Sunday, August 24, 2014

Bird Lives! by Willard Manus

Montae Russell as Charlie "Bird" Parker  - Photo : James Esposito

By Joe Straw

There was this moment when I absorbed an array of colors, a blast of an all-encompassing saturation that provided, a momentary, almost imperceptible warmth. I can’t remember the exact time or the place. But that experience has stayed with me.  And, I wondered if I would ever see, feel, or have that experience again?  - Narrator

The Chromolume has newer red seats, and was very warm inside. Very. 

The heat concern was slight.  But it fit with the jazz theme – heat, jazz clubs, et al - bring in the smoke – stick colorful gels in the lights – show some sparkle, and make some noise.

You know, that deserves a, “Yeah”.

The patrons brought along their own body heat and smoke, and things got a little warmer on this full capacity night. Fanning with programs provided a welcome relief and some dry ice would have been downright “cool”.

Chromolume Theatre presents “Bird Lives!” written by Willard Manus and directed by Tommy Hicks through September 21, 2014. If you are so moved by the rashly scandalous life of the legendary Charlie “Bird” Parker and want to make this scene, please do. Oh yes, do.  

Scratching a few items down and before they opened the door, a jazzy gentleman, wearing a black beret, ambled over to a piano bench and started playing. He was exceptional, and got us into a colorful jazzy mood. And that noise within me said, “Oh, that must be the piano player from the show and he has come to warm the lobby audience.”

They called for press and I maneuver sideways between the open crack of the theatre door and into the theatre.  I spied a piano on stage - upstage right - means something - we might have some music tonight.

But, quickly I learned the person, playing the piano in the lobby, was a theatre patron. That warm jazzy bebop feeling quickly fluttered away as we filled our seats into the state of darkness.

Okay, but then, through those speakers, I heard the sounds of Broadway show tunes. (The King and I - What gives, Moe?) There is a reason for this but, clearly, the music does not feed into the theme of the show.

Peering on stage now, (and I don’t mind Daniel Ingram’s minuscule set dressing) far upstage center is a curtain that, behind it, I imagined would be the flock of white patrons in the audience who have come to see Bird.  But, no, it didn’t open. And upstage right is that large upright piano that never gets used at all, not even as a prop. 

Opening moments in plays are critical. And in those moments the actor did something - whether directed or not - in which a small part of the 50-seat audience let out an audible gasp.  This particular action stamped a brand of truth that had a profound effect in the beginning of the show.   And in those first inauthentic jiffies, well, the actor has to work that much harder to get the audience back into his corner. And he did. (More on this later.) 

Charlie Parker (Montae Russell) is unquestionably a great alto saxophone player.  In YouTube footage his sax glitters like starlight in an open sky.  And when he presses the keys, there’s hardly a sound.  His fingering is light, so sure, with not, one, wrong, note.  

Parker was a man who, by all outside appearances, led a charmed life, just him, his horn, and a very warm smile. But, the fa├žade, the shadowy vibration of pressing keys through the profound darkness on stage and making beautiful music, hid his unconquerable and obstinate addiction to heroin.  When you have that problem, other evils follow.

This is an obtuse question: Is jazz color?  I believe it is. And this production needs more color - visual, auditory, and emotional accouterments to give it spectacular colors like the painting on the program by the world-renowned artist Leonid Afremov.  Still, there are indeed lots to like about this one-man show that may have a home in venues all across the country.

“Bird Lives!” moving over from another venue across town, has the appearance of a work in progress and with that in mind, I will offer comments with the idea there is something here that just needs fine-tuning.

Tommy Hicks, the director, does a fine job. And like the mouthpiece in the sax, this production needed slight adjustments. Not sharp, not flat, but tuned to be the right note.

The opening when Charlie Parker is playing, it is obvious that he is not.  The music is coming from another directional source and so soft you would hear the keys rattling on the saxophone.  Hopefully this will have been corrected by the time you see this play. (Pad the keys, and stuff padding down the bell.  And, for the love of Charlie’s God, turn up the music.)

Also, this one-man show presents itself from 1934 to 1955 and we really never get or see how time marches on in this production.  Charlie’s character changes little from 1934 to 1955 and needs a dramatic physical change in appearance or manner.  Character development is critical here to get us to that end point. The end of his tortured life is projected here as subdued stoicism on stage, and the actions on stage belie a life that may have been one of excruciating dimensions.

Lighting Design by Samantha Marie would play an important part in this production but there is little variance other than lights up, lights down. (Theatrical candles could help with mood.) This show demands colorful lighting that puts pigment into Parker’s life, and dramatic hues during moments of supreme conflict.  The lighting for the Camarillo scene works effectively and we need more of this lighting.  

Also, the music, Sound Design by James Esposito, must play a critical role in this play. We must see how Parker shaped the music from the life he led, to conflicts he survived.  The music must bleed from his experiences into the physical life on stage.

I’m not familiar with Montae Russell’s work as a performer but there was a lot here to enjoy. There is that “Bird” laugh that made you forgive his faults, and underneath shows the character’s burdens, and that works effectively.  Russell gives us a life of Bird living, not about his dying, and that is a fair choice.  But one wonders if there is another avenue of creativity to boost the levels of conflicts and struggles onstage.  

The title of this play is “Bird Lives!”  Not to be a spoiler but, he dies. So, what lives? – his music and his legacy - So, the objective of the actor is to physically create the legacy - his music - through living his musical life to the fullest.  What is the conflict?  The most important is his heroine addiction and we never really see how that physically affects his life.  Drug addiction invites unwanted mannerism and must be present on stage, physically, emotionally, and sub textually defined. The addiction is the conflict and causes him problems with his wife, his daughter, his doctor, producer Norman Granz, and the police. And all of these minor obstructions contribute to the man and his music.  This is something we do not see.

Also, throughout the play, the music must be running through Charlie’s head, his fingertips moving, all as part of developing a character we can see on stage.  We need to see that life through his improvisational life. And it all must be in line, in tune, with the music.

There is a lot to enjoy from Willard Manus’s play.  It is Parker’s panoply of gifts to the known world. But it is also a collection of facts from his life, racial discrimination, addiction, home life, and playing the sax, rather than a complete story that drives home a point.  We learn about the Harlem Riots, the killing of his father, the shakedown from a police officer, but how does all of this make the character and move the life of the character?

Everything has to go right in order for a one-man show to be perfect.  We must believe the non-existent characters beyond the fourth wall, that they somehow hold the keys to Parker’s existence. And our solicitude must be genuine for the man and the colors he has created.

Thomas Bell plays Charlie Parker as well but did not perform on this night.

Amy Mazzaferro did a nice job with the Costume Design

Lauren J. Peters was the Stage Manager.

Mike Abramson was responsible for Marketing.

Ken Werther Publicity is the Press Representative.

Run!  And take someone who enjoys improvisation, in jazz and in life.

AUGUST 15 — SEPTEMBER 21, 2014




Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hairspray, Jr. – Based on the New Line Cinema film written and directed by by John Waters, Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, Music by Marc Shaiman, Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman

By Joe Straw

Living in the Deep South in the 1960s – embracing the poverty that accompanies a military family’s journey – the finer things in life, like Aqua Velvet, was the hairspray of fiscal practicability.  It was the only thing my single mother of five could afford.

Aqua Velvet was thick, flashy, cheap, strong holding, and worked so well that it was, well, I could bounce bobby pins off the impenetrable strands of my sisters’ plastered hair. 

And thinking back, the aerosol that was engulfed into my sibling’s lungs was the same lofty fluorocarbons that put numerous holes in the ozone layer.  

So many things back then were, just, wrong. – Narrator

But nothing was wrong with dee-Lightful Productions presentation of Hairspray, Jr. written by John Waters and directed by Dolores Aguanno from July 9, 10, 11, and 12, 2014 at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Culver City.  Everyone leaves the theatre in a state of happiness and isn’t that what theatre is all about.

(This is the closest I’ve been to a dee-Lightful Production and for the sake of conflict of interest I acknowledge that my daughter performed in this musical.)

So technically, I was embedded, albeit slightly, and this gave me the opportunity to make a few mental notes while waiting for rehearsals to end.

Notwithstanding, organized chaos was the order of the day.  But, each person had their own particular job and you’ve got to hand it to the crew, wrangling that many kids in this camp has many challenges.  In short, there was a structure to this chaos.  Sign in/out sheets, go here, go to that room, move this way, dance that that way, missing dialogue, running for costumes, etc., but one has to marvel at the accomplishments made during the course of the day.  They were all tiny steps for sure, but steps taken forward.

Looking around I note some of these parents and their children I’ve known since our pre-school days at La Playa preschool in Culver City.  And now here they were, part of the approximately 73 kids, grown and unrecognizable, participating in this camp, all waiting to get their chance to perform.  All are delighted to be in the spotlight, however long, however brief, but it is indeed a spotlight.  

Everyone takes his or her methodical time, because in the end you know Dolores Aguanno, the director and producer, is going to make this all work, somehow, someway.  

And watching during the course of a four week camp, toward the end, the chaos got a little more streamlined, the scaffolding and the lights started going up, there were things that resembled a set, the movements were more co-ordinated, dances were coming together, and the parents you’ve seen time and time again through the years watch with open amazement as their child is catching on.

Did I mention there were three separate casts? The Pigtails, Beehives, and The Ducktails and at the end of camp each cast got to perform in two performances. 

Hairspray is a musical that takes place in Baltimore, Maryland in 1962. It is the story of a plump, vivacious, teenage girl, Tracy Turnblad (Emily Greenstein), and her friend Penny (Brooke Rosenbloom). Every day, they rush home to see the Corney Collins (Jeremy Greenstein) Show much to the dismay of Tracy’s mother, Edna (Mica Williams).

Tracy finds out that the show is holding auditions for a dancer and Tracy begs her mother to let her audition. Tracy’s plus sized mother, who doesn’t go out of the house, doesn’t think it will be a good idea. But her father, Wilber (Misha Reiss) thinks that Tracy should follow her dreams and off Tracy goes.

While Tracy is at the audition, she bumps into Link Larkin (Ben Sanderson) and immediately falls in love. But when she auditions with Velma Von Tussle (Sabrina Lopez), the mean producer, Tussle, rejects Tracy, somewhat because of her looks, but mostly due to her size.  Tussel also rejects Little Inez (Sada Maryanov) because of her color without so much as an audition.

Later Tracy is sent to detention where she meets Seaweed J. Stubbs (Brandon Howard) who teachers her how to do some hip dance moves.  And when Corny Collins sees Tracy dancing at the Sophomore Hop, he invites her to be on the show.

Velma Von Tussle doesn’t like this one bit.  She wants her daughter, Amber (Isabella Veale), to be the star of the show and sets out to destroy Tracy.  But the ratings on the show are now up and everyone wants to be like Tracy.

Tracy is now a star and is courted by Mr. Pinkie, owner of Mr. Pinkey’s Hefty Hidewaway, to wear his oversized dresses. But in order to sign the contract, Tracy must get her mother out of the house to act as her agent. She does and “Welcome to the Sixties” is born.  

This leaves Amber, a real sosh, in a tizzy. And in a game of dodge ball, Amber knocks out Tracy (not sure how this can physically happen) and Link rushes to her side, along with Penny and Seaweed.  It is here that we first see Seaweed taking a liking to Penny.  And as Tracy comes to, Seaweed invites them over to dance, dance, dance.  

I had the privilege of seeing the Ducktails cast, the younger group of thespians, and I’ve got to tell you that one can’t help but get a little teary-eyed by all that was happening on stage. As a collective, they sounded fantastic.

Emily Greenstein as Tracy was as cute as a button with a very fine singing voice. Mica William did a very fine job as Edna. Misha Reiss had some nice moments as Wilbur. Brooke Rosenbloom was a very fine companion as Penny. Jules Henderson plays Prudy with aplomb.  

Isabella Veale did a very nice job as Amber and has a very fine voice as well. Sabrina Lopez plays Velma nicely.  Ben Sanderson had a couple of very nice songs as Link and Jeremy Greenstein did an excellent job as the square Corny.

Brandon Howard had his moments as Seaweed and Sada Maryanov had some very sympathetic moments as Little Inez.  Syrus Jones had a very nice dance number as Gilbert.

And I love Alexis Turner role as MM Maybelle. (MM is Motor Mouth)

Zoe Alamillo, Breanna Howard, Anya Nelson & Maya Calderon were Judine, Kamilah, and Shayna respectively as The Dynamites.

Izzy Kessner played Mr. Pinkie.   Arden Malsin was the Matron.  Lucas Calado was the Male Guard. Maya Calderon played Gilberta.  Anya Nelson was Lorraine.  Thistle Boosinger was the Gym Teacher and Principal and Sophia Martin-Straw was the Newscaster.

Filling the empty spots in the stage in some very nice numbers were “The Nicest Kids” and they were as follows: Eve Mott as Brad, Gwyneth Seelinger as Tammy, Cali Kimura as Francie, Arden Malsin as Sketch, Sunny MacGaffey as Shelly, Anna Kite as IQ, Jady Plesent as Brenda, and Harrison Anderson as Lou-Ann.

The nicest kids ensemble were Kate Bancroft, Happy Boosinger, Ashleigh Cogan, Brooke Cogan, Keira Cranach, Isabella Davis, Makena Davis, Dagny Hatch, Zoe Lynch, Holly MacGaffey, Sophia Martin-Straw, Makena Reiss, Audrey Rothenberg, and Elizabeth Thomas.

The R & B Ensemble was Evyn Armstrong, Mirabel Armstrong, Austin Carney, and Jade Lewis.

The Pit Singers were Lily Fanali, Carly Shiever, Joe-May Silvers, and Khamiya Terrell.

To put on a show of this magnitude requires a lot of help from crew, family and friends. And a few of those who participated are mentioned below:

Assistant Director for Ducktails Cast – Allegra Williams
Choreographers – Louie Chavez, Allegra Williams
Vocal Director – Zoe Petersen
Vocal Assistant – Carly Shiever
R & B Vocal Coach – Lyndraice Papa
Set Design – Dolores Aguanno, Joey Guthman
Lighting Design – Chris Clark Samuel Petersen
Stage Manager for Ducktails – Zoe Petersen
Costume Designer – Joey Guthman
Hair & Make-up Crew Head – Chloe Cohen
Email Communications – Laura Peterson (As well as a thousands other jobs.)

Everyone loves this show including the enormous cast that tried out for it.  There are two other casts that I did not see.  They are as follows:

Character               Pigtails                                Beehives

Tracy                     Katelyn Coon                       Jessie Grimaldo
Edna                      Max Lianos                          Carly Shiever
Wilbur                   Mika Stambler                      Keaton Asma
Penny                    Grace McFalls                       Lily Fanali
Prudy                    Mirabelle Baer                       Julia Rais
Amber                   Lindsay Gross                       Siena Neillis
Velma                   Angelina Cicchini                  Katy Engel
Link                      Ben Hilsberg                         Chris Clark
Corny                   Keaton Asma                         Nick Freedson
Seaweed               Austin Carney                       Nehi Thompson
Little Inez             Evyn Armstrong                   Breanna Howard
MM Maybelle      Mirabel Armstrong               Khamiya Terrell

The Dynamites:
Judine                   Joie-May Silvers                  Sabrina Lopez
Kamilah                Khamiya Terrell                   Joe-May Silvers
Shayna                  Alexis Turner                       Reese Schiffman

Mr. Pinkie               Misha Reiss                         Max Lianos
Matron                    Mica Williams                     Mica Williams
Male Guard             Lucas Calado                      Lucas Calado
Gilbert                     Syrus Jones                         Syrus Jones
Lorraine                   Jade Lewis                          Jade Lewis
Gym Teacher/Principal   Malia Reiss                 Carolina Robles
Newscaster                      Misha Reiss                Misha Reiss

The Council:  “Nicest Kids”
Brad                        Nick Freedson                      Keaton Asma
Tammy                    Dyllen Nellis                       Dyllen Nellis
Francie                    Mica Williams                     Mica Williams
Sketch                     Lucas Calado                       Lucas Calado
Shelly                      Clara Franz-Arau                Clara Franz-Arau
IQ                            Carly Shiever                      Ben Hilsberg
Branda                     Siena Nellis                        Lindsay Gross

The Council:  “Nicest Kids” Ensemble:
Sarah Daghigh, Vivian Daghigh, Kyra Lianos

R & B Ensenble:  Zoe Alamillo, Brandon Howards, Breanna Howard, Maya Calderon, Sada Maryanov

Ensemble:  Thistle Boosinger, Jeremy Greenstein, Misha Reiss.

dee-Lightful, the staff, and Dolores Aguanno deserve a hearty round of applause for giving everyone a chance to shine, a chance to learn, and a wonderful place to hone their craft.  And isn’t that what we need in Culver City.

Next on the agenda for dee-Lightful is “Once on This Island, Jr.” You cannot beat the price to see wonderful kids working their hearts out!

4 performances with 2 different casts:
Thursday, August 14 at 7:00 PM (Seashells cast)
Friday, August 15 at 7:00 PM (Coconuts cast)
Saturday, August 16 at 3:00 PM (Coconuts cast)
Saturday August 16 at 7:00 PM (Seashells cast)
Veteran's Memorial Auditorium
4117 Overland Avenue (corner of Culver Blvd)
Culver City, CA 90230
$10 all tickets (except CCUSD teachers & staff are free!)
Tickets available at the door only
Questions?  E-mail us at, or go to our website: