Thursday, December 28, 2017

“Motown The Musical” Returns to Enthusiastic San Diego Crowds.

It wasn’t that long ago that “Motown The Musical”, the Jukebox musical, made its National tour on stage at the Civic Theatre. It’s back again for a short run through Dec. 31st and well worth seeing, even for a second look.  
Quiana Holmes (center) as Mary Wilson

With book by Berry Gordy and music and lyrics taken straight from ‘The Legendary Motown Catalog” (there are about 50 in the show) and based on Gordy’s book, “The Book To Be loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown”, the musical stays true the times as well as the rise of the Motown label not to mention the incredible story of Berry Gordy who is played by the talented and versatile Kenneth Mosley.

Unfortunately the book, which as a memoir and reads like a diary doesn’t leave much to the imagination fencing Mosley in to do the best he can to bring us Gordy’s story beginning in 1983 when Gordy is invited to attend a reunion at the Pasadena Auditorium that will bring together most of his famous stars. Gordy has been burnt by most of them and refuses to attend.
Kenneth Mosley and cast of "Motown The Musical"
It then segues back in time to the Joe Lewis -Max Schmeling match that Louis won. In the beginning he wanted to become the next Joe Louis. When he gives up that dream he manages to talk his parents back in their Detroit home, into a loan to start up his recording company, Hitsville, USA. From there the show takes off with one new up-and-comer after another followed by one recognizable tune after another, some in part and others in large production numbers.

The live Motown orchestra in the pit boasts five musicians under the baton of Matthew Croft with arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp and Bryan Harlan Crook.  Add another ten plus musicians and you have a big, almost too big, sound. (Peter Hylenski)
Marvelette Nya Trysha (center)
 Add to that the period costumes that reflect the span of the musical (Emilio Sosa), throughout the 60’s and into the 70’s’ are a reminder not to throw anything away. Outstanding projections (Daniel Brodie) showing actual historical footage of events that coincided with the rise of R&B like the assassination of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. They brought memories of painful days.
Cartreze Tucker as Stevie Wonder
 The times were also a constant reminder once again of the stain on our history as segregation reared its ugly head before, during and after Martin Luther King’s “I Had A Dream” speech, that prevented Black artists the same recognition as whites. Some things have changed for the better, others not so much.

An all-star cast with the dynamic 7th grader Kai Calhoun as the younger Michael Jackson brought the audience to its collective feet when he first came on stage to shows end and the love story betwen Dianna Ross and Gordy (with oodles of chemestry) plays out to its predictable ending; he being a control freak and she taking a contract with RCA for more control over her shows and more money than Motown Records was worth at the time.    

Brazen and eye popping scenic designs (David Korins), lit with more eye popping flashes of colors by Natasha Katz, an endless supply of dancing, with Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, choreographing,  that went on throughout the curtain call. An all-star cast with Charles Randolph-Wright directing brings home the bacon.  
Trenyce and Kenneth Mosley
The list of now famous R&B stars reads like the Whose Who in the Motown Hall of Fame, names Berry put on the map. They include of course Dianna Ross (a spunky and personable and talented Trenyce) “Reach Out And Touch, and The Supremes, The Marvelette’s (“Please Mr. Postman”), Marvin Gaye (a sturdy and strong voiced Matt Manuel) and Stevie Wonder (Cartreze Tucker), The Jackson Five, Gladys Night, Rick James (Erick Patrick), Smokey Robinson (an amazing Justin Reynolds), The Temptations and the list goes on with almost all of singer/actors stepping into many roles over the course of the two plus hour show.  

But it’s the music that has everyone lip-syncing: “Where Did Our Love Go”,   “I Hear A Symphony”, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, “I’ll Be There”, “Mercy, Mercy” Me”, “Please Mr. Postman”, “Stop In The Name Of Love”, “ My Girl”, My Guy”.  59 (by my count) and it was about as stimulating and entertaining as one would wish for a night out on the (mo)  town.
Jasmine Maslanova -Brown (Center)
Motown premiered on Broadway in 2013 and ran for 738 regular performances. Those familiar with Motown and the music it generated will be more than pleased with the music and the performances and will most likely overlook the choppy narrative and the abbreviated tunes.  

It’s lively and a piece of musical history worth remembering.

See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Dec. 31st
Organization: Broadway San Diego
Phone: 619-570-1100
Production Type: Musical
Where: 3rd and B Street Downtown San Diego, 92101
Ticket Prices: Check with Box Office
Venue: Civic Theatre
Photo: Joan Marcus

Monday, December 25, 2017

“Always”-Hershey as Irving Berlin Is A Living Memory

How does one pay tribute to a Jewish Russian immigrant and American icon who lived to be 100+ years old, wrote over a thousand songs, nineteen of which were Broadway scores, eighteen Hollywood films scores, several nominations for Academy Awards, plus “God Bless America”, “Easter Parade” “This is The Army” and “White Christmas”, and still do justice to Irving Berlin?

Hershey Felder like Irvin Berlin is in a league of his own. Felder, a Canadian native, born to Jewish immigrants and named by Time Magazine’s 2016 Top 10 plays and musicals, is no stranger to San Diego audiences.

“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin”, with music by Irving Berlin and book by Hershey Felder, who is also credited for the scenic design with Richard Norwood as lighting designer, with wonderful projections by Christopher Ash & Lawrence Siefert, and directed by Trevor Hay, is currently showing at the San Diego Repertory Theatre downtown San Diego through Jan. 7, 2018.
Felder as Irving Berlin
Felder a more accomplished pianist than Berlin has been a scholar in residence at Harvard University Department of Music. He adapted and designed the internationally performed play-with-music “The Pianist of Willesden Lane”

From the musical bio, as Felder tells it, Berlin was self -taught, played by ear and could only play in one key. Over the years we have enjoyed his solo productions of Gershwin, Chopin, Leonard Bernstein, Lincoln, Liszt and now Irving Berlin. 

The show in our spotlight spans over seventy years of musical history and takes us through our growing up years as a nation via the music of one who was considered, according to Gershwin, to be one of the greatest songwriters in that has ever lived, and to composer Jerome Kern, “He IS American music”. Felder, indeed, does justice to Berlin.

In case you missed the preview the very first time around, Felder gave San Diego audiences the first glimpse of his Irvin Berlin tribute and sing along biography during the Lipinsky Jewish Art Festival some years ago.

He’s come a long way with it. He nipped a few minutes off the running time (although it still runs long at 2 hours without intermission) and polished Berlin’s biography by rooting out some precious gems about the little man who learned to speak English after emigrating here from what he (Berlin) recalls as a schtetle in Belarus.

Recalling his life we see Felder as the young Berlin speaking to the elder in an empty wheel chair as caroler’s are singing “White Christmas” outside his townhouse.

From singing waiter to accomplished lyricist, to his personal drama with the death of his first wife and two of his children (one on Christmas eve) to finding his true love (“Always”) in his controversial marriage to Roman Catholic debutante Ellin Mackay, Berlin wrote rags, patriotic songs, love songs, waltzes, fox trot, marches, stage musicals, movies and television.  
Felder’s Berlin stays focused with his love of music as a way of expressing himself to the moods of his adopted country even going so far as to enlist in the army. “This Is the Army, Mr. Jones” “Oh! How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning”.  In his own words, “I write for the people”.

“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” became Berlin’s first hit when it thrilled audiences throughout the world including Berlin’s birthplace, Russia (“Russian Lullaby”) to his rise as a songwriter in Tin Pan Alley and then on Broadway began in 1911 and he never looked back. In 1915 he wrote his next hit “I Love a Piano”.

Throughout the evening Felder managed about 40 songs including “Blue Skys”, “Puttin On The Ritz”, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, “Count My Blessings” “Cheek to Cheek”, “Easter Bonnet” and “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody”. My impression was that if he had the time, he would manage all 1500 in Berlin’s collection.    

He encouraged a willing audience to sing along with him, as he had done at the Jewish Art Festival showcase, an irony that I will always remember, “White Christmas” and “Easter Bonnet”.  
“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” was as I remembered it but more polished, has more drama and pathos and gives its credit where credit is due. From immigrant to one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, Berlin stands the test of time even going so far as to nix Elvis Presley’s rendering of “White Christmas”.

Imagine if he was one of those immigrants barred from entering the U.S. for political expedience?

It’s a rare treat. There is still time to catch it.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Jan. 7th 2018
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Phone: 619-544-1000
Production Type: Musical biography
Where: 79 Horton Plaza, downtown San Diego, 92101
Ticket Prices: Check Box Office
Venue: Lyceum Stage
Photo: Hershey Felder Presents

Saturday, December 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things were about to change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In 2017 what are we doing to prevent another Holocaust?

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

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