Wednesday, January 31, 2018

“Full Monty” Bares It All in SDMT Return Production

Opening night patrons at “The Full Monty”, excitedly gathered around in small groups wondering aloud, “Will they really strip?” and “How will they do it?” The answers are yes they do, and wait and see. This is theatre after all, where illusion, reality and imagination get fuzzy and blend into our own truth.


As impatience and near frenzy followed the crowd into the theatre, anticipation mounted and by the time the curtain went up, some were already buzzing out loud. Unfortunately, those in the audience hootin’ and howlin’ before anything actually happened, caused many patrons sitting around them difficulty hearing the dialogue coming from the actors. Sorry folks, that’s not good theatre karma.

San Diego Musical Theatre is reviving its 2007 production of  “The Full Monty” at the Horton grand Theatre downtown through Feb. 25th. According to producers Erin Lewis and hubby Gary “It was a perfect musical to start off our 2018 Broadway season of musicals at Horton Grand Theatre.”
Danny Stiles and Steven Freitas
The ‘musical’ “The Full Monty” is based on the 1997 Oscar nominated film of the same name. Briefly, it is the story of six average; some past prime, some overweight, some uncoordinated, and unemployed factory workers struggling to support their families; they are laid off without their full wages or no wages.

After noticing that their wives are agog and a glee clamoring to see Chippendale dancer, Buddy “Keno” Walsh, (Scott Arnold) when he came to town for a one-night stand Jerry Lukowski gets an idea to some raise money by doing the same thing.

The 1997 movie version takes place in Sheffield, England where the men are steelworkers. Terrence McNally wrote the book, and David Yazbek, music and lyrics. It’s a fun romp that will have you leaving with a smile and a chuckle.

An updated incarnation that premiered at the Old Globe in 2000 before going to Broadway, moved the location to a new setting where the men now laid off, are mill workers and ergo, Buffalo, N.Y seemed the perfect place.

No accents required and minimalist sets (originally designed by Circa 21) plus some pretty bright ‘back atcha lights’ (Michelle Miles) that just about blind before the curtain drops and voilĂ  the guys are gone, but the memory of what might have been lingers.

Of course that didn’t stop those curious voyeurs from peeking around corners after the G-strings were released, but the old hat trick holding the goods keeps everything in tact. Listening to the screams coming from the audience, though, one might have thought…oh well.
Danny Stiles, Jonathan Sangster and Steven Freitas
When hard hit and out of work down on his luck Jerry Lukowski (Steven Freitas is as appealing as he is effective) and his overweight best friend Dave (Danny Stiles) can’t seem to land a decent job and gain their self-respect back, they come up with a plan to raise some money on their own.

Coincidentally that’s when the “Chippendale” the dancers arrived in his home- town. Price didn’t seem to be an obstacle for their wives, who jam fistfuls of cash in their G-strings with money from their jobs. (“It’s A Woman’s World”)

Jerry gets the idea to put ‘real Buffalo’ men in a strip ‘n show of their own. Jerry is in a big bind in a big way. In order to make sure that there is enough money in the pot he ticks the entrance fee up a bit and announces that not only will they perform a la Chippendale, he promises to bare it all, Yup, The Full Monty. Now that takes chutzpah!

Pay attention. These are your average overweight, small, tall, uncoordinated, black, white, gay, self conscious, past prime time guys who need cash, not only for them, but for their friend Jerry who will lose custody of his son Nathan (a sweet and persuasive Owen Schmutz) because of back child support. It’s a hoot to watch.

DSteven Freitas and Amy Perkins
Adding to the pressure, Jerry’s ex wife Pam (Amy Perkins) isn’t making it any easier by threatening to take away his visitation rights if there’s no child support money coming in.

The men convince their old boss, Harold (Richard Van Slyke) to give them dancing lessons, over his better judgment.  (“Life With Harold”) Harold lives above his means and his wife Vicky (Karyn Overstreet ~’Vicki’s Cha Cha’) spends like they have it, but concedes anyway.  
 Rehearsals, and getting everyone on board is a struggle. This group of amateurs has its moments; especially watching the relationship between Malcolm and Ethan (Jonathan Sangster and Jack Eld), develop. (“You Walk With Me”)

In the end when they formally ‘come out’, they are an accepted couple by all the guys. The writers had some pretty progressive thinking for the nineties. For macho mill workers to accept a gay couple yes, progressive indeed.

Ron Christopher Jones, as Noah “Horse” T Simmons enters rehearsals looking like a street person. After a few non-starters, he amazes as the best and most experienced dancer of the lot.

As the token black in the ensemble Jones gives an outstanding performance in “Big Black Man”. He also shows the group that by imitating Michael Jordan’s moves in “Michael Jordan’s Ball”, dancing is a nothing but a series of basketball moves.
Ron Ghristopher Jones and Cas

Dave's character is one of the most developed and she is most convincing. “It’s like Davie’s given up on everything, including me. I come home to this zombie
I loved the give and take between Yandell’s Georgie and Dave as he lets his weight and body image get in the way of any intimacy she so longs for. Coming from the male perspective it is one of the beautiful outcomes of this particular story.
Georgie: “It’s making me nuts. Months and months not even a hug. I’ve tried everything from Victoria’s Secret to losing 15 pounds. The girls at work are pushing Prozac on me. I don’t need a pill. I need my husband back.
Joy Yandell
Not to be outdone by any of the adults in the company, Owen Schmultz is perfectly comfortable on stage and has as much poise as any of the seasoned veterans. As the only child in a field of adults, Owen’s Nathan is one of turnabout is fair play as he guides his father, Jerry, to start acting like an adult and get on with the business of being a parent.

Veteran actress, Devlin (just Devlin) is, once again, in rare form as Jeanette Burmeister, the piano playing, tough talking, old hand who doesn’t mind sharing a swig or two from her little er, pocket flask. She comes on, the stage lights up. It’s just that simple.
Steven Freitas and Devlin
Neil Dale deserves credit for breathing life into his versatile cast and dealing with, sensitive issues and giving them heart. The talented ensemble including Luke Harvey Jacobs, Sydney Joyner, Stella Kim, Shayne Mims, Paul Morgavo and Alex Nemirosky add to the overall look filling in where needed.

The industrial background look works just fine with Michelle Miles lighting and Kevin Anthenill’s sound design. Musical director from the get-go Don LeMaster works his magic once again,

Janet Pitcher’s ninety’s tie dye frocks for the women looked right; the show is more about the guys; work uniforms, Jeans, T-shirts and plaids are standard for them until they got down to the nitty-gritty and then there was an array of boxers and jockey’s. For the show, they wear uniforms with hats for protection in more ways than one.

The play is fun and somewhat tantalizing especially if you’ve not seen it before. The story goes on a bit too long leading up to the finality and no tunes will escape your lips as you leave the theatre even though there are about fifteen musical (albeit small) numbers tat oft highlight the action.

But by the time the guys, who are spot on terrific, work up the nerve
to go ‘full Monty’, everyone in the audience (and that includes the actors playing the spouses lining the side isles) are rooting for a hootenanny ending. (“Let It Go”)

Note: lighting designer Michael Miles is the one responsible for the blinding lights in the background. Just sayin’.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb. 25th
Organization: San Diego Musical Theatre
Phone: 858-560-5740
Production Type: Musical
Where: 444 Fourth Ave., San Diego, CA 92101
Ticket Prices: Start at $30.00
Venue: Horton Grand Theatre

Photo: Ken Jacques

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

SCR’s “Shakespeare In Love” Measures Up To Movie.

There’s a reason “Shakespeare In Love” the play, currently being mounted on the Segerstrom Stage at South Coast Repertory Theatre through Feb, 10th is the most produced play across the country; its based on the 1999 Oscar award winning movie that took away seven  honors.

It beat out “Saving Private Ryan” that year and had everyone buzzing at the time. It was delightful and enjoyable. Indeed, if you saw the movie, then you might be curious to see the play. Yours truly was and did.    

The question begs does an award -winning movie usually transition well to the stage? Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard who wrote the screenplay and Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot’) adapted it for the stage with music by Paddy Cunneen thought it would and ergo “Shakespeare in Love”, the play is, as mentioned earlier, the most produced play of the 2017-8 season. (Based on American Theatre Magazine)
Paul David Story as Shakespeare
Name recognition is always a winning argument for the  ‘yes’ column. Cleverness also bides well. Romantic comedy, light fare ‘clever’, along with entertainment appeal, charm and production values all get their just rewards. The play’s the thing and as a play it’s perfect for the stage.

All this and some fine acting add to the pleasure of watching the struggling young writer named William Shakespeare, (“Shall I compare thee to a…mummers play?”) pen his latest idea “Romeo and Ethel, The Pirates Daughter”.

Watching the shenaghanans that go on as the back -story plays out in aborted and chaotic attempts to mount a new comedy, demanded of him by the two producers (‘a month overdue to Henslowe’) to whom he owes money, pulls the audience in to the details of the daily strife of artists at work.
Carmella Corbett and Amelia White
Stacks of crumpled papers show that the Bard, as he would be later called, was having writers block. (“I’ve lost my gift, Kit”)

Enter Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlow (Corey Brill) throwing out ideas that young Will, will gladly incorporate into his plays. (“A summer’s day.” Start with something lovely, temperate and thoroughly trite.”)

Some think Marlow (“Jew of Malta”) actually collaborated with some of the works credited to Shakespeare. Collected papers shows that he did have a part in three of the “Henry VI” plays, And here’s where the play and plot in this particular story leave wiggle room for those inclined in favor of Marlow to either accept or deny.

Set in 1593 starving artist William Shakespeare owes money to dueling producers, Philip Henslowe (Bo Foxworth) and Fennyman (William Francis McGuire). On the surface this push to write anything that amounts to something is the driving force that has the young playwright frantic to get some words on paper. (“Shakespeare is writing as we speak”)

Everyone gets into the act; everyone has an opinion including the Queen (Elyse Mirto) who was thrilled with “Romeo and Juliet” by the time it finally found a home but she now looking for Shakespeare to write a comedy. “And tell Master Shakespeare, something more cheerful next time, for Twelfth Night.”
Paul David Story and Carmela Corbett
When Will suspects that his Romeo is a girl dressed as a young boy auditioning for the part in his new play he’s curious. During rehearsal he has to tutor the young boy (Ricky Abilez) playing Juliet to what a real kiss looks like. He takes young Viola thinking she is Tomas Kent, (“I would like to do a speech by a writer who commands the heat of player, sir.”) and bingo! Its magical, and let the chips fall where they may. “Tell me how you love her, Will. “Like a sickness and its cure together.”

The backstory juxtaposed with the love affair between young Will (Paul David Story) and Viola de Lesseps/Thomas Kent (Carmela Corbett) takes us to another place. The love interests chug along until both find the same attraction affecting them. Both Story and Corbett have some great chemistry going for them.

Following is the chase/competition between Will and Essex (“Is she obedient?”) as each, competing for the young Viola's hand, is willing to go out on a limb to seal their love for this Shakespearean beauty.

Shakespeare is willing to leave his wife and kids and Essex threatens to kill Shakespeare and hustle Viola away to America where he has land in Virginia. It’s all so soapy. Is it ‘an all’s well that ends well” story? It’s yours to decide.

Costume changes aside his Juliet is much more beautiful as a woman than she pretends to be as Romeo, with a slip of a moustache adorning her upper lip and a cap holding her beautiful blond locks. When women can’t be on stage practicing their craft, they do the next best thing; they disguise themselves as men.
Elyse Mirto with cast in background
As for Story, he is engaging and full of youthful energy, and that combined with her beauty and charm, is just what the doctor ordered; a beautifully matched couple.

The cast is a well tuned machine, with standouts Elyse Mirto as Queen Elizabeth I, Bo Foxworth, Nick Gabriel as Ned Alleyn and the strange stuttering Wabash played by Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper (recently seen as Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” North Coast Rep.) and of course those playing multiple roles (Adam Silver, Matthew Henderson, Aaron McGee and Alicia Erlinger) to name a few, deserve kudos.  

The musicians (music director Scott Waara and Cinnamon Dempsy) seen on the balcony provide wonderful background music. Ralph Funicello’s two- tiered set gives the players plenty of room to hide, escape and return as another.

Sammy Lee Smith’s lighting design is on target, Jeff Polunas sound design could use some amplification, Annie Loui’s choreography is lovely to watch, Susan Tsu’s period costumes are all eye catching adding to the overall appeal, and Ken Merckx fight direction made dueling scenes look a bit of a charade, but very well staged.

The question still: is it worth it to transition an award- winning movie into a play? The answer is in this case is yes. The cast at SCR without exception, especially the two leads, Story and Corbett, who have some chemistry going for them making the credibility of the otherwise comic antics in the background, look and feel right.
Paul David Story and Carmela Corbett
Director Marc Masterson goes all out on this one making his all inclusive cast, and there are many, with all the running around, swashbuckling and comedy look a piece of cake. Almost everything in this production says yes, transitioning works.

Think “The Lion in Winter”, “A Streetcar Named Desire”  “A Man For All Seasons” and “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” to name a few.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Cinnamon Dempsey as Spot, the well -trained dog that the Queen required to perform (he has two major scenes) for “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”.

Everyone wants a piece of the action.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb.10th
Organization: South Coast Repertory Theatre
Phone: 714-708-5555
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA
Ticket Prices: Start at $23.00
Venue: Segerstrom Stage

Photo: Jordan Kubat and Tania Thompson

Friday, January 26, 2018

Broadway Vista’s “Tuesdays With Morrie” Has Its Tissue Moments.

“Dying’s easy. It’s living that’s hard”. Those sentiments are surely fundamental to Morrie Schwartz’ thinking than to Mitch Albom’s in Albom’s 1977 Book, “Tuesdays With Morrie” now in play version at Broadway Theatre, Vista through Feb. 4th.

This octogenarian is still processing!

I found my self reading Albom’s book, “Tuesdays With Morrie” in the late 70's while flying from San Diego to Boston, the Cape and other east coast places of interest to revisit my roots once again.  Friends and I were traveling together and the two of us were reading the book. I was several rows in back of her.
 on th plane.
Ralph Johnson (L) Lance Arthur Smith (R)
The book is short and is based on Albom’s visits with his ailing Brandies University sociology professor, with whom he  had a special relationship. He caught Schwartz’s eye in class the very first day and student and teacher formed a bond that seemed special at the time.

After graduation they promised to keep in touch. Mitch went to live with his brother for a while and sought odd jobs as a musician, something Morrie encouraged him to do. 

After Mitch’s brother died, he gave up his wanna be musical career, moved to Detroit and took a high-energy job as a sports journalist.

Morrie continued to teach; Mitch climbed the ladder of success and was now on radio commenting and calling professional games, interviewing famous sports characters, and just keeping busy so as to not miss out on any opportunity for advancement.

One night while surfing the web, Mitch happened to catch a segment of Ted Koppel’s “Nightline”. Koppel was interviewing Mitch’s old professor Morrie on the affects his ALS, which is a fatal illness medically known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig disease. The topic was how he, Morrie, kept himself above the fray with his positive thinking.

“How useful it would be to put a daily limit on self pity. Just a few tearful minutes then on with the day.”

Broadway Theatre has enlisted two seasoned actors to play the parts of Morrie and Mitch with Ralph Johnson as Morrie and Lance Arthur Smith as Mitch. Director Randall Hickman got the right combination of personalities to pull this emotional journey of a play, based on the book, off to a running start. It’s a powerful one-act play that will hit you in the gut at some point in the production.

Johnson is a natural as Morrie. He’s even -tempered, always pleasant with his usual smile in place and soft -spoken.  His face lights up when he talks of his love for dancing in the Harvard Square Church, long walks with friends, reading and sharing his outlook on life. 

“Death ends a life not a relationship. All the love you created is still there. You live on- in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here.” It’s Johnson personified.
His subtle humor almost passes unnoticed but for the fact you will find yourself chuckling at some of his philosophy. “As you grow old, you learn more. If you stayed at twenty-two you’d always be as ignorant as you were at twenty-two.”

Mitch who speaks directly to the audience recalling the beginnings of their relationship filling us in on the backstory and of his relationship with professor Morrie Schwartz narrates the story. They talk about the world, self pity, regrets, death, ageing, the superficiality of fame and money, culture and forgiveness. In short they talk about everything important to Morrie as it might affect Mitch.

As Morrie’s health declines, Smith’s Albom’s grows in compassion and understanding. He slowly softens and gets on with program. He smiles often, brings Morrie his favorite egg salad sandwich, which we learn in the end he never eats because he now just drinks his meals and he looks more comfortable in Morrie's lovely back yard with overhanging Red Maple leaves in the background. (Randall Hickman)  

Watching the two catching up on their lives develops slowly; the naturalness sets in as if the sixteen -year gap between the two never happened. Mitch’s visits start out cautiously as the relationship between old friends begins to reconnect. Mitch promises to come back again, Morrie pins him down to a specific time and both agree after some negotiations that Mitch will visit Morrie on Tuesdays.
As they continue to meet Morrie looks for answers Mitch has yet to give him. He wants to know what makes Mitch run. He questions his lifestyle, if he has a family and more than once if he is at peace with himself.

As the sociology professor digs deep into Mitch’s soul, Mitch feels the stress of Morrie’s questions and is clearly uncomfortable with them. Looking back, Mitch is like a student once again, under the spell of Morrie’s wisdom. He calls it ‘Morris’s last class’.

When Morrie’s disease begins to take its toll, Mitch begins to soften to the idea that touching, a kiss on the forehead and showing affection isn’t such a bad thing after all.

When Morrie needs Mitch more and more for personal help, Mitch is right there. Smith, as well makes the pivot from standoffish to sincere care to a natural caregiver, if you will, something he could never do for his own brother.

While the play moves to its natural conclusion, the chemistry between the two deepens and what looks to be a father-son relationship with subtle and somber nuances that one barely notices, becomes a reality. In one of Morrie's more reflective moments he confesses that if he had a son, he would want him to be MItch. 

And through it all, the good professor never loses his sense of humor, pride, intelligence, inner peace, ability to engage in philosophical discussions, or high sense of morality.  Over time each send-off is coupled with a hug. 

With the passing of time and each Tuesday brought Morrie closer to death, the reality of the reality sets in - that’s exactly the time my friend came to me at my seat, book in hand, and we both wept without saying a word.

It’s was a good cry then, and recently at the Playhouse tears came uninvited but they came because living is hard and making it the best we can each day is a challenge, yet we keep on truckin’. It’s ours to make; be it positive or a drag.

Hats off to Broadway Theatre and Randall Hickman’s easy direction. Doug and Randall are a two man do it all, be it all, make it all combo. And in doing so, keep the theatre alive in Vista.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb. 4th
Organization: Broadway Theatre
Phone: 760-806-7905
Production Type: Drama
Where: 340 E. Broadway-Suite B Vista, CA 90284
Ticket Prices: $24.00

Photo: Broadway Vista