Saturday, April 27, 2019

Birdland Blue by Randy Ross Ph.D.

L to R - Eddie Goines, Damon Rutledge, Michael D. Ricks, Marcus Clark Oliver, Rogelio Douglas III, Jermaine Alexander - Photos Ian Foxx

By Joe Straw

“ Will you ever get married again?” – Harry Reasoner

“To who?” – Miles Davis

“To anybody.” – Harry

“ I know there’s a couple of guys I’ve been looking at but, never a woman again.” – Miles

There is a surprise upon entering the intimate theatre space. It is a club, with small round tables and a dark atmosphere with an invasion of shades of light. Take a seat, high or low, and listen to the beautiful sounds of the trio in the balcony, a percussionist (Ricardo Mowatt), a saxophonist (Randy Ross also the writer of the play), a stand up bassist (Marion Newton), soul jazz, and suddenly one is lost in the music.

They came, this date night, shoulder-to-shoulder, and dressed to the hilt, happy and spoke to greet, handclasps, and shoulder bumps, introductions, and self-salutations as the patrons rhythmically dripped into their seats and settled.

The Robey Theatre Company in association with the Los Angeles Theatre Center present Birdland Blue by Randy Ross PhD and directed by Ben Guillory through May 12, 2019.

Miles Dewey Davis (Marcus Clark Oliver) sat on the piano bench, the weight of the world on his shoulders, circles under his eyes, weathered, bent with sadness, holding his trumpet between his legs, in his dressing room now, and away from the prying eyes. The interruptions that will come from behind the wall is something he doesn’t need now.

Right now, Paul Chambers (Rogellio Douglas III), sleeps on a couch, although not an official slumber, sleeping off drugs. And, his standup bass? Man, that’s nowhere in sight. What good is a sextet without the bass? That will have to be addressed in the later state of his consciousness.  

For now, they wait for the night, to get on, and listen, yearning for the wrong note that will lead to the next right one. Not going on is not an option – always scratch – a necessity to fill the void and feed the family.

Silently with background music, the others make their way, dark suits, down from the balcony, through the seats in the club and on to their instruments, smooth in the way to that dark spot, and eventually into the light.

Jermaine Alexander, Rogelio Douglas III, Michael D. Ricks, Damon Rutledge, Eddie Goines, Marcus Clark Oliver

Birdland Blue, in its world premier, is an exquisite play that carries with it the poetic swirling sounds of one-to-one. In short, Ross’s play is superb.  In execution, the dialogue elevates in improvisation, it eliminates time, and the interchange between parties is spoken pointillism creating patterns of electrifying discourse. Framed by an outline, the improvisation carries the set, which finally gives structure to their arrangement and produces light from the darkness.

In its simplest form, Birdland Blue, through one’s imaginative spirit, is the story of Miles Davis recruiting band members for the makeup of The Miles Davis jazz sextet.

But a more complex look would be Miles Davis screaming for identity, fighting for a specific sounds, telling those who would listen, friend or foe, and fighting without question for money to feed those that have come along for the journey. 

That said, there are observations that will come later.

Mo Goldman (Charles Isen), the manager of the current club establishment, takes it upon himself, to try to swindle money from Miles Davis. Moe, himself being fleeced by Detective O’Brian (Darrell Phillip), wants Davis to play five sets but paid for only four sets. Davis wants five payments for five shows.  If Moe wants the fifth, he has to pay for it.

“Don’t f**k with my money, Moe.” – Miles Davis.

Davis then finds out that Paul Chambers, upon gaining consciousness, has hocked his double bass for drug money. Davis gives him money to bring the bass back.

Lucinda Holmes (Tiffany Coty) from Upbeat Magazine maneuvers to get an interview with Miles Davis, his journey that got him there to that night.  But, Miles wants to play, not really believing that a reporter can remember everything without taking notes or carrying a recorder.

And so she gets her story.

Telling more would give too many moments away.

Marcus Clark-Oliver is superb as Miles Davis. Torn and tattered, Clark-Oliver gives weight and incredible emotional depth to the character and strength to an emotionally drained Davis. Beyond the background of his life, he finds the wherewithal to use his métier to negotiate and get his way.  Clark-Oliver uses his instrument with sincere intelligence as Miles to convert 1959 America to move in his direction. This is a wonderful must see performance by Clark-Oliver and surely one not to miss.  

Damon Rutledge is also incredible as Julian “Cannonball” Adderly a man who has lived many lives to get to the point of his current position. The dialogue between Adderly and Miles is pure poetry and is a highlight in the show. Rutledge is smooth in all of his interactions on stage and his enthusiasm in the last scene is emotionally uplifting.

Jermaine Alexander plays Tenor Saxophonist John Coltrane aka “Trane” the man who would not stop practicing his horn despite the problems with his teeth. Coltrane has a nice interaction with Miles who offers money for medical treatment. There is more to add to this character in the manner that is Trane.  

Tiffany Coty plays Upbeat Magazine reporter Lucinda Holmes, possibly a fictional character in this world of live characters, and seems to withstand the barrage of men coming on to her throughout.  Her naiveté plays well in these circumstances because she is there for the story and she gets her story along with a solo to boot. Coty is an intelligent actor, very instinctual, and fun to watch.

Rogelio Douglas III has a very nice presence as Paul Chambers the bass player.  There is a moment in the play where he has a solo after he has retrieved his bass from the pawnshop. The character has a serious drug problem and the scene needed want to explore the reality of his predicament.  What does he love the most? And, what does he want out of this moment? The inherent conflict is embedded from what he wants the most, what he loves the most, his bass or, his drugs?  Or, is he caught in this dilemma forever?

Eddie Goines is amazing as Wynton Kelly, a Jamaican American complete with accent. Goines, as the piano player, brings a lot of style and class with his portrayal.  It is a smooth performance as smooth as though he were playing the piano.

Charles Isen is successful as Mo Goldman, the manager of the jazz club. More needs to be made of his relationship with Miles Davis.  Now it appears that Mo is a little uneasy, very tentative, as though he were walking on eggshells.  Possibly there a little more strength to be found in the character.

Darrell Phillip is Detective O’Brian a cop who steals and plays havoc with the manager of the jazz club.  The scene near the end needs work and must have a purpose whether it be poetic or purposeful.  The scene cries for a strong resolution.

Micheal David Ricks plays Jimmy Cobb and like all drummers seems to be the quiet one in the background.  A little more writing of this character should help the actor mesh with other characters on stage.  One is not sure if this character is fully developed. 

Kudos goes to Ben Guillory, the director and producer, for pushing this original work of art through workshop to production.  Guillory manages to showcase the actors playing musicians without playing a note.  The work is excellent, filled with life, vitreous glitter, unfathomable shadows, and in a manner that gives life to these musicians that rings a truthful chord. The opening is brilliant and the ending needs works and everything in between is remarkable jazz.

Shaw Jones and Jason Mimms are alternates that did not perform the night I attended.

Naila Aladdin Sanders, Costume Designer, gives life to the period.  The costumes were magnificent!

There is live music and that is an extra-added bonus! Randy Ross the Musical Director makes this night soar.

Other members of this remarkable crew are as follows:

Di Smith – Associate Producer
Ernest Gardner – Set Designer
Micheal D. Ricks – Lighting Designer
Sorlie Reeves – Production Stage Manager
Eric Taylor – Assistant Stage Manager
Jason Mimms – Graphic Artist
Curt Romany – Prop Master
Shawn Michael Warren – Set Painter

Run! Run! Run! And take a jazz aficionado, someone who has an unquenchable thirst for jazz.

The Robey Theater
514 S. Spring St.
Los Angeles, CA  90013


Instagram: @robeytheatrecompany
Youtube: @robeyconnect

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

There and Back by Raul Garza

Liza Fernandez

By Joe Straw

The Company of Angels has moved from its downtown Spring Street address to 1350 San Pablo St., Los Angeles, California.  The location has plenty of free parking and their new home is an intimate theatre and an incredible space for you to venture out to see.

There and Back written by Raul Garza and directed by Michelle Bossy is now playing at the Company of Angels through April 21st, 2019.

Immigrants, especially those from the south of the United States, have been consistently treated unfairly throughout my lifetime. But, human beings move for a reason, for a better life.  And despite the injustices put upon them, they endure living here.  They are very dependable, extremely loyal, and work with so much ferocity knowing their lives depend on it.

Raul Garza has written a beautiful play about the struggles of an immigrant family living in the United States from the 1960’s up to the present. The dialogue rings a sincere truth, and an honest perspective of the human struggle.  

Gloria (Liza Fernandez) has arrived from Mexico to be with her husband, Victor (Bernardo Cubria), a farm laborer.  But she soon discovers that their home is nothing more than a smelly converted chicken coup.

Anna Lamadrid and Liza Fernandez

Gloria lights a Virgen de Guadalupe scented candle to rid the living space of the smell only to have Guadalupe (Anna Lamadrid) appear.  The saint and the sinner agree to speak English to get acclimated to the United States.

But this Guadalupe, rather than offer hope and inspiration, is rather saucy and cynical in the way she brings freedom to the enslaved Gloria, who has at this point in her life nowhere to go.

“You don’t have a choice.”  Guadalupe

Liza Fernandez and Bernardo Cubria

In Garza’s play, there are no do-overs as Gloria struggles day-to-day to make a better life for herself and her husband.  But there’s a problem, mostly her womanizing husband who never has time to come home and help with their life struggles.

Gloria has a moment, with suitcase in hand; either walk out of her current predicament, or stay.  She chooses the latter rather than listen to her heart. And, ever the optimist, in the back of her mind, she feels that she is smart enough to do better for the both of them.  

Because of that decision, she struggles with her marriage, her pregnancy, her conservative son, Rey (Bernando Cubria), and then her grandson, Max (also Bernardo Cubria).

There is a lot to like in Liza Fernandez’s performance as Gloria.  Mostly it is her strength in that character that guides her through her life and throughout her performance. Fernandez creates a character that never gives up no matter who she has to fight. In the end, she has lost some battles and they weigh her down terribly but she never gives up. This is a performance to watch multiple times in order to fully grasp the nuance. Her accent is spectacular and her actions on stage are fluid!

Anna Lamadrid is Guadalupe, a different type of Guadalupe, a spicy one with an eye on fashion of the day.  A woman not fixed on wearing robe but one who likes the finer things in life with a shot of tequila. This is the second show that I’ve seen in as many weeks that featured the Virgen de Guadalupe. And the question that keeps coming up in this character is, why is she there? What is she there to give other than solicitude?  What is the unholy impetus that moves her into a focused drive, an objective? And how does that carry us into the future? Ambiguity is nice in a character, leaving us with some unanswered questions, but the character has to move in a certain direction to give us hope, and an idea of finality.  That said, there is much to enjoy in Lamadrid’s performance and the manner in which she gives life to the character.  

Bernardo Cubria plays Victor (the husband), Rey (the son), and Max (the grandson). While they have similarities, Cubria gives each character a unique and well-defined physical life. Sadly, they are all the heavies.  There’s not much to like of the three characters since they all have conservative ideas on how the world should work.  For instance, Victor is a man who loves his freedom more than a committed relationship. He is a misogamist unfocused in his commitment to his wife and an obscurantist when explaining his whereabouts.  How do these characters move Gloria to her final destination? The ways in which they move her have to be significant moments that change the direction of the character. Those reactions must be absorbed, and then defined before moving on.  

Michelle Bossy, the director, does a find job with the material.  The actors find a way to be natural within the period of the times, the sixties, seventies, and eighties, through today.  The title of the play is There and Back and one would suggest the play is finding the way back, the through line that gets her there.  Gloria seems to get there with the help of the Virgen but the ambiguous ending is not clear on how that transpired.

Raul Garza has written a terrific play and certainly one with a lot of heart.  The characters are honest, funny, and without question all living their own lives, in dramatic form and justification.

Special notice to Lowell Bartholomee, Sound Designer, and Alina Goodman, Additional Sound Design, who did marvelous work with the radio sounds.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Alina Goodman – Stage Manager
Justin Huen – Lighting Design
Audra Ihlenfeld – Fight Choreographer

There’s more to be said but time is running short as this play has a limited run and ends this weekend.

Run! Run! Run!  And take a parent or grandparent who immigrated to the United States. 


Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Mother of Henry by Evelina Fernández

Xavi Moreno and Cheryl Umaña - Photos by Andrew Vasquez
By Joe Straw

Henry had his own special spot in this home, a bedside photo, a young man revered and cared for by a very strong woman.  But now he is grown and off to see the world, via the Navy and Vietnam.

So, throughout the course of this play, Henry is not physically there. But he seems to be nearby both emotionally and spiritually.  It is a safe assumption as to why the title of the play is called The Mother of Henry, because she’s present, all the time, and he is not.  - Narrator

The Latino Theater Company Presents The Mother of Henry written by Evelina Fernández and directed by José Luis Valenzuela through April 20th 2019.

Upon entering the theatre Yee Eun Nam, Projection Designer, slips the audience comfortably into the 1960’s with projections on the walls of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy.   The Scenic & Lighting Design by Emily Anne MacDonald & Cameron Jaye Mock effectively placed pipes gives symbolic shape to form of the Sears Tower building in downtown 1960’s Los Angeles.   The bars also form an elevator that is put to good use.

Connie (Cheryl Umaña) doesn’t have a problem with her name, Concepcion. Although others constantly mispronounce her name, she shortens it to Connie, an Americanized version from/for/of the place she calls home. She is the mother of Henry and also takes care of her Mamá (Esperanza America) a wildly puerile cantankerous woman - wheel chair bound - wrapped in colorful woolen scarves who takes no guff from anyone including her daughter, Henry’s mother.   

Gary Patent and Cheryl Umaña
On the first day of the job Connie is hustled to the upstairs offices of the Sears Tower.  She doesn’t think much of her abilities as Herb (Gary Patent) from Human Resources elevates her to the floor and then moves her to her desk of the returns department.  She muses out loud that she should be working the basement rather than in the office upstairs.

But now Connie will try to make the best of it as she meets her co-workers Olga (Mary-Beth Manning) a straight, white, Canadian motherless being, and Loretta (Ella Saldana North) who takes pride in her constant complaints.

They are supervised by Manny (Xavi Moreno) a married man, ambiguously separated, and very much on the prowl with the three ladies in his department.  When he is there, if there is a heaven for Manny, the office must be that place.

On the face of things Connie’s life is looking up, but now she has to worry about her son in the military, her mother, and Manny who won’t take no for an answer.

In the privacy of her own bedroom later that night, she asks for help from the Virgen de Guadalupe (Esperanza America) and her prayers are answered, well sort of, and with an accompaniment of an angel (Robert Revell) on electric guitar to boot.  

There is a lot to enjoy from Evelina Fernández’s play of The Mother of Henry, which is funny, magical and always inventive. What is remarkable are the relationships between family and friends, between the spiritual and human, and the harsh realities of everyday life played out in mortal silence. What seems to be missing is the end for each character, the destination, and a realization of resolution. (In some ways the ending has a Casablanca feel. “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”) Does life have a resolution? Or, does it slip into the next chapter?

This is Connie’s journey presented in a vivid colorful life, and exercised in an imaginative time  - a colorful crossing into the unknown, a death, and a welcoming back after grieving.  A lot of what you’d expect in José Luis Valenzuela’s direction, a definitive style, of comedy and drama mixed with a dash of cumin, cayenne, and crushed chilies.

The acting is top notched. One worries by coming early that the best days are ahead of the actor, with much more life, backstory, connection, and meaning.  Fernández’s play has wonderful opportunities for actors to stretch and fill in the backstory.

Esperanza America

Esperanza America (La Virgin/Mamá) timing is impeccable and her voice melts. Being a deity of sorts it is almost impossible to imagine why she presents herself. But, she must have a reason other than her perspicacity. One figures it must be for love, but love for a reason.  The only thing missing was the Heiligenschein.

L - R Mary-Beth Manning and Ella Saldana North 

Mary-Beth Manning is Olga, a woman who knows what she wants but when she gets it she doesn’t know what to do with it, how to behave, and how she moves forward from there.  That all plays well but, how has her character changed in relationship with the other two women? And, how is that resolved in the relationships with the women as well as the men?  How does she find the answer to what she is looking for?

Xavi Moreno is Manny, a married man that goes after anyone he can get including his co-workers.  Manny is not mean but appears to be slightly confused about what he really wants. He is not smart, and easily found out in many situations, but he is likeable. His vainglorious attempts at female conquest have its limitations. Moreno must find a resolution to the character, a defining moment that changes him in a significant way.  

Ella Saldana North is terrifically funny as Loretta who knows everything about everyone’s business.  She appears to be single, wears a ring, doesn’t have a significant attachment, or one she speaks little of, but she’s in everyone’s business all the time 24/7/365. She thinks she is right about everything she says. There must be a reason why everyone loves her.

Gary Patent is Herb, a closeted gay man, alone in the world of the Sears tower. He manages to come out only because of a moment and to only one person. He wants to belong but conflicted by discovery. Is there an opportunity to bond with his male counterpoint?

Robert J. Revell

Robert J. Revell seems so comfortable as Angel, an angel with a mean guitar. Revell has an incredible presence on stage. There’s room here for dialogue in the play if only for short sonorous bursts.

Cheryl Umaña is Connie, Henry’s mother and one believes Umaña loses sight of her son, possibly the backstory that she should never forget. One gets the feeling the actor should carry her son throughout the play in however that manifest itself, a military hat, a letter, whatever works to keep the son next to her throughout. Symbolism goes a long way to give Connie courage after the death of a loved one.  Also, moments are missed that could move the play along in a significant way, her discovery of the Virgen, finding out a character is gay, she seems to reflect a level of stoicism, and an unreadable stare (from my vantage point), that didn’t move the character along.  Umaña is pleasant enough and has her moments but another level is needed, to give substance to the character and life.

And just as a matter of observation, Connie’s introduction to the Virgen is lost because the Virgen is bathed in the light and we are drawn away for Connie’s reaction.  This is an important moment for both characters. We must have a reason they are both in the room and the relationship must be solid to carry forward.  Also, it helps to make the comedy work later in the play.

Also, Connie’s kiss requires a bit more attention in whatever physical and emotional output is necessary to carry their relationship forward.  The nadir of Connie’s character is a death, she lashes out, but there are other choices to get the other characters to her side.

One more thing, Connie’s relationship to the angel must carry some weight, a remembrance, the slight turn of the head, reminding her of her son in a distant land.  The angel is there for a reason and Connie must see that.

 John Zalewski, Sound Design, does an incredible job including the typewriters coming in from the other room.

Moving the desks on and off the stage required a dance of sorts compliments of Urbanie Lucero, Movement Coordinator and Choreography, but was not sure about the slow motion movements downstage and how that moves the play along.   

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Michelle A. Prudente – Production Stage Manager
Maricela Sahagun – Assistant Stage Manager
Michelle Tapia – Production Assistant
Evan Nichols – Production Coordinator

Run! Run! Run! And take a believer! No, take a true believer!

The Los Angeles Theatre Center