Tuesday, May 29, 2018

We've Got Puppets And Monsters on “Avenue Q” In Carlsbad

“Avenue Q” with music and lyrics by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez and book by Jeff Whitty is an equal opportunity offender: Jews, Blacks, Gays, big corporations, bosses you name it are all fair game.

If one of the opening numbers “Everybody’s a Little Bit Racist” wets your appitite check it out for yourselves. It will be playing at New Village Arts Theatre through July 1st.

The show opened in 2003 where it ran over 2,566 productions over six years. It won the triple crown of Tony’s in 2004 for Best Musical, Best Score and Best book.
Cast of "Avenue Q" at NVA
I can’t remember when it last ran in San Diego, but ‘Welcome Back” y’all and hat’s off to NVA director AJ Knox who is making his mainstage directorial debut. Musical director Nina Gilbert and her four musicians, seen only at the end of the show, are the backbone to all the musical numbers and they are spot on terrific.

Picture an episode of the "Muppets" or "Sesame Street" for adults.  That’s right, an adult puppet show (with help from Puppet Coach Lynne Jennings, chief administrator of the San Diego Guild of puppetry and teacher of puppetry at all levels) that is a take off of the popular kids anthem, ‘Sesame Street’ and “The Muppets”.
Steven Freitas, Ciarlene Coleman with Princeton
Even though you would never hear “It Sucks To Be Me” on Sesame Street the folks on “Avenue Q" have aged a bit and are confronting a new and grownup world that is clearly intimidating to them.

There  are ten character puppets manipulated by six puppeteers and four humans running around “Avenue Q”,. They are all worth their weight in gold and not one of them sucks and most are looking for their purpose, trying to better themselves, are afraid to grow up or just plain can’t grow up.

Here’s the setup: “This is real life” -Princeton (an excellent Zackary Scot Wolfe who also plays Rod), is a recent college graduate who can’t find work or an affordable place to live.

Chris Bona, Tony Houck and Zackart Scott Wolfe with friends 
Princeton begins looking for an apartment on ‘Avenue A’ and the best he can afford is on Avenue Q, a low rent, district ,cleverly designed borough neighborhood (Christopher Scott Murillo) where folks who are out of work, looking for work, looking to move up or are in low paying jobs just getting by, reside. Would they leave if they could? Maybe some, but for others it's just the right atmosphere. 

Here we have the cross section of Americana: Gary Coleman from long ago “Different Strokes” played in her own special style of  panache by Cashae Monya  the Black super and super she is as Coleman.

Rod (Scott) is the conservative, in denial closet gay, Republican investment banker. (“If You Were Gay”) 

Nicky who is straight played by Tony Houck also plays Trekkie Monster (“The Internet is for Porn”) is between jobs, a slob and Rod’s roommate.

Jasmine January with Good Idea -Bad Idea Bears
Brian “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today” (Steven Freitas) is a wannabe comedian and Christmas Eve (Ciarlene Colman) Brian's Japanese fiancée and therapist (without clients), and his soon to be wife are the token interracial couple.

Ciarlene (“The More You Ruv Someone”) is a hoot and has a beautiful set of vocal chords. A graduate of the Music Dep. at UC San Diego she composes original music.

Kate Monster (Gerilyn Brault) is an assistant kindergarten teacher hot on the heels of closet gay Princeton. Brault, assertive almost to the point of agressiveness as Kate poushes the envelope on behalf of her other self and she is perfect.
Melisa Fernandes and Lucy the Slut
Lucy (always on target Melissa Fernandes is a ‘girl gone wild’ entertainer (read slut)  “Special”. Great choice as Lucy.

Chris Bona and Jasmine January play Bad Idea Bears. And there you have it; a cross section of the good, the bad and the...well you get it.

From the opening song, “Can’t pay the bills yet/ ‘cause I don’t have the skills yet” to “It Sucks to be Me” to “The Internet is for Porn” to the little ‘how to first time sex (with the puppets of course and…somewhat graphic, I might add.), to love and rejection to coming out, are all on the line.
Gerilyn Brault with Kate Monster
Houck who plays several of the puppets is outstanding in whatever he does but is particularly excellent as one of the puppeteers manipulating his two characters.

Melissa Fernandes is also Lucy and Kate Monster’s school principal Mrs Thistlewat. She nails Lucy with every throwback of her head and wink of her false eyelashes eyes.

Did I see that some other Fernandes’ (Manny, Bella and Jack) that are mentioned as additional voices?  Love it.

Director A.J. Knox along with choreographer of both puppets and actors Jenna Ingraassia-Knox, Chris Renda’s lighting, projections by Melanie Chen Cole and Elisa Benzoni designed the costumes.

New Village Arts and the ensemble from Avenue Q deserve ‘high fives' for bringing such a fun filled and well nuanced production to our fair city.


See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through July1st
Organization: New Village Arts Theatre
Phone: 760-433-3245
Production Type: Musical
Where: 2787 State Street, Carlsbad, CA 92008
Ticket Prices: Start at $47.00
Web: newvillagearts.org
Photo: Daren Scott

Monday, May 28, 2018

Coronado Playhouse Mounts Outstanding “Next To Normal”

The Coronado Playhouse on Strand Way is like ‘The Little Engine That Could’. After coming off their successful run of  “King Charles III” they are knee deep in mounting a fantastic, no incredible “ Next To Normal” with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, and music by Tom Kitt through June 17th.  Run don’t walk to see how smallish doesn’t impede striving for excellence.

Director Chad Oakley, making his Playhouse directorial debut, with versitile and competent cast and crew have done wonders with the staging of what happens to be my all time Tony Award winning show.

“Next To Normal” opened on Broadway in 2009 and was nominated for eleven 2009 Tony Awards and won three, Best Score, Best Orchestration and Best Actress in a Musical for Ms. Ripley. Just for the frosting on the cake it also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Someone must be paying attention.
Rebekah Rawhouser
One thing you don’t want to do though is to expect a warm fuzzy musical, or one that you will be whistling Dixie to in the car, or harmonizing with a friend to the tune of “OH What A Beautiful Mornin’”. Be prepared to take a deep breath, keep breathing and bring tissues!  (Oh, they are provided at the individual tables.)

Family illness is at the core of this heartwarming, touching yet gut wrenching and brilliant musical, bordering on operatic (it’s considered a rock opera) proportions. With and relatively unknown  (to me), soprano Rebekah Rawhouser and Anthony Don Donovan (another unknown) in the leads this proud production pulses energy throughout.

The story centers on Diana Goodman (Rawhouser). At the heart of the Goodman family, the glue that holds it together for better or worse is her husband Dan (Donovan). While confronting his own depression and confusion, his monumental task is maintaining some ‘normalcy’ in his family.
Chloe Marcotte and Peter Armado
For eighteen years the Goodman family has been struggling to cope with Diana’s bipolar disease, anxiety and the trickle down effects of a series of mental disabilities.  

Much to the detriment of their daughter Natalie (another unknown to me Chloe Marcotte) and son Gabe, (SeeJay Lewis last seen in OnStage “Spring Awakening”) the family dynamics, like the half completed walls in their home (Jacob Sampson), are open for all to see the unfinished-ness of the family. The clues are everywhere.    

Donovan’s Dan, who has the patience of a saint, holds on desperately to what he thought he had and what he wants (“It’s Gonna Be Good”, “Better Than Before”). His performance is vivid, painful and heartbreaking as the struggles, barely to keep it all together unerringly one breakdown at a time.

His words and emotions come effortlessly but not without question as he makes his way through the maze of his wife’s illness.  His, he relates after cleaning up from Diana’s attempt into the abyss, is just a slower suicide. (“A Light in the Dark”).
Connor Boyd and Rebekah Rawhouser
Connor Boyd plays Diana’s psychiatrists (“Whose Crazy?”) as they keep her drugged most of the time so she can barely function. His performance in one scene shows a psychedelic dance that is pretty funny but all too true of what she must feel like after she takes all those pills. Boyd is low keyed and effective as the Drs. treating Diana. 

Whatever you might have heard about the musical, you have to see and hear for yourself Rawhouser’s performance. Her voice is haunting and her portrayal of Diana is heartbreaking, somewhat like an open wound that won’t heal.
SeeJay Lewis (background) Rebekah Rawhouser and Anthony Donovan
She is a lost soul deep in her schizophrenia with moments of lucidness that conjure both pathos and humor much to the credit of Yorkey’s lyrics. Hers is a performance that is simply electrifying, real and painful. (Past shows include “Jesus Christ Superstar” as Mary Magdalene.)

Her interpretation of “I Miss The Mountains, I Miss The Pain”, where she recognizes that ‘everything is perfect, nothing is real”…and she misses her life, just about sums up her tortured and drug laden mind. It gives us insight to her agony. On the outside, she goes through the motions but just beneath the surface there is a ticking time bomb ready to explode at any moment, and sometimes does.  

No one dies of an incurable illness in “Next To Normal”. The sickness that’s paralyzing this suburban family is a silent killer because it destroys little by little with red, green and white, chewable and swallow whole pill at a time. (“Whose Crazy/My Psycho pharmacologist”).
Rebekah Rawhouser and SeeJay Lewis
Chloe Marcotte’s Natalie gives a near perfect portrayal of the rebellious and musically talented teenager who finally comes back to the fold, from the devil you don’t know to the devil you do know as she struggles with herself to try some of her mother’s drugs.  (“Maybe Next to Normal”)

Her sweet voice is beautiful. As the one family member struggling for some recognition she goes through the motions of leading a ‘normal life’ outside the home. As a woman child she is almost invisible to her parents, whose energy with their mother’s illness is draining the life’s blood out of them leaving no room for Natalie. She's also jealous of the attention Gabe gets at her own expense of being overlooked. (“Super Boy and the Invisible Girl”)

Her stoner boyfriend Henry comfortably played by Peter Armando (Last seen in OnStage’s “Spring Awakening” as Melchoir) compliment the two as they muddle through a budding on again off again relationship. (“Super For You”)

The pièce de rèsistance is SeeJay Lewis’ Gabe, brother and teenaged son who holds the key to his families’ secrets and messed up lives (“I’m Alive”).

Burning the candle at both ends, Gabe is the panacea to all Diana sees as good on the one hand and the caveat to all that is destroying the family and blocking Diana from reality on the other. Lewis is alluring and irresistible showing a deep and mature understanding of his role as son and brother.

His physical attributes, good looks and nimbleness give him the tools to tool around set designer Sampson’s multi tiered house in the burbs that has a few staircases and platforms holding it together. 

Fortunately for us director Chad Oakley was astute enough to gather a dream team for this absolutely magnetic musical that is no easy fete.
Cast of "Next To Normal"
Musical director Martin Martiarena and his full sounding six-member band come together hand in glove with the outstanding voices on stage. Once in a while some modulation and less volume from the band would have been helpful in hearing some of the lyrics.

Sarah Robinson designed the appropriate costumes and Josh Olmestead designed the lighting with Anthony Zelig projections, bringing light, darkness and visual images into this somber look at the underside of mental illness yet always wishing for a ray of hope at the end of the tunnel.  

Staging a musical about mental illness might not be for everyone, but I would recommend it highly. Pulling the covers over our heads is not an option for helping someone in need.

And for a recommendation: Two thumbs up!

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through June 17th
Organization: Coronado Playhouse
Phone: 619-435-4856
Production Type: Musical Drama
Where: 1835 Strand Way, Coronado, CA
Ticket Prices: $20.00-$27.00
Web: coronadoplayhouse.com
Venue: Coronado Playhouse
Photo: Ken Jacques

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” Shine on Old Globe Production.

The African proverb “It takes a Village” caused quite a stir in 1996 when former First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton published her book bearing the title “It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us”.

If we stretched the point, Khaled Hosseini’s (“The Kite Runner”) book “A Thousand Splendid Suns”, adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma now in a spectacularly powerful stage production and West Coast premiere at The Old Globe Theatre through June 17th  bears out the village concept.   

Cast and musician composer David Coulter
Focusing on two generations of strong Afghani women, who in essence become the village necessary in raising each other and each other’s children, the effect and their combined unions are more than powerful; they are essential for their survival. 

Written in a time when foreign invaders from the Soviet Union had withdrawn from their country in 1992 to the takeover by the Islamic fundamentalist and repressive Taliban in 1996 to 2001 when the United States came to their defense to now ISIS presenting itself as a strong military reality the people of Afghanistan and especially Hosseini’s strong women continue to show their resiliency, their hope for a brighter future and some real progress for the plight of Afghani women.

 Into this political hot box of changing governments and miserable hard times after relatively quiet times Hosseini introduces us to Miriam and Laila, ‘generational women for all seasons’.

L to R) Nadine Malouf, Denmo Ibraham and Nikita Tewani 
We first meet Laila  (an unfaltering Nadine Malouf) and her family. Father Babi (Joseph Kamal) is an intellectual who treasures his books especially his poetry books. Her mother Fariba (Lanna Joffrey) goes along with Babi but is short tempered as he cannot decide which books to leave behind and which to take as they are readying to leave Kabul for Pakistan. 

They are hoping for a more peaceful life when the sounds of bombs (Jake Roriguez) fill the air coming closer and closer to the family and finally landing close enough to strike the family. Both parents are killed. 

Set against gorgeous changing backgrounds by set designer Ken MacDonald with lighting by Robert Wierzel and haunting original music by David Coulter played on saw blades by Coulter reflects the times and moods as when the colors change from bright sunlight to blood stained images when Laila has to have a caesarian birth in a hospital ward without any morphine or anesthesia.

The pictures reflected follow Laila as she is rescued from the shock of being hit by a bomb to her neighbors Rasheed and Miriam’s (Haysam Kadri and Denmo Ibrahim) home.

Rasheed is a shoemaker and Miriam a housewife. Both help in her recovery, but Miriam is hoping Laila will leave soon.  Laila hopes family friends will let her stay with them, but Rasheed sabotages that dream.
(from top) Nadine Malouf as Laila and Denmo Ibraham as Miriam
 As fate will have it, Rasheed lusts over Laila. It’s only a mater of time that he discards Miriam since she cannot bear him a son or children for that mater, and takes Laila as his wife even though Laila has a beau, Tariq (Antoine Yared) is only fifteen and has her own dreams.

Miriam is having no part of it even though she has no say in it.  Her goal is to make life as impossible for Laila as her jealousy gets in the way of her seeing Laila as fellow traveler. Having been abused by Rasheed over the years, she might understand that kindness and compassion works better than revenge, but Hosseini saves that for later.

Life with Rasheed has been no honeymoon for either woman. Over the course of years and with the upbringing of Laila’s first born, Aziza (Nikita Tewani) the tension lessens and they learn to bond.
Nadine Malouf and Antoine Yared
They form a quiet coalition against Rasheed’s wrath and realize that together is easier than being divided over a man that has no regard for women. Things quiet down somewhat when Laila gives birth to a son Zalmai (Abraham German on opening night).

(I’m not sure if it’s too early in my remarks to acknowledge that Rasheed is a no-goodnick, but I’ll insert them here anyway.) Kadri’s performance is so true to form and so wonderfully executed as the bastard he plays says volumes about the wonderful actor he is, and that’s a fact.

Every time he whipped his wives with his belt, shivers went through me. Every time he found out about their wanting to leave, or in fact did sent shivers through me. Every time he raped his wife shivers went through me. Every time he pulled Miriam by the hair, sent shivers through me. When he sent Aziz off to an orphanage, shivers went through me.

With Carey Perloff ‘s deft direction and staging and Malouf and Ibrahim working together in productions at ACT and Theatre Calgary there is nothing unusual about the acknowledgements of the women’s sisterhood and resilience with the promise of peace in their lifetime.
Haysam Kadri and Nadine Malouf
A look, a shrug or a movement from one will trigger an action from the other that is as natural and unifying as I see between my three adult daughters good, bad or indifferent. One could not find better performances in this show even if one were looking.

The large cast is made up of many playing multiple roles including Lanna Joffrey who plays Fariba and Nana Miriam’s mother. Arden Pala shares the role of Zalmai with Abraham German. Antoine Yared, Kris Zarif and Jason Kapoor and Joseph Kamal, Leila’s father is seen later on as an interrogator.

The creative team includes costume designer Linda Cho and Stephen Buescher choreographs. It all comes together splendidly.

“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.” (Saib-e- Tabrizi from his poem “Kabul”)

The thousand suns that shimmer over Afghanistan also shine in the hearts, minds and souls of Miriam and Laila. 

The times they are a changing.


See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through June 17th
Organization: The Old Globe
Phone: 619-234-5623
Production Type: Drama
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92103
Ticket Prices: Start at $30.00
Web: theoldglobe.org
Venue: Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage
Photo: Jim Cox