Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Chorus Line – Music by Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics by Edward Kleban, Book by James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante

By Joe Straw

In the late seventies, right after finishing college in Tennessee, I came to Hollywood and found work as the doorman at the Pantages Theatre.   How I got there, I’m not quite sure.   

One of the first shows playing at The Pantages was “A Chorus Line” and, on most nights, I watched from the wings, always watching.  Now that I look back on that time, well, I have great memories. Wanda Richert, Tony Teague, Scott Plank, and others - good memories - a flood of memories and one can’t help but get emotional at the sound of:

Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch...Again!
Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch...Again!
Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch...Again!
Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch...Right!

That connects with...
Turn, turn, out, in, jump, step,
Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch.

Got it?... Going on. And...
Turn, turn, touch, down, back, step,
Pivot, step, walk, walk, walk.

Right! Let's do the whole combination,
Facing away from the mirror.
From the top.

A-Five, six, seven, eight! – Zach

I have not seen a high school production of  “A Chorus Line”.  

My college professor scoffed when someone suggested we perform it, possibly because of the inherent rigorous demands of this show.  Such a production needed trained dancers, actors, and an orchestra working very hard to get this show on its feet, and he didn’t think we had the chops.  

Well, Culver City High School does a terrific job of satisfying those of us who want to relive “A Chorus Line” and get emotional. This is an excellent production with a lot of heart, exceptional performances, and that one that will have you feeling good all over again.

Culver City High School Academy of Visual & Performing Arts (AVPA) presents A Chorus Line, Music by Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics by Edward Kleban, Book by James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante, directed by Jill Novick, March 6, 7, 13, 14 at 7:00 pm and March 8 at 1:00 pm at the Robert Frost Auditorium in Culver City, California.

A Chorus Line, if you are new to the planet, is about a group of hungry dancers vying for eight positions in the chorus of a major Broadway show.  The dancers chosen will be the backing the star or the leads of the show.   

A white line stretching across the stage is there to remind the dancers of their objective, to get a place on the line no matter what, using charm, voice, legs, and other accouterments.   

But Zach (Simon Johnson) isn’t going to make it easy for these dancers. He’s going to put them through the mill to see which one fits the bill.

“A, five, six, seven, eight!!!” – Zach

And so, as Zach is weeding out the dancers, everyone is giving it their all.  Through the course of the audition we get to find the dancers strengths and weaknesses. 

“Any Broadway shows?” - Zach

The weak are weeded out. The answer to that question is the death knell for a dancer trying to make it. 

Zach calls the numbers to the first dancers who have made the cut, and instructs them to get their pictures and resume out and stand on the white line.   

“Who am I anyway?
Am I my resume?
That is a picture of a person I don’t know.

What does he want from me?
What should I try to be?
So many faces all around, and here we go.
I need this job, oh God, I need this show.” - Paul

One doesn’t expect an orchestra in a high school production, but Tony Spano, Jr. the Music Director and Conductor does a remarkable job using students and a few professional musicians playing the music and making the night a glorious event.

Singular, or the collective whole one might call this group of thespians who worked well together.

Sensation is a term describing the night.

And while we’re on the subject, one initial observation is the young women have had more dance training than the high school young men. But what the men lacked in skills made up for it in character development and “personal flair”.

Emma deZarn does a fantastic job as Cassie.  Her acting is superb and her dancing is first rate.  To quote someone after the show “Emma deZarn nailed it!” “The Music and the Mirror” dance is wonderful.

Adriana Romero is tremendous as Diana and gives a lot of life to the song “Nothing”.  The song is moving in many ways and Romero is up to the task of finding a character that is fully developed.

Khamiya Terrell towers over the rest of the cast giving us the idea that she is much older as Sheila is supposed to be. She is funny and sassy all in the same breath.   “At the Ballet” is one of the highlights of the show and Terrell, Claire Skelly as Maggie, the product of an unhappy marriage, and Isabel Parra as Bebe, the unattractive daughter - all have wonderful and strong singing voices, creating a sense of being at ballet classes and dealing with their parents.   

Carly Shiever plays Val who sings Dance: 10; Looks: 3 is another highlight of the show. Shiever has a very strong voice and a nice stage presence.

Elisa Spear plays Judy one of the toughest roles of this musical to get just right.  She is kind of clumsy, forgetful, and sometimes scatterbrained, but a gifted dancer.  Spear is exquisite in the role.

Sonya Broner and Angel Salas play the husband and wife team Kristine and Al respectively as they form a duet to sing “Sing”.  Salas does a great job with the relationship and has a very nice presence on stage. Broner does well singing off key but could go even farther off key.

Courtney Lundy plays Connie to perfection and has a very nice way about her on stage.

Raegan Harris has a superior voice playing Reggie, usually the character is reserved for a male dancer Ritchie, but Harris did a fantastic job and it worked perfectly.

Others rounding out the outstanding female cast were Sarah Toutounchain as Vicki, Mikaela Barocio as Tricia, Rachel Gonzales as Rachel, Paxton Amor as a dancer, and Katy Engel as Lois who has a very nice presence and lovely dance skills.

Samuel Petersen plays Mike Costa and has a great tap number in “I Can Do That”.  I always thought this number was too short in the musical and way too long in the movie.  Still Petersen gives it the right amount of time it deserved.

Oliver Berliner is Don Kerr from Kansas City.  Berliner has a wonder face for theatre and manages his role with aplomb.

Ryan Gacula does a respectable job as Paul and manages to convince us that he has done all that he has done in his young life.

Reno Behnken is Gregory Gardener.  Reno is another actor with a great character face and appeal.  

Andrew Alvarenga is Bobby Mills a dancer from upstate New York who believes committing suicide in Buffalo is redundant.  Alvarenga is extremely amusing in the role and has a natural ability on stage.  

Ben Hilsberg is Mark Anthony, a first timer who will work very hard to get on the line.   

Simon Johnson is wonderful as Zach.  His voice is strong and he could give more emotional life to “A – five, six, seven, eight!”

Henry Farfan is Tom, Owen Jones plays Butch, Gabe Lobet is Frank and Nicholas Freeson is Roy.  

Jill Novick, the director, did a great job of getting this musical onto The Robert Frost Auditorium stage.  There is a rich history with Novick and this show and the love just comes pouring through in every singular moment. This is a tremendous job and Culver City High School is lucky to have her.  

Julie Carson, The Choreographer, also did a tremendous job with the look of the show.

Jacky Jung did a marvelous job with the Chorus Line costumes – not sure where she got them, of if they were tailored made, but they just looked fabulous in the closing number, “One”!

Members of the orchestra, and I especially love the trombones were:

Judy Gottesman – accompanist
Peter Marcus – keyboards
Patrick Gardner – bass
Josh Zucker – percussion
Bella Rivera – flute
Sadushi De Silva – flute
Alberto Cruz – clarinet, bass clarinet, alto sax
Kent Seeberger – clarinet
Niko Vlahakis – flute, alto sax
Milo Bechtloff Weising – bari sax, clarinet
Paul Witt – trumpet
Mikael Nida – trumpet
June Satton - trombone
James Tingle – trombone

Other members of the creative team are as follows:

Lighting & set design – Kristen Opstad
Sound design – Will Schuessler
Stage Manager – Cricket Cary-Green

Relive the dream once again and take someone who has seen it a number of times.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

finding Nick by Nicholas Guest

Nicholas Guest - Photo Ed Kreiger

By Joe Straw

I told my 11-year-old daughter that I met an actor who was in “Frozen”.  Her face turned a bright pink, her eyes got really big, her mouth formed a circular “O” shape before she uttered the words “Who? Who? Who?  Who? Who!?, Who!!!!?” – Narrator

An actor travels many places, lives many lives, and absorbs what the creator sends their way. Coming into the hallowed halls of the Zephyr theatre on this night were Francis Fisher, Ed Begley, Jr., Fred Willard, and, I believe, Alan Rachins, all working actors venturing out this night finding Nicholas Guest finding himself in his new play “finding Nick”.

The Zephyr Theatre, currently owned by Lee Sankowich, also the director of “finding Nick”, is one of my favorite theatres for several reasons.

Upon entering the theatre, there is a little ramp that forces one gingerly onto the stage before finding a seat.  Looking around, one notices little in the way of set design, but there is enough here to accompany the storyteller for a one-man show.  Certainly the coat rack upstage right plays an important part.  There is a small desk littered with songbooks and a French book.  A chair sits comfortably near the desk and guitar stand begs for center stage.  Upstage center are screens for projections that will later project the beautiful images in Nick’s life.  And upstage left are two chairs, music stands, a place for two professional musicians, the stunning cellist (Hillary Smith) and guitarist (Tony Carafone) who employs a full head of curly hair and a wry smile.

One sees Nick, offstage, before the play begins, holding a guitar and standing behind the curtain, in the wings, ready to come on.  A theatre patron pulls back the curtain and waves.  Nick gives her a thumbs up sign before venturing onto the stage singing “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream” by Ed McCurdy and, as funny as it may seem, Nick takes us back into his past, starting in New York City 1967, and off we go into the story of his young life as though it were a dream, relived, replayed, rewound, all for the purpose of giving us a sample of a moment, played back in his precise humanistic details.

The Zephyr Theatre presents “finding Nick” written and performed by Nicholas Guest, directed by Lee Sankowich, and Produced by Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners through March 28, 2015

“finding Nick” is an exceptional one-man show about a young man who is lost as he tries to find his way in the world.  The music is fabulous; the impersonations genuine, and the passionate moments will lift you out of your seat craving for more.  Certainly, and especially for fathers with daughters, the night ends on a very emotional high note.  

The play starts in 1967 and ends, one might say, at the end of the performance 2015 because in reality Nick is still finding Nick.

There are people who say, or maybe I saw it in a movie, maybe “City Slickers”, that life is about finding that “one thing”.  I guess the trick is knowing the moment when that “one thing” is discovered.  But, the one thing we discover in the play is that Nick, as a young man, is adrift, the product of an abiding faith in his immature youth. 

And as the play begins, we find that Nick is a bad student. Geometry is not his strong suit. That seems to make little difference in this private progressive school in the upper west side of New York City. 

“That’s okay. Write poetry.”

Nick is in high school and not having a grand time.  But dressed in his corduroy jacket, without the elbow patches and protesting the war, he watches beautiful girls marching along side him and really gets into the make love not war theme without having experienced the love part, or the war part for that matter.

But Nick’s urbane father, creating an inviolable sanctuary for his son, tells Nick they are moving to Switzerland and politely orders Nick to brush up on his French.  Nick, in protest, shoves the French book with his fingertips and says he knows French.  (Typical teenager.)

But when in Switzerland, Nick finds himself at the Ecole Internationale de Geneve under the tutelage of a Russian history teacher, with a very thick accent, who is aware of his spotty transcript.

“Nicholai, tell me about the Russian Revolution.”

The best Nick can do is to tell him about the French Revolution using the modern day vernacular of it was “heavy” and a “trip”.

At school, Nick meets Isabelle who takes him to the park and sings him a song and about not leaving him.

Ne me quitte pas
Il faut oublier
Tout peut s’oublier
Qui s’enfuit deja
Oublier le temps
Des malentendus
Et le temps perdu
A savoir comment
Oublier ces heures
Qui tuaient parfois
A coups de porquoi
Le coeur du bonheur
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quit pas – Jacques Brel

And then she leaves him. Infatuated, Nick tries to find her again but only gets as far as Isabelle’s father and only on the phone. Ultimately it is a project lost in its futility.

There is more to be learned from an American teacher with a crew cut who wants to discuss America’s involvement in Vietnam but thinks that Nick should write poetry. 

(One detects a theme here.)

Now Nick’s time in Switzerland takes another dramatic turn when his family moves back to New York, Greenwich Village, and MacDougal St., next door to Bob Dylan. 

Nick, still doing terribly in school, gets a glimmer of the acting world.

His counselor, Carol, looking at Nick’s record, see no math, no science, ergo no hope, but does recommend two colleges, one in St. Louis, and the other in Paris, France.

Nick chooses Paris, where his French instructor notices something about this peculiar student.

“You are lost.” – Teacher

Nick, as a young man, was lost and every moment from then on was an awakening of sorts.  And as the play progresses, the moments find their sweet spot, and the production soars.

Guest has a strong voice and a special knack for mimicry and imitation.  He creates strong characters of the people from his past especially his father, the Russian Teacher, The French Teacher and Bill Hickey to name only a few. The imitation of Eldridge Cleaver had the hair standing on the back of my neck. His objective here is very simple, finding Nick, the conflict is mostly an inner conflict, and the other characters are there to help Nick find the way. So how does Nick find Nick? Simply by osmosis, which is absorbing the lessons learned from the instrumental people in his life, the ones who have focused a great deal of their time turning Nick’s life around.  The trick here, or with any actor in the theatre, is having the character engage in the lesson, taking that extraordinary piece and creating a change in the relationship, at that moment, that instant, in that time, and then carrying that forward. If there is one thing learned here is that finding Nick is a lifetime event but, in the immediate world of theatre, one would like to see all of that play out on stage as the younger Nick matures.

All right that said, there is something to be said about one-man shows and Lee Sankowich, the director, gives a lot inspiration to this play.  One quibbles about a moment, a stamp from both the director and the actor. The wonderful imitation of Nick’s father needs a reaction from Nick. Isabella’s relationship with Nick is a sexual awakening without the intense hormones begging for her to come back. And the scene in the villa, the Jimi Hendricks scene, needs further exploration, between the older son, the father, and Nick that I didn’t quite get. But these are little things to add to an exceptional body of work.

The music by Guest, Tony Carafone and Hillary Smith will bring you to tears. Other songs not mentioned are “Tomorrow is a Long Time” by Bob Dylan, “Le Plat Pays” by Jacques Brel, “Song of Automne” by author unknown, “Ma Liberte” by Georges Moustaki, “L’Internationale” Lyrics by Eugene Pottier (1871) and Music by Pierre Degeyter (1888), “Bandiera Rosa” Lyrics by Carlo Tuzzi (1908), “Le Temps De Vivre” by Georges Moustaki, “A Rainy Night in Paris” by Nicholas Guest, and “The Hobo Song” by Woody Guthrie.

Also, making a special appearance on this night was Elizabeth Guest putting an exclamation point on “finding Nick.”

Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners was the Producer of the show and Victoria Watson, Theatre Planner was the Associate Producer.  

Other members of the production crew are as follows:

Donny Jackson – Lighting Designer

Norman Kern – Projection Design

Davidson & Choy Publicity – Press Representatives

Kiff Scholl, AFK Design – Graphic Design

Angelica Estevez – Stage Manager

Pamela Guest – Muse

Run! Run! Run!  Bring someone you lost but recently found.

Reservations:  323-960-4420

Thursday & Fridays at 8 p.m.

Added shows: Saturdays on March 21 and March 28th. 

Zephyr Theatre
7456 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Hellman v. McCarthy By Brian Richard Mori

By Joe Straw

“Is he just a left-winger? Is that his problem?” – President Richard Nixon

“I guess so.” – H.R. Haldeman

“Is he Jewish?” – Nixon

“I don’t know; doesn’t look it.” – H.R. Haldeman

“We’ve complained bitterly about the Cavett show.” – Charles Colsen

“Is there any way we could screw him? That’s what I mean.  There must be ways.” – Nixon – The White House Tapes

With few honest humans left in media and print these days, Dick Cavett can be considered one of the most trusted men in America.

I mentioned to someone that I was going to see Dick Cavett in a play.  My uninformed confrère thought Cavett was dead. I assured this individual that I wasn’t in the habit of watching deceased actors work on stage – what with the smell and lack of movement.   

Theatre 40 of Beverly Hills and Michael J. Libow present Dick Cavett in the West Coast Premiere of the Acclaimed New York Production of Hellman v. McCarthy written by Brian Richard Mori, directed by Howard Storm, and Produced by David Hunt Stafford through February 28th, 2015.  

Dick Cavett has lost the golden locks and the long sideburns that once accompanied him back in the day but he has not lost his appeal, affable wit, and timing.  One might call him nimble at this point in his career.

There is no mistaking Cavett’s dulcet voice along with his dapper appearance. The green sports coat suits him well this night.  He is nicely tailored, and except for that little tuff of hair protruding from the back of his scalp, he was perfectly coiffed.  That must a comedian trick, serious but funny in the front, and slightly offbeat in the back.  

A quick casual observation about Cavett is that he listens, or appears to listen to everything others have to say, without judgment, and then provides his own commentary with a nice little glib and blithe remark. It is certainly a trademark of his character that we have come to thoroughly enjoy over the years.

Cavett brings his fine acting chops on stage doing a few impersonations, narrating the story, and telling a few jokes along the way. The night was a very pleasant evening.

“I hope they don’t clap when he enters the stage.  That would be so sit-com and really not the rules of theatre in Los Angeles.” – Narrator  

Okay, so this cue card guy comes out, begging us to applaud as Cavett from The Dick Cavett Show strolls out on stage to tell a few jokes.  It is in the moment, I tell myself, and I can live with that, so I break all my rules and begrudgingly clap.

Following Cavett’s wonderful opening monologue, the play starts in earnest with a couple, upstage right, sitting at a small dinning table. A cantankerous old bird, Lillian Hellman (Flora Plumb), and her too-eager-to-please gay nurse Ryan (M. Rowan) are in a stirring game of Scrabble.  Despite Hellman’s egregious cheating, with lettered tiles flying here and there, Ryan manages to get the best of her.

And, oh my, Hellman hates losing, at anything, so she unceremoniously quits the game, tiles dropping off her every being. She turns to find out what is on TV but there’s not much except The Dick Cavett Show on PBS, and with guest author Mary McCarthy, a woman Hellman personally knows and holds exiguous regard.

Already stewing from the recent Scrabble loss, Hellman wants to see what that “witch”, Mary McCarthy, is doing. 

Cavett goads McCarthy into some reckless gossip about good writers and bad writers.  McCarthy latches onto the bad writers bit and mentions Hellman. Suddenly, Hellman is horrified by the slander spewed forth from McCarthy’s lying Irish lips.  

“Every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the.”  - Mary McCarthy

Repulsed violently, Hellman’s ceremonious inclination is to dial her attorney, Lester Marshal (John Combs).  If only she could pick up the phone and dial.  Shaking the thick black receiver of the telephone, she demands that Marshal sue Cavett, WNET-TV, and McCarthy.

Marshal doesn’t think it’s a good idea and tells her so because they “are friends.”  And she should listen to her friends.

“I don’t pay my friends.” Hellman


Despite McCarthy’s stinging remarks Marshal does what he is paid to do and employs the argument in court that Hellman is not a public figure.

Notwithstanding, there is a great deal to like in Brian Richard Mori’s play.  At first glance one wonders about the complexity of the drama.  But looking back, after taking a deep breath, one finds a fascinating play dealing with the gradations of truth; moments that are part of the record, moments that may have happened, and moments that are outright fabrication.

One of the finest parts of this play is the scene when Hellman and McCarthy meet.   Hellman is looking for an apology but verbally dukes it out with McCarthy.   Moments later, Cavett, the most trusted man in America, says that scene never happened.  

It is with certitude that playwriting can only give us a fair representation of the actual truth. That’s fair to say.  But what are we to make of an entire scene that is completely false but so much fun? And while Mori’s drama does not take us deep into the psyche of the characters, there is enough here to make it an enjoyable evening. Yes, it most certainly was.

Dick Cavett does an impressive job this night.  And it’s really not much of a stretch to play Dick Cavett if you are, in fact, Dick Cavett. There is also that mischievous grin of his when he is caught in an erratic boat of comment unpredictability, floating in unchartered waters, without a paddle, now leaking like a sieve, and wondering how he is going to get out.  He takes everything in stride, comments with a wry sense of humor, and exits, stage left.  Mostly, he brings the background of his character and with him that rich history of his entire being. Also, Cavett is also open for a few questions after the performance and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Flora Plumb is delightful playing Lillian Hellman. The truth plays out in grand fashion in her portrayal.  Her performance moved in the direction of her dying which was the overriding characterization of her persona.  But Hellman finds enough life in her bite to rise above her current ills and sue her counterpart.  And watching McCarthy squirm must have delighted her to no end but we see little of that choice in Plumb on this night.  Fighting the pain of age, a subdued stoicism was a part of her character but offers her little opportunity to do anything else. Also, the Betty Davis slap to her nurse does not progress the scene, the relationship, or the play, and seems slightly out of character for a woman who let her words devour her enemies to death.  On this opening weekend, Hellman’s relationship to the nurse needed work and hopefully a happy medium will be found by the time you see the play. Hellman’s reposeful expression should not be evident until the final victory is hers. The character work is excellent.  One wishes she wasn’t dying through the course of the night. Also, and as an aside, Plumb is much too attractive to play Hellman who wasn’t known for turning heads.  

Marcia Rodd, as Mary McCarthy, has a very strong voice and commanding presence that she maintains throughout the play.  McCarthy, a former Vassar College student, writer, critic, and educator, kept her on-camera persona throughout.  Giving her an off-screen persona will have provided Rodd with more nuances to the character. Finding ways to bring her history on stage would help to define her character. Also, McCarthy must be in the lawyer’s office for a reason, maybe she is running out of money or she is trying to find a way out without losing her sanity. The suit is destroying her life, and her way of life.  She says it in words, but the pain in Rodd’s performance does not appear deep, and she is not desperate to end the lawsuit, even though it is killing her character emotionally and financially.  That aside, Rodd has an incredibly strong voice and is very likeable on stage.  

John Combs plays Lester Marshal, Hellman’s attorney and does a fine job. Combs is affable and in the moment. As Marshal, he finds a way to attack giving his client a reason for being. Marshal can be sinister in the ways he deals with others around him and maybe he could go a little farther with the intimate details of the character.

Martin Thompson is enjoyable as Bert Fielding, McCarthy’s attorney.  He is the low-budget attorney of the group but really doesn’t get much mileage in the relationship to the high power attorney counterpart. Still, there were some nice little exchanges between the two.  

M.Rowan Meyer is very likeable as Ryan, Hellman’s nurse.  Other than taking care of Hellman, Meyer’s approach to the character didn’t find the right connection on this particular night. There must be a reason that he is there, that he puts up with her, that he stays with her through thick and thin and it just can’t be the money. The difficult task for this actor is to find out why he is there and why he is attracted to stay in the relationship.  Finding a creative objective would give him more mileage.  Love is a great equalizer and Ryan must find way to love her, despite the fact that he is gay, to care for her emotionally, physically, and mentally.  And Ryan being gay didn’t move the play in any direction.  He could have easily been straight, another race, female, transgendered, and that would not have changed the objective of the character on this particular night.  That said Meyer is a very engaging young man with a very strong appeal and in the emotional moment.  His scene with Cavett was spot on and extremely funny.  

Howard Storm, the director, gives us the moments we so desperately need when venturing out into the theatre night air. The “slap” is a moment that needs reworking.  There is a little bit of creativity and ingenuity needed for the scene when McCarthy and Hellman discuss their previous relationship with each telling the exact story.  Having them intertwined, and in each other’s space, would have brought more life into that scene.   Also in the apology scene, having them on opposite ends of the table lessened the degree of the dramatic conflict needed in that scene. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen two attorneys in a room who haven’t exhausted civility, and are on the edge of trading blows, in words or in emotional deed.

David Hunt Stafford is the wonderful Producer of this show and a guiding light at Theatre 40.

Other members of the valuable crew are as follows:

Rhonda Lord – Assistant to the Director
Bill Froggatt – Stage Manager
Richard Carner – Assistant Stage Manager
Jeff G. Rack – Set Designer
Michele Young – Costume Designer
Ric Zimmerman – Lighting Designer
Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski – Sound Designer

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who loves talk shows.  

Theatre 40
In the Reuben Cordova Theatre
241 S. Moreno Drive
Bevely Hills, CA  90212

Reservations: 310-364-3606
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