Thursday, September 28, 2017

Globe’s New Musical “Benny & Joon”: A Crowd Pleaser

Everything and nothing is normal at Benny and Joon’s house in Spokane, Washington. Their mother and father died in a car crash when they were both quite young leaving Benny to care for Joon. As a caregiver he goes out of his way to see to her every need, and then some.

Joon was diagnosed with having schizophrenia at a young age so bringing her up and caring for her has always been slippery slope for Benny. But life goes on for them and as adults they have now fallen into a routine that appears to work, except when it doesn’t.

Under no circumstances however will he allow Joon to be put into a group home where Dr. Cruz, (Natalie Toro) her Dr. knows she will be cared for. Not so, thinks Benny. 

Benny owns and runs a car repair garage, does the food shopping and makes sure Joon has supervision in her daily life by caregivers that do most of the housework and cooking and just keep an eye out for his sister’s safety.

Hannah Elless
Joon paints, gardens makes her own smoothies for breakfast, seems able to take care of her daily needs, except when she off a bit and begins to have meltdown around some sounds or whatever it is that particular moment that causes her to go off track.  Not taking her meds might be the first cause. “(Safety First”)

She has an uncanny need to make sure most of the caregiver’s, Mrs. Smail (Natalie Toro) for instance, don’t stay around for long, that is until Sam comes into the picture.

Benny's friends and co-workers, Waldo (Jason Sweet Tooth Williams), Mike (Colin Hanlon) and Larry (Paolo Montalban) come and go between car shop scenes and poka games. All three are in excellent voice. (”Home Run Kings”). They have a bond that goes beyond just friendship. They support Benny in his role as caregiver and understand that when the phone rings at work and it’s Joon she gets first dibs for his attention.

Andrew Samonsky and January LaVoy
His pals have not given up on him either and continue to encourage him to step out of his caregiving role once in a while and go on a real grown up date with say the local waitress, Ruthie (a very patient and sweet voiced January LaVoy. “Been There Done That”). She certainly has eyes for him. (“Take A Step Benny”)

The four also play poker at Waldo’s house once a week. They wager the strangest things rather than money like a stethoscope, Captain and Tennille album, Cabbage Patch Kid, a box of chalk, you get the picture.

On this one card playing night Sam, Mike’s cousin’s name was thrown into the pot as one of the take home prizes.  On this particular night, Joon sat in for Benny who was called away from the table. Skepticism set in, but she wriggled her way in anyway.

As it was to be she wins Sam for losing the game, ergo he’s sent home with the pair thinking it’s temporary.  (He’s a little weird, sure, but he’s fine. Our place isn’t just isn’t big enough.”)

This original musical by Kirstin Guenther (book), Nolan Gasser (music) and Mindi Dickstein (lyrics) and deftly directed by Jack Cummings III now up and running on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage of The Old Globe through Oct. 22nd adds another layer to an already captivating love tale of the one that almost got away.

Propelled with Gasser’s eclectic choices of music that include ‘lyrical songs from his childhood, vaudeville and silent movie musicals, 1990’s grunge rock, gospel tinged, film noir, R&B and Tin Pan Alley’, it follows closely the 90’s cult film of the same name that stars none other than a very young Johnny Depp.

There are about 25 songs, some more effective than others. Some could be cut and no one the wiser. The show is almost three hours long and cutting some would shorten the production overall and that’s not a bad thing.

The story has a charming flair to it especially when Sam, (Bryce Pinkham) the delicately balanced on again, off again eccentric stranger moves in with Benny and Joon.  
Bryce Pinkham
His character is a cross between Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. Sam lives inside the minds and worlds of the old silent movies greats of that era and Pinkham (“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway) is a natural as Sam the retro man, even imitating characters from Marlon Brando in “The Godfather” to James Stewart in “It’s A Wonderful Life”.  And he sings!

He understands Joon (Hannah Elless) in a quiet and reverential way never imposing on her, just following her ways and being there. They eat out at the local diner where they lament about the raisins.  She in turn becomes relaxed with him never thinking of sending him away.

Benny (Andrew Samonsky) has enough on his plate to deal with Joon, so when Sam exhibits some quirky behavior like moping the floors on roller skates and making grilled cheese sandwiches with a steam iron rather than in a skillet, he’s a bit skeptical but doesn’t want to upset the apple cart.  
Hannah Elless and Bryce pinkham
Joon seems to relish the idea and like Sam she acts as if - doesn’t everyone use a steam iron to grill chees sandwiches? (“Grilled Cheese Ballet” and “Sam’s Bread Dance”).

Hannah Elless (“Bright Star”) has just the right mix of calm, anxiety, stubbornness and charm to be able to pull off the Joon character with all the credibility needed. Her innocence shines through when she’s not challenging her brother or when she’s goggle- eyed looking at Sam. There’s definitely a connection, and why not?

Samonsky’s Ben has the most difficult to wrap your arms around. One can admire him for wanting to protect his sister, and for that matter, his familiar routine that is his anchor. (“Benny & Joon”).

On the other hand, one might want to smack some sense into him for not seeing beyond his nose and letting Joon travel her own journey. And if that’s the emotional pull toward his character, Samonsky plays it all too well. 

Pinkham’s name might not be in the title of the show, but make no mistake Sam is the engine that drives this story. His wide eyes and thoroughly engaging looks had the same effect on yours truly as they did on Joon. It’s like a magnet. “In My Head” is one of the necessary tunes explaining the who and the why of this offbeat character.
Jason Sweet Tooth Williams and Bryce Pinkham
Watching him trying to apply for a job is one of the heartbreaking scene in both movie and current musical. It will give you shivers as he tries to explain to the shop owner why he’s there.

The set is the very first thing we see when the curtains go up is an aerial view of Benny and Joon’s neighborhood with backlighting by R. Lee Kennedy. The creativity of the set lures you into the Benny, Joon, Sam’s world. Seriously, you want to be there to see how this all plays out. Credit Dane Laffrey for sets and also costumes.

The most you will remember about the costumes is Sam’s look as a cross between Chaplin (yes he carries a slim cane) Lloyd and Keaton. It’s a classic look, vest, tie and crushed and worn hat, right out of Vaudeville centrtal casting.  Credit choreographer Scott Rink for the Chaplinesque saunter.

Eight musicians in the pit under J. Oconer Navarro musical direction and orchestrations by Michael Starobin are top -notch sounding. (Kai Harada)

“Benny & Joon” isn’t quite ready for a Broadway run, but will be with a few tweaks and a few nips here and there. It has a winning glow about it and who doesn’t like a simple yet complicated romantic comedy that looks to have happy ending in spite of Joon’s illness and Sam’s off kilter ways. It can and does happen. 

You’ll kick yourself if you miss it here and notice it made it to Broadway.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Oct. 22nd
Organization: The Old Globe
Phone: 619.234.5623
Production Type: Musical
Where: Balboa Park, 1363 Old Globe Way.
Ticket Prices: Start at $36.00
Venue: Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage

Photo: Jim Cox

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

New Village Arts Hams It Up in “American Hero”

Sheri, Ted and Jamie were complete strangers before they became work buddies or ‘sandwich artists’ at the newest franchise, “American Hero’*, in a strip mall in any city USA sometime during the recession era 80’s.

Bess Wohl’s one act 90-minute dark comedy now making its professional premiere in Carlsbad had its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival during its 2013 season. The New York premiere at Second Stage was in May 2014.

Her quirky, not quite ready for prime time play about self- preservation, the haves and the have not’s, the state of the economy, those on target with their lives and those struggling to make it past GO on a bleak minimum wage salary, is currently playing at New Village Arts Theatre through Oct. 5th.

Director Kristianne Kurner and her support team give the production a reality look that almost makes you want a turkey on rye and hold the cheese, no mayo.

OK! Enough about cold cuts.

As you might imagine, “American Hero” is NOT about the movie American Hero with his super powers to fight crime. No. This “American Hero” play is set in a Quiznos/ Subway type walk in sandwich store where Sheri, Ted and Jamie work pumping out foot-long sandwiches with whatever fresh ingredients happen to be on the menu.

The store is located not very far from another such franchise in the same mall. Sheri, Ted and Jamie wonder why in the world franchise owner Bob would take such a location. 

Bob is the franchise owner with secrets we’ll never know about. We find him in the opening scene interviewing the young disinterested looking Sheri.

We next have him giving lengthy orientation, of sorts to the rest of his team in a halted and almost foreign language (to him) read. When finished and feeling proud of himself, Bob looks his team over and proceeds to give them their designated jobs: Sheri is baser, Ted is finisher and Jamie is wrapper.

Dallas McLaughlin and Cecilia Harchegani
He has them practice getting an order ready from beginning to end. It must be done in no less than 20 seconds. When he is satisfied, after about three tries and with everyone in place and pleased with their accomplishments, Bob gives a thumb’s up, gathers his briefcase and hustles out the door. 

The next time we see him some time later and in the scheme of things he rushes into the back office and starts shouting and ranting in another language and leaves. He didn’t even show up for the Grand Opening leaving the three with open mouth astonishment. Red Flag! Red Flag!

Working hard and forming a community of sorts can’t make up for them running out of food. Sheri doing inventory could not access the code to open the walk-in. They assumed Bob would return and help them get back on track. He never did.  

After calling Corporate every day, they finally spoke to a person and were told to stay open at any cost. They did. They were open longer and lasted on the job longer than did the ham, turkey, pepperoni, multi grain flatbread, diet Cherry soda and chips.

They were in a pickle (no pun intended) and left on their own to fend. Sheri moped around but kept her wits about her, Jamie went after Ted with a mission/passion, Ted kept convincing himself that he was a married man and customers were getting pissed off because they were out of all the menu offerings.

One night while sleeping at the store Sheri had a wild dream that a signature sandwich in the form of a super hero called on her to do something big. When she woke she came up with the idea of making and selling PB&J and tuna sandwiches on two kinds of bread, with a small sweet dessert to placate the customers who couldn’t get their foot longs.

They didn’t need Corprate for those items they just went to the super and bought them. It worked. “I’ll make a kickass tuna sandwich”. It didn’t pass muster when Corporate heard about it, but that’s par for the course.  

From minimum wage to hourly pay, to health insurance, and big business, family and kids divorce and having affairs, to how to wrap a sandwich 20 seconds and how to work as a team are all touched on here as the recession of the 2008 still reverberates in the minds of Sheri, Ted and Jamie.

These are the American Hero’s we take for granted every day as we stand in line and watch them put those grinders together, finish and wrap.

(L to R) Cecilia Harchegani, Dallas McLaughlin, Kamel Haddad and Wendy Waddell
Theses are our American Hero’s waiting on tables, bussing and washing dishes trying to stay afloat while their Masters Degrees gather dust. What he hell. We’ve all been victims at one time or another.

Great ensemble work features newcomer Cecelia Harchegani as shy and unassuming Sheri (yes with an i) who needs two jobs to support her father’s illness. Ms. Harchegani is off to a great start.

Kamel Haddad’s Bob, a former doctor in his native Middle Eastern country, is excellent as he assumes several different characters and different wigs. Let’s keep him busy.

Wendy Waddell’s Jamie’s is over the top funny and over the top serious in her desperation to win her custody battle with her husband. She’s always a pleasure to see on stage.

Dallas McLaughlin’s Ted is the over optimistic lost soul and up tight guy in need of pitching corporate BS to makes his points. I need to be more convinced by his character.

Kamel Haddad and Cecilia Harchegani
The production ambles along zeroing in on the dark as in comedy to prove a point. And that might just be the point where the playwright might want to dig deeper into her creations rather than make them stock characters.

While yours truly never wrapped herself around the humor, dark or otherwise, cynical perhaps, it just never tugged at my tickle bone. I got the message in spite of the sit-com and predictability of Wohl’s essay.

Understanding the frustration and fear of dealing with an uncertain economy, being dumped by a loved one, struggling over custody for you kids and losing a high paying job at Bank of America, and moving in with your in-laws (a place that smells like Depends and milk) you will be able to understand the why of the three staying put to save their themselves and knitting and bonding as a unit.

It happens now and happened then although I can’t say with any certainty it all ended happily ever after for Wohl’s characters.

Shaun Tauzon ‘s costumes are made to fit this American Hero store matching colors with the flag and some mirror the colors of the walls. Uniforms all matching, they looked pretty professional. After work, Wadell's red spandex, another story.

Kristin Flores designed a sterile stainless steel counter is where the makings for the sandwiches are kept a la Subway. Large menu's hang on the walls and in front of the counter and a large neon sign hangs over their heads. Christopher Renda’ s lighting is perfect especially during the dream sequenced.

Melanie Chen Cole’ sound design “Chariots Of Fire’ “The Girl from “Ipanema” fit appropriately for this show.

The moral of the story?  “Don’t give up on your dreams” and always thank (tip) your local sandwich artist.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Oct. 15th
Organization: New Village Arts Theatre
Phone: 760.433.3245
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 2787 State Street, Carlsbad Village, 92008
Ticket Prices: $33.00-$36.00
Venue: New Village Arts Theatre
Photo: Daren Scott

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Stellar Cast Puts “Billy Elliot” on Must See List

There are a million reasons to catch San Diego Musical Theatre’s, in conjunction with the California Ballet Company (celebrating its 50th anniversary) currently running musical, “Billy Elliot, The Musical” at the Spreckels Theatre Downtown, not the least of which is a new rising star on our horizon, ten year old Charlie Garton who plays Billy Elliot.

This youngster (from Del Mar Pines School) has what it takes to tug at your heartstrings yet marvel at his enormous talent as an up and coming dancer. He’s young innocent, sincere and what he does as dancer will thrill you to pieces. What he does with the person of Billy will make you laugh, cry and his smile, and his innocence is worth the price of admission and then some.  He’s a natural.

Based on Stephen Daldry’s 200 Film about a young lad from a coal-mining town in Northern England 1984 just as the coal miners in Northern England called a strike against the Government, the story is juxtaposed with young Billy Elliot’s quest to become professional dancer.

Charlie Garton and Mackernan Jarman
It was the winner of ten Tony Awards including Best musical. With musical score by Elton John, book and lyrics by Lee Hall this production is choreographed by CBT Company Associate Artistic Director Jared Nelson and directed by former Liverpool, England  resident Neil Dale, making his San Diego directorial debut. Our own locally home- grown conductor Don Le Master and his excellent 13- piece orchestra in the pit are on the mark as usual.

Billy’s dad and brother are both coal miners, now out of work and ready to join a picket line. To keep Billy out of harms way, his dad sends him to the Sports Center to take boxing lessons, a sport not to Billy’s liking. Rather than staying in this class, he joins a ballet class that just happens to be using the same gym while their studio acts as the local soup kitchen.

Driven more by the political unrest at the time, much of the story line concentrates on the ups and downs of the striking miners and incidentally on Billy’s struggle to overcome his father’s (Doug Tompos) and outspoken and hard headed brother Tony’s (Luke Monday) prejudices about his becoming a professional dancer.
Doug Tompos and Charlie Garton
Both Tempos and Monday put in strong and emotionally charged performances. Tempos as Dad wants what will make his son happy and is torn in two by his need to make a living and let his son fly and get out from under the mines.

Monday’s Tony has been a creature of the culture and is tough as nails wanting his younger brother to stay the course and carry on with the miners. The struggle continues throughout.

Billy’s mother (Morgan Carberry) is recently deceased and the only female in the household is his infirm and rather eccentric Grandma (Alexandra Gonzales is a hoot) who also loved to dance.

Needless to say there is about as much upheaval in the Elliot household when Billy’s enrollment in ballet is uncovered as is found at the nightly meetings in the local gym/soup kitchen.

Joy Yandell and Charlie Garton
Not to be deterred however Billy’s teacher Mrs. Wilkinson encourages the boy, much to the chagrin of his Dad and brother to practice, practice, and practice. She even suggests he try out for an audition at Royal Ballet School in London.

Joy Yandell plays Mrs. Wilkinson with panache and tough love no holds barred. Outspoken, caring mother figure and tough as nails Yandell is on top of her game and quite a dancer herself. She too is another reason to rush and see the show.

The show has a certain appeal especially to those who love the music of Elton John (none to be hummed on the way home though) and big production numbers like “Electricity”, “Angry Dance”,  “Solidarity”, “Grandma’s Dance”, “Shine”, “Express Yourself”, “Merry Christmas Margaret Thatcher”, and “We Were Born to Boogie”.

The array of dance along with ballet is expansive as well with tap, and hip-hop and the gals (students) from CBC are as adorable as can be and work the system to a T.

All those ‘youngins in tutus are the cutest ever but the funniest, and we have to assume trending gay, is Billy’s friend Michael played with wondrous joy and glee by the curly red haired cross dressing Mackernan  (Mac) Jarman especially when he puts one on and complains about the crotch being too tight. It’s a fun moment in another wise heavy and hard -hitting production. Another reason to see it.  

There is one big and stunning ballet a scene from “Swan Lake” featuring young Garton and California Ballet Principal dancer, a beautiful Zachary Guthier as the accomplished and older Elliot. Shivers and tears could be described as dueling feelings that raced through my body throughout that piece. Another reason to see it.

Charlie Garton with Zachary Guthier
This marks SDMT 11th year and as a company has produced some of the best musical theatre out city has been able to enjoy. This particular production and choice is gutsy and while it will prove to be an audience pleaser over all it does get bogged down by the thick northern England accents (I know) even with dialect coach Vanessa Dinning coaxing. Some dialogue and musical numbers were almost incomprehensible to yours truly.

Overall the cast is terrific with strong voices and great dancing. There is so much in this show to see and appreciate, some necessary, some not so to cover here so as not to take anything away from your enjoyment.

Excellent support comes from the extra large cast of over forty including some favorites, Ed Hollingsworth, Paul Morgavo, Amy Perkins and Debra Wanger to mention a few. 
Cast of Billy Elliot The Musical
Lighting designer Christina Martin, Janet Pitcher’s costumes, Kevin Anthenill’s sound design and the multifaceted and utilitarian set design works as quick scene changes move the story along also assist in proving this to be one of SDMT's standout productions.   

Some of the language and gestures border on the R ratings side. Parents of younger children, who might, under ordinary circumstances love the dancing and might even relate to Billy’s struggles, should be put on notice.

There are over forty reasons to see "Billy Elliot The Musical". I can't think of one not to see it.  
See you at the theatre.

Dates:  Through Oct. 8th.
Organization: San Diego Musical Theatre
Phone: 858.560.5740
Production Type: Musical
Where: 121 Broadway, Downtown San Diego, CA. 92101
Ticket Prices: Range from $22.00-$72.00
Venue: Spreckles Theatre

Photo: Ken Jacques