Archive for Review

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!

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.