Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Moxie’s “Handbagged” Full Of Wonderful Surprises With Excellent Acting By Two Of San Diego's Elite.

Imagine Sandy Campbell and Linda Libby on stage at the same time?  Sandy, who so perfectly portrayed Maria Callas in “Master Class” winning her an award from the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and in another, including her portrayal of Lucille Frank in “Alfred Uhry’s “Parade and Linda Libby, who won the San Diego Theatre Critics Award in 21013 as Actor of The Year for her body of work that year. That’s big news!
Sandy Campbell and Linda Libby as Queen ElizabethII and Margaret Thatcher
Now they are adversaries, looking for common remembrances as Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in playwright Moira Buffini’s “Handbagged”, currently in a west coast premiere at Moxie Theatre through Nov. 17th.

Add Lisel Gorell-Getz, who just finished her stunning appearance in “The Virgin Trial” as the now Meg, Thatcher’s fiery younger self and Debra Wanger (“Angels In America”) as the poised Liz, the younger Queen herself.

Adding to the balance Max Macke plays a series of characters including Thatcher’s husband, Dennis, Rupert Murdock and Ronald Reagan among others.
Debra Wanger, Max Macke, Durwood Murray and Sandy Campbell
Durwood Murray plays the second male role. He is about seven different people, and in an hysterical turn of events comes out in a bright red skirt and white fancy collared top as Nancy Reagan. It’s one you have to see to believe.

Put them all under the wings of Kim Strassburger’s superb direction and the end result is one hell of a production filled with collective surprises, historical and/or otherwise disclosures and an evening that begs your attendance.   
Lisel Gorell-Getz as younger Thatcher, Max Macke as Dennis Thatcher and Linda Libby as older Margret Thatcher
In a civilized society people in high places usually show some degree of respect toward one another. Unlike politics in the US especially now, our present leader tweets; he does not person -to person -talk, at least not to his opposition. Here there is no civility.  

In the U.K. the Queen, who is titular head of state and her Prime Minister who may be elected from either party, meet at the Queen’s behest. It could be on a regular basis or not if that’s the case.

When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister 1979-1990, she and the Queen met on a regular/weekly basis for eleven years. She was the longest serving Prime Minister to date. While not so close in friendship, the Queen attended her funeral, the only one since Churchill, to pay her respects, she was that impressed. 

Margaret Thatcher, otherwise known as ‘The Iron Lady” was much the conservative and no frills leader contrary to the more centrist ideas of Queen Elizabeth II. They had their ups and downs, shared different temperaments; the Queen, they say having a dry wit and Thatcher no humor at all. The were controversial but always civil, at least in their later years.     
Debra Wanger and Sandy Campbell as younger and older Queen Elizabeth II
Ms. Buffini begins her story somewhat at the beginning of those meetings and goes back and forth between their younger days when sabers rattled over the Falkland Islands, high unemployment, the miners strike, apartheid in Africa, a divided commonwealth and troubles in Northern Ireland, and as a side include mention of the Queen’s dogs, her different residences, her children. Both husbands manage cursory appearances here and there courtesy of Mackie.

Both sides get their points of views aired, but what makes Buffini’s play so wonderful and delicious is not the play itself, but the actors who breathe life into it; weave it into a comprehensive whole.  As the four pair off and separate, come together we know we are in the midst of seeing two, not just powerhouse actors but powerhouse politicians.  
Durwood Murray as Kenneth Kaunda (or KK) and Linda Libby as Margaret Thatcher

Sandy Campbell’s somewhat stooped, slow stepped gait and white hair and pink silk looking coat and gloves, and three strands of pearls, (Danita Lee dsigned the costumes) and flats is in stark contrast to Libby’s somewhat royal blue suit, pearls and scarf with low heeled pumps and long deliberate strides, strides of confidence and leadership.  Both are carrying ‘handbags’, of course.

 Compare the softness but intense stare of Campbell’s eyes to the piercing almost eagle eye looks from Libby and let me say…that can be a bit intimidating. You get the picture. It’s all so perfectly timed and well delivered that at some moments you almost forget you are watching a play as they break the fourth wall. (T. “She’s ever so small”.  Q. “She colors her hair.” T. “We’re the same age.” Q. “Of the same era. Formed in war.” T. “In every way, we are peers.”)

 Both Wanger and Gorell-Getz get their One -upmanship as the dueling younger selves are put to the test of their elder’s memories of the same set of events. No notes were taken, their meetings were private and accordingly they were the only one’s who knew what was said unless there were flies on the wall, or playwright Moira Buffini, whose fun filled suggestions of what might have happened to inspire this credibly prophetic (“Make Britain great again.”) play come to light and life.  

Julie Lorenz set designer gives a simple round about set with a table on a top tier for serving tea and. In the background painted across the entire stage is the Union Jack painted by Julie Lorenz.  It’s difficult not to notice and a wonderful visual. Cynthia Bloodgood designed the lighting, Mason Pilevsky the sound, Missy Bradstreet designed the wigs and the wonderfully talented Vanessa Dinning acted as dialect coach. 
Linda Libby as Margaret Thatcher
And one last quote from Thatcher: “I always say if you want something said, ask a man. But if you want something done, ask a woman.” She was a you -know -what -buster but hung on for a long time as Prime Minister.

It’s a must see and deserves a two thumbs up!

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Nov. 17th
Organization: Moxie Theatre
Phone: 858-598-7620
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 6663 El Cajon Blvd.
Ticket Prices: Start at $33.00
Photo: Daren Scott

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

N.C.R’s Neil Simon’s “Sunshine Boys”… Excellent Venue For Two Seasoned Actors.

Neil Simon wrote over 30 plays, many of which have been seen here on our local stages particularly in the 1980’s when a Simon comedy was hot “property”.

“The Sunshine Boys” premiered on Broadway in 1972 and Simon received Tony Award nominations for Best Play at that time. In 1995 he adapted it for a Hallmark Production that aired in 1977.

The play premiered on Broadway in 1972 and the movie, which so many of my generation will recall, starred Walter Matthau and George Burns. Remember them?

By dusting off his “The Sunshine Boys” the North Coast Repertory Theatre brings back a bit of history to our local stages through Nov. 24th.  It will be remembered mostly by those old enough to know what vaudeville was but perhaps not eye -witness to.
James Sutorius as Al

Lenny Wolpe as Willie

Some might have feelings of nostalgia for ‘the good old days’ of comedy/vaudeville. North Coast Rep. has a history of reminding us. The very first Neil Simon I saw at North Coast Rep. was “Brighton Beach Memoirs” back in the 80’s when founding mother Olive Blakistone played Kate Jerome. The very first show produced there was Simon’s “Chapter Two”. So there is history.

Very little sun manages to shine between Willie Clark (Lenny Wolpe) and his long ago partner Al Lewis (James Sutorius) in Neil Simon’s vintage comedy “The Sunshine Boys”

Lewis and Clark, not the explorers team but the comedy team of Lewis and Clark of the 1930’s, are retired to the sidelines after forty years of being Top Banana on the Vaudeville circuit. 

The one-time vaudevillians that lasted long enough to keep audiences in stitches had staying power but over the course of time Al and Willie ended up hating each other. By the time the act was no longer, the two were not even speaking.

The clash/crash came after an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show over the word 'Ent..ah!"  Lewis wanted out, Clark did not. Lewis won that round and Clark has never recovered or forgiven.

Willie is still looking for that one gig to get him back into the spotlight, but he can’t remember his lines and according to his nephew Ben, a theatre agent himself, his hands shake so he can’t even do close up commercials.  Since he never wanted to retire in the first place, he’s been holding a grudge and wants an apology from Al.

Good luck on that one. 

Al is retired and living, so it appears, peacefully in New Jersey (the butt of many jokes here with an updated dig at the George
Washington Bridge) with his daughter and her family.
Lenny Wolpe and James Sutorius
In some ways Willie’s character could have come straight out of “Grumpy Old Men” as the pro Wolpe schleps around his New York apartment that he deadbolts with at least three or four different kinds of bolts and sliders that he has to manipulate when opening his apartment door.  It’s a running joke that gets worn out over the course of the evening.

He is unkempt and unshaven in his pajamas, robe and slippers, (his daily attire), watches TV and waits for Wednesdays, which is his nephew Ben’s (Bryan Banville) visiting day. Why Wednesday you ask? FYI, it’s the day the latest edition of Variety comes out. But does Willy look for a job there? Of course not. The first page he turns to is the obituary page. Just to update you on his personality, it’s confrontational, cantankerous and angry.
Cast of "Sunshine Boys"
He’s so locked into the past that he still has rabbit ears on his TV set. Well, it is the 70’s/80’s. He’s also so angry at the breakup of the act that he doesn’t have time to smell the daisy’s; not that they are growing in the cracks of NY sidewalks or anything.

Sutorius’s Al is dapper, soft spoken and passive aggressive.

When Ben proposes that his uncle and his former partner get together for one more, once in a lifetime appearance for a look back at the history of comedy, he absolutely comes unglued. The two have not spoken in ten years. Now CBS is inviting them to reunite one more time.

Getting the two to agree to disagree about the why and the how of their act and what subsequently follows, i.e. having the two in the same room and being almost civil, practically takes an act of Congress and is the basis of Simon’s comedy. It’s silly, oft times frustrating, repetitive and classic Simon.

Watching the two have a go at it is all in the timing and both Wolpe and Sutorius are more than up to the task but the play, while getting its share of ‘one line zingers’ gets bogged down in Act I with too much exposition and repetition. That doesn’t mean to say the humor isn’t there, it just takes too long setting it up in Act I for the two to come together after intermission.

During rehearsals of the skit both continue warring with each other when Willie is suddenly stricken with chest pains. This episode is a wake up call for Willie. It also brings a touch of reality that finally sets in after a time.  Both men are at their best showing some humanity from their at odds characters that finally call a cautionary peace after all is said and done.  
Bryan Banville and Lenny Wolpe
Director Jeffrey B. Moss had the good sense to bring two absolutely solid actors to portray the Lewis and Clark of Simon’s oldie. The comedy team of Wolpe and Sutorius are still able to pull off his thinly veiled plot.

Both actors are well - known to the community. Sutorius who recently won the Craig Noel Award last year for his performance in “The Father” and Wolpe who is main focus of the pair,  lists to his credits: "Bullets Over Broadway” , “Wicked” and “The Drowsy Chaperone”.

Sutorius, with his straight-faced stare is the perfect foil for Wolpe’s anger. While never breaking a smile at some of Wolpe’s ludicrous antics, his look is classic. As over the top and emotionally the unstable of the pair, Wolpe, manages an almost resigned Willie as the two… well, Moss gives us some satisfaction at the end.

Some of the what one might have called eye popping and funny when the show first premiered is now downright offensive and so off color that one might have thought good sense should have justified omitted the scene “The Doctor Will See You Now” skit.
Lenny Wolpe and Portia Gregory
It resembles a bit from an old Groucho Marx show where Samantha Roper is ‘the Nurse’ in the skit. She is skimpily attired. She’s the one who fills out the reports for the doctor and when she bends over, the Dr. (Willie) looks up her uniform and then with a lecherous smile then looks over at us and we are supposed to laugh?  It’s done not once, but at least two times. GIVE ME A BREAK FOLKS!

Portia Gregory is Willie’s nurse at home who is seen eating from one box of chocolates and then another. Banville does as much with his “I’m your only living relative” as he possibly can and John Tessmer and Philip Korth (props) fill in as a few extras.

This is a show for two seasoned and skilled actors, who over the years, have earned a special place in their careers and can afford a Neil Simon in their lifetimes. It’s not the playwright’s best play, (I can name at three or four more) but in keeping with ‘tradition’ most of the folks in the audience with my hair color, seemed to be enjoying it.

Credit to Marty Burnett who designed a very livable space for Willie to wallow around in with kitchen, bedroom, living room bathroom and small entry. Aaron Rumley’s sound design and Matt Novotny’s lighting with Elisa Benzoni’s period costumes give the production an overall good look.

If you are looking to put a little laughter in your lives, try The Sunshine Boys”.   

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Nov. 24th
Organization: North Coast Repertory Theatre
Phone: 858-381-1055
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach, CA
Ticket Prices: Start at $46.00
Photo: Aaron Rumley

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Cygnet’s “Last Five Years” Features Two Powerhouse Singers With A Story To Tell.

In the short span of five years, love was found, bloomed and then faded; so tells the story in the musical lyrics, almost all solo’s, in Jason Robert Brown’s  (“Parade” and “Bridges of Madison County”) “The Last five Years” now on stage at Cygnet Theatre through Nov. 17th.

The story is told in reverse chronological order by Cathy and chronical order byJamie.We follow the beginning of a relationship (“Shicksa Godess”) through the eyes of Jamie, (Michael Cusimano ...“Once”).
Racquel Williams 
Cathy's (Racquel Williams making her San Diego debut) story starts at the end of the relationship (“Still Hurting”) and works her way back to the beginning. They will meet somewhere in the middle of their story and get married. Things will go from euphoria to distaster as a marriage dissolves right in front of our eyes.

Based on Brown’s own failed marriage to Theresa O’Neill,  he feels all the bumps and bruises and hurts of seperation while showing his vulnerable side of being too consumed with his own importance while she can only look on as she gets one turndown after another. (“Audition Sequence”) in her own career.

Both Cusimano and Williams are backed up by five musicians (Patrick Marion is musical Director/ Orchestrator) including two Cellos, a Violin, Bass, Piano and Guitar. The  sound is  rich and filling but  from my perspective and sensitive ears sounded  too heavy on the back end making it difficult for me to catch some of the lyrics.
Michael Cusimano
Jamie is a Jewish boy wonder who seems to have broken the mold among his family of rising Jewish star and marrying out of his faith. In a fun turn he sings about his avoiding every Jewish girl at the JCC in his home town, disappoining his mother and her friends. And in another segment he does a takeoff of a Jewish character in "The Schmuel Song". But as they used to say in my old neighborhood, "He Doesn't look or act Jewish".

His rise to the top of his career with Random House is climbing while Cathy is still struggling to get her first big meaty role as an actress. He encourages her. (“I Believe In You”)

Her “A Summer in Ohio” and “Climbing Uphill” had many in the opening night audience chuckling at the truthfulness of prepping for and going through an audition. 

Over the course of five years, 14 songs later, (each alternating with a musical number but sans dialogue) the story of their meeting, discoveries, love, (“The Next Ten Minutes”) understanding and coming together to their final “Goodbye Until Tomotrrow/”I Could Never Rescue You” is played out in full emotional and sensitive tones.

Both have powerhouse voices and the two musical numbers “The Next Ten Minutes” and “A  Miracle Could Happen” give the audience a look at what both can achieve singularly and together. It is a nice change more than half way through the song cycle to see them together singing.
Michael Cusimano and Racquel Williams
Moving back and fourth from New York City to various parts of the MidWest, “A Summer in Ohio”… where I’m sharing a room with a former stripper and her snake is a kick and a half and Williams nails it, the couple’s relationship is on the move..

Their story seems to echo pending disaster given the nature of exposure and pressure each of the professions require and that means he gets to party with the big wigs. And you guessed it when he sings “Nobody Needs To Know” that his eyes are not only for Cathy.

Rob Lutfy directs these two multi talented musicians through their ups and downs, sentimental and playful momentes with ease on Justin Humphries boxed in set, if you will.

The stage is filled with boxes from moving companies, some filled with a sweater, jacket, a small change of clother and other props, while others serve as platforms to stand on. Hanging across the background is a wall of paper strung together like a wall mural signifying Jamie’s writing and book publishing.
Racquel Williams and Micharl Cusimano
 Credit to Michael Mizerany assistant director/choreographor, Anne E. McMill's mood setting lighting, blackouts and fade in’s, Matt Lescault-Woods sound, and Emily Wilson’ simple and comfortable looking costumes.

“The Last Five Years” premiered at Chicgo’s Nightlight Theatre in 2001and was produced Off-Broadwayin 2002. For audiences looking for something sharp, different, charming, meaningful, and a short-90 min. with no intermission before the Holiday rush of old favorites hit the stages, this will fit the bill.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Nov. 17th
Organization: Cygnet Theatre
Phone: 619-337-1525
Production Type: Musical
Where: 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town, San Diego
Ticket Prices: Start at $35.00
Venue: Theatre In Old Town
Photo: Karli Cadel Photography