Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Hedda, Sin City, Hawaii, Enigma, Pigs, Merton, and the Bowl

It took me going to the Hollywood Bowl's 100 Years of Broadway this past Saturday night to get me to finally come back to writing for Talkin' Broadway. So I'll bring you up to date on some of my exploits since last I wrote ...

As I left you last, I told you that I was going to see Annette Bening as Hedda Gabler the following Thursday. Well, I did. And Ms. Bening was terrific. The show is about a horribly unhappy woman trapped in a situation and marriage forced on her by society. Though attempting to love Hedda and make her happy, Hedda's hapless husband hardly hears Hedda's hopeless histrionics. The play, as many of you already know, is a real downer, and one would hope that a woman of today would choose another escape route rather than Hedda's chosen way out. This lush production at the Geffen (formerly Westwood) Playhouse was first-rate, with all of the supporting players ably surrounding the wonderfully commanding Bening.

Next, I traveled with wife and friends in tow to the pre-flood Las Vegas. We decided to see two shows: EFX, now starring Tommy Tune; and Cirque du Soleil's O (lemme tell ya, it helps to know the right people to get tickets to this show). So we go to the MGM Grand to see EFX, having already seen the version of the show a year and a half ago starring David Cassidy. Now, I'm not a big Cassidy fan, but I'm a huge Tune fan. So, I'm feeling pretty happy to be here, right? The pre-show act involves a performer pretending to be a janitor/stagehand with higher ambitions. It's really a lot of fun ... but then the show starts and full music and dazzling effects suddenly surround you. The story has been adapted for Mr. Tune to be a night of the twelve year old Tommy Tune's dreams. Thus, all of the Merlin, time machine, alien and circus themes are explained as the fantasies of an imaginative twelve year old from Texas. Though the songs are pure pop and take themselves too seriously, you can't help but be caught up in the production. The costumes are colorful and creative and, again, the special effects are fun and inventive. There's only one problem here, and it's kind of a big one. Tommy Tune DOES NOT belong in this show! As affable, winsome and talented as he is, his graceful, classic showmanship is incredibly misplaced in EFX. I mean, during the middle of the show, he breaks and does an informal question-and-answer session with the audience - now most of these people are NOT familiar with Tommy's work and many of them are foreigners. What SHOULD they ask this stranger?! Simply put, it just feels forced, and as a result the whole show collapses. And, get this, the show worked much better with Cassidy.

However, if you can score a ticket (and we got four in the dead center of Row K), get yourself over to the Bellagio, and go see O. If you've never seen a show by Cirque du Soleil, see the one that's playing closest to you now (there's a permanent one, La Nouba, in Orlando at Walt Disney World; another Vegas show, Mystere, at Treasure Island; a permanent Alegria at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Mississippi; a new touring show, Dralion, coming to Southern California at the end of the summer; and Quidam is currently in Berlin and continuing to travel through Europe through at least the end of 2002), and then take that unbelievable experience and try to imagine if it were 10 times as enthralling. Then you're just about able to understand what a magical evening awaits you at O. What makes this show different from others by Cirque is that it is all performed in and around water (thus the name of the show, which is pronounced the same as the French word for water, "eau"). The clowns in O perform to the high standard of other Cirque clowns, captivating and cajoling the almost entirely adult audience in the most unassuming yet beguiling manner. The scenic design, with its gorgeous palette of pastel costumes framed in darkness and mist, the astounding choreography and athleticism of the performers, swimming and non-swimming alike, and the moody, erotic and altogether captivating music is unrivalled in any other show I've ever seen. (It really makes POTO's lake look pretty cheesy.) The carousel that comes from the flies and descends into the lake as, waterbound, the horses "swim" off to various destinations offstage is a breathtaking sequence. The story is a simple one, one that, because Cirque du Soleil originated in Montreal, a French speaking city in a bilingual country, is told without words, as are most of Cirque du Soleil's shows. O is virtually indescribable, enchanting, and almost-orgasmically beautiful, but all I can tell you is go, go, go. Even at $100 per ticket, O is the best payoff in town.

The missus and I HAD to then take a vacation on the Big Island of Hawaii. Gotta tell you - not a lot of theatre there, but if you hop on over to the island of Kauai, you can see Hanalei, where the film version of South Pacific was shot. Hawaii was spectacular, and I didn't miss the theater a bit. How could I? I mean, a helicopter ride over an active volcano, horseback riding at the Waipio Valley, a visit to the Mauna Loa macadamia nut factory, snorkeling and swimming with sea turtles, the most beautiful sunsets in the world ... ahhhh.

I then came back home to see Donald Sutherland making his Los Angeles stage debut in a wonderful two-character play at the Mark Taper Forum called Enigma Variations, also starring Jamey Sheridan. This compelling play, in its American premiere was originally written by French playwright Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt and was translated into English by Jeremy Sams. It is about a Norwegian, reclusive (a la J.D. Salinger), Nobel Prize-winning author (Sutherland), living on an island off the northern part of Norway. He publishes the written correspondence between him and a woman whom he left, though she was the only woman he ever loved and one whom he hasn't seen in over ten years. The play starts with a reporter (Sheridan) coming to the house of the author, who has just had his book of letters published to great acclaim. What begins as a simple interview, turns into quite a confrontation between quasi-adulterer and quasi-cuckold, and then transforms into an encounter full of ingenious plot twists and amazing character revelations. Jamey Sheridan, who has proven himself to be something of an amiable television actor ("The Stand", "Chicago Hope"), shows himself to be a very convincing stage actor as well in a role that is unusually complex. To see Donald Sutherland on stage is a delicious treat. He takes his character to places of outrage, befuddlement, concealment, sarcasm and, ultimately, pain in a way that is unique to his easy, soft-spoken, yet powerful and intelligent acting technique. We couldn't have enjoyed this play more. Unfortunately, its run at the Taper was short, and now Al Pacino's sold-out Los Angeles stage debut in Hughie, by Eugene O'Neill, is occupying the Taper.

Next up, we went to opening night of Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly, a musical costume revue which tells of Howard's story growing up gay in the Midwest and wanting to be an actor. When his high school guidance counselor heard about Howard's aspirations to be on stage, she said that that would happen "when pigs fly!" Playing at the Coronet Theater in West Los Angeles, Pigs stars Jim J. Bullock ("Too Close for Comfort"), Christopher Carothers, Loren Freeman, Blake Hammond, and David Pevsner in a romp that fills an evening with delight. From the opening title number to the end, Pigs is an unbelievably campy, hysterical and, at times, even thought-provoking musical. Each of these actors brings something unique to the stage: Bullocks' outrageous, over-the-top humor; Carothers' wide-eyed optimism; Freeman's perfectly bitchy, diva-esque professionalism; Hammond's amazingly "Bigger is Better" agility; and Pevsner's "innocent" sexuality. The show is sort of a Beach Blanket Babylon for the 90s, and we've got it here in LA! In short, it's a whole lot of fun with a bite. Whatever you do, if you want a good time, get over to the Coronet!

Last week, I went with a friend to see George S. Kaufman's and Marc Connelly's "classic" (read "old") comedy, Merton of the Movies. The play tells the story of another young man from the Midwest who wants to be an actor, but this young man heads West, to Hollywood, during the heyday of the silent film. This show is supposed to be an hilarious send-up of the behind-the-scenes-machinations of early Hollywood. Our boy is so "serious" about his craft that he won't appear in comedy films, only "important" works like the silent melodramas of yesteryear (even when he first arrives on the scene and should really take anything). This play has been receiving fairly solid reviews here in town, but I can't figure it out. In the lead role of Merton is an incredibly boring actor named Barry Del Sherman. He is the central focus here, of course, and you're supposed to be able to root for him. I just kept thinking about laundry, things I gotta do today, the weather, my car's transmission, etc. I did, however, enjoy the performances of David Garrison (Titanic: The Musical, "Married With Children"), playing the semi-tyrannical serious-film director, and Richard Libertini (Popeye, All of Me, Fletch) as the comedy director. The gag is that Merton is such a bad actor that he's actually funny. Thus, after he's banned from Garrison's sets, he starts working in comedies - only nobody lets him in on the fact that his pictures are funny. Perhaps this was funny in the 1930s, but I really was bored out of my skull, and I left wondering why the Geffen's Artistic Director chose this play for its season. Don't go!

This all leads me to this past weekend at the Hollywood Bowl. It's actually been two years since I went there and at that time I saw the Bowl's Broadway show with vocalists Patti LuPone, Rebecca Luker and Davis Gaines. So this year we went again for their Broadway show, 100 Years of Broadway, with this year's guest performers Justino Diaz, Susan Egan, Marilyn Horne and, yes, Davis Gaines. The perfect weather was most conducive to a lovely night out in the open amphitheater, and John Mauceri's Hollywood Bowl Orchestra started off the night with a rousing rendition of the obligatory "Star Spangled Banner".

The program began with the Orchestra playing the overture from Naughty Marietta, "the most popular work from the 1910 season". And how nice it was. Conductor Mauceri then explained that each of the four vocalists had chosen two of their favorite songs from the Broadway theatre to sing during the first act. Ms. Egan chose "Memory" from Cats, and sang the hell out of that song. How perfectly suited her voice and style are to this modern standard. For her second song, she chose Company's Getting Married Today, by Stephen Sondheim, with Ms. Egan singing all three roles. Though getting through that awkward situation of playing all three parts and quite ably singing the rapid patter of the song incredibly clearly, Ms. Egan lacked the humor to make the song truly feel like her own. Although watching Carol Burnett sing that song last year in Putting It Together might have taught her the words, it simply couldn't give her the right presence.

Acclaimed baritone singer Justino Diaz chose to sing "Begin the Beguine" from Jubilee and made the song fairly boring, and his rendition of "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha was truly awful. He came up with notes that I've never heard in my life ... at least not in that song!

The overture from My Fair Lady followed, and the orchestra was right on.

Next came the amazing Marilyn Horne singing a couple of songs that I really enjoyed: "Bewitched" from Pal Joey, and "The Man I Love" from Strike Up the Band. Ms. Horne infused these songs with passion and humor, and, having been pretty unfamiliar with her vast previous work, I now consider myself a fan.

We were then treated to the world premiere of a suite of songs from Adam Guettel's (Floyd Collins) new show, to be completed in 2000, The Light in the Piazza. It sounded beautiful, and listening to pieces of this score reassured the audience that there is at least one young living composer who'll be able to take us into the 21st Century. And, as a bonus, Mr. Guettel was in attendance.

The final soloist for the first act was none other than Mr. Gaines, who sang a brilliant, evocative rendition of "Soliloquy" from Carousel, and his unparalleled rendition of "Old Man River" from Showboat. Needless to say, he was given a standing ovation with the crowd going nuts.

The second act was a tribute to South Pacific, in celebration of its fiftieth anniversary, and Conductor Mauceri decided to utilize the film orchestrations in their live world premiere. Ms. Egan took the role of "Nellie Forbush", Mr. Diaz sang "Emile de Becque", Ms. Horne assayed "Bloody Mary", with Mr. Gaines as "Lieutenant Cable". Thus, aside from the occasional vocal wanderings of Mr. Diaz, we were entertained by some of the most beautiful songs of the musical stage, highlighted by Gaines' "Younger Than Springtime" and "You've Got to be Carefully Taught", Mrs. Horne's moving "Bali Ha'i" and playful "Happy Talk", and Ms. Egan, in a role for which she is perfectly suited, wonderfully singing "A Cockeyed Optimist" and "A Wonderful Guy".

Finally, we were treated to the obligatory Gershwin "Strike Up the Band" and the fireworks display was new and, as always, lots of fun. So much so, that when the performers came back on stage for the curtain call of the ubiquitous "There's No Business Like Show Business" from Annie Get Your Gun, Mr. Diaz was a bit tardy, as he was caught outside watching the display! What a night! We all just had a great time.

Soon I'll be seeing ACT's Tartuffe (in San Francisco), the Taper's First Picture Show (a transfer from ACT in San Francisco) and Jane Eyre (in San Diego). Until then ... go see a show!!

-- Jerry Howard

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