A Year in Theater: 2011

20 12 2011

2011 has been a whirlwind theatrical year. Last winter, I music directed two incredibly rewarding ensemble shows: Brecht and Weill’s Happy End (with director Hunter Bird) and The Civilians’ Gone Missing (with director Lane Williamson). My family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker (with book and lyrics by Andrew Bentz) premiered at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in May. I traveled across the US to see and review and dramaturg shows this summer and fall. I was particularly drawn to experimental literary adaptations this year, straying from the mainstream venues and musicals that dominated last year’s list.

I always see more theater than I have the time to review, but here are my top 10 shows of 2011 – from LA to Chicago to NYC, from gritty black box theaters to Broadway stages.

10. The Comedy of Errors (Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble) – Review

Playing in the realm of contemporary pop culture, this free summer Shakespeare production had the audience roaring with laughter from start to finish. It’s perhaps no surprise that I saw The Comedy of Errors twice.

9. God of Carnage (Ahmanson Theater)

Yasmina Reza’s play snaps from a sophisticated realist dramedy to a brilliant physical satire of “modern” man. With a star studded cast direct from Broadway, God of Carnage was an unexpectedly explosive favorite this year. (While the stage show has more fireworks, Roman Polanski’s film Carnage offers powerhouse performances and clever drunken camera work.)

8. D is for Dog (Rogue Artists Ensemble) – Review

The collaborative artistry behind D is for Dog was astounding – from the story to the music, from the set to the puppetry. I was enthralled by every twist and turn in Rogue Artists Ensemble’s smart sci-fi thriller.

7. Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway (Broadhurst Theater)

This unbelievably charismatic man lives up to the hype. Whether you’re seated on the first row of the orchestra or the back of the mezzanine (like me), Hugh invites you into his musical world with silly stories and flirty banter, cool and confident moves, a powerhouse voice, and genuine smile. He leaps effortlessly from macho Billy Bigelow to flashy Peter Allen, and I adore him for it.

6. Jerry Springer the Opera (Chance Theater) – Review

Kudos to the Chance Theater for conquering such a morally and musically challenging opera. Jerry Springer the Opera has yet to receive (and may never receive) a full production at a mainstream venue in the United States, but the Chance continually impresses with exciting productions of innovative work.

5. David Greenspan’s Poetics and Plays (Getty Villa)

David Greenspan’s performative lecture of Aristotle’s Poetics and Gertrude Stein’s Plays enacts the imbrication of performance in academics and academics in performance. I was dorkily enthralled. Charles McNulty may have preferred the classical Aristotle portion, but my theatergoing companion and I found Greenspan’s Stein to be uncanny.

4. The Last Act of Lilka Kadison (Lookingglass Theater) – Review

On my first trip to Chicago, I was inspired by the palpable art of listening across ensembles at Steppenwolf and Lookingglass. The Last Act of Lilka Kadison made theatrical magic of an utterly predictable story.

3. The Select (The Sun Also Rises) (Elevator Repair Service)

I have never been a fan of Hemingway’s macho prose – but with an ensemble of enthralling storytellers in a bar, corks popping and bottles flying, and a dash of music and dance, Hemingway was transmuted into a kind of camp. I was captivated. I’ll be back for Gatz this spring.

2. Septimus and Clarissa (Ripe Time) – Review

I was already a fan of Virginia Woolf’s soft, sensuous narrative voice that sweeps from one character to another, from interiority to exteriority. Ripe Time clarified and amplified Mrs. Dalloway for me, physicalizing Woolf’s words with such profound nuance and care.

1. Cyclops: A Rock Opera (Psittacus Productions) – Reviews and More

This raucous rock opera adaptation of Euripides’ satyr play consumed me – from Son of Semele to Pasadena Playhouse to the NY Musical Theatre Festival. I ended up occupying a strange and shifting position as a fan, critic, scholar, and dramaturg on the company’s road to NYMF. But most of all, I loved being a friend and advocate for such a smart and sexy new work.

Happy holidays, all. Looking forward to a very theatrical 2012! I’m kicking off the new year by dramaturging a new rock opera The Demise, previewing at The Roxy on January 19. And look for me music directing Act III Theater Ensemble’s Xanadu at UCLA in early March!


Jerry Springer the Opera: Chance Theater, 7/24/11

30 07 2011

A literally damning critique of American popular culture, Jerry Springer the Opera soars in the Chance Theater’s Southern California premiere. An opera this critical could have only originated across the Atlantic. British duo Stewart Lee (book and lyrics) and Richard Thomas (book, lyrics, and music) incisively lambast our culture’s quest for stardom and our questionable idols in this perversely delightful opera.

Mounting Jerry Springer the Opera is no small feat. Of course, there are the political hurdles to leap. If Act I shocks and offends with a raucous musical version of the popular TV show, then Act II is downright blasphemous in its epic battle between God and the Devil for Jerry Springer’s soul.

The Chance Theater has developed a reputation, though, for skillfully conquering such risky productions; their 2010 production of the infamous flop Merrily We Roll Along was a revelation for Sondheim devotees, and their carefully-crafted production of the cult classic Tommy even transferred to Segerstrom Center in a welcome collaboration between Orange County venues. The Chance has taken the religious protests against Jerry Springer the Opera in playful stride. (There is no such thing as bad press, right?) And as always, the Chance backs up their chancy artistic choices with innovative, quality productions.

In Jerry Springer, a youthful and obscenely talented cast of nineteen tackles Thomas’ challenging harmonies and counterpoint, as well as his exhilarating arias, with verve. Their vocal blend as an ensemble is stunning and articulation is always precise, thanks to music director Mike Wilkins. Trevor Biship’s direction of the show is comic and crisp, although the brief spoken scenes sometimes sink in comparison to such dramatic musical numbers.

As Jerry hosts his TV show in Act I, each of his guests indulges in a heightened and emotional “Jerry Springer moment,” their Warholian 15 minutes of fame. Shawntel (the outstanding Jessie Withers) erupts into an aspirational ballad “I Just Wanna Dance” – the “What I Did for Love” of poledancing. Jared Pugh comically cavorts about the stage as an oversized baby in “Diaper Man.” And the KKK tap dances, taking into their own bodies a dance style of notable African-American origins. This is a bitter and disturbing irony, indeed. The ensemble sits among the audience, encouraging participation in the chants for “Jerry!” – and implicating the audience in their own adulation of pop culture.

Kelly Todd’s buoyant choreography, from set numbers like the KKK tap dance to the ensemble’s physical interjections from the audience, helps to create an immersive and engaging “live TV” atmosphere. While the incorporation of video technology to amplify the “Jerry Springer” moments is appropriate, the transition to using this technology is sometimes a little disjunct.

Yet the final projected close-up of Jerry Springer’s face is worth a thousand words. Act II’s epic trial of Jerry Springer would like to hold this magnified television idol accountable for a world of sins. But however pervasive Jerry’s name may be throughout the show and however compelling Warren Draper’s performance, this is not ultimately an opera about Jerry Springer. The amorality in American pop culture must ultimately come down on the ruthless guests clamoring for fame and the attentive audience members themselves. If you enjoyed Act I, then take heart: you are equally to blame for a politically-disengaged, perversely idolatrous society.

Certain references throughout Jerry Springer the Opera may feel dated (like the phrase “talk to the hand”), and the TV show itself no longer holds the shock and draw that it did in the 90s. Yet this opera’s searing critique of American pop culture is still relevant, and the Chance Theater offers an endlessly entertaining and thought-provoking production. I would love to see this show make its way to LA one day, piercing the heart of the Hollywood mythology. But for now, I highly recommend taking a break from Jersey Shore and the Kardashians for a weekend trek to Anaheim Hills.

The Who’s Tommy: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 2/10/11

14 02 2011

The Who’s TOMMY: Review for EDGE Los Angeles

Merrily We Roll Along: Chance Theater, 3/6/10

10 03 2010

As I shared with my musical theater history students in a Sondheim lecture a few weeks ago, Merrily We Roll Along was one of Sondheim’s greatest Broadway flops, lasting only 16 performances after it opened in 1981.  The idea behind the show is brilliant: in a typical, cynical Sondheimian fashion, the plot moves backwards in time to reveal how the American dream has progressively crushed the soul of the “successful” composer-turned-filmmaker Franklin Shepard.  Actually staging this musical, though, is a different beast.  I was thrilled to hear that the Chance Theater would be taking on this challenging piece, which I had never seen onstage before.

Let’s begin with the inherent, almost insurmountable, challenges of Merrily.  The primary difficulty that lingers in the Chance Theater’s production is the absurd range of ages the three central actors must portray over the course of the evening.  Franklin Shepard (Jeremy Fillinger) and his faithful friends Charley Kringass (the outstanding Ryland Dodge) and Mary Flynn (the endearing Amie Bjorklund) grow almost 20 years younger over the course of the musical, from disillusioned adults in 1976 to idealistic youth in 1957.  It’s hard enough to make such a transition forwards: just imagine doing it backwards.  While I enjoyed the sleek black-and-white palette that echoed John Doyle’s 2006 revival of Company, I felt that costume changes (perhaps from more mature business wear to younger, more casual dress) could have aided this age transition, alongside a more pronounced change in physicality from the actors.

With a book by George Furth of Company fame, this show also has the inherent “Bobby” problem: a central character who is somewhat of a cipher.  In the end, we are more emotionally invested in Charley, Mary, and Franklin’s (ex)wife Beth than in Franklin himself. Jeremy Fillinger provides a serviceable Franklin Shepard Inc., but falls flat (quite literally on some notes …) in comparison to his vibrant companions.  I was astounded at the charisma, nuance, and depth Raul Esparza brought to the role of Bobby in John Doyle’s Company and would love to someday see his take on Franklin.  (Esparza played Charley at the Kennedy Center in 2002.)

There are other challenges that this production of Merrily We Roll Along very successfully tackles, however – ultimately creating an invigorating theatrical experience for the Sondheim fan. For instance, how to ensure that the audience understands the backwards motion of the plot?  Sondheim writes these transitions into the score (“How did you get to be here?  What was the moment?”), which director Oanh Nguyen appropriately stages as recurrent transitions: the actors encircle and confront Franklin in clockwise motion (and its reverse) at each step back in the story.  With a minimalist set, Christopher Scott Murillo’s simple projections of the cityscape and year quickly and effectively set each new scene.  (Have I mentioned how particularly hilarious it is to watch such an anti-LA musical in LA?  It almost adds a new cynical layer to Sondheim and Furth’s already-cynical work.)

Although Merrily We Roll Along may not be the greatest musical property, it is a fascinating composition for its connections to other Sondheim material – which this production effectively draws out.  On top of an interest in central isolated characters (Bobby, Frank, George Seurat, Sweeney Todd), Sondheim has quite the knack for trite social conversation; I am thinking particularly of Company and Sunday in the Park with George here.  The hyperstylized choreography of Kelly Todd adds another humorous layer to the forced laughter and cliched phrases that Frank and his Hollywood cronies toss about in Act I – a striking contrast to Act II, when those same words once held some humanity and meaning.  And how can you help but laugh when you hear the producer Joe demand that Franklin (i.e. Sondheim) write a more “hummable” melody – which then veers into “Some Enchanted Evening”?

Ending with the cynical optimism of “Our Time,” Merrily We Roll Along is perhaps a hard sell for the general public, but an absolute pleasure for Sondheim fanatics – and the Chance Theater offers a rewarding production.  Plus, who says you can’t reappropriate “Our Time” to embody some actual optimism about the future of musical theater?  I’m living in that idealistic, optimistic time of my life right now. Having attended the show with two talented theater friends, I left Merrily inspired to write.  “It’s our time, breathe it in: worlds to change and worlds to win. Our turn, we’re what’s new.  Me and you, pal, me and you!”