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Riverdance and Dealer's Choice

So I was a little late. What's new? But this time I had an excuse (really!). See, it was my last day at my old job and my colleagues threw me a little party - you know there are some people who'll find any excuse to have carrot cake and champagne.

Finally, I jumped in my jalopy, started 'er up, and, leaving the premises, I waved goodbye to my old digs for the last time. Over the hill I went to pick up my friend and meet Mrs. Old Man. We were off to see Riverdance at the Pantages Theatre. We got a little delayed watching some lame movie that our friend had executive produced, but finally after complimenting her on her brilliant film (Do you remember the Roman God Janus - after whom the month January was named? He had faces on both sides of his head so he could look in opposite directions at the same time.), we were on our way.

We had no time for a decent meal so we stopped at In n Out Burger. Now if you've never been out west, you have no idea how good a fast food burger can be (and to all you vegetarians out there, yes they have a veggieburger.) In n Out, a privately held company with outlets all over Central and Southern California, serves fresh grilled hamburgers with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, grilled onions and french fries peeled, sliced and cooked right in front of your eyes. Aaaah... quite simply the best burger around. So we ate and ran (back to the car and over to the Pantages).

We let Mrs. Old Man out of the car to get the tickets and proceeded to find parking. Just as we left the car, we heard Mrs. Old Man calling, "Hurry up! Run! It's starting in three minutes". I retorted "I'm hobbling as fast as I can". Needless to say we got to our orchestra seats on time and then started Riverdance.

Now I don't know about you, but I've heard a lot about this performance for a long time, and I never had any great desire to see it. As a matter of fact, when I subscribe to public television, I always request a different premium, NOT the Riverdance video. But having received complimentary seats for this show, I decided to remain open-minded.

Seconds after we sat down, the lights dimmed. They came up as if dawn was breaking, with an imposing chord of music, stage smoke and the sounds of a flute accompanying narrational poetry, written by Theo Dorgan and narrated by John Kavanagh. These words welcomed us to Ireland - y'know, the land of rivers and the land of dancing.

First, a whole lot of dancers burst onto the stage, line by line, traveling on those taps (without moving their arms) into all sorts of configurations. Finally, they ended up in a long chorus line of dancers, tapping their little toes off. It is quite a spectacle - very impressive. We're introduced to the two lead dancers, Colin Dunne and Eileen Martin. It appears from what we see on stage that Colin thinks a lot of himself. He's good but not fun to watch, because you get the feeling that he's not as good as HE thinks he is. Miss Martin, on the other hand, is a twenty-one year old joy to behold. She seems genuinely happy to be onstage, delightedly and delightfully performing for us all, and she is good. Through dance and song we are taken through the Irish journey to the twentieth century in Ireland and America.

The singers, with a duet by Katie McMahon and Morgan Crowley, were terrific: however, "Freedom", sung by Ivan Thomas, a large African American man, seemed as though it belonged in Showboat, except the song and the singer weren't good enough for that show. Maria Pages, a flamenco dancer, was fine, but what the heck is she doing in this show? The Moscow Folk Ballet Company - in Ireland?! Don't ask - I can't tell you. And there was one segment, set in San Francisco, in which a group of Irish dancers encounter two African Americans for a sort of tap dance showdown. Well, here's the problem - American tap dancing, though similar, is better. While lacking the disciplined structure of the Irish dance, tap is like jazz - free flowing and soulful. Furthermore, neither of those African American tap dancers is even that good! How I wanted to return to the Ahmanson where I had a week and a half earlier seen Noise/Funk Now that's tap!

To sum up, the show, and perhaps I'm in the minority because it got a big ovation, is just a whole lot of repetition. It grows old fast, and all of the "enhanced" music and tap sounds don't help it much. One song is plenty. I guess I just don't get it.

It was nice, though, going backstage to meet some of the cast following the curtain call (and lying about how much we loved the show - remember Janus?) I'd never been backstage at the Pantages before. And the soup and milkshakes at Mel's Drive In on the Sunset Strip were delicious.

Next, two weeks later to the Mark Taper Forum for Patrick Marber's Dealer's Choice as directed by Robert Egan (Skylight) It's hard going to the Music Center because in the same complex as the Taper is not only the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where Verdi's Il Trovatore is playing, but also the Ahmanson where Chicago is currently playing. Oh well, I'm seeing Chicago again in about three weeks.

Walking into the Taper is a pleasant experience. Past the ticket takers and to the right, you walk by the Taper's display case full of city proclamations, various honors and, of course, numerous Tonys (both parts of Angels in America, Children of a Lesser God, and The Shadow Box, to name but a few). A great touch.

As the stage is of the "thrust" variety, when you enter the audience area, you see a beautiful set - the interior of a small London restaurant - three dining tables and the kitchen area. Kudos to set designer David Jenkins. When the show begins, you see one nicely dressed man sitting at a two-top and the chef in the kitchen preparing that day's specials.

We are soon made aware that the man working at the table is the owner of the restaurant, Stephen (Denis Arndt) and the chef is Sweeney (Daragh O'Malley). In come two of the waiters, Mugsy (Patrick Kerr), a nervous, elfin fellow and Frankie (Dan Hildebrand), a bald no-nonsense tough. The men, going about their business, are planning that night's weekly poker game, to be played later that night downstairs in the basement. Sweeney indicates that he needs to be up early the next morning and save his hundred quid for spending the day with his young daughter, but the others try to convince him to stay. Kerr's Mugsy is a wonderful character - sprightly, energetic, dopey and a whole lot of fun to watch. Sweeney and Frankie are portrayed as two genuine working stiffs - with Frankie all set to vacation in the wonderful world of, yes, Las Vegas. All of these men are addicted to gambling.

The next scene takes place after the dinner rush, and the restaurant is closing. However, one patron will not leave. Mugsy tries everything he can, but the guy, the sinister, utterly humorless Mr. Ash (Daniel Davis, the English butler on "The Nanny") won't leave. We also meet Carl (Adam Scott) the troubled young adult son of Stephen, whom we find is the reason for Ash's presence - Carl owes Ash some four thousand pounds and Ash aims to collect. The others, not realizing that Ash is a professional poker player, invite him to join the game. Cutting to the chase, Act One ends with the men going downstairs to play the game.

Act Two opens with a clever surprise. We are now looking at the basement. The poker table all set up with the ground floor raised above the actor's heads. With the stairway upstage we actually feel as though we actually are there. Sweeney has been convinced to stay, giving Frankie half of his money to hold (and to NOT give back to him during the game under any circumstances).

Stephen controls the game that ensues, but Ash controls the pot. It is clear that Stephen uses this game to exert power over the others, and it is clear that the others are so hooked into their addiction that they allow it. But Ash is in his element here. He bluffs, intimidates and continues to take all the money. Eventually, Sweeney loses all of his money (including all of his "security" money he left with Frankie), Frankie is out, and we are left with Stephen, Ash, Carl and Mugsy, who provides the comic relief. What is actually transpiring is a struggle between Ash and Stephen over the soul and favor of Carl, but neither of these men is worthy of it. What an incredible character story this is, and each cast member is thoroughly convincing. I totally bought into O'Malley as the sympathetic but flawed Sweeney and Hildebrand as the sincere and optimistic Frankie. Scott is convincingly troubled and morose, while Arndt is perfectly stiff and anal. And it is nice to see Davis acting out of type with no remnants of his character on the thoroughly unwatchable "The Nanny". I can heartily recommend Dealer's Choice, this look at people's addictions, how they play themselves out, and their inevitable consequences.

So next up is, as stated earlier, Chicago at the Ahmanson, followed by Peter Parnell's two part adaptation of the magnificent John Irving novel The Cider House Rules, a production which, having gone through the workshop process, is currently in rehearsal and opening with Tom Hulce this summer. And, to start off next season at the Taper, an entirely revised production of Stephen Sondheim's Putting It Together, starring Carol Burnett.

This Old Man can't wait! See you soon!

Jerry


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