Review: "Miss Saigon" - National Tour (Los Angeles)

Review: "Miss Saigon" - National Tour (Los Angeles)

Cameron Mackintosh’s Broadway revival of “Miss Saigon” opened on Thursday, July 19 at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. This version is especially poignant as Americans daily read and watch the political refugee crisis, as desperate people flee violence in Central America and other countries under our current administration.

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Review: 'Falsettos' is Full of Love and Loss

Review: 'Falsettos' is Full of Love and Loss

There are a lot of things I liked about the Tony Award-winning musical “Falsettos,” now at The Ahmanson Theatre. I fully understand why it was nominated for five 2017 Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical, however at almost three hours long, with 37 songs by composer/lyricist William Finn and playwright and director James Lapine it needs to be cut down to 120 minutes for this LA audience.

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Review: 'Beautiful: The Carole King Story' - Canadian Tour

Review: 'Beautiful: The Carole King Story' - Canadian Tour

I am so glad that I got up that morning because the beautiful Chilina Kennedy as Carole King and an extraordinary company put a smile on my face at the terrific opening night of ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’.  I’m still grinning as ‘Beautiful’ is that feel good show we all need right now.

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Review: 'Waitress' Opens Up and Charms at The Fabulous Fox

Review: 'Waitress' Opens Up and Charms at The Fabulous Fox

‘Waitress’ continues this year's Fabulous Fox Theatre’s season. Based off of the film by Adrienne Shelley the story follows ‘Jenna’ a waitress who is known for her amazing pies. ‘Jenna’ finds herself struggling to be free from a cycle of abuse and finding the confidence within to grow. She discovers she is pregnant and ponders what that means to her future. Written by Grammy award winner Sara Bareilles the original score is charming, funny, and compelling.

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Review: 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' is a Winner!

Review: 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' is a Winner!

There are so many winning elements to the hit Broadway touring musical, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, now at the Pantages Theatre. First the show’s music by Grammy, Emmy and Tony Award winner Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Grammy and Tony Award winners Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. Besides familiar toe-tapping songs "Pure Imagination," "The Candy Man," songs, new-to-Broadway includes “A Letter from Charlie Bucket.”

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Review: "CATS" Lacks its Magic

Review: "CATS" Lacks its Magic

I was so excited to take my teenage daughter to see CATS at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. CATS was a Broadway sensation for over 18 years and the fourth-longest running show in Broadway history.

The first time I saw the musical was in the 1980s. Based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot and music by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, I shared some of my favorite “memories” of the show with my daughter while driving to the theater. Director Trevor Nunn and lighting designer Natasha Katz excitedly open the show with a multitude of large green cat eyes prowling up and down the aisle before they prance upon the dimly lit stage.

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Review: "School of Rock"- National Tour(Toronto)

Review: "School of Rock"- National Tour(Toronto)

Need to pay your rent? Try forming your own rock band. Just make sure the lyrics can be heard.

It has been years since I’ve seen the film version of ‘School of Rock’ with Jack Black. I will admit I was never a fan of his to begin and wasn’t certain if I was going to like this production.

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Review: “ON YOUR FEET” Pulsates with High-Energy Rhythms at OC’s Segerstrom Center

Review: “ON YOUR FEET” Pulsates with High-Energy Rhythms at OC’s Segerstrom Center

I believe the best way to describe the sensation one gets when experiencing the Broadway stage musical adaptation of multi-platinum selling recording artist Gloria Estefan's life story is to actually use one of her very famous songs: "The Rhythm is Gonna Get You."

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Review: "Waitress" Appeals to Your Senses

Joan Marcus

Joan Marcus

Jill Weinlein

  • Chief Los Angeles Theatre Critic

Immediately while walking into the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, I smelled the aroma of warm golden brown and flaky pie crust, with a sprinkle of cinnamon, burnt sugar and maybe hint of apple wafting through the air.

While taking a seat, I looked onstage and noticed the house curtain was a checkerboard of cherry pies. Appealing to my senses, I was excited to see the National Touring company of Waitress. The musical has been enjoying a two year run on Broadway, and now the all-female creative team has a National Touring Company in Hollywood until August 26, 2018.

The inspiration for Jessie Nelson’s book Waitress is based on the 2007 motion picture of the same name written by Adrienne Shelly. It’s also influenced by the writer’s experience serving customers food and coffee for 10 years before her writing, directing and producing career took off.

The Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus (Hair, Pippin, Finding Neverland) does her best with this lively musical production about Jenna (Desi Oakley), a waitress and expert pie maker. We learn Jenna’s loving departed mother taught her everything she knows about dreaming up new pie recipes. Living in a small town, Jenna has a sisterhood with two other waitresses Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and Dawn (Lenne Klingaman). She dreams of a better life than waitressing, maybe even opening her own pie shop one day.

Suffering in an abusive and loveless marriage, when she discovers she is pregnant, she doesn’t want “Earls Baby Pie” baking in her oven. Earl (Nick Bailey) wants his wife home, barefoot and baking pies. He is an insecure “Promise me you won’t love that baby, more than you love me” jerk. Bailey probably is a nice guy in person, but he sure knows how to play a loser onstage.

Almost like a “Mamma Mia!” plot, her two girlfriends help lift up Jenna’s spirits throughout the nine months.

What I found disturbing was Jenna’s relationship with her OB/GYN Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart). I wonder if other Los Angelenos were sensitive to their forbidden relationship, especially with the current scandal between USC female students and one of the University’s OB/GYN physicians. I would have been uncomfortable seeing this with my teenage daughter.

Memorable characters include taciturn short order cook Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) amusingly shouting out “Put some hustle in your bustle” to his servers. His playful banter with Jenna softens a little more after a little loving with Becky.

The actor who gave it his all and won over the audience in his first scene is the hilarious, charming twinkle toes Ogie (Jeremy Morse). He sings, dances and recites spontaneous poetry, that has us belly laughing and applauding while he woos shy Dawn throughout the show.

Grumpy Joe (Larry Marshall) is the owner of Joe’s Pie Diner. He sees Jenna’s goodness and offers fatherly advice. He is her biggest fan, enjoying a daily slice of her “27 different types of pies, including breakfast pies, fruit and cream pies, and a new pie each day.”

The talented ensemble includes Skyler Adams, Law Terrell Dunford, Patrick Dunn, James Hogan, David Hughey, Arica Jackson, Kyra Kennedy, Emily Koch, Maiesha McQueen, Gerianne Perez, Grace Stockdale.

Nadia DiGiallonardo the music supervisor and arranger along with Sara Bareilles and the Waitress Band perform onstage throughout the show. Bareilles is a 6-time Grammy nominated singer and songwriter. Graduating from hometown UCLA, she also is a New York Times bestselling author. Waitress is her first Broadway show. Her group of pop and theatre singers, multi-instrumentalists, writers and producers include Rich Mercurio, Lee Nadel, Yair Evnine, Rich Hinman and Jamie Edwards.

My three favorite dance scenes by choreography Lorin Latarro (Les Dangereuse Liasons, Waiting for Godot) include the pregnancy stick number, Ogie and Dawn’s courtship and the spoon skit.

Scenic designer Scott Pask replicates a diner with counter, stools, kitchen and dining area. Within minutes the stage is changed to a doctor’s office, blue-collar apartment, and hospital delivery room. Lighting designer Ken Billington enhances the set with the prettiest sunsets along the back curtain.

Even though the show offers 19 entertaining songs, not one was memorable enough to hum on the way home. Both Oakley and Dawson have the strongest singing Broadway voices, yet the only song I could recall while walking out of the theatre was the echo of “Sugar.”

Let me tell you right now if you go to dinner before the show, don’t order dessert. Out in the lobby during intermission are little mason jars filled with apple and salted caramel pie. A salivating line of people wait patiently to get their pie fix for $10.

Waitress does a good job appealing to all of your senses with the smell of pies being warmed up, pies being made and eaten with sublime bliss. I just felt it was a little corny at times and a little too long.

The performance schedule for WAITRESS is Tuesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm, and Sunday at 1pm & 6:30pm. WAITRESS is recommended for ages 12 and up, especially with the OB/GYN office scenes. Tickets are available at www.HollywoodPantages.com/Waitress and www.Ticketmaster.com, by phone at (800) 982-2787 or in person at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre Box Office the it opens daily at 10am.

Review: "On Your Feet" - National Tour (Hollywood Pantages Theatre)

Review: "On Your Feet" - National Tour (Hollywood Pantages Theatre)

Los Angelenos enthusiastically embraced the cast of “One Your Feet!” last night at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. The Opening Night of this Broadway touring show had adorning fans ten rows deep, outside the theatre hoping to get a glimpse or photo of seven-time Grammy winning international superstar Gloria Estefan and her Grammy winning husband, producer-musician and entrepreneur Emilio Estefan.

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Review: "The King and I" - North American Tour(Toronto)

Review: "The King and I" - North American Tour(Toronto)

Recently, I had written an article on whether classic twentieth century musicals have run their course with such titles as Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady and The King and I coming to mind. The latter is one that has always puzzled me for its continued fascination with audiences.

The story chronicles the experiences of widow Mrs. Anna Leonowens, a British school teacher, who was hired as part of the King of Siam’s drive to modernize his country in the early 1860s. Mrs. Anna and her son Louis travel to Siam where she will teach the Royal Family all about British culture, etiquette, and customs. Since the King is also considered a barbarian, Mrs. Anna must also prepare a party for a group of English diplomats with the hope they will change their opinions about the King.

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Review: The Phantom Stages A Comeback in the Perplexing “LOVE NEVER DIES” at Segerstrom Center

Review: The Phantom Stages A Comeback in the Perplexing “LOVE NEVER DIES” at Segerstrom Center

First, let's get some pleasantries out of the way.

There are many, very obvious spectacular things that stand out while watching “LOVE NEVER DIES,” Andrew Lloyd Webber's infamously, uh, troubled 2010 musical follow-up to his long-running global hit “THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA,” now continuing its two-week engagement at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through May 5, 2018.

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Review: Robb McClure & Adam Pascal Bring the Hilarious High-Jinks of “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” to the OC

Michael L. Quintos

  • OnStage Associate Los Angeles Critic

In a rarity that doesn't happen too often here in Southern California, a brand new national tour of a recent hit Broadway musical has arrived first in Orange County in advance of a much longer sit-down engagement up the freeway in Los Angeles. And, boy, is this one a marvelous gift from the comedy gods!

Behold, ladies and gentlemen, the merry awesomeness that is “SOMETHING ROTTEN!,” the multi-Tony Award nominated musical comedy that kicks off Segerstrom Center for the Arts' 2017-2018 Broadway series! A delightful, seemingly non-stop conveyor belt of wit, hilarity, and outrageous high-jinks, this extremely funny 2015 original musical comedy will continue to slay audiences (in a good way) through November 19, 2017 in Costa Mesa before beginning its Los Angeles-area performances.

I have to say that from the second the curtain went up, right up to even the cast's final bows, I don't think I have ever sat through a performance of a musical comedy that has garnered this much hearty laughter and unabashed giggling from the audience in a quite a long time—sounds our world sorely needs more of at the moment, especially in such a genuine, communal way.

Yes, “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” is that rare comedic perfect storm of script, music, costumes, sets, and cast that surrounds material and storyline that only mildly offends (if at all) yet skewers bitingly with the sharpest of tongues. Don't mistake this as just another broad, middle-of-the-road comedy. Despite its appeal to various ages, demographics, and walks-of-life, this lively, entertaining musical is a whip-smart, joyful, creatively rich stage production that, I predict (much like Nostradamus) will be just as funny centuries from now as it is today.

Featuring a brilliant, wisecracking book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O' Farrell and impressively amusing music and lyrics chockfull of ingenious wordplay by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” offers up the European Renaissance viewed through very meta, forward-thinking 21st Century goggles. While its silly but clever storyline seems easy enough to follow, the musical truly impresses with its never-faltering gaze beyond the future, generously peppering every lyric and comedically-delivered line with an allusion to something characters are hilariously unaware of in their timeline, but the audience is from our informed present. Hence, the audience is in collective stitches watching characters navigate through the events and customs of these late 90's—the 1590's, that is—which are lovingly skewered for our amusement.

Of course, a musical comedy is only as good as its execution, and fortunately, under Casey Nicholaw's swift but assured direction (he also choreographed the show), SOMETHING ROTTEN!'s expressively jubilant cast is able to truly savor their given material, resulting in performances that audiences will welcome with outstretched joy. Leading the pack is Tony nominee Rob McClure, whose incredible comic timing, impressive singing chops, and wildly erratic facial expressions will have you laughing constantly as he embarks on one scheme after another.

McClure plays Nick Bottom, one half of the Bottom Brothers, a pair of creatively-gifted but financially-struggling siblings working in the theater during the time of the Renaissance, a period of great artistry and poetic expression in Europe. As the brothers strive desperately for some modicum of success, Nick—often engulfed in a jealous rage—is constantly annoyed by all the attention and fandom bestowed upon the much more liked, and much more famous William Shakespeare (played with palpable mega rock star swag by Adam Pascal), whose latest play "Romeo and Juliet" is a hit with both critics and audiences (and, yep, Nick's brother is a fan).

More than anything, Nick wishes he could once and for all one-up his more celebrated rival whom the public has irritatingly dubbed "The Bard."

As Nick and his more timid playwright bother Nigel (the adorkable Josh Grisetti) continue rehearsals for their next show "Richard II" with their rag-tag acting troupe, their patron Lord Clapham (the very funny Joel Newsome) informs them that Shakespeare has announced plans to also do a new play called "Richard II"—a move that irks Nick even more considering Shakespeare had already mounted a production of "Richard III" which is clearly a stupid move backwards. Clapham urges the brothers to come up with something else to open with in a few days—or else he's pulling out his funding altogether.

Despite finance offers from Shylock (the amusing Jeff Brooks), a local Jewish merchant (get it?), and Nick's wife Bea (the playful Maggie Lakkis) who promises to take on various male-only jobs in disguise to earn them some seed money, Nick sneaks away to try to fix his problem his own way. Armed with the family money box holding what little savings they have accumulated, Nick visits a sketchy part of town to buy the wisdom of a future-forecaster, Thomas Nostradamus (the spectacular Blake Hammond), the younger, less-famous nephew of that other Nostradamus.

His prediction for the Next Big Thing in theater?

"A Musical!" shouts Nostradamus.

Nostradamus explains that musicals are plays in which dialogue is stopped so that characters can convey the plot or action through song. Some musicals, shockingly, don't even have dialogue at all!

Nick is, understandably, confused and skeptical at first. But thanks to an all-out, song-and-dance, show-stopping extravaganza which features clever homages to many of future history's greatest and most famous musicals, Nick is wholeheartedly sold on the idea and begins to formulate his own musical play. What would be a good current subject? Oh, yeah! The plague!

Meanwhile, as Nigel struggles to come up with some fresh new material of his own, he has a meet-cute with a lovely young lady named Portia (the gorgeous-voiced Autumn Hurlbert). Unfortunately, though, Portia is a Puritan, a group of holier-than-thou, ultra religious citizens under the leadership of the, um, rather effeminate Brother Jeremiah (scene-stealer Scott Cote) who all feel that the world of theater is full of sin, evil, and depravity.

But, alas, Nigel and Portia are totes in love. So, naturally, when Nigel finds himself surprisingly invited to go to "Shakespeare in the Park" (haha) and attend the post-show after-party, Portia is his "plus one" to the event thrown by his idol. But wicked d-bag Shakespeare has an ulterior motive for Nigel's presence: to peruse Nigel's journal and steal some of his ideas! Soon enough, a vengeful Nick vows to steal from Shakespeare, too—asking more help from Nostradamus for any hints on what his rival's next hit is going to be.

And thus begins the humorous tug-of-war between Nick and the Bard. Who'll come out on top?

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Filled with a plethora of pun-tastic lines, saucy double-entendrés, hilarious sight gags, and cheeky, self-aware references, “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” is a truly madcap, laugh-out-loud musical comedy that delivers the funny without dumbing it down for its audiences. The show trusts the theatergoers enough not to overexplain everything it parodies—creating an even more satisfying payoff whenever jokes land… and most of them do. This overly meta approach to material that supposedly takes place in a much more antiquated era is certainly not something new (see: “SPAMALOT,” Disney's “ALADDIN”), but this musical does it so well, it's hard not to feel like you're getting it all and that you're laughing at every single joke it doles out with complete comprehension of what it's referencing and why exactly it's so damn funny.

Yet beyond that is the musical's enjoyable wordplay. Though its comedic silliness isn't over the top absurd or heavily reliant on vulgarity, “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” still manages to be genuinely funny with each passing scene, cleverly straddling the line between total buffoonery and knowing intelligence. It's certainly a testament to this show's great writing and musical lyrics.

And even more impressive which merits repeating: “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” is an original musical—not based on any previously published or staged material, a label you hardly see sprout on Broadway these days where almost every new musical seems like it's just another musical adaptation of a movie or a book. Because of this very fact, the show is all at once refreshing and unique, even though much of what is experienced feels hilariously familiar or reminiscent of tropes we may have run across before.

But by far the show's greatest contribution to musical comedy is its sensational act-one tribute to the art form of musical theater, which becomes a literal showstopper: "A Musical." Led by Hammond's showmanship flare and McClure's dazzled pupil-in-training, this fantastically-staged number garnered a well-deserved extended applause that basically had the cast catching its breath as it enjoyed a nearly three-minute stretch of claps and cheers from the show's recent press performance in Costa Mesa. A tour-de-force of rapid-fire stamina and encyclopedic musical theater hutzpah, this number name-checks pretty much every iconic musical to ever grace Broadway without outright flashing their titles up on a marquee (it even spills into the second act once the brothers forge ahead with their planned musical).

The added glee of recognizing each musical mentioned in "A Musical" feels like a communal treasure hunt the whole audience can enjoy. This alone is worth the price of admission.

Luckily, though, the price of admission gets you so much more, such as seeing Scott Pask's eye-catching sets and Gregg Barnes' magnificent, billowing costumes—all of which not only look luxe and stunning, but are also quite comedically functional (I mean, how can we not talk about those enlarged cod pieces-slash-fanny packs?)

Also worth noting: Jeff Croiter's transformative lighting design, plus Josh Marquette's daring hair designs and Milagros Medina-Cerdeira's amazing makeup designs. Sound-wise, musical director  Brian P. Kennedy leads a terrific-sounding orchestra, though the cast was a bit drowned out volume-wise during the opening number which resulted in some mumbled lyrics that didn't quite come through fully comprehensible. But it's apparently a fixable flaw, because the rest of the show had the audience laughing at every single joke and lyric dispensed by this excellent cast, which also includes standouts Pierce Cassedy (the always in "drag" Robin) and Nick Rashad Burroughs (who sings a terrific opening solo as the Minstrel). In almost every scene, you can tell the entire cast enjoys performing the show—and this joy is definitely contagious.

But this production's ultimate cherry on the top is definitely McClure, a comic treasure of action and reaction. For a solid two-plus hours, he displays an astonishing, manic, hard-working, limber, comically-blessed, grand belter extraordinaire that everyone wants to root for… or, at least, wish well in his wondrous endeavor of creating stage magic. If he represents the guy who brought us musical theater, then, wow thanks, man!

An uproarious musical comedy that deserves every bit of laughter thrown at it, “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” is definitely a must-see show this holiday season in Southern California. Leave your sadness and toss-able rotten tomatoes at home, because this show is an all-around guaranteed audience pleaser.

 

** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **

Photos from the National Tour of SOMETHING ROTTEN! by Jeremy Daniel, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

 

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Performances of the National Tour of “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, November 19, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.

Review: Theatrically Inventive “CURIOUS INCIDENT” Tour Captivates at OC's Segerstrom Center

Michael L. Quintos

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic

Usually, the "Broadway" series offered by larger national tour-hosting theaters consists of a variety of stage musicals, from popular hits and recent revivals to so-so titles that hit the road to extend its reach beyond New York.

Rarely do Broadway plays go on tour—so when one is thrown into the mix of a local theater's offerings, you know it's very likely to be something extra special.

That is basically one of many superlatives you can bestow on the intriguing road production of Simon Stephen's Tony Award-winning play “THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME,” now in Costa Mesa at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts through September 17. For two-plus electrifying hours, audiences are offered a rare treat: a modern, theatrically-thrilling play direct from Broadway—by way of London's acclaimed Royal National Theatre and based on Mark Haddon's novel—that enraptures the audience in the same manner you would more likely expect from an all-singing, all-dancing grandiose musical.

Uniquely structured, visually stunning, and yet remarkably approachable, “CURIOUS INCIDENT”—directed with dynamic exuberance by Tony winner Marianne Elliott—is a prime example of what a great live theater experience can bring to an audience willing to jump in for a different kind of ride.

Right from the get-go, the play elicits plenty of exactly what's promised in the title: curiosity (and, yes, there's a dog). Right away, it feels unlike any play you've ever experienced.

As the audience enters the theater to find their seats, they'll immediately notice a curtain-free open stage fitted with an imposing giant black room. The room is lined perfectly with illuminated white grids on all sides, including the floor. And right smack dab in the center of the floor is an unexpected sight: a rather large dead dog impaled with a rather large pitchfork. It's actually quite a disturbing scene to walk into… eased only slightly with the knowledge that it is (hopefully) not a real dead dog (Hello!? This is theater!)

This futuristic-looking block container—outfitted with seemingly millions of LED lights, large projections, and lots of hidden compartments—feels like something out of the movie Tron. For me personally (nerd alert), the perfectly symmetrical grid-lined stage box is immediately reminiscent of an empty holo-deck in Star Trek where the surroundings will soon come to life once the "hologram" projections inside are activated.

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In somewhat similar fashion during the entirety of “CURIOUS INCIDENT,” the play’s blank electronic canvas also comes to life as the digitally-animated immersive environment that surrounds 15-year-old Christopher Boone (played with unbound ferocity by Adam Langdon), a mathematical genius and amateur sleuth who also displays signs of a young man on the more pronounced end of the autism spectrum—though this is never once outright mentioned or used to describe him in the play.

His assumed Asperger's-like condition is, naturally, the primary shaper of the play's narrative, as the audience witnesses first-hand in great, almost visceral visual and audio detail what it means and feels like to have this condition: a disturbingly chaotic cacophony of piercing sounds, nagging voices, incessant stimuli, and flashing lights that overtake, overwhelm, and overpower anyone in its nucleus. The once blank, dark grid that make up the stage suddenly becomes an enveloping avalanche of light and noise that's difficult to escape—not for the audience and certainly not for Christopher.

Aside from the sensory overload, even the slightest touch can set Christopher off into a toddler-like tirade. It's heartbreaking to watch—knowing how uncontrollable and debilitating this condition can be for a person who must endure it. “CURIOUS INCIDENT” cleverly immerses the audience in Christopher's world, allowing us to, at least briefly, step into his world.

Not surprisingly, Christopher is so much more comfortable with the language of maths, so it's only fitting that he is seen at his calmest and most confident when he is dealing only in that language. Fittingly, the play even later treats Christopher like a rock star—complete with all the swagger and strut—while diving into some serious mathematical problem solving.

As one may expect, Christopher's unpredictable condition is a challenging aspect to be around, particularly for his well-meaning working class dad Ed (Gene Gillette), who is raising his son alone and trying his best, for all intents and purposes, to be a good (or, perhaps, good enough) parent to a child with special needs.

Ed desperately wants to connect emotionally with his son while keeping him safe and content at the same time. But because Christopher's condition doesn't allow many moments for meaningful conversations, for common sense human understanding, or even for physical demonstrations of affection (Christopher, remember, doesn't like to be touched), Ed feels the need to be just at arms-length from his otherwise brilliant son, yet is still extra protective while also being fiercely cautious.

Ed, too, feels overwhelmed and mostly confused as to how to best handle him without losing him completely. But then again, he chooses to be evasive during Christopher's rare queries about his no-longer-around Mom, dodging a perfectly good opportunity to connect.

Book smart, highly analytical, and, of course, mathematically inclined, Christopher prefers calm, order… and answers. So when we first meet him, he is fixated with something new: he has tasked himself to solve the mystery of the neighbor's murdered dog, Wellington, a bloody act he is initially accused of doing himself. Once his father retrieves him from jail, Christopher dives deep into his scientifically-charged investigation, running into many "obstacles" along the way.

Funny enough, in the process of his investigation (which he, duh, eventually solves), he also accidentally uncovers a different, much more juicy mystery—one that personally holds an important key to his past and his future. This discovery, natch, triggers an irrational, spontaneous decision to run away from home, breaking him out from the somewhat protective bubble of his hometown Swindon to the congested streets of London. Will he fare well in such an overwhelming environment away from his dad, his sole protector?

In one of the play's many interesting twists, Christopher's absorbing, surprisingly riveting tale—part electro-fantasy, part animated infographic, part detective mystery, and part road adventure—is actually conveyed as a staged play for the audience, read out loud from Christopher's self-penned manuscript in a "Children's Story Hour"-kind of voice by his enthusiastic mentor/school therapist Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez), a wonderfully encouraging, if slightly patronizing, non-judgmental presence in his life. She recognizes another talent in Christopher—writing—and is championing him to continue.

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Meanwhile, a hardworking standby troupe of metamorphic character actors sit patiently in the sidelines to await their many turns to get up and portray various people—and objects—that cross paths with Christopher. An awesome compliment to Finn Ross' eye-popping video designs/projections and Paule Constable's intuitively choreographed lights is the play’s incredibly fluid ensemble cast, whose movements were devised by Frantic Assembly's Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett. Bunny Christie's inventive scenic and costume designs complete this production's modern high-tech aspirations.

But while the plot of “CURIOUS INCIDENT” itself isn't too complicated, the play’s clever and often artistically beautiful usage of technology combined with innovative staging and terrific acting performances are the things that make the play truly satisfying to watch. Even better, Langdon brings an endearing quality and memorable authenticity to his performance as Christopher that earns our affections and sympathy almost instantly (he alternates the role with Benjamin Wheelwright at certain performances). Sure, the visuals certainly do play a much more significant role in the telling of this story, but it does so in service of the play's goal to illustrate the main character's mind, ultimately making for a much more engaging experience overall.

A quirky, captivating exercise in theatrical inventiveness “CURIOUS INCIDENT” may be a high-tech-reliant play, but for the most part, it is ultimately a searingly human story that we can all cheer and celebrate.

 

** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **

Photos from the National Tour of CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Performances of the National Tour of “THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, September 17, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.

Review: Beautifully Poignant "FUN HOME" Tour Moves Into OC's Segerstrom Center

Michael L. Quintos

Riveting, powerful and beautifully poignant at every step, "FUN HOME"—the Tony Award-winning musical based on Alison Bechdel's 2006 autobiographical graphic memoir—is one of those rare, great stage musicals that represents an astonishingly unique point-of-view that is somehow miraculously universal and inclusive at the same time. Armed with a moving, deeply personal story that's filled with heartache and heartbreak, yet with still plenty of room to be profoundly heartwarming, the musical's truly excellent national tour production continues performances at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through August 6.

If you haven't seen this musical yet, do yourself a favor and get tickets while it's here.

Featuring piercing book and lyrics from Lisa Kron and euphonious music from Jeanine Tesori, "FUN HOME" is inspired by real events that happened to cartoonist Bechdel—particularly two specific stages of her past that she feels may have helped shape the person that she is in the present, and perhaps have also had a significant impact in her family. In looking back at her life, she is hoping that with deeper recollection and examination of these specific moments, they will lead to answers to some burning questions she has about her tumultuous relationship with her father that still haunt her today.

As audience members file into the theater, they will notice that there is no curtain, just a barely furnished bi-level stage where the terrific-sounding in-house band led by musical director Micah Young is tucked away downstage. Suddenly, with just a few notes from the band, in scurries Adult Alison—played by current Actors' Equity Association president Kate Shindle—wearing the same hipster spectacles and closed-cropped hairstyle the real-life Bechdel also sports.

Now in her 40's, she is in the midst of writing (well, drawing) her life story, which time-jumps from her seemingly happy home life in suburban Beech Creek, Pennsylvania as a curious young 10-year-old (played by the adorable Carly Gold) living with her two brothers and her parents, to her later life as a still curious 19-year-old Oberlin College undergrad (played by the impressive Abby Corrigan) just discovering that she is, in fact, a lesbian.

But the biggest question mark Adult Alison can't seem to shake in her reminiscing is, of course, her mysterious father Bruce (the superb Robert Petkoff), the distant yet highly intimidating family patriarch who taught English part-time at the high school and also ran the family business: a funeral home, which the Bechdel kids endearingly refer to as the "fun home" for short (get it?). She reveals quite matter-of-factly early on that four months after "leaping out of the closet," her father—himself a not-so-secret homosexual—stepped in front of a truck and may have killed himself.

As young (Small) Alison, she observes a father who barely engages with her let alone indicate any affection for her, at least in the way most fathers do with their pre-teen. He is, however, quite demanding and very particular about appearances, and how he wants certain things to look… from the way Alison dresses and the way she spends her leisure time, to the way their family house—a painstakingly restored ornate Victorian house—needs to always be meticulously perfect. He actually gets more excited over antiquated objects rather than the actual people around him. He shows more affection to a piece of linen damask than he does his own family. I guess this makes him perfectly suited to working with silent corpses and making them look pristine.

For coed (Medium) Alison, Bruce sends her more grown-up daughter books on philosophy while having awkward phone conversations that span different intellectual subjects, still unable to fully engage on a personal level. Such trivial things are easier to converse about, one can guess. For her part, Medium Alison jots down banal notes about their relationship in her journal. And strangely, Bruce all but glazes over Medium Alison's brave confessional letter that says she is gay and in love with a fellow student, Joan (Victoria Janicki).

But… surprise (but, not really)! She soon learns of Bruce's double life.

It is, however, apparently not much of a secret to his wife Helen (a stirring Susan Moniz), Alison's distressed mom—a former actress now working on her dissertation—whose only recourse is to feign happiness by silencing her sadness. Partially checked out and forcing herself to stay in an unhappy marriage, she gets used to turning the other cheek, then going about her own chores while reluctantly observing her husband's flirtations with various man-boys that seem to always show up at the house—from a fit former student to a random guy that comes to "help out" around the house. Eventually, one of these flirtations gets him into real trouble, forcing him to go see a psychiatrist as punishment/treatment.

Soon after coming out, Alison—hoping, perhaps, that she now has something much more substantial in common to talk about with his dad—is still unable to share a heart-to-heart with her dad during a visit home from college (with girlfriend in tow). Her mom, on the other hand, confesses tearfully about having to put up with it all these years.

As Bruce's realities start to implode, we witness Alison's father and his sudden death, which may have been a suicide. Alison, naturally, can't help but wonder…is her coming out and his suicide interconnected somehow? Did her act of pride lead to his act of shame?

Emotionally complex and intriguingly layered, "FUN HOME" is a 100-minute metaphor-heavy musical that touches on surface facades—those who use them to shield truths in order to try achieving a fulfilling life, and those who shed them and actually come closer to living a more fulfilling one.

Bruce, of course, is the biggest practitioner of the former, a man caught in a time and place that told him not to reveal his true self. Instead, he surrounds himself with a house full of precious, artistically valuable objet d'arts that he is more attached to than to his own family. Alas, the family has a purpose, though: its an army of free and willing museum custodians, all helping to keep Bruce's show palace a good spit-and-shine at any given moment.

For their part, Helen and her kids are wary not to upset Dad, making sure that the Bechdel's museum-like home is kept up to his exacting standards.

"Like chaos never happens and is never seen," they sing. "A volume out of place could start a third world war!"

His attachment to such beautiful things is clearly his compensation for not being able to fully express himself outwardly in another, more visceral way. And yet, lookee there, he manages to satisfy his other hidden urge quite frequently anyway—so much so that his own oft neglected wife is willing to just tolerate it rather than admit she's in a loveless marriage and have wasted her life being ignored and being taken for granted, minimizing her own wants and needs for his sake. Ultimately though, no amount of lovely things can be enough for a man living a lie all his adult life.

It's certainly a fate Alison seems to be trying to avoid falling into herself. Unlike her father, Alison is able to express her feelings with a modicum of bravery, despite its surface awkwardness. We see this in her boastful, so-happy-she-could-scream-it-with-a-megaphone pride over her meet-cute turned one-night-stand with Joan (her coming home with Alison for a visit obviously signals that they have progressed later to an out-in-the-open relationship). Alison is living her authentic self, something her father felt he wasn't ever able to do.

Additionally, "FUN HOME" is also a stern cautionary tale about the harsh consequences of non-communication. In certain cases, we entrap ourselves in these cycles of not telling others how we feel in the most honest of ways. Bruce deceived everyone. Helen kept her feelings to herself that it made her finally blow up, much, much too late. Alison almost didn't get what she wanted from Joan at first. Alison didn't even get the closure she needed from her father, but instead settling to remember her father in a rare moment of "perfect balance."

Under the smartly purposeful direction of Sam Gold, "FUN HOME" whips through a swift, chronologically jumbled puzzle of moments and revelations and then organizes them into an emotional drama with fair amounts of very welcome, well-timed joy. While, sure, "FUN HOME" isn't exactly the happiest, most feel-good musical around, there are enough breaks in the sadness to keep the audience entertained.

Gold's Small Alison is clearly having a blast with her little bros Christian (Luké Barbara Smith) and John (Henry Boshart) during the too-cute "Come To The "FUN HOME"," while Corrigan's Medium Alison enjoys a moment of euphoria during "Changing My Major." The disco-sparkle of "Raincoat of Love" perfectly contrasts with the tumultuous nature of the story at the very moment it arrives. Even the show's signature ballad "Ring of Keys" has a layer of buoyant joy bursting from its belted notes.

But it's the heartbreaking songs laced with deep cuts of melancholy and subtext that keep the audience at the edge of their seat to make this one of the most stirring contemporary musicals today. "Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue," "Maps," and "Telephone Wire" revealed more to me during this recent visit to the musical than it did the first time I saw it. And I just about fell apart in sobs much more this time around hearing Moniz sing through the devastating "Days and Days" while Petkoff's "Edges of the World" was a shudder-inducing manic explosion of fear and sorrow.

And, yes, the cast is stupendous. I can listen to Corrigan's beautiful singing voice all day long, she was that good. Moniz and Petkoff offer strong, excellent musicality paired perfectly with their incredible acting prowess (even the subtlest of facial expressions from Moniz are overloaded with context). Pint-sized Gold sounds delightful in every song, particularly in "Ring of Keys," the show's signature "aha" moment. And finally, Shindle, blessed with impressive vocal control and a commanding presence both as an omniscient narrator and the vulnerable "girl" in an awkward car ride with her dad, is the show's beacon home. As she examines her life right before her eyes, she is also, in a way, the audience's calming guide and docent in this musical museum, taking the time to sort of tell us that everything will be okay in the end.

Without fanfare, fancy visuals or outlandish theatrical setups, "FUN HOME" also seems to be all about theatrical transparency, even though, in a not-so-subtle contrast, the characters in the show themselves are almost always hiding their true selves from outward exposure. Zinn's simple exposed brick-lined set, portable furniture pieces, and an always-seen terrific in-house band tucked in the back reiterates this openness, and also helps recreate the theater-in-the-round scenario it employed during its Broadway run. Later towards the end of the musical, a (SPOILER ALERT) stunningly opulent Victorian home set is revealed and—wow. So that's what Bruce was doing. Kudos also go to Ben Stanton for the fabulous lighting, and Zinn (again) for the contextually relevant costumes.

Overall, "FUN HOME" is utterly moving and achingly heartfelt with every scene—and feels genuinely authentic. While I understand that this is all told through Alison's filtered lenses, in the end, I actually feel like Bruce's story is given equal weight with Alison's... although she tries to find answers to the mystery of his father (which she never really gets completely wrapped up in a bow), the fact that Bruce remains a somewhat unsolved enigma and mystery is probably the best thing for her—in order to heal and to be well without her recovery hinging primarily on solving the riddle of his dad. In spite of a fairly dysfunctional upbringing, Alison turned out to be a pretty darn great adult.

But more than anything, "FUN HOME" can be a thoughtful reminder of how important it is for people to live their truth, no matter how hard it may be for others to take or to understand. Sure, it was much more difficult to do so back in Small Alison's days (or, well, Medium Alison's days, too)… but nothing is more fulfilling than living life authentically. In this instance, we are also reminded about how much more alike we all are as feeling, emotional human beings, than we are different from one another.

Thanks, Alison, for allowing us to peer briefly into your world.

** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **

Photos from the National Tour of "FUN HOME" - A NEW MUSICAL by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Review also published in BroadwayWorld.

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Performances of the National Tour of "FUN HOME" at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, August 6, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Ahmanson Theatre

Erin Conley

The opening tableau of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which opened at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre on Thursday, is horribly upsetting and frankly makes you wonder what you’re walking into. In the middle of Bunny Christie’s versatile, simple set consisting of a black box covered in what looks like lit-up graph paper sits the corpse of a dog, impaled with a garden fork. The dog, Wellington, was murdered, and Christopher (Adam Langdon), a 15-year-old boy with an autism spectrum disorder, makes it his mission to solve the case. As an inciting incident, it is quite straightforward, but the twists and turns of the plot end up covering more ground than you would ever expect, and innovative staging makes for a truly dazzling production.

Curious Incident is based on the 2003 book of the same name by Mark Haddon. The stage version, adapted by Simon Stephens and directed by Marianne Elliott, premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2012 and won seven Olivier Awards. It later ran on Broadway for almost two years, winning five Tony Awards, including Best Play. The original National Theatre production is the same one that is now in Los Angeles, and this is exactly the type of show that will surely have a long, profitable life in theaters of all shapes and sizes. While the vivid central character and emotional journey evoke a feeling of intimacy, highly physical and inventive staging makes the show larger than life, combining a small, human story with theater spectacle in a rare and far-reaching way.

The grid the show takes place on has many uses—it is used for projections (Finn Ross), for displaying artwork Christopher draws in chalk on the ground, and as a blank slate of sorts on which the ensemble of ten can create magic. In addition to playing a variety of important characters and sometimes delivering narration, they also act as furniture and props—in one scene, where we see Christopher arriving to his home in Swindon, they create shapes with their bodies to mimic the doormat, a coat rack, a table, and even the bed Christopher eventually lies in to play video games. The ensemble also literally carries Christopher at times, notably in one scene in act two when they enable him to appear as if he is walking along the walls perpendicular to the stage, a sequence which drew rare mid-act applause from the audience.

While the book is told strictly from Christopher’s point of view and this is, for all intents and purposes, a rather loyal adaptation, the play uses a variety of storytelling techniques. There are so many, in fact, that it seems like it should not work—in addition to the many functions of the ensemble, you also have Christopher’s teacher and therapist, Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez) often acting as a narrator. In act one, she sometimes reads aloud from a book she has instructed Christopher to write about his experience investigating the dog murder, and in act two, the book is adapted into a play—see what they did there? Transitions between scenes are often abrupt and almost jarring with the action opting to move on once necessary information has been delivered. All of this combined should feel busy and overwhelming, but the emotional threads are so strong and the staging is so smart that somehow it never feels that way. Christopher’s beloved pet rat, Toby, is even played by an actual, live rat, because what is live theatre without as many variables as possible?

Nearly all of the aforementioned emotional threads have to do with Christopher as a character, who is beautifully portrayed by Langdon here. Christopher’s particular autism spectrum disorder, which is never addressed by name in the show, seems to be a rather severe one. He does not go to a mainstream school, he can recite every prime number into the thousands, he has a strong preference for the colors blue and red (and equally strong dislike for yellow and brown), he dislikes being touched, and he navigates the city in a very particular way, consisting of a specific system of right and left turns. During act one, as Christopher gets closer to an answer about who killed Wellington, an answer that shatters his perception of his own family more than he ever thought possible, we see him building a model train on stage with increasing franticness.

When the completed train is not only functional but provides a literal roadmap for the unprecedented adventure Christopher embarks on in act two, it is a stunning moment that brings everything we have seen up until that point together. While his mission changes multiple times throughout the show, his core personality and values never shift, and your heart will break for him as he discovers the secrets his family has kept from him and root for him as he fights his fears.

It feels worth mentioning that not all autism experts or people affected by autism find Christopher to be a good representation of the disorder. Haddon’s novel was marketed specifically as a book about a boy with Asperger’s, even though that word never appears in the text. Many of its critics feel Christopher’s condition is far too extreme to be truly indicative of Asperger’s, which no longer exists as a separate diagnosis but was generally associated with high-functioning cases. Others feel the portrayal of Christopher as a mathematical savant is stereotypical and damaging. Of course, there are two sides to every story, and others have written that the play helped them get a sense of what is happening inside the brains of their children with spectrum disorders in a way they never had previously. Also on a very positive note, in productions this coming fall at Indiana Repertory Theatre and Syracuse Stage, Mickey Rowe will become the first actor with an autism spectrum disorder to play the role of Christopher, a very necessary and exciting step towards better disability representation in the media.

The reason I have talked so little about the plot is because it is arguably the least special thing about this show. That is not to discredit it—it is an engaging story that keeps you invested even throughout a relatively lengthy two and a half hours. But when every other element feels exceptional, something has to be a bit ordinary. Oh, and don’t worry—they make up for the disturbing initial image with the crowd-pleasing appearance of a ridiculously adorable puppy towards the end.

 

The National Theatre Production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs through September 10th at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre. The running time is two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. You can also enter a daily lottery to win tickets for $19.67 through the TodayTix app. After LA, this production will proceed to Costa Mesa and Las Vegas. Photo: Joan Marcus