Archive for Review

Darn you Carey Perloff,  I lost my bet

My husband and I had tickets to see “Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard at A.C.T. in San Francisco directed by A.C.T.’s artistic director, Carey Perloff.   My husband doesn’t like the play, largely due to its length.   I saw the play in a production by Center Theatre Group while I was in college, and enjoyed it. (I also didn’t find it to be overly long.)  Prior to leaving, I endured taunts about dragging him to a four-hour long play, I responded that it was only two-and-a-half hours long.   Todays production clocked in at four hours and twenty minutes.   I had to eat crow before my husband.  So, I say again, “Darn you Carey Perloff!”

So what happened?   Well part-way through the second scene and actor left the stage and the curtain came down and the house lights came up.   After several minutes the usher came down and there was a technical problem, and to please remain in our seats.   A while later, an announcement was made that a cast member had been taken ill.   A while later we were told the show would resume in twenty minutes.  About an hour after the curtain was prematurely rung down, it went back up, with a new actor on stage.

At the end of my rant, I will specifically state details of my opinion of the production, which we both quite enjoyed.    What comes first is my issue with business as usual in theatre.   On professional contracts, understudies are not usually required to rehearse with the cast, and often do not start learning the show until opening night.   This is a cost saving rule negotiated by the producers.   Additionally, understudies very rarely get rehearsal with the rest of the company.  Instead the stage manager rehearses them separate from the cast on mornings when the stage managers are not otherwise engaged.  Lastly, understudies are not at the theatre once the curtain goes up.  (In fact, if my memory serves on the LORT contract, they are not even required to be at the theatre unless called.)  This is the way it is.  Today was a clear example of why it is a bad idea.

If the understudy was at the theatre, it should have taken no more than thirty minutes to get into costume and make up, and get on stage.    With an hour delay, it is clear our understudy had to get to the theatre before any getting ready could be done.

Our understudy, a very hardworking Robert Parsons did not know the show.   Inauspiciously, he had to call line several times in his first scene.  Thereafter, he carried pages of the script around with him looking when he needed to.   This did not completely eliminate the need of calling line but it dramatically reduced it.  Parsons also did not know his blocking.  Other cast members where giving him hints about where to go, but he still was out of his light for several key moments.

Prior to today, I said repeatedly that I have never been disappointed in an understudy’s performance.   That is still somewhat true, Parsons is a fine actor and with adequate rehearsal would have been outstanding.  I am disappointed in the realities of theatre.  At a professional theatre, I expect the show to go on.   I have seen understudies on tour, on Broadway, and in Los Angeles.  I’d have to look to see if this is totally true, but in my three years as a subscriber to Center Theatre Group, I never saw a show without an understudy appearing on the night we had tickets.  And in all of the cases before today, if I hadn’t known there was an understudy, I wouldn’t have known it was an understudy.   That was not what was experienced at A.C.T. today. Audiences deserve better than today.   The playwright deserves better than today.   I would say the director deserves better than today, but as artistic director of the theatre, as well as the director Perloff was at least partially responsible for these realities.   The union contract does not bar producers from adequately preparing understudies, it just gives producers the option to risk it.  My guess is that usually it is not a problem.   Today, A.C.T. earned a lot of ill-will from an audience.

An unprepared understudy going on hurts the production.   The pacing slowed down.   Ignoring the time we waited for the understudy to arrive at the theatre, get into costume, and the part of the scene they repeated, the play still ran longer than its two hour and forty five minute running time that the house staff informed us of as we had our tickets scanned.

The ushers informed us we could trade our tickets for another day.   I live 210 miles from the theatre, that was not an option for us.   The family in front of us had come from Sacramento to see the show using a bus or train.   They had allowed time for the show, a quick dinner and then back to catch their transportation home.  They asked an usher if they would make it.   He advised they try to skip dinner and try find a cab to meet their transportation.   They left during the curtain call.  I usually consider that an appallingly rude act ,but in this case I understood.   I hope they made it home tonight.

The play ran so long ,that the parking was far more expensive than the woman in front of us at the parking garage had budgeted.  She was shocked, and scrambled in her purse for more money.   Perloff was coming down the stairs in the parking structure as we were going up.   I am not sure what she was saying to her audience, but I doubt it was enough to get immediate forgiveness for what happened.   As pleased as the audience was with the show, and as loudly as they applauded for  Parsons, the audience was greatly annoyed at the extra hour-long intermission in the middle of the first act.

In one sense an actor taking ill is an unforeseen event, and in another sense it is not.  What is unforeseen is which actor will be taken ill and when.  That an actor will be taken ill during a run, is something that can be prepared for, that is why understudies exist.

What went a long way to redeem the whole debacle  for me today was that Perloff put together a damn fine show.  Douglas Schmidt’s set was clean, simple and beautiful.   Robert Wierzel’s tight beautiful lighting told the audience  at every moment when we were, which is especially important on Gus’s final entrance.   With the exception of the fact that the understudies costume did not seem to fit correctly, Alex Jaeger’s costume design was great, especially the period scenes.

Jack Cutmore-Scott had an understated lunacy about his performance of Septimus Hodge that could turn quickly to a heart-rending introspection.   Rebeckah Brockman as Thomasina expertly rode the line between innocent naïvety and ageless wisdom.    Nicholas Pelczar, Anthony Fusco and Nick Gabriel were fun, funny and passionate foils to Hodge’s plans.   Gretchen Egolf as Hannah was less “showy” than other actresses I’ve seen in the role, and her slow burning anger was a joy to watch.

Carey Perloff’s direction really seemed to find the fun, beauty and nuance in Stoppard’s script.  Her production was more understated than others I have seen, and refreshingly so. The period scenes sparkled like New Year’s Eve’s champaign, the modern scenes a deep undercurrents like a fine wine.  The final scene didn’t play up the pathos of death common in other productions I have seen, instead concentrating on the simple beauty of two people finding each other for a brief moment dancing.   My husband wondered if the audience remembered that Thomasina would die within an hour of the curtain falling at the end of the play.   I think they remember.   I think focussing on the death is siding with the neo-classists and the scientists who think that cold truth is the most important thing, instead of siding with the romantics who will take peace and beauty regardless of the cost.    This debate between my husband and I echos the debates had between the characters of the play, which means ultimately Perloff clearly, and cleverly, succeeded in bring Stoppard’s philosophical argument to this audience.

Now, if only it wasn’t four hours and twenty minutes long, start to finish.

Higher at American Conservatory Theatre

Last Saturday (Feb 11, 2012), I saw “Higher” by Carey Perloff at A.C.T. Unlike the other shows of the season, this play was presented the Theatre at the Children’s Creativity Center instead of A.C.T.’s main theatre. The Theatre at the Children’s Creativity Center is a charming 150 seat proscenium theatre. The only really unusual thing about the venue is this catwalk/ramp over the upstage portion of the stage. On Stage Right it is about 14′ or so above the ground, and across the stage goes up at an approximately 30 degree angle towards Stage Left.

“Higher” is a new play written by A.C.T.’s artistic director. “Higher” is a truly exciting new work. The play concerns itself with two architects (who happen to be dating) who, unbeknownst to the other, enter the same competition to design a memorial to group of people who died in a terrorist attack in Israel. Add to the mix, the Israeli son of one of the victims, and the American wife of another (these two are the co-chairs of the committee of judges for the contest), and the son of one of the architects and you have play that examines the sacrifices artists make for their work (and weather they need to), and a meditation on grief and remembrance.

Perloff’s plot is excellent, and mush of her structure is to be admired. I have three (very minor) quibbles with the play as it currently stands. First, I’m not sure the intermission is in exactly the right spot. The person I attended the performance with seemed to think it belonged one scene earlier. I almost think the play would be strongest without an intermission. Secondly, I feel that a scene is missing. An interesting dynamic is created between the two architects (Michael and Elena), and Michael’s son, Jacob… but the dynamic is never fully explained or explored. Jacob has scenes with his dad, and a scene with Elena, but at no point in the play do we see all three interact together. I would love a scene where the three have to walk the tightrope between polite conversation and the varying likes, dislikes, oppositions and allegiances between the three. My final wish for the script is an over all tightening. There are not scenes that need to be cut — but many of the scenes could have 30 to 90 seconds trimmed from them with no ill-effect, which would make the play fit nicer into a long one-act type of presentation.

The cast was excellent. Rene Augesen, and Andrew Polk as the architects (Elena Constantine, and Michael Friedman) had great chemistry and a great skills at both the comedy and the drama involved in the story. Ben Kahre and Alexander Crowther as the Architect’s Son and the Victim’s Son (respectively) were also wonderful and provided some of the most sensitive moments of the evening. Concette Tomei as the Victim’s Wife was the only person who didn’t seem perfectly cast. She was a fine performer, but I felt the actress’s natural good nature was coming through the “tough-as-nails” character and somewhat diminishing the power of the character. (That said, I have seen Tomei in other plays where she was fabulous, so I do not wish to blame her). Mark Ruker’s direction kept everything moving and believable. Rucker’s direction mixed with Perloff’s script mixed comedic moments with serious moments very skillfully. (The assault with the bagel being a perfect example of the blend of the two.)

To my (highly biased) mind the star of the show was Erik Flatmo’s set. So many of the key ideas of the play were expressed in that deceptively simple set. In the play, the two competing architects have radically different ideas of what the Memorial should be. Michael Freidman’s idea is a soaring glass tower, which is canted at the top, and has the names of the victims etched in such a way that they glow at sunset. Elena Constantine’s idea is a low building in the shape of a grieving praying man. These two ideas, and what they mean becomes the dramatic fodder seperating these two in the contest. Michael thinks architecture should impose its new order on its location, Elena thinks that arhictecture should integrate with its site. On stage, Flatmo uses the competing ideas to create a marvelous tension in the set. Tall steal and glass walls flank the set in an asymmetrical pattern. Between these walls is a graceful sloped wooden wall. The glass connects to Michael’s entry in the contest, the wooden wall, Elena’s. Remember that strange catwalk I mentioned in the theatre. To connect more with Elena’s theory of integrating with the site, the brown wooden wall is at the same angle as the catwalk above it, making a living example of the character’s theory. On this basic set, a few simple items were brought in to suggest every other location. The three offices in the play used the same desk (and in a brave move the desk wasn’t always in the same place even if it was to be the same office). Each office had its own 2 chairs. A bench in a hotel later became a foot board. The Bed was used for thee different hotel rooms. A marvelous simplicity! And in many ways, I loved that visible deck hands came and moved the set. I honestly think any slick automation would have hurt this production. The last thing I loved about the set was the small indent down stage containing “dirt” which allowed the director and actors to make real the feeling of burial and digging so central to the play’s plot.

Gabe Maxon’s lighting was subtle and beautiful. The play of light off of the set made the set (either the wooden wall or the glass towers) come alive. Much like the set, the lighting was kept simple, not drawing attention to itself, but never being less than all it needed to be. The same can be said for David F. Draper’s costumes. They told their part of the story without being intrusive. Will McCandless’ sound design was lovely within the play. I have become more and more disenchanted with “pre show” and “intermission” music. If it is not absolutely completely right it ends up being a distraction to the play rather than an aid. In this case, the music, while lovely, did not mesh well with the play I saw. All of the music during the play itself was wonderful, as were the subtle sound effects.

I recently received word that the play has been extended to Feb 25th, if you are in the San Francisco area, or can get their, I highly recommend it. And I eagerly await its next production. After any first production writers generally take what they have learned about the play and make small (or major) revisions. I would love to see what Perloff does with this play. It should have quite a life.

Humor Abuse

On Jan 21, 2012, I attended American Conservatory Theatre’s production of Humor Abuse.   Created by Lorenzo Pisoni and Erica Schmidt, the solo performance traces the true story of Pisoni growing up in the Pickle Family Circus.

What originally attracted me to the play was the idea of a behind-the-scenes tell-all about a life in the circus.   The play is much more than that.   At it’s heart the play is about a kid dealing with the fractured myth of the perfect father.    The performance mixed classic clown routines, acrobatics, pantomime, stunts, special effects, projection, and monologue.   Each moment is carefully crafted to mix the laughter and pathos.

Production wise, the set, coordinated by Brian Fauska, provides a playground for clowning.    A simple canvas backdrop served as a projection and lighting surface.  A series of suitcases and trunks decorated the stage, reminding the audience of the life of traveling, and concealing the many props used through out the show.  The set also concealed a number of special effects such as trick floor panels, attachment points for props and others items.   Add to this a ladder and moving stair case, and all the elements for a life story where there.   Contrary to conventional masking that is parallel to the proscenium arch, this set created a box of black drapes which contained the action.  Exposed lighting trees on  the side contributed to a “back-stage” feel.

Ben Stanton’s lighting was a playful addition to the show.  Humor was created through cues that created false expectations and foreshadowing to the audience.    Stanton’s palette,  a mix of subtle ambers, and chilling blues highlighted various moments of the story exceptionally well.   The color pallet was very important to make sure that Pisoni’s skin looked good.  Pisoni’s physical comedy caused to sweat a lot, and any make up he tried to wear would have been sweated off by the end of the show.

On a much more personal note…

I’ve worked on solo performances pieces.  They are hard — hard to write, hard to perform, hard to design.   There are not breaks for the actor  — nor does the audience get a “break” from the performer.   Costume changes, usually challenging in a solo performance were handled with aplomb.   The jumps in time and story, and style provided the variety the audience needs.  In my highly biased opinion, this play ranks with Jane Wagner’s “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” for a satisfying evening of theatre as a solo performance.    While I doubt that “Humor Abuse” can have any life with out its creator as its performer, the script is well enough written that it might be possible.

This is a play that made me laugh.   This is a play that made me think.  The is a play caused overwhelming emotions — and not just in me, in the audience surrounding me as well.

At the end of the day, really, what more can you ask for from an evening (or in this case, afternoon) at the theatre!

RACE: American Conservatory Theatre

Just over a week ago, I saw a matinee performance of “Race” by David Mamet at A.C.T.   The production was directed by Irene Lewis.  Scenery is by Chris Barreca, Costumes by Candice Donnelly, Lighting by Rui Rita, Sound by Cliff Caruthers.

Usually when I return from a show, I’m very eager to discuss the physical production… it is after all my passion.   However, much to my surprise, with “Race” I really want to discuss the play itself.   As this is my “Sets and Lights,” blog, I’m going talk about the design first, and then…. I’ll discuss the play.

Chris Barreca’s set of an ultra modern law office, with (according to the program) 370 linear feet of real law books and glass partisans set the tone marvelously.   I had some doubts in the audience that the lawyers at the center of the story would have quite such a rude conversation about their (potential) client when the only thing between them was a glass wall.   Candice Donnelly’s costumes impressed me in the first scene, and then I failed to notice them again — which is probably speaks well for the designer behaving with constant appropriateness.      Rui Rita’s lighting, was for the most part excellent.   The transitions between the scenes, struck me as a rather odd place between “enough lights for the actors to move their props around and find their new spot” and “lets do a pantomime scene to show that time has passed.”  As much as I would like to blame the Rita’s design, I suspect it was much more of a director and designer collaborative idea that just didn’t quite gel.   (I should note that the implied window for the night scene from stage right was an absolutely gourgious effect.)   Cliff Caruthers sound design had only one minor flaw, and that had to do with my position in the theatre which always put the cell phone rings placed, not quite right — I imagine if I wasn’t in the really really cheap seats it would have been great.

Now, to talk about the play.  I should begin by admitting, I have not in the passed liked Mamet’s writing.  I lit his play Oleana several times — and didn’t enjoy it.   I have seen a number of his plays, and read still more — and in general don’t like them.    In general, I find Mamet’s characters arch, and unsympathetic, and I find his plots rather convient.   I did not have high hopes going into Race, which I had acquired tickets to because it was part of a season which otherwise looked really good.

Race may end up being the high point of the A.C.T. season.   The cast ( Chris Butler, Anthony Fusco, Susan Heyward, Kevin O’Rourke) were fantastically cast, and created believable characters that spat out typically Mamet-esque  dialogue.   Irene Lewis’s staging and direction was outstanding.      BUT Mamet was the star of the show.

Mamet’s play centers around the concept of privilege.    This concept has been  on my mind a lot, and Mamet deals with it with aplomb.   Privilege is the concept that due to certain unchangeable things, one person is treated differently than another in the same situation.    Privilege can be afforded to one on the basis of race, gender, class, economic status, sexuality etc.     The other important factor in privilege, is that, in general, the perks one gets from it are not appreciated by the privileged.   For example, I am probably treated better in retail establishments due to the fact that am white, male, and usually dress in a way that indicates I am of a middle to higher economic status.     Alternatively, I am keenly aware of the concept of straight privilege, which I do not get to participate in.

Mamet doesn’t spend the play preaching about privilege, one way or another.   His characters preach at each other about privilege, although none of them can agree on what privilege exists and what are merely imagined.  Mamet also doesn’t provide answers, only questions.   The play concerns a rich white man accused of raping a poor black woman, and the rich white man fires his white lawyers and instead (because he thinks it will look betters), engages a more ethnically diverse law firm.

Mamet takes this premise and uses it to explore privilege and prejudice.  Some in the law firm assume the rich white man is guilty because he is rich, and white, and older while some assume the poor woman is falsely accusing the man in the hopes of a big settlement.  Mamet smartly structures each scene with a stunning reveal about the situation, while never actually telling the audience what really happened.  Normally, I object to a play that doesn’t tie up all the ends neatly into a clear statement at the end.  But Mamet’s point in this play particularly is that what really matters is the perception people have about who did what — who has power — who doesn’t have power — and what (if anything) se can do about it.

There are no easy answers when it comes to privilege and prejudice, and I thank Mamet for not trying to answer anything. Instead his play created a framework (not the only framework) — a starting point for an intelligent conversation about what  the topic.

Reviews

I have been debating about posting reviews of my work on my blog.    It seems, well, self-aggrandizing.   BUT, this is a blog about me, and my views on design, so I feel like I need to allow others to express their views of my work.

My thoughts on reviews is that they can be instructive about one primary thing — what the reviewer thinks.    The reviewer is not part of the process of creating a show.  Reviews may blame the director for problems that might be caused by a designer…. and I have frequently been blamed or complimented for that which was truly someone else’s idea.    Reviews can give some sense of the communities feeling about types of theatre, design decisions etc.

With all of that said, the batch of reviews from my recently closed production of “THE ILLUSION” by Tony Kushner (by way of Corneille) are here:

From the Fresno Bee (Full review here):

“Drawing on the powerhouse design strengths of Fresno City College, the play offers a visually sumptuous rendition of playwright Tony Kushner’s adaptation of classic playwright’s Pierre Corneille’s “L’Illusion Comique.”
[…]
Christopher R. Boltz’s lighting superbly sets the mood — the opening is a stunner as the cave throbs with flashes of various hues, setting a mystical scene — and his impeccable set, on which those lights seem to dance, offers a heft and solidity that serves as a counterbalance to the airy nature of the prose. Jeff Barrett’s sound design is integral to the effect. Debbi Shapazian’s ravishing period costumes feel both luxurious and yet, well, theatrical. And Janine Christl’s smart and adept direction steers us time and again back to Kushner’s wonderful wordplay”

Donald Munro

And from Valley Theatre Reviews (full review here):

“The magic is really where the heart of this FCC production lies. The power of the staging and lighting is integral to the work and is executed flawlessly. Set design by Christopher R Boltz successfully creates the appropriate atmosphere for an otherworldly magician’s cave, while his rich and specific lighting design provides some of the best magic tricks in the show– complete with misdirection and magical reveal. Debbi Shapazian’s luxe period costumes, which are incredibly well researched and executed beautifully, also highlight the classic form while looking very appealing to the modern eye. The full use of the technical staff’s capabilities are on display in this production.”

Heather Parish

The reviewers liked my work.  Yea!   I, however, are a bit more critical of my work.   There are a few moments in the play that didn’t live up to my wishes.    The very final moment of the play won me great accolades the last time I did the show.  My dearest husband (so far as I know the only person other than me to have seen both productions) didn’t think this production matched the magic.     The final effect is the appearance of the moon and stars and the path to the moon.   In the previous production the set encapsulated the audience, so the moon and stars appeared through the set, but the “path” was merely suggested by the actors.   This time around, the cave stopped at 9′ above the floor, and the stars appeared above that. My stars twinkled this time, but their appearance was not quite the stunner that it was before.

However, the great effect near the end, I feel was far more powerful this time around.  About 4 pages from the end Kusher  indicates “A great red curtain falls.”    In my last production, my lighting, and the director’s staging were such that several audience members completely missed the red curtain, so brief was its appearance.    (The first time, i was not the scenic designer).  This time, I built the curtain out of red scrim, so that I could delay its removal because it could be seen through if I as the lighting designer so chose.   This and slightly different staging made made it much more apparent.   THis I am very proud of, as it is a powerful moment in the play.

So as I have started posting the reviews of my work — I guess I will continue.  I might (in the future), collect some of  my favorite reviews of my work and post them, with comment.

Blast From the Past: Pippin and Minsky’s

This blast from the past comes from 2009 Feb-18.  This had a lot of typos in it… it probably still has some, but I hope it is now readable.  Re-reading this, I’m disappointed that I haven’t heard anything else form “Minsky’s”  I really enjoyed the show, and while it needed some work, I wanted to see it go on and be a success.

Two Theatre Reviews
On Sunday, I had a day of major musical productions. SO, here are my long involved reviews.

Minsky’s, The New Musical Comedy
Minsky’s is still being worked on. The program included a revised song list, and a new cast member. The song stack (as it was on Sunday) was:

Workin Hot (Billy and the Girls)

Cleopatra (Girls)

Happy (Billy)

Someone (Mary, Billy, Doctors)

Keep It Clean (Girls)

Bananas (Girls)

You Gotta Get Up When You’re Down (Maisie, Ensemble)

Ees Like That (Billy, mary)

God Bless the USA (Maisie, Scratch, Ensemble)

Every Number Needs a Button (Buster, Maisie, Billy, Scratch, Ensemble)

Act II

Tap Happy (Buster, Mary, Ensemble)

Bananas (Girls)

I’ve Got Better Things to Do (Billy, Waiters)

Red Hot Lobsters (Girls)

Home (Maisie, Ensemble)

I Want a Live (Jason, Beula)

Workin Hot/Cleopatra/Bananas (Girls)

Nothing Lasts Forever (Billy, Company)

Home (Billy, Mary)

The basic plot is Billy Minskey, and his choreographer Maisie trying to save his burlesque theatre from the”clean up the city” ploys of politician Randolph Sumner. Meanwhile, Billy has met a beautiful girl on the street — who he later learns is Sumner’s daughter. Hilarity ensues.

The play has a script by Bob Martin, Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead with direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw. All these folks, and the cast are have done some really really good work. The show isn’t hit material yet — but it has many of the traits that could make it one. First off, the script is funny, full of corney jokes, romantic moments etc. The songs are catchy and funny. So, what is the problem with the script.

There are some minor structural problems. The first two songs are diagetic (meaning they are songs in which the characters in the real world would be singing). Because this is not one of the shows over all where people on sing when people in the world sing, they really shouldn’t have 2 numbers prior to someone “breaking out into song.” It would be really wonderful if the show could start with Billy, alone on stage, giving us a taste of “Happy,” perhaps while putting the Ghost light away. (the ghost light is a light left on on stage over night for safety and tradition reasons — and the show ends with Billy setting the light, but most audience members have no idea what it is.) Then launching into the the first seen (which otherwise is very good).

The next major scene is set in two shrink’s offices where Billy and Mary express their need for love (in a hilarious scene and number). Outside on the street Billy and Mary meet, and Billy discovers who daddy is. Back at the theatre Sumner threatens to close down the theatre, and Billy cons him into thinking that the stage hand is Billy Minskey, and the real Billy wants to help shut down the theatre.

The company retires to the Cafe to plot and plan. Billy has a great plan, but first he has to protect Mary, and prevent her from interfering. Back at the theatre, they shows Sumner their new “patriotic number,” which he loves. He poses for a picture with the girls, who quickly move their props revealing that they are topless. They send the photo off to the paper, do a great but misplaced number), Mary shows up, having figured out what happend and hits Billy.

OK, the emotional/plot high point of the act is the boob shot, and Mary hitting Billy. Separating them by a number (even as fantastic as “Every number Needs a Button”) kills the ending. They really ought to re-write, to make “Every Number” the second to last number as the group prepares to doop the Councilman. Then the patriotic number, boob shot, Mary hits Billy, short one line tag of “Every Number” and Curtain — this would be a far stronger act I ending.

Act II, opens with a ok number that has no business in the show. “Tap Happy” has no connection to the plot. At one point it is implied that it is a rehearsal number from the burlesque, yet the crew is dancing along. What this number should be is about the fall out from the photo being splashed over the press. Concretely getting the plot moving again from the first moment. Also, while the cast is wonderful singers and dancers, this tap number is not that impressive compared to the rest of the dancing in the show — and a weak Act II opener is killer.

Anyway, a great plot devise is entered into when Sumner and Mary decide to infiltrate the burlesque both dressed as chorus girls. Billy recognizes them, casts them and prepares to set up Sumner again. Billy heads back to the cafe where Mary tries to find out what illegal acts are going on, and Billy sings a song of sacrificing his chances of love to save the show and the jobs of all his employees. This scene is fine, but the fact that it is at the cafe smacks of “we built this expensive set for act I, and so we need to use it a second time.” There is no reason for this scene not to be backstage at the theatre. The scene change (which is fairly quick) kills the momentum at a moment where the show needs to move along — unless the writers can find a good reason to leave backstage, they shouldn’t go anywhere.

Back at the theatre more rehearsals are continuing. Here is a great scene where they work out a pie in the face scene with Sumner (in drag) keeps getting hit with a pie in the face. The cast slips fake information to the Sumners that a stripper will be appearing on stage (Stripping is illegal). Sumner passes the info to the cops. Billy’s show is saved. With rumors of a real stripper, he is sold out for the first time in months. Meanwhile, two minor characters have a brilliant number about hating theatre, with the world’s funniest dance break (which has to be seen to be believed)!

Back on stage Mary discovers that Billy recognized her, and that there is no stripper. Her dad is about to be humiliated again. Billy explains he has to take care of his people, even if that means giving up the woman he loves. Just as Mary begins to understand, she finds out that an illegel act is about to happen, and under age girl is about to perform (Billy doesn’t know his new dancer is under age). Mary attempts to save the day by knocking out the dancer and doing the number herself. But she doesn’t know the choreography and ends up becoming flustered and taking all of her cloths off.

Now an illegal act has been committed, and Billy is arrested. In a (not great) courtroom seen, their is an argument about if nudity is illegal, and Sumner ends up not pressing charges. Finale, short reprise, Billy and Mary set the ghost light end of show.

The court room scene is weak, as is Mary’s breakdown leading her to strip undermines her character. She needs to save both Billy and her father in one very clever move. Cut the court room scene (which is way to reminiscent of Hello Dolly) and move into the finale.

The other thing is that Mr. Nicholaw needs to bring in another pair of eyes. There is a bit too much (or unmotivated) dancing in a few numbers (Every Number needs a Button, Tap happy and Nothing Lasts Forever to name three– simplify and tighten!)

As to the cast, Christopher Ritzgerald, and Beth Leavel as Billy and Maise are knockouts! Also great is George Wendt as Sumner (although, I’d love it if he had a song, or part of a song or something — I mean it is a musical — but don’t try to musicalize the pie in the face scene because it is perfect as it is). Katherine Leonard as Mary is good, but they need to strengthen her character a bit to make it the stand out role the actress deserves. There were some mic/sound problems during the performance, especially with Gerry Vichi as the shows comic. He always sounded over miced and like he was speaking from in side a cave. Also as the two who want out of theatre, Rachel Dratch and John Cariani were hysterical. A last shout out to Paul Vogt, in the very funny role of Billy’s stagehand who “impersonates” Billy.

The show is funny, the score is good, if they can fix the structure, and strengthen the characters a bit it should be a good old fashioned heart warming dirty little musical

Pippin

Pippin (Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Roger O. Hirson) has gone through the script revisions since I’ve worked on the show a few years ago. The other cool thing with this, is as a co-production with Deaf -West was simultaneously spoken and signed.

First some comments on the revised script. Schwartz has replaced the lovely, but never quite successful “Welcome Home Son” with a better (for the show) number called “Back Home Again,” which has a vaguely calypso flavor (similar in style to “Generations” from Schwartz’s Children of Eden). “War is a Science” had some lyrical revisions (beyond those revisions heard in the William Katt touring production that was video-taped for television). This production cut a lot of the dance music (I especially missed the “Manson Trio” section of “Glory” and most of the “Orgy” music from “With You”) I hope these music cuts were production cuts and that they are left in the show for future productions. Also cut was “Extra-Ordinary.” Looking at the program, I understand that scene 7 is very very music heavy, and cutting the song gives it only slightly more music than the next longest scene but I feel that “Extra-Ordinary” is important to setting up Pippin’s transformation from jerk to actually ok guy. Lastly the one verse reprise of “Corner of the Sky” by Theo that ended East-West Player’s production. Brilliant, chilling, amazing, I’m so hopeful that it will be in the performance script!

This production used new orchestrations for 7 members were fine. My only major complaint is in “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man.” It started off accapella (beautiful), and gradually a guitar came in (although I would have liked it as a piano to tie in with the orchestrations in the finale). Then more instruments added in, and it would have been nice to keep it with only on instrument.

Production wise, Tobin Ost’s sets and costumes were nicely integrated (although perhaps not the direction I would have gone with it.) Donald Holder’s lights were great, however the calling of the cues during “On The Right Track” was terrible: ruining the choreography by completely distracting the audience.

The leading role of Pippin was (litterally) split between Michale Arden and Tyrone Giodano. The production used a very heavy Magic metaphore for the production. When the “cast” “discovered” that Pippin was deaf, the leading player “sawed him in half” and created a singing half that spoke Pippin’s lines. The two Pippins had similar, but slightly different objectives and goals through out the play, first revealed in scene 4, and brought to a head in the Finale! Amazing!

Anthony Natale was subbing for Troy Kotsur as the King. His voice was provided Dan Callaway. I want to give a toss out to Callaway. When Natale miss-spoke (miss-signed?) one of his lines, and Callaway delivered the line as signed instead of as written — it is wonderful to see an actor completely in the moment and not just doing the show by rote. (By the way, Natale was excellent and if I hadn’t done the show twice I probably wouldn’t have caught the missed line).

Ty Taylor as the Leading Player was great, supportive, evil, oozing sex. Sara Gettelfinger as Festrada and James Royce Edwards as Lewis were fine, but were costumed and directed without the usual (or in my opinion requisite) sex-appeal. In fact sex seemed to be largely lacking in this production, which I felt was a huge problem (more on that later). Catherine (Played by Melissa van der Schyff) was the best Catherine I have ever seen (and I thought the actress I saw last summer in the role was fabulous). She demonstrated a keen understanding of the complexities of the role, and has a great voice. (Her sexiness was also stripped from her role). Lastly, Harriet Harris as Berthe. I don’t know what is wrong with this role. It should be funny, cute, and sexy. It has been forever since I have seen it pulled off. She was fine, but I didn’t buy that she had had sex with her leather clad and harnessed boys that hung out under her skirt.

Director/Choreographer Jeff Calhoon (who did such a remarkable job on Big River) seems to have set out to make a family friendly Pippin and I ask “Why?” Taking the sex out of Pippin seems to make it, well empty. Pippin is about a young man exploring many of the vices of life, and then discovering that a simple family is more fulfilling than the sin. The war bit was silly, and without all the dancing, not as horrific as other productions. The sex was almost non-existent. Revolution/Politics fine I guess, but it didn’t have the scumminess of politics that is often presence. And without Extra-Ordinary, home life didn’t quite have the turn around that helps really drive the point home.

I don’t want to see a clean Pippin, nor do I want to see a Pippin that cuts most of the dance. Overall, I recomend seeing the production — especially for the cast. But this Pippin fails to have the depth of depravity to lift Pippin out of.

By the way, between shows I saw my friend Trevor who was on dinner break from teching LA Operas Ring Cycle, and my former co-worker Richard. Its great seeing friends when I go to the theatre.

Blast from the Past: Pippin

This post is from 2008- June -19.  It is in regaruds to a fabulous production of “Pippin” at east west players.   I wanted to include it for its (brief) discussions on projection as a design media and new adaptations of older plays.

Last night, I had the good fortune to see Pippin( by Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz) at East West players. This production was certainly a rethinking of the original play for a modern audience. A brief note: I’ve worked on 2 productions of Pippin and have seen several others.


Tim Dang directs this new production in an urban Manga/Hip-Hop style. Certain places this re-thinking works amazingly well (especially in the so-called “Manson Trio” dance during the song “Glory”, and all of the number “Right Track”). Some moments were actually hurt by the approach (I found the new version of “Extraordinary” to be very akward and just…. Loud).

Lets start by discussing the cast. Tim Dang’s cast of 13 is probably the hardest working cast I have seen on stage in a very long time. The ensemble of 6 only seemed to leave the stage for brief moments to do massive costume changes. Otherwise they were on stage singing, dancing, moving scenery and running follow spot. All of them were exceedingly talented (and on a side note very attractive).

Marcus Choi, as the leading player, was dark, mysterious, and always “on.” His strong presence was felt even when lurking in the shadows observing the action. Pippin, Ethan Le Phong, as Pippin was passionate and clueless carefully navigating his way between the empathy his character needs to create with the audience and the utter selfishness and irresponsibility of many of his actions. Mike Hagiwara, as Charles, was not the boldest biggest Charles I have ever seen, but he brought an interesting humanity to the struggle between what is best for his son, his family and his kingdom. The strong but stupid Lewis was played by Cesar Cipriano, who was amazingly the sexiest of a very sexy cast. On top of that, his martial arts moves and dancing were top notch. And unlike many other Lewis’s I’ve seen in my life, he was an excellent actor on top of it all. (The role of Lewis has to be in amazing physical shape, and a decent dancer — and most productions stop there in the casting process figuring that this is a very tall order in and of itself, and this is only the second skilled actor I have seen play the role). Fastrada, the devious queen, was performed with aplomb by Jenn Aedo who seemed to be channeling a slutty version of Carol Burnett all evening. She was both an wonderful singer and a quite capable dancer, but for some reason was never permitted to do both at once (I’ll have a longer discussion on this issue later).

Without a doubt the one actor whose performance stole every scene he was in (even if the audience didn’t recognize him in all his roles) was Gedde Watanabe. His main role was in drag as Pippin’s Grandmother Berthe, but I found his easy going acting style captivating in his ensemble moments as well. While I don’t know Dang pushed everyone far enough on the drag role nature of the part, his acting was fun. I know Watanabe to be a gifted performer of songs, but somehow this song didn’t live up the the scene around it (and it usually is a complete show stopper). I’m not sure where the problem was — but despite the wonderful performance, it is one of the weakest versions of this scene I have ever seen. (Boy do the last few sentences read like a contradiction!) In the role of Catherine, we saw the understudy Chloe Stewart, who was fine, but had some trouble finding her light and ended up delivering chunks of lines where the light stopped at her chin. William Jay, in the almost thankless role of Theo, managed to make something of it. The role is typically cast as a bratty 4-7 year old, and casting it as an early teenager did quite a lot to justify many of the lines of the character. Add to that Jay’s petulant sulkiness at his de-facto step-dad, and his heartbreak when his duck dies, and for the first time, the role really comes across as a winner.

The production design was ancient asia meets manga meets urban life. Much of it worked. Alan E. Muraoka’s scenery and projections were fun and functional and simple. The set was a basic unit set with some stairs on wheels. The only added scenery was the bed for parts of Act II. The projections both created scenery and commented on the action. They were a blast.

Dan Weingarten’s lighting was serviceable, but had some issues. His design was very unforgiving to actors who failed to place themselves correctly. Many tight specials, and odd-angled side light meant that if an actor was off his or her mark by a few inches they could be utterly in the dark. I also felt that many times the lights were coming up “late” for the actors — This may have been an actor, or stage manager issue, or maybe just how Weingarten programed the show (In addition, I know the light board they are using is not ideal for controlling all the intelligent lighting that was being used. My last criticism of the lighting has more to do with the scenery. Any show relying on projections to tell the story (as this one did) runs huge risks. Projection design is still a relatively young field and there is always a fear of it failing on shows. Weingarten’s design worked very hard to differentiate the movements of the story (possibly sacrificing enough lights for each lighting wash along the way). Because the projections were so successful, I wish had had given up some of the extras used to differentiate the movements of the story to use on getting more even washes over the stage. That said, I would err in the same way myself (and when designing projections, I often encourage the lighting designer in the same direction Weingarten went.)

Naomi Yoshida’s costumes were an irreverent smash up of many styles, and exceedingly fun, and smart, and very sexy. The shirtless Hakama(-esque) costume designed for Lewis was a perfect example of innocence and sex all rolled into one. Her work on the ensemble costumes showed a level of commitment to excellence not usually found on work for the ensemble — and it was well appreciated. I have but two complaints with the costumes (and one is more personal). While Yoshida was not afraid to show skin, it is a constant pet peeve of mine that the women’s sexy costumes are always more exposing then the mens (in this case not by much… but it is something I notice). The more real complaint were the shoes. The Geta Sandals worn by Bertha severely inhibited the actors ability to dance (part of what may have hurt that scene). Also the manga-esque boots worn by Faustrada may also have been the reason she could not dance and sing at the same time.

A last design mention should be made to Jacki Phillips Hair and Make up Design, which never let reality get in the way of style. The wigs were fabulous and fun, and the make up moody and evocative.

Marc Macalintal served as both the adaptor of the score and music director. I need to confess I am neither a big fan of Hip-Hop music or dance (though I have a good amount of experience working with both). Pippin‘s original orchestrations are hopelessly bound in the 1970s, when the show was written, and Dang wanted this to have a more modern feel. My biggest feeling through the show was somehow that the tempos were way to slow, and yet I question if it would have been possible for the cast to dance any faster. (I should note that this production had hands-down the best diction I have ever seen with this show, and that might be partially due to the slower tempos.) The songs I thought worked the best with the new arrangements were “Glory”, “On the Right Track,” and “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” which had an absolutely heart braking arrangement of largely solo guitar. While the rest of it was serviceable, I only found “Extraordinary” to be… well not right. This surprises me because I also don’t like the original arrangement at all… It is possible I just don’t like that song.

This production had permission to make some textual change, most of which I thought were minor but fine. The only odd choice for me was utilizing the scene with the “head” after the battle, but cutting “the headless man” later on. This is not the first time I have seen this, and I agree that the Headless man never quite works due to the costume issue (although I have an idea of how it could), one without the other seems like a set up with no pay off. The last change (that I have been told is now or soon will be a part of the script) was the ending. The ending of Pippin has always been a bit contentious. I have read that the original writers and the original directors argued over the ending (and it is noted that the original cast album featured a slightly different ending than the original stage production, which if memory serves are both slightly different than the scripts had on the productions I worked on). In this production (like normal), the cast turn on Pippin and Catherine and Theo when they refuse to go through with the “planned” finale. They strip our three heros of their costumes, scenery and colored lights. The cast pushes them off the stage, and the three stand in the first row. Catherine asks Pippin what he’s thinking, and he sings the final verse as heard on the original cast album. The family turns to walk up the aisle and out the theatre, when the Leading player resurrects the Duck. A delighted Theo brakes away from the adults and runs onto the stage, picking it up, and begins to sing an A Cappella “Corner of the Sky.” As he sings, the lights are restored and an excited cast begins to close in on him. –hauntingly powerful.

Overall a fantastic production. It closes saturday, but if you can get to East West Players in Los Angeles, it is more than worth your time and money.


Blast from the Past: Curtains

This is my review of the pre-broadway, out-of-town tryout of “Curtain” by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Rupert Holmes.   This was before it went to New York (and probably before the show was locked.)  It ended up running 15 months, so my prediction wasn’t far off.  The original review was posted 2006 – August –  02.

Last night (August 1, 2006) I saw “Curtains” at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. The show is being presented in Los Angeles prior to a planed New York run, and as such it should be noted that changes may exist between the performance I saw and any subsequent performan ce.

For More …

First off, the play is a very enjoyable night at the theatre. I don’t remember having as much fun since I saw “Drowsy Chaperone” at the Ahmanson seven months ago. What is also evident from the performances is the cast is loving being on stage in the show. (Additionally as there was no traffic I made it to the theatre very early and several lof the cast were having dinner in the courtyard outside the theatre, they were discussing the usual issues of a show — missed costume changes, late entreneces etc. but they were so excited about the work they were doing. Having seen several shows recently where the cast was simply walking through the show, it is delightful to see one where they are truly excited.)

Most of the score is wonderful. There is a wonderful play between the songs of ‘Robbin Hood,’ the play within the play, and the book numbers from “Curtains.” My biggest concern that the act I closer (of both “Curtains” and ‘Robbin Hood’), a song called ‘Thataway!’ is a fairly weak song. The dance and staging save most of the audience from noticing, but as a song, it did not send me joyfully into intermission. My second worry is the opening number, “Wide Open Spaces,’ which is supposed to be the Finale of ‘Robbin Hood.’ Again, the staging is fun, and Eventually the audience figures out that it is supposed to be bad — but I worry that some audience members may be turned off at the very top of the show.

My theatre going partner had issues with the number “It’s a Business,” although much more on the staging than the song. (Debra Monk sings the song, and frankly I’d listen to her sing the phone book if John Kander scored it, so I may be a bit biased.)

The score includes some great numbers, “What Kind of Man”, “He Did It”, “The Woman’s Dead”, “Tough Act to Follow”, and “I miss the Music.” It also includes a song called “Show People” that I swear I’ve heard before with slightly altered lyrics, but I cannot for the life of me place where I have heard it — its been driving me mad since the melody first hit my ears last night (the altered lyrics are along the same lines, more like I’ve heard an earlier draft of the lyrics)

Rupert Holmes’ book is fast moving, intelligent and witty. My biggest concern with the book is that it is theatre about theatre. I worry that many audience members (especially as it attempts to maintain a long run in New York) will not inherently know what Equity is or what an Equity Deputy is or what much of the “stage lingo” is about. The script seems to explain understudy well before the understudy jokes, but several others (like Equity) are not explained. The teenagers behind me were asking questions about that to their chaperone, who also didn’t know the answer.

From a production stand point, William Ivey Long’s costumes are (as always) right on the money. The only exception to this is that Patty Goble (as the dead leading lady) looks more of a “star” than Karen Ziemba as her replacement. (I think it is the red wig that Goble wears — it makes her stand out in the ‘Robbin Hood’ bits visually that Ziemba does not). Ana Louizos’ set makes a nice distintion between “back stage” and “Robbin Hood.” Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting was effective (especially the first entrence of David Hyde Pierce — what a cue, what staging, what moment!). My only suggestion to Louizos and Kaczorowski (and frankly director Scott Ellis) is to take a performance and sit in the upper levels (Our seats were mid lower balcony, and there were some moments in staging, and design that might want to be reconsidered — nothing outrageously awful, but some moments that show cracks in an otherwise carefully constructed evening). William David Brohn’s orchestrations are fine, but nothing special. His work is best during the ‘Robbin Hood’ numbers and merely serviceable otherwise. Rob Ashford’s choreography is great both in ‘Robbin Hood’ and in the book songs. In the book songs, he allows the individual characters to color the choreography, where as in ‘Robbin Hood’ the dancing is tight and together, like a classic Broadway chorus. Scott Ellis’s direction plays up the “romance set during a murder mystery back stage at a theatre” side of the show. I worry that future productions will forget that and emphasize the back stage aspects much to the detriment of the play. (And if I have any suggestions to the Holmes, it would be to play up the characters and the romance a bit more in the script, and allow backstage to be the backdrop and not the focus of the story — and what needs to be included due to plot, have it explained to the audience a bit clearer)

Now to talk about the cast. In a word, Wonderful. Everyone on that stage from the leads to the ensemble are fully developed characters fully commited to the show, and having lots of fun. Their excitement certainly translates across the footlights to those of us in the dark. Patty Goble is delectably horrid as (soon to be dead) star Jessica Cranshaw. Megan Sikora stands out as the producers daughter who wants to be a star more than anything else. Jason Danieley’s big voice and big heart make a big impression. Edward Hibbert steals almost every scene he is in as a conceited egotistical director (By the way, how is Drowsy doing without him — he was a stand out there as well). Jill Paice, as Niki (Pierce’s love interest), is charming and daffy and lovely with a great voice. Our three stars: David Hyde Pierce, Debra Monk and Karen Ziemba sparkle the entire night. (Pierce forgot his Boston accent in a few moments during the show — but I didn’t notice until it suddenly “came back”).

With some minor book revisions, and possibly some song revisions the song should do very well in NYC (probably not the record breaking run of Phantom, but a healthy 18 months or so — more if it can snag a few Tonys (especially for Ms. Monk), and keep (or replace well) the talented and excited cast — there is no room for slackers anywhere in the show).

One final note — David Loud, the music director, has a charming “cameo” as Sasha, ‘Robin Hood’ s musical director — and a delightful solo.