Review: A View from the Bridge at the Ahmanson Theatre

Erin Conley

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic

The titular view from the bridge is perhaps more accurately a view of a love triangle so messed up it could put the relationships on Game of Thrones to shame. Los Angeles theater fans should run, not walk down to Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre for this can’t miss revival of Arthur Miller’s classic A View from the Bridge. Directed by Ivo van Hove, this production originated in 2014 at the Young Vic in London before transferring to Broadway last year, where it won two 2016 Tony Awards—Best Revival of a Play and Best Direction of a Play for Van Hove. 

This is not your grandmother’s version of this classic play, which first premiered in 1955. The set, designed by Jan Versweyveld, is stark and clean, with no frills, next to no props, and no scenery aside from a rectangular box with one simple door inside which the action unfolds. The fantastic ensemble wore simple, modern clothing and no shoes (with the except of one plot-relevant pair of high heels). The production even features on-stage seating on either side of the simple set, adding to the intimate, focused feel. The lighting, also by Versweyveld, is often intentionally harsh, creating the feeling that the characters are on the spot, subjects of an interrogation, almost. Occasionally, the actors are even placed intentionally in shadow. 

A View from the Bridge is set in an Italian-American neighborhood in 1950s Brooklyn. The protagonist is Eddie Carbone (Frederick Weller), a longshoreman who works hard to provide for his wife, Bea (Andrus Nichols) and his niece, Catherine (Catherine Combs). Catherine, now 17, is an orphan and the daughter of Bea’s late sister, and has been raised by her aunt and uncle her whole life. Their world is forever changed when Bea’s cousins, Marco (Alex Esola) and Rodolpho (Dave Register), illegally enter the country from Italy and move in. Marco has a starving wife and sick children back home he is determined to earn money for and eventually return to, while Rodolpho has more unconventional aspirations of becoming a singer and sees himself staying in the United States long-term. 

There are a lot of layers to this plot, which mirrors a classic Greek tragedy. As such, it is narrated by Alfieri(Thomas Jay Ryan), a family friend and attorney who immigrated from Italy himself at one point. Given his unique perspectives on both Italian and Italian-American culture, Louis is the “bridge” between the characters, and therefore the point-of-view from which the story is told. 

Marco and Rodolpho’s arrival is when the play shifts from vaguely uncomfortable, as you suspect something is not quite right with the odd relationship between Eddie and Catherine, who acts far younger than her 17 years, to almost difficult to watch. You see, Catherine and Rodolpho hit it off, which Eddie immediately hates—ostensibly because he suspects Rodolpho is gay and only interested in Catherine so that he may marry her and stay in the country, but actually because he harbors some highly inappropriate, unresolved feelings for his niece himself. I told you it was messed up. 

I cannot praise Van Hove’s stunning direction enough. With a running time of just under two hours, there is no intermission, and the tension is masterfully built to the point where you almost feel as if you’re creeping closer and closer to the edge of your seat. In one memorable sequence, long, loaded pauses are used to communicate the increasing tension between Eddie, Bea, Catherine, and their houseguests over time. Metaphorically and, eventually, literally, the walls are closing in around them as the drama builds to a point of no return. With no distractions, Miller’s complex characterizations and smart dialogue can truly shine. Just as greed, jealousy and sex ultimately strip the characters down to the most basic, barbaric versions of themselves, the direction strips the play down to its most basic form, to great effect. The only criticism I have is that for whatever reason, the actors were sometimes difficult to hear in the large theater, although I adjusted to the slight strain by the end. Ultimately, this “view” is quite stunning, and will leave you processing long after you leave the theater. 

A View from the Bridge runs at the Ahmanson through October 16th. After that, this production and cast will move to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. from November 18th to December 3rd. To buy tickets for the Ahmanson run, which range from $25-$125, visit www.centertheatregroup.org. Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld

Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Mark Taper Forum

Erin Conley

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic

“Ma Rainey’s gonna show you her black bottom!” This intro to the song from which Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom gets its title helps set the stage for the 1982 play by August Wilson, currently being presented by Los Angeles’s Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum. 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is part of Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle, a series exploring the African American experience in the twentieth century. Set in Chicago in 1927, it is actually the only play of the ten to not take place in Pittsburgh. The very contained story unfolds over the course of one afternoon in a recording studio, where Ma Rainey (Tony winner Lillias White), a singer commonly referred to as the “Mother of the Blues,” is set to record her latest album. 

Much of the first act consists of the others involved in the recording session waiting for Ma, who is late, to arrive. The uptight, impatient studio owner, Sturdyvant (Matthew Henerson) is constantly berating Ma’s long-suffering manager, Irvin (Ed Swidey), insisting he must ensure the day goes smoothly. Amongst Ma’s band, even more drama is unfolding. The three older band members, Toledo (Glynn Turman), the pianist, Cutler (Damon Gupton), the trombonist, and Slow Drag (Keith David), the bassist, are immediately and fundamentally at odds with Levee (Jason Dirden), a young, ambitious trumpeter who has a short fuse and aspirations of starting his own band. When Ma finally arrives, the day only gets more intense—she had a run-in with a police officer (Greg Bryan) on the way to the studio, which Irvin must smooth over, and certainly knows how to get what she wants. It’s quite obvious the recording session will happen on Ma’s terms or not at all. Making matters worse, she brings along her friend, Dussie Mae (Nija Okoro), whom it turns out is very familiar with Levee after an encounter at a club, and her nephew, Sylvester (Lamar Richardson). Ma intends for Sylvester to record the vocal intro to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” one of four songs they are set to record, and is completely unconcerned by the fact that he stutters rather badly. 

The music, arranged and directed for this production by Steven Bargonetti, is a true highlight, to the point where I almost wished there was more of it. Act two, when Ma and the band finally buckle down to record the songs, almost felt a little rushed, despite containing the meatiest, most anticipated material. The cast, however, was truly phenomenal, and everyone got a moment to shine. The versatile Mark Taper Forum always impresses me with its ability to be nearly unrecognizable from one production to the next due to the wide variety of sets it can accommodate—here, the set is essentially three levels, with a recording booth, the main studio floor, and the band’s rehearsal room. The plot is really quite simple, and more than anything, this play is an extended conversation about race relations and the effect they have on religion, as well as on power differentials in the music industry at the time. 

In a world of #OscarsSoWhite and troubling statistics about diversity, or the lack thereof, in popular culture and media, Center Theatre Group has done a phenomenal job of choosing plays that not only serve as an outlet for diverse voices and performers, but encourage a real conversation about race. In 2013, Phylicia Rashad, director of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, another play from Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, which featured much of the same cast and creative team. Earlier this year, they also presented Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2, and 3, an exploration on the lasting effects of slavery and true meaning of freedom. This play is no exception—one of the most memorable scenes is a monologue Levee delivers about a heartbreaking, shocking event from his family’s history, and how it shook his faith in a higher power because he feels that if God truly cared about black people, such horrors would not happen again and again. For a play written over 30 years ago and set nearly a century ago, too many themes still ring true. 

While the plot that unfolds almost feels like an afterthought compared to the larger issues discussed, a shocking twist at the end left myself and many others in the audience gasping. Some may find the many scenes consisting of lengthy, dense philosophical discussions to be meandering, but in the hands of such a talented cast, they rarely come across as such. David, Gupton, and Turman, who possess an overwhelming number of stage and screen credits and accolades between them, were the standouts, bringing real wisdom, humanity, humor, and musical talent to their characters. On opening night, the crowd was on its feet before the lights even rose for the curtain call, marking this play as a must-see.  

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom runs at the Mark Taper Forum through October 16th. Tickets range from $25-85 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz.

Review: The Group Rep’s 'Calendar Girls'

Erin Conley

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic

North Hollywood CA- Which do you think would sell more copies: a calendar of local churches, or a calendar of women in their birthday suits? Based on the 2003 movie of the same name, which is based on a true story, Calendar Girls follows a group of middle-aged women in Yorkshire, England who pose tastefully nude to raise money for leukemia research. The stage adaptation, which opened on the West End in 2009, is written by Tim Firth and is currently being presented in Los Angeles by The Group Rep. 

Photo credit: Drina Durazo

Photo credit: Drina Durazo

When the beloved husband of Annie (Lauren Peterson) passes away from leukemia, her friends at the Women’s Institutes are desperate to do something to pay tribute. Led by the charismatic Chris (Michele Bernath), they come up with the idea for an annual calendar that is quite the departure from the Institutes’ usual photos of local scenery—a calendar of the women themselves, tastefully nude, featuring them performing typical “women’s activities” such as knitting, baking, and serving tea. The idea comes about because Annie knows her late husband, John (Doug Haverty) would have gotten quite a kick out of it. While they begin with a modest goal of buying a new couch for the visitors’ lounge at the hospital where John received treatment, before they know it, the “calendar girls” are at the center of a media frenzy, inspiring women and those affected by leukemia worldwide. Naturally, some friendships and insecurities are tested as a result. 

While I admit I have never seen the movie, parts of this adaptation felt a bit superfluous, particularly in the first act. The idea for the calendar comes out of left field midway through after a lot of build-up that could be easily condensed, and the play doesn’t truly come to life until the pivotal photo shoot, which comprises a lengthy and extremely fun scene that ends the first act. Some subplots, such as Chris and her husband, Rod’s (Chris Winfield) struggling flower shop or the women’s ongoing rivalry with the old-fashioned chairwoman of their WI division, Marie (Belinda Howell), never make it past half-baked, and while some character arcs play out perfectly, others feel lacking. 

Most notable about this production is how wonderful it is to see an ensemble of primarily women playing vivid, strong female characters. In addition to Chris and Annie, the other “calendar girls” are Cora (LizAnne Keigley), a musician and single mother, Jessie (Cheryl Crosland Butler), a retired teacher, Celia (Vesna Tolomanoska), a frustrated major’s wife, and Ruth (Julie Davis), a somewhat reserved housewife who is the last to agree to pose for the calendar. Of the supporting characters, Ruth has the best arc, truly coming into her own in a very satisfying way over the course of the story. While all of the women gave memorable performances, Peterson was the standout as Annie—she has the most emotional material and truly brought a real poignancy to her character’s grief. The best developed arc was the close friendship between Chris and Annie, which becomes strained when Annie begins to suspect Chris is enjoying her fifteen minutes of fame a little too much and has lost sight of the calendar’s original intentions. This play is at its best when it is focused on friendship, although I do wish the setting were different as much of the accent work throughout was inconsistent. 

Larry Eisenberg’s direction featured a few beautifully done moments, including the way John’s death is handled in act one, which actually brought tears to my eyes. A scene where letters from fans of the calendar literally and unexpectedly fall from the sky as well as the final tableau of the play are also standouts. If you enjoy emotional, fun stories about female friendship, you will find much to love in Calendar Girls. 

 

Calendar Girls runs at North Hollywood’s Lonny Chapman Theatre (10900 Burbank Blvd) through October 9th. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at www.thegrouprep.com. 

Review: 'Next to Normal' at the Pico Playhouse

Erin Conley

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic

Los Angeles CA - “People who think they’re happy just haven’t thought about it enough.” This powerful line is just one of many that makes Next to Normal, currently being presented at Los Angeles’s Pico Playhouse by Triage Productions in association with Standing Room Only Productions, one of the most celebrated and praised musicals of recent decades. I am happy to report the spirit of the original Broadway production, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as three Tony Awards, is alive and well in this incredibly intimate staging. 

ISA BRIONES, RANDAL MILES, MICHELLE LANE PHOTO CREDIT:  John Dlugolecki. 

ISA BRIONES, RANDAL MILES, MICHELLE LANE PHOTO CREDIT:  John Dlugolecki. 

With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal is a rock musical about a family living with mental illness. The matriarch, Diana (Michelle Lane) has bipolar disorder, which is amplified by her ongoing struggle to come to terms with a catastrophic loss she and her husband, Dan (Nick Sarando) suffered over sixteen years ago. Their 16-year-old daughter, Natalie (Isa Briones) is an accomplished student and musician who is constantly worrying about both living in the shadow of her older brother, Gabe (Harrison Meloeny) and about ending up like her mother, with whom she has a distant and strained relationship. As Natalie begins a romance with a boy, Henry (Blaine Miller), whom she meets at school, Diana’s illness takes a turn for the worse, leading her to seek the treatment of various doctors (Randal Miles).

I have seen several iterations of Next to Normal, from the original Broadway cast to the national tour to the local production at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts a few years ago. The 99-seat Pico Playhouse is by far the smallest theater I have ever seen it performed in, and Thomas James O’Leary’s direction made smart choices that utilized every inch of the space, including the aisle of the house, to truly bring the audience even deeper into the intensely emotional story. In many ways, Next to Normal is an interesting contradiction—the phenomenal pop/rock score is large and commanding enough to enable it to shine in a larger Broadway house, but the plot is an incredibly specific family story that easily adapts to a more intimate setting.

Next to Normal is a demanding, visceral show, and I ultimately found the cast to be a bit uneven on opening weekend, with a few notable standouts. Isa Briones, who is a high school student in real life, was simply sensational as Natalie, nailing the emotional arc of her character while singing songs such as “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” with a beautiful, crystal clear voice. I found seeing such a young actress in the role really added something to the character, and I suspect Briones’s name is one we will be talking about a lot in years to come. As Diana, Michelle Lane also did a fantastic job of conveying the many peaks and valleys of the character’s journey while finding key, small moments to differentiate her portrayal from the well known, Tony-winning performance of Alice Ripley. Nick Sarando’s Dan grew on me throughout the show, and I was brought to tears by the raw emotion displayed by he and Briones in the final songs. Also charming and enjoyable to watch was Blaine Miller as Henry, who as a character truly deserves a place on every “best boyfriends of musical theater” list. 

MICHELLE LANE, HARRISON MELOENY, NICK SARANDO, ISA BRIONES, BLAINE MILLER, RANDAL MILES PHOTO CREDIT:  John Dlugolecki. 

MICHELLE LANE, HARRISON MELOENY, NICK SARANDO, ISA BRIONES, BLAINE MILLER, RANDAL MILES PHOTO CREDIT:  John Dlugolecki. 

I have written previously about how I firmly believe Next to Normal to be one of the best musicals of the past fifteen years. Few shows can compare to its ability to deliver an emotional gut punch again and again, and its portrayal of mental illness and its impact on both individuals and families is so incredibly important and still all too rare across all forms of media. I find new productions of shows I love so deeply to be a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, it is nearly impossible to prevent comparisons to previous versions and casts, but on the other hand, when the lights go down and the opening notes begin to play, it feels like revisiting an old friend, regardless of the specifics. Judging by the number of audience members I saw discreetly wiping their tears by the curtain call, it is safe to say this musical is in very capable hands with this cast and creative team. 

Next to Normal runs at the Pico Playhouse through September 25th with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $32 and can be purchased at http://n2nmusicalla.brownpapertickets.com.

Review: Nine Winning One-Acts at the Group Rep

Erin Conley

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic

Last year, The Group Rep held a nationwide contest for one-act plays. Over 150 entries were received, and they chose nine winners to produce as part of a night called Nine Winning One-Acts, currently running at North Hollywood’s Lonny Chapman Theatre. Overall, it was a very impressive evening—the casts and crew worked tirelessly to efficiently change sets between each piece, and nearly all of the plays had something special to offer. 

First up was “The Third Person,” written by Dan Borengasser and directed by John William Young. The concept is very unique and fun—a part-homage to, part-parody of film noir, a “narrator” character physically enters a woman’s life at a crucial moment. Performed by Alyson York and John William Young, its most memorable feature was certainly the enjoyable narrative device—a phrase that has perhaps never been used more literally. 

Photo credit: Doug Engalla

Photo credit: Doug Engalla

The second piece of the night, “February to August,” written by Neil Ellis Orts and directed by Katelyn Ann Clark, tells the sad story of a woman (Pascale Gigon) who is slowly losing her grasp on reality as she battles terminal brain cancer. A visit from her nephew (Devix Szell) helps illuminate some truths about the situation for both of them. 

“I Knew It,” written by Scott C. Sickles and directed by Bruce Nehlsen, opens on a woman finding another, younger woman in her husband’s bed—but there’s a twist. Performed by Stephanie Colet and Alana Kerr Collins, this was one of the only plays of the night that seemed to drag a little, and the emotions didn’t land as well as they maybe could have. 

One of the standouts of the evening was “Dora’s Dynamic Dates,” written by Marjorie Bicknell and directed by Stan Mazin. Performed by Lareen Faye, Roz Cohn, and Patrick Burke, it takes place at a night of speed dating. What a great concept for a one-act, right? The event doesn’t go quite as planned when only two people show up, but they end up hilariously making the most of it. 

“Alexander the Great,” written by James C. Ferguson and directed by Klaudia Kovacs, was probably the weakest link of the nine. A comedic take on the historical figure, it tells the story of three ordinary women (Anny, Cynthia Bryant, and Stephanie Colet) preventing Alexander (Troy Whitaker) from taking over a village. Despite the recognizable central character, the humor didn’t entirely land, and it felt rather anticlimactic. 

In “Hospice: A Love Story,” written by Elizabeth Coplan and directed by Jack Csenger, two sisters (Michele Bernath and Lareen Faye) simultaneously confess their regrets and secrets about their mother’s recent death. One is speaking to a priest and one to a therapist, but the two narratives are nicely tied together, and the final revelation that connects their stories does not disappoint. Another standout of the evening, this piece was both poignant and entertaining. 

“Only You,” written by Alex Rubin and directed by Loraine Shields, was one of the funniest plays of the night. It opens on a man (Paul Cady) who is dealing with a recent break-up by binge-watching Titanic on repeat while eating old chocolate and drinking. His best friend (Ceirra Burton) is determined to get him out of his apartment to have some fun. The easy, authentic-feeling friendship between the two was fun to watch, and the overly dramatic reaction of someone going through a bad break-up will certainly remind us all of someone we know. 

Another favorite one-act of mine was “A Long Time Coming,” written by Jody McColman and directed by Richard Alan Woody. Performed by Pascale Gigon and Lauren Peterson, it tells the story of a woman looking back on a short-lived but very memorable friendship and the impact it had on her life. This was another story that felt very relatable, and the heartbreaking final reveal is sad enough to inspire anyone to give their close friends a big hug.

The final piece of the evening, “Catatonic,” written by Nedra Pezold Roberts and directed by Larry Margo, featured two exes in a custody battle over their cat, told by the point-of-view of their best friend who is stuck mediating the ridiculous situation. Performed by Patrick Burke, Patrick Skelton, and Chris Sloan, it was a cute, light-hearted way to end the evening, and gets bonus points for the clever title. 

Nine Winning One-Acts runs through August 7th with performances Saturdays at 2pm and Sundays at 7pm. Tickets are $17-20 and can be purchased at www.thegrouprep.com. 

Review: The Group Rep’s 'The Armadillo Necktie'

Erin Conley

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic

When I first heard about The Armadillo Necktie, a world premiere play by Gus Krieger currently being presented by The Group Rep in North Hollywood, I was most intrigued by what the title might be referring to. I will say, the answer did not disappoint, and, much like the play as a whole, the answer was more brutal than you would expect. 

Set near the border of Iraq and Iran sometime in the mid-2000s, The Armadillo Necktie tells the story of five characters who are brought together by rather insane circumstances. The titular Colonel Ulysses Simpson Armadillo (understudy Larry Eisenberg at the performance attended, Bert Emmett usually) is an old, eccentric, violent man who has grown notorious for refusing to return home to the United States until he tracks down and enacts revenge on the insurgents who killed his wife years ago. His partner-in-crime slash babysitter is Buckley Dunham (Matt Calloway), an officer who was initially sent to force Armadillo’s return, but inevitably grew fond of him. Their usually monotonous lives are disrupted one day when a New York Times reporter, Madeline (Jennifer Laks) and her mysterious photographer, Bruce (Morgan Lauff) stumble upon their bunker. The situation is even further complicated by the arrival of a local woman, Aminah (Shanti Ashanti) who is convinced Colonel Armadillo is the only one who can help her find her missing brother, and is willing to tell him whatever he wants to hear to ensure he does.

This play is a very dark comedy, and given the severity of the situation, its humor is both welcome and occasionally jarring. For the most part, the characters all get fully realized backstories and motivations, and the performances were first rate. The standout was absolutely Eisenberg as Armadillo—he had the audience laughing throughout, and truly embodied a very out-there character that could have easily become merely cartoonish in lesser hands. Calloway was also very effective as Buckley, carrying a lengthy early sequence with great comedic timing and charming magnetism. 

Surprisingly, this was my first time at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, which is a true gem of a space. Drina Durazo’s direction made the most of the clever set, which was just big enough to accommodate the often complicated action. The plot has many twists and reveals—perhaps too many, as I definitely felt the second act in particular overstayed its welcome, yet still failed to build to an ending as climactic as I was expecting. There were a couple of eleventh hour plot twists that felt unmotivated and perplexing, particularly one moment between Armadillo and Madeline. Strange choices regarding passage of time also required a bit too much suspension of disbelief, and while fun, Armadillo’s lengthy, rambling speeches took up a lot of time and occasionally became a drag. I would be curious to see what this play could look like in a more concise 90 minutes, rather than the two and a half hours (including intermission) it currently runs—without some of the more extraneous dialogue, the action could certainly fit, and even benefit from happening in a more concise way. 

If you find theatrical gunfire startling, this is probably not the play for you—there is a lot of violence and even more references to violence. Ultimately, solid performances and memorable characters help balance out the somewhat clunky plot, and the inevitable political undertones are pretty savvily interwoven and never overwhelming. 

The Armadillo Necktie runs at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (10900 Burbank Blvd, North Hollywood) through July 31st with three performance a week—Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at www.thegrouprep.com. 

Review: 'Grey Gardens' at the Ahmanson Theatre

Erin Conley

OnStage Los Angeles Critic

Los Angeles CA - “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.” In Grey Gardens, the musical based on the documentary of the same name, which opened this week at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, the lines between past and present are both drawn and blurred. The audience must decide which of the characters to believe as the fascinating examination of a dysfunctional relationship between a mother and daughter unfolds. 

Grey Gardens tells the true story of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (also known as “Big Edie”) and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale (“Little Edie”), the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy. “Grey Gardens” is the name of their estate in East Hampton, New York, and a 1975 documentary depicted the strange, sad life of isolation and squalor the former socialites eventually came to lead. The musical version, with a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie, is the first ever musical to be based on a documentary. It debuted in New York in 2006 and enjoyed a run on Broadway; the current Los Angeles production is a reprise of a brief 2015 production at the Bay Street Theater. 

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

One of the most unique narrative devices Grey Gardens employs is that the actress (Rachel York) who plays Big Edie in act one plays Little Edie in act two. Broadway legend Betty Buckley plays Big Edie in act two, while Sarah Hunt plays Little Edie in act one. Act one, which takes place in 1941, is largely speculative and fictional, depicting one pivotal day in the lives of both Edies. Little Edie brings her high-society fiance, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (Josh Young), home to meet her family for the first time, and her mother’s selfish, spotlight-hogging, erratic behavior immediately drives him away, leaving a heartbroken Little Edie to flee Grey Gardens and move to New York to pursue a career in show business. Act two, which takes place 32 years later, is based on the documentary and rejoins the Beales in alarming circumstances—they are shut-ins, and their once spectacular home is flea-infested and overrun by dozens of cats. While the city constantly knocks on the door, citing them with health violations, the Beales fall deeper into a sad state of poverty and delusion, thanks to declining mental health and decades of resentment. 

The two acts are drastically different in tone in a manner reminiscent of Into the Woods. While act one is much more traditional musical theatre, act two depicts a very heartbreaking situation that maintains a levity thanks to Michael Wilson’s smart directing and the brilliant performances. Perhaps accordingly, the show really comes to life in act two, which also makes use of the documentary device—movie-style scenes and images, some of which are pre-recorded and some of which are a live feed, are projected onstage, and we see a camera crew recording the action. The music is pleasant but ultimately forgettable, serving primarily as fodder for the larger than life characters to live out their fantasies. 

Speaking of characters, by far the most remarkable thing about this production is the master class in acting Ms. York and Ms. Buckley present. York’s subtle vulnerability will break your heart, just before she reels you back in with charisma and wit. The choice to have the same actress play both characters at different points only emphasizes the way the mother-daughter dynamic shifts throughout the piece—in act one, Little Edie is constantly embarrassed and burdened by Big Edie’s inappropriate behavior; in act two, she becomes the burden. It is never stated what exactly is wrong with the Beales, but it’s clear they both struggle with some type of mental illness, and Little Edie once expresses her fear that had her father returned home after divorcing her mother, he would have had her committed. Meanwhile, Buckley proves she is still every bit the stage legend she once was, and had the audience in the palm of her hand during her big numbers, “The Cake I Had” and “Jerry Likes My Corn.” In act one, Ms. Hunt is also delightful, with youthful energy and a strong, clear voice. 

In many ways, both Beales are unreliable narrators, and in act two they frequently plead with the audience (the documentary device enables them to essentially break the fourth wall), trying to get them to believe a specific version of events. For example, Big Edie cherishes Jerry (also played by Josh Young), the neighborhood boy who provides them with food, supplies, and occasional companionship, while Little Edie is paranoid, distrustful, and convinced he is only interested in using them. There is so much wrong with the entire situation that it’s impossible to tell which—if either—interpretation is the truth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the musical ends on a rather bleak note, but will certainly give you plenty to ponder after leaving the theater. Any flaws in the somewhat disjointed musical are easily forgiven by the tremendous performance vehicles it provides, and York and Buckley’s interpretations of these characters are not to be missed.

Grey Gardens runs at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown LA through August 14th. For tickets and more information, visit centertheatregroup.org.

Review: 'Disgraced' at the Mark Taper Forum

Erin Conley

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic

LOS ANGELES CA - What happens when you mix four people from vastly different ethnic and religious backgrounds, a lot of alcohol, and a multitude of hurtful secrets? The answer is a disaster of a dinner party, and also the 2013 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Disgraced, which opened this weekend at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. 

Written by Ayad Akhtar, Disgraced is a powerful and topical examination of societal racism and identity. The play first premiered in Chicago in 2012, followed by runs both Off-Broadway and Off West End prior to a Broadway transfer in 2014. Unfolding slowly over the course of an intense 90 minutes, the events that occur left the Los Angeles audience audibly gasping in shock as tensions boiled over to a point of no return. 

Amir (Hari Dhillon, who previously played the role on Broadway), the main character, was born in America and raised Muslim. Now a successful lawyer, he has taken rather extreme measures to distance himself from his Pakistani heritage, including changing his name and denouncing the Islamic faith. His wife, Emily (Emily Swallow) is a WASP and an artist who has made a name for herself by creating pieces inspired by Islamic culture. When the play begins, Amir’s nephew, Abe (Behzad Dabu), recruits Emily’s help in convincing Amir to appear in court in support of a local imam whom he believes was arrested without cause. Amir has serious concerns about associating himself with someone accused of financing terrorists, but ultimately agrees to help. 

A few months later, Amir’s colleague, an African-American woman named Jory (Karen Pittman) and her husband, Isaac (J Anthony Crane), a Jewish art dealer interested in Emily’s work, come over for dinner. As cocktails flow and secrets come out, their four contrasting worldviews and Amir’s increasing paranoia over how the incident with the imam will affect his career lead to a shocking confrontation. 

 Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz

 Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz

While Disgraced is specifically a look at Islamophobia in post 9/11 America, its smart, complex messages about race and self-acceptance can easily be applied to many situations in today’s volatile political climate. Amir is not a likable protagonist. He has spent his life struggling to separate himself from a racial and religious identity he resents, and as a result, has a lot of deeply internalized self-hatred that ultimately manifests itself in the way he interacts with the world, particularly with those who are different from him. When Amir goes through airport security, he volunteers himself every time to be singled out and searched in a misguided attempt to embrace what he sees as inevitable. He resents his female, African-American colleague for having what he perceives to be an easier path to the top of their profession. He refuses to accept himself as Muslim-American, and in the process projects his fears and hatred onto others. 

It is incredibly easy to see why Disgraced won the Pulitzer. Directed by Kimberly Senior, its one act is meticulously constructed to masterfully build tension, and the characters manage to avoid stereotypes, even while representing specific racial and religious archetypes. Just when you think things have reached the ultimate boiling point, the plot has more tricks up its sleeve, just waiting to surprise you. While I could have done without one specific twist involving Emily that felt a bit too contrived and expected for such a smart play, Akhtar’s pacing and dialogue are smart and loaded. The cast, led by Dhillon’s powerful, difficult performance, is top notch, creating an intimacy that makes the audience feel like an uninvited guest in someone else’s home. 

In light of recent events and the abundance of hatred that seems to exist in the world these days, this production could not be better timed. It is a crucial reminder about the importance of embracing your identity and not making assumptions about others that is all too needed. 

Disgraced runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through July 17th. Tickets range from $25-$85 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. 

Review: 'Good People' at Hudson Guild Theatre

Erin Conley

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic
  • @Erinsk8

LOS ANGELES CA - What exactly does it mean to be a “good person”? This question, and many others, are pondered in playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s smart, insightful Good People, currently in a fantastic production at LA’s Hudson Guild Theatre. 

Good People debuted on Broadway in 2011, receiving two Tony nominations. A dramedy, it tells the story of Margaret “Margie” Walsh (Kia Hellman), a struggling single mother living in the blue-collar “Southie” neighborhood of Boston. Mary gets fired from yet another minimum wage job for being late, an issue that has plagued her because her adult daughter has mental disabilities that require round-the-clock care. With her nosy landlady, Dottie (Marsha Morgan) breathing down her neck for the rent check, Margie is perhaps more desperate than ever. When she learns from her friend Jean (Laura House) that her high school fling, Mike (Shayne Anderson), now a doctor and a Southie success story, has moved back to town, Margie must decide whether to revisit old baggage for the possibility of finally catching a “lucky” break. 

David Lindsay-Abaire, best known for Rabbit Hole, the 2007 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, is a master at conceiving well-rounded, surprising characters. Everyone in this play, down to Margie’s boss, Stevie (Tyler Meridith) and Mike’s sophisticated wife, Kate (Keiana Richard), is complicated—this piece deals in shades of gray rather than black and white. Your opinion of who the titular “good people” are will change throughout the six scenes, and by the end, you still won’t be so sure. 

Margie, especially, is a fascinating protagonist because while she refuses to be a victim, she is no heroine, either. She’s a real person who understands the effect the choices she’s made have had on her life. While she strongly believes in the concept of luck, she is very self aware. Her world view conflicts with Mike’s—he believes his success and ability to leave the neighborhood had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with hard work and determination. Many of the characters in this play choose to believe whatever they need to in order to be able to sleep at night, and interesting questions are raised about the impact of both choices and fate in deciding the outcome of our lives. 

This is the kind of play that is just as impactful at the 43-seat Hudson Guild Theatre as I’m sure it was on Broadway. The characters are vivid enough that they speak for themselves, and Christine Dunford’s smart direction makes the most of the small space while letting the performances shine. Hellman’s performance is a large part of what makes Margie so compelling. You immediately want to like her and root for her, but she can sometimes make you just a little uncomfortable. As someone who went to college in Boston, I greatly enjoyed all of the in-jokes and references. The Southie neighborhood, where Lindsay-Abaire actually grew up, is practically a seventh character in the show, and provides a great deal of context for the characters’ experiences. 

Good People is intelligent, thought-provoking, real, and a reminder that there is no one measure of success. Just because someone has degrees and a fancy home does not mean they are any happier, and just because someone else might not know how this month’s bills will get paid does not necessarily mean they are struggling or lacking. You can’t judge a book by its cover, and sometimes you find the truly good people where you least expect them. 

Good People runs at the Hudson Guild Theatre (6539 Santa Monica Blvd) through June 5th with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at www.plays411.com/goodpeople.

Review: 'Endgame' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

Erin Conley

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic
  • @Erinsk8

CULVER CITY CA - The term “endgame” typically refers to the final stages of a game of chess, when only a few moves remain until the inevitable conclusion. Endgame, the play by Samuel Beckett of Waiting for Godot fame, just opened at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre and uses a narrow portrait of a post-apocalyptic world to take on a much more abstract version of the word. 

Much of this play is left up to interpretation. It is easy to see how different audience members could take very different things away from it, and I don’t think there is a single correct conclusion. The set is very simple—a seemingly underground bunker with two small windows. Context clues imply the world outside is no longer very inhabitable, life as we know it has mostly ceased to exist, and that the four characters in the play are essentially alone, waiting for their inevitable deaths. How the world ended in Beckett’s universe or what exactly remains outside the windows of the room in which the story takes place is unimportant. The focus is on the monotony of daily life, but not just any daily life—one with a rapidly approaching expiration date. 

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz.

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz.

Hamm (Alan Mandell, who also directs this production) is the master of the house. Blind and unable to stand or walk, he relies on his loyal yet resentful servant, Clov (Barry McGovern), who is unable to sit. Hamm’s extremely elderly parents, Nagg (James Greene) and Nell (Charlotte Rae on opening night, Anne Gee Byrd at alternating performances) have no legs and live horrifying existences in barrels in their son’s home. Their days are incredibly cyclical, mundane, and meaningless, except as time passes, the finite resources of food and medicine that they rely on to survive are running out, a fact the characters are very aware of. The cast was fantastic, nailing the monotony and black comedy and remaining endlessly watchable throughout the relatively short one act. 

Hamm and Clov have in many ways a mutually abusive relationship, and they essentially pass the time by tormenting each other. Clov often threatens to leave, but it’s implied he stays because there isn’t much of another option. The exact state of the outside world is uncertain—small hints suggest these characters are not the absolute last humans alive, but for all intents and purposes, they may as well be. The tone of the play is darkly funny and absurd. It suggests that human existence, at least within the vacuum of the story, is arbitrary and ultimately meaningless. Hamm treats the others in his life despicably, because he believes the end is coming regardless. Clov performs the same duties day after day while enduring verbal abuse because he doesn’t know what else to do. Nagg and Nell, the most tragic characters of all, seem to rely on each other to make it through. We never learn how they ended up this way because, much like most of what happens in the play, it does not matter in the context of the daily life they now share.

In many ways, despite the tragically funny tone, the characters’ existence is so utterly terrible that their “endgame” cannot come quickly enough throughout the course of the show’s 80 minutes. It is almost the type of play that I would like to examine the text of, because there is seemingly much to interpret between the lines of what comes across in a staging. Many of the themes are similar to Beckett’s famed Waiting for Godot. Endgame is surreal and existential, and if surreal and existential is your thing, you will likely find it fascinating. As a theatergoer, I tend to respond better to absolutes, and therefore did not feel I took a ton away from this story. However, it’s also possible that was the point. 

Endgame runs through May 22nd at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theatre. Tickets range from $25-55 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org.

Review: Write Act Rep’s 'Joe & Marilyn: A Love Story'

Erin Conley

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic
  • @Erinsk8

LOS ANGELES CA - Everyone knows the story of Marilyn Monroe. It’s a story that has been told again and again in many mediums—theater fans surely recall her importance to Smash.
"Joe & Marilyn: A Love Story, a world premiere play by Willard Manus currently playing at North Hollywood's Write Act Repertory at the Brickhouse Theater, is a quiet, intimate look into Marilyn’s relationship with baseball star Joe DiMaggio that is charming, but ultimately unremarkable. 

This two-person play is essentially a series of vignettes spanning their relationship, from first meeting to brief marriage to Marilyn’s death, and would perhaps be better titled Joe & Marilyn: A Trainwreck. Just as Marilyn’s life was largely tragic, nearly everything about their relationship was quite depressing. With the exception of a few small moments where you begin to see what drew them to each other in the first place, they are nearly impossible to root for. Joe is abusive, Marilyn is adulterous, and they lack common ground. They simply don’t work well together, which is sad to watch as the story moves towards its devastating ending. 

Aside from a brief flash forward in the opening scene, the play, produced by artistic director John Lant and Write Act Rep, moves chronologically through Marilyn (Emily Elicia Low) and Joe’s (Rico Simonini) relationship. The Brickhouse Theater is tiny, and due to the limitations of a two-person show and an ambitious number of wardrobe changes, there are long pauses between scenes. While they are filled well with appropriate music (such as Marilyn’s famous rendition of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”), it makes the entire piece feel a bit disjointed, and I wonder if a different structure that would enable the actors to stay onstage more or less uninterrupted would help it feel more cohesive and flowing as opposed to coming across as a series of snapshots. Relatedly, due to the time jumps between scenes, a lot of exposition is included in the dialogue, often rather clunkily.

Photo credit: Willy Sanjuan

Photo credit: Willy Sanjuan

In terms of choosing the moments to feature, the play did a solid job—there was a noticeable audience reaction when Marilyn emerged in the white dress from the famous Seven Year Itch photo, and her relationship with John F. Kennedy is also discussed. There were, however, a few moments when I felt the play skimmed the surface of something deeper, only to pull back too soon. Early on, Marilyn talks rather matter-of-factly about how she is not Marilyn, Marilyn is simply a persona she has created and learned to embody. This is the Marilyn I would like to learn more about. Similarly, there’s a scene towards the end where Marilyn convinces Joe, whom she is now divorced from, to help her read lines. It’s a simple, sweet moment between the two where you can understand how and why they got into this mess in the first place. Ultimately, this play did not illuminate much beyond the surface. While it is made clear that Joe cared deeply for Marilyn, even after the dissolution of their marriage, it is difficult to sympathize with a man who hit and belittled his wife. 

Low bears a striking resemblance to Ms. Monroe, and shined in Marilyn’s more vulnerable moments, of which I frankly wish there were more. Simonini rarely got to show a more vulnerable side of Joe, if such a side exists, but the two were very watchable and charming together. Fans of Marilyn and her legacy will likely enjoy this glimpse into a specific aspect of her life, even if it may not provide much new insight. 

Joe & Marilyn: A Love Story runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm through May 22nd. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2533139. 

Review: 'Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2, & 3' at the Mark Taper Forum

Erin Conley

OnStage Los Angeles Critic

~~~~~~

LOS ANGELES, CA - What happens after freedom? This question, and many others, are smartly explored in Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2, & 3, a play by Suzan Lori-Parks currently running at Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum. Largely inspired and staged like a Greek tragedy, the three, linearly connected extended scenes explore the effect of war and slavery on African Americans during the Civil War era, and sadly suggest that technical freedom may not be the end of the battle, a sentiment that is still all too relevant in the modern era. 

 Photos:Craig Schwartz

 Photos:Craig Schwartz

Father Comes Home From the Wars debuted at The Public Theater in 2014 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. While the scope and implications of the story are wide, it is presented primarily through simple conversations, directed here by Jo Bonney. Part 1, entitled “The Measure of a Man,” introduces us to Hero (Sterling K. Brown, recently fantastic as Chris Darden in American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson), a slave and husband staring down the prospect of following his master to the war. The ensemble of other slaves on the plantation form a Greek chorus of sorts, partially narrating the play, which draws intentional, non-subtle parallels between Hero’s story and Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.” We meet Hero’s devoted wife, Penny (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris), who promises to wait for him, and learn of a morally questionable choice in Hero’s past that begins the process of painting him as the incredibly multi-dimensional character he turns out to be.

Part 2, entitled “A Battle in the Wilderness,” follows Hero and his master, the Colonel (Michael McKean, Better Call Saul) to the war, where the Colonel has captured a Yankee, Smith (Josh Wingate) who ends up having a profound effect on Hero. Finally, in part 3, “The Union of My Confederate Parts,” Hero returns home a changed man, and the reunion the audience anticipates is not at all what unfolds. 

The tone of this play is rather fascinating—while it obviously deals with incredibly serious subject matter, there is an air of tragicomedy about it. For example, we hear frequently about Hero’s devoted dog, aptly named Odyssey, and when we finally meet him in Part 3, he is played by a human actor—and, he can talk. Layering in an absurdist element like this with commentary on the implications of war and slavery is a bold choice that helps the play remain vivid throughout its nearly three hour running time. A musician (Steven Bargonetti) helps ease the scene transitions while also remaining on-stage, a voyeur of sorts overseeing the action. 

Photos:Craig Schwartz

Photos:Craig Schwartz

The fantastic performances are the highlight of this Center Theatre Group production. Brown especially is fantastic, humanizing a character I found to be almost shockingly unlikable by Part 3. While I may have disagreed with some of Hero’s choices, I did understand them. McKean was also excellent as the villainous, cringeworthy Colonel, playing up the ridiculousness of the character perfectly. 

While I found some moments, particularly near the end, overstayed their welcome a bit, the final beats were incredibly poignant, as both Hero and the audience were left to contemplate the true meaning of freedom and how it is often not as simple as it sounds. Even on the other side of the war, things aren’t always clear, the journey is often just beginning, and sometimes it is a struggle to maintain a sense of identity. What happens when you get what you’ve always wanted and it’s still not the final answer? While it may be set in the 1860s, many of the themes of this play still ring frighteningly true today, and while more questions may be raised than answered, you will still be riveted. 

Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2, & 3 runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through May 15th. Tickets range from $25 to $85 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org.

Review: 'Baby Oh Baby' at LA’s Whitefire Theatre

Erin Conley

OnStage Los Angeles Critic

~~~~~~

Gelato, a bouquet of flowers, a constantly ringing phone, and a turkey baster—this may seem like a random list of objects, but believe it or not, all of these items play critical roles in Baby Oh Baby, the British comedy play currently in its world premiere at Los Angeles’s Whitefire Theatre. As both the title and the show’s artwork, a ticking clock, correctly lead you to believe, Baby Oh Baby is certainly in part about the desire to have children while staring down your biological clock. Primarily, however, it is a truly funny farcical romp about sisterhood and dating in the modern era. 

Photo by Ed Krieger 

Photo by Ed Krieger 

Bella (Amy Tolsky) and Angie (Felicity Wren) are half-sisters sharing a flat somewhere outside of London. Bella, the older and more pragmatic of the two, runs a matchmaking service for a living but, of course, has had no success finding a match herself. Angie has no trouble finding flings and one-night stands, but fears the clock may be running out on the thing she wants most—a baby. The 80-minute play takes place over the course of one very eventful afternoon and evening in the sisters’ flat, with appearances by Weena (Douglas Scott Sorenson), their flamboyant landlord, Rory (Andrew Katers), Angie’s most recent hookup whom she hopes may become something more, and Chris (Kaelan Strouse), a man Bella meets and invites over for a surprising and hilarious reason I will not spoil. 

This play, written by Phil Scarpaci and T.L. Shannon and also directed by Scarpaci, is staged as a classic farce, with plenty of physical and situational comedy, slamming doors, and comings and goings throughout.  Largely thanks to the talented cast, the characters are all vibrant and well-drawn—you immediately understand who they all are, and yet they mostly defy stereotypes. Particularly vivid was Bella and Angie’s sisterly bond. Like many siblings, they can quickly go from angrily throwing things at each other to hugging, and their relationship is definitely the emotional heart of the show.

Baby Oh Baby is a rare one-act that left me wanting more. The ending was a bit abrupt, and while it worked, I could easily envision an act two. There were also a few threads I felt were not fully explored. For example, Bella’s career as a matchmaker ended up being largely irrelevant to both her character and the plot, and I kept waiting for it to come into play in a more meaningful way. There are also a couple of plot points, such as a heavy-breathing mystery man who keeps calling and a flower delivery of unknown origin, that are never resolved. I liked the characters enough that I would have been down to spend more time with them, which is something I rarely say as a big fan of one-act shows. 

That being said, the short time we spend with Bella, Angie, and company is truly a riot. The events that occur may be ridiculous, but they are justified because people who really, deeply want something, particularly something that has a time limit, tend to act rashly. Perhaps best of all, underneath the dramatic entrances and British slang are some heartfelt emotions that anyone who has found themselves at the mercy of that silly thing called love will understand. 

Baby Oh Baby runs at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks on Saturdays at 8pm through June 4th. Tickets are $20 in advance and can be purchased at babyohbaby.brownpapertickets.com.

Review: 'A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder' National Tour in LA

Erin Conley

OnStage Los Angeles Critic

~~~~~~

If you’re looking for a clever, imaginative, fun evening in Los Angeles this spring, look no further than Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, where the national tour of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder opened this week. Winner of four 2014 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, this musical comedy is an imaginative romp that left the opening night audience in stitches.

Based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, Gentleman’s Guide follows Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey), a poor man who learns upon his mother’s death that he’s a distant heir to the D’Ysquith family fortune. He concocts a plan to eliminate (translation: murder) the eight D’Ysquiths who precede him in line for the title of Earl of Highhurst. One of the most unique elements of the musical is the choice to have the entire D’Ysquith family played by one actor—in this case, the fantastic John Rapson.

Photo: Joan Marcus

Photo: Joan Marcus

The basic conceit of the plot could not be simpler, which gives the production team a lot of freedom to approach every scene and twist in truly inventive ways. Each unfortunate D’Ysquith death is more creative than the one before it in a way that gives even the Final Destination series a run for its money. This is all brought to life on Alexander Dodge’s extremely lush and impressive sets, which offer much freedom to Darko Tresnjak’s inspired, Tony-winning direction. The staging finds unexpected ways to bring to life an outdoor skating rink, a precarious bell tower, and even a swarm of bees. Everything about the production screamed Broadway-quality.

Also top notch was the relatively small cast of eleven. Even when Monty was at his scheming worst, Massey made him someone you actively wanted to root for, as well as a load of fun to watch. Rapson, playing a whopping nine characters, both male and female, never missed a beat, pulling off stunningly fast costume changes and character switches with excellent comedic timing. Both leading men were also extremely capable singers, nimbly navigating their way through the rather complicated musical numbers.

The secondary plot features a love triangle between Monty and two women—Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams), who refuses to marry someone as poor as Monty despite the fact that they’re in love, and Phoebe (Adrienne Eller), a classy, distant D’Ysquith cousin who is clearly the perfect choice to one day be his countess. Both actresses were fantastic, and this storyline is responsible for what I found to be the most memorable song in the show, “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” which features hilarious, farcical staging.

The show is quite dense and long, with even just act one clocking in at nearly 90 minutes. While no specific scene or plot point really overstayed its welcome, with the exception of one number we’ll discuss in a moment, there was simply a lot going on. Perhaps the show would have benefitted from six D’Ysquith heirs to be eliminated rather than eight. The one number that missed the mark for me was “Lady Hyacinth Abroad,” in which Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, a selfish, misguided “philanthropist” embarks on excessively dangerous missions to several foreign countries at Monty’s suggestion. Although it is definitely meant to be satirical, the humor went a little too far across the line of politically incorrect for me, and it was the only time the audience laughter seemed to be stemming a bit from discomfort.

Photo: Joan Marcus

Photo: Joan Marcus

Ultimately, Steven Lutvak’s music is this musical’s weakest point. While perfectly sufficient in context, I did not find it memorable enough to warrant a second listen. The charm of this show—and boy, is it charming—lies in the total package. In many ways, it feels like classic, old-fashioned musical theater, with unique staging choices that set it apart. Overall, Gentleman’s Guide is the definition of a fun night at the theater, with plot twists that will keep you guessing until the curtain falls.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder runs at the Ahmanson Theatre through May 1st before moving on to other cities across the country. Tickets for Los Angeles range from $25-$130 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. For information about future tour stops, please visit www.agentlemansguidebroadway.com/tour.php.

Review: “The Mystery of Love and Sex” at the Mark Taper Forum

Erin Conley

The Mystery of Love and Sex, which opened this weekend at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum, certainly leaves no stone unturned when it comes to controversial topics. Sexuality, race, religion, and, perhaps most importantly, family and friendship are covered extensively in this provocative play by Bathsheba Doran, who has also served as a television writer on Masters of Sex and Smash. While this simply staged play that is certainly for mature audiences only may not actually demystify love or sex, it explores the many complex facets of relationships through the eyes of two generations of characters.

photo credit to Craig Schwartz

photo credit to Craig Schwartz

When the play opens, parents Lucinda (Sharon Lawrence) and Howard (David Pittu) are visiting their daughter, Charlotte (Mae Whitman), and her childhood best friend, Jonny (York Walker), at college. Bathsheba does an excellent job with slowly revealing information—the exact nature of Charlotte and Jonny’s relationship is intentionally muddled in the opening scene, and the stage is immediately set for the many issues that come up throughout the course of the play. Howard, a Jewish author of detective novels, and Lucinda, free-spirited and perpetually dissatisfied, are concerned about Charlotte’s close friendship with Jonny turning romantic. Charlotte is quick to assume they don’t approve of Jonny, whom they have known since he was 9 years old, because he is black; they insist otherwise. Meanwhile, Charlotte and Jonny are each dealing with their own issues. Charlotte thinks she is in love with Jonny, but also might be in love with Claire, a girl from one of her classes. Jonny is in denial about his mother’s declining health, and also distancing himself from all romantic relationships for reasons he refuses to admit. Bottom line is, it is all very complicated, much like life.

Robert Egan’s direction is smart and rather simple, allowing the hefty amounts of dialogue and emotions to take the spotlight. The set is sparse, with the cast moving props and furniture around themselves as needed to convey changes in time and location. One thing I enjoyed about Bathsheba’s writing is that she never holds her audience by the hand—the play moves quickly through time, with act two taking place five years after act one, and there are never unnecessary amounts of exposition. She trusts that the audience will follow the action, and information is revealed only as needed.

The cast was excellent, helping to create four incredibly well-drawn characters—by the end of the two and a half hours I felt I understood them inside and out. One minor criticism I have is not of the actors, but rather of the space—the 739-seat Mark Taper Forum is kind of an in-between venue in terms of size, and as a result the actors do not wear microphones. While this has never bothered me in previous productions at the theater, here I sometimes felt like the actors were shouting to be heard, which sometimes clashed with the tone of the scene. Regardless, the cast gave emotional, convincing performances. Lawrence and Pittu received many laughs for the more comedic moments, while Whitman (so wonderful in NBC’s dearly departed Parenthood) and relative newcomer Walker created a bond that became the true heart of the show. Rounding out the cast in a tiny but very memorable role is Robert Towers as Howard’s father.

I cannot stress enough that this play is not for younger audiences—there is rather extensive full frontal nudity, in addition to the discussion of many adult topics. The scenes in question walk a fine line between being provocative for the sake of being provocative and really adding something to the plot. Could the show have done without it? Yes. But did it add to the story and character development? Also yes—in a play that explores the impact of secrets on relationships, the nudity served as a clear metaphor for full honesty and baring it all emotionally.

That being said, I do think some moments in the play crossed the line into being provocative for the sake of being so—at times it felt like we were working through a checklist of controversial topics or things that will get an audience talking. While incredibly topical and valid points, all of the talk about religion and discrimination sometimes distracted from the messages about friendship and love and trust that I found to be the most poignant, well-developed aspects of the show.

The Mystery of Love and Sex runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through March 20th. Tickets range from $25-$85 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org

Review: 'The Bridges of Madison County' National Tour

Erin Conley

You know you’re in for a special evening of theater when a respected Broadway composer, in this case the great Jason Robert Brown, is conducting his own work. This was certainly true at the Los Angeles opening of the musical Bridges of Madison County at the Ahmanson Theatre this past Thursday. Highlighted by Brown’s lush, sweeping, Tony-winning score and orchestrations, Bridges is a poignant, bittersweet love story brought to life by two stellar performances. 

Photo: Matthew Murphy

Based on Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel, which also inspired a 1995 film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, Bridges of Madison County tells the story of Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley), an Italian war bride turned Iowa housewife, and Robert (Andrew Samonsky), a traveling National Geographic photographer. When Francesca’s husband, Bud (Cullen R. Titmas), and two children head off to Indianapolis to show their prized steer at a fair, she stays behind and has a chance encounter with Robert, who gets lost looking for the last covered bridge he was sent to photograph. They both have baggage, but fall into an easy rhythm with one another as they find a connection the likes of which they have both been lacking in their lonely lives. One thing leads to another, and when their four day love affair comes to a close Francesca must decide whether to run away with Robert or stay in Iowa with the family she has built. 

Stanley and Samonsky, experienced Broadway performers in roles originated by Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale during the show’s brief Broadway run in 2014, took on these vocally challenging parts with emotion and skill, drawing loud cheers from the audience for numbers such as the second act standout “One Second & A Million Miles.” Stanley’s Francesca was charming and endearing, and her thick Italian accent never wavered. Samonsky’s sexy photographer was, appropriately, straight out of a romance novel. But this story is more than a romance—it is a reminder that life isn’t always about happy endings and some fantasies are perhaps better off remaining as such. “Love is always better,” Francesca sings in the show’s final number as she reflects on the choices she’s made, but the show makes clear that while it may indeed be better, it is not always the answer.

One thing I found truly interesting is that the show does not, unlike many stories where you’re expected to root for infidelity, attempt to villainize Bud. He’s a simple, well-meaning man, and the show smartly gives him the opportunity to tell his side of the story. It’s important to note that while the show certainly centers around Francesca and Robert and shines brightest when it’s just the two of them onstage, there is a full ensemble cast. There were times, particularly in act one, when I wondered what this musical might look like as a two-person show, not unlike The Last Five Years, another beloved Brown musical. There were certainly moments when the supporting characters were integrated well—I particularly enjoyed Mary Callanan as neighbor Marge—but more often than not they felt extraneous and voyeuristic, often literally seated along the sides of the stage observing the action in a way that reminded me of the staging of Once. While I am sure this was an intentional directorial choice (Tyne Rafaeli recreated Bartlett Sher’s original direction for the tour), I found it distracting at times. 

The biggest benefit of the ensemble cast was that they helped to beautifully fill out the gorgeous score, which is absolutely this show’s greatest strength. Brown utilizes an interesting blend of musical styles from classic musical theater to opera to country pop to create an interesting and unique sound. I was also enchanted by Donald Holder’s lighting design, which beautifully conveyed passage of time with colorful, realistic sunsets and sunrises. As the show built towards its conclusion, I was momentarily taken out of things by the fact that each of the three final numbers felt like an ending, but overall I found Bridges of Madison County to be one of the most beautiful pieces of theater I’ve had the privilege of seeing this year. 

Bridges of Madison County runs at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre through January 17th. Tickets range from $25-$130. Please visit www.centertheatregroup.org to purchase tickets and view the modified holiday performance schedule. For information on tour stops beyond Los Angeles, please visit www.bridgesmusical.com

Review: "Appropriate" at the Mark Taper Forum

Erin Conley

The posters for Appropriate, a play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins that opened Sunday night at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum, proclaim it is about uncovering “a haunted past and historical sin.” While the play certainly does focus heavily on the impact of past events, at its core it is about a family who is struggling to escape their history before it defines their future. 

The title intentionally has two pronunciations and meanings, one more literal than the other. The play certainly has no shortage of inappropriate behavior from its extremely dysfunctional cast of characters, but on a more literal note it is about three adult siblings who come together in the wake of their father’s death and must literally “appropriate” their family home and everything in it. Appropriate, which had its world premiere in 2013, is set in a largely abandoned Arkansas plantation. Despite the racially charged setting and its implications, the entire cast is white (although writer Jacobs-Jenkins is African American), and none of the characters are originally from the south. 

photos by Craig Schwartz. 

Directed by Eric Ting, the story is told over a period of two days as the family prepares their late father’s home for an estate sale. Emotions are high—the three siblings have not all been in the same room in over a decade, their family tree has no shortage of secrets, lies, and traumas, and the implications of their father’s death bring out the worst in them. To make matters worse, midway through act one they find a startling, disturbing antique in the house that makes them question if they actually knew their father at all. 

The cast of 8 consists of, as one character astutely points out in act three, a bunch of “misfit disaster people.” Toni (Melora Hardin of The Office and Transparent) is the eldest Lafayette sibling who is attempting to recover from her life recently imploding by taking control of dealing with the estate, although not in a manner anyone else agrees with. She has a troubled teenage son, Rhys (will Tranfo) who was responsible for said implosion. The middle sibling is Bo (David Bishins), who does the best job of pretending his life is together. He is accompanied by his opinionated, Type A wife, Rachel (Missy Yager) and their children, teenage Cassidy (Grace Kaufman) and young Ainsley (Alexander James Rodriguez on opening night). Finally, there’s Frank (Robert Beitzel), the youngest sibling and black sheep of the family, and his new fiance, artsy, part-time vegan chef River (Zarah Mahler). All of the characters were impressively well-drawn, and the cast did a phenomenal job at keeping up the dramatic, darkly funny tension over the lengthy three acts, which managed not to drag aside from a couple of eleventh hour monologues that overstayed their welcome.

The subject matter of Appropriate is, unfortunately, rather appropriate for the current political and racial climate in the United States. The characters approach the many pieces of evidence pointing to their deceased father’s racism with discomfort and an eagerness to sweep it all under the rug. Even when it is directly affecting their lives, they go out of their way to avoid dealing with it. The Lafayette family are experts when it comes to revisionist history—whether it’s regarding their father’s character or specific, tragic events in their shared past, no one seems to remember things quite the same way. They remember events and people the way they want to, the way that is easiest for them. As is commented on towards the end of the play, every character would likely have a very different recollection of the weekend depicted if asked about it later. 

This play works well because while the specific situations may be extreme, the familial themes are relatable. I did find the ending ventured a bit too eagerly into heavy-handed symbolism, but this was never the kind of story that would be wrapped up in a neat little bow. It is not by any means a comfortable theater experience—in addition to racism, the play deals with religion and religious slurs, mentions of pedophilia, and vague references to mental illness that I frankly wished were explored more deeply. There were definitely moments that could have easily been played for pure shock value, but they were woven well enough into the characters and situation that they felt organic rather than controversial for the sake of being controversial. 

Ultimately, the play seems to take the stance that people don’t change—even after nearly three hours of arguing, the Lafayettes mostly show little to no growth as people. Although I felt time could have been redistributed a bit to elaborate on some storylines and linger less on others, Appropriate is a provocative, well-written, timely piece that raises some interesting questions. 

Appropriate runs through November 1st. Tickets range from $25-$85 and can be purchased at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.

Review: "First Date" at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

Erin Conley

“One date. Two people. And every single voice in their heads.” This is the tagline for First Date, the musical comedy which opened Saturday in its west coast debut at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. The show, which ran on Broadway for about five months at the end of 2013, thoroughly entertained the opening night audience with a very relatable inside look at a blind date and all the neuroses one entails. 

Erica Lustig and Marc Ginsburg star in the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts/McCoy Rigby Entertainment Southern California Premiere Production of the Broadway Musical "FIRST DATE" - directed by Nick DeGruccio and now playing at LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS.

I saw the Broadway production, which starred Zachary Levi of Chuck fame and Krysta Rodriguez, who is currently back on Broadway in the Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening. As I have always found to be the case with La Mirada’s shows, every aspect of the production was top notch, making this staging an incredibly worthy one through which to introduce a new audience to this musical. With a book by Austin Winsberg, music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, and a small cast of seven, the show is a quirky romantic comedy that is wholly original, something that seems to be increasingly rare in musical theater.

The plot follows the titular first date of Aaron (Marc Ginsburg) and Casey (Erica Lustig), who are just as overtly mismatched as you would expect. He is a neurotic, workaholic type who wears suits and ties to bars and is still hung up on his ex-fiance. She is artsy, non-committal, has a thing for bad boys, and is in denial of her own issues that prevent her from ever getting a second date. As you can imagine, hijinks ensue. The show highlighted exactly the right silly dating moments—the stress over the arrival of the check, what to order for dinner, Googling your date prior to ever meeting them, the pre-arranged phone call from a friend in case you need a quick exit excuse, and, of course, the awkward pause. The two leads were very talented and possessed excellent chemistry and comedic timing, making you truly root for them and creating moments even out of songs that were ultimately a bit forgettable. 

The five ensemble members played a wide variety of roles, ranging from a waiter and fellow patrons of the restaurant where Aaron and Casey’s date takes place to characters who exist only inside the main characters’ minds. We have Casey’s gay best friend, her sister, Aaron’s dead Jewish grandmother, his much more suave best friend, and even personifications of various social media sites. The versatility of the talented ensemble (Justin Michael Wilcox, Leigh Wakeford, Scott Dreier, Stacey Oristano, and Kelley Dorney) was truly impressive and really brought the show to life.

 The company performs in the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts/McCoy Rigby Entertainment Southern California Premiere Production of the Broadway Musical "FIRST DATE" - directed by Nick DeGruccio and now playing at LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS.

Despite a modest run time of about 90 minutes, some scenes and songs overstayed their welcome a bit. While the ensemble numbers were the funniest and most entertaining, I found myself wishing the show would focus more on the core relationship. Aaron and Casey both learn quite a bit about themselves over the course of this one, fateful date, and some of the more emotional moments felt like they barely had room to land. We never really explore Casey’s commitment issues or what exactly Aaron is looking for in this first real dating foray after his failed engagement. Rather than spending full production numbers with the waiter character (although many audience members seemed to eat this moment up), I would have liked to focus more on the central story and really continue getting to know the actual characters. An 11th hour, out-of-left-field secondary romance felt forced, and it almost felt as if the show tried to explore too much and let some moments fall by the wayside as a result.

All of that being said, I was pleasantly surprised by how much audience members of all ages appeared to truly enjoy what is definitely a very modern show. Ultimately, while the references and subject matter may be most relevant to a younger crowd, the style of humor and overall themes are rather universal. Everyone can connect with the fear that comes along with a first impression, particularly with someone you’re interested in. The fears Casey and Aaron have are in so many ways fears we have all had at some point, which is probably why they are so easy to root for as a potential couple. While First Date certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it is a very enjoyable, engaging musical comedy that hits many of the right notes. 

Directed by Nick DeGruccio, First Date runs at La Mirada through October 11th. Tickets range from $20-$70 and can be purchased at www.lamiradatheatre.com.