Friday, March 8, 2019

Review: The Epic Adventure of THE OLD MAN AND THE OLD MOON

Matt Nuernberger, Ryan Melia, and Curtis Gillen. All photos by Kevin Parry

Remember the joy of being a kid and spending hours upon hours acting out stories using whatever you could find? When two sticks stood in for a swordfight to save the day or a towel became the mantle of a king? That’s what it feels like watching PigPen Theatre Co. in The Old Man and the Old Moon at The Wallis.

The seven energetic lads who make up the troupe may have grown up a bit since the days of short pants and catching tadpoles but the enchanting alchemy of their performance has as much wit and whimsy as youd find in any backyard adventure. For, in their hands, a sheet becomes a sailing ship, a tube attached to a cooking pot turns into a quacking duck, and a story unfolds that will touch the heart as much as stir the imagination.

There once was an Old Man (Ryan Melia) whose job it was to fill the moon each night but, after years of faithfully completing his task, the routine had taken its toll. He had forgotten all about the promise he made to his wife when they first got married, that they would live a life filled with wondrous travels. One night, he came home to find the Old Woman (Alex Falberg) humming a strange but familiar melody he couldnt quite place. She asked him to go into town with her and dance, but the tired old man refused. In the morning, he awoke to find that she had taken their boat and was gone.

L-R: Ryan Melia, Curtis Gillen, Ben Ferguson, Matt Nuernberger, Dan Weschler,
Arya Shahi, and Alex Falberg

So begins his epic journey across the sea to find her and, in the process, reclaim what he himself had lost. It means leaving behind his responsibility to the moon (which will cause its own complications later) but love is a powerful motivator, even when it has long been neglected. In addition to Melia and Falberg, the versatile company includes Matt Nuernberger, Dan Weschler, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, and Arya Shahi. Collectively, they create breathtaking sounds and poignant visuals that whisk you away to a land suspended in time. Part theatre, part concert, its a delight from beginning to end.

What is most striking about the production is how in sync with each other these likable artists are. It isnt surprising since they all met while attending Carnegie Mellon School of Drama and over the last decade have forged a creative alliance that makes use of all their many talents. One of their former professors (Stuart Carden) even co-directed the piece. To watch how seamlessly they pass the ball on stage is dizzying, given the various elements they incorporate into the show and how quickly it all moves along.

Shadow puppets add depth to a scene as easily as a lighting change transports the action into the belly of a giant fish or the sound of an accordion conjures up sailors at sea. And the storytelling always feels intimate even within the grander scale of the whole. It may dissolve into mayhem at times but you still come away satisfied and feeling like you know each of them by how they create their characters and make their music.

Curtis Gillen, Dan Weschler, Matt Nuernberger, Alex Falberg, Arya Shahi,
Ben Ferguson, and Ryan Melia

Yes, in addition to being known as a theatre troupe theyve also made a name for themselves as an alternative folk rock band. They released their first album Bremen in 2012 and the score to The Old Man and the Old Moon is quintessential PigPen, riding on wisps of gorgeous harmonies and haunting solo vocals along the lines of The Lumineers or Mumford & Sons. The sound is sophisticated but never ostentatious and does as much to tell the story as any other aspect of the show.

Bottom line: its playtime for the kid in us all. I couldnt stop smiling.

March 2 - 17, 2019
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Tickets and info:
Recommended for all ages
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

The Old Man and the Old Moon

L-R: Ryan Melia, Dan Weschler, Curtis Gillen, Matt Nuernberger, and Alex Falberg

The cast of The Old Man and the Old Moon

Matt Nuernberger and Ryan Melia

Alex Falberg

Ryan Melia

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Saturday, March 2, 2019

Review: The CATS Phenomenon Continues at the Hollywood Pantages

Dan Hoy as Munkustrap. All photos by Matthew Murphy

Without a doubt, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical CATS is of an era. Based on one of Lloyd Webber’s favorite books as a child, T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, it was a perfect vehicle for the tastes of theatre lovers in the eighties, the decade of excess. The large-scale production, which opened on Broadway in 1982, was a highly theatrical concept featuring an elaborate light show, impressive dance numbers, and an intoxicating score, exactly what the public had come to expect from the composer of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita.

It also had cats. Lots and lot of cats. A cast of 26 humans, spectacularly costumed and greasepainted, were choreographed to move with all the quirks and habits of their feline counterparts. Crowds ate it up.

Cut to today and the Trevor Nunn-directed North American tour that just opened at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre and you’ll see that little has changed. Fans of the original won’t be disappointed by the bewitcing revival and, from the thundering applause heard on opening night, today’s audience loves the theatricality as much as it did 27 years ago.

Yes, it’s dated, (the prominent appearance of a boom box is a not so subtle reminder) and it will never win over fans looking for intellectual fare, but it does a remarkable job of paying homage to the man who owned the genre at a high point in musical theatre’s evolution. The original production won seven Tony awards, ran for 18 years on Broadway, and has been seen by more than 73 million people around the world. Say what you will, the CATS phenomenon is nothing to sneeze at.

Neither is the hardworking cast who performs this show eight times a week. This group of athletes is in top form as they fluidly move through Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, based on Gillian Lynne’s original work on the show. The physical stamina required is mind-boggling and yet they make it look effortless.

Ensemble numbers are exciting and packed with leaps, pirouettes, gymnastics, and plenty of fancy footwork. Specialty song and dances are filled with bold personality, the most engaging of which is Munkustrap (Dan Hoy), the alpha male protector of the group who also acts as narrator. In a show that can overwhelm the senses with all of its moving parts, his face in stillness is a wonder.

Fat cat Jennyanydots (Emily Jeanne Phillips) energetically taps her way through “The Old Gumbie Cat” while Mungojerrie (Tony d’Alelio) and Rumpelteazer (Rose Iannaccone) wrap around each other like fun-loving pretzels with mischief on their minds. Victoria (Caitlin Bond), the White Cat, and her pas de deux partner Plato (Tyler John Logan) are gorgeous to watch and Mistoffelees (Tion Gaston) is a crowd-pleaser in his LED light up tux and effects-driven breakout performance. Rum Tum Tugger (McGee Maddox) is the Mick Jagger of cats with a rock star persona that has his feline groupies swooning at every turn. Demeter (Liz Schmitz) and Bombalurina (Lexie Plath) slither through a terrific Pink Panther-sounding explanation of “McCavity, The Mystery Cat”. It’s interesting to note that Bombalurina is the role Taylor Swift will play in the film version of CATS out later this year.

McGee Maddox as Rum Tum Tugger

But the most moving performance of all comes not from one of the dancing cats but from the “actor” of the group, Timothy Gulan as Gus the Theatre Cat. Once a great thespian but now old and rickety, his song has the sweetest of melodies and Gulan is so openly vulnerable and charming in his innocence that it’s enough to break your heart. Also, his singing voice matches his character.

The same cannot be said of Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase), the leader of this group of cats and the oldest of the bunch. Instead, Nase has a strong youthful tenor voice and is dressed tragically like a walking shag carpet. Both are unfortunate creative decisions that undermine the integrity of the show and make the character seem like a joke. His purpose as the elder is to choose the cat who will be reborn into their next life yet it’s hard to take him seriously as currently envisioned.

The other disappointment is the role of Grizabella which won Betty Buckley a Tony award for her unforgettable performance of what would become her signature ballad, “Memory.” Currently played by Keri René Fuller as a physically twisted and broken cat, each time she appears on stage all the air gets sucked out of the room. “Memory” is still met with rousing applause because it is so recognizable but the voice falters without a deeper maturity level to anchor the character’s emotion.

CATS is at its best when the dancing takes over and carries the audience away to a whimsical world where a tire rising out of a junkyard becomes a space ship headed to another life, a string of lights is all that's needed to beckon us into a moonlight ball, and the sound of breaking glass signals a hidden villain on the loose. Who knows when you'll be invited to this kind of fantastical party again.

February 26 – March 24, 2019
Hollywood Pantages Theatre
6233 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA  90028
Tickets and more info:
For more about the Tour:

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Thursday, February 14, 2019

Review: RAGTIME Revival Couldn't Come at a Better Time

Bryce Charles and Clifton Duncan. Photo by Jenny Graham

How do you scale down an epic musical like Ragtime for a smaller stage and a different time? When it opened at the Shubert Theatre in Century City in 1997, the cast numbered nearly fifty, the same as it would for its Broadway debut later that year. The stage was enormous and the production filled every inch of it. I still remember how the sheer volume of the choral numbers gave me chills.

For the revival at Pasadena Playhouse, director David Lee has a different spin. Instead of going big, he goes smaller - not tiny, but everything is scaled down by half to fit the Playhouse. Using twenty actors who cover multiple roles on a more compact, compartmentalized set, he offers us a view of early American history from the storage boxes of a museum. (Think Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum franchise but serious.)

A miniature replica of Father and Mother’s house on the hill in New Rochelle emerges from the top of a stack of crates. Down below, a tiny model of the ship that Father and Admiral Byrd will set sail on for their adventure to the North Pole slips out. And, in between, a swing drops from the ceiling, a piano rolls on from the wings and a coffin sinks into the floor. Tom Buderwitz’s scenic design is full of smart visual shorthand that pops out of the shadows when Jared A. Sayeg hits them with light. (His transition marking Tateh’s arrival with his daughter is simple but stunning.)

Photo by Nick Agro

In this semi-Vaudevillian structure, the realism of the story’s vignettes unfold. All that’s missing are the implied subtitles: Mother Finds Baby Buried in Flower Garden, Coalhouse Goes to New Rochelle, Immigrant Almost Loses Daughter in Riot. With the focus squarely on the characters, the melting pot of New York City at the turn of the twentieth century springs to life and, along with them, their hopes, heartaches and challenges.

It’s an intriguing idea to look backward from the lens of today only to realize how little we’ve actually accomplished in our progress as human beings. Immigrants are still looked down upon, racism continues to rear its ugly head, and the benefits of white privilege are still guarded by those who fear change. Terrence McNally weaves these themes together in his adaptation of E.L Doctorow’s novel for the stage, musicalized so beautifully by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. No one will argue that the score is absolutely gorgeous.

Photo by Jenny Graham

Mother (Shannon Warne) quietly struggles to find purpose in her comfortable but sheltered life while Father’s (Zachary Ford) adventures and strict adherence to the way things have always been reveal he is out of step with the changing world. Younger Brother (Dylan Saunders) is desperate for something to believe in and when his obsession with the bombshell Evelyn Nesbit (Katharine McDonough) ends in rejection, it is the anarchist Emma Goldman (Valerie Perri) who replaces the fire in his belly, setting him on a collision course with Coalhouse Walker (Clifton Duncan), a smooth-talking ragtime pianist and ladies’ man.

Coalhouse doesn’t know his sweetheart Sarah (Bryce Charles) has given birth to his son, only that she has disappeared. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Tateh (Marc Ginsburg) a Jewish widower and his Little Girl (Iara Nemirovsky) arrive fresh off the boat, clutching their dreams as tightly as each other. As their stories begin to converge, this powerhouse of a show does what musical theatre does best - move you - in outrage, in frustration, and ultimately in a joyful affirmation of the future.

Several striking performances give fresh resonance to roles previously made famous by the likes of Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie (Broadway’s original Coalhouse and Mother). Duncan’s thrilling anthem “Make Them Hear You,” which precedes his final moments on stage, rings with a dizzying depth of emotion and brings the production to an electrifying climax. If you have no other reason to see the show, see it for what he does with this number. It’s that good.

Beyond looking the part (
Kate Bergh’s costumes for Mother are exquisite, parasol and all) Warne anchors the show with grace and adds subtlety to a role that relies on the actress who plays it to fill in the subtext and make it sing. She does. Ginsburg’s dramatic turn as Tateh is some of the best work he’s done in Los Angeles and Dylan Saunders as Younger Brother makes his featured role one of the most memorable of the night. It’s another case of an actor getting inside the head of a character and giving the audience something they didn’t expect.

The monumental job of making the music soar goes to music director and conductor Darryl Archibald. Even though the Playhouse’s stage has been known to swallow the sound (and it does so occasionally in this production), the music still takes flight and delivers its emotional punch when it counts.

As a country, we will always be a patchwork of people coming together to make the most of our disparate parts. Even now, over a century later, we struggle to get it right. If Ragtime shows us anything about ourselves it is that there is work yet to be done. Pasadena Playhouse’s revival couldn’t come at a better time.

February 5 - March 9, 2019
Pasadena Playhouse
39 South El Molino Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91101
Tickets: 626-356-7529 or

L-R: Candace Washington, Clifton Duncan, Cornelius Jones Jr. and
Bryce Charles. Photo by Jenny Graham

Bryce Charles. Photo by Jenny Graham

Photo by Nick Agro

Clifton Duncan, Valerie Perri, and Dylan Saunders. Photo by Nick Agro

Marc Ginsburg. Photo by Jenny Graham

Candance Washington, Clifton Duncan, and Cornelius Jones Jr.
Photo by Jenny Graham

Photo by Jenny Graham

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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Review: WITNESS UGANDA, Changing the World One Life at a Time

The cast of Witness Uganda

The need for human connection runs deep in Witness Uganda, a musical by Griffin Matthews and Matt Gould based on Matthews’ real-life experiences in Uganda. At its center is the idea that we are all part of a global family – one world, one heart – connected by an invisible thread that never lets go.

That may sound a bit lofty but the musical was born out of a sincere desire to make a difference by raising money for the couple’s Uganda Project, a nonprofit organization that funds education for students in one of the world’s most impoverished countries. Proof of the good they’ve done can be seen today in the youths whose lives have been changed by their efforts. According to the organization’s website, success stories include a doctor, a nurse, several computer experts, and one young man who opened his own non-profit that supports Ugandan orphans.

It all started in 2005 when Matthews, an unemployed actor, traveled to Uganda on a volunteer mission, in part, to prevent his church community from finding out he was gay. His destination wasn’t an obvious one, given that the persecution homosexuals face in Uganda can be sizable. But, when the universe delivers an opportunity, it often does so without giving you enough time to second guess yourself. All it really requires is a leap of faith, and Matthews was ready to take it. So, Witness Uganda is his story.

Jamar Williams and the ensemble

Like any original musical, it has seen changes since its initial workshop. It premiered in 2014 at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater directed by Diane Paulus and, a year later, a revision opened Off -Broadway under the title Invisible Thread. The character of Ryan, Griffin’s best friend, has gone from being a woman, to his boyfriend at the time (Gould), and back to a woman (both times played by Emma Hunton). It has also returned to its first title for its run at The Wallis.

Two Richard Rodgers Awards and two ASCAP Awards show the promise in the piece. A striking cast (which includes Grammy nominated R&B artist Ledisi) and at least twelve producers (among them Leslie Odom, Jr., original cast member Nicolette Robinson, Cynthia Erivo, and Abigail Spencer) have also stacked the deck in the show’s favor.

Ledisi. Photo by Dan Steinberg

Yet for all its pedigree, Witness Uganda still feels like a work in progress, albeit a well-polished and fully-committed one.

Originally, Matthews played himself in the show but, with another musical based on his and Gould’s real-life love story in the works, his character is now played by Jamar Williams (in a sweet, heartfelt performance) while Matthews has transitioned to director.

Griffin arrives in Kampala, Uganda to help build a school for local children. He befriends a young worker named Jacob (Kameron Richardson) whose life is controlled by his angry, overbearing sister, Joy (Amber Iman). A few days later, Griffin loses faith in the mission when he learns their leader, Pastor Jim, plans to sell the school for his own gain, upon its completion. At the same time, he crosses paths with a group of poor orphans who are unable to pay for school but are eager to learn. One of them steals his backpack, which forces Griffin to chase them up a hill to get it back. It is there that his mission shifts from building a school to being a teacher, and he leaves Pastor Jim’s worksite behind.

Jamar Williams and Kameron Richardson with the cast

As expected, the fallout has consequences, however, not for him. And that is perhaps the biggest problem with the show. While the story is about Griffin, nothing really happens to Griffin. Jacob suffers and the children Griffin teaches will endure a huge loss but our hero’s journey has little dramatic tension or personal conflict. His internal struggle alone isn’t enough to sustain the narrative and keep the audience invested. We need higher stakes.

To compensate, the creative team has packed the show with powerful performances, explosive choreography, and exciting vocals that intersect with gale-force intensity. The result can feel somewhat over-produced for the size of The Wallis’ Lovelace Studio Theater but it’s a thrilling combination of elements nonetheless. It’s also a great example of how talented artists can elevate material and make it seem better than it is.

Audience members are positioned on two sides of the stage opposite each other in an effort to create an inclusive experience but instead it only limits the playing area. Technical aspects take a necessary minimalist approach. Other than a few props, a couple of platforms, black boxes that can be repositioned to create the different locales, and some good lighting effects (using LED lights for a disaster scene are a particularly smart solution), the actors and dancers tell the story.

On one of the platforms, Gould conducts the band while playing an electric keyboard housed inside a baby grand with the guts removed. Near the end of the show, the whole unit moves across the length of the stage while he bangs out a highly-charged song. The staging doesn’t have anything to do with the storytelling however it is a cool effect.

Dexter Darden (center) and cast

Gould’s score is a tantalizing mix of pop rock, African rhythms, power ballads, and percussive beats, and he definitely knows how to write a memorable hook. The songs create an impact with their overall style and sound, and it’s easy for a lover of beautiful music to get swept away by their pop sensibility but for theatre that isn’t enough. They need lyrics that will advance the action or engage us in the story. Otherwise we sit back instead of lean into the show. And yet, the beating heart of the piece is never in question.

Witness Uganda may still be searching for the best way to tell its inspiring story but it is a worthy journey we do want to take. Clarity, and a stronger point of view, would make all the difference.

February 5 – March 3, 2019 
Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts
Lovelace Studio Theater
9390 N. Santa Monica Boulevard
Beverly Hills, CA 90210 
Tickets: 310.746.4000 or

Photo credit: Kevin Parry, except where noted.

Jamar Williams and Amber Iman

Antwone Barnes and the cast

Jamar Williams and Kameron Richardson

Emma Hunton and Jamar Williams

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Thursday, February 7, 2019

First Look: LIZZIE The Musical at Chance Theater

Monika Peña as Lizzie Borden. All photos by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

Chance Theatre kicks off its 21st season with Lizzie, The Musical, a punk-rock opera about America’s favorite axe-wielding sweetheart-diva-heroine-psychopath, Lizzie Borden. Inspired by ‘70s iconic rockers like Patti Smith and Joan Jett, this one will get your blood pumping from its first notes. Written by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner, and Alan Stevens Hewitt, directed by Jocelyn A. Brown with music direction by Robyn Manion and choreography by Hazel Clarke. It’s gonna get bloody quick! Tickets:

Nicole Gentile, Monika Peña, and Jisel Soleil Ayon

Monika Peña (Lizzie Borden) and Jisel Soleil Ayon (Alice Russell)

Nicole Gentile, Alli Rose Schynert, Monika Peña,
and Jisel Soleil Ayon

Alli Rose Schynert as Emma Borden

Nicole Gentile as Bridget Sullivan

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Saturday, February 2, 2019

Review: HELLO, DOLLY! - At Long Last, It's Hello, Betty!

Betty Buckley in Hello, Dolly! All photos by Julieta Cervantes

In the lexicon of American Musical Theatre, Hello, Dolly! is one of the best star vehicles ever written. And, because of the title role’s iconic nature, almost everyone can name the leading ladies who have played her. Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Pearl Bailey, Barbra Streisand, and most recently, Bette Midler, have all donned the red sequined gown and outsized personality of Dolly Levi, matchmaker extraordinaire and the original mother of invention.

But, now, to the thrill of local music theatre fans, it’s time to say, “Well, hello Betty…” Betty Buckley, that is, queen of the Broadway musical, who originated the roles of Edwin Drood, Martha Jefferson in 1776, and Grizabella in CATS (for which she won a Tony Award). She’s played some of the genre’s most tragic characters, from Norma Desmond to Margaret White in the cult musical Carrie, to Triumph of Love’s Hesione. Everything she does is a master class in excellence. To watch as she brings her signature emotional heft to composer Jerry Herman and bookwriter Michael Stewart’s enduring classic is a high audiences won’t soon forget.

Dolly breezes into town like a breath of fresh air and Betty gives us a character full of chutzpah and heart, whose rare insight into the hilarious foibles of love endear her to everyone within reach. Before the curtain falls, she will succeed in delivering a new romance to two optimistic young men in search of a big city adventure, fulfill the dreams of a hat maker who longs for love, open the eyes of a quirky young shopgirl with her first infatuation, help a young couple convince her curmudgeonly uncle to support their engagement, and persuade said uncle that the perfect match for him is none other than Dolly herself.

 Front left: Jess LeProtto (Barnaby) and Nic Rouleau (Cornelius) with
Lewis J. Stadlen (center) and the cast of Hello, Dolly!

Horace Vandergelder (Lewis J. Stadlen) is the well-known unmarried Yonkers half-a-millionaire whom Dolly has decided will take the place of her deceased husband, Ephraim. For ten years she has made a go of it on her own but, as she says in one of her loving asides, “I’m tired, Ephraim, tired of living from hand to mouth.” Still, she wants him to give her a sign it’s okay to move on and, when it finally arrives, it is the perfect tug-on-the-heart conclusion to this optimistic all-American musical.

Buckley and Stadlen, whose own credits include more than a dozen Broadway shows and Tony nominations for Candide and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, are a terrific pair. His chauvinism belongs to a different time and her unwavering ability to steamroll past any objection is a practice women are still having to exercise today. That their verbal volley works is a credit to director Jerry Zaks, who doesn’t try to sidestep Horace’s dated mindset but instead highlights it and then surrounds him with a theatrical reality big enough to make him grow in the process.

Betty Buckley and Lewis J. Stadlen

Character bits abound and are played broadly for the sake of the comedy, particularly by the unlikely road duo of chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (Nic Rouleau) and his assistant Barnaby Tucker (Jess LeProtto) who both work for Horace. Going as big as they do within such a naïve framework makes them lovable rather than annoying and pays off beautifully as their capers spin out of control. Plus, Rouleau packs a bright classic music theatre tenor voice that rings to the back of the Pantages’ large house, and LeProtto has the moves of a modern-day Gene Kelly and an instinctive sense of comic timing.

Widow Irene Molloy (Analisa Leaming) and her assistant Minnie Fay (Kristen Hahn) are the women who catch their eye when the men accidentally duck into Irene’s hat shop. Leaming is lovely as the confident business woman who wants more from life than just selling hats, while Hahn’s eccentricities make her flirtations comedy gold. The rest of the cast members match their brio, each building on their character’s idiosyncrasies which, in this show, are plentiful.

Betty Buckley and the cast of Hello, Dolly!

The touring production also benefits from the talents of the same creative team that mounted the 2017 Broadway revival. In addition to Zaks’ direction, Warren Carlyle choreographs one sensational production number after another on a set designed by Santo Loquasto that brings all the nostalgic charm of the Gay Nineties to life with extravagant detail. Its painted vintage backdrops, plush Harmonia Gardens staircase, and delightful train to New York are a fitting foundation for Loquastos costumes, which come in a blissful array of candy shop colors.

Musical direction is by Robert Billig, music supervision by Andy Einhorn, orchestrations by Larry Hochman, vocal arrangements by Don Pippin, and dance arrangements are by David Chase. What they are presenting is quite an accomplishment. 

This national tour of Hello, Dolly! boasts so many outstanding elements that the only real response is for me to say, go see it. Those of you who are aspiring actors, dancers, designers, and musical theatre writers, this is your homework. To know where we’re going, we need to know where we’ve come from, and this American classic is an important part of our legacy. Everything about the show is infectious, from its non-stop energy to its heightened style. And with Betty Buckley at the center of it all, it is a musical theatre geek’s dream come true.

Betty Buckley and the ensemble of Hello, Dolly!

January 29 - February 17 2019
Hollywood Pantages Theatre
6233 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA  90028
Tickets and info:

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