Thursday, November 30, 2017

Humphrey and Steinberg Shine in NVA “Secret Garden”

When I was in 6th grade our teacher would read a chapter from Frances Hoggson Burnett’s 1911 children’s book “The Secret Garden at end of week on Friday afternoons.  

To say that it captured my imagination would be an understatement: India, England an overindulged and spoiled thirteen year old girl, nannies, doctors, a brooding uncle, a secret garden.

Mary Lennox, an orphaned girl (then about my age) was sent off to a dark and dreary Manor in Yorkshire England after her own parents died in a cholera epidemic in British India.

There she meets her hermit uncle, Archibald Craven, along with Mrs. Medlock (Dagmar Krause Fields, excellent) Cravens housekeeper, a bevvy of maidservants both friendly and some no so. She is dressed over and fussed over even while acting out in her nastiest personality, rejecting everyone in her path. (“A House Upon A Hill”)
Cast of Secret Garden 
The manor hums with rumors and ghostly sightings/images. Mary’s recluse, hunchback uncle Archibald Craven has been in state of depression since his wife died in childbirth ten years earlier. He wants no part of anything or anyone manor related.

Maids and nannies scurry around trying hard not to be noticed. Her invalid cousin Colin, delegated and kept out of sight in his room, is declared ill with an unknown affliction and his doctor Archibald’s brother Neville Craven has his own secret motives for keeping the boy at bay and Mary Lennox out of sight.
Sarah Mahaffey, Samantha Vesco, Jacob Farry (center) Chris Bona and Devin Collins
Dickon the moor boy, who talks to the birds in the skies and charms the animals with his music, befriends Mary while the maidservant Martha Sowerby lets the cat out of the bag and tells Mary about a secret garden that is being taken care of by the gardener Ben Weatherstaff. It’s garden that once belonged to her now deceased aunt Lily.

The book and its intrigue were a perfect marriage for a musical. In 1991 the musical script with lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon premiered on Broadway and ran for 709 performances.

That same year it won the Tony for Best Book of a Musical, Best Featured Actress in a musical and Best Scenic Design. It is currently on stage at New Village arts in Carlsbad through Dec. 24th under the direction of Rosina Reynolds. 

The musical, with over 30 numbers (a bit excessive) under the musical direction of conductor Tony Houck (oft times too loud for this venue) and his four musicians off stage bring the story into view with strong voices from Humphrey, Samantha Rose Steinberg, Kevane Le’Marr Coleman (Mary’s late father), Chris Bona as Dickon, Samantha Vesco as Martha (“If I Had a Fine Young Horse”) the maidservant and Nadia Guevara as Ayah, Mary’s nanny in India.
Manny Fernandes (background) David S. Humphrey
Guevara also choreographed the many dance numbers with the dreamers or deceased players circling those alive in sequences where the characters, in flashback, play out their otherwise lives. This device gives the audience a chance to glimpse into what brought us to the present and how their otherworldly influences can change the tone and outcome from dark and dreary to hopeful and optimistic.

Overall the cast does well with the overstuffed and repetitive musical numbers as the story brings us out of darkness into a full light when Mary and Colin secretly form a bond of trust and friendship allowing the boy (thirteen year old Jacob Farry is impressive) to gain strength and a chance at happiness away from the watchful and devious eyes of Dr. Craven (Manny Fernandes “Lily’ Eyes”).

Thirteen- year old Sara Mahaffey, making her acting debut and doing a fine job as the spoiled and petulant 13 year old (she is after all in the know) does not quite have the musical chops required as the lead character but does carry the story with an amazing change in personality.

 The rest of the cast, in fine voice overall, carry her along (It’s a Maze”, “Letter Song” “Opening Dream” Come Spirit, Come Charm” “Lily’s Eyes”.)
Sarah Mahaffy and Chris Bona
And charming it is as Chris Bona’s Dickon, who talks to the birds, takes over the spotlight every time he’s on stage. Manny Fernandes’ Dr. Craven is in good hands whether singing or just brooding about his life. 

Both Humphrey (a perfect role allowing him to expand his repertoire) and Steinberg are shining stars. Samantha Vesco is another bright star as Martha the maidservant who brings a smile in the room.

Finally when the door to the garden opens and Lily sings “Come To The Garden”, with Mary, Archibald, and Colin all together as a family, “Come To The Garden. Come Sweet Child”, I have to admit I welled up. 
Sarah Mahaffey David S/ Humphrey and Jacob FArry
The thirteen members cast, all dressed in high necked gowns of lacy white gauze, uniformed outfits for the men (Elisa Benzoni) singing and dancing on Christopher Scott Murillo’s minimalist set lit in shades of dark and darker (Curtis Miller) with hints of vines hanging from the walled off garden, can take credit along with Reynolds for the charm and ease with which this production sails.

The show is about two and a half hours long, and I loved every minute of it.

See you at the theatre.
Come To My Garden

Dates: Through Dec. 24th
Organization: New Village Arts
Phone: 760.433.3245
Production Type: Musical
Where: 2787 State Street, Carlsbad Village
Ticket Prices: Start at $43.00

Photo: Daren Scott

Saturday, November 25, 2017

“Summer, The Donna Summer Musical” Makes World Premiere at La Jolla Playhouse.

The San Diego community, and then some have been waiting to see “Summer, The Donna Summer Musical” since the 2018 season was announced. Well, it’s here in all its technical glitz, glory and roar. Along with the three faces of Donna featuring a tremendously talented trio of gorgeous women with voices to match, telling the story of the ‘Queen of Disco’, “Summer The Musical” barely lives up to its potential. 

If you asked me before I went to see "Summer, The Donna Summer Musical" if I know/ knew of her music, I could truthfully say no. If you asked me when I left the theatre the same question, I could honestly tell you that I recognized exactly one; "On the Radio". 

When I asked my now adult daughters who of the three were playing her music when they were growing up, all fingers point to the oldest. I’ll check back with her again later.

It’s clear former La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Des McAnuff (“Jersey Boys”), a disco enthusiast himself (He has his own band.) found her life and music to be interesting enough to collaborate with Coleman Domingo and Robert Cary in putting together this world premiere musical tribute. It will be playing in the Mandell Weiss Theatre through Dec. 24th.
Ariana DeBise as 'Disco Donna' with the cast of "Summer, The Donna Sommer Musical
With more pizzazz than substance, the show rocks with mega technical sounds maxed out to almost deafening, strobe lighting and in your face lighting, brighter and oversized than is needed lighting and subtitles lighting up around the stage telling us places and dates. Howard Binkley’s lighting design, certainly eye popping, is oft times blinding as well.  

The orchestra with musical director/conductor Victoria Theodore and her five piece band (led by Taylor Peckham on opening night), rocked the auditorium that sent my hearing aide off into places that made listening more difficult than not. Sound designer Gareth Owen might want to tone it down just a bit. I assure you it will still be effective.

Robert Brill’s (“Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots”) scenic design is glossy white with geometric cubes, white furniture and shades of white in the background and over the course of the evening many of the cast were in variations of white while the three faces of Summer, in blue and black contrast beautifully.  

The three are all quite beautiful and dressed to the nines, for the most part in shades of blues coordinated by award winning costume designer Paul Tazewell. I even thought I caught a glimpse of some of Diane Von Furstenberg style dresses at one point in the transitioning years worn by other members of the cast. 
LaChanze as 'Diva Donna'
The three actors playing five time Disco Queen and  Grammy Award Winning Summer  are: Tony Award winner LaChanze as Diva Donna (“She Works Hard for the Money”, “Hot Stuff’ and “Last Dance”), Storm Lever (On My Honor” and “Duckling Donna”) as young Donna and Ariana DeBose (“On The Radio”) as mid-career Donna.

The three faces piece the story together separately and together sometimes one ends where the other begins. Oft times not. The strategy works in allowing the three talents to show off their musical magic but it still doesn't make up for the depth of story that it so lacks.  

In making their appearances they are lifted up from below stage on large white pedestals. They are pixelated on digital screens as large as the stage is across and overall at least part of Summer’s face is looking into the audience. Sean Nieuwenhuis is credited for the projections, of which there are many.

There are over a dozen looking men/women/ androgynous types/chorus singing the twenty or so songs by Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara and others. Most of the time I had to ask my theatre date if they were hers? It’s a good idea to take someone in the know if that person that doesn't know is you.
(L to R) LaChanze, Arians DeBose and Storm Lever
The dancers, choreographed by Sergio Trujillo are more interesting to watch than the story director McAnuff has strung together. Good news/bad news, most of what he and his collaborators are selling can be found on line by typing in her name.

Told in flashback as a youngster she found herself singing solo in her church. What most of the info does not reveal is that the same leader of the family church in Boston that praised her was also molesting her over the years.

She often ditched her classes in high school and never finished slipping out visiting the disco clubs (‘Studio 54’) in and around Boston and New York.

When she finally told her parents she was offered a part in the touring company of “Hair” in Germany and that she was going, over protests that she at least finish high school, she wore them down and that started her on a career that she tells us from the start ‘was fragmented but now wants to put it all together’.

It was in Germany that she met her first husband actor Helmuth Sommer (Rebecca Riker) with whom she had a little girl along with a rocky, to say the least abusive relationship that followed her all the way back to the states after they parted.

She set records, breaking through the racial barriers while overseas. Back in the states she wowed everyone in the industry with her breakthrough demo recording of “Love to Love You Baby” that became an overnight success.  

Her business successes and or not are glossed over, almost disappearing in a blink. She turned to religion later on in her life and dependence on drugs was mentioned over and over again, yet she continued one successful song after another along with national recognition on the way to stardom.

Donna Summer died at age 63 in 2013 from lung cancer. Her career spanned R&B, Disco and hip- hop. Her successes span the 70’s, 80’s 90’s well into 2000. Her awards and record setting albums fill the pages of professional magazines and Hall's of Fame. On the short list: “MacArthur Park”, “Hot Stuff”, “On The Radio”, and “Bad Girls”, “She Works Hard for the Money” and “Last Dance”. 

Her story deserves to be given more attention than we see in the 100 minute or so intermission-less production. With it all, McAnuff and his team while not really putting their best foot forward in this latest bio- musical by glossing over more than we get, does offer some great entertainment and a small peek into the turbulent life of “The Queen of Disco”, and first inductee into the Dance Music Hall of Fame in New York.

 For those in the know and even those on the outside her circle of music, and who knows with some tweaking it might even make it to Broadway. Catch it while you can  and you will be one of the many that can say, “I saw it when”.

“What I aspire to in my life, truly, is to be loving.”

 See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Dec. 24th.
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Phone: 858.550.1010
Production Type: Musical
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037
Ticket Prices: Start at $58.00
 Venue: Mandell Weiss Theatre

Photo: Kevin Berne

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Moxie’s “Diary of Anne Frank” More Than Relevant After All These Years.

From 1933 to 1945 under the Nuremberg Laws Hitler’s Nazi Party began rounding up opposition groups to his Nationalist Socialist German Workers Party. Individual freedoms, freedom of press, speech and assembly were all curtailed.

Jews were considered racially inferior/second class citizens. They were not allowed to attend public schools, theatre, cinema, or vacation resorts. 

They were rounded up from Berlin to France, Poland, Italy, Lithuania and Western Ukraine.
Eddie Yaroch and Amy Perkins (Photo: Sean Fanning)
In 1934 the Frank Family moved from Germany to Amsterdam where Otto Frank had a business. They thought that the Netherlands’ neutrality would be a safe haven for them. In 1940 the Germans occupied Denmark and southern Norway.

All Dutch Jews were required to wear Yellow Stars of David on their clothing. In 1942 Margot Frank was ordered to report for relocation to a labor camp. That same year the Frank’s went into hiding.

For the better part of two years, (from age 13 to age 15) Anne Frank’s life became an open book. When she and her family were forced into hiding as a result of the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam in 1942 Anne undaunted, made regular entries into an autograph book, later turned into a diary, given to her by her father Otto, on her 13th birthday.
Cast of "The Diary of Anne Frank (Photo: Sean Fanning)
The last entry in the diary was made Aug. 1, 1944. On that day in 1944, Anne and the seven other people hiding in the secret annex of her father’s warehouse in Amsterdam were arrested. Following their arrest, Miep Gies, Otto Frank’s secretary and later their link to the outside world, found Anne’s diary pages strewn all over the annex floor.

The Nazi’s, in their haste to round up the Jews, left the papers behind. Miep gathered them up and put them away for safekeeping, having never read them. After the war she gave them to Otto, who later had them published in what is now known as "The Diary of Anne Frank".

Several versions of the diary known as a), b), and c) have been published. From the first known published account in 1947 to the present, much more has been revealed about the contents in the first papers.
Katelyn Katz and Eddie Yaroch and Amy Perkins (Photo:Daren Scot)
Originally, Otto Frank felt the need to omit accounts of Anne’s sexuality and entries including the ones about her mother and her feelings towards her. Anne was openly hostile toward her mother. “Yesterday mother and I had another run in.” “I finally told Daddy that I love him more than I do Mother.”

Her writing’s address in detail the turbulence, fear, anxiety, hopes, claustrophobic sharing of space, strengths, weaknesses and dreams of a young spunky rather self centered, spoiled, fun filled thirteen-year-old girl who still felt the world was her oyster. But more than anything, they give insight into a spirited thirteen-year-old going on forty- year -old mind.

“It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything that people are truly good at heart”.

The latest incarnation is the play based on the book "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl". This revival is by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and adapted by Wendy Kesselman.

Katelyn Katz and Nick Lux (Photo: Sean Fanning)
The play opened in Boston and then Broadway on Dec. 4th 1997 and ran for 208 performances. Most of the critics were critical of Anne’s budding sexuality being inserted into a newer revival and the show sank in the wake of its own weight.      

Moxie Theatre, under the deft direction of Kym Pappas, and with dramaturge Eli Chung who managed all the Hebrew pronunciations of the Chanukah blessings perfectly, “The Diary of Anne Frank” hums along without a hitch until three young Nazi stormtroopers break up their one happy moment of finally enjoying some fresh strawberries Miep had just delivered, and march each and every one of the occupants out to the waiting cattle cars and to the camps.  

Pappas painstakingly takes us through the daily struggles of children doing their homework; needing help in French. While the women cooking with whatever rations of food they had and the men read books brought into the annx by Miep. Light moments, dark fears and individual insecurities were encountered as they went through their day, quietly in stocking feet, as to not give themselves awy to the workers below. 

From Anne having to share her small bedroom with Mr. Dussel to the inescapable and horrific act of stealing a small piece of bread by Mr. van Daan because the rationing wasn’t doing it for him to celebrating the lighting of the Chanukah candles in a wooden Chanukiah whittled by Mr. van Daan, it is all there in black and white for the world to bear witness. 

Chanukah, the Jewish Holiday commemorating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt was a reminder that life goes on and in the case of the eight living, breathing in the same stale air, using the same loo and sharing whatever foods Miep  (an assuring Jamie Channel Guzman) could get with their rations, so to the eight human beings connecting, chose life.

Wendy Waddell, Jonathan Sachs and Katelyn Katz (Photo: Sean Fanning)
With a most competent cast in tow, the Frank Family consisted of Otto Frank, (an excellent Eddie Yaroch), Edith Frank, (Wendy Waddell at her all time high), Anne Frank (Katelyn Katz) and Amy Perkins as Margot Frank.

Others in hiding/living in the annex include a quirky and oft times selfish Mr. Dussel (Joe Paulson), a dentist in his past life. Paulson’s fussy and annoying Dussel is right on target and at odds with the others hiding food and arguing with everyone. 

Jonathan Sachs and Holly Stephenson are Mr. and Mrs. van Daan Frank’s business partner. Nick Lux is the van Daan son, Peter.

Lux is perfect as he pivots back and fourth struggling to stay away from Anne yet drawn to her feisty manner as she outright hangs on to him.  “I know very well he was my conquest, and not the other way around… I wanted a friend who would help me find my way again.” 

To the person each of the players, never leaving character even during intermission is perfectly portrayed out convincingly and truthfully.  Katelyn Katz, a fifteen year old who attends Canyon Crest Academy, is Anne’s alter ego. She comes across as a natural, just right for a spunky 13/ 14 year old.

She is bold, plucky, inquisitive and completely authentic in her every move including wearing a pair of red high heels brought to her my Miep on one of her visits. She dreams of becoming an actress one day or a writer as her entry reads:

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere thy can be quite alone with the heavens nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As longs as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.”
                   "Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl"

Joe Paulson and Katelyn Katz (Photo: Daren Scott)
When the Frank’s enter the annex from the lobby of the theatre they file in with Otto in the lead (and looking eerily like photos of Mr. Frank), the tone is set. The van Daan family follows close behind taking their places in the annex.

Sean Fanning’s set is a bit more sprawling on Moxie’s long stage giving the appearance of being a much larger space than it really is. Lighting design by Chris Renda helps focus our attention to some of the little nooks and crannies of the oft -darkened living area. Lily Voon’s sound puts us right in the middle of the roundups and bombings and Jennifer Brawn-Giddings costumes are period right. 

One by one personalities emerge with some more outspoken as in the case of Holly Stephenson’s argumentative, selfish and protective Mrs. van Daan who cherishes a mink coat her late father once gave her and brought with her own chamber pot, to her shy and awkward and innocent son Peter, who managed to sneak in his pet cat Mouchi.

Mr. van Daan acts as peacemaker between his wife and the other’s in the annex his wife manages to offend. Without saying much Jonathan Sachs hunched over presence and sad sack look says it all as the browbeaten and helpless husband, who one time found love when he first met his wife.  

Wendy Waddell does just fine as Edith Frank. She carries the worries of the world on her shoulders and especially trying to reassure her daughters that they will be fine, to stay calm. She tends to favor Margot and shows a sense of hurt when Anne pushes her away to the preference of her father.

Eddie Yaroch couldn’t have been a more perfect choice as Otto Frank. Mild mannered and soft -spoken, Yaroch has the look and manners of a leader. Just his presence in the room demands respect and deference.

Amy Perkins does the best she can with the role of Margot, Anne's older sister.  She gets the least attention and the one we know the least about. We do know that the girls were separated when the Nazi’s took them away and she was the first of the sisters to die.

Six million Jews were displaced, starved, gassed or shot (Warsaw Ghetto, Babi Yar, the largest shooting massacre in the Holocaust to name a few of the more written about) in the German’s effort to rid the world of Jews.

Most were rounded up and sent to concentration camps where they awaited their fate and for the allies to finally acknowledge what was happening in Europe.

By 1945 there were more than 700,000 prisoners left in the camps. With the exception of Otto, the entire Frank family was either killed or died of diseases while waiting for the camps to be liberated.

After the war, Frank returned to the annex. In an emptionally charged, gut wrenching appearance, eyes welled in tears, with Anne’s diary as witness, Yaroch's,  Frank the only survivor,  offers up the fate of each of those in the annex  as they quietly exit the theatre:

Eddie Yaroch (Photo: Sean Fanning)
*On September 3rd1944 all eight are sent in a cattle car to Auschwitz. Once there, the men are separated from the women.

*On October 28, of the same year, Margo and Anne Frank are transported to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

*On January 6, 1945 Anne’s mother dies of starvation in Auschwitz. That same year the Russians liberate the remaining survivors in Auschwitz, including Otto Frank.

*In March 1945 Margo and Anne die of typhus in Bergen-Belsen. The camp was liberated by British troops on April 15th of that year.

*Over one million children perished in the Holocaust.

 *In 2017 neo-Nazi’s marched in Virginia shouting anti-Semitic slurs that were half assed explained away by the leader of the Free World.

As long as there are Holocaust deniers, and  anti-Semitism at an all time high right now as we speak, there will always be a need for theatre companies to produce this play and there will always be a need for audiences to see it.

I urge you see this one even if you’ve read the book, seen the movie or seen the play. We can never forget.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Dec. 17th
Organization: Moxie Theatre
Phone: 858.598.7620
Production Type: Drama
Where: 6663 El Cajon Blvd. Suite N. San Diego, CA 92115
Ticket Prices: $30.00
Photo: Daren Scott and Sean Fanning