigger the cash pot.

The sidekicks Raben and Torcellini make a good team together as the straight -laced bookkeeper and the out of control, lady chasing do anything for a profit guy. Torcellini has all the right moves and is funny without being too over the top...well?

His cohort in crime, Raben is played with naivety as the overly nervous accountant with blue blanky to sooth his nerves.  He is just what the doctor ordered as Torcellini is a bigger than life presence foil even though Raben stands a head taller. Both deserve credit for endurance in keeping up a pace made for younger men with resilience to waste. Experience on stage out paces youth.

Josh Adamson and Max Cadillac (photo AZ)
Josh Adamson is a hoot as the queenly director; 'reject Busby Berkley cross dressing, incompetent director' Roger DeBris, to direct “Springtime For Hitler”. Brooks’ signature footprints are all over this production as in the name bending, gender bending game. DeBris (the Yiddish word for circumcision) introduces his co well... wife/assistant Carmen Ghia, a one of a kind German car (played by Max Cadillac if you will. Adamson’s entire entourage and home setting (Robert Wagner, based on the original) is another play by itself.

Luke Harvey Jacobs (photo KJ)
Luke H. Jacobs is a hoot as the demented Neo-Nazi Franz, the pigeon loving, Hitler loving author of “Springtime For Hitler”. The verrry tall Katie Barna is Ulla is the Swedish love/sex interest of both men, neither of who can keep their eyes off her, possibly their hands as well given the chance. She’s an great dancer,  and at her tallest is at least a head over Raben. She’s also a convincing leading lady in the musical within the play.  

Always making headlines in this weird success story of a show the dance numbers with original choreography and direction by Susan Stroman and recreated for this show by Karl Warden give some of the funniest scenes in both acts.
Cast of The Producers (photo KJ)
Tap dancing storm troopers, choruses of dancers dressed as panzer tanks, show- girls a la Las Vegas dressed as a schnitzels, beer steins and every other German symbol swaggering down the stairs and parading in front of the audience, “Little Old Lady Land” a dance number using walkers in “Along Came Bialy”.

Musical director and conductor Lyndon Pugeda creates his usual magic with his large orchestra. There were some sound issues (Jim Zadai) that were corrected early on. Jennifer Edwards lighting worked to the benefit of the company and costumes coordinators Carlotta Malone, Roslyn Lehman and Renetta Lloyd based on the original costume designs of William Ivy Long all, especially the show- girl number, are a hoot and period correct.

Jamie Torcellini, Katie Barna abd Larry Raben (photo KJ)
In my heart of hearts, I have ambivalences about Brooks and his humor. 
"The Producers" always brings out those feelings in me. On one hand the show is a slick wild ride bringing out laughs in the places you will find most offensive, on the other hand I cringe at any of the humor about Hitler.

It is not the best show of the season to bring the kiddies to.
"Matilda", coming up next is a sure bet for them.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through June 29th
Organization: Moonlight Stage productions
Phone: 760-724-2110
Production Type: Musical
Where: 1250 Vale terrace Drive, Vista
Ticket Prices: From $17.00-$57
Venue: Kathy Brombacher Stage
Photo: Ken Jacques and Adriana Zuniga

“Put Your House In Order” or Who’s That Knocking At Your Door?

When you find yourself laughing because you are nervous about what might happen next in Ike Holter’s new play, now in a world premiere production,  “Put Your House In Order” at the Mandell Weiss Forum semi circular space at The La Jolla Playhouse through June 30th, it may or may not be a good sign for what’s to come.  

Holter’s play takes place outside of Caroline’s family’s (Shannon Matesky) fashionable Craftsman’ home in the burbs of Chicago, (Evanston, to be exact). What looks like a peaceful setting turns out in the end to be somewhat of a war zone.

Shannon Mateskyand Behzad Dabu
Early on, subtle hints and sounds move into, over and above the staged arena. Whirling helicopter blades, sirens flashing and trash strewn in the spacious back yard of Caroline’s parents manicured lawns becomes an every day occurrence for the residents. Caroline's  huge supply of water bottles and juice boxes in a cooler on the lawn will ultimately become necessary to hoard.  

Space invaders? Illegal aliens? Government takeover? Intimidation?

Billed as a millennial rom-com meets apocalyptic thriller, yours truly found that those phrases were way past her grade level. As Joe Friday, the character in a long ago TV series, “Dragnet” so often said, ‘Just give me the facts”, Ma’am’.

It may be a stretch of the imagination to compare the “House” in Chicago with “The House” in DC where another horror story is taking place, but it did pop into my mind. Separating the facts from the noise is getting to be a challenge these days. There are children locked up in cages, parents separated from their children, and a wall, a wall and a wall separating one country from another, and I could go on.  Could this be happening to the folks in Evanston as well?

‘Go know’ as they used to say in my old Worcester, Mass. neighborhood.

Behzad and Shannon Matesky
Two good looking millennia’s Caroline and Rolan are on a first, second or third date (depending on whose story you buy) in the backyard of her luxurious home trying to get to know one another, trust one another and or possibly bed each other.

From the outset any one of those scenarios could play out.  But a funny thing happened on the way their getting to know each other. Romance turned to thriller, thriller turned to horror and God knows what else.   

Sooner rather than later, Caroline’s neighbor Josephine (an eery looking wild eyed Linda Libby) comes calling with bags of groceries for Caroline’s fridge. Josephine knows a bit about Caroline’s family. She also knows that her parents have been gone from the house for some time so she brings food from her fridge to theirs.  

She tells them that food on the outside is scarce, which Caroline already knew.  Something weird was happening. Josephine notices that Caroline and Rolan (a very cute Behzad Dabu) are pretty much in the middle of a challenge bolting the yard gate from allowing anything or anyone from coming in and possibly going out. News flash! All is not well outside the gates.

Lot’s of noise happens, panic overcomes the three after Josephine returns from a trip outside to visit her kids in the city. Returning, she looked like she came back from playing war games, and with an insatiable thirst… and wild stories.

Her bicycle was smashed (she used it as a weapon, says she) and she was almost delirious. To touch her, or not to touch her was the question for both Caroline and Rolan? We never know what her condition is but it doesn’t go away and it might possibly be contagious.

At this point in time, well into the play, trying to figure out what the hell was happening became a major theme that played out until play’s end. What was it? You be the judge. Who are the ‘they’ causing the unrest?  Don’t know!  You can, if you wish imagine the spookiest, the most destructive, the weirdest, and leave the rest to the imagination. Mine went there for a Nano –second and then I decided, no way. 

I’m comfortable with the scary of Hitchcock’s “The Birds” or “Psycho” or “North By Northwest”…you get the picture. At least I can bite my fingernails and know that soon it will be over. In Holter’s play, I went in knowing nothing and came out knowing even less, scratching my head trying to figure out what I had just seen. I was kind of hoping for the romance to get a bit more heated. But then again I am a romantic. I usually don't delve into the supernatural of the  first second or third encounter. 
Shannon Matesky and ?
No fault with the acting. It was intense, credible and age appropriate. Libby, Dabu and Matesky all convincing but I found Ms. Matesky’s speech patterns difficult to follow. Lili-Anne Brown’s direction manages to weave both suspense and horror throughout. The fear factor was much more convincing than the romance. Sigh!

The set, what I could see of it from my vantage point looked (Arnel Sancianco) great. The loud and original music and sound effects (Victoria Deiorio) might serve well those with head -sets blaring in their ears all day as in the young millennial who might already have hearing loss, I found it too loud.

The lighting with flashing red lights (Amanda Zieve) drove me to distraction and some projections seen on the set at the opening were out of my sight lines, so no comment.  

The buzz after the show was most interesting, comparing shows like The ‘Walking Dead’, Zombies, and Aliens ‘from out of space’, “Invasion of The Body Snatchers”, or “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” to this latest incarnation of horror, but my limited knowledge kept me out of the conversation.

I moved on to a safer place well out of Caroline’s ‘neighborhood’s firing line. I went to the Gelato line.

Playwright Holler and this new ‘thriller’ of his, leaves much to be desired with too little information and not enough fear factor to cover one’s eyes, However if you are so inclined, do drop in, and give it a try.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through June 30th
Organization: The La Jolla Playhouse
Phone: 858-560-1010
Production Type: Romance Thriller
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla CA,
Ticket Prices: Start at $39.00
Venue: Mandell Weiss Forum
Photo: Jim Carmody