Tuesday, July 30, 2019

“Great Balls Of Fire”

It must have been an hour into Lamb’s Players Theatre’s production of Fred Mutrux and Colin Escott’s “Million Dollar Quartet”, the musical history trip down memory lane of an unplanned meeting in 1956 between Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley that took place at Sun Record Recording studio in Memphis, where Jerry Lee Lewis (Ben Van Diepen) let loose on the keyboards and pounded out “Great Balls of Fire”.  The house erupted!

The Tony Award winning “Million Dollar Quartet” is now back in San Diego, Vista to be exact. It’s knocking ‘um dead at the little Avo Playhouse  in a revival production under the knowing direction of Lamb’s Associate Artistic Director Kerry Meads.

“Great Balls Of Fire” was the frosting on the cake. Imagine “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Memories Are Made of This”, “Fever”, “Hound Dog”, “Down By The Riverside”, “Sixteen Tons”, “Peace In The Valley” and “I Hear You Knocking”, “On Blueberry Hill”, “Hound Dog”, “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Riders In The Sky” are but some of the more popular from the song book that we heard.  
Cast "Million Dollar Quartet". 
The piece starts off innocently enough with Sam Phillips owner of Sun Records, taking us back, in somewhat of a memory play, to that historical meeting that some might call  serendipitous, or in my world b’shert.

All four musicians got their start at Sun Records but by the time this event happened, Presley was recording with RCA after Phillips sold his contract to keep Sun recordings alive, and Cash was about to break with Sun to go with Columbia.

These are the facts as Phillips, (a warm and sincere, way down southern gent in the form of Lance Arthur Smith), interjects throughout as he moves the story along.
MacKenzie Leighton and Bret Benowitz as Carl Perkins
It seems that Perkins (master guitarist and impersonator Brett Benowitz) who wrote “Blue Suede Shoes” recorded it under the Sun label. He was looking for some help from Sun owner Phillips to get his latest, revamped “Matchbook” cut. He also held out just a bit of resentment that Elvis took all the credit for that number. Who knew?
Walter Brinskele, Katie Sapper and Brett Benowitz
He arrived at the studio with his brother Jay (Mackenzie Leighton who plays a hot Bass) and drummer Fluke (Brian Dall) playing backup. When they ran into up and comer Jerry Lee Lewis (Van Diepen who also is musical director) on the piano, whom Phillips brought in to accompany Perkins in the session, things got a bit testy.  

That whole meeting between Lewis and Perkins did not go down well and the two were at each other (professionally, at least) throughout the jam session according to the creators of the show. While Van Diepen’s look is questionable as to resembling Lewis, he plays a mean keyboard and, for the most part brought an explosive excitement to the show.

And so it went. It seems that Cash (Charles Evans, Jr.) stopped by that day to collect some money and inform Phillips of his defection. After finding the rest of his buddies already engaged he hung out and was coaxed into joining the impromptu session.  
Charles Evans Jr. as Johnnie Cash
Oh, to be a fly on the wall to have actually have been there at the time, however we might have been disappointed since according to Cash, in his autobiography “Cash”, was at the studio before Presley and nowhere on the original recordings of the session was his voice heard.

That’s what show biz is all about.  To make this show work we are taken on an adventure, fiction as it may be, through the eyes of the creators to bring back an event that made history and to give us a glimpse into a meeting that we might otherwise have not known.  Nonetheless, the show is entertaining, to say the least and informative enough to do a little exploring after the facts.

“Million Dollar Quartet” ran on Broadway for a year. It came by it’s name slightly by accident when the local newspaper the Memphis Star Press entertainment editor published the event under the heading “Million Dollar Quartet” that also included a photo of the four with Elvis at the piano and the others around him.
Charles Evans Jr., Ben Van Diepen, Walter Brinskele and Brett Benowitz
All four actors capture the essence and overall core making their characters more real to life but of the four Charles Evans, Jr. sounded like, looked like (in his all black jeans and and shirt, pompadour) emulated Cash in such an uncanny way, that if you closed your eyes, you might have thought Cash was actually singing. Amazing! (“Sixteen Tons”, “I Walk The Line”)

As Elvis Walker Brinskele portrays the very young and still wet behind the ears Presley. He was 21 at the time and a former Sun recording artist, as the story goes, came to hear Perkins. He’s not so much a look a like but more of an impression of Presley. After some coaxing he did join in on the sessions. (“Memories Are Made Of This”, That’s All Right”)

Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis at the piano. (file picture)
Presley also brought his latest squeeze Dyanne, (Katie Sapper) who contributed with her version of “Fever” that also brought the house down. Lest I forget to mention, every number played by every one of the talented four either singularly or with the group, brought a wave of enthusiasm from the afternoon audience (and they know).

‘Lewis was the first person inducted into the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.’
Ben Van Diepen, Matt Benowitz, Walter Brinskele and Charles Evans Jr. 
Phillips went on to promote the careers of B.B. King, Charlie Rich, Ray Orbison and a host of others.

Perkins “Blue Suede Shoes” reached number two on the pop and country charts in 1956. After Presley recorded and it became his third top forty hit and pretty much took the thunder out of Perkins rise to fame although he did continue to write. Known as the Rockabilly Pioneer his mastery reached far and wide, even to his surprise, influencing the Beatles.
Ben Van Diepen as Jerry Lee Lewis
Just as an FYI each and every one of these performers plays a mean guitar, bass, drums, piano not to be outdone by any. All with singing, playing and acting the roles of these Rock n’ Roll greats Lamb’s Players Theatre has two mega hits on its hands: “miXtape” now up and running through Sept. 15th at their home base in Coronado and “Quartet” at the Avo through Sept. 1st.

Credit Mathys Herbert set design resembling the inside of Sun Recording Studio, Jemina Dutra for the accurate 50’s costumes, Nathan Peirson, lighting and Patrick Duffy’s fine sound design.

“Million Dollar Quartet” passed through our fair city some years ago at the Civic. It was a fine production. The pros and cons of a larger venue as opposed to a more intimate one can be debated. Yours truly will take the more intimate, abbreviated version (90 min) anytime.

Elvis doing his thing
It was a serendipitous meeting; or in my world b’shert.
Put on your blue suede shoes and hurry up to Vista and join in a happening.


See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Sept. 1st
Organization: Lamb’s Players Theatre
Phone: 619-437-6000
Production Type: Jukebox Musical
Where: 303 Main Street, Vista, CA
Ticket Prices: Start at $28.00
Web: lambsplayers.org
Venue: Avo Playhouse
Photo: Ken Jacques

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Coronado Playhouse “Dogfight”: A Rare Combination Of Macho and Compassion.

“Dogfight”, based on the Warner Bros. film and screenplay by Bob Comfort, caught the eye of director Teri Brown several years ago. She fell in love with the music and wanted to direct a production of it since. Her wish has come true; she is in fact the director of “Dogfight” now on stage at the Coronado Playhouse through Aug. 25th.
Sara Ah Sing as Rose
Some might question why? Some might look at the piece and say, “Put it to bed”. Some might be tempted to boo, some to clap. It’s politically passé. It’s abusive. It’s hurtful and it’s hard to watch.  It’s all that and then some.

It’s light; it’s dark. It’s a musical and it’s a drama. It’s weighty and it’s raw. It’s dreamy and it’s realistic. It’s heart breaking and it’s cathartic. In all its an excellent theatrical experience, one that will make you think, and wonder how far we’ve come since 1963, or not.

“Dogfight” the pop musical by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) and Peter Duchan (book) is a look back at a time we were losing our innocence to a war, the assassination of our young president and the disregard we had for our returning servicemen and women.

To some the term Dogfight means an aerial battle between fighter aircraft conducted at close range. The phrase was coined during WW I and that’s what I had always known the term ‘dogfight’ to mean. I have also known that in some circles, gals who are not the prettiest or have the best figure were referred to as dogs…or as Boland (a power house Connor Boyd) so aptly puts it: “To find us some droolin’ and slobberin’ dogs, sir!”
Adam Sussman as Eddie and Sara Ah Sing as Rose
In Eddie Birdlace's (a sweet Adam Sussman) life, dogfight is a rather nasty game played by Eddie and his fellow Marine buddies, (The “3 Bees”, Birdlace, Bernstein (Kyler Waitley) and Boland, “We Three Bees”…have a mighty sting) just for fun and money. They all put $50.00 in the pot to see who can snag the ugliest girl in town, take her ‘on a date to a dance’ where unbeknownst to the girl, each couple is judged, and the guy with the ugliest looking dog wins the game. (“That Face”)

At the dance, Michael Harrison’s, the sleazy Lounge Singer who gets paid to do the judging, holds up numbers and in the end the highest number wins the pot.  They all agree to stick it out at the dance ‘till the ‘fat lady barks’. That information alone was enough of a turnoff for me. But the show goes on.

This atypical musical is set as a memory play that begins in 1967 but segues back to 1963 when all this mess began. President Kennedy committed to send ‘military advisors’ to Vietnam, a country so many naïve young twenty something GI’s never heard before. In the play the Marines we meet up with refer to it as a ‘little country near India’.

It is The Three Bee’s last night before shipping out to Okinawa (“Some Kinda Time”) and a war they feel combat ready, after five months of training, to fight and save the country from Communism (something the French were unable to do for decades). But for now they have invaded San Francisco and are looking to stir up some excitement.
Adam Sussman and Sara Ah Sing
It is here that Eddie wanders into a family owned diner at just about closing time and catches the eye of the young waitress off in a corner strumming her guitar. Her no nonsense mother (Andrea Pullman) urges him to leave and her daughter to get busy with her chores for the next day.

Rose Fenny (charmingly innocent Sara Ah Sing) is shy and akward and Eddie oblivious to it all, makes conversation that challenges Rose’s musical know how.  She’s as unsure of herself as he is or seems confident. She’s as afraid as he appears sure -footed and as naïve as he thinks he is worldly. It’s almost a ‘clash of the titans’. She is influenced by the Martin Luther King “I Have Dream” speech and is into the “We Shall Overcome” mentality and he thinks he knows about music, but has a long way to go.
Sara Ah Sing and Danica Waitley
With a whole lot of coaxing and B.S. on Eddie’s part, he convinces her to go to the ‘dance with him’. (I’ll take your hand Rose and twirl you around…”) But when Eddie gets to the planned destination, he has second thoughts. He might have made a mistake in his choice yet when meets up with his buds that are ready willing and able to show off their ‘dogs’ there is no turning back.

Boland, the bawdy leader of the 3 B’s, manages to talk experienced and street smart hooker Marcy (Danica Waitley) to play the game after he agrees to share the jackpot with her.  Kyler Waitley’s Bernstein drags Ruth Two Bears (Ariel Sheridan plays several roles), who barely understands what’s going on, but she plays along.

Things go from bad to worse when Marcy pulls out her teeth and becomes a mangy toothless mess in order to look her utmost awful. Waitley’s Marcy is a hoot as the hooker adding some much needed lightness to the situation that is growing nastier by the minute. 

Cast with Sara Ah Sing and Adam Sussman coming home after the war.
When Rose comes into the hall in the most matronly looking maroon dress (Pam-Stompoly-Ericson and Ryan Dietrich) that makes her look chunky and more unattractive, all eyes are on her.  Oblivious to all going on around her, the inexperienced, soft spoken and good-natured Rose is in heaven and can’t get over the fact that she is out on her first date.

The activities begin and Eddie is reluctant to participate. Rose is baffled by the whole thing, drinks too much and winds up in the Ladies Room with Marcy who proceeds to let her in on the gag. “It’s a dogfight”.  She’s furious (“You are a cruel, heartless, ignorant jerk”) and is all but ready to have Eddie become the first casualty of their group but instead tells him that she hopes he dies.
Sara Ah Sing ("Pretty Funny")
At home and in bed she sings a heart wrenching “Pretty Funny” that just about unglued yours truly as she recapped the evening. There’s nothing funny about what just happened to her but in a convoluted and self -depreciating mood, she sings “Isn’t it funny? Isn’t it funny? For a moment he convinced me I could be pretty. "Funny.”

The musical love story “Dogfight” is just that. It’s musical love story at odds with itself featuring a group of young men with raging hormones about to go off to an unspecified war on a quest to make the most of their last night of freedom, no holds barred. They are looking for love in all the wrong places for all the wrong reasons and yet a tender love story emerges from the ashes of a near disaster. 

As raw as it is, and it is raw (the F Bomb is thrown about as easily as one might say hello) both Eddie’s and Rose’s orbits begin to close in on one another. Uncanny as it might sound for these opposites that have nothing in common seeing them change right before our eyes is nothing less than beautiful especially of you are a romantic as is your truly.

The chemistry that grows before us becomes more intense as each character matures in his or her own way, both realizing their potential, yet too timid to take the first step (“First Date/ Last Night”), makes the outcome promising.
Ah Sing and Sussman
Sussman and Ah Sing are a good match and they seal the deal with conviction, she with her naivety and charm and he with his growing vulnerability, while his machismo fades and something like feelings seep in. It just takes a long time for it to percolate. Both actors young and vulnerable, might help their character's credibility by projecting more, using facial expressions and body language that is more persuading.  

Overall the ensemble good as it was, was a bit on shaky ground opening night but it will get tighter as the actors settle in. My biggest complaint has to be the lack of authenticity of the uniforms worn by the men. For a play taking place in Coronado the hub of a huge military presence where it would be so easy to get it right, it’s unconscionable for the uniforms to look well… so wrong, untidy and not very uniform.

Musical director of The Dogfight Band Nina Gilbert and her brave six piece ensemble in the background sounded perfect while Patrick Mayuyu’s choreography, simple as it looked is precision right. Xavier Luevano’s lighting design works well on the two tiered set designed by Karl Bunker and Jerry Young’s sound, especially when Rose and Eddie sing together or she alone,  oft times gets lost in translation inside the deep cavernous set. 

None of the young Marines in “Dogfight” ever gave thought to what the actual fighting would look like. To quote Rose: “When you shoot at people… you get people shooting back”. 
Mayuyu precision marching  with Sussman out in front
And so it was. The Vietnam War took over 47,000 of our finest. 11,00 non- combat deaths, over 150,000 were wounded and 10,000 went missing. From 1963 until 1975 when South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam we still bare the scars.

Many tears were shed at the end of this production. And so it is about wars that the good, the bad and the ugly get caught up in it whether we want to or not.  

Hats off to Teri for holding fast to her dream.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Aug. 25th
Organization: Coronado Playhouse
Phone: 619-435-4856
Production Type: Musical Drama
Where: 4855 Strand Way, Coronado, CA 92118
Ticket Prices: Start at $22.00
Web: coronadoplayhouse.com
Photo: Ken Jacques

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

PigPen Theatre Company’s “The Tale Of Despereaux” Sings To The Heart And Soul Of Young And Old Alike.

“From darkness comes light”. “The world is dark and light is precious. Lean close lean close in my friends. I’m telling you a story in every heart beats light and darkness”. And so begins the tale of “Despereaux”, the mouse who falls in love with a princess. And if you think you think this is a fairy tale you are right and you are wrong.
Bianca Norwood and Eric Petersen
PigPen Theatre Co. is at it again after a successful run, a few years back with the tale of “The Old Man And The Old Moon”. This time around, in a world premiere musical production based on the Newberry Award winning novel “Despereaux” by Kate DiCamillo and the animated Universal Pictures film, the company has gone to great lengths to bring this beautiful and poetic story to light with live characters adapting to their animated counterparts.  It's playing at The Old Globe through Aug. 11th on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage.

The group began creating their own unique brand of theatre, music, and film seven in all, as freshmen at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama in 2007.
Betsy Morgan and Eric Petersen
Members include Dan Weschler (Stained Glass Knight “Hey, You Know Me”), Ryan Melia (Librarian), Alex Falberg (as Lester), Matt Neurnberger as Botticelli, Ben Ferguson as Furlough, Curtis Gillen as Most High Head Mouse, and Arya Shahi as King Phillip.

Adding to the overall depth and quality of the production an additional four gorgeous voices were added to the ensemble with Betsy Morgan as Miggery Sow, Taylor Iman Jones as The Princess, Eric Petersen as the Rat Roscuro and Bianca Norwood, a California native who is now attending The Julliard School, is the infamous or famous and most courageous Despereaux. 
Ryan Melia and Bianca Norwood
There’s nothing unusual about having animals as hero’s and Despereaux, “whose ears look like a couple of frying pans” is as you will see the hero of the day after a long struggle with k-nights and rats in the almost deserted royal household in the Kingdom of Dor. Here he learns of k-nights and dragons, villains and a hero in search for the ‘honey sweet sound’ and Roscuro’s love of light.  

Mark Bruni and PigPen Theatre Co. co-direct this beautiful adventure/love story starring no other than Despereaux (Bianca Norwood) the mouse who, rather than scavenge for meager crumbs like the rest of his siblings, goes instead on the search for knowledge. But unlike his siblings who would eat the paper from the books of knowledge he found reading the stories more interesting. 
Betsy Morgan, Matt Nuernberger, Curtis Gillen, Ryan Melia and Bianca Norwood
Narrated by Ryan Melia (“Every Story Starts”) this ‘once upon a time’ story begins on the Queen’s Birthday in the Kingdom of Dor. A big celebration of such large proportions happened year after year. The Queen’s most favorite tureen of soup filled with roasted vegetables, herbs mushrooms, all the foods the Queen loved,  (“It smelled like happiness”) were being served.  

Unfortunately it was also on this one day that the celebration ended in tragedy when the curious rat Roscuro fell from the chandelier high above into Queen’s soup frightening her to death. From that time on, soup was banned from the household and all rats were to be killed.
Taylor Iman Jones and Betsy Morgan
That rat was named Chiaroscuro or Roscuro (Eric Petersen, “Consequences”). Evil as he was he was possessed with an un-rat like obsessions with light. Later on in the story he will become Despereaux nemesis. Hiding out in the dungeon after the King decreed that all rats should be killed, he was up to no good trying to lure Despereaux into his grips to reveal secrets about the Queen and her maid.

 He didn’t have to wait long when Despereaux was thrown into the dungeon for breaking with the Mouse Council’s rules; he fell in love with and spoke to a human.

 Smitten with Princess Pea (Taylor Iman Jones) he promised to protect her (“love can wake you with its perfume”) and make her world right again. She and her hand -maid Miggery Sow (Betsy Morgan) would be free from Roscuro. He vowed to bring the rat to justice with a sewing needle and a spool of red thread.  

As fate would have it, after making this pledge he found himself in the dungeon with none other than the red caped Roscuro, after the Mouse Council voted to teach him a lesson by being surrounded by darkness.  
Cast "The Tale of Despereaux"
The distinctiveness of PigPen Co. is that the multitalented ensemble play instruments, multiple characters and manipulate puppets (shadow sequence and puppet design by Lydia Fine and Nick Lehane). They wrote the music and lyrics. They incorporated Jennifer Jancuska’s choreography, Nevin Steinberg’s sound design, Isabella Byrd’s Lighting design that focuses on the lightness and darkness. With Anita Yavich’s clever and distinctly imaginative costumes, Jason Sherwood’s puzzle like scenic design and musical director Christopher Jahnke, who also added additional arrangements, (There are about a dozen original songs)  PigPen does it all and with one voice, and from the looks of it, with fun and purity.
Bianca Norwood and Taylor Iman Jones
The story as wonderful as it is can stand alone but with the assist of Bianca Norwoods subtle movement’s and convincing commitment to the character Despereaux, Taylor Iman Jones and Betsy Morgan’s gorgeous operatic voices, and Eric Petersen’s strong voiced talent as Roscuro and Arya Shahi’s brief appearance as the King, also in full voice, the production soared as it wound down to a happy ending where we hope everyone lived happily ever after.
Bianca Norwood as Despereaux
If there was ever a show that made my heart sing and show me the light of goodness “Despereaux” is at the top of the list.


See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Aug. 11th
Organization: The Old Globe Theatre
Phone: 619-234-5623
Production Type: Musical Fantasy
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Ticket Prices: Start at $30.00 for children and $40.00 for adults
Web: theoldglobe.org
Venue: Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage
Photo: Jim Cox