Sunday, January 30, 2011

Hoboken to Hollywood A Journey Through the Great American Songbook – Book by Luca Ellis, Paul Litteral & Jeremy Aldridge.

By Joe Straw

Harry James invited us into his dressing room to watch the Kentucky derby during his run of Big Broadcast of 1944 at the Pantages.  The television had a screen that was about as wide as my hand.  The coat hanger stuck into the broken antenna hole was providing an excellent snowy reception.

Gordon MacRae was there along with Fran Warren and Hildegard and other members of the cast.  All had extremely powerful voices and probably none had ever heard a pin drop in a quiet room in their entire lives.  

Harry was having a drink from a shot glass.  Gordon MacRae couldn’t keep quiet and the rest of the cast could have cared less about the horses running.

Squinting, because of the snow on the screen, and really having to concentrate because of the noise, the words from the Kentucky Derby announcer was lost that year to Harry James.

Harry sat quietly and stewed like a pot of minestrone.

One likes it when things go one’s way.

There is a place in Hoboken to Hollywood where Luca Ellis as the Crooner hits all the right moments as a singer and an actor.  It is an enlightened moment where one wants to stand and applaud and give him his just due.  And there, on stage, in that passionate moment, one can forever remember and be forever better for having seen it. More on that moment later.  

Hoboken to Hollywood takes one back to the beautiful days of black and white kinescope television complete with sixties style cameras, applause signs, and projected monitors on each side of the stage.  One can visit those days on YouTube and watch the washed out images of Frank Sinatra or go to The Edgemar Center Of The Arts and get a lively recreation of those early days of television, circa 1960’s.   The show has been extended to February 27, 2010.

The play, or the book, is about a taping of a television show featuring a superstar called The Crooner.  Hoboken to Hollywood is a historical visit to those days of the television variety show where, at that time, all moms across the nation were serving apple pie, every night, and life seemed to go according to schedule and without conflict.
But Hoboken To Hollywood lets one drop that fantasy and gives us a dose of reality.  Everything isn’t quite as rosy as it appeared on television.    

As the studio audience members, we are treated as cast members; we are shuffled to our seats.  One notices the cast and the musicians are improvising on stage.  (One likes it when actors are getting into the moment!) When all are seated the show starts with little fanfare.  We find out that Dwight (Al Bernstein) has been notified the directors’ wife is having a baby and it’s up to Andy (Pat Towne) to take the helm and direct this show along with his other duties.

Andy does this very reluctantly, because he’s only been assisting for about 14 years and doesn’t feel confident about this particular situation with this particular superstar.  High blood pressure aside, a superior fear of his authority scares the bejesus out of him.  Still he takes the job with the fear that if anything goes wrong, it may be the end of his career. And it’s just this kind of pressure, and angst, that fuels the fire in this production.  

And then everything goes wrong.

First, Andy does not know how to turn on the mike.  The Shimex Commercial Announcer (Chandler Hill) and the spokesgirl (Franci Montgomery) tries their hand at the commercial and that goes wrong.   The furniture is moved to the wrong position.  The 40 lbs bag falls and ruins a shot but fortunately misses the Crooner and Conductor.    The lights unexpectedly go off.

And ultimately it’s up to The Crooner to make things right because it’s his name on this project and everything has to be perfect!

This is a fine cast and crew.  An enormous amount of time and talent went into this production to pull it all together.

Bernstein as Dwight seems slightly out of place with hair and costumes for the time period but nevertheless puts his heart into the production.

Towne as Andy is a gifted physical actor.  He is everywhere doing what needs to be done, has a fine voice, and takes the stage with authority when the time comes.   What might be seen as forced reaction to The Crooners demands might work if his objective was inline with a stronger choice about his livelihood.

Montgomery as Darlene does a fine job.  There is a moment when she drops her ditzy blond routine to pull an outboard motor that was just marvelous. There is a slight confusion as to the relationship between her and The Crooner and is open to any interpretation one might have.  One believes it may serve the program to clear up any misconceptions of this relationship.

Hill as the announcer has a beautiful voice and works this job to perfection. 

Markgraf, as Nelson, is the master of the deadpan.  One would think he needs a little more action as he serves as conductor and friend.

Ellis, as The Crooner, is a wonderful actor/singer.  He is just powerful and able to command the stage and control a song with a strong passionate purpose.  He has his own style so one cannot call it an imitation. The fascinating thing about Ellis performance is his attention to detail. In the song, One For My Baby, he literally had the audience cradled in his arms.  It was this mixture of his voice, body movement, and the television visuals that one notices the details of his art.   It is stunning and a beautiful moment.    

And the shows historical visuals pay attention to the details of television.   One can get a glimpse of the evolution of television and notice when something may not work live, looks beautiful on television.  It is a glimpse of how even slightest moments and emotion are magnified and absorbed by the audience members and that is a very fine thing.

Paul Litteral, who plays trumpet, heads this 12-piece orchestra. The Saxes included Jim Jedeikin, Josh C. Harris, Colin Kupka, and Damon Zick. Craig Kupka and Robbie Hioki played the trombones.   Also on trumpet were Ron Sewer and Kendall Wallace.  On piano, Paul McDonald, bass, Nicholas Klingenberg, and drums, Steve Pemberton.

On top of a story one is getting fabulous songs with a top notched orchestra
Route 66, Bye, Bye, Blackbird, I Got The World on A String, Almost Like Being in Love, I’ve got My Love to Keep Me Warm, Call Me Irresponsible, Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me, The Curse of an Aching Heart, Old Black Magic, That’s Life, You’re Nobody Until Somebody Love You, Shiny Stockings, Stardust, Blue Moon, Ciribirbin, There Are Such Things, Fly Me To The Moon, Green Onions, One For My Baby, I’m Gonna Live ‘Till I Die, Young at Heart, All of Me.

Heads were swaying and toes were tapping.  There’s even a sing-a-long that everyone joins in on.   All together, this was a lot of fun.

Luca Ellis, Paul Litteral and Jeremy Aldrige have written a wonderful book, it’s just that all the moments that don’t quite fit.  The show is still in its early stages but one hopes they find that excitement that propels it to the next level. This show could not secure the rights to a number of songs and may be reason the book may not lend itself to the songs.  Be that as it may, there is still a lot of material here to match to the appropriate song.

Jeremy Aldridge, the director, does a fine job but needs to throw out the stuff that doesn’t work and bring in the “love”.

There is still a maturation process needed before the show is taken back east and shown.  And while it is evolving, one needs to throw his two cents worth so here goes.  The Crooner needs (gasp) a wife.  He needs this as a foil, to show us that he is human, and to give us a reason for these fits of rage and depression on stage.   We could empathize with him all the more and could follow his reasons for his actions on stage. 

Also, The Crooner needs to be a man so in love with his wife that, on top of performing for the studio audience; he’s trying to save his marriage.  Love is a great equalizer.  It can raise a man to his highest heights and bring him down to his lowest low. 

A phone call or two from his wife would provide a reason for his actions and with the cast reaction we would know that she is a very demanding woman.   This would show us his human foibles and the reason for his anger. (Everyone can relate to a disgruntled spouse.)  The song to the beautiful young blond, Darlene, would have more meaning.  His anger about perfection would have more humph. And his man-to-man talk with Andy would provide more humor. 

Come Back to Me would be a great song to end the show.

I'm coming in late in the run of this musical play to witness and write about my observations.  And the crowds are still coming! The joint is still hopping!  And it’s still playing after how many months?  Wow!  This is a true testament to Peach Reasoner, the producer, and the power of equity waiver theatre.  And this is the right kind of fit for the Edgemar Center for the Arts. 

Run to this production and see the light.  It’s a light that alters a perception of a life and that is always a good thing.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Daddy by Dan Via

By Joe Straw

A man I knew as my father shot and killed a man.  Moonlighting from the army, he shot this man in the head, late one night, while working as a security guard.  He took this job to support two families.  One was our family consisting of my mother and my four siblings and another family that was a secret and completely unknown to us. 

And this is something we lived with growing up in a small community in the south.  My mother regarded this as one more “family secret”.

Most seek the truth for one’s emotional wellbeing no matter the cost.

Love is a bastard.

Daddy written by Dan Via, directed by Rick Sparks, and presented by Theatre Planners is now playing to full capacity at the beautiful Hudson Theatre in Hollywood through February 13th, 2011.

The Hudson Theatre is an intimate space and the set, designed by Adam Flemming, is agreeably used for this personal drama.  But as intimate as the set may be the drama on stage leaves one unsatisfied and wanting for a better resolution.

Although there are three main characters, the focus of this play is of a young man trying to find the truth about his life.  And though finding the truth can be the emotional strength of the play it seems almost secondary in nature. 

The setting is Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in the present day.  Stewart Wisniewski (Dan Via) and Colin McCormack (Gerald McCullouch) are old college friends catching up in a bar.  We discover that after college Stewart went off to study law in Washington, D.C., and Colin returned to Pittsburg to work at The Pittsburg Post Gazette.   Each has, over the years, modest success and today they are both working in Pittsburg.

Stewart is out but seems to be a little shy about being in a gay bar whereas Colin seems to enjoy the atmosphere of having a beer, being recognized, and being around like minded people.  Stewart (Stu) tells him that he is going to California to interview for a job at Stanford.

But, during this casual bar time, Colin is confronted by an admirer, a pulchritudinous African American, Thaddeus “Tee” Bloom (Ian Verdun). Bloom is also a young writer and tells Colin that he admires his work and is going to intern at the paper.  Colin recognizes his name, says he read his work, and thinks he has a lot of promise. 

When Colin and Stewart leave, Tee examines an old Polaroid for reasons that become clear later in the play. 

Later, Colin and Stu are on the phone.  Colin tells Stu the Pittsburg Pirates game is about to begin and Stu tell him he’ll be there as quick as he can.  Ten seconds later Stu walks into the apartment.  

They are casual and comfortable with each other. They talk about fatherhood and how things might have been different had they pursue parenthood.  Stu mentions that Colin has put a lot of his sperm in a cup so maybe… 

In fact, there are a number of hints about the direction the play is taking.  So, unsurprisingly the audience is not shocked at the final outcome.  

There are a lot of good things to say about this play.  That will come later.  For now one can say there are a number of problems that need to be fixed. 

Love is a driving force that is not recognized in the play. A pat on the ass and a passionate kiss once does not make a relationship.   Showing love would add a dimension and so many layers one can hardly imagine.  But without this we are left searching for more answers than is delivered on stage.

For example, Stewart loves Colin so much he lives next door.  It must be tortuous to live next door to a man you love so much for that you cannot keep away for one second, much less a minute.  Passionate love creates an added element, makes the choices stronger, and the action more spirited.   And Stewart is so much in love with this man he can’t stand the fact that a younger man is taking his place. Without a strong emotional attachment the relationship is uninspired.    

Turning the tables to give Colin’s perspective, here’s another example: Colin is so in love with Stewart but despises him.  How dare Stewart leave him when they’ve had a passionate relationship in college?  Out of the blue, gone, and now Stewart comes back, hangs out, and wants to be with him again? And now Stewart says he’s considering a job at Stanford?  Well, just go. There’s plenty of men, in this, gay bar! 

And so, Colin finds the intern Tee.  He knows this is wrong (work and all) but urges get the better of him and so they have a passionate relationship. Tee, young, unsure and with a mystery he needs to solve, is hesitant at first but decides to go at this full force.

Now it is up to Stewart to destroy this relationship, which he systematically does without hurting either Colin or Tee.   A huge task, to be sure.

Sex is left on the “cutting room floor” in this production and this play lacks the exploration of anything new involving the relationship between three men.  However, the play does find its strength through the dialogue and the characters determination to find a resolution.

But, without lustful love, these relationships seem casual at best. The world doesn’t turn without love and the imagination to pursue love.  Love can cause people to do ridiculous things and finding the right mix in a theatrical production is worth its weight in whatever one considers valuable.

Via as Colin serves as the playwright as well. This is a difficult task, as the writer has to step back and critique his own acting.  Not impossible, but maybe not practical.   Lost is the world of the subtext of a passionate being.  His moments, meant to move the action along lie flat, the words are thrown to the winds, and the little hints that forecast the ending fly by with little forthrightness.

Verdun as Thaddeus “Tee” Bloom comes off as very flagitious for reason unknown.  In his choices to find information, he comes off as a gold digger, a sinister liar, and one who wants to get the goods on Colin no matter the cost.  Insidious and traitorous seem to be his trademarks.  He cares not for the collateral damages of emotional trauma he causes in his search for the truth. Still, his was the bright spot in this production as he manipulates his way in and tries to take over. (Also, having a character that grows up in North Carolina having an accent that is much deeper south was disconcerting.)

All this leads me to McCullouch as Colin.  Very likeable, productive, and so blinded by love he doesn’t see all that is going around him.  But the conflict cannot be as great unless he is aware of his relationship with Stewart and that is something that needs defining and worked out in rehearsal.  

Jeffrey Patrick Olson and Rene Ruiz were also part of the ensemble but seemed to have little to do with the performers on stage.

Rick Sparks, the director, shows us some clever moments but there are some moments that have little depth and are very superficial. There’s a lot more here that needs exploration.  There is more work to be done.   While there are some marvelous actions on stage, there is a significant through line missing. For now love does not move this play along.  It is a dry bed waiting for the rains to come, but one thinks one hears thunder in the background.

Daddy, performed in New York earlier and given constructive criticism in various reviews seems to have been ignored.   Keep the good, throw out the bad, and push for perfection. Very simply, theater breaks down into a mathematical equation:  Great Theatre = real life – (the boring parts).


Monday, January 10, 2011

The Last Straw Awards 2010

By Joe Straw 

Acting is such a thankless task.

Everyone knows the obstacles when entering the theatre.  Visuals of the darkened alleyways, littered with trash, includes one more element to a sense of being as one enters the performing space.  And in the dressing room a three-legged chair becomes an impediment as one struggles to put on makeup in front a broken mirror with a nasty flickering light.  Usually this event is shared with other actors, some with bad personal hygiene, who have no sense of modesty and gossip about you even when you are in the room. 

Putting those events aside, one realizes this is a short termed project and one needs to make the very best of the situation.  After all, this is a small theatre where the work is mostly without pay.  And that work is done all for the sake of turning a small roll into magic and spinning the small notice into a career.

It is during the curtain call, one’s heart grows stronger when a culmination of events makes one realize the concentration was spot on and the dream could not have gone any better.  

It is a dream they all have. To work hard, day in and day out, and pray for the paying opportunities so that they may provide for themselves and their families. 

I have thought long and hard about this list. The Last Straw Awards 2010 are given to those actors who were outstanding in their field.  Some of the actors listed below have huge careers, others are just starting out, and all deserve to be working regularly in this industry.

The actors are listed in order of the review, which may be found in this blog, January through December 2010.

There is no plaque or sheepskin to place on the mantle. Ultimately, when the day is done, you can’t take it with you and besides it only takes up space.  Know this; that people are watching and taking notice of your outstanding contributions to theatre in Los Angeles.


Mitchell Edmonds (Pozzo) - Waiting for Godot - A Noise Within

Greg Watanabe (Kenji) - No No Boy - Miles Memorial Theatre

JD Cullum (Benedick) - Much Ado About Nothing - A Noise Within
Mark Bramhall (Dogberry) - Much Ado About Nothing - A Noise Within

Ensemble - Starmites - Ensemble Theatre Company - Miles Memorial Theatre
            Natalie Storrs               Michael Joyce             Matthew McFarland
            Jen Reiter                     Thomas Krottinger    Jonah Priour
            Donald Webber, Jr.     Marisa Esposito         Riana Nelson
            Jessica Perlman            Raquel Sandler

William Dennis Hunt (Philly Cullen) - The Playboy of The Western World - A Noise Within

Gina Garrison (Fran) - Supernova - Elephant Theatre Company
Tony Gatto (John Davies) - Supernova - Elephant Theater Company

Sal Lopez (Moe) - Dementia - Latino Theater Company (LATC)
Geoffrey Rivas (Eddie) - Dementia - Latino Theater Company (LATC)

Tony Perzow (Barry) - Angelos - Theatre of Possibilities
Frank Salinas (David) - Angelos - Theatre of Possibilities
Jerome St. Jerome (Kelly the Scalp) - Angelos - Theatre of Possibilities

Sheila Korsi (Anita) - Ojala! - Casa 101 Theatre
Jillann Gabrielle (Mrs. Kenderson) - Ojala! - Casa 101 Theatre

Gina Hecht - Circle of Will - Macha Theatre

Laurence Fishburne - (Thurgood) - Thurgood - The Geffen Theatre

Lin Manuel Miranda (Usnavi) - In The Heights - Pantages
Rogelio Douglas, Jr. (Benny) - In The Heights - Pantages
Arielle Jacobs (Nina) - In The Heights - Pantages

Earnestine Phillips (Harriet Tubman) - Carry It On - Theatricum Botanicum
Gerald C. Rivers (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.) - Carry It On - Theatricum Botanicum

Leith Burke (Zip) - Neighbors - Matrix

Zachary Shields (Pete) - The Quarry - The Moth Theatre

Dulce Maria Solis (Chela) - Chela - Santa Monica Playhouse

Alex Morris (LJ. Robillard) - The Reckoning – The Robey Theater Company (LATC)
Jacob Sidney (Nicholas Burnside) - The Reckoning - The Robey Theater Company (LATC)

Michael Faulkner (Elbow) - Measure for Measure - A Noise Within
Peter Larney (Abhorson) - Measure for Measure - A Noise Within

Stephen Rockwell (Herbet Pockets) - Great Expectations - A Noise Within
Deborah Strang (Miss Havisham) - Great Expectations - A Noise Within

Alice Fulks (The Actress) - The Blue Room - The Moth Theatre
Patrick Scott Lewis (The Cab Driver) - The Blue Room - The Moth Theatre

Nicholas Brendon (David Sedaris) - The Santaland Diaries - The Stella Adler Theatre

Suzanna Guzman (La Virgin de Guadalupe) - La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin - Latino Theater Company