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.