Thursday, September 20, 2018

Review: Ammo Theatre's FAIRY TALE THEATRE 18 & OVER is Comedy with a Kick

Michael J. Feldman (center) with Sheila Carrasco, Greg Worswick,
Burl Moseley, and Tina Huang. All photos by Jeff Lorch

Ammunition Theatre Company ventures into the wacky world of fractured fairy tales for its latest production, Fairy Tale Theatre 18 & Over: The Musical. Written and narrated by Michael J. Feldman, with original songs by Jason Currie, the show consists of four sketch comedy skits performed in 90 minutes, no intermission, by a group of energetic actors with mostly stand-up and television backgrounds.

Singing ability is mixed but the performances are really a showcase for Feldman’s episodic writing and the quirky characters he’s created. What sets them apart from other fairy tale parodies is the playful way he addresses contemporary issues like gender stereotypes, unrequited love, and our obsession with celebrities. Annie McVey, who has directed all of Feldman’s previous installments of Fairy Tale Theatre, once again brings her eye for keeping it real to this current iteration of the series.

L-R: Sheila Carrasco, Greg Worswick, Burl Moseley, Cloie Wyatt Taylor,
 Jess McKay, and Michael J Feldman

Two of the best sketches are The Tale of Lucky the Service Dog and The Tale of the Lonely Star. In the former, Feldman transfers the polarizing topic of white privilege to dogs, specifically to those who enjoy “vest privilege” as service dogs and to those who do not. By recreating the prejudices and lack of consideration found in humans, but applying them to our canine friends, he is able to deliver the message that, “Just being aware of your privilege isn’t good enough,” in a story that audiences can laugh at but still get the point.

In the latter, a lonely star in the sky looks to connect with others to feel less alone. He encounters many groups during his search, each with its own requirements for being part of the gang. In one, all you have to do is “accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” In another, the emphasis is on being physically fit. In yet another, it’s all about the dysfunctional family unit, and Feldman - quite literally - blows it apart. “Can’t we all just believe what we want to believe and get along with each other,” he asks as the journey becomes more complicated than he ever thought it could be.

This piece also skewers social media and how living our lives through a series of selfies and carefully curated Instagram posts does everything but make a real connection. Think of it as a kind of existential comedy with a goofy cosmic edge, goofy being the operative word.

Greg Worswick (center) with Sheila Carrasco, Cloie Wyatt Taylor, and Burl Moseley

Stephen Rowan’s costumes are a dream, created on what can only have been a shoestring budget. It’s hard to pick a favorite from among the silliness but some of the standouts include Greg Worswick’s Unicorn garb (perfect for Greg’s way-out-of-left-field performance), Tina Huang as a melting glacier, all of the dogs, and Michael Feldman’s Blue Star. It’s also uncanny how dressing up Sheila Carrasco as a Silent P or a fish highlights how much she resembles Troubie company member Beth Kennedy. They even make the same crazy faces. Somebody please write the story that puts them in the same show together. Please. It would be comedy gold.

All of the cast members take their turn in the spotlight and music theatre lovers will be happy to hear references to the Stephens - Sondheim and Schwartz - in a couple of numbers. It’s a lively 90 minutes with an appealing group of funsters who go for it every time they step onstage. More than anything, Fairy Tale Theatre is an escape. And that’s something we all need now and again, along with a reminder to check our assumptions at the door and get over ourselves.

FAIRY TALE THEATRE 18 & OVER: THE MUSICAL
September 14 - October 7, 2018
Ammunition Theatre Company at The Pico
10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90064
Tickets and info: (323) 628-1622 or AmmunitionTheatre.com
Ticket Link

L-R: Matt Cook, Jason Rogel, Jess McKay, and Tina Huang

Jess McKay, with an amazing Eskimo puppet, and Tina Huang

The Cast of Fairy Tale Theatre 18 and Over: The Musical - and yes, it is

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review: Color and Light Theatre Ensemble's LIZZIE is Rage Rock at its Finest

L-R: Jenni Marie Lopez, Brooke Van Grinsven, Leslie Rubino and Samantha
LaBrecque. All photos by Corwin Evans

How much rage would a person need to feel to kill two people with 29 whacks of an axe? The short answer is, a lot. That’s the number Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby actually sustained in 1892 - not the 81 immortalized in this haunting nursery rhyme.

“Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks;
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.”

To this day, no one knows who committed the murders although Andrew’s youngest daughter, Lizzie, has always been guilty in the court of public opinion. She was acquitted at trial but rumors followed her to her grave. What we do know is that a crime of passion enacted with this much violence can only mean there is more to the story.

LIZZIE, by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner, draws its own conclusions about what might have fueled Lizzie Borden’s rage to the point of committing murder, and Color & Light Theatre Ensemble brings that rage to the forefront in a ballsy 90-minute musical character study that is part throat-ripping rock concert, part riveting theatre invention. This is rage rock at its finest and the four women who tell the story have the vocal ability and acting intensity to deliver a moving tale with unrelenting ferocity.

Jenni Marie Lopez and Leslie Rubino

Revelations of incest, a forbidden lesbian love affair, and a stepmother with no love for her husband’s children make up the bones of the piece. Director Joanna Syiek’s minimalist staging shows a wicked sense of humor and an ability to create visuals that are streamlined but set to stun.

Poisonous steam billows from an innocent tea cup, a tangle of dead pigeons cling to a bloodstained sheet, and the meaty flesh of two watermelons makes an enactment of the murders as deliciously spoof-worthy as it is sobering.

An act break would have come in handy at this climactic moment to help facilitate the tonal shift (and ensuing cleanup). As presented, the current version of the piece is done without an intermission. I’m not certain that’s the right choice.

Leslie Rubino

At the center of this macabre universe is an explosive Leslie Rubino who plays Lizzie. Slight of stature and sporting a punk pompadour with a blood red streak, as if to presage later events, we see both her vulnerability and the rage that erupts when the weight of betrayal finally cracks her open. It is a charismatic high-voltage performance, the kind that matters when you consider that stories about sexual abuse and men attempting to suppress a woman’s voice are still staples of the modern daily news cycle.

In her orbit are three equally fierce women: older sister, Emma (Brooke Van Grinsven); next door neighbor and Lizzie’s eventual lover, Alice (Jenni Marie Lopez); and Bridget, the Borden’s cheeky Irish maid (Samantha LaBreque). Van Grinsven attacks her role with the intensity of a bomb going off and never lets up. Lopez lends balance to the driving assault on your senses in softer scenes with Lizzie but lets it rip when the emotional angst of a number requires her to grind it out. LaBrecque is an amusing addition to the foursome playing a servant with a mind of her own. She’s smarter than she lets on and her face is a running commentary on what is really happening at any given moment.

L-R: Brooke Van Grinsven, Leslie Rubino and Samantha LaBrecque

The venue is Resident LA, a club in the DTLA arts district, which adds to the rock concert feel of the evening. It’s the right place with the right atmosphere and it also means the band, led by musical director Jennifer Lin, makes as powerful a statement as the characters. There are only four of them - Lin on keys, Johanna Chase on bass, Carlos Flores on guitar and Nicole Marcus on drums but they sound like they’re opening up the gates of hell. Besides, who doesn’t love seeing a girl drummer?

Of course, the sound is loud but I appreciated how well the sound team (Corwin Evans-sound design, Eric Huff-sound engineer, James Graham & Kyle Ormiston-sound mix & tech) created a balance that made it still possible to understand the lyrics. That’s incredibly important because the production is sung-through and those songs tell the story.

Tyler Ledon’s lighting is dramatic and quite saturated. Costumes by Samantha Teplitz do more than simply set the period. They reflect a great deal about each character. For example, Emma is cinched in so tightly at the waist that it seems she’ll burst at any moment from the pent-up rage within her, and Lizzie starts the show in demure black and white but a flash of her tights foreshadows a future Lizzie you know won’t be content to live by the constraints of Victorian repression.

As the costumes slowly transform to contemporary rock-inspired looks, the show also begins to transcend time and place and connect the sins of the past with the sins of the present. It may be subtext but we can hear it loud and clear. We’re pissed as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.

All of it adds up to a production that doesn’t compromise its message or back off in the way it delivers it. It’s an altogether gripping experience.

LIZZIE
September 14-29, 2018
Color and Light Theatre Ensemble @ Resident LA
428 S. Hewitt St., Los Angeles, CA 90013
Tickets and info: www.lizzielosangeles.com
For more info about Resident: Residentdtla.com


Brooke Van Grinsven and Samantha LaBrecque

Leslie Rubino and Samantha LaBrecque

Jenni Marie Lopez and Leslie Rubino

Jenni Marie Lopez, Leslie Rubino and Brooke Van Grinsven

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Friday, September 7, 2018

Review: THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND Kander and Ebb Style for Reprise 2.0

L-R: Dawnn Lewis, Michael Starr, Kelley Dorney, Larry Cedar and Valerie Perri

Somewhere between its opening of
Sweet Charity in late June and the end of July, Reprise 2.0 postponed its second scheduled production of its inaugural season, Victor/Victoria. In its place, the company has mounted a revival of Kander & Ebb’s musical revue, The World Goes ‘Round, and, while it isn’t a rarely revived book musical, which has always been Reprise’s focus in the past, it does contain a score derived from some of the best songs in the classic Kander & Ebb catalogue (think Chicago and Cabaret).

Director Richard Israel sets the revue in a chic upscale nightclub where five singers decked out in evening wear reflect on life and love in the familiar cabaret style. Backing them, and placed on stage in full view, are musical director Gerald Sternbach and his 7-piece all-male orchestra. It’s a rare opportunity to watch the musicians in action along with the singers, and a hallmark of Reprise’s singular style.

Israel’s production is impressively sleek, with comedy in the movement, courtesy of his and choreographer John Todd’s creative tongue-in-cheek approach, and a winning cast of five distinct personalities: Dawnn Lewis, Valerie Perri, Larry Cedar, Kelley Dorney, and Michael Starr. Todd does a nice job of adding choreography for “singers who move” plus a couple of specialties for those with a little more dance training, but the big focus is on the singing.

Valerie Perri

Each cast member brings a unique quality to the show, with Lewis and Perri as the doyennes of the group commiserating about the deterioration of morals and manners in the entertaining duet “Class” from Chicago and acknowledging their individual longings in emotionally-rich solos. Lewis uses a hard brassy belt on the opening title song “And the World Goes ‘Round” from New York, New York and an even stronger power belt on “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret to convey her determined resilience, while Perri loses herself in the poignant and fragile memories of “Isn’t This Better” from Funny Lady and The Rink’s “Colored Lights.”

That particular number shows off a gorgeous lighting effect by Jared A. Sayeg in which colored lights are sprayed across the stage ending with a pink spotlight on Perri and a brilliant rainbow of colors suspended over her. It’s one of a number of breathtaking effects Sayeg creates where lighting takes on the function of a living, breathing character in its own right but he never overplays it.

In lesser hands, the lighting for a song like the title number from Kiss of the Spider Woman would most likely replicate a spider web but instead Sayeg only suggests it. He uses a geometric pattern that doesn’t hit you over the head but still effectively adds a mysterious vibe to the song. It’s elegant and refined work that balances subtlety with front-and-center concepts to create a big impact.

Photo by Ellen Dostal

His lighting also makes scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s sophisticated nightclub set look expensive. Ornate openwork wood panels hang above the orchestra, which is positioned on an elevated platform behind the singers and framed with a warm cutout railing. The wall-to-wall stairs and floorshow area in front of it are where the singers strut their stuff.

When not performing, cast members watch the show while seated at one of two cocktail tables on either side of the stage, along with the audience. The illusion is of an intimate setting that opens up to sustain the larger emotional worlds contained in the music with only a change in Sayeg’s lighting. As a team, Gifford and Sayeg are hard to beat. If there was such a thing as the “Dynamic Duo” of Design, they’d be breaking out their superhero capes on a regular basis and saving visual atrocities on stages from Gotham to the City of Angels nightly.

An energetic Dorney is most effective when she plays it simple, as she does for her best song of the night, “A Quiet Thing” from Flora, The Red Menace. Starr’s high notes are a stretch but it almost doesn’t matter. He’s the bare-chested beefcake that makes Perri’s life worth living in “Arthur in the Afternoon” from The Act, a little-known star vehicle Kander & Ebb wrote for Liza Minelli that won her a Tony Award. It’s unlikely you’ll remember anything else he’s done in the show after he takes his shirt off but that, of course, is the point.

Cedar’s easy manner as a singer (and yes, dancer) is beautifully understated, which makes a pleasing contrast to the belting and fast-paced attack in many of the other songs. His love song to pastries - “Sara Lee,” also from The Act - is priceless. In “We Can Make It” from The Rink, he plays it smooth and lets the lyricism of the song inspire the audience. And, in his most recognizable solo - “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago - he again uses his natural charm to gain empathy without turning the song into a big presentational number.

The cast of The World Goes 'Round

Five soloists with five different vocal styles means the blend doesn’t always gel when they sing together but it is the solos and small numbers that make the show memorable and, in their own corners, each artist excels.

It’s also great to hear these lesser-known Kander & Ebb songs infused with so much life, since the musicals themselves aren’t often produced. Perhaps there is a New York, New York, Funny Lady or Woman of the Year waiting in the wings to be produced on the west coast at some point. For now, Reprise’s The World Goes ‘Round is as close as you’ll get to hearing the songs that made Kander & Ebb famous in a theatrical setting.

The World Goes ‘Round is conceived by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman, and David Thompson, and presented by Reprise 2.0 in association with the UCLA TFT Department of Theater.

Dawnn Lewis



THE WORLD GOES ‘ROUND

September 5 - 16, 2018
Reprise 2.0 at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse
UCLA - North Campus
245 Charles E. Young E Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90095
Tickets and info: 800-982-2787 or www.Reprise2.org
Photo credit: Michael Lamont

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Monday, August 6, 2018

Review: WAITRESS Bakes Up Slices of Life in a Pie Tin and Changes Lives in the Process

Charity Angél Dawson, Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman.
All photos by Joan Marcus

Can eating a pie be a religious experience? It can if it was made by Jenna, the diner waitress in the Broadway musical Waitress, who turns ordinary ingredients like butter, sugar, and flour into mouthwatering slices of life in a pie tin.


Her magical creations run the gamut from Deep (Shit) Dish Blueberry Bacon Pie and Mermaid Marshmallow Pie, to Lonely Chicago Pie and I Can’t Have No Affair Because It’s Wrong and I Don’t Want Earl to Kill Me Pie. Each one encapsulates an incident ripped from the headlines of real life and together they create the backbone of this heartwarming story of female empowerment.

The musical was inspired by the 2007 indie film starring Keri Russell as Jenna, the pie baker stuck in an abusive marriage who finds the courage to reach for something better, along with Cheryl Hines and Adrienne Shelly (who also wrote and directed the film). It opened on Broadway in March of 2016, where it is still enjoying great success, and its national tour - a quietly radiant production - is now playing at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through August 26th. An Australian tour is planned for 2020. There’s no denying this brand of sugar is a popular commodity.

The story mirrors that of the film and a great deal of the dialogue is incorporated into the stage adaptation by bookwriter Jessie Nelson, who has a gift for writing dialogue that actually sounds like the characters. Nelson retains the film’s folksy charm but adds more comedy and a few new personal details with amusing payoffs.

Lenne Klingaman, Desi Oakley, and Charity Angél Dawson

For instance, Jenna’s new gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart) is “off sugar” when he meets Jenna (Desi Oakley) during her first pre-natal visit, a character trait I don’t think he had in the movie (or if he did it wasn’t nearly this comical), but it fits his quirkier stage personality and sets up a clash between them from the start. He’s no match for Jenna’s baking, however, and one taste of her pie has him eating out of her hand...and forgetting about his sugar-free diet.

Of course, their attraction comes with complications. They’re both married - he to a doctor doing her residency in Jenna’s town, she to a disagreeable husband, Earl (Nick Bailey), whose obsessive behavior has choked the joy right out of her life. It isn’t long before a secret romance begins.

The musical builds on the film’s inherent eccentricities and delivers its message with warmth, honesty, and a heaping helping of heart. Much of its sensitivity can be attributed to pop songstress and storyteller Sarah Bareilles (“Love Song,” “Brave”) who wrote the score for the show. Her soulful sound and open-hearted lyrics are an alluring combination that helps create characters who sing what they think in individual musical styles that match their unique personalities.

Oakley, who plays Jenna, has a voice as sweet and rich as Bareilles herself and is the emotional center of the show. Jenna’s journey from the resigned acceptance of a “happy enough” life to a renewed desire for real happiness is a heartfelt one and Oakley has the depth, likeability, and dry wit to make you want to come along with her. She is dubbed the “Queen of kindness and goodness” by her friend and fellow Waitress, Dawn (Lenne Klingaman), a fitting title for the woman whose pie keeps bringing people together and Oakley wears it as comfortably as a second skin. Each of her songs is a knockout but her eleven o’clock number “She Used to Be Mine” is the best of the best. Oakley sings a lifetime into four and a half minutes that will alternately break your heart, lift you up, and echo your own inner longings.

Klingaman’s Dawn is a socially awkward, self-deprecating single girl who Jenna and Becky (Charity Angél Dawson) finally convince to try online dating. Her five minute date is a bust but Ogie (a wacky, overly-caffeinated Jeremy Morse) knows they were meant for each other and shows up the next morning with flowers and a declaration of love.

Lenne Klingaman and Jeremy Morse

Never has an actor earned a reprise with more panache than Morse does with his over-the-top “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.” Klingaman is hard-put to resist him when she finds out he has done even more Revolutionary War reenactments as Paul Revere than she has as Betsy Ross. Watching these two misfits fall in love on stage is geeky to the core and wonderfully sweet.

Dawson is also blessed with great pipes and a don’t-mess-with-me attitude as Becky. She’s an R&B belter who can grind out the high notes and throw a mean side eye with enough sass to check you when you least expect it. Becky is married (it’s complicated) but is secretly carrying on with Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), the short order cook at the diner. When she sings “I Didn’t Plan It” we see how life has thrown each of the characters in Waitress a curve and we come to understand that the true beauty of living is in how we manage its messiness.

Director Diane Paulus and choreographer Lorin Latarro work this idea into the fabric of the show. Scenes, and scenes within scenes, blend into each other like a dance as set pieces roll on and off (including the excellent band) in a flurry of coordinated motion. Impulses for movement come from the body itself, often like a heartbeat pulsing softly and sweetly from within. It’s a very fluid style built on externalizing the internal that creates an exquisite expression of the complex emotions people don’t reveal. To see it coordinated flawlessly is quite beautiful. In this ensemble, every single member is important to the overall effect and there are no loose threads among them.

Even Joe, the finicky owner of the diner has his own way of coping with life’s endless annoyances. Larry Marshall captures the spirit of this gruff old curmudgeon who’s secretly hiding a heart of gold, at least where Jenna is concerned. Maiesha McQueen (Nurse Norma) is memorable in her short stage time as the no-nonsense nurse who knows what’s going on and is determined to get some pie of her own out of that knowledge.

Maiesha McQueen, Desi Oakley, and Bryan Fenkart

Vocally, the show sounds terrific. Ryan Cantwell has finessed the material until its nuances shine through with an easy grace. Harmonies, particularly among the main trio of waitresses, are sublime, and will stand out to musicians who love the sound of voices shimmering when they resonate together.

So much ingenuity and heart has gone into the making of Waitress by its all-female creative team, a Broadway first but hopefully not the last, that you’re bound to leave feeling a whole lot better than when you walked into the theater. That’s worth it every time, in my book. And if pie-pop heaven is a thing, I’d say Waitress has taken us there and served up a slice of its finest counter goodness.

WAITRESS
August 2 – 26, 2018
Hollywood Pantages Theatre
6233 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Tickets: www.hollywoodpantages.com

Nick Bailey and Desi Oakley

Desi Oakley and Larry Marshall

Ryan G. Dunkin and the ladies of Waitress

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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review: PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES Will Win You Over Hook, Line, and Sinker

Cori Cable Kidder and Michael Butler Murray. All photos by Gina Long

One thing’s for sure - country musicals are an awful lot of fun. There aren’t very many of them and, if you can name one at all, it’s most likely The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas or The Robber Bridegroom. But there is another rarely produced gem that is just as enjoyable – Pump Boys and Dinettes - the fun-loving retro revue written by its original cast (John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, and Jim Wann).

The year is 1972, according to the giant Farrah Fawcett poster on the piano, and the place is Highway 57, between the town of Frog Level (yes, it’s an actual town) and Smyrna, North Carolina. There, the Double Cupp Diner and the Pump Boys’ filling station share a cozy corner of the asphalt just a spittin’ distance apart, and if its hometown hospitality you’re lookin’ for you’ve come to the right place.

Sisters Prudie (Emily Kay Townsend) and Rhetta Cupp (Cori Cable Kidder) run the diner; Jim (Michael Butler Murray) and his buddy L.M. (Sean Paxton) run the garage. The boys also have a band that includes their buddies Jackson (Jimmy Villaflor), Eddie (Kevin Tiernan) and Bobby (Jim Miller), good old boys who don’t take life too seriously. Sometimes they work on cars but mostly they just enjoy taken’ life slow.

They’ll tell you about it too in songs - twenty of them - that reflect the values and goings on of life in a small town, with all its quirks and heart. The music is anything but pretentious and the characters are typical no-nonsense Southerners who aren’t above teasing each other whenever they get the chance.

The ladies know the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach so you’ll always find the coffee hot and the pecan pie fresh. Jim is sweet on Rhetta and Prudie has a thing for L.M., which means a fair amount of flirtatious banter gets thrown back and forth. Jackson is a charmer and Eddie doesn’t say much. They’re all friends, and there is something comforting about a group of pals watching out for each other and telling it like it is.

Cori Cable Kidder and Emily Kay Townsend

Murray introduces the lot and narrates with an easy manner, much like a local tour guide pointing out all the best tidbits only an insider knows. Villaflor is the eye candy of the group, sporting an aw-shucks grin that would melt any woman within fifty yards. L.M. is often cast as a nerd but Paxton plays up his suspicious, silent side so when he gets to “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine” it makes the story even more endearing. Kidder is the “Wynonna” belter and Townsend sings sweetly.

Collectively, they have a good command of the style and personality necessary to make the music come alive and sound best when they don’t oversing. Murray’s “Mamaw” and Kidder and Townsend’s “Sister” are two examples of letting the melody and lyrics do the work for you. In fact, the whole show works best when it doesn’t try too hard.

Great songs like the boys’ acapella “Fisherman’s Prayer” need to lay back so we can hear the barbershop harmonies and “Vacation” turns harsh if the singers start to scream-sing. What makes this show so special is how the story songs connect with the audience.

There are times Allison Bibicoff’s choreography and staging try to make the show a bigger musical presentation than it is organically. Less is more, especially since there is an innocence to the show that gets lost when you “musical theatre-ize” it too much. It’s all about the lyrics and the stories. When you let it be easy, it lands every time, like the final chords in “Closing Time.”

Emily Kay Townsend, Jim Miller, Jimmy Villaflor, Mike Murray,
Cori Cable Kidder, and Sean Paxton

The production design incorporates the ‘70s orange and vinyl touches that make the period authentic. Jeff G. Rack’s set design is a playful roadside double wonder with room for both garage and diner, including half a ‘50s muscle car mid tune-up, onstage booth seating for a few lucky audience members, and a fun Florida vacation insert. He even gives lighting designer Derek Jones room to create an unexpectedly lovely working night sky.

I love this musical and, if you can sit and listen to great story songs all day like I can, you will too. From its fun opening to its hushed final notes, Pump Boys will win you over hook, line and sinker.

Emily Kay Townsend and Sean Paxton with Mike Murray,
Kevin Tiernan, and Jimmy Villaflor

Emily Kay Townsend and Cori Cable Kidder

Jimmy Villaflor, Mike Murray, Cori Cable Kidder and Emily Kay Townsend

PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES
Now through August 12, 2018
Sierra Madre Playhouse
87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, CA 91024
Tickets: (626) 355-4318 or www.sierramadreplayhouse.org
Free parking behind the theater.

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Monday, July 23, 2018

Review: New Musical MUTT HOUSE Belongs to the Dogs

Ben Palacios, Max Wilcox, Garrett Marshall, Ryan McCartan, Amanda Leigh Jerry
and Gabriel González. All photos by Daren Scott

Singing strays and the humans who love them are the focus of the world premiere musical Mutt House, currently on stage in a guest production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The cute, sweet story about learning to believe in yourself isn’t a musical for deep introspection, but it does offer a good time with its charming songs, lovable mutts, and a fun production design.

Stephen Gifford creates human-sized cages with detached rolling doors to fit the actors playing dogs in the dilapidated shelter but edges them in bright neon tubing (lighting by Matthew Brian Denman), perhaps as an indicator that these unfortunate mutts could be the show dogs of their dreams if only given the chance. Happily, they do get to strut their stuff with songs that highlight each of their unique personalities and they sound terrific under musical director Anthony Lucca’s guidance.

For Pepe (Gabriel González), an energetic Chihuahua, it is a Latin-flavored up-tempo number. For Donna (Amanda Leigh Jerry), a mutt from the Bronx, it’s a sassy comedy beach-rock song. Sophie (Valerie Larsen), an award winning poodle with breeding, gets a smoky laid-back jazz cut and when Digger (Ben Palacios), the coolest and happiest of Golden Labradors, takes over the lead it morphs into a speak-singing number that’s not quite rap, not quite lyrical, but completely infectious and winning as can be. Max (Max Wilcox) is the resident sweet, comic Corgi, and Bradley (Garrett Marshall), the lovable Eeyore of the group, plays a sadsack Pit Bull.

Garrett Marshall, Ryan McCartan, and Ben Palacios

The songs are written by Tony Cookson, creator and bookwriter of the show, who enlists the aid of John Daniel, Robb Curtis Brown and David O to help create the 16+ numbers that make up the score. Most of them exist as stand-alone songs and are orchestrated by David O, which means the vocals come packed with lovely harmonies and melodies that are pleasing to the ear.

Cookson’s juvenile book, however, still needs depth and polish. At the moment, it is better suited for the After School Special crowd rather than for adults looking for the next smart, sophisticated musical. Sincerity will get you part of the way but a show needs more than that to give it legs.

The story isn’t complex. Eddie (Ryan McCartan), an insecure young man who works at the local shelter and is able to talk to the animal,s must summon up his courage and come to the aid of his friends – the dogs – when the city decides to shut them down. A love interest emerges in Hannah (Claire Adams), the girl Eddie had a crush on in junior high and who now works in the repulsive mayor’s (Heather Ott) office. We also learn that Eddie was bullied in school and that his boss Gerry (Boise Holmes) is a nice guy with a secret crush of his own. It’s a foregone conclusion that Eddie will eventually save the day and find romance in the process.

Valerie Larsen, Ben Palacios. Gabriel González and Garrett Marshall

The dogs are adorably decked out by Allison Dillard (costumes, hair & make-up). Janet Roston’s cute choreography adds pizzazz but dialogue scenes are flat in comparison. Scene transitions are choppy, with director Ryan Bergmann staging set-up movement for the next scene in the dark on one side of the stage while the lit scene we’re watching is still going on. The problem is, we can see them moving and it distracts us from what we should be watching. Some scenes end abruptly; others feel sketchy as they move to the next one without transition music or a sense of completion. In a smaller house, it might be possible to overlook the ragged edges but, on the Douglas’ larger stage, everything is exposed.

And yet, we do love a dog musical. Animals have a way of making a beeline straight to your heart and Mutt House’s fetching mongrels are no exception. These singing and dancing four-legged friends are sure to make you smile.

MUTT HOUSE
July 10 – August 5, 2018
Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232
Tickets: 213-628-2772 or www.MuttHouseTheMusical.com

Amanda Leigh Jerry and Ben Palacios

Boise Williams and Ryan McCartan

Claire Adams and Ryan McCartan

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