Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review: Cirque du Soleil Creates a Wondrous World in TORUK - The First Flight

Photo: Jesse Faatz Costumes: Kym Barrett  © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Don LaFontaine was one of the most prolific (and best-loved) voice actors in the movie industry for more years than I can even remember, until his death in 2008. You may not know his name but you've certainly heard his deep bass voice and famous catch phrase, "In a world..." in hundreds of movie trailers during his more than forty-year career. No one has come close to duplicating what he could do. He was one of a kind.

Were he alive today and recording the movie trailer for TORUK - The First Flight, that signature "in a world..." would be the perfect beginning to describe what Cirque du Soleil has created in this stunning yet atypical foray into acro-musical storytelling.

In a world where beauty lives in every detail and the lush jungles of Pandora pulse with life, it is up to one young boy to overcome self-doubt and save a dying people.

Much more than that you don't need to know, and a narrator will take care of supplying the finer points of the tale as you go along. What you do need to be aware of is not to expect what you would normally see in a Cirque du Soleil production. This evolution of the brand trades the troupe's normal progression of death-defying feats as self-contained acts and instead integrates a more streamlined set of athletics into a linear tale. The movement of the artists becomes a language all its own and everything they do is part of the larger sphere of the Pandoran universe.

Photo: Youssef Shoufan. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

It requires that the audience be ready to take in an enormous amount of potent stimuli as breathtaking projections sweep across the plains of the stage and throughout the audience. Vibrant colors, so tactile and rich you could almost reach out and dip your hand in them, create the vast landscapes, moving waterfalls, and mythical scenes. It is spectacular. The sheer scope of the vision boggles the mind. It's no wonder this show plays out in the largess of an arena setting rather than inside Cirque's smaller traveling tent.

The show may not have the same emotional reach we've come to expect but its highly creative design integrates such visual splendor and new forms of artistry and technology that it's impossible not to feel its impact.

TORUK brings to life the world of the Na'vi from James Cameron's epic film Avatar some 3000 years before we meet them in the film. Within this world, wondrous creatures exist - part puppet, part human, some comical, some ominous. There are Viperwolves and Direhorses, Austrapedes (a kind of ostrich/flamingo/dinosaur) and a Turtlepede (turtle shark). But none are more striking than the flying Toruk, a dangerous beast of prey whom the Na'vi fear.

The tribal sound of drumming is threaded throughout the score, along with haunting orchestral themes and a soundscape that incorporates the pulse of nature. Hoop jumping, fire twirlers, aerial silks, mechanical poles, and contortionists that balance on a moving seesaw of bones are a few of the artistic elements incorporated in the story. Boomerangs whoosh through the air and exquisite banshee kites elegantly lift in a butterfly dance overhead.

Make sure your smart phone is fully charged before you go. Once there, you can download the TORUK app which is a unique way to engage with the show in real time, making fireflies dance, woodsprites converge, and participating in other cool effects during the performance. TORUK may not elicit the same kind of emotional longing or ache for humanity I've felt in other Cirque shows but, in an age where we are becoming more and more disconnected, this is one way of using technology to give us the next best thing.

TORUK: The First Flight

November 2-6, 2016
Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario

November 11-13, 2016
Staples Center in Los Angeles

January 12-15, 2017
The Forum in Inglewood

TORUK creative team: 13 creators under the artistic guidance of Guy Laliberté (Guide) and Jean-François Bouchard (Creative Guide) for Cirque du Soleil, and James Cameron, Jon Landau, Kathy Franklin and Richie Baneham for Lightstorm Entertainment, along with Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon ( Show writers and Directors, Multimedia Directors), Neilson Vignola (Director of Creation), Carl Fillion (Set and Props Designer), Kym Barrett (Costume and Makeup Designer), Tuan Le and Tan Loc (Choreographers), Bob & Bill (Composers and Musical Directors), Jacques Boucher (Sound Designer), Alain Lortie (Lighting Designer), Patrick Martel (Puppet Designer), Germain Guillemot (Acrobatic Performance Designer), and Pierre Masse (Rigging and Acrobatic Equipment Designer).

Photo: Jesse Faatz Costumes: Kym Barrett  © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Photo: Jesse Faatz Costumes: Kym Barrett  © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Photo: Jesse Faatz Costumes: Kym Barrett
© 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Photo: Youssef Shoufan Costumes: Kym Barrett  © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Photo: Jesse Faatz Costumes: Kym Barrett  © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Review: Sci-Fi Silliness Reigns in Rubicon Theatre's RETURN TO THE FORBIDDEN PLANET

Back L-R: Lucy Willhite, Stephen Russell, Jesse Graham, Harley Jay, Jason Graae
and Omar D. Brancato. Front: Madeline Gambon, Trevor Wheetman,
Craig McEldowney, Kimberly Hessler and Caleb Horst. All photos by: Ronnie Slavin

Rubicon Theatre Company lands a winner with its latest musical comedy Return to the Forbidden Planet by Bob Carlton. The silly sci-fi confection is two hours of deliciously kitschy fun accompanied by a rock and roll score that blasts out more than twenty hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s and a dynamite cast that spews planetary puns and classical text faster than the speed of light.

Loosely based on Forbidden Planet, one of the best science fiction films to come out of the 1950s, it also takes shots at just about every Shakespeare play you can think of. You’ll hear lines of iambic pentameter – many twisted into fresh new comic punchlines – from The Tempest (which also supplies the names of the major characters) and a host of others like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, and King Lear. There’s even a line from one of the sonnets thrown in for good measure.

The musical takes place aboard a space ship led by the charismatic Captain Tempest (Harley Jay). He and his crew are about to embark on a new mission, “Scientific Survey Flight Nine” which also includes the audience as fellow travelers. Once emergency instructions are dispatched (what could go wrong?) the ship launches and we’re off to the races.

Kimberly Hessler and Harley Jay (front) with
Craig McEldowney, Jason Graae, James O’Neil
and Omar D. Brancato

Carlton makes it easy to follow the plot – simply pay attention to the songs he uses to tell the story. “It’s a Man’s World” sets up a gender rivalry between the captain and Gloria (Rebecca Ann Johnson), the sexy Science Officer, and during blastoff the whole ensemble sings a rousing “Great Balls of Fire” to kick the action into high gear. When an asteroid hits and the ship is thrown off course, Prospero (James O’Neil), a defector who has been missing for fifteen years comes to their aid. Turns out he’s been living on the planet D’Illyria (Twelfth Night reference anyone?) conducting scientific experiments that he claims are not what everyone thinks (“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”).

The Captain meets Prospero’s quirky robot helper Ariel (Jason Graae) and beautiful daughter Miranda (Kimberly Hessler) singing “Good Vibrations” but it’s also love at first sight for Cookie (Caleb Horst), the cook, when he spies the girl. Encouraged by the Bosun (Craig McEldowney) to woo her with a kiss (“The Shoop Shoop Song”) Cookie makes his approach, but Miranda has already fallen for the Captain (“A Teenager in Love”) who tells her she’s too young for him (“Young Girl”).

Much mayhem occurs as Gloria’s true identity is revealed, Cookie vows to help her steal Prospero’s secret formula, and an unidentified green monster attacks the ship. And that’s only Act I. The goofy story continues from there with another dozen hits in Act II until the musical wraps it all up with a typical Shakespearean happy ending.

The combination of science fiction subject matter, twisted Shakespeare, and rock and roll makes for a highly entertaining two hours, especially when performed by a cast as capable as this one. The ringer is, of course, James O’Neil whose wild-eyed rock god Prospero-in-space is one crazy dude. Harley Jay flexes his leading man muscles and portrays Captain Tempest with plenty of nonchalant swagger, charm to spare, and a knowing twinkle in his eye. Plus, he plays guitar, and everyone knows that a guitar player never lacks for female attention. Rebecca Ann Johnson shows off a dynamic set of pipes, belting out classics with a richness in her mid-voice that has only gotten better over time. Filling the shoes of the roller skating robot Ariel is Jason Graae, an actor who always finds a unique way to liven up a scene. If you are familiar with his solo work, be on the lookout for his oboe feature. It’s hilarious.

As the sweet ingénue, Kimberly Hessler defines the word wholesome while Caleb Horst plays both good guy and temporary traitor with comic simplicity. Martin Landry’s Navigation Officer is a slightly imbalanced Vulcan who is prone to comical bouts of hysteria, and the additional onstage band members add to the disarming boy band appeal of the show.

L-R: Jesse Graham, Craig McEldowney, Harley Jay, Omar D. Brancato
and Stephen Russell

And yet there is one other cast member who was – for me – the surprising secret weapon of the show. Craig McEldowney takes a supporting role as the Bosun and turns it into an unforgettable character portrait, wielding a thick Scottish brogue and a seriously intense demeanor that finds him managing his fellow bandmates and buddies so smoothly they don’t even realize he’s the one making them look good. Then he lets those tenor high notes loose while playing electric guitar and it sends this send-up over the top in the best way possible. We’ll have more of that, please.

From a design standpoint, the show is neon-flavored eye candy with some terrific teamwork by scenic and lighting designer Thomas S. Giamario, costume designer Pamela Shaw, prop designer T. Theresa Scarano, and video designer Dillon G. Artzer. Artzer’s jumpy projections of onscreen narrator Fred Willard are a great addition to the show. All of it comes together under the guiding hand of director/choreographer Kirby Ward who nails the style of the piece and manages to accomplish quite a few surprises along the way. Musically, the show is firing on all cylinders, led by musical director Trevor Wheetman. Sound designer Jonathan Burke adds bright atmospheric detail that enhances the fun.

Oct 26 – Nov 13, 2016
Rubicon Theatre
1006 E. Main St. Ventura, CA 93001
Schedule: Wed at 2pm & 7pm, Thurs at 8pm, Fri at 8pm, Sat at 2pm & 8pm, Sun at 2pm.
Talkbacks follow all Wednesday evening performances.

Jason Graae and Kimberly Hessler

L-R: James O’Neil, Harley Jay, Craig McEldowney, Trevor Wheetman
and Omar D. Brancato 

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Monday, October 31, 2016

Review: 24th Street Theatre's Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass is Artful Storytelling

Angela Giarratana and Caleb Foote. All photos by Cooper Bates

24th Street Theatre takes on the Brothers Grimm in its latest world premiere Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass by Bryan Davidson, but forget the fairy tale  you think you know. This is no sanitized version of the story. The original, written in 1812, was a cautionary tale, bleak in its portrayal of a time when it was commonplace for impoverished families to abandon their children for lack of food and resources. The thought was that they would somehow find a way to survive and maybe even be better off on their own. It’s a heartbreaking decision for any parent to make and, unfortunately, one that families in dire circumstances around the world still face today.

For that reason it makes sense that the company would reimagine the story’s conventions in its own meaningful, unique way. Director Debbie Devine and Davidson have created a grim, haunting, and incredibly touching tale that speaks to our most basic instincts – fear, love, and the determination to survive.

Angela Giarratana and Caleb Foote with Bradley Whitford on video

Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass transports the brother and sister to the Eastern Kentucky mining town of Butcher Holler during the 1930s as part of a radio program narrated by an onscreen DJ (Bradley Whitford as “The Duke”). Here, work is scarce and so is food. Their mother lives in the cemetery where Gretel (Angela Giarratana) visits and sings from the family hymnal, her one possession and the only thing that makes her forget the hunger in her belly. Their pa is a poor miner, destitute, out of work and unable to provide for them. When the reality of the situation becomes unbearable, he tells them he is taking them to stay with relatives. Deep in the woods, he gives Hansel (Caleb Foote) the three objects you need to survive – a blade to cut, a cord to bind, and iron to make a fire – before leaving them to chop firewood. By the time they realize he has abandoned them, it is too late.

Angela Giarratana and Caleb Foote

They stumble upon a limestone cave and a mysterious blind Mountain Woman (a wonderfully enigmatic Sarah Zinsser) who shows them what they want to see. Gretel, who has previously been told she is of no use (“What good are you Gretel, you’re just a girl”) suddenly becomes valuable because of her voice while Hansel, who has always been in charge, is treated as the outsider (“What good are you, Hansel, you don’t sing”). The reversal of fortune is a poignant one, for this story is full of harsh lessons much like life. Here the woods are the world and what they will come to realize by story’s end is, in order to survive, what they really need is each other. 

The standoff between brother and sister begins early in the play and both Foote and Giarratana are full of fire. Devine deftly heightens the tension during their tiffs by modulating the interplay between silence and outburst. The result of this stretching and release of pressure is that the volatility of the story hits you in the pit of your stomach. More than once I found myself holding my breath and had to consciously remind myself to breathe. It captures the world in a moment at an internal level that you feel first before words are even spoken.

Caleb Foote

To create the striking visual world, set designer Kevith Mitchell uses four textured and layered cutout backdrops that function as a living panorama for Matthew Hill’s sketchbook-inspired charcoal drawing projections and lighting designer Dan Weingarten’s haunting colorations. Each time the scene shifts, from forest to cave to cemetery to well, the elements morph subtly creating locations that feel eerily alive. Christopher Moscatiello further enhances the ominous and spacious feel of the mountains and woods in his thoughtful sound design.

Music director Megan Swan combines recognizable songs and hymns to evoke the era and time period. Some, like the terrific “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Miner’s Prayer” are performed by the LA-based bluegrass band, The Get Down Boys. Others, such as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Amazing Grace” are sung acapella with a plaintive vulnerability by Giarratana, 

Hansel & Gretel has always been more than simply a child’s story about getting lost in the woods. 24th Street Theatre's Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass pushes its artful storytelling to new heights with this fresh interpretation sure to resonate with both young people and adults alike.

October 29 – December 11, 2016
24th Street Theatre
1117 West 24th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90007
Tickets: ($10 - $24) call 213-745-6516 or go to
Saturdays 3pm & 7:30 pm, Sundays at 3pm

Sarah Zinsser and Angela Giarratana

Caleb Foote and Angela Giarratana

Angela Giarratana and Sarah Zinsser

Caleb Foote and Angela Giarratana

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review: Spindle City, a Disappointing Tale of a Fascinating Legend

Emily Bridges and Rowan Treadway. All photos by Rick Rose.

Did she or didn’t she? To this day, no one knows for sure. In 1893, Lizzie Borden was tried for the murders of her father and stepmother in one of the most famous unsolved cases in history. When Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby were found savagely bludgeoned to death inside the family home nearly a year earlier, Lizzie was the prime suspect. She was acquitted after a two week trial but inconsistencies in her story led many to doubt her innocence. Still, no other suspect was ever accused.

In the years since, the public’s fascination with the case has only grown, spawning a profusion of books, movies, and songs, the most famous of which is the children’s 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.” It is a haunting refrain especially when set to music.

Katrina Wood is the latest writer to explore the Fall River, Massachusetts tragedy in her new musical Spindle City, a fictional account of what might have caused Lizzie to commit the murders. Here Lizzie (Emily Bridges) is portrayed as a schoolteacher whose mission is to protect her poor students from being taken away to work in the mills.

L-R: Bianca Vanderhorst, Sarah Hoback, Kristin Towers-Rowles and Emily Bridges

She has a sleazy uncle (Rick Simone), determined to marry her for the Borden fortune and a male friend (Rowan Treadway) who is secretly in love with her. When her timid sister (Sarah Hoback) introduces her to Nance O’Neil (Kristin Towers-Rowles) a New York actress, there is an immediate attraction. A relationship develops but eventually ends in disappointment. We are to believe that all of this contributes to an eventual breakdown resulting in the bloody deaths of her overbearing father (Chas Mitchell) and antagonistic stepmother (Jazmine Ramay).

But where history makes it unclear whether she did the deeds or not, this story directed by Trace Oakley, has already decided that Lizzie is mentally unbalanced, justified in her actions, and guilty. Whether by design or direction, it is a misfire to rob the audience of the mystery. Doing so undermines the fundamental allure of the story, especially since Wood has not settled on a consistent storytelling approach.

Initially it appears that the show is going to be a tongue-in-cheek parody musical as downtrodden millworkers burst into bright bouncy Broadway choreography. While the contrast elicits many laughs, the show does not follow through on this set-up and instead alternates between doom-and-gloom drama and campy Victorian melodrama accompanied by a confusing array of musical numbers that never come together to create a cohesive whole.

The score is a mish-mash of styles that includes everything from a country square dance, parlor songs, and vaudeville to ‘70s disco, an orchestral piece, and what sounds like 1980’s Andrew Lloyd Webber, complete with his signature synthesizers (which makes one wonder how long this musical has been in development). The pre-recorded instrumental tracks (arrangements by Art Wood and Ken Rarick) also contain passages of strange underscoring that have no connection to the dialogue. Add it all together and musically it simply doesn’t make sense.

L-R: Chas Mitchell, Sarah Hoback, Bianca Vanderhorst, Jazmine Ramay
 and Rick Simone

Neither does Averi Yoreks choreography, which has little to do with the story and in some cases interferes with what is happening among the principle characters. During the mill fire, the ensemble forms a stylized bucket brigade, then stops and exits, only to return hesitantly in the background of the scene several minutes later and continue. The transition is so out of place that it felt as if someone had made the wrong entrance and the cast was going back to do it all over again.

Likewise, a story song sung by Ramay is choreographed as a tango but has nothing to do with the dialogue in the scene, regardless of the fact that it is well-executed by the actress. And though she sheds no clothes, Towers-Rowles’ stage number, with mirror in hand, looks and sounds like a disingenuous stripper’s lounge act. As director, Oakley bears the responsibility of pulling the show’s disparate pieces together but the decisions he makes are downright puzzling as he reduces the characters to unfortunate stereotypes.

Kristin Towers-Rowles

Skylar Johnson’s lighting adds an appropriately eerie tone to the production and Aaron Glazer’s creepy set design has a number of unexplained oddities that set up the story quite nicely. It’s unfortunate that some of those touches, such as a staircase going nowhere with what, at first glance, looks like a finger sitting on an upper step, aren’t at all integrated into the story. Still, Id like to see the story that goes with his intriguing set design and its offbeat color palette, period details, and miniature city skyline. Now that would be a mystery worth solving.

As it is, Spindle City needs more work before it can live up to the fascinating tale of the real Lizzie Borden. In the meantime, there is always the next TV movie or film reinvention to look forward to.

James J. Cox, Paul Wong and Emily Bridges

SPINDLE CITY: The Lizzie Borden Musical
October 13 – November 5, 2016
Secret Rose Theatre
11246 Magnolia Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Tickets: (323) 960-7780 or 
Regular show times: Fri. at 8pm, Sat. at 3pm and 8pm, Sun. at 3pm. Special Halloween show on Monday, Oct. 31 at 8pm (period costumes encouraged- Fake Axes for sale in the foyer.)
More info:

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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Review: SKULLDUGGERY: The Musical Prequel to Hamlet, a Rowdy Good Time

John Bobek and David Haverty. All photos by Jessica Sherman Photography

I love a good prequel, especially when a contemporary playwright decides to take on the back story of a hallowed play by the likes of William Shakespeare. I mean, come on. Daring to tread on that playing field takes some guts because you know before you begin that audiences are going to have high expectations of your work. They also know where you need to end your story in order for Shakespeare’s to begin so getting there must be highly inventive and worthy of its foregone conclusion.

LA-based playwright Michael Shaw Fisher proves he’s up to the task in his latest new work Skullduggery: The Musical Prequel to Hamlet, a rowdy and irreverent precursor to Shakespeare’s revenge play, Hamlet. The musical comedy is a smart contrast in tone that opens up a clever pathway for foreshadowing later events and introducing the quirks of Shakespeare’s dramatic characters, like Ophelia’s (Alyssa Rupert) madness and Polonius’ (Curt Bonnem) convoluted conversation. It also allows for a slew of new characters to emerge that are completely unpredictable. You never know what this bunch of crackpots will do next.

John Bobek and Brendan Hunt (center) with the cast

Instead of simply the skull of a jester we meet in passing in Hamlet (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio”) Yorick (scene-stealing Brendan Hunt) is a real person – a falling-down drunkard with more than his fair share of secrets. Hunt doesn’t even have to try to be funny. All he has to do is try to stand up and it becomes a study in how to create an unforgettable character. When his arm gets stuck in a set piece or he slips while walking across the stage, it’s a lesson in improv you can’t pass up.

Hamlet Sr. (David Haverty), appearing in Hamlet as a ghost only, is still alive, and three boisterous roustabouts (Jeff Sumner, Matt Valle and Cj Merriman) who will take up new careers as gravediggers before Skullduggery is over will reveal all the mysteries heretofore unsolved.

When this show works it works really well and a lot of that is due to the understanding they (and Hunt) have of how to bring the material to life. In truth, it’s the fusion of their acting chops and director Scott Leggett’s terrific ability to wring the funny out of Fisher’s writing that makes Skullduggery so much fun.

L-R: Jeff Sumner, Matt Valle and Cj Merriman

Each of the three has a distinct personality and role in their lively trio. They sing, they dance, they move like wraiths cloaked in black à la Martha Graham and, whenever they appear, they buoy up the merriment. Leggett’s adept staging and Natasha Norman’s cheeky choreography are a delicious combination that this show wears well.

Skullduggery takes place thirty years before Hamlet begins when brothers Claudius (John Bobek) and Hamlet are young men. Claudius and Gertrude (Leigh Wulff) have fallen in love but when Hamlet goes off to war with their father and dear old dad is killed on the battlefield, Hamlet returns and marries her while Claudius is away at school. Seven years later, Claudius comes home to Elsinore and learns the bitter truth. Yorick’s uncanny ability to predict the future eventually convinces Claudius to join him in his drunken revolution to overthrow the now King Hamlet and take back what he lost.

Where Hamlet follows the perspective of King Hamlet’s son, Skullduggery is really Claudius’ story of what led up to the murder. Bobek (as Claudius) is a likable leading man with a strong singing voice whose journey begins hesitantly, and is at times quite comical, with his hypoglycemic fainting spells a regular occurrence. As he gains confidence, his earnest demeanor propels him forward until he takes bold action to achieve his desired end. Haverty goes from battle-ready to war-weary and his few moments of vulnerability add depth to a very traditional character.

As their object of affection, Wulff looks the part of a regal queen but is acting as though she is in an entirely different play. A scene can be serious in a musical comedy but it still needs to have an intensity behind it that is consistent with the style of the play. And, whether or not an actor is miked (they are not here), it is critical that the audience hears their dialogue. In this case, we can’t hear her and the acting is so internal that it comes across as flat. Rebecca Larsen (Berta) does the same thing in her scenes although her wisecracks do land when we can hear them. Both have a bigger problem swallowing their vocals during their songs which gives them an uncomfortably thin, reedy sound, neck veins straining to reach the notes.

Rebecca Larsen and Leigh Wulff

It’s too bad because Fisher’s score is an appealing combination of musical styles that includes everything from electro-funk, Lennon-esque tunes, and Sondheim-inspired verses to Renaissance folk, drinking songs, and sea shanties. I even heard something resembling The Pink Panther hidden in the mix. When it goes all out rock, it’s even better.

Musical director Michael Teoli uses instruments you don’t often hear together in a musical to create some cool sound paintings and eerie effects in his arrangements for the show. He features marimba, mandolin, and guitar, and even tuba on “Twenty-Three” at the top of Act II to recap the story and move the audience forward twenty-three years. Vocal harmonies, especially the intentionally dissonant phrases, are deceptively simple and add subtle texture. It’s an artful working of the score that creates a musical world just slightly off enough to catch your ear because it isn’t at all traditional.

Lyrically there are nods to popular Shakespeare phrases and a good bit of punning if you listen closely. You’d have to see the show a second time to catch all the Shakespeare in-jokes Fisher has included so keep your ear tuned.

Sacred Fools’ new Hollywood venue is a step up from their previous location for this kind of musical adventure and the creative team has done some impressive work here. DeAnne Millais’ polished scenic design features open wooden panels, a curved staircase, and some highly effective scene painting (by Joyce Hutter) to bring the Elizabethan era’s stone and bone to life. A cabinet of skulls does double duty stage left while a fabric panel hanging stage right makes tapestry changes via Ben Rock’s rich video projections to further enhance locations. Gorgeous costumes by Linda Muggeridge look expensive under Andrew Schmedake’s saturated lighting design.

Making Shakespeare a good time isn’t always easy but Skullduggery: The Musical Prequel to Hamlet accomplishes that goal and delivers an exhilarating crowd-pleaser. The laughs are infectious, the fun factor high. Maybe every Shakespearean tragedy should come with a comedy prequel.

SKULLDUGGERY: The Musical Prequel to Hamlet
September 30 – November 5, 2016
Sacred Fools Theater Company
1076 Lillian Way
Los Angeles, CA 90038

The cast of Skullduggery

John Bobek and Leigh Wulff

Pat Towne

John Bobek and David Haverty

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Sunday, October 2, 2016

Review: For The Record: Scorsese - American Crime Requiem

All I can say is get ready to be blown away. This theatricalized cinematic hybrid entertainment-on-steroids comes at you with all the force of a loaded gun, if the stage was the barrel, the singers were the bullets, and the Scorsese signature plot twists were the triggers. It’s one showstopping sequence after another woven together with a modern sensibility that hits right on trend.

The cast of For The Record. All photos by Kevin Parry

Your first holy-shit moment happens the moment you walk into the theater and see how Matt Steinbrenner and Kyle Courter have transformed the Wallis stage into a 4-level Vegas-style nightclub. A large round leather booth and table form the centerpiece of the main playing area with additional club seating for audience members flanking the 2 middle sections. Curved staircases on each side of the stage connect the tiers and create a sweeping visual that makes the club look like it is a hundred feet tall. They are also integrated beautifully, and with quite a measure of stylish surprise, into Dan Efros and Michael Berger’s lighting design.

I can imagine how detailed the light plot for this show must be to achieve so many wow moments in this Vegas showroom. It’s a given that Efros and Berger would excel at creating the excitement of a rock concert but what is even more fascinating is the way they use light to give the illusion of depth and warmth. The show looks luxe but it just as easily trades its burnished glow for the stark grit of a crime drama whenever it needs to.

Then For The Record: Scorsese’s creators (executive producer Shane Scheel, director Anderson Davis, and music supervisor/arranger Jesse Vargas) drop in an outrageously talented 7-piece band lead by Vargas and a ferocious cast that can quite literally blow the roof off with their powerhouse vocals. It’s a recipe for success right out of the box.

Zak Resnick and Jason Paige

Like previous For The Record performances, the 2-act show focuses on the films of an iconic director such as Baz Luhrmann, Quentin Tarantino, or John Hughes and weaves together scenes from across their body of work into one story. This one nails Scorsese’s brilliance and also recognizes the way he used music to underscore his characters’ personalities and their pivotal scenes. The stage production brings together some of his most memorable creations like Sam Rothstein (John Lloyd Young) and Ginger (Carmen Cusack) from Casino, Karen (Pia Toscano) and Henry Hill (Zak Resnick) from Goodfellas, Iris (Lindsey Gort) and Travis Bickle (James Byous) from Taxi Driver, Jordan Belfort (Justin Mortelliti) from The Wolf of Wall Street, and Jason Paige who plays Frank, a composite of Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas, Nicky Santoro from Casino and Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello from The Departed.

Rather than mimicking the original film characters, however, the actors use them as a point of departure, although Paige eerily channels his characters’ humor and brutality with chilling exactitude. The choice allows for adjustments to be made to fit the current cast. For example, Byous’s Travis seems younger and more innocent that De Niro’s but when he makes the change to haunted vigilante in his unforgettable revenge scene, it is no less believable.

Lindsey Gort with Erik Carlton on guitar

As Iris, Gort takes Jodie Foster’s little girl prostitute and turns up the volume to create a sexier, more worldly, but equally as damaged young woman. She’s got that slit your wrists kind of voice that hits you in stomach when she sings. It’s full of pain, and tears, and dirty martinis. She’s a little bit baby doll and a little bit Janis Joplin rolled into one. Her bluesy version of B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” with guitarist Erik Carlton backing her up is one of the most vulnerable scenes in the show.

Paige turns John Lennon’s “Well, Well, Well” into a grinding showstopper. There’s a whole world in that song and he wrings every ounce of desperation and defiance out of it. Cusack takes her long last walk of drunken, drugged-out shame to Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and creates an indelible image stumbling through her final crazed moments. Equal parts torch singer and tortured country star, she also brings down the house with her version of Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams” and a reprise of “I’m Sorry” sung earlier by Toscano, one of the best female vocalists  to come out of American Idol.

Toscano’s voice is a perfect match for the ‘50s and ‘60s songs that represent the challenges of many of the wives in Scorsese’s films and her lush vocals resonate with emotion. She and Resnick also recreate the unique comedy in Karen and Henry Hill’s over-the-top marriage, which director Davis positions at just the right moments to break up the show’s more violent scenes. The production is well-calibrated and as an audience member you never feel overwhelmed.

L-R: Zak Resnick and Justin Mortelliti

Mortelliti and Resnick’s party boy pace is fast and funny. Their hilarious Lemmon Quaalude scene mops up the stage and “My Way” is reinvented with a driving rock beat. Young functions as the anchor point for the ensemble. He takes his trademark Jersey Boys cool and adds intensity to standards like “Stardust” and “The ‘In’ Crowd.” Choreographers RJ Durell and Nick Florez stage a tango for Young and Cusack over the exchange of a twenty dollar bill (or a hundred, who knows?) that is slyly effective. You can see their savvy touches all over the production which add a level of showmanship to the performances that deepen their impact.

As a kind of everyman observer who pops up throughout the performance to comment or accompany the onstage action, B. Slade (Stacks) is the silver bullet that subtly connects the audience with the actors. By the time the show gets to his “House of the Rising Sun” epilogue, we’re primed for the incredible rage, halleluiah fever, angelic push, and righteous indignation he wrings out of the demanding finale. It’s the type of mega-spectacular number that is the only fitting way to end this kind of a major undertaking.

B. Slade

For The Record has come a long way since its humble beginning six years ago in a small cabaret space in Los Feliz. Since then the company has expanded and brought shows to New York City, Las Vegas, the Montreal Jazz Festival, Norwegian Cruise Lines, and soon to television in partnership with Dick Clark Productions. They have taken the theatre cabaret act to a whole new level, reinventing it, and positioning that new form in such a way that it will undoubtedly grow audiences across generations. That’s an exciting prospect for the future of the art form itself.

In addition to the actual performance, the Wallis has extended the Scorsese feel of the evening by adding a number of pre and post attractions for theatregoers. Come early for pasta from the Prince of Venice Food Truck and themed-cocktails at The Bar at The Wallis. Entertainers will roam the courtyard and films like Fellini’s and Rossellini’s Paisan will screen outdoors. You can also stay after the performance for a post-show hangout at The Bar and on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights enjoy music by For The Record artists and other performers.

John Lloyd Young

Carmen Cusack

James Byous

Pia Toscano

Dionne Gipson and Justin Mortelliti

Carmen Cusack and John Lloyd Young

FOR THE RECORD: SCORSESE – American Crime Requiem
September 21 – October 16, 2016
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Tickets: ($25 - $129) 310-746-4000 or

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Comedy Faceposted by Ellen Dostal, MusicalsInLA @
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