Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Cygnet's “Water By The Spoonful” Where Family Matters In Many Different Ways

 Anecdote: Many years ago, I worked with a young man who happened to be gay. Every time there was a new hire, he would ask me if they were ‘family’?

I later learned that he was really asking me if they were gay or lesbian as the case was then, ‘family' was simply the code word for gay.

How the word ‘family’ has evolved over the years matters in Quiara Alegria Hudes Pulitzer Prize winning 2011 play “Water By The Spoonful”. It is the second in her Elliot cycle beginning with “Elliot, a Soldiers Fugue (which showed here years ago at the now defunct Ion) that starred a young Steven Lone, and ends with “The Happiest Song Plays Last”). 

“Water” replaced "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812" because of the Russian war themed musical and current events in Ukraine.

Hude’s play goes back a while in time to the Iraq war where Puerto Rican born Elliot Ortiz, (an older, more matured Steven Lone) six years later is back in Philadelphia, where he is a veteran with an injured leg from the war. He’s an aspiring model actor, but for now he works at Subway Hoagies where he makes bupkies. That’s the least of his troubles. Elliot is still hung up with nightmares about his time overseas and his addictions. He is suffering from PTSD and can’t erase the memories of the horrors of war. One character that keeps coming up in Elliot’s dreams is his ghost from the past (Kaivan Ameen Mohsenzadeh).

Melissa Ortiz and Steven Lone

At present he’s taking care of his adoptive mother Ginny who is near death and has no help save for his cousin Yazmin or Yaz (Melissa Ortez) who, for the moment is his closest relative/ cousin. She is an adjunct professor of music who would rather be playing Jazz than teaching it. be She is in the process of divorcing her husband and has the most lucrative job of the family. But for now, she’s preoccupied with her divorce. Elliot’s biological mother Odessa aka Haikumom (Catalina Maynard) is a recovering crack addict and founder of a website/chatroom recovertogether.com. She lives on the edge and does janitorial jobs to keep herself going.

Christian Haines, Catalina Maynard, Melissa Ortiz and Steven Lone

The scenes seesaw back and forth from chat room to Steven’s anxieties and worries about Ginny to the on line chats between the several recovering (maybe one day or three months) addicts looking for an on line family connection or just someone to hook up with as was the case of Orangutan (Emily Song Tyler) originally from Japan and Chutes and Ladders (Bryan Barbarian)who lives in San Diego and works as a low level IRS agent. His real name is Clayton

They talk by each other rather than to each other and here again it’s like talking in code. Into this awkward group John (Christian Haines) or Fountainhead enters with his story about his being a weekend junkie.  Interestingly Odessa connects with John, something she could never do with her son.  

Emily Song Tyler, Catalina Maynard and Bryan Barbarin

When Ginny dies the you know what hits the fan and the biological family including Odessa, who up until now has been a constant mediator and cheerleader in the chat room, has new heartbreaking and brutal tell-alls that play out with new revelations about her relationships with her family, her struggles to make it alone and her trust in John or Fountainhead. She learned of her sister’s death from the newspaper. 

Under the deft direction of Meg DeBoard and an outstanding all around cast, Hude’s “Water by the Spoonful” is just that. We the audience get tiny sips of information to put to use as the characters work on getting better, which some do, but it’s timely and happens slowly by the spoonful. 

Catalina Maynard

Catalina Maynard, whose presence has been missed from SD stages for some time anchors the show with her outstanding ability to draw everyone in to her web of both joy and destruction. Her performance as the disavowed mother is heart breaking. Steven Lone is top notch as a ticking time bomb dealing with his demons and his responsibilities. Melissa Ortiz, new to our stages, is a find. As Yaz she brightens up the room every time she enters it. 

Emily Song Tyler is spunky as Orangutan, and fun to be with. Bryan Barbarin has some pretty funny lines to take some sober (pardon the pun) ness out of the room, John Haines as Fountainhead is just right as the weekend druggie and ultimate savior to Odessa.

Bryan Barbarin

Technical credits go to Yi-Chien Lee for scenic design, Minjoo Kim for lighting, Blake McCarty for projections, Maeann Ross for the Jazz sound (John Coltrane), and costumes by Danita Lee.  

So what's your definition of family? 

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays. Through April 24.

Where: 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town

Tickets: $25 and up

Phone: (619) 337-1525

Photo: Karli Cadel

Online: cygnettheatre.com

COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccine within 14 days of showtime or negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 72 hours of show, with photo ID required. Masks required only for unvaccinated guests.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

New Musical “Bhangin’ It” At La Jolla Playhouse Thrills Opening Night Audiences

There is something about NEW that excites theatre goers. That was the case in the World Premiere Production of the Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza (book), and Sam Willmott’s (music and lyrics) with additional music by Deep Singh, bhangin’ the new musical “Bhangin’ It” that opened March 20th at The Lolla Playhouse at the Mandell Weiss Theatre through April 17th.

With a company of no less than eighteen excellent performers, singers and dancers all, and with eighteen musical numbers, the story lines are less than inspiring, but the talent on stage makes up for the lack originality, as stories go. The use of the Punjab folk dance, bhangra, in particular is what motivates the narrative.

The story takes place in and around a fictitious college campus in East Lansing Michigan where Indian –American, Mary (San Diegan Ari Afsar) dances in the school’s official Bhangra (“a Punjabi folk dance that started as celebratory harvest dance”) dance troupe, The Tigres.  The team has been selected to dance in the national collegiate finals. Not satisfied with the direction that it is headed Mary wants to add a solo dance, Kathak (an Indian classical dance) to make the group more authentic looking. 

The Cast

Team leader Amit (Avaz Bilaal) and teammate Preeti (Vinithra Raj) are having none of it. They force Mary off the team.  Mary, with the help of her roommate Sunita (Jaya Josh) decides to form her own dance team with an ethnically diverse group of wanna be dancers, never been before dancers, and what the hay? joiners.  In the meantime, Mary has found a way to enable her rag tag group, the Wood Ducks, to also be in the final competition along with the T.I.G.R.E.S.  

There are several locations (excellent visuals by Robert Brill) where the group assembles, practices and just hang out, such as a bowling alley, the girl’s dorm room, a rehearsal room, the Samosa Hut and  the kitchen of the Sampsa Hut owned by Rekha (Alka Nayyar ). There, a food fight happens between the Wood Ducks and The Tigres that pushes Rekah to force the students to clean up the mess and puts them to work in the kitchen more like team building than work or punishment.

The Wood Ducks

In desperation to get the Ducks , er lined up, Mary ask Rekha to be The Ducks dancing coach.  No easy fete this since the makeup of the group, tho diversified, is nowhere ready for competition. The players include a basketball player (Terrance Johnson) to Billy (Brandon Contreras) sort of Mary's love interest, (“Toledo”, one of the more memorable songs sung by Mary and Jake), Constance (Laura Dadap), Noah (Henry Walter Greenberg), one of the faculty professors Wallace (Jason Heil), Jake (Terrance Johnson), and of course Mary and Sunita.

The Cast

Need I have to say that the ending is as predictable as night follows day? BUT… there are endings and there are endings, sort of like the flashy ending in “Mama Mia”. So sit or stand but be prepared for some absolutely hip hoppin dancing, fun lovin’ Bollywood style dancing, ballet, and a  solo  performance with  choreographer Rujuta Vaidya playing a mean dohl (double sided barrel drum) that rocked the theatre.  

While the post show was dazzling, it took over two and a half hours to get to the dazzle. And as impressive as it was yours truly would have been more satisfied to  see less of the almost unfinished story lines and more of the dancing and music. That said, no question that cultural diversity and finding your own identity made its mark. 

Credits go to: costumes by Linda Cho are up to her always high standards. Musical director is Madiline Benson. Lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker, projection designer David Bengali, and sound designer Jonathan Deans. Lisa Shriver, musical staging; and Anushka Pushpala, bhangra specialist. Lest we forget director  Stafford Arima, who managed to pull it all together  

"Bhangin' It" is new, bold, culturally diversified and bhangin’. With some major culling, it will probably be headed to the Great White Way. 

Better yet, you be the judge. 


Where: La Jolla Playhouse at Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse campus, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

Running through April 17th

Tickets: $25 to $87

Phone: (858) 550-1010

Online: lajollaplayhouse.org

Photographer: Rich Soublet II

COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination required or negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 48 hours of performance, along with proof of ID. Masks required for all indoors. With new guidlines, howeveer, check before you go. 


Friday, March 11, 2022

San Diego Rep’s “The Great Khan” Packs a Powerhouse Message Without Lecturing But With Lots of Humor and Truth

 While some of us were trying to figure out what to do with our lives during the worst of the Pandemic, most theatres were not sitting on their hands. Theatres were closed and performances cancelled or dropped, but behind the scenes things were happening. Take for instance The National New Play Network Rolling World Premierethat was featured at San Diego REP’s 2021 Black Voices Reading Series. It was at once selected for development and inclusion as a mainstage production in the REP’s 46th season, ergo Michael Gene Sullivan’s “The Great Khan”. 

Co-produced by San Francisco Playhouse, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and Redtwist Theatre “The Great Khan” is directed by Jess McLeodwho pulls no punches. 

Telling it like it is might be a bit hard to digest for some but the bitter truth as told by sixteen year old Jayden (Jerome Beck is excellent) when his white history teacher Mr. Adams (Dylan John Seaton) couldn’t stop telling Jayden how special he was for lack of anything else to say about him him, Jayden challenges him to name forty Black people of importance without naming anyone in sports or showbusiness. 

When he agrees, struggling to write down at least two, he assigns Jayden to write a book report about Genghis Kahn as part of a class project. He’s partnered up with Gao Ming (Molly Aden) whose somewhat strange behavior, somehow works for the two of them since she has been studying up on Kahn and helps Jayden along in her own way. As they learn more together snippets of the report are told orally by Ming and are reinforced by projections (Blake McCarty) across the walls of Jayden's bedroom where they are studying.   

Jayden’s the new kid at his all -white school after his mother, Crystal (Brittany M. Caldwell) and he moved from his last school where he had his homies. But because Jayden also rescued Ant (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew) from some of the boys at the old school from sexually assaulting her, he was their new target. He spends most of his time in his room playing his Game Boy videos listening to rap music and looking for reasons for not going to school over the objections of his mother. 

The play opens with Jayden, asleep in his box laden bedroom (Ye-Chien Lee) when someone steals into his room and pulls out a gun. Scaring the beejeasus out of him, it turns out to be Ant who without saying it wants a connection with someone from their old school but is pissed at Jayden for rescuing her. They go back and forth and she leaves but not without making him promise to tell no one. Over time she sneaks back into his room where talk about who they are, telling their own  stories about themselves and the frustrations about how they are treated and stereotyped as both teenagers and black. 

Mikayla LeShae Bartholomew and Jerome Beck

But the real break out comes alive when Jayden and his mother have a come to Jesus shouting match where Jayden finally tells his mother exactly what he, as a person wants, not what she as a mother wants for him. The match between them is the highlight of their reconciliation, and true affection as the chemistry on stage between the two ends in a huge bear-hug that signals they are going the O.K.

And yes there is more: Over time Jayden is visited by what he thinks is his fearless Khan (Brian Rivera), his hero and builder and conqueror of nations. Khan plays down some of his conquests and softens a bit as Jayden tries to bond with him by teaching him (in hilarious scenes), how to play his Game Boy. As Timujin or Khan, Brian Rivera looks more like a softie rather than a great worrior, but since the clothes make the man, he surely looks the part. 

Will all of this all change the course of history or what's written in the history books? Probably not, but it does give us something to think about.

Brian Rivera and Jerome Beck

Putting the finishing touches on “The Great Khan” is costume designer Faith James, lighting designer Rebecca Jeffords, sound designer Tosin Olufolabi and stage manager Kira Vine along with a host of other technical support. Remembering that it takes a village.

All in all, “The Great Khan” is definitely one of those plays that truly belongs to todays must see, must hear, must listen, taste, and feel to understand the angst of the oppressed, of the tales and false narratives in  history. This is done not by banning books but by making those and more available.  

Hats off to the Rep., Sam Woodhouse, Michael Gene Sullivan, Jess McLeod and a terrific cast. 

When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through March 27

Where: San Diego Repertory Theatre at the Lyceum, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego

Tickets: $25-$91

Photo: Rich Soublet Photography 

Phone: (619) 544-1000

Online: sdrep.org

COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination or negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 72 hours of showtime, with photo ID required. Face masks required indoors.


Monday, March 7, 2022

North Coast’s Excellent “The Homecoming” Flies in the Face of Reality

Watching a Pinter play is like being in a house of horrors. Some sights might seem well, normal, others will make you squirm! In this “The Homecoming” currently on stage now through March 27th at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Lomas Santa Fe, both things happen. 

There are six characters, none of whom is likeable. Outstanding all, Richard Baird formally of New Fortune Theatre Company, who was so wonderful in Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’ recently at North Coast Repertory Theatre and some years ago as director and playing the character McCann in “The Birthday Party” is tackling Pinter once again in the playwright’s “comedy of menace” or theatre of the absurd. 

Dressed to the nines (Elisa Benzoni) Baird’s Lenny has the look of a predator stalking his pray. He’s ready on the attack at a moment’s provocation. He’s a pimp by profession.

The second son of Max (Frank Corrado making a special appearance after a five year absence to be in a Pinter’s play) Lenny is sandwiched between older brother Teddy (Bruce Turk), a professor of philosophy returning for a visit after a six year absence and the younger Joey, (Justin Gordon) who is a wanna be boxer. Completing the ‘family’ is Sam (James Newcomb) Max’s brother, a soft spoken from the old school, he's a chauffeur by choice. From the tone of the conversation right out of the chute, we know trouble lies ahead in what’s about to happen in “The Homecoming”.  

The characters in Pinter’s world of “The Homecoming” are no better than his characters in every other of his plays. Classifying them is an exercise in futility; none is any better or worse than the other, it’s just a matter of degree.   


The cast of "The Homecoming"

Lenny is a predator. Max was a butcher by trade and a bully just by the fact that he can be as the head of the household. Contradicting even the legitimacy of his children, which he does to their questioning, is vile yet he takes joy in making them squirm. Joey is an intellectual void. Teddy is the professor and Sam, Max’s brother, is the weak linkof the family. 

Later Ruth, Teddy’s wife, who is a tease and a control freak, (just what the all- male dominated family needed in their home -stead) turns the family dynamic on its head.  

When they are all together, in their oversized North London living room (Marty Burnett) where, under artistic director and director David Ellenstein’s expertise, they are all on the verge of scratching each other’s eyes out oft by not saying a thing but by judgmental looks, silent pauses and evil eyes. The tensions can be cut with a knife.

When the professor surprises them with an unexpected visit with his wife Ruth (Melanie Lora), a stranger to all those in Teddy's London world, the you know what hit’s the fan… slowly, methodically and least expectedly, Ruth shows her true colors. Color her the quiet aggressor. 

Since the living conditions in the household are toxic to say the least, a condition that they are all used to living with, they are all suspect of Teddy's 'wife', at first calling her a 'tart'.  

Richard Baird

And while some will say that Ruth brought out the very worst in Pinter’s characters, I must admit no one person could have all that power. Even though the play was written about fifty years ago, his characters were no good from the get-go. The play is so very  mysogonistic, that as absurd the proposition they concoct for her, being their whore to support them while she pulls the power play that has them all on their collective knees, doesn’t make it the more palpable. 

Melanie Lora

Separating the wheat from the chaff, one couldn’t ask for a more formattable cast than the one Ellenstein assembled for this production. The fact that Frank Corrado came out of a five year hiatus from acting says volumes of the man who directed Baird in “Betrayal”. We cannot say enough about Baird’s spot on menacing Lenny and so many others of that ilk in his acting career that he seems to take joy in it. It seems he outdoes himself each time. 

Frank Corrado and James Newcomb

Bruce Turk and James Newcomb have appeared at NCR on many occasions and both give performances from either end of the spectrum. Newcomb’s Sam, the weaker of the two with Turk (“Ben Butler) as the emotionless professor. Justin Gordon’s gruffness is oft times sadly funny and last but not least, Melanie Lora, making her NCR debut, is a find as the focus of the not so damsel in destress as much the master of her fate as the future unfolds in front of her eyes without so much as a smirk or recoil, but a telling satisfaction. Great work. 

Matt Novotny does wonders with the lighting design and Aaron Rumley’s sound design is spot on. 

North Coast Rep. with director David Ellenstein and his super cast in the mix, have definitely hit their stride. 

Make sure you leave any ideas of reality at the door as you enter the theatre. 

Dates: Through March 27th

Organization: North Coast Repertory Theatre

Phone: 858-481-1055

Production Type: Farce

Where: 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Ste. D, Solana Beach CA. 92075

Ticket Prices: $54-$65 (for mature audiences only)

Phone: 858-481-1055

Web: northcoastrep.org

Photo: Aaron Rumley

Check Covid protocols before you arrive. Masks and ID were required on opening night. 


Saturday, March 5, 2022

And The Band Played On: “The Bands Visit”

The Band

Several years ago, I managed to see an off- beat 2007 Israeli movie called “The Band’s Visit. Please don’t ask the circumstances. I remember it was in a movie theatre, way before Netflix or Amazon Prime. No. An actual movie theatre, like the ones I used to visit pre Covid. 

I loved the movie in all its simplicity and authenticity and humor, scenery and acting not to mention the music, which by the way was incidental. It was more about a happening.

The musical of the same name currently at the Civic Theatre/ Broadway- San Diego through March 6th is about that same Egyptian Band; The Egyptian Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band that was invited to perform in Israel at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikva. 

Unfortunately, when the Band finds themselves in the bus station and no one waiting for them they learn that they were nowhere near Peth Atikva, but instead were in Bet Hatikva. 

And so, from a simply charming off beat Israeli movie to an award winning Broadway musical, with David Yazbek’s score and a script by Itamar Moses, “The Band’s Visit” directed by David Cromer is a Broadway rarity winning 10 Tony Awards in 2018 a whole new landscape is created.

It’s amazing how one letter and a different pronunciation of an area and turning a charming movie into and award winning musical, can apparently make all the difference. 

In the song “Welcome to Nowhere,” Dina (Janet Dacal), a cafe proprietor explains in her broken English that everybody loves Petah Tikva — “lots of fun, lots of art, lots of culture.” Bet Hativka, on the other hand, is “boring,” “barren” and “bland.” But to their good will, they allow the band to stay for the night and they agree to house and feed them. 

Here we find ourselves with the band in nowhere Bet Hatikva (until the next bus arrives the next day) where most of the of the action, or lack there -of happens. But to their overall good will and with Diana in the lead, the people of Bet Hatikva allow the band to stay for the night and they agree to house and feed them. 

 In its simplicity, the universal language of music manages to cut through any obstacles with the laid back characters in the town standing in contrast to the formal looking band members dressed in full formal (baby blue) uniforms by costume designer Sarah Laux, clinging to their instruments as if someone might come along and hijack them. 

When some of the band interact with the citizens of Bet Hativka the universality of people to people, any prejudices and politics aside, not to mention language barriers, something magic clicks in and stories of love and loss takes shape. 

Janet Dacal and Sasson Gaby

One of the more developed character studies is between band leader Sasson Gaby who also played Tewfiq in the in the film version as the band’s leader. Gaby, a soft mannered and still sharing memories of this twenty year ago deceased wife and Janet Dacal is Dina (in what seems like the only eating place outside the home), owner of the Bet Hatikva cafĂ© still longing for missed opportunities are both lonely and looking for a connection only to have it fall short of expectations. (“Omar Sharif”)

Onstage band members play music between scenes in an easy segue to the interactions of various Bet Hatikvans and their guests. Clarinetist Simon (James Rana), who never got past the opening bars of an unfinished concerto, and violinist Camal (Yoni Avi Battat) are put up in the home of unemployed looser Itzik (Clay Singer) and his unhappy wife Iris (Kendall Hartse). 

The Company

Included is a family fallout of sorts over dinner with Iris’ widowed father Avrum (David Studwell). The couple gets into a shouting match with Iris storming out in what seems a regular occurrence. By contrast, Avrum’s song, “The Beat of Your Heart,” is among the more rousing numbers, recalling the first rush of love as if it were yesterday. In contrast, Simon’s unfinished piece is able to calm the crying baby down since no one else in the household can.

There are several scenario’s playing out that make up the bulk of everyday life in the little desert hamlet called Bet Hatikva. Nothing that couldn’t be seen in any small town and that’s what’s so different about this sleeper of a musical. There are no real BIG show stoppers in Yazbek’s score. But with the band on stage that includes Yoni Avi Battat, Roger Kashou, Brian Krock, Kane Mathis and Wick Simmons, the instruments and music sounds authentically Middle Eastern.

Joe Joseph, Sasson Gabay and Janet Dacal

All said and done, yours truly enjoyed the film version over the live performance at the too large Civic Theatre, simply because of the intimacy of the show and the often garbled sound system at the Civic, even with assisted hearing, was annoying. The large (for that small show) ensemble is overall up to the task but some of the dialogue gets lost in translation.

 “Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You of probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important,”

The show runs about 95 minutes with no intermission. 

Without benefit of the movie, I would recommend seeing this sleeper just for the simple humanity and humility of it, and of course the score.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday. 8 p.m. Friday. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday

Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., San Diego

Photo: Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade.

Tickets: $35.50 and up; garage parking is $15

Online: broadwaysd.com

COVID Protocol: Masks and proof of vaccination required. There’s also a security/metal detector gate that slows down the entry-time so plan accordingly.