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One of my favorite opinions about Los Angeles is that it's not a theatre town. Well, maybe it's not, but I've certainly been busy over the last month and a half ...

It all started at the beginning of February, when I saw Titanic, the most disappointing show I've seen since Rent (and I actually enjoyed Rent a lot more). I think everyone knows the story of Titanic - I certainly did - and I knew the score from having listened to the OBC a number of times. The opening number was good, as it is on the CD. But, after that, I was completely underwhelmed. There was no scope to the show, no focus, no one to really care about. I wanted to care about the Kates, about the stoker, about the Strauses, about the others - for God's sake, I know they were representing real people - but the show could not muster any real emotion for me. What emotion I had, I brought to the theater myself. Director Richard Jones did nothing to help this piece. There was no grand set (apparently it was magnificent in New York, but it ain't the same on tour - only two levels and no real tilt as the ship sinks), there were no exceptional exhibitions of talent (not even Talkin' Broadway's own Brian d'Arcy James - sorry, he did nothing for me), and a score that simply sank after the opening number. How I wanted to love this show! And, to think, I was eventually rooting for the iceberg. (Titanic left LA after its February 28 performance.)

We next went to the Mark Taper Forum to see Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive, starring Molly Ringwald and Brian Kerwin. Ringwald portrays a young woman ("Li'l Bit") who reflects on her adolescence and introduction to sex and incest, at the hands of her Uncle Peck (Kerwin). Vogel's work sets up a situation in which Li'l Bit is drawn to her sick yet sympathetic Uncle Peck because Peck gives Li'l Bit something she really wants, driving lessons and a feeling of independence. Director Mark Brokaw captures all of the nuances of this very disturbing yet humorous look at a very complex relationship. Ringwald, whose work I haven't seen since her unsuccessful sitcom a couple of years ago ("Townies"), brings maturity and understanding to a very difficult role of revelation, growth and, ultimately, forgiveness. Kerwin (Torch Song Trilogy, "Roseanne") has the ability to allow us to see how an arguably "good", though confused, man can do incredibly bad things. I found myself rooting for him, trying to will him to stop committing these bad acts upon his niece. The supporting three players were terrific as well, each playing many roles. This engaging production plays at the Taper until April 4.

The next theatre-type event I attended was Jonathan "Treehorn" Frank's Los Angeles cabaret debut, at The Gardenia in West Hollywood. As mentioned earlier in "All That Chat", Jonathan put on a lovely set of songs from stage and screen, as well as other standards. The room was warm, the piano accompaniment just right, and we had a nice evening. Jonathan has a wonderful manner and endearing presence, and I recommend that you see him live if ever you get the chance.

We next saw the Reprise concert performance of Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece, Sweeney Todd. Though billed as a "concert", the production was almost fully staged, and all of the performers were off script. Kelsey Grammer ("Cheers", "Frasier") was a believable Sweeney, and with just a little bit of training could be almost flawless in singing the part. He had that role down, though, acting-wise. We got all of his feelings of anger, emptiness, betrayal and loss. Christine Baranski ("Cybill", The Real Thing, Nick and Nora, Rumors) was incredible as Mrs. Lovett, truly making the role her own. After having seen the great Angela Lansbury play the part both on stage and on the video, I was afraid that Baranski might try to "borrow" a little too much from Lansbury. How wrong I was! (And what a ridiculous concept it was that Lansbury "owned" the role - I have seen both Dorothy Loudon - Lansbury's replacement on Broadway - and Beth Fowler - in the 1989 revival of the show - play the part excellently!) In other words, Baranski was a joy to watch, capturing Mrs. Lovett's playfulness, flirtatiousness and amorality to the hilt.

As Anthony, Davis Gaines (Phantom of the Opera", Whistle Down the Wind) sang the part probably better than it's ever been sung. And contrary to what others may have said, he was not too old for the part. He was fantastic! Dale Kristien (Phantom of the Opera) was a lovely Johanna with her amazingly beautiful voice. Neil Patrick Harris ("Doogie Howser, M.D.", Rent) was a perfect Tobias. Again, I was astonished by how absolutely right on he was for the part - both the vulnerability of his acting and the perfect pitch and enunciation of his singing.

Ken Howard ("The White Shadow", 1776) was very good as the Judge, capturing the arrogance and evil of the role. Melissa Manchester ("Song and Dance", "Whenever I Call You Friend", "Don't Cry Out Loud") was mesmerizing as the Beggar Woman, and there was even the addition of some lyrics to slightly expand her part just before she is killed. And it was nice to see Bill Hutton (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) in the ensemble - what a voice he has! As you can tell, we were bowled over by the quality of the cast assembled. The orchestra played on stage, beautifully, and they were never distracting. The set design was perfect and clearly evocative of the time and space portrayed in the show. Except for a problem with some sound mixing levels, we couldn't have had a better time at the theater.

Since Sweeney Todd was a matinee, we had to find something to see that night. So where did we go? Where else but to see "The Last Session" again! The missus and I hadn't yet seen the new actor playing the part of Buddy, since Joel (Joey) Traywick left the production. But the new Buddy, an actor named Jeff Juday, is up to the part. His take on the part is slightly less overwhelming, as Jeff's Buddy is driven more by contemplation than sheer faith than was Joey's. And Jeff's voice is a little more "pop" than Joey's, but it was just wonderful to listen to. I'm happy to report that I can still heartily and unhesitatingly recommend Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu's "The Last Session". (My full review is available in this section of Talkin' Broadway".)

Next up, last Tuesday I went to see the first touring edition of the current Cabaret, starring Teri Hatcher ("Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman"). The Wilshire Theatre has been transformed into The Kit Kat Club, with all orchestra seating removed and replaced with tables for four (the balcony seating remains unchanged), and the inside of the theatre dimly lit with black and red as the only colors visible. Before the show begins, we see many of the sleazily-clad and (Chicago-like) sexy dancers onstage "stretching" and preparing. Then the lights (and table lamps) dim, and the Emcee (Norbert Leo Butz) looks in before entering and beginning the rousing opening number, "Wilkommen". The Emcee introduces himself as well as the Kit Kat Girls and Boys, and finally announces the arrival of Fraulein Sally Bowles (Hatcher). We also meet visiting American Cliff (Rick Holmes) and the owner of a boarding house, Fraulein Schneider (Barbara Andres), as Cliff moves into a room at Fraulein Schneider's.

In "So What", Fraulein Schneider explains her acceptance of her life's condition and her survivability, with Andres demonstrating a magnificently strong voice. We then see Teri Hatcher sing - in both "Don't Tell Mama" and "Mein Herr" - and guess what? She's not bad. The "Two Ladies" number is a lot of fun, and, as the show progresses, we get more deeply involved in the story of Sally and Cliff, and Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz (Dick Latessa). Latessa and Andres' song "Married" is truly wonderful and quite a crowd pleaser. But then, after the intermission (you gotta love an intermission during which Shirley MacLaine rubs up against you!), the darkness really settles in with "If You Could See Her", "I Don't Care Much" and "Cabaret". The black clouds of destiny are forming above Berlin, and we watch our characters crumble. Hatcher does a very good job with the title song. And the "Finale" is still quite a shock, a reminder that life isn't really all a cabaret, no matter how we try to dress it up.

The production as a whole is very good. The show surprises and constantly keeps the audience guessing. Teri Hatcher proves to be much better than some of the mainstream press wanted us to believe. Norbert Leo Butz is very entertaining and energetic as the wonderfully ambiguous Emcee (I still wish I would have seen Alan Cumming, but Butz was perfectly acceptable). As stated, Barbara Andres was wonderful as Fraulein Schneider, and Dick Latessa has a rich voice and the ability to break our hearts. All of the Boys and Girls really acted the hell out of their parts, and all of the boys and girls in the audience had a hell of an evening. Cabaret plays in Los Angeles through May 2.

This past Saturday, Mrs. Old Man and I drove to San Diego to meet up with The Cosmic Anchovy and brother to see the West Coast debut of Tina Landau and Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins at The Old Globe Theatre. Having heard the CD a few times, I was wondering if they could pull off the whole cave milieu. Guess what? The show was outstanding! Tina Landau and Adam Guettel are an absolutely amazing team. The set by James Schuette was rich with dark browns and a lot of wood everywhere. Immediately upon entering the theatre, I felt as if I was entering the Kentucky cave country, and when "The Ballad of Floyd Collins" started, I was hooked. If you don't know, Floyd Collins is the musical dramatization of the true story of the events surrounding Floyd Collins, a man who in 1925 was trapped in a cave in Sand Cave, Kentucky. The program states that Floyd Collins was the third biggest news story between WWI and WWII, eclipsed only by the Lindbergh trans-Atlantic crossing and the Lindbergh kidnapping.

The music in this show transports the audience to another time, another way of life. Floyd's first song, as he's searching the caves, is one of hopes and dreams, and we're able to quickly realize who Floyd is. And then Floyd gets stuck. We meet his friends in the song "'Tween a Rock and a Hard Place" - a good-natured and fun song if there ever was one. Floyd's sister and stepmother sing the duet "Lucky", and again we know we're in the company of ordinary, hardworking, good people. In "Daybreak", a fantasy song, Floyd hallucinates that he and his brother Homer are kids again, playing outdoors and having the time of their lives. And the reporter "Skeets" Miller is portrayed as both sympathetic and heroic in his song "I Landed on Him", as the humanity pours forth from his soul.

The second act starts with a clever and amusing song sung by three newspaper reporters "Is That Remarkable?", followed by "The Carnival" sung by the entire Company, as the town declines into a carnival atmosphere. Nellie and Homer each have songs of their own, "Through the Mountain" and "Git Comfortable", respectively, as they attempt to comfort their trapped brother and themselves through this terrible situation. "The Dream", a song of love, hope and acceptance, sung by Floyd, Nellie, Homer and the entire Company is moving beyond words. And Floyd's final song, "How Glory Goes", is truly inspirational. As good as the music is on the CD, it's even better sung live by talented singer/actors.

As Floyd, the incredibly talented Romain Fruge˘ (Titanic, The Who's Tommy) was entirely believable and sympathetic as the young man who wants to find his fortune by discovering the country's newest and biggest tourist attraction. As Floyd's brother Homer, Clarke Thorell (Titanic and Tommy, too) was an absolute standout. I don't mind telling you that Mrs. Old Man and Cos's lady friend also liked him a lot. Thorell is a talent to watch, mark my words. Talkin' Broadway's own Kim Huber played Floyd and Homer's sister Nellie, and I now know why she played Belle in "Beauty and the Beast". This woman has a crystal clear voice, and she was wonderful in this role. (And I was happy to meet her after the show - even though she had like two seconds to say hello to Cos and me. Oh well… at least she was nice about it.)

Another standout in the cast was Guy Adkins (Arcadia, Design for Living), who played "Skeets" Miller, the reporter who befriended and really tried to help Floyd and to ease Floyd's fears. John Ahlin (Whoopee!, Oh Best Beloved) was a terrifically self-centered gloryseeker, out to make his own name from Floyd's rescue. And John Taylor, as Floyd's resigned father, Lee, said so much with so little volume. The entire company was truly outstanding (including Jack Donahue, James Moye and Ryan Perry as the reporters and Marty Higginbotham, Jacob Garrett White and Michael-Leon Wooley as Floyd's friends).

Floyd Collins was one of the best shows I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of them. It was thought-provoking, haunting and perfectly unified in its construction. And Cos even joined us in giving it a standing ovation! Unfortunately, Floyd Collins ended its five-week run in San Diego on March 21, but I understand it's opening soon in Philadelphia. Go!!!

So tell me ... nothing to do or see in LA? Hah! I'm seeing Annette Bening in Hedda Gabler at the Geffen Playhouse on Thursday!


-- Jerry Howard




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