Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: Rethinking OKLAHOMA! For Today's Audience

Julia Aks, Zachary Ford and the cast of Oklahoma!
All photos by Salvador Farfan, Caught in the Moment Photography

Just when you thought you knew what the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! was all about, along comes a revival by 3-D Theatricals that makes you rethink everything.

Yes, it will always be the story of a headstrong young farm girl and a charismatic cowboy whose romance is challenged by a menacing hired hand, but there is another layer to it I’ve never seen emphasized in any other production; Oklahoma’s ethnic makeup at the time and how it may have impacted those who lived there.

The musical is set in the days leading up to Oklahoma’s bid for statehood in the early 1900s and is based on Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow the Lilacs. Riggs grew up on a farm near Claremore, Oklahoma (the same Claremore mentioned in the musical) in what was then known as Indian Territory so it is natural he would recreate the world of his youth for this particular story.

The eastern part of the state had been set aside by the U.S. government for the relocation of Native Americans whom the Feds had evicted from their lands. It was also where many African Americans, some free and some still enslaved, occupied towns alongside immigrant settlers. Whether farmers or cattlemen (or black, brown, or white), to live here was to be committed to the hard work necessary to make the harsh surroundings habitable. Survival meant learning to get along, though one can imagine the tensions that might have arisen in such a melting pot.

This is the landscape for director T.J. Dawson’s revival, one that creates a vital new narrative in the wake of contemporary racial and political tensions. Against this backdrop, Laurey (Julia Aks) is no shrinking flower but a hardy young woman who takes the demanding work of running a farm seriously. Her standoffishness with Curly (Zachary Ford) lasts longer than usual, and verges on becoming unlikable, but it is grounded in a reality that is believable, making her eventual admission that she needs him a powerful turn. It doesn’t happen until the box social but, when it does, the payoff is a satisfying one.

Ford’s Curly isn’t the typical self-assured leading man you’re used to seeing either. When he and Aks engage in their Beatrice and Benedick style sparring, a boyish vulnerability is evident behind the mischief. He may be confident on the surface but casting a character leading man instead of the usual baritone romancer means you’re going to see an unpredictable Curly with the potential to make some extremely affecting choices, which Ford does. Plus, he gets more mileage out of the humor in the libretto.

Dawson’s critical decision to cast Rufus Bonds, Jr. as Jud Fry – were it done in the context of non-traditional casting – wouldn’t be so unusual, but that’s not the purpose here. Borrowing from a line in both the musical and the play referring to Jud as “bullet-colored” he is intentionally presenting a world in which a man of color could legitimately find himself in this story. Bonds doesn’t waste the moment. He reinvents the character with remarkable insight into his humanity and, in doing so, gives us an opportunity to see our own human failings in the process.

Now when Curly picks up a rope in Jud’s room and jokes about how easy it would be for a man to hang himself from the beam above them, we are eerily reminded that, throughout our history, something as simple as the color of a man’s skin could get him killed. If that’s not relevant to today, I don’t know what is.

Taking a page from the Agnes de Mille philosophy of dance, which uses the art form to further the storyline, Leslie Stevens choreographs two bona fide showstoppers. Her staging of the Dream Ballet is fifteen minutes of searing emotion – joy, pain, lust, innocence, horror – and it’s a knockout. She expands the story even beyond what de Mille first presented as Laurey struggles to make up her mind in a dream turned nightmare. This is a career milestone for Stevens whose dancers, like Missy Marion and Dustin True, (Dream Laurey and Curly) elevate the soul of the production with their technical skill.

Then, after intermission she does it again with an athletic, exuberant ensemble number for the entire 53-member cast in “The Farmer and the Cowman,” a competition of one-upmanship that builds to a breathless climax.

Musical director Julie Lamoureux accomplishes the same feat musically in the large choral numbers and her 23-piece orchestra spins one of the most beautiful scores to come out of the Golden Age into gold. Forget third time’s a charm; for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, their first time changed the game for the entire musical theatre genre, and this is a chance to hear the full power of Rodgers angelic harmonies that so beautifully defined the movie musical period of the forties and fifties.

In any production it’s always a toss-up whether Will Parker or Ado Annie (played by Tom Berklund and Kelly Dorney) will be the dumber of the two comic roles but here they rival each other for the title. Neither develops beyond on a single overriding character choice pushed to the extreme, although Berklund’s dancing is so brilliantly executed it almost doesn’t matter. Ali Hakim (Drew Boudreau) and Aunt Eller (Tracy Rowe Mutz) are high energy roles that still leave themselves someplace to go within all the melodrama.

Tom Berkland and the cast

3-D Theatricals always over-delivers on the technical aspects of its productions and this show doesn’t disappoint. Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting at the fish pond and inside Jud’s smokehouse makes the moments seem particularly intimate, in sharp contrast to the bold colors he uses to flood the stage during the Dream Ballet’s dramatic shifts. Andrew Nagy’s projections enhance the feeling of great open space on the prairie (but for a little overkill on the birds flying by) and in a creative decision that might escape notice anywhere else, Peter Herman’s long side-swept ponytail for Laurey makes exactly the right character statement.

There is an unparalleled thrill that occurs when a director takes a well-known musical like Oklahoma! and finds what others have missed, especially when it was there all along. T.J. Dawson’s thoughtful undertaking of the search to answer the question, “why Oklahoma! and why now?” proves classic productions can be as significant today as when they were first written. It’s all in how you see it.

Rufus Bonds, Jr. and Julia Aks

Julia Aks and Kelly Dorney

Julia Aks and Zachary Ford

Zachary Ford and Rufus Bonds, Jr.

Estevan Valdes

Dancers in the Dream Ballet

3-D Theatricals

June 16 – 25, 2017
Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center
1935 E. Manhattan Blvd., Redondo Beach, CA 90278

June 30 – July 9, 2017
Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts
12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos, CA 90703

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Sunday, June 18, 2017

Review: LONDON CALLING, A MUSICAL Doesn't Connect

British punk rock invaded the U.S. during my formative years. The Ramones, Sex Pistols and The Clash started a movement that aggressively pushed back against the system and provided an outlet for the angst of an angry generation. Defiant in every way, from the sound of the music, to the topics it addressed, to the look of its bands and followers, it was the resistance, and it was exciting.

London Calling, The Clash’s third album, is considered by many to be one of the band’s greatest achievements. It is also the title of a musical that has been knocking around for the last decade, now being presented at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Using songs by The Clash, it is the story of four bandmates who share a dream of making it big. According to the program it is not based on The Clash’s rise to fame but on the creative team’s (Peggy Lewis/writer, Mark Hensley/creator) own experiences of, “A youth spent playing in bands, living in squats and pursuing dreams…” 

It’s a retread of the frustrated musician story; nothing unexpected here. Unable to get a break, the boys eventually peel off into the traps of youth. “Get a job,” is a common thread as one goes to the army, one to jail, one to work for his snobbish girlfriend’s father, and one to London to try it solo. Each finds disillusionment with his choice until they all conveniently reunite to reclaim the dream.

As a longtime fan of The Clash, I really wanted this musical to succeed, but the ten years invested in creating it has not produced a strong, cohesive production. The program says, “The lyrics of the songs are the dialog, they propel the story forward…” Sorry, they don’t. In some cases they might, if you could hear them, but the show is run by a sound engineer from the house who doesn’t seem to notice his singers can’t be heard.

They are also singing to pre-recorded tracks, which feels disingenuous when you’re watching a show about a band if the audience never gets to see them perform. We’re meant to take them at their word when they say they are brilliant but they never actually play together onstage. Show us, don’t tell us. It’s much more powerful storytelling.

Missing too is a consistent artistic vision under Rod McLachlan’s direction; surprising since he is an actor with multiple Broadway credits and knows the drill. The actors wander around the stage sometimes relating to each other and other times speaking or singing directly to members of the audience without rhyme or reason.

L-R: Paul Holowaty, Sam Meader, Duane Asante Ervin, and Tom Conlan

The boys (Sam Meader, Paul Holowaty, Duane Asanté Ervin, and Tom Conlan) do bring a certain raw, ignorant charm to the piece and two punk rock dancers (Sarah Marquelle Kruger and Natalie Davis) add the brash cheekiness the music demands. Sean Smith is particularly compelling as Tom’s father, lending weight to an otherwise loosely-sketched production.

London Calling may appeal to die-hard fans of The Clash, and friends of those involved with the production will certainly be invested. In fact, the night I attended it was well-received by the audience. Unfortunately, I expected more.

June 17, 2017
Hudson Theatre
6539 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tickets: http://hff17.com/4293 
More info: www.london-calling.com

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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Review: The Theatre High of hearing John Bucchino play IT'S ONLY LIFE

L-R: Phillip McBride, Jill Marie Burke, John Bucchino, Joaquin Nuñez,
Kayre Morrison, Ken Shepski, and Devon Davidson. Photo by Daniel L. Wilson

I’m sorry if you didn’t see Art-In-Relation’s production of It’s Only Life this past weekend because you missed hearing a remarkable musician play his own magnificent songs in a tiny 50-seat theater. To have that luxury is a rare occurrence, even for a city like Los Angeles. It was a breathtaking evening with the composer at the piano expressing, as only one who has written a song truly can, the most intimate nuances of a piece. For a lover of music, it was transcendent.

John Bucchino writes like no other. The award-winning composer has been called a genius by most who have worked with him. Singers like Judy Collins, Audra McDonald, Barbara Cook, and Art Garfunkel clamor to record his material and he has performed in some the greatest halls in the world, from the Hollywood Bowl to the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall to the White House.

What I know is that he has an unparalleled ability to tap into the human condition and tell a story with a song that will bring you to your knees. It may be a moment of unencumbered hope, deep longing, or lingering regret, but it is crystallized in an emotional space that only music can occupy. When paired with a John Bucchino lyric, it is pure magic.

In this version of It’s Only Life, the six actors who undertake the journey present a mixed result, hindered at times by a directorial vision (Alan Palmer) that either punctuates the obvious or leaves the actors up to their own devices. It doesn’t have a linear plot, as written, and that is the inherent beauty of the piece. The shows potential to move the listener comes from the mindfulness of the actors as they consider the cost of their art, what they’ve sacrificed to succeed, and how they will navigate the ever-changing waters ahead. Regardless of whether or not you are an artist, these questions are the stuff of life and the same ones all seekers wrestle with at some point along the journey.

But to stage the climactic “Taking The Wheel” while driving a car and then have the actor throw his hands up in excitement so his passenger must take the wheel to keep them from crashing completely ignores the metaphor. The song is a joyful expression of taking charge of one’s life but here it is played for a cheap laugh that sorely misses the point.

Group numbers are also hit and miss. There are a number of times the cast stands stationary and sings, not necessarily a bad thing if you ignore some of the awkward positions, but the lack of focus is distracting. One actor tries repeatedly to make eye contact with the audience, several look to their fellow actors to connect, while others have generic musical theatre smiles pasted on their faces as they gaze vacantly over the audience’s heads.

L-R: Phillip McBride, Devon Davidson, Joaquin Nuñez,
Ken Shepski, Kayre Morrison, and Jill Marie Burke

It is a reminder that these aren’t the kind of songs you can simply pick up and sing because you think they’re beautiful. You need to live with them, or at least have some life experience under your belt, to even begin to communicate the subtleties, let alone have the vocal chops to do them justice.

Only Jill Marie Burke fully cracks open a vulnerable heart to expose all the color and richness they deserve. She belts out ‘80s classics by day as the lead singer of a Pat Benatar tribute band but, in this cycle of 22 songs – missing is “Painting My Kitchen” – her deep connection to both lyric and melody on “Unexpressed,” “If I Ever Say I’m Over You” and the bluesy “What You Need” will be your reason to see It’s Only Life once the composer is no longer at the piano.

The rest of the singers fare better on the choral numbers than on their solos where a shortage of emotional depth and amateurish acting can’t escape notice. As a group, intonation improves and the lush harmonies begin to soar under the musical direction of Jonas Sills and VanNessa Hulme.

Still, I left the evening on a theatre high after hearing songs I dearly love played by the very composer who wrote them. That is something I will never forget.

June 9 – July 9, 2017
Art-In-Relation @ Chromolume Theater
5429 W. Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90016
For more about the composer, visit www.johnbucchino.com.

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Review: Robot Teammate's TURBULENCE! Covers Fun-Loving Comic Territory

L-R: Chris Bramante, Molly Dworsky, Miles Crosman, and Kat Primeau
Photo credit: Mary Bonney

Socrates said, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” They are simple words but carry a profound message about how we experience the world. Applied to theatre, it is a concept that reveals why some companies are successful and others struggle. To understand what kind of art you’re making and who the audience is for it, is everything.

For example, Coeurage Theatre Company owns a unique niche presenting adventurous new works under a Pay What You Want banner. Antaeus is a theatre co-op that produces classical works with seasoned artists and employs partner casting for its productions. 3-D Theatricals is known for large scale Broadway-caliber musicals, and 24th Street Theatre creates inclusive world-class family entertainment that both educates and stimulates dialogue among a diverse community. All of them know who they are.

Also in this group of self-aware artists is Robot Teammate, producers of Turbulence!, a new 55-minute musical playing through June 22 at Sacred Fools Theatre. At its heart, they are a musical improv group specializing in heightened comedy, often with a sci-fi or fantasy twist. They include their audience throughout the entire process of developing a new work and one thing you can be sure of is that an RT show will be fun.

Consequently, getting butts in seats isn’t a problem. Translation: If you don’t have tickets for their current run yet, get them now or prepare to be disappointed when they sell out. Consider it a $15 fun tax; it’s money well-spent.

The crowd on Saturday saw the first full performance of Turbulence!, their latest space fluff adventure about a wackadoo crew aboard the S.S. Albacore, commissioned to be Earth’s last minute replacement in the annual race around the Sun. Likable but hilariously unprepared, this bunch of misfits must find a way to overcome their own oddball eccentricities and learn to work together as a team in order to best their rivals.

Set to an upbeat ‘80s-style pop rock score, Turbulence! is a screwball mash-up of Friday night SyFy comedy classics and Saturday morning cartoons with colorful characters and bright, energetic choreography. Two musical departures – a hokey country “Hoedown Throwdown” style number (priceless) and a beautiful a cappella choral piece add variety. The friendly rough-and-tumble nature of the work is a good fit for those looking for an escape from the more cynical/slit-your-wrists drama one often finds at the Fringe. This is comical territory, bold and fun-loving. It won’t tax any brain cells (on purpose) but the rowdy good time it delivers is all you need.

The only issue they need to rectify is the audio. While the acting is crisp, the sound over the mics is hooty and hollow with frequent feedback. A voiceover sets up the story but you can’t understand it over the band, partly because the balance is off and partly because of the garbled character choice. Once that's handled, this outer space adventure will be firing on all cylinders.

Cast: Miles Crosman (Capt. Davin Galaxy), Kat Primeau (Dr. Joules Johnson), Chris Bramante (Mick Cribbins), Dave Reynolds (Mambo 4), Molly Dworsky (Pattern MaGerk), Sam Johnides (Zorks), Branson NeJame (Malarkis/Announcer). Directed by Molly Dworsky, co-directed by Dave Reynolds. Choreography by Kat Primeau. Book & lycics by Miles Crosman & Robot Teammate. Music composed, arranged & directed by Sam Johnides with additional composition by Branson NeJame.

June 10 – 22, 2017
Sacred Fools Theater
1076 Lillian Way
Hollywood, CA 90038

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

MUSICAL NEWS for Thursday, May 25, 2017

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s next musical is Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, the show that introduced American audiences to the Belgian singer-songwriter known as the “Bob Dylan of France.” Director Dan Fishbach and musical director Anthony Lucca lead a cast that includes Marc Francoeur, Susan Kohler, Miyuki Miyagi, and Michael Yapujian in what promises to be a powerful evening of music. Brel’s songs are full of with flair, attitude and European sophistication, retaining their edgy vibe over half a century after they were written. While Brel is no longer either alive or living in Paris, his legendary vision of romance, humor and moral conviction endures. July 1 – Aug. 27. www.odysseytheatre.com

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts has announced its 40th Anniversary season and there is a lot of musical theatre to love in it. First up is American Idol’s Frenchie Davis starring in a brand version of the Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Sept 15 – Oct 8, 2017) directed by original Broadway cast member, Ken Page, followed by Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow (Oct 27 – Nov 12, 2017) about the last year of Judy Garland’s life. 2018 begins with Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret (Jan 19 – Feb 11, 2018) featuring choreography by Dana Solimando, directed by Larry Carpenter. April 20 – May 13, 2018 is a Rodgers & Hammerstein classic yet to be announced, and closing out the season is Disney’s Newsies (June 1– 24, 2018), directed and choreographed by Richard Hinds. www.lamiradatheatre.com

Art-In-Relation presents John Bucchino’s It’s Only Life, featuring the composer on piano during opening weekend performances. The poignant revue is filled with the questions, joys, sorrows, and challenges we all face when making choices between our art, and our daily lives set to the music and lyrics of John Bucchino. Starring Jill Marie Burke, Devon Davidson, Joaquin Nuñez, Philip McBride, Kayre Morrison, Ken Shepski, Amanda Aceves (7/8, 2pm), and VanNessa Hulme (7/1, 7/2, 7/8 2pm). June 9 – July 9 at Chromolume Theater. ArtinRelation.com

Over at REDCAT, Kamala Sankaram’s Thumbprint is being presented in partnership with LA Opera June 15, 17 & 18. The opera is an astonishing true story of courage that explores the deep family ties and tribal traditions that empowered Mukhtar Mai to become the first female victim of gang rape in Pakistan to bring her attackers to justice. In lieu of a financial settlement, she requested that a school be constructed to educate girls. She hoped to educate the young, to help prevent the humiliation of signing their names with only a thumbprint. The story is told through a dynamic score by Sankaram, filled with influences from Hindustani and European opera, and a libretto by Susan Yankowitz, originating from a series of interviews with Mai. www.redcat.org

Dan Waldkirch & Jeremiah Lowder debut their new musical Save Me a Spot beginning June 3. To win the heart of his favorite YouTube star, 30-something slacker, Chris decides to make a grand gesture – waiting in line for a pair of concert tickets. Over the course of one night, he’s joined by a handful of colorful strangers who share their stories, dreams, and ill-advised business plans. Starring Clayton Farris, Kristen Heitman, Kate Ponzio, Garrett Vander Leun, and Brent Lydic directed by Jeremiah Lowder. June 3 – 24 at Asylum at Studio C. Show runs 90 minutes. www.hff17.org/4369

The Book of Mormon has announced a lottery ticket policy for its national tour, which begins May 30 at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. The pre-show lottery will take place at the box office prior to every performance, making a limited number of tickets available at $25 apiece; cash or credit card accepted. Entries will be accepted at the box office beginning two and a half hours prior to each performance; each person will print their name and the number of tickets (1 or 2) they wish to purchase on a card that is provided. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn at random. Winners must be present at the time of the drawing. May 30 – July 9. www.hollywoodpantages.com [Photo credit: Joan Marcus]

Cherise Pascual debuts her one woman show, Herpes: A Love Story at studio/stage beginning June 1st. The multimedia, interactive musical comedy is written, produced and performed by Pascual, and directed by Jessica Lynn Johnson. Join Pascual as she relives her bad choices through musical parodies, awkward dance moves, and conversations with all the people in her head (real and imaginary) and learn how having herpes taught her to love myself. Leave the kids at home for this one. June 1 – 23. http://hff17.com/4504

Nick DeGruccio will direct a student production of Carrie the Musical for the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television opening June 2 at UCLA’s TFT Little Theater. Choreography is by Lee Martino, who also teaches at UCLA TFT. This is the close of the Department of Theater’s Ray Bolger Musical Theater Program, and caps off a highly successful 2016-17 Theater Season. June 2-3 and 6-10. tft.ucla.edu/theatertickets

Nic and Brooke’s Comedy Dance Party makes its world premiere in June. An homage to the classic variety shows, it asks what it would look like if Sonny and Cher were still on the air today…and black. Nick and Brooke take the audience through a fun-loving comedy romp with sketches, musical numbers, and a dance party. Reminiscent of the great comedy/variety shows of the 70s with a modern twist, it also incorporates elements of The Carol Burnett Show, Laugh-In, and even a little Soul Train. June 2 – 23 at the Lounge Theatre. http://hff17.com/4598

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review: FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE is the Summer Party You Don't Want to Miss

Obba Babatundé (front) with Octavius Womack, Rogelio Douglas, Jr.,
Eric B. Anthony, Jacques C. Smith and Trevon Davis. All photos by Craig Schwartz

When I moved back to Los Angeles in the mid-’90s, I was fortunate enough to work for a small company led by a president who was loved by everyone who knew him. A true gentleman, Gordon had been in the radio business a long time and was just entering his seventies. He always had a twinkle in his eye, time to listen, and a ready quip to lighten the mood. One of his favorite responses when asked if anyone was in his office was, “Ain’t nobody here but us chickens.” It always made me laugh.

I asked him about the phrase one day. All he did was smile and say, “Louis Jordan.” That was my introduction to the man known as the King of the Jukebox.

When it came to music, Louis Jordan knew how to make it swing. He was one of the most influential African American musicians of the late thirties and forties, and he had a knack for creating songs that were so infectious you just had to get up and dance. A pioneer in the rhythm and blues genre and forerunner of early rock and roll, he was also one of the first black artists to cross over on the pop charts, and everyone from Chuck Berry to Ray Charles has acknowledged his impact on their music.

Jordan recorded “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens” in 1946 and it became an instant hit, spending seventeen weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B chart and reaching number six on the pop chart. It’s been covered by James Brown, B.B. King and Patti LuPone, and it is also featured in a musical revue by Clark Peters built to showcase Jordan’s remarkable collection of songs. That revue - Five Guys Named Moe - is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its successful Broadway run in an out-and-out stellar revival at Ebony Repertory Theatre in Los Angeles.

The show is directed and choreographed with stylish precision by Keith Young, a former principal dancer with Twyla Tharp’s company in New York. His impressive resume is packed full of film, television and theatre credits including three prior productions at Ebony Rep. This time around his work is streamlined and character-driven, with generous doses of humor thrown in to amplify the fun. He saves the big glitz for Act II’s Five Moes floor show and a whopper of a reveal, but, back to the beginning.

L-R: Trevon Davis, Rogelio Douglas Jr., Eric B. Anthony,
Octavius Womack, and Jacques C. Smith

It starts with Obba Babatundé (as Nomax) stumbling home in the wee small hours of the morning after another late night bender, singing the blues to the plaintive sound of a muted trumpet. His girlfriend of sixteen years has finally left him and he’s in serious need of some solid relationship advice. Like many a lonely soul before him, Nomax turns on the radio for a little comfort and company.

That’s when he’s musically whopped up side the head by the five Moes of the title who materialize, as if by magic. Big Moe (Octavius Womack), Little Moe (Trevon Davis), Eat Moe (Eric B. Anthony), Four-Eyed Moe (Rogelio Douglas, Jr.), and No Moe (Jacques C. Smith) are determined to help him cast off his lush life and get his girl back, whether he likes it or not. It’s a set-up that paves the way for two hours of tell-it-like-it-is fun where the music is the main attraction and you can’t wait to see what tactic they’ll try next.

As a group, the Moes offer up a tasty blend of vocal harmonies that often blooms out of a verse when you least expect it. As soloists, they exude personality and charm by the bucketfuls, whether it is Womack raising the roof on Jordan’s jump blues crowd pleaser “Caldonia” or Davis getting crazy on “Saturday Night Fish Fry” considered by many to be the first true rock and roll song, or Anthony’s sultry version of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” which is enough to break your heart.

Davis’s “I Like ‘Em Fat Like That” would be considered politically incorrect by today’s standards but it is of the era and he sings it with such zeal that you can’t help but laugh. As for the aforementioned novelty song “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens,” it is a Douglas, Jr. comedy highlight you’ll not soon forget. He plays both ends of the emotional spectrum with ease showing off a gorgeous voice at its finest in the bluesy ballad “Azure Te.”

The longing in the song is multiplied times ten with the addition of scenic designer Edward E. Haynes Jr’s subtle Paris imagery on an upstage scrim, an effect he uses several times throughout the show to create atmosphere while adding an ethereal quality to the action.

They’re backed by one of the best 6-piece jazz ensembles you’ll hear anywhere, led by original Broadway Five Guys musical director Abdul Hamid Royal, an incredible musical force. By the way, don’t even think about getting up and leaving during the curtain call. Stay for the band’s entire last number after the cast has exited and you’ll see the definition of pure joy as they take over the stage and bring it all home.

Obba Babatundé

So how does an everyman character named Nomax not get lost in a show like this? The key is casting a consummate leading man who can anchor the production and make it look effortless while tapping into a bottomless well. In this case, the soul of the blues and the heart of Five Guys Named Moe belongs to Obba Babatundé. Every note he sings, every ghost of a thought you see flicker across his face is infused with the deep sentiment only time and life can give to an actor. He is a master at his craft and his performance is utterly enthralling.

Nomax may defend his actions and appear cavalier at times but all the justification in the world can’t keep him from his poignant realization in “Is You Or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” As Babatundé walks off stage into the dark, he takes a piece of our heart (and understanding) with him.

Summer musicals all strive to get your attention at this time of the year but this bright jukebox musical is the one party you don’t want to miss. For my money, it’s Five Guys Named Moe for the win every single time.

May 18 - June 11, 2017
Ebony Repertory Theatre
Nate Holden Performing Arts Center
4718 West Washington Blvd
Tickets: www.ebonyrep.org

L-R: Jacques C. Smith, Trevon Davis, Rogelio Douglas, Jr., Eric B. Anthony,
Obba Babatundé, and Octavius Womack

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

MUSICAL NEWS for Thursday, May 18, 2017

3-D Theatricals presents a re-imagined production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma June 16 - 25 at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center and June 30 - July 9 at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. The 53-member cast stars Julia Aks as Laurey and Zachary Ford as Curly, with Tracy Rowe Mutz (Aunt Eller), Rufus Bonds, Jr (Jud Fry), Kelley Dorney (Ado Annie), Tom Berklund (Will Parker), Drew Boudreau (Ali Hakim), Cloie Wyatt Taylor (Gertie), and E.E. Bell (Andrew Carnes). The production is directed by T.J. Dawson with musical direction by Julie Lamoureux and choreography by Leslie Stevens. www.3dtheatricals.org

Ben Vereen, Juan Pablo Espinosa, Mary Birdsong, Stacey Oristano, and Anthony Federov join the Concert For America: Stand Up, Sing Out! on May 24. Previously announced performers include Chita Rivera, Cheyenne Jackson, Rachel Bloom, Wayne Brady, Helen Reddy, Megan Hilty, Wilson Cruz, Barrett Foa, and Marissa Jaret Winokur. The Concert for America series is created and hosted by Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley. May 24 has also been designated Concert For America Day in Los Angeles by Mayor Eric Garcetti. Proceeds will benefit five organizations working to protect human rights: Southern Poverty Law Center, National Immigration Law Center, The Sierra Club Foundation, NAACP, and National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 7pm at UCLA’s Royce Hall. www.ConcertsforAmerica.com

Rubicon Theatre Company continues its popular Broadway Concert Series with Nancy Dussault in My Life…Upon the Wicked Stage on May 20. Dussault combines extraordinary musicality and her trademark wit for a new spin on songs by Richard Rodgers, Jule Styne, Burton Lane, Stephen Sondheim and other treasured favorites by preeminent composers of the stage and screen. Songs include “Getting Married Today,” “Look to the Rainbow,” and her iconic “Make Someone Happy.” She is joined by musical director Christopher Marlowe and director Valentine Mayer. Three performances only May 20 at 2pm & 8pm and May 21 at 2pm. www.rubicontheatre.org

Mesopotamian Opera Company presents the world premiere of The Spell of Tradition, two Noh Play/Operas on the life and afterlife of Benjamin Franklin beginning June 1st at the Highland Park Ebell Club. In Part One, Tuesday, set in 1936, a soprano and orchestral conductor from the Metropolitan Opera en route to a concert date in Philadelphia survive a train derailment in Trenton, New Jersey that kills other members of their company. Aided by a shaman of the Lenape tribe (the original Native Americans of New Jersey and Philadelphia), the ghost of Benjamin Franklin is conjured to aid them as they strive to make their Philadelphia curtain on time.

In Part Two, The Salem Quilt begins in 1723, when Benjamin Franklin, a runaway apprentice, seeks food, rest and refuge from Mrs. Clapp, an innkeeper. She lets him sleep under a quilt with supernatural properties and it reveals to him a glorious future. Mrs. Clapp is conflicted: Shall she keep Franklin in her bed, or allow him to go off and pursue his magnificent destiny? Written, composed, choreographed and directed by Peter Wing Healey and performed in English. Running time is two hours ten minutes plus intermission. There is free parking in a lot across the street. June 1 – 3. Mesopotamianopera.org

Songwriter Richard Levinson’s entry into this year’s Fringe Festival is a set of twelve songs he’s written over many years spent in drinking establishments that he says are “roughly thrown together like a bunch of dive bar regulars should be into one 50 minute binge.” The song cycle is called 12 Bars and will run for three performances June 3, 9 & 21 at Sacred Fools Theater. Richard’s got a wry sense of humor so the evening is sure to appeal to a Fringe crowd. http://hff17.com/4680

After sold-out shows at Second City Hollywood and an encore performance at iO West, Divorce: The Hip-Hop Musical returns to conquer the Fringe. Exploring the stress, mess, and duress of divorce, the show promises a tale of destruction, seduction, and general dysfunction. It’s the nuclear option for the nuclear family featuring12 original songs, written and directed by Conor Hanney. Starring John Ryan Benavides, Stanson Chung, Ike Flitcraft, Kelsey Goeres, Conor Hanney, Kevin Hanney, Jr., Schuyler Jeffres, Brendan McCay, Brianna McClellan, Callie Ott, Dane Troy, Rama Vallury, Rob Zaleski, with with beatboxing accompaniment by Shaun Fisher. 6/1 - 21 at Sacred Fools Theatre Second Stage. Recommended for ages 13 & up due to Adult themes. http://hff17.com/4274

Hennessey Productions and Laurie Grant present an interactive musical comedy, Kookie Clubhouse Kingdom: The Gift at the Asylum this June. When a magical GIFT arrives at the Kookie Clubhouse Kingdom, all of its residents become very excited, a little confused, slightly irritated, and even a little scared. The uplifting music brings a powerful message about seeing and embracing the gifts all around us. Starring Abbe Rowlins, Anthony Beechler, Brian Smith, Daniel Garza, Ekaterina Pagiva, James Calixte, Jeremiah Caleb, Jim Todd, Johnny Avila, Karlie Blair, Mike Hennessey, Sheena Metal, Stephanie Rose, Tracy Martin, and Victoria Smith. The show will be live streamed on select dates to benefit various children’s charities around the globe. June 3 – 25 at Asylum @ Studio C. http://hff17.com/4745

Springloaded, written and performed by Margot Rose, is a musical meditation on disappeared years, discarded dreams, and delinquent DNA playing at the Hudson Theatre beginning June 4. In this solo show, a woman finds herself untethered and unhappy within the fast passing years. Out of good ideas, she turns to face her younger selves, expecting to restore her lost faith by revisiting simpler, happier times from her past. Directed by Terrie Silverman with musical direction by Alicia Morgan. June 4 – 22 at the Hudson Guild Theatre. http://hff17.com/4355

Pat Whiteman and Harriet Schock will bring their cabaret show to the Espot Lounge at Vitello’s on June 29 at 8pm. Harriet is a Grammy-nominated songwriter for “Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady” which was recorded by Helen Reddy and has written songs for artists like Johnny Mathis, Roberta Flack, and the Partridge Family. Special guest is Gary Lynn Floyd and the show is backed by an 8-piece band featuring Harriet on piano. www.espotlounge.com

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