Between Us Chickens, South Coast Repertory: 3/25/11

27 03 2011

Between Us Chickens: Review for EDGE Los Angeles

The Mercy Seat: [Inside] the Ford, 3/19/11

23 03 2011

The Mercy Seat: Review for EDGE Los Angeles

Little Miss Sunshine: La Jolla Playhouse, 2/20/11

23 03 2011

The same weekend that I saw Paul Gordon’s Emma, I ventured to La Jolla Playhouse for James Lapine and William Finn’s new musical adaptation of Little Miss Sunshine. Both shows face similar challenges as they undergo further development to reach that mythic ideal: Broadway. But Little Miss Sunshine feels especially “still in development,” with many formal kinks to be worked out before a future life.

William Finn is a musical master of quirky characters – particularly evident in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, playing in theaters across the country since the rights recently became available. In many ways, Little Miss Sunshine seems a perfect match for Finn; the popular 2006 film chronicles the cross-country adventures of a dysfunctional family, whose chubby, effervescent little girl Olive dreams of winning the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant. Yet Finn’s music and lyrics, as well as James Lapine’s book, fall surprisingly short in this new musical adaptation.

As with Paul Gordon’s work on Emma, William Finn’s lyrics for Little Miss Sunshine lack the brightness and witticism that fans have come to expect from the composer of Falsettos, A New Brain, etc. Finn’s score also suffers from flat, fragmentary melodies rather than soaring songs. In so many contemporary musicals, I miss the “lift” of a transition from book to musical number; lyrics feel too much like dialogue, and music feels more like recitative. Where is the song?

Lapine’s book also has an identity crisis, elaborating on too many strands of the story and losing track of the core: Olive, a spunky little girl who reunites her family on this absurd journey. Act I of the musical adaptation explores countless adult character arcs, dominated by Olive’s dad: disillusioned motivational speaker Richard Hoover, played by the charismatic Hunter Foster. Oddly, Hoover’s chorus of coworkers (including a personal favorite of mine, Eliseo Roman, the piragua guy from In the Heights) sings the opening number and then pops up throughout the show, holding road signs to indicate the passage of time and encouraging the family onward with (intentionally) cliche motivational messages. For me, this additional framework only detracted – and distracted – from the heart of the show.

Little Miss Sunshine also suffers from a fundamental staging issue: most of the action takes place in a VW on the road to Redondo Beach. Lapine’s direction finds creative ways to “musicalize” the van, with elevator seats to bring each cast member into view and multiple vans of different sizes that can drive across the stage. But the story – and direction – still feels contained.

That is, until Act II, when something truly theatrical occurs: the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant. In this show-within-a-show, Olive is restored to the center of the story and a wild mix of songs and comedy reminds the audience of Lapine and Finn’s potential effervescence as a creative duo. The ridiculously lavish onstage beauty pageant will thrill every Toddlers and Tiaras fan. After all, who doesn’t want to see a bright-eyed little girl sing “Send in the Clowns” – in a clown costume?

Olive’s raucous talent portion of the pageant opens up a marvelous performance opportunity – and Little Miss Sunshine finally soars as her entire family joins the entirely inappropriate song and dance. (“Let Me Entertain You” for a new generation, perhaps?) If only the rest of the musical could reach such a height.

Emma: The Old Globe, 2/19/11

23 03 2011

In my former life (i.e. just a few years ago), I was an English major and Jane Austen scholar; I wrote a senior thesis on epistolary constructions of identity in Jane Austen’s novels while I was at Duke. I always have a soft spot for theatrical adaptations of my favorite Romantic and Victorian novels, although they rarely live up to my mental ideal of the text. So I trekked down to San Diego one weekend this February to take in Paul Gordon’s musical romantic comedy Emma at the Old Globe.

Emma Woodhouse is the rich, spoiled center of her community; she meddles in her neighbors’ lives and makes several disastrous attempts at matchmaking, while remaining blind to her own perfect romantic match in a long-term family friend Mr. Knightley. Although Jane Austen set out to write a rather despicable heroine, Emma is endearing in her many flaws; her dedication to friends is genuine, even if her actions are often misguided. (You might know the character best as her contemporary counterpart: Cher in Clueless.)

Paul Gordon has a penchant for charming musical adaptations of classic novels with strong female leads; I enjoyed Daddy Long Legs at the Broad Stage most recently, and Gordon is perhaps best known for the Broadway hit Jane Eyre. In Emma, Gordon’s classic compositional style spans from Sondheim (with clear evocations of Sunday in the Park with George when Emma paints her friend Harriet’s portrait) to Rodgers and Hammerstein (with Harriet’s ode to “Mr. Robert Martin” being a more playful, comical version of Carrie’s “When I’ll Marry Mr. Snow” from Carousel). Yet within this traditional musical theater style, awkward contemporary, poppy melismas sometimes sneak into the score – and frustratingly, Gordon writes fragments rather than songs.

In a strange reversal of the musical’s usual formal challenges (the infamous Act II problems), Emma’s second act is actually stronger than the first; Act II sinks into character and offers up more poetic and complete songs, whereas Act I plows through the plot in unmemorable segments. Gordon could benefit from a separate bookwriter; taking on book, lyrics, and music oneself is admirable, but rarely functional.

The production features an impressive set design by Tobin Ost, with a hedge maze and turntable: these elements echo the tension between a circular, historical inevitability of romantic couplings and the maze of actually finding and navigating these relationships. The cast is generally impressive, with only a few uneven British accents. Jeff Calhoun’s direction emphasizes the musical comedy elements – often verging on caricatured relationships, rather than the original novel’s nuanced character studies.

Yet Calhoun’s direction makes up for the notable lack of zing and wit in Gordon’s book. Emma’s interior monologue in “The Recital” (reminiscent of Cathy’s audition in Last Five Years) and the playful, puppetlike manipulation of bodies whenever Emma envisions a match stand out as creative, compelling moments amidst an otherwise flat musical adaptation. Emma is enjoyable, but ultimately unimpactful: a nice evening at the theater, but little more.

A Series of Fragmentary Reviews

22 03 2011

In January, I music directed a one-act version of Brecht and Weill’s Happy End at UCLA with director Hunter Bird. In February, I music directed The Civilian’s Gone Missing at UCLA with director Lane Williamson. Now, I am music directing the world premiere of my new family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre, again with director Lane Williamson. On top of all this, I have PhD qualifying exams coming up this spring.

Suffice it to say, I haven’t had the time to review all the shows I have seen this year …

But I have a stack of playbills beside my desk, begging for a paragraph or two. Over the next few days, I plan to craft a few fragmentary reviews based on notes that I took just after seeing the shows. Some of the shows closed months ago, but I blog to remember and reflect, as much as to recommend to audiences. I hope you’ll enjoy the series!

Having It All: NoHo Arts Center, 3/13/11

15 03 2011

Having It All: Review for EDGE Los Angeles

Seeking Mr. Falker

7 03 2011

We just finished two great days of auditions for my new family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica, but we are still missing a key part: Mr. Falker! Mr. Falker (baritone or tenor) is Trisha’s caring teacher who helps her overcome her obstacles and learn to read. This is a very special show for its intergenerational bonds, with a cast ranging from 8-year-olds to an endearing grandpa.

If you are interested in being a part of this rewarding family theater experience, please contact the Morgan-Wixson ( or me ( for more info. We will be holding callbacks this Tuesday night from 6:30 – 8:30pm and happy to schedule auditions earlier that evening or at another convenient time. Original audition information can be found here.

Thank You, Mr. Falker, A New Musical

Part of the L.A. Festival of New American Musicals
World Premiere

Adapted from Patricia Polacco’s popular book

Book and lyrics by Andrew Bentz
Music by Sarah Taylor Ellis

Directed by Lane Williamson
Music direction by Sarah Taylor Ellis
Choreography by Christopher Albrecht

Produced by Mary Morra & Jennifer Polhemus

Thank You, Mr. Falker is about Trisha, a young student who is eager to read, to taste the “sweetness of knowledge” that her grandfather has always revered. But she struggles with a learning disability, where words and letters on the page are all mixed up in her brain. Trisha falls behind with her schoolwork and endures classmates’ taunts until her new teacher, Mr. Falker, helps her to blossom and eventually triumph. The book is based on Patricia Polacco’s own struggle with a childhood reading disability. This production is supported in part by a grant from the City of Santa Monica, and will feature live music performed by Jennifer Lin.

Roles are available for youth and adults. Please come out to audition for an exciting world premiere musical through Santa Monica’s Morgan-Wixson Theatre: Y.E.S. (Youth Education/Entertainment Series), AATE’s Outstanding New Children’s Theatre Company 2008.

Sunday in the Park with George: Still Hungry Theater, 3/5/11

7 03 2011

“White. A blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole through design. Composition. Balance. Light. And harmony.”

Much as French impressionist Georges Seurat seeks to capture a shimmering, fleeting moment of harmony in his masterwork “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Still Hungry Theater makes a valiant effort to bring order to James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s 1984 musical about the art of making art: Sunday in the Park with George. Yet it is a challenge.

Sunday in the Park with George is a complex theme and variation. Act I chronicles 19th century artist Georges Seurat’s struggle to connect his art and his personal life. He lives in his pointillist paintings to the detriment of his relationships, particularly with his mistress Dot. Generations later in Act II, George’s great-grandson similarly struggles to balance disparate worlds of (commercialized) art and personal life. Sunday is a careful compositional balance between these two Georges – and concludes in a time collapse between the French impressionist and the contemporary American artist. The past and the present coexist, blend, harmonize, and grant the once-divided artist a mythic wholeness of being.

When well-directed, Sunday in the Park with George stuns; it is my favorite Sondheim, if not my favorite musical. The luminous Sam Buntrock revival starring Daniel Evans as George and Jenna Russell as Dot / Marie will always echo into future stagings for me. Still Hungry Theater’s production is uneven, but moments of harmony still shine through in this rich, rewarding work.

Still Hungry Theater is a troupe of gifted young actors who perhaps do not have the life experience to tackle Sunday quite yet, although they certainly demonstrate talent, passion, and promise. Kristin Towers-Rowles’ Dot is pitch-perfect, with a beautiful command of Sondheim’s score – but her Act II Marie, George’s grandmother, does not read as 93 years old with such a pristine vocal tone. Contemporary mannerisms and vocal inflections sometimes sneak into the 19th century, but the ensemble is undeniably tight, and director Nicole Rossi generally strikes a good balance between drama and musical comedy.

The linchpin is, of course, the direction and performance of George: here portrayed by Keith Barletta, who also produced the show. Barletta has undeniable talent, but his take on George feels misguided. For George Seurat – like Stephen Sondheim – art is not inspiration. Art is a craft: almost scientific, carefully constructed. Artists do not have flashes of unconscious genius. They obsess over minutia like finishing the hat, an isolating and potentially life-consuming endeavor. “Artists are bizarre, fixed, cold,” Dot sings – yet Barletta plays George as a highly theatrical artist rather than a distanced, socially-awkward intellectual. Barletta’s florid gestures exude passion for both his art and his mistress; his exaggerated physicality contradicts the text, which focuses on the self-enclosed artist’s initial struggle to socially connect.

The character requires a particular mastery of the gaze: differentiating George’s artistic, objectifying gaze from his gaze of desire for and understanding of Dot. The latter gaze is reciprocal: George must himself be open to the gaze of desire and understanding, a space of vulnerability that he fears. Enter the ghost of the London revival: Daniel Evans’ George only reaches the vulnerability of a reciprocal gaze in Act II’s “Move On,” when he finally reconciles his art and personal life. This passionate gaze is all the more powerful for having been withheld earlier in the show. Yet Barletta’s George probes deep into Dot’s soul with his piercing blue eyes from the outset of Still Hungry Theater’s production. This gives George little physical arc or development in the show. Barletta has a beautiful grasp of the embrace of life to which George should grow; this passion simply needs to be reigned in to an awkward, internal tension between art and life at the beginning of the musical.

The intimacy of the Complex Theatre brings new light to the show by immersing the audience in the art, whether the vivid recreation of “La Grande Jatte” at the end of Act I or the whirling chromolume of Act II. Kelsey Bullock’s set design employs hanging canvases that can be turned from an empty, open white to the beautifully-painted background of Seurat’s most famous work. Not all set elements are so well-constructed, including a copy of “Bathers at Asnieres” seemingly taped together from 8.5×11″ paper. Still, Cindy Bullock’s costumes are some of the most impressive I have ever seen in black box LA theater: bringing lush and detailed life to Seurat’s painting in Act I and capturing the 1980s art world of Act II.

Andrew Zackary’s music direction is generally crisp, and the pared-back orchestration of piano (Karen Waddill), violin (Kevin Schwarzwald), and clarinet (Jessica Neilson) is a surprisingly full-voiced, lovely underpinning to such a vocally-talented ensemble. I would never turn down an opportunity to immerse myself in the intricacies of Sondheim’s score, skillfully performed in this production.

“White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.” This may very well be my motto for theater-going. Despite a some uneven elements, Still Hungry Theater’s production of Sunday in the Park with George exudes luminous possibility and promise in a passionate, young company. I look forward to their next endeavor.