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,’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.

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

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.

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

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.

*      *      *      *      *

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

More from rehearsals of Forum
Photo credit: Michaelyn Straub

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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Photo Flash: First Look at the cast of SPAMILTON in Rehearsals

Can’t get tickets to Hamilton? Head on over to the Kirk Douglas Theatre for Spamilton, Gerard Alessandrini’s outrageous parody musical almost as popular as the original it spoofs. The show runs November 5 – December 31 and tickets for the west coast premiere are on sale now at

The cast includes Glenn Bassett, Susanne Blakeslee, Dedrick A. Bonner, Becca Brown, John Devereaux, Wilkie Ferguson III, William Cooper Howell, Elijah Reyes and Zakiya Young, with choreography by Gerry McIntyre, music supervision and arrangements by Fred Barton, music direction by James Lent, set and props design by Glenn Bassett, costume design by Dustin Cross, lighting design by Karyn D. Lawrence and sound design by Adam Phalen. Here’s a look at the cast in rehearsal. Dont miss the fun!

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

William Cooper Howell

Wilkie Ferguson III 

Zakiya Young

John Devereaux

Glenn Bassett

Dedrick A. Bonner

Elijah Reyes

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

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: Immortalizing a Star in CAGNEY THE MUSICAL

The Cast of Cagney the Musical. Photos by Carol Rosegg from the NY production

When you think of James Cagney, one of two images comes to mind: the tough guy or the tapper. The public couldn’t get enough of his bad guy persona in films like The Public Enemy, G-Men, and White Heat but, for musical theatre lovers, nothing tops his performance as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. It was a match made in heaven when he was cast in the role. Both were Irish entertainers who came up through Vaudeville and were proud to be Americans. Both stood up for their principles and helped those in need, even when it wasn’t fashionable.

Now, Cagney’s life and career are immortalized in a dynamic new bio-musical directed by Bill Castellino playing at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. The show has been in development for about the last 15 years and, in this current version, just concluded a successful 14-month run Off Broadway. It isn’t surprising. The painstaking work of writing and rewriting, and putting it up in front of different audiences in many places has resulted in a song-and-dance-packed traditional musical theatre production that is a fitting tribute to Cagney’s legacy.

In real life, Cagney was a man with a heart, and the tough guy image was not how he wanted to be remembered. Bookwriter Peter Colley gives us a surprising level of insight into his character as he chronicles Cagney’s (Robert Creighton) rise to fame, including his relationships with the tyrannical Jack Warner (an excellent Bruce Sabath), his brother Bill (Josh Walden), his mother (Danette Holden), and the woman who would eventually become his wife, Willie Vernon (Ellen Z. Wright). 

These scenes show us the heart of the man and they cover enough territory to give us an accurate picture but one in particular is a hard sell today. Shoving a grapefruit in a woman’s face for laughs in his breakout 1931 film The Public Enemy gave credence to the idea that it was okay for men to mistreat women, and it was a little disturbing to see it enacted in the musical given today’s prevalence of violence against women in the news. It is a pivotal part of Cagneys story and was handled as tastefully as it could be but I still cringed.

L-R: Robert Creighton and Jeremy Benton

The joy of the show, and where it really becomes something special, is in its dazzling production numbers. The stylish dance scenes and extended tap choreography by Joshua Bergasse (particularly in the Cohan numbers and a duet for Creighton and Jeremy Benton who plays Bob Hope) are the pièce de résistance. Creighton is as charming as he is fast on his feet, a ball of energy with a lovable smile and an earthy edge who has an endearing way of connecting with the audience. His supporting cast matches his energy every step-ball-change of the way.

The score consists of three different song styles. Those written by Cohan – “Grand Old Flag,” the “USO Medley” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy – are high energy patriotic tap extravaganzas. Those by Creighton take a more sentimental turn as Cagney finds himself “Crazy ‘Bout You,” “Falling in Love,” and pondering “How Will I Be Remembered.” And the rest, by Christopher McGovern, are constructed using creative and interesting devices that musical lovers will really get into.

“Black and White,” the opening number, is a take on the black and white movies of Cagney’s day that returns with a startling twist in the second act. In the writers’ room, he gives Bergasse the opportunity to choreograph a stellar pair of songs – “Warner at Work” and “Cagney at Work” that utilize seated tapping, intricately timed rhythms, and another twist that ties them together for a fantastic result.

Musical director Gerald Sternbach’s 5-piece band upstage of the action packs a lot of sound in their few instruments and also helps visually fill in the space that James Morgan’s traveling scenic design doesn’t. Michael A. Megliola’s lighting also effectively adds dimension in the studio sequences and realistic scenes but the overall look of the stage flattens out during dance numbers. Thats also where Martha Bromelmeiers costumes look cheap in comparison to the otherwise well-done collection of period looks.

If the show was to set its sights on Broadway, it would need to scale up the production design accordingly. As it is, the musical already succeeds in its loving tribute to a great entertainer and will put a smile on your face as you leave the theater.

Robert Creighton (center) and the cast

Bruce Sabath as Jack Warner

A final note to the out-of-town producer. When youre producing a show in LA, you might want to rethink saying LA isnt a theatre town while hitting up the audience for investors in an exceedingly long curtain speech that should have been done at the after party instead of on stage following the performance. Rather than being cute, all you accomplish is alienating your audience.

October 5 – 29, 2017
El Portal Theatre
5269 Lankershim Blvd
North Hollywood, CA 91601
For more about the show:

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