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Avi Hoffman's Too Jewish?,
Swing!, and Rent

Partway through the first act of Avi Hoffman's Too Jewish?, Hoffman requests the house lights to be raised for an informal chat with the audience. "What's your Hebrew name?" he asks, and "What do they call you in English?" One by one, audience members shout out the answers. "Z'vi" who is called "Kevin," "Chaim" who is called "Mike," . . . . There are so many Hoffman must ask us to stop. Everyone has one, and the audience seems eager to say them aloud. It is a striking moment. From the way Hoffman phrases the questions, it is clear that he considers the Hebrew names, which are seldom used outside of religious services, to be the audience's true names, while the English names are mundane substitutes, imposed by the demands of assimilation. The mere act of sharing Hebrew names creates a connection among the audience members. This is not just because everyone in the audience has a Hebrew name, but because, in Judaism, children are named after deceased relatives, so that the names of the dead live on. The audience members, by acknowledging their Hebrew names, acknowledge their ancestors and shared past.

When he's finished, Hoffman specifically asks an Asian woman in the front row if she has a Hebrew name. She doesn't, and he follows up by asking her "Oriental name." The question is intended to be unifying; it demonstrates that we are all immigrants who have subjugated our cultural identities to the American melting pot. But it also points out the obvious: she does not have a Hebrew name, she is not one of "us." For there is one thing that cannot be denied about Too Jewish?: no matter how much Hoffman tries to make everyone feel welcome, the show is intended for Jews.

More specifically, the show is intended for Yiddish-speaking Jews, ideally those with some memory of the great Yiddish comics of the '40s and '50s. The bulk of the show is Hoffman's recreation of their routines. He sings their songs and tells their jokes, duplicating their voices and mannerisms. Hoffman is definitely a talent; his singing voice is clear and lovely, and his comic delivery effective. But the material he's delivering just isn't that strong standing alone. It's dated and only mildly humorous to audiences brought up on a steady diet of stand-up and sitcoms. This material is meant for the older audience members who had enjoyed the "Borscht Belt" comedians in their heyday. When Hoffman retells the jokes, they respond with comfortable laughter. When Hoffman recounts the highlights of the menus served in the Catskills, their tongues relive the old tastes. For them, the show is a delightful trip down memory lane.

To a lesser degree, the show is also meant for their children and grandchildren. Hoffman wants to connect with all of the people whose parents spoke Yiddish around the house as a secret code. With this show, Hoffman invites them to discover that Yiddish is more than just a way of telling dirty jokes without young ears understanding. Hoffman demonstrates that Yiddish is a beautifully expressive language, and that it supports a broad cultural history of humor, song, and poetry.

Much of the show is in English, and Hoffman frequently provides translations of the Yiddish elements, because he recognizes the audience he is trying to reach is not fluent in Yiddish. And he succeeds, to a limited degree. If your mouth doesn't water at the mere mention of "kasha varnishkas," but your parents' mouths do, you'll appreciate learning why. You won't laugh at every joke and you won't catch every reference, but you'll leave the theatre with a better understanding of the generation that came before. But if you don't have a family connection to Yiddish culture, and you don't have a Hebrew name, you may just feel left out.

Too Jewish? runs through January 21, 2001 at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. Reviewed December 24, 2000.

Sheryl Levine Guterman & The Mensch Company, LLC proudly present Avi Hoffman's Too Jewish? Conceived, written and performed by Avi Hoffman; set design by Paul Morrill; lighting design by Jerry Browning; musical director Chris Dawson; associate producer Janet Morgan.


Swing!

For a review, Swing! is a remarkably well-constructed musical. From dance numbers to vocal numbers, from ensemble pieces to solos, from exuberant dances to heartwrenching ones, this show covers the wide range of material that fits under the banner of "Swing." More than that, the production expands the barriers of swing dance. Not just satisfied with East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing and Latin Swing, director/choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett adds what might be called "Bungee Swing," enabling her dancers to hit even greater heights. Swing! even refuses to confine its band, the Gotham City Gates, to a platform, and instead allows Greg Fiellin's bass to dance and Jonathan Arons's trumpet to sing.

An inherent difficulty with putting together any review is determining whether the performers should play single characters throughout the piece, or whether they should change roles as the different numbers require. Swing! creates an easy balance between the two extremes. When singers Alan H. Green and Ann Crumb return in the second act to characters they played in Act One, they are easily recognizable. Yet, when the time comes for a USO sequence, it is clear from the set and costumes that Green and Crumb are now playing other people. The dancers, as well, are given opportunities to create characters. They follow up on stories created within their dances by means of brief interactions later in the show. These are not major dramatic plot lines, but they are cute moments which add to our appreciation of the show.

With the show so well put-together, the only thing that Swing! needs in order to blow the roof off the Ahmanson is an exceptional cast. It doesn't have one. As figure skating judges put it, two necessary elements in dance are Technical Merit and Artistic Impression. Some of the dancers in Swing! aim only for technical excellence, with little interest paid to any emotional content. This form of dancing can engage an audience; incredible precision in movement can create a magic of its own, but only if it truly is perfect. Failing that, missed attempts at robot-like accuracy come off as merely soulless. West Coast Swing couple Dana Solimando and Bruce Lineberry are the only dancers who successfully achieve the necessary level of proficiency to grab the audience with expertise alone. Other dancers, particularly in the ensemble numbers, show a disturbing lack of technical merit. Synchronization between different couples is off, sometimes by a great amount. Artistic impression is also in short supply. When Kim Craven and Michael Gaudin deliver a passionate "Blues in the Night," it is one of the few times the show's dancers actually make eye contact with each other. It only serves to highlight how much better the show would have been had the rest of the dancers invested more of themselves in their performances. The only couple to bring both technical excellence and emotional connection to the stage is real-life husband and wife, Gary and Lisa McIntyre. In their country number, he twirls her so fast your eyes can't keep pace, and their joy in the dance is palpable. If only the rest of the ensemble performed at this level, the show would knock your socks off. However, for a review which aims to show everything swing can be, most of Swing!'s performers simply are not at the top of their art.

Swing! runs through January 14, 2001 at the Ahmanson Theatre. Reviewed December 26, 2000.

Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre, Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director/Producer, Mark Routh, Richard Frankel, Steven Baruch, Tom Viertel, International Concert Attractions, Rodger Hess, Timothy Childs, Libby Adler Mages/Mari Glick, Douglas L. Meyer/James D. Stern, in association with Jujamcyn Theatres and Amy Danis/Mark Johannes present present Swing! Scenic design by Thomas Lynch; costume design by William Ivey Long; lighting design by Kenneth Posner; sound design by Peter Fitzgerald; original concept by Paul Kelly, aerial flying by ANTIGRAVITY Inc.; casting by Carol Hanzel & Associates; orchestration by Harold Wheeler; music supervisor Michael Rafter; music director Boko Suzuki; music coordinator John Miller; production manager Peter Fulbright; production coordinator Karen Armstrong; production stage manager Tom Bartlett; general management by Richard Frankel Productions and Laura Green; press representative TMG - The Marketing Group; associate producer TV Asahi/Hankyu; production supervised by Jerry Zaks; directed and choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett.

Cast:

Ann Crumb, Alan H. Green, Charlie Marcus, Sarah Jane Nelson, Warren Adams, Jeb Bounds, Randie Shane Brotman, Michelle Aguilar Camaya, Kim Craven, Jessica Dillan, Desiree Duarte, Scott Fowler, Kevin Michael Gaudin, Roderick Harrelson, Bryan S. Haynes, Carrie Helms, William B. Hubert II, Bruce Lineberry, Gary McIntyre, Lisa McIntyre, Marielys Molina, Jermaine R. Rembert, Matt Rivera, A. Miles Simmons, Dana Solimando, Julie Voshell and Laurie Wells. With the Gotham City Gates.


Rent

The audience for Rent in Costa Mesa is a study in contrasts. In line for the ladies' room at intermission, long velvet gowns that would have been comfortable on "Dynasty" wait beside stretch pants and tank tops from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." The show itself shares the duality of its audience, combining the plot of "La Boheme" with guitar-driven rock. Rent is not the first Broadway show to feature the music of electric guitars, but it is clearly the most successful at reaching its audience, as illustrated by the cheering "Rent-heads" in the front rows of the audience.

The show succeeds in reaching audience members of different generations because, despite its obvious "end of the millennium" trappings, it is universal in its themes. The song "Will I?" begins with a spotlighted member of an AIDS-support group soliloquizing his fears for his future. Another voice joins in, another sufferer of AIDS, who is facing the same fears, but finds little solace in the support group. More voices join; the single verse becomes a round. The stage lights brighten and the entire company is singing; a harmony is created out of loneliness. Everyone is in their own separate world, but each shares the same concerns for dignity, identity, and connection. As the music swells, there is an overwhelming beauty to it, but the despair of the lyric remains. The song transcends AIDS; it speaks for everyone's insecurities.

The effectiveness of this song depends on the entire ensemble having strong voices, and this production does not disappoint. Rent is well-known for casting performers without stage experience, but a lack of experience is not the same as a lack of talent, and the new voices in Rent keep the entire production fresh.

The show begins with Mark and Roger, two artists (filmmaker and songwriter) struggling to find their place in the world, unable to pay their rent but unwilling to make the compromises necessary for financial success. Matt Caplan does not play Mark stereotypically, as a film maker who can only observe the action but can't live it. When he leads the anthem, "La Vie Boheme," to close Act One, it is apparent that his Mark is as much a part of the bohemian lifestyle as anyone. It is Cary Shields's Roger that is more the outsider. Roger's HIV-positive diagnosis has left him frightened and introverted, desperately afraid he'll leave this world before he has created anything of value to leave behind. Shields's Roger is physically slight, and his voice initially seems weak, as though he is unable to commit wholeheartedly to anything including self-expression. Yet when the time comes for him to bare his soul in music, there is a great depth indeed.

Roger is not the emotional center of the show -- that designation belongs to Mimi, the captivating stripper who sets her sights on him. Realizing that there is no guarantee of tomorrow, Mimi endeavors to pack a whole life's worth of living into today. Dominique Roy's performance is simply electrifying. When she bursts into Roger's apartment, demanding he take her "Out Tonight," her impossibly high kicks and howls at the moon combine with a powerful sexual presence felt at the very back of the theatre. She is a force which will not be denied.

Also of note is Maggie Benjamin's Maureen, who appears at the end of Act One to present a piece of feminist anti-establishment performance art. Benjamin plays up the humor in Maureen, who is not the brightest bulb on the tree, and is cheered by the audience every step of the way. And Mark Richard Ford delivers a knock-out performance of Tom Collins, a character usually overshadowed by his drag-queen boyfriend, Angel. Shaun Earl's Angel is not as much of a scene-stealer as other Angels have been, and that gives Ford room to construct a fuller character for Collins. The payoff comes in Collins's second act rendition of "I'll Cover You," which is one of the highlights of this production.

The show does have its flaws. It is disappointing that the song Roger eventually writes as his life's work is not nearly as good as the song he sings about needing to create such a song. And except for one brief moment of humanity, the villain of the piece, Mark and Roger's ex-roommate Benny, is simply a caricature of a "sell-out." The biggest problem with this production, though, is that even though the cast members are all wearing individual microphones, the onstage band threatens to drown them out. When the band gets loud, the cast cannot be heard over it, and the beauty of Rent gets lost.

Rent ran through December 31, 2000 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Reviewed December 29, 2000.

Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum, Allan S. Gordon and New York Theatre Workshop present Rent. Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson; set design by Paul Clay; costume design by Angela Wendt; lighting design by Blake Burba; sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy; musical arrangements by Steve Skinner; original concept/additional lyrics by Billy Aronson; dramaturg Lynn M. Thomson; musical direction by Shelley Hanson; set design adaptation by Matthew E. Maraffi; production stage manager Beth Robertson; casting by Bernard Telsey Casting; touring press and marketing by Laura Matalon; general manager John Corker; technical supervision by Unitech Productions, Inc.; music supervision and additional arrangements by Tim Weil; choreography by Marlies Yearby; directed by Michael Greif.

Cast:

Roger Davis - Cary Shields
Mark Cohen - Matt Caplan
Tom Collins - Mark Richard Ford
Benjamin Coffin III - Brian M. Love
Joanne Jefferson - Jacqueline B. Arnold
Angel Schunard - Shaun Earl
Mimi Marquez - Dominique Roy
Maureen Jonson - Maggie Benjamin
Mark's mom and others - Haven Burton
Christmas caroler, Mr. Jefferson, pastor and others - Horace V. Rogers
Mrs. Jefferson, woman with bags and others - Cicily Daniels
Gordon, the man, Mr. Grey and others - Curtis Cregan
Steve, man with squeegee and others - Jake Manabat
Paul, a waiter and others - Justin A. Johnston
Alexi Darling, Roger's mom and others - Sala Iwamatsu
Cops - Pierre Angelo Bayuga, Dana Dawson


Also see the 2000-2001 Schedule of Los Angeles Area Theatre.


-- Sharon Perlmutter




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