Thursday, April 29, 2010

Starmites An Intergalactic Musical – Music and Lyrics by Barry Keating – Book by Stuart Ross & Barry Keating

By Joe Straw

It’s been a long time since I’ve had so much fun in the theatre.  Just the thought of letting “it all go”, sit back, and be entertained.   I came with no preconceived idea of the show or what it was all about and I have to say its has been awhile since I’ve been totally surprised seeing something this enjoyable.    

Starmites, An Intergalactic Musical, was a dramatic revelation of a show from start to finish.  The musical was completely polished and wonderful from beginning to end. The audience loved it, the songs were delightful, the voices were strong, and the characters were amazing. And there were puppets galore! 

This is a show to bring all kids ages 6 to 66. And it’s all here presented by the Ensemble Theatre Company (etc) in Santa Monica at the Miles Memorial Playhouse through May 9th 2010. 

Brilliantly directed and choreographed by Steve Edlund and produced by Parmer Fuller & Narcissa Vanderlip.

This story takes us to a land, not very far from here.  Lonely Eleanor (Natalie Storrs) sits on the floor in her room reading her comic book Starmites and wishing she were a superhero girl.  Unbeknownst to her, she awakens a powerful force in the universe, Shak Graa (Matthew McFarland). (That’s what you get for hard wishful thinking.)

The darker side, her mother (Jen Reiter) barges into the room and wants the comic books out of the house! (You would think that some moms just get it, but no.)  She thinks Eleanor’s fantasy life is taking her on a path toward lonely desperation.   Little does she realize that her sweet cuddly daughter has a power awakening in her being and those powers are unfolding dramatic events in the universe.  

Namely, the Starmites lead by Space Punk (Donald Webber, Jr.), Herbie Harrison (Michael Joyce), Ack Ack Ackerman (Thomas Krottinger), and Dazzle Razzledorf (Jonah Priour) zip to earth and discover Eleanor has the power to save them and the universe. They whisk her away to another galaxies to find “The Cruelty”, a powerful musical instrument before it falls into the hands of Shak Graa.  

And in inner space there is a wonderful number “Afraid of the Dark” which takes Eleanor and the Starmites on an unforgettable journey.  This number, very imaginative, seems to propel the entire musical into intergalactic space. 

But, in the confusion and in the dark the Starmites are run off by the attack of The Banshees, a quartet of hungry man-eating puppets. Maligna (Marisa Esposito), Shotzi (Riana Nelson), Canibelle (Jessica Perlman), and Balbraka (Raquel Sandler), all with incredible voices and voracious appetites for men. They are lead by Diva (also Jen Reiter) in a great hip swinging number It’s hard to be a Diva! 

Diva has a daughter Bizarbara (also Natalie Storrs) and as all mothers do, wants her married and out of the house!  She has plans of getting her married to Space Punk. (I suppose if you were desperate you would give your daughter to a guy with the name Space Punk, seriously.)

But Space Punk is not so bad and besides he’s off somewhere falling in love with Eleanor as each professes their love in a wonderful number Love Duet.

Neverthless, all is not happy in Loveville.  The Diva and the Banshees capture Space Punk.  The Diva uses her intergalactic force to pawn off her daughter to Space Punk.  Space Punk agrees then changes his mind and I’ll say no more.

Everyone gets his or her chance to showcase his or her vocal prowess and each succeeds magnificently. Webber as Space Punk was magnificent as was Storrs. The Banshees were a powerful team and each has a moment in the sun (castle) Esposito, Nelson, Perlman and Sandler all gave outstanding performances.

Reiter as Diva was remarkable.  Her Diva hips sashaying her around the stage using her Diva hair and Diva lips for punk-u-ation all in the matter of controlling the universe and her daughter. 

The Starmites Joyce, Krottinger, Priour each had their moments on stage and aside from all the chest banging in the first number showed a piazza during the course of the show. McFarland is quite funny as Shak Graa.

Musical Director Michael Alfera did a tremendous job as well as his band mates Chris Myers and Chris Payne, and they also had a lot of talent to play along with.

Jessica Dalva created the wonderful puppets on stage - an amazing artist in her own right.

Lili Fuller, costumer Designer, has everyone in intergalactic costumes.  The space stockings were quite nice; the jump suits a little less not nice.

Edlund, the director, has done a wonderful job.  The set makes it almost impossible to see they are in the various places in the program with the exception of the bedroom; innerspace, Shriekwood Forest, Great Hall of Castle Nemesis, Castle Mortuary and the Chamber of Psychosorcery, but this is only a small quibble.  And why quibble?

This show had a long history of getting to Broadway but it did in 1989, and was nominated on 6 Tony awards.

My six year old said she could not get the musical out of her head the next morning.  A true testament to a great show!           

Live longer, think clearer, go see this show and have some intergalactic ridiculous fun!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge

By Joe Straw

“I just riz the loy and let fall the edge of it on the ridge of his skull...”

Christopher Mahon (Michael A. Newcomer) killed a man. Not just a man but a close member of his family, his father Old Mahon (Geoff Elliott).

Quietly perpetrated in a potato field with the midmorning fog acting as a shield.  And silently committed near County Mayo, Ireland. The crime was a senseless and cowardly act.  The blade of the loy finding it’s mark, in the center of the skull, striking his father dead almost immediately.

And plowing away from the death scene, Christopher left his father, left him there for the stray dogs, in the middle of a blood soaked field, never asking himself the question: Why?

The Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge and directed by the indefatigable Geoff Elliott now playing in repertory at A Noise Within Theatre (ANW) in Glendale California is a fascinating comedic look at a play that caused theatre-goers to riot in 1907. 

One can only imagine being there, at that time, and being caught up in the riotous spectacle. 

But as the story goes, a man is dead, not much they can do about that. Go to the wake, bury him, and move on. But the insatiable appetite of the remaining characters yearns for the truth and it is, in this play, their raison d’etre.   Each of them, with their own macabre sense of justice wants to find out why Christopher Mahon killed his father. 

In a local pub Pegeen Mike (Lindsay Gould), Shawn Keogh (Brian Hostenske) speaks of getting married. Shawn is a bit of a wimp and not much of a man that a woman with a strong constitution would want to marry.

Pegeen’s father Michael James Flaherty (Apollo Dukakis) and his two friends Philly Cullen (William Dennis Hunt) and Jimmy Farrell come in for a moment in route to a wake. It is an activity they participate in regularly because there are libations and food for the night.

Christopher Mahon struggles into the bar, a shadow of his former self, filled with guilt and remorse and suddenly this unkempt stranger intrigues all.  When they find out that he has committed a crime they want all the frightening details. Finding himself in a position of power Christopher offers the minutiae of his crime at another time.  For now he is offered a place to stay and a job at the bar.

And now having a real man in the bar, Pegeen throws Shawn out and the playboy of the western world spends the night.

Not much happens in a small town without everyone knowing everything and such is the case as Sara Tansey (Rebecca Mason-Wygal) Honor Blake (Alicia Bruckman) and Susan Brady (Caitlyn Tella) who bring gifts to honor him. The Widow Quin (Jill Hill), a murderer herself, is intrigued with Christopher and wants the story and wants him as well.   And together they pry the narrative from his blood soaked memories.  

Only, there’s a problem, Christopher’s father is alive and he comes to make the sniveling Christopher pay for his crime. Christopher hides behind the door and his secret is out. And so is his manliness to all of those whom have come to know him. Therefore, he must make good on his pledge. 

Newcomer and Gould as Christopher and Pegeen respectively create an interesting relationship on stage.  Whether it is a love relationship is open to discussion. A lively discussion at that! Pegeen stuffs straw into a sack of her future husband with little regard of love in mind.  Christopher eats her food without taking delight in her or her way. There is a scene of them together where little takes place and the relationship is not further developed.

Hill as the Widow Quinn wants Christopher but takes very few physical steps to make that a reality.

Hunt as Philly is absolutely fantastic. His entrance in the second act is an aspiration to those working in that craft. 

Dukakis as Michael is a workhorse on the ANW stage, successful from one production to the next and delightful to watch.

Hostenske as Shawn was quite good. Its tough love being unloved but nevertheless a fine job.

Venable as Jimmy was also fine but not really sure what he wanted.

Mason-Wygal, Bruckman and Tella were very good in their roles but don’t know if they ever saw anything in the hearty leftovers  (Shawn).

Maxwell Schneller, as the peasant, was unassuming as all peasants should be. 

Geoff Elliot does yeoman work as the director and as a performer, Old Mahon. His voice is his strong asset and his physicality very demonstrative.  Geoff Elliot’s strength lies in his tenacity.  He has this uncanny and amazing ability to create incredible and lively crowds scenes. 

The Playboy of the Western World is full of life and joy and despite a few minor problems this production will only pick up steam during the course of its run.

Superb Scenic Design by Stephen Gifford and wonderful Costume Design by Soojin Lee. Dialect Coach by Nike Doukas in this Ireland setting was wonderful.

The grit on all of the characters seemed all too real. Can someone please take a moment to clean something on their being?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Awake and Sing! By Clifford Odets

By Joe Straw
Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust; Isaiah – 26:19
Awake and Sing! is a brilliant play by Clifford Odets now playing in repertory at A Noise Within Theatre in Glendale, California and directed by Andrew J. Traisters. 
Opening up in full familial glory, Awake and Sing! is a look into a forgotten time capsule and finding interesting artifacts. In the capsule is a figurine of a strong matriarchal figure and attached below her are the emasculate men in her family, all-cowering beneath her and grasping her robe.  
A family starts first as an idea, a dream of happiness, and thoughts of a blood relation that is unbreakable.
And then something happens.  Age mostly.  The children turn into adults and they have these strange ideas about love and happiness and living at home until they are thirty! Later, the Marxist grandparent moves in and eventually everyone is living under one roof.  Throw in a one-legged war veteran boarder and you’ve got countless conflicts under one roof. 
But, most of all, Awake and Sing! is a story of a Jewish middle class family struggling for life, in the Bronx no less.  
Bessie Berger (Deborah Strang) and Myron Berger (Joel Swetow) are living in a household that is forever stuck in the middle class. They struggle with their two grown children Hennie Berger (Molly Leland) and Ralph Berger (Adam Silver). Living with them is Bessie’s father Jacob (Len Lesser) and a boarder Moe Axelrod (Daniel Reichert). 
As you can imagine things are a bit crowded and everyone is kind of set in their ways but more so is Bessie who controls the household with an iron fist. Myron, her nebbish husband follows her around like their dog, Tootsie.
Jacob has discovered that his grandson Ralph is in love and has dreams of developing his relationship because “She’s like French words!”  Ralph wants to keep the relationship low keyed because “Mom’s not letting my sixteen bucks out of the house…”
Hennie is getting long in the tooth for the day (25 years old and getting younger everyday) and her parents can’t wait to give her to “anyone” who just asks. And then they discover that Hennie is pregnant.
“It’s like a play on the stage…” her crying heartbroken father says.
Bessie, taking matter into her own hands, orders Myron: “Tomorrow night bring Sam Feinschreiber for supper.”
But nobody really likes Feinschreiber (Daivd Lengel) and Bessie is willing to give Hennie to anyone who asks, like Moe who just came back into the room.
“Why don’t you, Moe? An old friend of the family like you.  It would be a blessing on all of us.” 
Moe’s got this idea that Hennie would not want  “A guy with one leg – it gives her the heebie-jeebies.”  Nevertheless, Moe Axelrod has his sights on Hennie throughout the play.
Bessie, always concerned about money invites her rich brother Morty (Alan Blumfield) for dinner. Jacob gives Morty his insurance policy made out to Ralph.  But Morty and Bessie, in another level of family, conspire to keep the money themselves in case something should happen to Jacob.
They all struggle for a piece of the pie and money seems to be an overriding concern to all of them.  
Alan Waserman as Schlosser has the thankless role of not being in the family and German to boot.
Lengel as Sam with a strong voice and powerful accent was fantastic! Lengel plays “second fiddle” to no one.
Silver as Ralph was equally good.  Ralph is always talking about tap dancing but never does a dance step on stage, I found that odd.
Leland, as Hennie, was excellent, but showing too much of her work on stage, without getting the desired results. The relationship with her grandfather was not as strong as it should have been.  And her relationship with Moe needs strengthening as if Moe had something to do with Hennie’s pregnancy.
Reichert, as Moe, was fantastic. (But, the notes in the play said he’s killed two men from extra marital affairs, did not see any of this in the character.)   It was difficult to determine what his relationship to the family was when he first rang the doorbell. Smooth exterior with a rough inner life, shyster and not taking anything from anyone, especially Bessie.
Jacobs’s (Lesser) relationship with Ralph, his grandson, is quite nice and all the more hurtful when Ralph turns on him. 
Blumenfeld as Uncle Morty liked holding the purse strings and will do anything to help his sister, Bessie. Nicely done!
Myron: Where you going, little Red Riding Hood?
Hennie:  Nobody knows, Peter Rabbit.
Swetow, as Myron, in such a defining moment in this play. Anyone who’s had a daughter will be touched by that moment.
Strang as Bessie manages to figuratively strangle those around her.  Manipulative and charming she believes she is the source of all that is right and if it isn’t right, she’s going to make it right because that what she does.
This is a play that requires strong relationships and Andrew Traister, the director, manages to pull it off.  It’s easy to see that lives are changed in a moment and Traister guides us there with ease.     
And I couldn't help but think that a little more humor would liven things up a little bit.
First produced in 1935 and directed by Harold Clurman, this was part of The Group Theatre’s production that stunned audiences into submission with their craft, their writer (Odets), and their realistic style of acting.  
The Group Theatre left a legacy that is still looked upon to this day with envy and deep respect much like A Noise Within, which, in and of itself, is a grand theatrical organization and shows playing here and now will be talked about for years to come.