Sunday, January 19, 2020

South Coast’s “Fireflies” Reigns In Beginnings Of Civil Rights Movement

The ‘Fireflies’ in Donja R. Love's tale of things that go boom in the air refers to the souls of the four little girls killed in the Birmingham Alabama Church bombing in 1963 at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

In a winning and emotional memoir, Love starts at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement and in the Playbill describes: “Freedom is Never Really Won”.

In the 1950’s to those of color, homosexual, bi or transgender, queer or active in the Civil Rights movement lived under a threat that hung over them like the plague. Some might have memories if sit ins at drug store counters, Rosa Parks, Emmet Till, Martin Luther King, the school standoff  blocking Blacks from attending an all white school, the murder of three white Northern boys who dared march with Martin Luther King, white supremacy and violence, cross burnings or George Wallace.

Christina Clark as Olivia
None of it was pretty. But in my collective memory, I was not aware, as Love points out that two out of three women ‘who founded The Black Lives Matter movement were queer or that black women have been at the forefront of every major social movement in America’.

Had I known that, I might not have been taken aback when Olivia (Christina Clark) was writing letters to God and her 'friend' Ruby: Dear Ruby, It’s been a while. The sky…it’s been burning so bright since you left. It reminds my of you.”

Charles (Lester Purry) and Christina have known each other since childhood picking tobacco together when their families were sharecroppers. According to Charles, now a preacher, he knew he would marry her some day. According to her, not so much. Of course they married and their onstage chemistry is credible and worthy of the two even as they portray a marriage on rocky ground.  

The play opens, after bursts of fire fill the sky and booms shatter the quiet.  We find ourselves in their kitchen after Charles has arrived home from eulogizing the four children killed after a bomb exploded at the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. The headlines read: "Hate -Triggered Church Blast Kills 4 Little Girsl". 
Christina Clark and Lester Purry
We learn that the two of them are involved in the Civil Rights movement. Violence begets violence as each day passes. She feels the weight of  depression home alone most of the time. She writes all his speeches and he gets all the covet; she doesn’t trust him while he’s on the road doing his pastoral duties. The sky is a red glow that deeply disturbs her, and the booms has her crying out to God, "When will it stop?”

Both are worn out and weary from the toll, the destruction, physically and mentally, has taken on them. He drinks too much. He’s horny and she plays hard to get but they do head off to the bedroom for some long overdue lovemaking, according to him.

When they do emerge from the bedroom all secrets are exposed; she gets a tape recording of his lovemaking on his last trip. She’s having his baby but doesn’t want and he has her dirty little secrets all tied up in ribbons threatening to expose her if she aborts the baby. That’s a bombshell, but there is more to follow in this one act 90- minute play that director Lou Bellamy brings to the fore with heartfelt emotional verve.
Christina Clark and Lester Purry
Excellently acted by the two experienced actors of color. They no doubt felt the impact of what their history of slavery and inequality looked like before the volunteers ventured out on the streets. They were there to protest ! But what it has devolved into in this present day atmosphere where Black’s are the targets of police brutality and the toll it has taken on so many is almost an insult to those who risked their lives for the cause. At the time one might never have imagined it would still be the fight for equal rights. 

We see the daily horrors on the news today. Those hateful acts almost mirror the brutality of days before the Civil Rights movement. The family drama that’s acted out in Love’s play builds to a powerful and unexpected finally. Both actors give the audience a true sense of how close we all are to crumbling under that pressure. 

Jeffery Elias Teeter’s projections become a third character in this production. The sky is either filled with smoke from blasts of bombs going off either in Olivia’s head or off in ta somewhere distant location and in the end the fireflies overwhelm with their abundance. It’s simply breathtaking.

Vicki Smith’s set is a realistic and working kitchen where meals are prepared, but go uneaten. Lighting designer Don Darnutzer enhances Teeter’s projections as Scott W. Edwards sound design rocks the theatre. David Kay Mickelsen designed the period clothes.
Lester Purry and Christina Clark
The world premiere of “Fireflies” was presented by The Atlantic Theatre Company in 2018.Hats off to South Coast Rep. for bringing it to Orange County. It needs to be seen.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Jan. 26th
Organization: South Coast Repertory Theatre
Phone: 714-708-5555
Production Type: Drama
Where: 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, at Bristol Street/Avenue of the Arts.
Ticket Prices: Start at $24.00
Venue: Julianne Argyros Stage
Photo Credit: Jordan Kubat

Friday, January 17, 2020

“The Humans”: An Inside Peek Of The American Family At Work.

Stephen Karam’s drama “The Humans”, 2016 recipient of The Tony Award for Best Play is currently showing at The San Diego Repertory Theatre downtown on the Lyceum Stage through Feb 2nd.  

I’ve said it in jest and in truth that I wouldn’t mind being a fly on the wall just to see what goes on behind closed doors in X Y or Z’s house. 

Clockwise: Brian Mackey, Kate Rose Reynolds, Jeffrey Meek, Rosina Reynolds and Elizabeth Dennhey
Just recently I had that opportunity to look in on the Blake Family on this one Thanksgiving Day. The Blake’s, Erik (Jeffrey Meek is most convincing) Aimee (Amanda Sitton), Brigid (Kate Rose Reynolds), Deirdre (Elizabeth Dennehy) and Fiona or Momo (Rosina Reynolds) are congregating in Richard (Brian Mackey) and Brigid’s new street level flat located in a not so pretty, almost eerie section of New York’s Chinatown. “But”, she prides, “we even have a window looking out on to the street…well alley.”

The two story flat (the playwright refers to it as a ‘shabby apartment’) designed by Giulo Perrone makes room for easy flow of traffic if you don’t count climbing up a steel winding staircase that opens to the larger of the two rooms. But there are bumps and bangs (Melanie Chen Cole) that can be heard and felt from the upstairs apartment that are blown off by Brigid and Richard as belonging to their ‘Chinese’ neighbor above them. They come from out of the blue and nearly scared the bejeasus out of me when I first heard one.  
Kate Rose Reynolds, Elizabeth Dennehy, Amanda Sitton and Jeffery Meek with Rosina Reynolds.
The one bathroom and other bedroom are located upstairs as well with a recliner and boxed “stuff” waiting to be put away. The kitchen and eating area are down stairs with Richard as the designated cook. He and Brigid make a good couple, but Deidre would rather see them married rather than just living together.

It’s often been said that when we ask about this one or that one, we usually end up with TMI. But in the scheme of things less is not better in “The Humans” because this family, like so many others whom some might call Upper middle-Middle class living out the American Dream, has a lot to say.

The Blake's lives are so intertwined and even though Erik and Deidre are empty nesters, the family picks up where they last left off: talking over one another oft times even dismissing another’s thoughts or putting someone down, having a family moment, looking after a beloved elderly and distant grandmother, even ganging up on one or another, or trying to be heard and understood is part of the family dynamic.
Kate Rose Reynolds and Brian Mackey
Any one of us in this complicated tribe we call the human race can relate.  They do it without skipping a beat. It is truly an ensemble piece where everyone takes part and every family member is important.

Proud and loving remembrances laced with family humor and real life situations push this dramedy, beautifully and sensitively directed by associate artistic director Todd Salovey, in a 90 minute oft time sit -com, oft time edging on the tragic, will have you chuckling and teary eyed at the same time. Most however will confess these holiday gatherings cause more stress among family members that at any other time.  

The Blake family hails from Scranton, Pa. They would now fit into the middle or lower class, (used to be solid middle class) surviving from paycheck to paycheck category.

Erik who has been a high school maintenance man for twenty-eight years, alludes to the fact that he and Deirdre are planning to fix up a second summer house and reminds Brigid that, but for the fact that she chose not to go to a state school she wouldn’t be in debt and bartending nights. Brigid’s (the younger Ms. Reynolds is a natural) constant kvetching about having to work bartending is also a topic she and Erik banter over during the course of the visit. 

Amanda Sitton and Kate Rose Reynolds
Deirdre is an office manager making less than the two new hires, in their twenties, who are making five times her salary. She too has had the same job for forty years. Daughter Aimee has a law degree and is on the verge of not becoming a partner in the firm that spells ‘time to move on’. Both complain of being discriminated. Both may be right.

Aimee is also suffering from colitis and just broke up with her long time girlfriend. Still haunting Dad Erik is the fact that she just escaped, by minutes, being in the Twin Towers in the wake of the 911tragedy. His dreams of losing his daughter trouble him causing him to have haunting dreams at night. She has what my tribe would call tsuris.

And wheelchair bound Momo; well she’s there somewhere. She does have her lucid moments and on one occasion even remembered the words to a favorite tune this proud Irish family always sang at past Thanksgiving gatherings.

It isn’t often that an actor is on stage for an entire production, stares out at the audience and once in a while utters indistinguishable gibberish, and yet is so felt as part of this family dynamic. Ms. Reynolds is one of San Diego’s premiere actors. Her showing up as the wheelchair bound former matriarch, (a lost to the world Momo) while continuing to give a stellar performance, is a credit to her professionalism.

While it was difficult watching her in that role, the humanity, pampering, inclusion and attention she receives from her family in this production of “The Humans” proves that all is not lost in this current reign of total disrespect for humanity  (and other humans) from those who should know better

Karam’s “The Humans” paints a pretty accurate picture of everyday folks who would love to live the dream, but don’t have the means, lost their way or blew their chances to do so.

It’s so human it hurts. It pulses with off the wall humor from ‘cockroaches to kale’, so much so that if you are not used to the rhythms of these family subtleties, you will miss them. I especially understood Deirdre’s frustrations to her Points on Weight Watchers if she had chips and dip appetizers.

 I couldn’t help myself from almost hearing my own cries about WW points. And in my first apartment in the outskirts of Boston, we, my husband and I, also had cockroaches that my super called beetle bugs. So much for those comparisons!

Conversations run back and fourth in layered and painful admissions that up until now have put the family on a superficial plateau and are blurted out over the course of the afternoon/evening visit. 

Confessions, losses, new -found awakenings and truths now become out loud facts as when a hurt and wounded Aimee confesses that she and her long time girlfriend split and her disease is getting to the point that surgery is needed and she has no insurance. Amanda Sitton, a local favorite, as most of the ensemble is, is so credible that yours truly felt her hurt and loss.
Kate Rose Reynolds and Jeffrey Meek
Jeffrey Meek’s Erik and Elizabeth Dennehy’s Deidre are the yin to the other’s yang. Together they make a whole; supporting, lifting up, dreaming the same dreams, hurting the same hurts, bringing their all that feels right and that that doesn’t, into focus knowing that some in the audience might have walked in their shoes. 

Erik finally shows up and has the guts to tell his family that they lost their lake house, his job and pension (among other things) and would have to downsize the family home as well. He has nightmares (he calls them dreams) going back to the 9/11 incident that haunt him and he can’t seem to dodge them. Perhaps by sharing them with Richard, who also has weird dreams, his might be eased.

The most eerie of scenes as the play ends has Erik standing at the doorway in a haze of mist (small glitch in the lighting caught everyone off guard, Chris Rynne), and after he has a few mishaps gathering up the family’s last belongings and everyone heads for the car, we don’t know exactly what he is thinking or will do.

Jeffrey Meek
The ending is bit ambiguous leaving us virtually in the dark, as is Erik. What happens next in his life is up for conversation. But fear not we, as humans are resilient and survival is our highest virtue.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb.2nd
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Phone: 619-544-1000
Production Type: Comedy/Drama
Where: 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown San Diego
Ticket Prices: Start at $25.00
Venue: Lyceum Space
Photo Credit: Jim Carmody

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Steven Dietz “Bloomsday”, Charms At North Coast Repertory Theatre

In Playwright Steven Dietz “Bloomsday”, currently in a charming and reflective production at North Coast Repertory Theatre though Feb. 2nd, Robert (Martin Kildare), a handsome and rather distinguished fifty something year old former professor tells the audience ‘that "Ulysses” is the most under-read and over praised piece of doggerel ever hemorrhaged onto the world! Don’t take my word for it.  Ask half the critics and every college sophomore on earth.’

Thank goodness I don’t recall reading it from top to bottom and if I did, that memory is no longer available to me. And that’s not to be confused with -of course I must have read it in my college days struggling through Greek Mythology. Let’s face it folks, that was over fifty years ago and today I’m happy remembering going to college.
Martin Kildare, Rachel Weck, Hunter Saling
Playwright Dietz last entered the scene at North Coast Rep’s with this theatre’s San Diego premiere of “This Random World” where it made an impact on audiences when we learned our leading lady, Scottie was dead, yet we can see her spirit living on in a series of short vignettes where she brings each of the surviving characters in her life closer to one another.  

“This Random World” might be Beshert, or serendipity.

“Bloomsday”, now in a regional premiere, might fit into the world of ‘what was, what is, and what might have been’. Some might see it as a time travel story. (I’m fascinated with that whole concept.) Some might look at it as missed opportunities, others capricious and predictable. I’m satisfied with charming, excellently acted, with direction by seasoned and keen director Andrew Barnicle, intriguing, absorbing and left with a feeling that I could see it again.

Bloomsday, June 16, is when Dubliner’s celebrate… a single day in the life of three residents of Dublin:  a young writer named Stephen Dedalus; his friend Leopold Bloom and Blooms wife, Molly… and includes Leopold’s walk through Dublin.” It has become a tradition in Dublin and elsewhere to retrace protagonist Bloom’s pilgrimage for those so inclined.

Back to Robert who, after twenty -five years of teaching Ulysses and thirty five years after meeting Caithleen, has returned to Dublin on Bloomsday. This time around he recalls a time when he was a mere pup, then known as Robbie (Hunter Saling) and in his twenties and of one who knew nothing of Ulysses or Joyce.
Rachel Weck, Jacquelyn Ritz and Martin Kildare
Here and over the course of the play he remembers the circumstances when he happened on a tour lead by a beautiful young colleen, Caithleen (Rachel Weck). On that day, June 16, to be exact, superstitious Caithleen invited him to join the tour, “James Joyce’s Dublin”, so there wouldn’t be thirteen in the group. He made up the fourteenth. By now he was almost smitten as was she.

And here’s where we take off and head down the roads taken and not, to another time when the older Robert meets up with his younger self and Caithleen’s or Cait’s older self (Jacquelyn Ritz). What comes into play, in bits and pieces, are unknown revelations about her future, that might have been predictable had we seen it happen over the years, that proved to be right.  

As narrator of his own story the focus on the four moves back and forth in time. Robert becomes the know all, tell all master of all that he remembers as having happened, what’s left behind and possibly what could have been.

Dietz’s idea of giving truth (or not) to a story as old as time where love is in bloom but goes unfulfilled and where love is found but through unpredictable circumstances is lost and faded memories can only recall what should have, could have, would have been, is enhanced by the first-rate ensemble work of the four actors on stage.

Sun tanned and appealing Martin Kildare won me over from the start. His relaxed, engaging and easy delivery and ability to know the future but unable to change it, convinced.

As his younger self, Hunter Saling’s Robbie is the perfect choice; one with indifference to what might be ahead, the happy go lucky come what may attitude or ‘whatever’ brought a credibility to his character.

The two women Rachel Weck in perfect Irish accent, at least to my ears, again the exact right choice (a newcomer to NCR) to the serious, concerned about her future well being as Caithleen again won me over with her easy and persuasive style.
Martin Kildare and Jacquelyn Ritz
Jacquelyn Ritz, no stranger to NCR serves up some beautiful and wistfulness and wish-fullness of the fate of her character.

What was present to yours truly was the overall feeling of sadness and yearning at stories end, especially for Robert, by wanting another ending yet knowing full well that life gets in the way even as we watch it happen, of some otherwise happy endings.

Marty Burnett designed the brick buildings with ivy- covering each wall. Benches and tables with chairs wheeled in serve as meeting places and different locations, alleyways etc.  They are enhanced by Matt Novotny’s lighting and Aaron Rumley’s sound and projections designs. Renetta Lloyd’s clothes are indicative of the moving time frames. 
Hunter Saling, Jacquelyn Ritx Martin Kildare and Rachel Weck

And on another note in the Playbill: “Bloomsday” is an annual pseudo-intellectual excuse to get hammered in the daytime”.

Have fun with this. I’ll give it  two thumbs up!

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb. 2nd
Organization: North Coast Repertory Theatre
Phone: 858-481-1055
Production Type: Fantasy/Comedy
Where: 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach, CA
Ticket Prices: Start at $46.00
Photo Credit: Aaron Rumley

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

One Singular Sensation Gives Welk Village Theatre A Leg Up As It Opens It’s Thirty Ninth Season.

In 1975 the Marvin Hamlisch (music), Edward Kleban (lyrics), James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante (book) and Michael Bennett (conceived and originally directed and choreographed) musical hit, "A Chorus Line” hit Broadway and never looked back.

It received 12 Tony Award nominations, winning for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score culminating with nine in all. The show ran for 6,137 performances and became the fourth longest running Broadway show ever.

Any show that has that sustainability deserves a second, third and however many productions it takes to look back at what is says and to whom it’s speaking.
Lauren Louis as Diana
For all the dancers, choreographers, wannabe dancers and musical theatre lovers this is tribute you, old new and in between. It more than deserves the outing Welk Village Theatre in Escondido, under the deft direction of Hector Guerrero (who also choreographs), gave to it on opening night.

Every now and then, it’s good to see it again just because it is one of the classic dance shows of Broadway’s past (by doing the math, it’s 45years old), not to mention it is a damn solid and good show and it gives dancers the complete floor on what goes into the process of becoming a dancer. It also gives the audience a chance to perhaps understand how much hard work is involved in making something look so easy.

 Over the years, there have been at least five "A Chorus Line" productions that have either passed through on touring shows or were home grown. The variables are in the casting of the show. The original themes are the same. The production opens backstage in a generic theatre where twenty-four dancers are vying for and auditioning to fill eight spots for a new musical about to be launched.
Jeffrey Scott Parsons Mike with cast
In charge of these auditions in this show is the director, Zach, (Jeffrey Ricca) who barks out orders to this chorus of those wannabe chosen. He does this by relentlessly probing, questioning and eliminating while all the while getting under their collective skins by having each one give a brief background of themselves as the “I Hope I Get It” mantra is chanted in the background. This is the heart of “A Chorus Line”.

One by one Zach prods, encourages and yells out orders from some place in the back of the ‘theatre’ for information from each with the usual suspects and personalities standing out over and above the others.

Lauren Louis as Diana, the brash Latina, who speaks of her toughness with one of her numbers, “Nothing” while relating a touchy, feely acting class she took in school on the one hand, and on the other hand later on in the show, belting out “What I Did For Love” with more emotional tremor than what was expected of her given her tough veneer.

Mike (Jeffrey Scott Parsons) is the youngest of twelve who tells how he used to mimic his sister at her dance class by learning her steps in “I Can Do That”).
Trevor Rex, Mikayla Agrella and Natalie Nucci
Sheila, a very strong Natalie Nucci is tough as nails and somewhat cynical. She’s been around the block several times. In her number, “At The Ballet”, she reminisces about her parents and her dancing lessons and her dysfunctional family life. 

Mikayla Agrella is Cassie, Zach’s old flame and ex live- in girlfriend. She’s hoping to make a comeback and thinks she has a bit of an edge on stage. She does have a moment (‘after all is said and done and you walked out on me’) Ms. Argella shows her talent as she dances her solo number that lasts at six or seven minutes if not longer, “The Music and the Mirror”.

Several of the boys speak of their homosexuality but it’s Paul (Anthony Michael Vacio) who is given the juicy part as he recalls the pain of his early childhood, his removal from Catholic School when he confesses that he is gay, his dancing in drag after he leaves school and his parents recognition of him as a young man. That monologue opens the floodgates for the audience. It’s a heartbreaker of a story but one that no doubt plays out across the spectrum.

Holly Echsner as Val with cast
Holly Echsner is adorable and fiesty as Val, the skinny kid with no chest no behind to speak of but a great dancer none the less.  She ends up doing bit of body reconstruction and sings about it in another show stopper “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three” or (“Tits and Ass” showing off her now big breasts.)

Donnie Gersonde is Bobby, the tallest dancer on the line but don’t underestimate; he can kick those babies out as far as the eye can see. He is also the funkiest of the contestants as he relates his escapades growing up.

Fisher Kaake is Larry, Zach’s serious assistant who helps run the auditions and Trevor Rex is Greg the Jewish gay man who struts around like a prima donna and talks about his first encounter with a woman when it’s his turn to talk.

All in all the dancing is terrific, the musical numbers are timeless, the voices good to just OK but the passion of the dancers, on a scale of one to ten, hits a ten. 
Devon Hunt is Richie
Musical director, (All the music is pre- recorded. I remember a time when there was live music coming from the ‘pit’) Randi Ellen Rudolph Jethwa, Patrick Hoyny’s sound, Jennifer Edwards (whose mom Adrianne has been with the theatre for over thirty years) designed the lighting, Rory Brown designed the set, (an open stage) with mirrors in the background), but it’s Janet Pitchers quintessential costumes with the glittery gold and white matching jump suits and top hats that catches the eye in the reflection of the mirrors that brings the audience to its feet.

All in all that’s what they do for L O V E …and it shows.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through March 22nd
Organization: Welk Resort Theatre
Phone: 1888.802.SHOW
Production Type: Musical
Where: 8860 Lawrence Welk Drive, Escondido, CA92026
Ticket Prices: $59.00 ($59.00 with pre show dinner)
Photo: Ken Jacques