Monday, December 11, 2017

Review: Chromolume Theatre Presents Memorable Revival of PACIFIC OVERTURES

L-R (front): Kevin Matsumoto, Paul Wong, Julia May Wong, Daniel Koh, Marcel Licera,
Peter Jeensalute. Rear: Cesar Cipriano, Daryl Leonardo. All photos by Ederson Vasquez

You only have one more week to catch the striking revival of Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (playing through December 17th) and true Sondheim fans shouldn’t pass up the opportunity. The last time it made an appearance in Los Angeles was in 1998 when East West Players presented it in the company’s new 240-seat David Henry Hwang Theatre.  

Chromolume’s theater seats only 49 but the production comes alive in this intimate space, achieving a gentle lyricism and uncluttered style under James Esposito’s direction that gives the musical’s emotional impact surprising weight. It is performed in a modified Kabuki tradition without the highly-stylized makeup and costumes but incorporating many of the form’s dramatic aspects and enhanced sensory elements. Choreographer Michael Marchuk beautifully tailors the movement to the small playing area.

The cast, led by a mesmerizing Paul Wong as the Reciter (or narrator), handsomely communicates the subtleties in John Weidman’s book and Sondheim’s score but what is even more potent is how alive their silence is. The visual organization has a distinct presence and you can feel it shift as the tone changes from scene to scene. Focus is all.

Paul Wong

Musical director Daniel Yokomizo handles the difficult score with a delicate touch and capitalizes on the vocal eloquence of the cast’s ringer, Gibran Mahmud, whose cascading tenor voice bounces brilliantly off the surrounding wood panels. The acoustics of the theatre are quite good, even without mics, making it unnecessary for cast members to push (although a couple of the men fall into this trap in their eagerness to communicate during moments of heightened emotion).

The story of Commodore Perry’s intrusion into Japan’s tranquility in order to open up the country for trade resonates like Pandora’s box – once the contents have been released they can never be put back. As the ceremony of life begins to unravel and priorities shift to make room for the West’s enticing commercialism, the resulting compromises become increasingly more disturbing. Sondheim’s final two numbers, “Pretty Lady” and “Next” are unsettling for completely different reasons but have as much in common with today’s issues of aggression, resistance, and progress as they did in these circumstances depicted in 1853.

Pacific Overtures is some of the best work Chromolume Theatre has done to date. The production strikes a balance between economy of storytelling and dramatic effect to create a uniquely memorable experience. And while it may not be perfect, its level of sophistication is truly admirable.

PACIFIC OVERTURES
December 1 – 17, 2017
Chromolume Theatre at The Attic
5429 W. Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90016
(Between the 10 Freeway and Hauser Blvd.)
www.crtheatre.com

Cesar Cipriano

Cesar Cipriano and Marcel Licera

Cesar Cipriano and Daryl Leonardo

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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Review: A Noise Within Rings in the Holidays with A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Geoff Elliott (center) as Ebenezer Scrooge and the cast of A Christmas Carol.
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Of all the holiday stories written, it would be hard to find one more well-known or popular than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The redemption of a miser named Scrooge whose heart has forgotten the meaning of charity has been adapted, musicalized, spoofed, and dramatized in every medium imaginable, and, like all good cautionary tales, returns as a warning each December. In these trying times, its message about the importance of caring for one’s fellow man is as necessary as ever.

A Noise Within remounts its version of the holiday comfort food classic, starring Geoff Elliott as Scrooge, for the sixth year in a row. The adaptation is also by Elliott, who co-directs with wife, Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, and the production features many familiar faces from among the company’s pool of resident artists.

Deborah Strang bustles in as the whimsical Ghost of Christmas Past looking like a child’s birthday cake topper, amid layers and layers of white flouncy ruffles. Jeremy Rabb, who plays Marley for the first half of the run, dons a fright wig and tattered suit bound with rag-strewn chains extending dramatically up into the balcony. And, as the Ghost of Christmas Present, Stephen Weingartner’s elaborately-festooned robe adorned with a Thanksgiving feast’s worth of fruit, autumn leaves, and even a miniature pumpkin, looks more like a mechanical set piece when he rolls in than merely a textile from the costume department.

These are looks that make a statement in a production that unabashedly prides itself on its colorful pageantry. But you can’t act the costumes. Without a deeper dive into the soul of the characters you end up with a perfectly nice, generally adequate telling of the story; layers and layers of fluff but nothing underneath. To be unmoved by A Christmas Carol is disappointing indeed.

Geoff Elliott and Deborah Strang

It’s up to narrator Frederick Stuart (better known to ANW audiences as Freddy Douglas) to inject a sense of warmth in the tale, which he does with sincerity and a knowing twinkle in his eye. His short preludes to the five scenes are pleasing additions that successfully draw the audience in.

Add some shadowy Victorian touches in the scenic and lighting designs by Jeanine A. Ringer and Ken Booth, respectively, to go with those wonderful costumes by Angela Balogh Calin and the pictures play like scene capsules sprung from the pages of a Dickensian pop-up book.

Still, even if some of the performances get glossed over, the moment Scrooge shows up at his nephew’s (Rafael Goldstein) door and says, “Will you let me in, Fred?” don’t be surprised if you feel a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye. Reconciliation restores the hardest of hearts, especially at Christmas time.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL
December 1 - 23, 2017
A Noise Within
3352 East Foothill Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91107
www.ANoiseWithin.org

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Monday, December 4, 2017

Review: The Wallis Searches for THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD

L-R: Christina Bennett Lind and Luke Forbes in Vesturport and The Wallis’
The Heart of Robin Hood. All photos by Kevin Parry for The Wallis

This year for the holidays, The Wallis has traded its typical musical theatre fare (Into the Woods/2014, Guys & Dolls/2015, Merrily We Roll Along/2016) for something a little less traditional but even more imaginative and fun - Vesturport Theatre’s The Heart of Robin Hood by playwright David Farr.

Directed by Gisli Örn Gardarsson and Selma Björnsdóttir, it does contain music (beautiful songs by Icelandic pop star Salka Sól) but the hybrid production also incorporates elements like aerial and floor acrobatics and a unique floor-to-ceiling forest wall that allows the actors to slide in and traverse its trap doors and crevices like they’re on a crazy obstacle course. The heightened physicality adds a playfulness to the piece and the athleticism of its sword fights and combat scenes lend a rousing intensity. Deaths are grisly, romance is a given, and an underlying earthiness characterizes the passions that arise throughout.

Heart is a twist on the tale of Robin Hood (Luke Forbes) going back to the days before he stole from the rich and gave to the poor when he and his merry men were merely self-centered thieves. The dour ruffian refuses to let women into his band with the explanation, “A woman causes tempests in the heart of a man.” While we never find out exactly what prompts him to adopt the rule, we know he will have a change of heart by the end of the tale, and that change will be inspired by a woman.

Christina Bennett Lind

The woman is Lady Marion (Christina Bennett Lind), the willful, independent daughter of the Duke of York (Ian Merrigan) who, to escape her impending marriage to the villainous Prince John (Eirik del Barco Soleglad), flees to the forest. Disguised as a boy and inspired by a disastrous earlier meeting with Robin, she decides to form her own gang of thieves. But unlike Robin’s marauding band of bare-chested brawlers, her mission is selfless. She distributes her spoils to those in need and quickly becomes the beloved champion of the downtrodden. When Robin finds out this new “Martin of Sherwood” is encroaching on his territory, he furiously vows to kill him.

Farr (whose 2016 mini-series The Night Manager was a huge hit with television audiences) first directed his play at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011. His nods to Shakespeare are unmistakable and those who know the canon will find many parallels. Marion’s journey mirrors that of Rosalind’s in As You Like It. She is accompanied by her fool, Pierre (Daniel Franzese), an effeminate and comical twist on Touchstone, and in her guise as Martin, must hide her attraction to Robin in a Rosalind/Orlando rip-off.

Borrowing from The Taming of the Shrew, Marion’s relationship with younger sister Alice (Sarah Hunt) has much in common with Kate and Bianca (although Alice is the shrewish one of this pair). If you know Twelfth Night, you’ll hear a callback to Malvolio’s last declaration in Prince John’s final words and, like all typical Shakespearean comedies, it ends in a wedding.

The style is broad and rife with innuendo. Forbes and Lind spar both verbally and at opposite ends of a blade, causing sparks to fly on more than one level. He’s stubborn, she’s even more headstrong, and the hoops they end up jumping through on their way to a happy ending will give you the warm and fuzzy glow every hopeless romantic longs for by the time they lift off into the air in a final aerial pas de deux.

The cast of The Heart of Robin Hood

The score is a series of songs performed between scenes by Sól and her four musicians that capture the essence of what is about to happen on stage. The lovely singer has the kind of indie voice you can listen to all day and, as the action intensifies, so does her song style. In the early scenes, melodies meander with a folk lilt and quirky, winsome charm before giving way to a more insistent rap style. Lyrics can be difficult to understand so pay close attention.

Brian Hsieh’s graceful soundscape evokes the stealth and joy of the forest in all its cycles. It is almost imperceptible at times but the way it effortlessly enhances the tone of a scene is quite beautiful. Scenic designer Börkur Jónsson’s set makes its grand entrance the minute you walk into the theater and is enough to take your breath away at the sheer amount of lush greenery that fills the stage. It transforms under Ken Billington & Ed McCarthy’s richly dramatic lighting in surprising ways.

The Wallis never does anything halfway and with The Heart of Robin Hood they have taken another bold step forward in presenting first-rate live entertainment. This is a fairy tale with grit, sophistication, and the kind of devilish creativity a modern audience can go crazy over. (And it doesn’t hurt that you’ll find a rogue for every taste among the splendid cast).

THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD
Nov 29 – Dec 17, 2017
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA  90210
Tickets: www.thewallis.org

L-R: Jeremy Crawford, Luke Forbes, Sam Meader, and Daniel Franzese

The cast of The Heart of Robin Hood

L-R: Luke Forbes, Kasey Mahaffy, Christina Bennett Lind, Jeremy Crawford, and Sam Meader

Luke Forbes

Salka Sol

L-R: Kasey Mahaffy, Luke Forbes, Eirik del Barco Soleglad and Sam Meader

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Review: Tyne Daly Deals with Loss in CHASING MEM'RIES: A Different Kind of Musical

Tyne Daly. All photos by Chris Whitaker

The title of Joshua Ravetch’s new play Chasing Mem’ries: A Different Kind of Musical is misleading. It really isn’t a musical at all, though it does contain half a dozen songs written by lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman. Their collaborations with composers like Marvin Hamlisch, Johnny Mandel, and Michel Legrand produced some of the most well-known hits of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and garnered numerous awards throughout their lengthy career.

“The Way We Were,” “Where Do You Start” and “Little Boy Lost,” are three such songs, all of which can be found in Ravetch’s latest work, now on stage at the Geffen Playhouse. But as beautiful as these wistful ballads are they, and the rest of the songs included in the piece, all have the same tone, tempo, and nostalgic longing within them, and that’s problematic.

Rather than functioning in a storytelling capacity, they become resting points for Victoria (Tyne Daly) as she processes the pain of losing her husband of 57 years by triggering memories of long ago. Or, they linger as underscoring, which makes the piece feel even more like it’s trying to manipulate the audience’s emotional response. In both cases, the play languishes under the weight of its protracted sentimentality.

Essentially, Chasing Mem’ries is a walk down memory lane that takes Victoria through all five stages of grief in the course of 90 minutes. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance each get their due, prompted by conversations with her son Mason (Scott Kradolfer) and dead husband Franklin (Robert Forster) who appears to her in the attic where Ravetch’s play is set.

Victoria won’t go downstairs to the memorial service happening on the lawn because she isn’t ready to let go of him. It’s a foregone conclusion that she will by the end of the play and perhaps that is part of the challenge. We know where this story is going before it even gets started, and it doesn’t add anything new to the conversation about grief we haven’t heard before.

Daly’s consummate skill as an actress is, of course, the reason to see this production and she doesn’t disappoint. She wrings every ounce of nuance possible out of the opinionated, wise-cracking widow’s dialogue but the play still can’t shake its own sentimental death grip.

Tyne Daly and Robert Forster

Tony Fanning’s set design is a gorgeous cutaway attic stuffed with forgotten items representing a life well-lived, complete with autumn leaves trailing across the shingled roof. It’s beautiful but it makes for challenging traffic patterns, and there are times Ravetch’s staging in the cramped space is restrictive and repetitive. That may be intentional but critical moments end up feeling contrived.

Watching Victoria and Franklin dance with their hands hovering inches away from each other, not touching, is odd. We know he isn’t really there but she would be able to feel him in the intimacy of the moment, particularly since this is in her mind. Its puzzling rather than poignant because, if she couldnt feel him, that would certainly be a source of frustration.

Scott Kradolfer and Tyne Daly

For those who have lost a loved one, Chasing Memries may conjure up memories of their own, making Victorias journey a cathartic one. Without that connection, the play is nothing more than an old-fashioned love letter to days gone by.

CHASING MEM’RIES: A Different Kind of Musical
November 7 - December 17, 2017 
Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024
Tickets: 310-208-6500 or www.geffenplayhouse.org

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Friday, November 17, 2017

Review: Hamilton Who? SPAMILTON Reigns Supreme at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

L-R: Zakiya Young, Wilkie Ferguson III, William Cooper Howell, John Devereaux and
Dedrick A Bonner. All photos by Craig Schwartz

For the last 25 years, Gerardo Alessandrini has paid homage to the Great American Musical in the best way he knows how, by skewering it relentlessly. It is an arena where nothing is off limits - no diva, no composer, and no quirk of the genre, which is why his Forbidden Broadway revues are as beloved as any book musical to grace the Great White Way.

Musical lovers love their musicals, but they’re also quick to tell you what they hate. And what they hate, they love to make fun of. Therein lies the secret to Alessandrini’s success. For every fan of Les Mis who longs for the return of the turntable, there is another who secretly hopes the whole overblown affair will finally die in the wings.

Now, the biggest game-changer since Rodgers and Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber, or Stephen Sondheim came on the scene, has given him fodder for a new installment in his popular franchise - Lin-Manuel Miranda and his multi-Tony Award-winning mega-hit, Hamilton: An American Musical. Reinvented as Spamilton: An American Parody, Alessandrini takes a giant leap forward in the way he spoofs Hamilton’s entire epic saga. The result is a buoyant thrill ride of hilarity that never lets up.

In a happy coincidence, both productions are currently running in LA, one in Culver City and the other in Hollywood. I happened to see them both for the first time within a week of each other, which only made it more obvious how remarkable each is in its own right.

L-R: Wilkie Ferguson III, John Devereaux, William Cooper Howell,
Zakiya Young and Dedrick A. Bonner

Without a doubt, Hamilton is the wave of the future, representing a Broadway that is inclusive, forward thinking, open to reinterpretation, and rich in musical forms that draw as much from popular styles as they do traditional ones. It is a masterful work, monumentally important at every level.

The story, ripped from the pages of American history and told by a multiculturally diverse cast using hip-hop as its basis, was unlike anything Broadway had ever seen or knew it wanted (although In the Heights already proved Miranda was on to something). It’s no wonder it took over the musical theatre world like a speeding train.

Both Hamilton and Spamilton are written to entertain, and both are smart, complex, and exciting works. But where Hamilton reinvents the genre itself and opens up conversations of many kinds, Spamilton’s goal is much simpler. Its singular reason for existing is to make you laugh, and because it sees everything about the Hamilton phenomenon as fair game, it takes its jabs wherever it pleases.

Song by song, Spamilton deconstructs its object of affection and reinvents it, beginning with the iconic opening number “Alexander Hamilton,” which now sends up “Lin-Manuel as Hamilton” and turns “His Shot” into a crusade wherein he declares he is “not going to let Broadway rot.”

Charismatic William Cooper Howell nails Miranda’s style and attitude with a knowing smile that never lets us forget he isn’t taking anything too seriously. That’s Wilkie Ferguson III’s role, channeling (beautifully) original cast member Leslie Odom Jr.’s intensity and competitive spirit as Aaron Burr.

John Devereaux, in the Daveed Diggs roles of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette, turns the crowd-pleasing “What Did I Miss” into a bouncy “What Did You Miss,” poking fun at how fast Miranda’s lyrics go by. He also goes old school rap in a mash-up of “Guns and Ships” and Will Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song, now rewritten as “The Fresh Prince of Big Hair.” You get the idea.

Zakiya Young handles all three Schuyler sisters as originally played by Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones, with the help of two Avenue Q-style puppets. Young has an impressive ability to change her vocal sound to match whichever character she is channeling, including heavy hitters like Audra McDonald and J-Lo, who also make appearances in the show. Miranda writes the personality of each sister into the way she sings her own name in Hamilton and it is particularly fun to hear how Young interprets those differences.

L-R: Wilkie Ferguson III, Zakiya Young and Dedrick A. Bonner

Glenn Bassett returns to play wacky King George, the role he originated Off-Broadway in a twist that finds the character pouting over the lack of gays on Broadway now that Hamilton has straightened things up. During the song, he invites the audience to sing a chorus along with him consisting of a single word, “gay, gay, gay, gay gay” and the absurdity of that moment brings home Alessandrino’s ability to cut right to the heart of the zinger.

The Sondheim section gives Dedrick A. Bonner the spotlight as a Yoda-Ben Franklin who counsels Howell with wise words from Into the Woods, and later on, as the single biggest sight gag in the show. It is an automatic hold for laughs and traditional musical lovers will eat it up when they see it.

In addition to the Hamilton parodies, the show also pays tribute to a host of other musical theatre gems in rapid-fire mentions. The King and I, Sunset Boulevard, Wicked, Gypsy, Assassins, Aladdin, and West Side Story are only a few of the many slipped in that speed by so quickly you’ll need to pay attention or you’ll miss them.

The Beggar Woman (Susanne Blakeslee) from Sweeney Todd gets a running gag based on the high cost of Hamilton tickets but it is one of the few jokes that doesn’t gather much steam. Appearances by Liza Minelli and Barbra Streisand, though expertly recreated by Blakeslee, also don’t organically fit this new incarnation of parody musical as they have in past Forbidden Broadways. Here they feel more like filler and the show just doesn’t need it.

Alessandrino’s stripped-down staging and Gerry McIntyre’s shorthand version of the original choreography is delivered with precision and boundless energy by the ensemble. Diction, specifics, timing...it’s all there. Musical director James Lent, at the piano, has polished this dime store dream until it shines like Tiffany glass.

A central Spamilton show card serves as the lone backdrop to disguise the vast number of goofy props, eccentric characters, and other surprises that will emerge throughout the performance.

Spamilton was tailor-made for the trivial pursuit-inclined musical theatre lover and for Hamilton fans who can’t get enough. If you fit into either of these categories, this is your show. If you don’t, the cast is so likeable and entertaining you won’t even care if you miss a few jokes. It’s a roller coaster ride with a ticket you can afford and a guaranteed good time to go with it. I couldn’t get enough.

SPAMILTON
Nov 5, 2017 – Jan 7, 2018
Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232
Tickets: (213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

William Cooper Howell

John Devereaux

L-R: Wilkie Ferguson III, John Devereaux and Zakiya Young

Glenn Bassett

Wilkie Ferguson III

William Cooper Howell and Dedrick A. Bonner 

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Monday, November 13, 2017

Review: Open Fist Theatre Company Gets DELEARIOUS on Stage

Ramón Garcia, Ron West, Chris Farah. All photos by Darrett Sanders

Open Fist Theatre Company’s revival of Ron West and Phil Swann’s musical comedy deLEARious has a lot going on. The production contains three storylines in three different time periods twisted together in a fast-paced, boisterous style that was an award-winning hit for the company in 2008. Nine years later, it still packs in more story than you can possibly keep straight but it also offers up plenty of laughs to go along with it.

You’ll need to know the basic plot and characters of Shakespeare’s King Lear before you get there and that King James was Shakespeare’s benefactor after Queen Elizabeth I died. From there, you’re basically in for three hours of rowdy playtime in a fractured fairytale world where Lear gets a happy ending, Shakespeare helps edit the King James Bible, and a modern-day pair of writers attempts to write a musical.

The jokes are hit-and-miss, as are the performances, but the cast plows through with so much enthusiasm that the fun is infectious regardless of the show’s shortcomings. West stars as a loud-mouthed Lear and also directs. He directed the original production as well and there is a nagging sense he is using jokes and staging that got laughs for the cast the first time around. They aren’t always successful here but that may be partly attributed to the way the scenes cut back and forth so quickly the audience doesn’t always have time to catch up.

Some of the punchlines have been updated to include references to things like texting and the Trumps however the contemporary thread of the story never fully steps into 2017. West uses astrology to explain how Elizabethan characters in 1603 could have knowledge of objects that only exist today but it too is a repetitive device, thin at best.

Micah Watterson and Jason Paige

On the flip side, you can never go wrong with a singing villain, and Jason Paige (Edmund the bastard) plays it straight and gets the funny right. He betrays his father, orchestrates the downfall of his brother Edgar (Micah Watterson), and forms alliances with Goneril (Robyn Roth) and Regan (Rachel Addington) all by hiding his true intentions behind a demeanor of comic sincerity. It’s a sly wink that he sings romantic ‘80s power ballads with Roth (a winner as Lear’s ball-busting eldest daughter) and then later morphs into an eccentric Frances Bacon, a character who has a great deal in common with Jerry Lewis’ nutty professor.

Other standout performances include Scott Mosenson as a smooth William Shakespeare and Gina Manziello in a double turn as Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia, and Jasmine, a stripper Ron meets in a bar whose interpretive dance audition is unforgettably over-the-top.

A coterie of actors playing numerous roles adds to the sketch comedy feel of the piece. Among the characters are an effeminate King James (Chase Studinski), a pissed off Anne Hathaway (Lane Allison with a lovely mid-range singing voice), the king’s Fool (Chris Farrah), and a host of other Earls, Scholars, Royals, and Scribes. When everything is firing on all cylinders we get clever scenes like the writers’ room of the Christian Brotherhood, a terrific combination of sitcom writing, smart lyrics, and well-defined characters.

The cast of deLEARious

Swann’s score is full of lusty musical numbers that cover everything from pop to Broadway to the blues, and musical director Jan Roper is the put-upon pianist who’s finally had it with Ron’s childish behavior. Her piano bench throne draped in red velvet is a cheeky touch by scenic designer James Spencer. Spencer frames the stage with cutouts that resemble giant chess pieces leaving an uncluttered playing area for the actors but firmly placing the action in court.

deLEARious is a fun-loving musical comedy whose only goal is to make you laugh. Its kooky characters and good-time appeal easily get the job done.

deLEARious 
November 10 - December 16, 2017
Open Fist Theatre Company
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039
www.openfist.org

Rachel Addington and Robyn Roth

Jason Paige and Scott Mosenson

Gina Manziello and Ramón Garcia 

L-R: Chris Farah, Rachel Addington, Ron West, Scott Mosenson and Robyn Roth

Chase Studinski and cast

Scott Mosenson and Micah Watterson

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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Interview: At Home at the Garry Marshall Theatre with Joseph Leo Bwarie

Theatres have a way of becoming an artist’s second home. It doesn’t matter if you are a director, designer, actor, or volunteer – the countless hours you invest and the close proximity in which you do your work often create friendships that last a lifetime. And each time you step back through those doors you feel like you’re coming home. No one knows this to be true more than Joseph Leo Bwarie, whose current home away from home is the Garry Marshall Theatre in Toluca Lake. Bwarie has been connected with the theatre (known formerly as The Falcon) and the Marshall family for many years, and he recently stepped into a co-artistic directorship of the newly-rechristened theatre, along with another longtime Marshall associate, Dimitri Toscas.

Also on his dance card is directing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which opens later this month. It’s no wonder he’s spending almost every waking minute at the theatre. Joe talks about his relationship with Garry and also about the company’s plans for the new theatre that bears his name below.

Joseph Leo Bwarie

Joe, Forum is a lot of fun but an interesting choice for 2017. Why did you and Dimitri decide to include it in your first season?

All of the shows in our first season speak to Garry in some way but they also center around art and the making of art. This show reflects the very broad comedy side of Garry with punch lines that deserve a rim shot. It is also the production that speaks to the art of “putting on a show.” It’s vaudeville, it’s burlesque. It’s a fun, raucous farce that has great music and lyrics. We are staying true to the essence of the piece but we’ve given the women more of a say and more power. They’re not just beautiful eye candy (and this cast is beautiful – inside and out). One of our designers said it best: “This is not your father’s Forum!” It’s still set in ancient Rome. It’s still the characters we love. They just have more to say. 

Garry loved comedy and he was a funny guy, wasn’t he?

Oh man, he was so funny. He would have given us a lot of pointers on what we could do to be funny with this show. 

I understand he was a bit of a practical joker too.

Garry wanted everything to be fun. He loved it if there was a way to play a practical joke on someone, or to throw a party, or celebrate a birthday, or have a parade, or dress up in a costume, or have a surprise visitor come to the theater or on set. He would always say it’s just a show, it’s just a movie.

If broad comedy is his connection to Forum, how do the rest of the shows in the season fit in?

Master Class and Forum and Occupant and Laughter on the 23rd Floor all speak to different disciplines of art and to exploring the way we experience art, whether it be the high classical form of opera or the broad stroke appeal of vaudeville, the visual art of sculpting or the craft of writing.

Garry was a lover of opera. He worked with Terrence McNally on the screenplay and film adaptation of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and there was a strong connection between the two. They were like family. That’s why we wanted to open the season with Master Class. Also, it was one of Garry’s favorite modern plays, period.

Occupant is about Louise Nevelson, the famous sculptor and outsider who changed the rules of the game – a theme that Garry always championed. And then the most direct tie to Garry is the writers’ room and the art of writing in Laughter on the 23rd Floor. They’re also all shows that break the fourth wall and direct address to the audience, which is a really cool layer for us to add – a true conversation with the audience.

So your whole first season is really an extension of Garry.

It is an extension and even an expansion of what he wanted to do. He loved that people would think of him and think of Happy Days and fun and jokes but he also loved anything that was really dramatic, really artful, and really playing with all the facets of the human condition. You can see that in his films, especially some of the earlier films like Beaches or Pretty Woman or even The Flamingo Kid. Relationships. It’s always relationships.

Speaking of relationships, you’ve known Garry a long time, haven’t you?

Long time, almost twenty years.

You’ve been involved with the family program at the theatre for a long time as well. Is that one of the reasons you’re expanding it now?

We wanted to bring it back in a bigger way. Garry used to always say he wanted something for kids. He wanted something at night that was maybe a little risqué that adults could handle and he wanted something on the weekend afternoons where all ages could come and enjoy a storytelling experience.

It also helps build your audience.

It does, but more importantly, it introduces the new generation to theatre. If we start when they’re young, really young, and they see there are live people telling a story, not a screen, and they like it, they’ll start to want to come. That’s how we want to develop new audience.

What made you decide to say yes to being an artistic director at this time?

I have had the great opportunity of being a performer for so many years and I’ve also had the great opportunity to write and direct and produce and record studio albums and each one of them is actually just an extension of me. Garry would always say to me, you’re not just a performer, you’re not just a singer or an actor. You need to write. You need to produce. You need to direct. If you can do all of it, you need to do all of it. That’s what he did and that’s what he would always say to me.

As for why I said yes to being an artistic director now, that’s easy. I wanted to do this for Garry, I wanted to do this for the Marshall family, and I wanted to do it for the Burbank-Toluca Lake community that grew up in the last twenty years with Garry’s theatre. I wanted to make sure we were setting it up for the next more-than-twenty years. And I thought, well, if I’m going to take a few years of my life to do that, that’s a great investment because it’s not about me, it’s about something much bigger. We’re here because Garry brought us all together and that’s important to a community. It’s fun to be working with Dimitri too because we’re very like-minded and yet we’re very different, so we make a great complementary duo.

How did the partnership come together?

It happened at Joan’s on Third. It came from Kathleen Marshall LaGambina after many discussions she had with her siblings and with her mom. I had told them I would be here for whatever they needed as a consultant or to help point them in the right direction but we had never discussed artistic director. Then, at Joan’s on Third, she said to us (Dimitri and me): I decided I want you two together. You both bring so much to the table and will balance out everything we need to do. Garry respected you both as creative minds.

I think I really understood Garry. I can say that confidently. We worked on many projects in a very collaborative way. I was his associate director on Billy & Ray that we produced at the Falcon and then at the Vineyard Theatre in New York. I learned Garry’s philosophy directly from Garry firsthand. No one had to tell me, well, Garry once said this. I lived it. So we’re keeping that alive.

Paul Vogt (center) and the cast of Forum. Photo by Chelsea Sutton

Forum has been a hit ever since it first opened on Broadway, with Pseudolus being a Tony Award-winning role for Zero Mostel in 1963, Phil Silvers in 1972, and Nathan Lane in 1995. Now funny man Paul Vogt is taking on the role. Was casting him a no-brainer?

It didn’t even cross my mind that there were other people for the role because I knew he could jump in and be everything this part requires and then bring so much more freshness to it. He constantly makes me laugh. They all do. Paul is supported by a great cast, and figuring out how it all fits together in the rehearsal process with the whole company is exciting. We’re not trying to be other productions. We’re retooling what the show is for our specific space and this specific year with these specific actors.

Is yours a traditional staging and design?

I think what we’re presenting is a deconstructed and then reconstructed Roman cityscape. All of our designers agreed they didn’t want to create a cartoon. Funny doesn’t need to be shown in a cartoon. We wanted to give the actors the funny, not dress them as funny, and it will evolve as we get further into rehearsals. The sets are being installed right now, the costumes are being fitted as we speak, there are so many layers that are still going to be surprises for all of us and we will continue tweaking until the show opens.

There is nothing like exploring a show like this in rehearsals.

It’s great. We get to walk different lines. We get to say, okay this moment here, this is vaudeville ha-cha-cha, and this moment over here is like a subtle take we might see in a TV show, and this right over here takes the show somewhere totally unexpected. We get to play with all of that.

Director Joe Bwarie and the cast in rehearsal

It sounds like a fun way to lead into the holidays.

It’s a perfect show for the holiday season. It’s so fun.

So even though the Troubies aren’t part of your first season it’s still ‘comedy tonight’ at the Garry Marshall Theatre.

Absolutely. The way everything rolled out has been beautiful for everyone. Garry himself often said, “Matt [Walker], you need to take the show somewhere bigger. You need to do a show in a bigger venue. It needs to grow and go and move on.” But how are you going to move on from this great little place, right? We’re starting something new and we have to give the “new” some attention while we work on finding new ways of collaborating with the many talented companies who were part of the first chapter.

Does that mean we may see them back at the theatre in the future?

At certain crossroads, there is often a WWGD moment. What would Garry do? From where I stand, I see future collaborations with my friends and I see great opportunity for growth. I know change is sometimes perplexing to people because it seems to mean something went wrong. Change doesn’t mean anything went wrong. Change is change. I’ll be honest, it’s been a really emotional journey to embark on building a brand new legacy theatre honoring an epic visionary man. Taking down the Falcon sign letters and making way for the next leg of the journey has been more emotional for those of us who are on the inside perhaps than it is to the public. Nothing has happened without great consideration and great thought. 

And, as you expand, youll keep coming up with new ideas.

It’s going to be a work in progress, as theatre always is. In the past we would not have done Master Class at this venue. It is sort of fascinating to watch the new programming. We had Norman Lear here last month to do our first Modern Masters series. We had the second screening of the Garry Marshall Movies at the Marshall series. We launched the Storybook Pages Saturday morning kids program, which isn’t even the full productions for families yet. We had a Caldecott Award-winning artist (Marla Frazee) here and it was beautiful. The kids got to ask her questions. Barbara said, “This is why Garry built this place.” So our family programming is opening up many avenues for kids to come and experience what a theatre is.

How does Wood Boy Dog Fish fit into the season?

Oh man, that is one awesome show. Carrying on that idea of different disciplines of art, this goes into that idea of the physical maneuvering of art live on stage. It has puppetry and original music and it is very story driven. It’s also a collaboration with another theatre company, which is something we’d like to do more of. We want to collaborate with all sorts of theatre companies – Rogue Artists Ensemble, Troubadour, whoever wants to explore a new idea or has a story that should be told. 

What else do you have in the works?

We have our first annual Founders Gala on November 13th. This is the first time we’ll host a gala because it’s the first year we’ve been a non-profit. We’re also doing a New Works Festival for new plays next spring that is open for submissions now. This is an idea that goes back to when the Falcon first arrived in 1997. There are so many talented creative people in Los Angeles who have not had a chance to have their work put up in front of an audience. We’re excited about bringing new material to the space, and we’re also looking forward to putting a new perspective on great existing material.

We can’t wait to see what’s next. Even theatre as an art form evolves and adapts over time.

It does. And the neighborhood is changing too. The streets, Riverside Drive, the restaurants, different types of families are leaving the neighborhood and new families are joining the neighborhood. It’s an evolution and we want to be part of that. I do know the other reality is, like any museum or restaurant, anyplace that offers a lot of different things that fit in that building, you’re going to like some things and you’re not going to like others but that’s the beauty of it. It’s all art. You’ll love some of it and, what you don’t, you’ll talk about and figure out why you don’t love it.

Hector Elizondo sat down with me and he said, the best theatre makes you feel uncomfortable because you end up having to figure out why you felt something. That feeling is what art is supposed to do. There is great entertainment where you just laugh, laugh, laugh and it’s fun. But really, the idea that you can sit in a room with a bunch of strangers and all have different feelings at the same time is what theatre is. 

There is a special kind of joy that comes from creating theatre.

It is a joy. It was Garry’s passion. You know, he built this theatre from the ground up. A person would have to be fully committed to spend that kind of money and choose that kind of structure to build, and he did that. He was so passionate about it that he basically funded it his entire life. Now, in this new incarnation, it has become our passion project. I mean, I’m living here. I’m here twelve or more hours a day.

But as a home away from home, it’s a pretty good place to be isn’t it?

It’s so great, and honestly when people say, don’t you want to go do a Broadway show I say, yes I do, but not now. I also say that what I’m doing here is equally as important and has as much, if not more, of an impact on my life as performing. This is home.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs Nov. 17 – Dec. 31, 2017 at the Garry Marshall Theatre in Toluca Lake. Tickets are on sale now at www.garrymarshalltheatre.org.

More from rehearsals of Forum
Photo credit: Michaelyn Straub











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