Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Eastside Heartbeats – Book by Tom Waldman, Music & Lyrics by James Holvay, Additional Music & Lyrics by David Reyes, Rudy Salas, Tom Waldman


By Joe Straw

Thump—thumpthump, thump—thumpthump, thump—thumpthump.  (Can you hear it?)

There is a lot going on in this uplifting musical, Eastside Heartbeats, and it is not just the music. Surely this musical has the potential to move to another and bigger venue. Yes, there’s enough here for a future life. And Eastside Heartbeats has got all of Los Angeles as potential patrons – beyond the east-side sold-out houses at Casa 0101.  There is the west-side, the south-side, the north-side of Los Angeles, more room for dancing in the street, and beyond.   


One can hardly write when the music is mentally playing in the background, so I will turn it off, for now, if I can. 

The music in Eastside Heartbeats is good, really good.  Listening, one can hear the febrile pulsations and the reverberant clangor of the 1960’s – songs that send a delicious shiver down a slippin’ backbone with the sounds that drove Americans and the world absolutely nuts.  And, with the exception of La Bamba, Eastside Hearbeats is all new music. Absorbed this night was the flavor of Smokey Robinson, a taste of Cannibal and The Headhunters, the bottom tips of The Four Tops, and also a treat, the Merseybeat.

I can't help myself.  

A lot of money went into the production of this musical. It is apparent on stage with the costumes, props, and music, but, there was something that required attention, something that missed the mark, that didn’t quite hit the nail on the head, and needs to be fixed.

What the heck was it? 

The book.  The book.  The book.  I believe that it was the book by Tom Waldman.

Stand by me.  

At times, the book was desultory. And to that end, I will direct my comments.  But, and this is a big BUT, it was also a remarkable job for Waldman’s first play outing.

There are musicals that get along fine without a book, but this musical necessitates a strong book to set the time and move the motion.  The interesting moments are the ones that take a serious look at Latino musicians, changing their looks, and presenting their sound as white. These moments, and the rich Latino heritage, need a second look, a deeper look.   

Brown Fist Production in Association with Casa 0101 presents Eastside Heartbeats – Book by Tom Waldman, Music & Lyrics by James Holvay, Additional Music & Lyrics by David Reyes, Rudy Salas, and Tom Waldman.  Eastside Heartbeats was directed by Steve E. Feinberg and produced by Maria Elena Yepes, Tom Waldman, Steve E. Feinberg, and David Reyes.  Eastside Heartbeats complete its run at Casa 0101 on May 29th, 2016 in Boyle Heights.

Essentially the play is a story about a young Latino man, living on the eastside, who wants to become a rock and roll star.  

Those dreams seem a galaxy away for Jimmy Ramirez (Kenneth Miles Ellington Lopez) and the Eastside Heartbeats knowing very little about how this is all going to happen.  The group Mario (Marco Infante), Andy (Jesse Maldonado Salgado), and Ronnie (Matthew Ramos) all try to find a way.  So, in the summer of 1965 these four forlorn young men look to climb to the top – “the toppermost of the poppermost” – all before 1966. 

Their dreams do come in small increments as the band moves to find its way to having a number one hit, despite the conflicts they have with family and business partners.

So, I’ve got a few notes.

Papa’s got a brand new bag.

Dad, Carlos Ramirez (Gabriel Gonzalez) needs a job. He is a big part of the conflict, the infectious melancholy injected into the lives of his surrounding family members.  He is the message, the struggle that is resolved in the end.  Carlos respects tradition and traditional Mexican music.  He is a mechanic by trade, but we never see him working, oily, with grease on his face, his hands, clothes, or singing under the hood of his work. Symbolism goes a long way here.  He fights with his son, Jimmy, his daughter, Lydia (Angel Marie Galvan), and a little with his wife, Sonia (Isabel Serrano).  But, why?  Later we find out why, but we really don’t see the progression in this character, what he gave up, and what makes him so angry until the end of the musical.   

Lydia Ramirez, younger sister to Jimmy Ramirez, must have a stronger relationship with her brother. It is not enough to be supportive of him; we must really find a connection, an adamantine bond that locks them arm in arm. She might even be a future sociologist.

Love makes the world go round.

The same holds true with Sonia Ramirez, the matriarch of the family. She is a character that needs the strong objective of holding the family together while finding a way to make sure his son achieves his dream. It’s not that far flung to have Sonia make Jimmy, with no job, a cheese and mayonnaise sandwich to keep his strength while he’s rehearsing. (I say this in jest, but again, a little symbolism goes a long way.) All in the name of love.

Be my baby.

Hal Fisher (Jordan Charles) is a manager, a no nonsense, you got one hour to get it done or you’re out the door, kind of guy with a girlfriend, Teresa Gomez (Vanessa Benavente), who has got a really nice head on her shoulders.  But their relationship doesn’t grow, and really doesn’t have a resolution.  Their relationship ties into the boy’s success and it kind of does, but there isn’t a big amorous connection in the end. Fisher throughout has a take it or leave it attitude when it comes to love, and that ain’t love, baby, that ain’t love.   

There’s a really interesting scene in the record store before the guys “make it”. Jimmy is hip to Teresa but really wants to get to Hal Fisher, for maybe more than representation. But this action isn’t realized on stage as a pursuit.  It’s more or less singing a song, “It’s all Good”. A good song, by the way, but does little in the way for the actors reaching their objectives.  The introduction, the pursuit, the capture, success or failure, are all things we should see in this number.

Reach out. I’ll be there.    

Eddie Mitchell (Jahmaul Bakare) has got enough talent for all, and he shares it to those who are really looking for it, the ride, the big ride. The show needs Bakare’s voice in it, because you can’t have the sixties without the soul, period. But, what are we to make of Mitchell’s relationship with Jimmy, beside one of teacher.  Jimmy shows up one day at Mitchell’s house, they do a number, “”Bad Dads”, and Jimmy leaves.  Hmmm, got to, got to, got to have more than that. We’ve really got to have more of a relationship that later ties into the destruction from the Watts riots.  

Also, one is not really sure why Jimmy was there alone, taking lessons. Is he there because he is the front man and needs that extra added advantage?  Or, is he there to take back those lessons to teach to the other guys? Also, the book really needs to define Jimmy as the front-man and whether this by their choice or by the manager’s design.

Steve E. Feinberg, the director, does an admirable job.  There are enough moments in the musical that keep you bouncing in your chair. The execution is almost flawless.  But the momentum is stalled during set changes.  Feinberg must find a way to keep living room set and all the other set changes to a minimum, and make those changes inventive in keeping with the musical.  There are also the relationship problems inherent in the story that could be strengthened. All small notes, but, for the most part, Eastside Heartbeats is exceptional.  

Dance Captain Katie Kitani did a remarkable job with the ensemble.  The energy on stage was just tremendous.  Members of the ensemble were Taleen Shrikian, April Sheets who also played the lovely Bride, Andrew Joseph Perez who was also the Groom, Sebastian Gonzales, also rounded out the ensemble.   

Benjamin Perez was the understudy for Hal Fisher who did not perform the night I was there. Bernardita Nassar played Teresa Gomez and also did not perform on this night.

Kenneth Miles Ellington Lopez (that’s a mouthful) plays front man Jimmy Ramirez.  Lopez has a great voice and a natural appeal and could easily do this for a living.

Marco Infante also has a wonderful voice as Mario.  He turns red when belting out the numbers and has a lot of energy on stage.

Jesse Maldonado Salgado plays Andy and really looks nothing like his picture in the program. Salgado has an interesting looks, kind of quirky on stage, and manages to hold his own with the rest of the group.  

Matthew Ramos does a fine job as Ronnie and fills out the quartet with a remarkable sound.

Gabriel Gonzales plays the Dad Carlos Ramirez but doesn’t look anything like his picture in the program. Must be the mustache that throws me off. Carlos needs a song about his dreams and that song should include his son. “I Had My Say” does the opposite.

Angel Marie Galvan did a nice job as Lydia Ramirez, the sister, but more could be made of her character.

Jordan Charles has got a very nice look as Hal Fisher.  Fisher has got problems looking for the next big thing. He doesn’t give second chances but other than that we know little of his outside life, if he has one.  He has no romantic proclivities and that doesn’t bode well for a musical that is essentially, a romantic outing.  Fisher needs more of a backstory, in job, and in love. That said, Charles has an astonishing presence on stage.

Jahmaul Bakare has got a remarkable voice as Eddie Mitchell.  Mitchell is a supporting character but something really has to happen to him.  (Could it be during the Watts riots?)  Mitchell, as it is now, just disappears and we really don’t get a sense of what happened to the character and how this all fits in the musical.

Vanessa Benavente, usually an understudy, played Teresa on this night. Benavente gave a solid performance and one admires the strength she brought to the character. While not everything worked, her performance was exceptional.

Isabel Serrano played Sonia on this night and was also exceptional. Serrano, an understudy, went on this night and there were no major glitches.

One feels like I’ve stepped back into the 60’s with Julius Bronola costume design.  The same hold true for Urbanie Lucero’s choreography which kept us dancing well into the night.

The handling of the instrumental chores is the off-stage band. The band is great.  Great! Gary St. Germain (Musical Director, Keyboards & Guitar), the legendary James Holvay (Rhythm Guitar), Christopher Diaz-Infante (Guitar), Christian Burrolla (Bass), and Peter A. Zavala (Drums) play to their hearts content and the music alone is worth the price of admission.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Jerry Blackburn – Production Stage Manager
JP Torres – Stage Manager
Cesar Holguin – Set Designer
Jose Lopez – Lighting Designer
Joey Guthman – Production Designer & Associate Lighting Designer
Vincent Sanchez – Sound Designer
Melodee Fernandez – Vocal Director, Assistant Music Director
Katie Kitani – Dance Captain
Angel Gutierrez – Assistant Director
Jorge Villanueva – Light and Sound Board Operator
Rooster Cabrera – Assistant Stage Manager
Miguel Carachure – Sound Mixer
Steve Moyer – Publicist
Ed Krieger – Photographer
Soap Studio Inc. – Graphic Design

When you get the chance – Run! Run! Run!  And take a friend that really loves the music of the sixties.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Blood From A Stone by Tommy Nohilly


L - R Frankie Ingrassia, Chad Brannon, Jossara Jinaro - Photos by Nora Graseck

By Joe Straw

Once they were a happy family.  The boys came first and then a little girl. And then things started falling apart in the family, I don’t know if it was the structure, the backbone, or individual family members, they just started in on each other, playing favorites, and what not.  They were a family.  They are a family.  Loving some, fighting lots, and hating more.  But loving, loving. – Narrator

LB Production presents the West Coast Premiere of Blood From a Stone written by Tommy Nohilly and directed by Thomas C. Dunn through May 22, 2016 at The Electric Lodge in Venice, California.  

In short, Blood From a Stone is a wonderful play by Tommy Nohilly about the stormy vicissitudes of a blue-color family struggling to make sense of their predicament.  The play is filled with pleasing surprises and exceptional moments. First performed by Ethan Hawke Off Broadway in 2011, this West Coast Premier version is the best new play I’ve seen in years. I am breathless, or out of breath, I don’t know which.

Director Thomas C. Dunn brilliantly executes all of this in an amazing night of theatre with a precision one rarely sees in this type of venue. He guides the stunning and creative cast with so much creative life that you will relive those moments the moment you leave the theatre!

One can only appreciate the antics of this family by just taking a deep breath, to not pass judgment in the characters, and then to let the visceral excitement of this comedy carry you away. 

Wait a minute. Was this a comedy, or a drama?

Travis (Chad Brannon) has got to leave. Home is not sitting right with him in New Britain, Connecticut, so it’s best for him to cut ties, as he leaves for the West Coast. But first it’s one long last goodbye.

Margaret (Joanne Baron), Travis’s mom, now folding laundry on the messy kitchen table, is happy to see him. She’s got lots to tell him before he leaves.  And as a kicker she wants to give him money, including whatever money she can scrape up out of the bottom of her purse.  She instructs Travis that he should also get gas money from his penny-pinching father, Bill (Gareth Williams), before he departs.

Travis reaches for prescription bottle on top of the dilapidated refrigerator, and twists off the top, for something to take the edge off, something he needs.

Margaret, living under this dripping roof, has got an edge in her voice about everything in her life.  She doesn’t particularly like her youngest son, Matt (Ryan Lahetta), who lies and steals, oh yes he does.

“What does your brother want?” – Margaret

This is something Travis cannot answer.  No matter, Margaret’s got something to say about everything including her husband Bill who indiscriminately replaced four tiles in the kitchen.  The white looking tiles, four of them, glow white in separate spots on the kitchen floor against the paler original grey looking ones.

And now the glow Margaret once had for her husband Bill is a flickering light, from a wick-less candle, on an old stick.

Suddenly it became clear that everything in the house, in this home, is in shambles, walls not finished, broken windows, false ceiling coming down, no kitchen cabinets, and a paint job that has been started everywhere but not finished anywhere.  This is a home neglected - inhabited by a neglecting family. (Set beautifully designed by Pete Hickok, Set Designer. )

Travis stares out the broken kitchen window and notices the beautiful house next door, the kids playing in the yard.

“Those kids should have been yours.” – Margaret

Margaret wants grand-kids.  Travis ignores her, staring out the window, coveting that married someone, that someone next door.

Margaret gives him something to do – take the buckets out because it’s going to rain.  Her hip is telling her.  Funny thing is that Travis, almost rote like, knows the exact spot to place the buckets. This has been an ongoing problem with no solution in sight. 

And as they work together we notice Margaret and Travis’ relationship is an oenomel, something that seems possible given what we learn about the family’s dynamics.

Meanwhile Margaret confides to Travis that if anything should happen to her, she’s got the Purple Heart and his Bronze Heart in a box. Travis doesn’t like her talking like that, the she’s going somewhere, if something should happen to her, etc.,

The phone rings – Jerry (not seen) is on the line.  It’s obvious that Margaret loves him.  The smile on her face lights up the room as they schedule a rendezvous.

Outside, a car passing the house has the loud Mexican, Latino, Hispanics, music blaring through its doors.

Bill, a man who toils wearily on other’s homes, but a cunctator on the upkeep of his own, arrives on the scene, angrily voices his opinions about those Mexicans, drug dealers, rapists, always stopping next door, making a pickup, and selling crack to his kids, noticing the buckets as if for the first time.

“What’s that?”  - Bill

“Buckets for rain.” – Travis

Bill says that he wants Travis to go out with him and Debra (not seen) for a foot long and a banana black cherry soda at that place on the Bronx, before he goes off on a rant about drug dealers.  Who, by the way, should all the taken to Baghdad, along with the terrorists, dragged naked through the streets before being nuked.

Bill has issues. 

Joanne Baron and Gareth Williams

Margaret, a nurse, and fed up with Bill for the time being, leaves for work.

Later that night, Travis finds comfort in the arms of Yvette (Jossara Jinaro), the Puerto Rican married woman living next door. Wearing only red bra and red panties, she joins him in domestic bliss, a tremulous glow, on the couch before real life creeps in. Further amatory speculations of this relationship suggests that it ends at arms length.

Yvette tells Travis that Matt has been hanging around with the West End Boys.  She just lets that slip, about Matt, before mentioning lunch on Tuesday at Chili’s.

Travis affected by her words turns on her in a manner befitting his father.

“You’re like your father.  You’re mean.” – Yvette

A tile from the drop ceiling falls exacerbating the heated discussion they are having. Travis doesn’t have good words for her drug-dealing husband, Hector.

“You know what Hector does.” – Travis
“I’m not happy.” – Yvette

Sarah, Travis’ sister, appears in the driveway and Travis does his best to hand Yvette her clothes and send her up the dilapidated stairs to temporarily disappear.  Sarah, in a nurse’s uniform, plots herself down on the couch and rubs her feet. Sarah has much to say and she is not leaving, much to Yvette’s dismay.

It doesn’t take Sarah long to notice that Travis has taken two pain pills.

“I can see you took two of them.” – Sarah

Sarah hands Travis an envelop of money for their brother Matt (Ryan Lahetta) before she discovers a smell on the blankets and knows that Yvette is in the house.

“Ho.” – Sarah

Sarah opens the backdoor for Yvette. And Yvette, without apology, ties her dress for all to see and admire before she struts herself out the door.   

Sarah’s has seen it all and she is not impressed.  But she’s got important news about their brother, her husband, her pregnancy, and other news.

What makes Thomas C. Dunn's theatrical presentation a work of art is the precision of the actors. Each actor takes the time to create and develop a moment.  And the actions on stage move so fluidly that one appreciates the dramatic interpretation, the delightful surprises, and the ineffable joy from the presentation.    

And whose idea was it to throw a garden gnome through the window?

I went to this show to get a better understanding of domestic violence.  Tommy Nohilly's language is sometime coarse; the violence tells us that violence begets violence, handed down from generation to generation. (This deplorably insane family will probably take me years to understand.  I may need additional therapy.)  But overall I came away thinking this was a very unusual comedy, and certainly the startled sold out audience loved the show as well.  The writing was superb! The play ultimately shows us the inherent exquisite nature of the good and bad in all human beings all dramatized by this one family. 

Joanne Baron is amazing as Margaret.  It is a wonderful tour de force. Hatred comes in many forms but love is constant and this is something that permeates Margaret’s character. Margaret loves her firstborn son. (One can only imagine if she sees the younger Bill in Travis.) She distrusts her youngest son, hates her husband with a passion, but manages to love them all during the course of the play. This is a testament to Baron’s creativity and her craft. This is a role, where her life begins in the middle, and as increments of information slip, we get the full scope of her character and her life.

Chad Brannon is also wonderful as Travis.  It’s funny how he is so much like his father.  This violent being thing does not fall far from the tree.  But this is not a life he wants, fighting with his father, not trusting his brother, not wanting to settle down.  He recognizes his life is in shambles and although he thinks he can control others around him, in reality, he cannot.

Loved Frankie Ingrassia’s performance as Sarah! Sarah has to impart a lot of information in this one scene she is in but does it magnificently.  Ingrassia’s style is grounded in a very solid caring character.  She is the one who seems the most normal. She wants to have a normal life, with a normal family, and a quiet religious exploration. And she is the central figure for all that is love in this family.  She is the one who takes care of all except the neighbor. Sarah is there for two reasons, to keep the peace and to keep her brother from moving away.  

Jossara Jinaro does yeoman (F) work as Yvette, a hot-blooded stubborn Latina that will not take no for an answer. She’s also not embarrassed to let everyone know that she is sleeping with the one she loves.  Not all Puerto Rican women throw things but this one does throw pillows and not her fist.  Glad to see that this time around she lets her words and her physical momentum do all the talking. And it is all great work.  

L - R - Ray Lahetta, Chad Brannon, Gareth Williams

Ryan Lahetta is Matt, the ne’r do well brother, a liar, thief, gambler, and oddly enough a nurse. Caught in his sublime puerilities, he is a character that will never grow up.  He is smart, but not smart enough to hang Christmas lights on a tree, or maybe he’s got other things on his mind.  And he is not smart enough to avoid being caught by his family, or to the thugs to which he owes money. He’s married, trying to get divorced, but already has a fiancée.  He wants to move back in with his parents, his life is in shambles, and his mother hates him.  Well, not really.  Not really.  What is really fascinating with Lahetta’s performance is in the way he convinces himself that he is telling the truth, but “liar” beams from his forehead like a Las Vegas neon light. And, not to let the cat out of the bag, this is a terrific performance.

Gareth Williams brings a remarkable likeness to the role despite all of the things that makes Bill so hateful.  Bill tries, not hard, but he tries.  He’s got emotional problems, hates a lot of people and things. But there are moments in Williams’s portrayal that speaks volumes of this man.  One was bringing in the shovel; the other was moving the cabinet into the kitchen, and still another buying a new phone. This is a man who despite everything, we know that he cares, even if he only shows it in small increments.  This was another wonderful performance.  

Terry Kovac plays Bill and Gabrielle Salinger plays Sarah/Yvette in understudy roles.  They did not perform the night I was there.

Rachquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners and Victoria Watson, Theatre Planners always work magic as Producer and Associate Producer respectively.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Donny Jackson – Lighting Designer
Aaron Lyons – Sound Designer
Mia Rabinowitz – Costume Designer
Mike Mahaffey – Fight Director
Jennifer Palumbo – Stage Manager

Run! Run! Run! And take your thievin’ connivin’ brother and make him pay while you’re at it.  

RESERVATIONS: (323) 960-7788.
ONLINE TICKETING: www.Plays411.com/stone

Monday, May 9, 2016

Weapons by Chris Collins

L - R Paige Herschell, Matt Kirkwood, Madelynn Fattibene, and Katie May Porter

Guns kill over thirty thousand people a year. Shsss! Don’t tell anyone. - Narrator

In the play Weapons by Chris Collins, everyone had access to that firearm which, by happenstance, was casually left on the mantle above the fireplace. Before the night was through, the service revolver, a residual accouterment of a police force job, was first in the hands of former officer, Paul (Cris D’Annunzio), who almost kills his brother, Bill (Matt Kirkwood). Second, Sarah, a recalcitrant daughter (Paige Herschell), points it at her father.  Third, the youngest sister, Lara (Jodi Wofford), appears ready to participate in some kind of glorified shootout.

Fogbank Production presented the world premiere of Weapons written by Chris Collins, directed by Kiff Scholl, and produced by Racquel Lehrman at The Lounge Theatre which ended its run May 8, 2016.

Despite the constant display of the weapon, one gets the impression that this show wasn’t about a gun. A gun represents the end of all things and they are not quite there, yet. 

This is the story of a San Francisco working class family in refined grimness caught defining their existence through their rustic volubility.

What does this mean?

Well, one doesn’t need a gun to inflict pain, especially emotional pain. Words are a form of battery here, and generally, the damage is done before the final breathless word is uttered. These words are a knife that pierces deep into the demonstrative being, leaving an exposed festering gash that never heals.     

Human interaction – the sources for great love and pain. And this is where one finds a refulgent setting; who thought that theatre could be this interesting!

The San Francisco Bay is the source of the tugboat’s long horn.  The creeping searchlight, slow and measured at night, moves past the shaded window.  The night casts a long ghostly silhouette that sails across the walls of the home.  This is a home that has seen better days wonderfully created by Pete Hickok, Set Designer.      

And as that house, near the bay settles, a noise rattles the occupants.  Paul, in the darkness, takes out his gun.  It is an overly extreme measure to find the source, which could be an intruder, or an apparition from a not too distant past.  Or, he takes it out because ultimately he has nothing to lose.  May (Madelynn Fattiene), his girlfriend, steps out of the bedroom, wondering where he is but she hears a noise at the front door and retreats back into the bedroom.

The front door rattles at first, then a key, until the door opens. Bill quietly steps in, sits on the couch, and lays down to sleep.

Meanwhile Paul comes back into the room, sees the dark figure on the couch, and almost fires into his brother’s body.

“What the hell?” - Bill

Paul says he was expecting Bill earlier and he doesn’t have to sleep on the couch; he can sleep in Sarah’s room.

Sarah left unexpectedly, after her mother died, for unexplained reasons.    

Paul doesn’t seem too broken up over his wife’s death a year ago.  He confides to Bill that he has been seeing and hearing things. But now he is more concerned for his daughters, especially his youngest daughter, Lara, who has confidence issues following the loss of her mother.

Paul tells Bill that he is retired from the force and the bar he owns is doing okay. Bill is skeptical about things he’s hearing; after all there’s the bounced check Paul sent him.  Something is not right with his older brother Paul and it’s hard to believe anything he says nowadays.   

“Sarah blames me for something.” – Paul

This is possibly the reason Sarah left although the reason is only clear to her.

Paul says he went to confession for the first time in thirty years. (This is actually an important moment that gets little attention.) Why he went or, what he needed to confess at this time in his life, is only evident to him, the priest, and his creator, and he’s not telling Bill anything.

Paul says the confession reminded of the time in the eighth grade when he would get aroused at confession.  Then he would confess while staring at Patricia Faulker’s body (not seen), the girl who died.  They continue to reminisce.

Bill wakes in the early morning to the sound of May.  May gives him an awkward hug and exchanges pleasantries. Laura then sees her uncle, Bill; she shares that there is something wrong with her dad and she doesn’t know what it is. There is no money and he is broke and sadder.  

When Paul returns from his morning walk, Bill confesses that things aren’t going well in his life.  His world is on the rocks, he’s single, and even worse, he’s broke.  He is a TV actor who is not getting the roles he once got and the $30 residual check is just not cutting it anymore.

“Linda left me.” – Bill

And for that bit of confession, Paul pushes Bill down to the floor and Paul is rather surprised that Bill went down so fast.  (Another extremely important moment that should take us to another level in their relationship.) Bill says it’s his knee but, let’s face it, Paul is built like he goes to the gym at least three times a week.

(I’m not sure how a character that drinks that much, looks like that.)

In any case, Paul says he ran into Ellen Yang (Katie May Porter) at the bar and she will be joining them for dinners sometime later.  

Chris Collins’ play was interesting on many levels.  First and foremost were the characters, who were mostly confused about their place in life, and who probably didn’t have an idea of where they were going. One always waits for the  “Ah ha” moment in a play, the moment that gives a definitive stamp to the production, and that just never came.  Certainly in real life, those things ring true, but for the stage something has to happen, it has to be clear, and we need to get a better understanding of the why.  A number of moments worked in this production.  Still, character motivation is key here to put a definitive stamp on the through line.  

There is a lot to like about Cris D’Annunzio’s Paul. D’ Annunzio brings a historical richness to the character, a man one could believe, cares and loves his children, and wants the best for them.  But as the character, Paul is having multiple problems.  Simply put, Paul is going through hell.  He is hearing things at night.  He revels in the gun even though he’s not thinking clearly.  There’s too much on his mind, the bar is not doing well, the sexual harassment charges linger, and worse he has been fired from the force without his pension after 27 years.  There is a lot to think about, so what does he want?  What is that specific thing pulling him into depths of hades?  What crises is he trying to solve acting in a manner unbefitting his character?  Why does he do it? Also, this is a character that is hard to understand because he never tells the truth, and he never comes clean.  No, the sexual harassment was a misunderstanding. The bar is going well.  I don’t’ know why Sarah left.  At this point in his life, he is not a reliable reporter, and this all makes for a deeply fascinating character, but with issues that are never resolved.   

Madelynn Fattibene provides solid support for the character May.  May is the girlfriend who sees this relationship as her only hope of being a wife and a mother to Paul’s child.  Fattibene creates a carefully nuanced character, one that is aware of every minute detail of the things going on around her, with the exception of her boyfriend’s motivation. When she doesn’t get what she came for she decides, rather forcefully, to leave the relationship.  Wonderful work.

Paige Herschell plays Sarah who suffers from emotional issues and alcohol addiction.  This was the most confusing character of the lot.  She leaves home, comes home; she’s getting married, she’s not getting married; she tells her sister that she has been accepted to law school while taking hits from the Jack Daniels bottle in her pocket. And she does this all under the influence. Herschell does not provide enough life into a character that is going to law school, or that she is even capable of it. Why does she pull the gun on her father? What is her objective? It’s not enough to be unsatisfied with your life and wallow in your misery - that doesn’t take a character anywhere. Instead, creative choices serve a character when the objective is clear and when it is clear the actions ring true.   

Matt Kirkwood comes in and tries to save the day as Bill but ends up not getting the answers he’s came for. His brother is constantly giving him money, in check form, but those checks never clear the bank. Bill is curious about his brother’s condition but never really gets to the root of the problem.  If he is there to save him and the girls, he should do so in a timely manner.  He is not sufficiently curious as his brother does some outlandish things; passing those things off does not progress the scene or the play. Their relationship should come to a dramatic resolution. He possibly comes as the savior, but in reality, he is worse off than the people he has come to save. Kirkwood does some very fine character work here and more things are needed to pull this character off.

Katie May Porter does some outstanding work as Ellen.  Most interesting thing about her is she seems oblivious of the relationships around her; she is oblivious that Paul, who is hanging all over her, and who is currently living with May.  Ellen has been in and out of relationships, and although she has a heart of gold, ideally she wants May out of the way.  Ellen’s objective may be subtle, maybe too subtle, but she definitely wants more. Porter does some outstanding work.  

Jodi Wofford is Lara and can get away with playing a younger character because of her size. Wofford has a quirky blend of mannerisms that can easily switch from comedy to drama.  This plays well to her strengths on stage, of understanding her motives, and her physical self. It is a wonderful performance.

All right now this comes down to Kiff Scholl’s direction.  There were many nice moments in the play. But, there were also moments that were not clear.  Moments that had had the actors speaking across the stage from each, without action, or cause. The scene of the two brothers, on opposite sides of the stage, did not progress the scene, or the play.  Clearly something was happening, but it was hard to decipher what.  The subtle action during the dialogue was, at times, not specific and didn’t lead us anywhere. Some had to do with the writing, which needed conflict resolution, focus and editing. There were a couple of examples where Paul’s deceased wife (not seen) had a major role but it led nowhere.  Another example is when Paul comes home after he had cut his hand telling everyone, the police were coming, but not really saying why until far too much later in the play. Moments like this also happened throughout the play.  A clearer understanding of the characters motivation would shed light on what characters were hiding and why. 

The Lounge Theatre is the perfect setting for this type of play.  It is very intimate outing and the other crew members which were responsible in making this a successful night are as follows:

Victoria Watson, Theatre Planners – Associate Producer
Donny Jackson – Lighting Designer
David Harling – Sound Design – Loved the sound of the bay.  
Wendell C. Carmichael – Costume Designer
Donnie Bailey Reed – Props Designer
Jessica Aquila Cymerman – Stage Manager

This production has finished its run. If you have the opportunity run to see this production.  And take your adult daughter. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Story of Alice – Book & Lyrics by Michael Cormier, Music by Scott Hiltzik


By Joe Straw

“…when suddenly a white rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her. “ – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland

First of all, right off the blinded bat, there is exceptional talent in The Story of Alice, Book & Lyrics by Michael Cormier, with the music by Scott Hiltzik, through May 29th, 2016 at The Matrix Theatre.

Emily King Brown, Nikki D’Amico, Nic Hodges, Emily Barnett, and Justin W. Yu are four of the reasons why you should run to see this production!

Not four you say! Five? Well in that case, if you must count, choose any one or all of the five to nourish your hearty theatrical flavorings.

Mylette Nora, Costume Designer, brought a marvelous life to this production, giving each character, beyond the rabbit hole, a very specific look. I have more to say on the look of Alice, later.  

Oh my! Caveat! Don’t read any further!  I must say some things. I know, sometimes one can be very naughty, the naughty things one says.  But things must be said, for the record, in judgment of said musical. Hold your boos, hiss, or applause until the very end. And, take a moment to unwrap your candies.

And while you are immersed in you’re reading, on whatever magical reading devices you may have, avoid stepping on the rolling hedgehogs. They make an awful racket!

Something was indeed missing in this version of The Story of Alice; perhaps it was the mise, mise, mise en scéne, and the peculiarity and slightly disturbing interactions among the highly identifiable characters from Lewis Carrolls’ Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, or Through the Looking Glass. 

But hold your reference to those two books! The Story of Alice, a musical with a book, or a book with music must stand on its tiny little feet. To understand completely, drink the correct potion and don’t shed a salty tear.

Still, something was missing, missing, missing - something one couldn’t quite place one’s finger on.  And perhaps I’m making too much of muchness.

So what in the blue blazes was wrong? Well, not wrong, wrong.  Slightly wrong. Minutely wrong. Okay, they were like slight disagreeable moments arranged on a salty platter that needed additional seasoning.    

From the beginning, that’s where we must start. The Cheshire Cat (Santino Tomasetti) pretended to play a lute and he didn’t have a really really, really big smile.  Charming one would say, smirking others would say, but definitely not a big smile. Could that have made a difference?

Maybe. The Cheshire Cat sets us off on a course, not strangely enough, but the book by Michael Cormier does not make it specifically mystical enough, nonsensical enough, doesn’t paint enough of a absurd picture, does not guide us to our next adventure which is of the two sisters. The light of his smile as he disappears does not create a mysterious relationship or set a mood. So, for the sake of clarity, place the said Cheshire Cat in the middle of the two girls as he mysteriously disappears into the said forest, or fog, or whatever as the sisters continue on with their lives.  

A stunning older sister Simone (Emily Barnett) smokes a vape pipe (the Blue Caterpillar).  She is older and wiser, and makes fun of her petulant sister, Alice (Jessamyn Arnstein).  No she won’t give her a drag on the pipe or hang out with her, just as all horrid big sisters won’t do, but she is curious about Alice’s mental state.  

Interesting now that Alice sings the song, If I Had Wings (The Caterpillar turning into a beautiful butterfly?), a song of wanting to be somewhere else in a happier place.  This song really needs to connect to the relationship with her sister before the White Rabbit (Justin W. Yu) enters the picture.

The dream takes her down the rabbit hole, the last bit of conscious reality before her sleeping mind takes her into a deep, deep, a very deep sleep.

So, so, what am I to make of this show?  For the most part, it is a very enjoyable night of entertainment, with wonderful costumes, a live four-piece orchestra.   Dwight Rivera: Keys 2, Sam Morgan:  Woodwinds/E-Wi, Dave Johnstone: Drums/Percussion highlight the beautiful voices on stage.

Well, let’s highlight.

Emily Barnett, as Simone, does triple duties playing a number of characters, each in their own way, very charming. Barnett is a gorgeous creature and has very appealing look on stage, giving each character their very own brand of uniqueness.  There is a lot to enjoy in this actor’s performance.

Brooke Brewer is fantastic as Weasel.  It is a perfect role for her athletic frame, very weasel like as she moves about the stage. Loved the nose and the costume.

Nikki D’Amico was enjoyable from start to finish.  The Dodo character was impeccable fluttering from here to there, with a wave and a wing under her arm.  She also has a very charming voice.  Tweedle Dum was also very funny. It was a joy watching her performance and one relishes her complete characterization of those roles, her remarkable skills, and her wonderful craft.   

Nic Hodges was smarmy as the King, deliciously detestable, and marvelously naughty.  He was also great as Tweedle Dee.  King is naughty, fooling around with the Duchess and cheating on the Queen. Hodges has an incredible voice and he gives it his all in some very funny moments on stage.

Emily King Brown was fantastic as the Queen with the hair that gave her the appearance that she was 14 feet tall!  Brown has an astonishing voice and great comic timing.  The looking glass moments worked perfectly.  Can’t say enough about this actress! She is very, very scrumptious.

Justin W. Yu was the White Rabbit.  The White Rabbit takes some time (pun intended) getting used to running around in circles, claiming he’s late, and avoiding the Queen at all costs for reasons that are not entirely clear.  (Could it be the Queen loves rabbit stew?) This character, although perfectly enjoyable, needs defining, specifically to smooth about the rough edges, about who he is, where he is going, and how all of it ties in to the progression of the play.   

Jolie Adamson is the Mock Turtle who really has to sell the heck out of turtle loving a knave and the reasons that may happen. She is a turtle in love and no one notices anything about or comments how unnatural that may be. Someone has to figure out how this is all going to work. Adamson also plays the Duchess holding the pig and asking for more pepper. (One would have liked to have seen this scene with no less than a thousands sneezes.)  Still, Adamson gave the Duchess a very clear character and some very nice touches.

Jessamyn Arnstein, who has a strong resemblance to Tina Fey, plays Alice.  Arnstein has a lovely voice but it is a character that is not completely developed.  “If I had Wings” is a song that takes her to another land in the way that “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” takes Dorothy to another place. But after the song, we don’t see how she is transported, only that she has.  And as Alice goes down the hole, first and foremost, she should be filled with extreme curiosity.  And that curiosity should play into her fear, gratefulness, and then stubbornness, until she finds the moment, that precise moment of wanting to get home.  The overall objective is to get back home but there is much for Alice to learn before she gets back. Also, while everyone was in a delightful costume, Alice looked like she stepped right off of Melrose. A better costume would give her more character and more time to prink as she defines whom and what she is was, and what she will be. It will also give her the appearance of a girl and someone we can have great sympathy for when she finds herself in a lot of trouble.  

Bradley Cashman plays the Knave and the Mad Hatter.  The Knave must have love oozing out of his ears and the Mad Hatter must be completely mad!  Still, Cashman has some very fine moments in this musical.  

Liam Roberts was fine as the Commander and has a large presence on stage.  One is not really sure how the other soldiers to his side works to create an effective character.   

Santino Tomasetti played the Cheshire Cat and needs more to give the cat clarification, who he is, why he is there, what does he want, and how this all fits into the musical. Mysterious should be the term that best identifies the character. That aside, Tomasetti has a wonderful look on stage.

Gary Lee Reed, the director, did a fine job.  The show needs a grandeur beginning in the way the book jolts the reader. The Cheshire Cat comes off as a common house cat.  The opening should be absurd, nonsensical, and filled with the as much complexity as a disappearing smiling Cheshire Cat brings.  Also, the show would do fine with the elimination of three songs in the first act. The second act ran a little smoother.  One doesn’t know why but I particularly liked the song “Bananas & Cabbage”.  The show really fits the bill for folks less than 15 years, and under it’s present condition, they should find middle schoolers to see the show.  Naytheless, the show has incredible potential but must be fine-tuned to fit both children as well as adults.  The Duchess’ death puts a damper on this show; we must find a way to make it work with the Mock Turtle on stage.   The improvisation beyond the fourth wall probably plays well to middle schoolers, and the improvisational reference to the Mary Tyler Moore Show doesn’t work at all, and doesn’t progress the play.  Little things will only add grand moments to the musical.

Michael Cormier, Book and Lyrics, has a very good feel.  The story lines that work the best are the Duchess and the King, the Queen’s desire to be the best at what she does, and strangely enough, the sisters Alice and Simone and their relationship with each other and their mother (not seen) and the mother’s boyfriends.

A lot of time and effort went into this production.   Other members of the delightful crew are as follows:

Nicholas Petrillo -  Music Director, Arranger
Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners – Producer
Victoria Watson, theatre Planners – Associate Producer
Marjo Majdi – Executive Producer
Cassie Crump – Choreographer who designed some very pleasant numbers for the show.  Those numbers will put a smile on your face.  
Matt Richter – Lighting Designer
Kiff Scholl, ARK Design – Graphic Designer
Katherine S. Hunt – Props Designer
Raul Clayton Staggs – Casting Director
Marissa Drammissi – Production Stage Manager

Run! Run!  And take someone who loves Alice. In fact, dress up and go!

A guest production at The Matrix Theatre
7657 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA  90046