Sunday, September 26, 2021

Roustabouts “Book of Leaves” Leaves Much to Think About

 One of the things I miss about living on the East Coast are the changing seasons. Right about now the foliage is bright with oranges, reds and yellows. By the end of the month the leaves will fall and one can almost burry oneself in a pile of fall colors. But for Walter leaves are not his main concern. The trees that he plants on his many acres of land in rural upstate New York, and in particular, the ‘family plot’ is a day’s work in some cases. 

On this particular weekend, Walter has invited his two grown children and their partners for a tell all meeting. Walter has cancer and his time on this earth is limited. His son Prince has been looking for his dream job as an actor, much to Walters chagrin. Prince’s girlfriend Silvia or Sylvie wants him to follow his dreams and Walter’s daughter, Beth and her husband Jack came looking for some of Walter’s estate money. They are broke having made some pretty risky investments. All in all, all five characters had ulterior reasons for the visit, and none correlated with the others. 

With all that said, much of the above reveal is known only to the persons with the secrets, soon to be uncovered to siblings and parent as the play moves forward. As is the case in many families, secrets, code words, and feelings often take on different meanings to different members. Oft times speaking directly to each other is not an option, so they speak around each other and through each other and about each other as was the case of the playwright’s characters. Family dynamics is so interesting to watch as long as it doesn’t involve our own. 

Co-founder of The Roustabouts Theatre, Will Cooper (“Margin of Error”) was the recipient of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Craig Noel Award for outstanding New Play “gUnTopia” in 2020 as well as other plays in progress. With his “Book of Leaves’ currently in a full reading, and premiering on line through Oct. 10th. “Book of Leaves” was a finalist at the Playwrights Development Center in Chicago. 

Justin Lang as Prince and Maybelle Shimizu as Sylvie
Photo by Michael Brueggmeyer

This virtual reading, directed by Kim Strassburger and starring Tom Stephenson as Walter, Leigh Akin as Beth, Justin Lang as Prince, Maybelle Shimizu as Sylvie. Durwood Murray as Jack and Kandace Crystal as Alice the real estate broker all make a convincing case for their causes; some more so than others. But the bottom line in Coopers “Leaves” is that the story is compelling and forces us to take another look at our own family dynamics. 

When Walter tells his grown children that he continued to keep their Books of Leaves (when they were young they all picked a favorite leaf from the back forest of trees and wrote something about it) current to this day, they rolled their eyes in disbelief, but when they looked inside, fond memories came rushing back. Or when the circumstances of their mother’s death finally were told, it crushed Beth. Beth never saw that coming, and when Prince announced that he was going to follow his dream in spite of it all, Cooper and Strassburger manage to be direct without being hurtful, gentle without being wimpy and relevant without being soapy. 

Tom Stephensen as Walter

The staging is a bit odd as the film version was originally a reading and each actor was in essence doing a solo, never really interacting with each other. It looked like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Sometimes it worked and other times the actors, with the exception of facial movements, looked like cutouts set in a living room or tree filled environment. (Michael Brueggemyer is director of Photography and Rebecca Crigler , stage directions.) 

Stephenson’s Walter was able to overcome, for the most part with his wonderful empathetic looks, relaxed demeanor and sincere smile. Justin Lang’s Prince the name is fitting as in 'sarcastically ("What a Prince of a guy") was convincing as the errant son and Durwood Murray had some great lines as Beth’s husband who, I felt was pretty verbally abused by his wife and Kandace Crystal is quite the card as a wanna be actor, as she convinces Walter to sell his property.

(l to r) Leigh Akin as Beth, Tom Stephenson as Walter, Maybelle Shimizu as Sylvie and Justin Lang as Prince.
Photo by Michael Brueggemeyer

Roustabouts Theatre has done some interesting works in the past. Some day in the near future I would like to see Book of Leaves as a full production in front of a live audience.  As an experiment, the story did bring out some much needed family reconciliations. 

Contact for more information.

Tickets: $10.00 available through Oct. 22

Running time 2 hours.

See you at the theatre.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

"On Your Feet" Bristles With The Beat of Its Own Music

 Moonlight Stage Productions closes out it summer season with the Broadway jukebox hit, the uplifting and crowd pleasing musical, “On Your Feet” through Oct. 2nd. 

With book by Alexander Dinelaris and directed by James Vasquez, choreographed by Carlos Mendoza, and featuring the music of Emilio and Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine, the production bristles with the beat of its own music and right out of the starting gate “The Conga” sets the tone.

Catalina Maynard as Consuelo and Ariella Kvashny as Gloria 
Photo by Adriana Zuniga

“OnYour Feet” traces the success story of the Estefan’s from the early beginnings when a young and na├»ve eighteen year old Gloria (Ariella Kvashny) is introduced to the lead singer, Emilio Estefan,(Eduardo Enrekiz) in the popular group “Miami Latin Boys” later known as “Miami Sound Machine. He comes calling for her to audition for his group. (“Anything For You”, “I See Your Smile”. All in all, there are 26 musical numbers.)

To say it was love at first sight (“Here We Are”) might be an understatement but Dinelaris’ book (their true to life story) makes us wait a while as their rise to fame for the young Latin’s get to know each other. 

Eduardo Enrikez as Emilio and Ariella Kvashny
as Gloria.
Photo by Ken Jacques

Their story weaves itself through a series of excellent dancing (how about that Salsa, and Cha Cha?) with a crew of some very talented cancers under the leadership of Mendoza and musical director Lyndon Peguda.( and Oh those beautiful costumes by Emilio Sosa) his business disagreements, his management style, and how he took charge of her career. It takes us back in time to their familial roots and shows us how the two made the crossover from Latin to mainstream outlets while not diluting or avoiding political controversies along the way by giving record executives lessons on the realities of the changing faces of America. 

Ariella Kvashny and Co. 
Photo by Ken Jacques

It unfolds in Cuba on a less than successful note for their getting together when Gloria’s mother, also named Gloria (Chrissie Guerrero) and her Consuela, an excellent Catalina Maynard are first introduced.Young Gloria’s mother wants nothing to do with Emilio, his band or his promises. There was no love lost between the two until Gloria’s near fatal accident while on tour years later.

Her reasons stem from the disappointments she experienced as an up and coming entertainer in Cuba when her husband, Gloria’s father (a solid Rudy Martines) an officer under the Batista regime after the revolution was imprisoned by Castro. Finally freed from jail, and he moved to Miami to be with his family.

He volunteered to go to Vietnam where he was exposed to Agent Orange and was later diagnosed with MS. All this was brought up when her mother finally confessed to her why she was so hard on Emilio.  

Ariella Kvashny as Gloria with members of the company
Photo by Fred Tracey

Her catalogue of songs includes “Anything For You”, “Don’t Wanna Lose You”, “Here We Are”, “Live For Loving You”, “When Someone Comes Into Your Life”, “Words Get In The Way”, “Come Out Of The Dark” that she sang on stage, returning to the spotlight after recovering from her horrific accident. No one knew if she would ever walk again. History will show that she did open the American Music Awards of 1991 after nearly a year of physical therapy and encouragement from both Emilio and her mother. 

The talent runs deep throughout the bouncy show and the chemistry between Enrekiz and Kvashny is strong and convincing. Young Diego Mendoza taking on multiple kid’s roles as their son Nayib(how about the Bar Mitzvah Boy, Jeremy (and the breaking of the wedding glass?)with enough rhythm and energy to keep the lights on. Keep your eyes open for that one. 

Blake McCarthy is credited for the projection design and Jean-Yves Tessler, the lighting. 

“Get On Your Feet” with the leads out front and the Miami Sound Machine in the background (on stage), the number that closed out the show must have gone on at least fifteen minutes while the entire audience was, in fact ‘On their Feet’. 

Hats off to Moonlight for keeping the lights on throughout the summer.

See you at the theatre.