Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” At San Diego Rep. Stabs At The Heart Of The State Of Our Union.

Like so many others, I didn’t see it coming. Like so many others I was first in line to blame our current administration on the deep divides in this country (not that it hasn’t added to them).

Like so many others I didn’t know much about NAFTA even thought my late brother, who drove a big rig for a living warned me that it was a bad deal.

Like so many other families ours always did, and still does support unions. My late uncle was a union steward. My dad belonged to the Butchers Union; my late husband’s uncle was a union boss.

Steve Froehlich and Cortez L. Johnson
Like the nine characters in Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s 2017 drama “Sweat”, currently making its local premiere at the Lyceum Theatre downtown through May 12th, the union was their security blanket; they lived it, breathed it, swore by it, shared experiences of ‘working the floor’ and memories of shared celebrations; in other words unions were the glue that held them together.  Now their machines were disappearing by the numbers and their jobs would be next.  

Generations of their families worked in the steel-tubing factory there. There is Reading, Penn. They were born in Berks County, Pennsylvania in the heart of the Rust Belt.

They are African- American, White -American of German descent, Columbian- American, Italian-American.  Now their adult children worked in the same factory; it’s a right of passage. But nothing lasts forever. As Bob Dylan sings “Things they are a’changing”.

We meet up with Tracy, Cynthia and Jessie (Judy Bauerlein, Monique Gaffney and Hannah Logan) in their favorite watering hole (John Iacovelli bar set design with Anne E. McMills lighting design) after Jessie’s birthday party celebration.
(Far Left to Right) Antonio A.J. johnson, Matt Orduna, Judy Bauerlein, Monique Gaffney, Hannah Logan
Jessie is wasted, Cynthia and Tracy try to pick up the pieces and offering some advise from the peanut gallery, on how to get Jessie out, Stan (Jason Hei) the bartender, injured on the job, is ready to call it night as is Oscar his helper.  It’s Jan. 18th, 2000. Eight years later in 2008, Jason (Steve Froehlich) and Chris (Cortez Johnson) are getting released from prison. They are getting their final exit interview by Evan (Antonio T.J. Johnson) their social worker/parole officer.

The two will factor into the changing scheme of things as the play progress as it does moving back and forth in time giving us references (projected –Samantha Rojales- on the overhead) to the financial climate, historical events and conditions of the times and finally leading up to the eventual dismantling of the plant, say nothing of the union. 

Her play is a series of vignettes that bring us in close proximity to all the characters as they struggle with finances, family issues, work related issues, husbands and ex- husbands, money and of course the union. (“We’ve been having the same conversation for twenty years.”)

Over the course of two and one half years playwright Nottage spent interviewing the residents of Reading in order to help her understand why it was, according to then 2011 census, the ‘poorest city in America for its size’.
Jason Heil, Hannah Logan and Judy Bauerlein
According to program notes, “she stumbled upon a group of steel workers who had been locked out of their plant for 93 weeks”. No work of fiction this, although the characters are most likely a compilation of those interviewed.  

When things are going well, color and race are blended and issues of same escape under the radar. But when the ‘you know what’ hits the fan-, and a person of color or foreign sounding name pulls ahead in the race, or when race or those with accents become the target then and only then are they the scapegoats. This is  centuries old prejudice. Let's face it, the Civil War is still a plague.

The playwright's findings come to life when artistic director Sam Woodhouse and his top of the line cast/ensemble bring this highly sensitive, occasionally funny, and dramatically true to life production of her years of work to the fore.

Yours truly ‘got it’ without having to be hit over the head over and over again. Some culling is in order and as for the overhead projections that were probably used to help with the history, were more of a distraction.
Monique Gaffney and Jason Heil
That aside, strong performance are spread out throughout the production with Monique Gaffney’s Cynthia an all around winner in a losing situation by becoming part of management over Judy Bauerlein’s Tracey, who felt she was more worthy of the position. Bauerlein's Tracy puts in another very strong performance making her a worthy opponent for Gaffney's Cynthia. Both women are highly credible in making us see from whence they come. 

Tracey's reasoning is so typical; they chose the black worker over the white. While the rest still stand on their feet and sweat over the job, Cynthia gets to spend her days in an air -conditioned office. You bet there is resentment. Now that's just surface. 

When the jobs dry up because of a weakening of the unions and the paychecks shrink or go away, as we see now, anyone non- white or non citizen becomes a threat. It's a domino effect playing out now. The feeding chain attacts the the most vulnerable. Nottage saw it and heard it first hand during her interviews.

Here is where the pedal hits the metal and game on. Nothing will be the same for any of these friends when a fight (James Newcomb is fight director) of magnitude breaks out (Jeffrey Jones was hurt in this scene and was replaced by an exceptionally prepared Jason Heil while Jones recovers) because Oscar is thinking of crossing the picket line.  Stan is hurt beyond repair.

Heil steals the show from his innocuous job as bartender and giver of free advise to, well, no spoilers here, but what you will see in the aftermath of the fight is a heartbreaking scene that will never answer the question of “Was it worth it?”

Both Johnson and Froehlich add color and youth and machismo to the game and Hannah Logan’s Jessie brings her own insecurities with her drug and alcohol abuse to the table. Elisa Benzoni designed the appropriate and date worthy costumes and sound designer Matthew Lescault-Wood, the music coming for the bar.

Matt Orduña’s Bruce as the out of work, homeless and addicted husband of Cynthia who adds more drama into her life than she can really handle at the time. Both feed off each in a fine match of domestic chaos.

Markuz Rodreguez and Judy Bauerlein
Markuz Rodriguez’ Oscar who cannot get work at the plant (“you gotta know somebody to get in…it’s that kind a shop”. “Always has been.”), is the under the radar character who observes, takes matters into his own hands, cleans and fixes the bar when needed and comes out on top of the game.

Antonio T.J. Johnson is fine as the understated parole officer, Evan, in charge of keeping track of Jason and Chris. He bookends the play when we first meet the two young men in over an eight year time line.

So here we are in 2019 heading into 2020 and what started well before 2000, the hate the violence and blame game is now spreading over the landscape like a larva flow, and rather than putting the fires out, our current leaders are now fanning the flames of hatred, violence and mass killings. Foreign agents are cuddling up to our non -leader leaders in the White House while those in the grandstands, who can stop it, watch idly by.

Race has always been a catalyst for division in this country and Nottage, with her deeply troubling “Sweat” has managed to show us just how troubling it is in real time. We need a rewind, but that won’t happen until we the people can see past the hate and prejudice and the damage it has caused to the state of our union.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through May 12th
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Phone: 619-544-1000
Production Type: Drama
Where: 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego, CA 92101
Ticket Prices: Start at $25.00
Web: sdrep.org
Venue: Lyceum Stage
Photo: Jim Carmody

Monday, April 29, 2019

SDMT Opens With High Energy “Sister Act”

San Diego Musical Theatre is on a roll this year with its charming “Crazy for You” in Feb. and now its high energy “Sister Act” playing at the Horton Grand Theatre in the busy Gaslamp Quarter through May 26th. If you’ve not seen the live adaptation you might have seen the 1992 film that Whoopi Goldberg is most associated.

It was adapted for stage in 2011 and took with it Tony nominations for Best Book of a Musical (Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkillner), Best Actress in a Musical (Patina Miller), Best Musical and Best Original Score (Alan Menken, music Glenn Slater, lyrics) This current incarnation credits Douglas Carter Bean with additional book material.

Sandy Campbell and Jim Chovick
The book, while not earth shattering calls for a high energy cast, (there are thirteen) singers, dancers (Luke Harvey Jacobs choreographed) some dressed to the nines in sparkling and bling Nun Habits (Janet Pitcher). Its all done all under the baton of musical/disco director Don Le Master and his 12 member band up in the grandstands. Larry Rabin (“Young Frankenstein”) directs with an eye for more comic shtick than seen in the past productions.

The set up (and its just that) has wanna be disco star Deloris Van Cartier (standout Miriam Dance) “Fabulous Baby” with Michelle and Tina (Reanne Acasio and Jasmine January), who is pretty much fed up with her ‘cousin’/boyfriend/gangsta Curtis Jackson (a very big Berto Fernandez). Doris is looking for a spot for her trio to sing in his disco but he keeps her on a string saying she’s not ready.
Beto Fernandez, Donny Gersonde, Geraldo Flores Tonella, E.Y. Washington
After being refused this one last time to get a gig in his nightclub she storms out of a rehearsal with her tail between her legs with the Christmas gift of a blue furry thing (that has his wife’s name embroidered in it) that he gave her for Christmas. Ready to return the so- called gift to Curtis she happens in on a murder in progress. 

Frightened for her life, she hightails it to the police to report the crime. There, in the police station, she meets up with one of her old classmates Eddie (or Sweaty Hands as they called him in high school) the now in charge cop. (a too sweet to be a cop Jeremy Whatley).

He works out a plan with Monsignor O’Hara (a fun loving, easy going Jim Chovick) and they decide the best way for her to be safe is to put her in the witness protection program in the local convent, where she will be undercover in a Nun’s Habit.
There she runs into a brick wall called Mother Superior. (Sandy Campbell). To say that she is delighted with the prospect of a Deloris being there, would take many visits to the Confessional booth and just as many Hail Mary’s, but between Monsignor and his new friend Deloris they manage to compromise.  

After getting the feeling that Deloris will not conform to any of the vows expected of the other’s, Mother Superior puts her in the choir. After all, she is a singer. Since none of her nun’s seems to be aware that a choir sings in harmony, Mother Superior leaves them to their own devices and, trust me, you don’t want to know what that sounds like. 

When we first meet up with this motley group, they are on their way to practice, each singing in their own key. But not to worry, Deloris whips them into one solid singing voice and by show’s end they are rocking the house down with one outstanding rollicking number and new glittering habit, after another.

Now, the once poor Convent on the brink of going under and /or being sold to a pair of antique dealers is solvent and ready to take its “Sister Act” on the road.
Miriam Dance and Jeremy Whatley
Meanwhile outside the convent walls, Curtis and his sidekicks, Joey, Pablo and TJ (Donny Gersonde, Geraldo Flores Tonella, E.Y. Washington-“When I find My Baby”) run in all directions looking for Deloris when, in fact, she shows up at the club across the street and practically in plain daylight. So much for detective work.

The hide and seek games continue, the cops get their men, Sweaty Hands and Deloris get together and she decides that her work in the convent is more important than all the nightclub acts. In the words of The Bard, “All’s well That Ends Well”.

Shout outs for Miriam Dance. She was able to sustain her high energy, high-powered vocal chords throughout (“Take Me To Heaven” rocked the house). Sandy Campbell’s Mother Superior “Here Within These Wall” (with Deloris) is another winner, to the final give in (“I Haven’t Got A Prayer”), but LORD she does worry too much!

As the young postulant, Sara Errington’s Sister Mary Robert, knocked some socks off when she finally broke out of her clumsy mode in “The Life I Never Led”. Bethany Slomka (“Hairspray”) is Sister Mary Patrick. She too packs some sustaining lung- power. (“Raise Your Voice”)

Mathys Herbert designed the flexible set with some beautiful stained glass windows framing the back and coming across like the real deal with Michelle Miles’ lighting design.
Nuns in Janet Pitcher's Bling 

This “Sister Act” is fun, too loud, (mic problems), and a bit too long but a whole lot of Nun-sense with built in fun to claim for an evening, well if not flying nuns, Nun’s in the act of being sisters.  

The entire cast is full of piss and vinegar starring many who have been in this show before and there is a reason for it.They’re having fun, even in church, and they are good at it!

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through May 26th
Organization: San Diego Musical Theatre
Phone: 858-560-5740
Production Type: Musical
Where: 444 4th Ave, Gaslamp Quarter Downtown San Diego
Ticket Prices: $30.00-$60.00
Web: sdmt.org
Venue: Horton Grand Theatre
Photo: Ken Jacques

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Moon Promise: A Case Of Too Much Testosterone Too Little Estrogen.

Laurel Ollstein’s “They Promised Her The Moon” is making a West Coast Premiere in the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre at the Old Globe through May 12th.

It’s beautifully and ingeniously told. It stretches the imagination. It’s historically informative. It’s timely. It’s well designed. It’s exceptionally acted and skillfully directed by Giovanna Sardelli. And if that’s not enough to entice you to see it, then moon landings must not be your priority.

Just recently my 11- year old grandson saw the movie Apollo11 and loved it. It so happens that I (the collector of everything) had, stored away in an old suitcase in my garage, all the old newspaper clippings and Life Magazine articles on that mission.

Pages and pages of stories and pictures including a whole section on the entire Apollo 11 crew are captured in Life. They include sections of their families their education their hobbies and you name it.

Soon he will be the caretaker of this historical collection and show it to his children for the one- day when humans live on the moon. It gives me chills to know that this history will be remembered by the next generation and not just on stage or in WIKI.
Matthew Boston, Morgan Hallett (center) and Mary Beth Fisher
When Oklahoman Jerrie Cobb (Morgan Hallett) was a very young girl she dreamed of becoming an astronaut. With the help of her pilot father (Michael Pemberton plays several roles convincing as each character), over the objections of her over zealous and religious mother (Lanna Joffrey), she learned to fly at the age of fifteen, got her official pilot’s license at age 18 and was a certified ground instructor.

She was a daredevil and attracted the attention both physically and business eye of Jack Ford (Peter Rini). She wound up delivering surplus military planes for him to foreign governments. Without knowing it this set the path for the second stages of her life working in Uganda flying medical supplies to outlying areas hard to reach, while waiting to be accepted into a program called ‘First Lady Astronaut’s Trainee’.

Mary Beth Fisher Matthew Boston and  Morgan Hallett
There were 24 others other women in the program. NASA did not officially support the program, but the same tests the men had undergone to get into the program was administered by NASA’s Dr. Randy Lovelace (Matthew Boston), chairman of the Special Committee on the Life Science for Project Mercury, the US astronaut program. He tested them in his own lab.

The training for the women hopefuls, both physical and psychological, was as stringent (prolonged weightlessness and tolerate stress) as was the program for the men, but the women out performed.

Michael Pemberton, Morgan Hallett, Matthew Boston and Peter Rini
Jerrie ranked in the 2nd percentile of all astronaut candidates and by all that was right, she should have been the in that capsule as the first American woman astronaut. (“If you start seeing little green men you be sure to speak up, Jerrie.”)

The unofficial women's program was underwritten by her benefactor Jackie Cochran (Mary Beth Fisher) who also formed the Women’s Auxiliary Army Core and was the first woman to break the sound barrier, but stopped short of supporting Cobb’s quest to be the first woman in space.  She was considered to be one of the most gifted racing pilots of her generation and twenty-three Jerrie’s senior.

Cochran was also lucky to have married a wealthy man giving her the luxury of spending his money a she saw fit. Unfortunately the Navy scrubbed the program, women were out, and for sixteen years was dominated by men.

Most of what we see in act one is a prelude leading up to Jerrie’s disappointment in not securing a spot in the lineup. We first meet Jerrie as a young girl dreaming under a full moon out in the Oklahoma fields outside her family home.  (“I see the curvature of the earth. The moon rises out of the sea. I hear myself breathing. The same air that angels breathe. I explode into the clouds. And-I- disappear.”)

Peter Rimi as Col. John Glenn and Lanna Joffrey
We follow her journey in flashback the highs and lows, the setbacks and the progress almost as a memory play. This gives Ollstein and Sardelli room to breathe as Jerrie’s life is played out in what seems like real time, while she stands the test of time in the same capsule sitting on a round platform that moves. It gives the appearance that Jerrie is moving through space, on the White Theatre in the round. (Jo Winiarski’s simple set is most effective helped along by Jane Shaw’s sound design).

Living at a time in the early sixties, when the aviation world was dominated by men, she was determined not the let that get in her way.  Remember it was the women who kept the fleet safe (Rosie the Riveter?) while the men were flying them.

In a world dominated by too much testosterone and not enough estrogen twenty -four women dubbed the ‘Mercury 13’ were eager candidates in the same program. Half of them passed the test. Sixteen years later American Sally Ride would become the first woman to fly into space. As we know from history, in 1964 the first woman into space was sent by the then Soviet Union.

No where in the script is it any clearer of the male dominance than when a congressional hearing on the women’s program had two congressmen, one pro, one con go back and fourth smug as bugs in a rug, putting her on trial as the first woman astronaut candidate, rather than the program itself that discriminated against women, but the tests were allowed to progress at any rate.
Matthew Boston and Michael Pemberton
Heading up the distinguished cast of six playing sixteen characters, Morgan Hallett as Jerrie Cobb, shines. Watching her grow into her character with the assistance of lighting designer Cat Tate Starmer, Ms. Hallett ages slowly from a young girl to a mature woman of importance. She’s a dreamer, athletically agile (running, pushup’s and simulated stationary bike) and wonderfully adept at telling her own story.

Mary Beth Fisher
Mary Beth Fisher’s Jackie Cochran is probably the most prominent, arrogant, boastful and smug figure (and gorgeous figure has she) in the entire cast. It doesn’t hurt that she looks amazingly stunning in Denitsa Bliznakova’s period costumes either.

Lanna Joffrey, Helena Cobb, is clearly a pain in Jerrie’s behind as she chides her daughter not being feminine enough. She shows up at Jerrie’s most vulnerable of times never once supporting her child/adult in what has to be an honorable profession, but well beyond her time.

Matthew Boston looks the part (lab coat) of Dr. Lovelace committed to his scientific program. Peter Runi takes on the role of John Glenn. Michael Pemberton is impressive as Jerrie’s Dad, the congressman and Circus Bob and Boston takes a turn as the other cocky congressman in a scene made for TV cameras.  Others (press, Jerrie’s kindergarten teacher, the mayor) come and go and are represented by any one of the six actors.

As history will note, Jerrie Cobb might have been the forgotten would be first American Astronaut to make it to the moon, but to those who survived with the medical supplies she flew into their villages for over forty years, she was a humanitarian.

As a footnote, just recently an all women’s astronaut spacewalk outside the International Space Station was scheduled for a few weeks ago.  It was cancelled because of ‘lack of spacesuit availability”. In short, they didn’t have the right sizes for the women.
So what else is new?

 Two Thumbs UP!

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through May 12th
Organization: The Old Globe Theatre
Phone: 619-234-5623
Production Type: Drama
Where: Old Globe Way, Balboa Park San Diego, CA 92103
Ticket Prices: Start at $30.00
Web: theoldglobe.org.
Venue: Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre
Photo: Jim Cox