Sunday, May 27, 2012

Two Reasons to Head to San Diego - Nobody Loves You and The Scottsboro Boys

Few things are more enjoyable for me than going to the theater, and it’s even better when it gives me a reason to take a drive to San Diego, especially on a beautiful Southern California Saturday. The traffic is lighter on the weekend, people are more relaxed, and it reminds me why I choose to live here on the west coast in the first place. Those of you who also moved here from parts beyond know exactly what I mean. Fortunately, my latest road trip was another perfect drive to The Old Globe in San Diego’s Balboa Park, this time to see two new musicals – Nobody Loves You and The Scottsboro Boys.

Adam Kantor as Jeff (center) and the cast of  Nobody Loves You,
Photos by Henry DiRocco
At first glance the two appear to have nothing in common for their subject matter is not only worlds apart but anchored in different time periods as well. Itamar Moses and Gaby Alter’s Nobody Loves You is a contemporary pop/rock musical that centers on the world of dating and reality television in which twenty-somethings search for love by competing in contests patterned after reality shows like The Bachelor and Survivor. The Scottsboro Boys is the true story of nine young African American men who were accused of rape in 1930s Alabama told as a minstrel show via the music & lyrics of Kander & Ebb and David Thompson’s satiric libretto.

Though vastly different subjects told in completely different styles, a closer look shows that the two musicals share a common thread. Each deals with the idea of truth in reality, and how it can be manipulated into telling a different story. You’d think reality TV would at least have something to do with actual reality but the very name itself is a misnomer. What passes for reality is really a carefully edited version of the truth, creatively skewed to ensure that it will produce ratings. Nobody Loves You shows the best and worst of this false reality in all its comic glory yet without sacrificing any of its heart. It may poke fun but it does so with genuine charm and a highly entertaining score to help tell its story.
Heath Calvert as Byron, Adam Kantor as Jeff and
Nicole Lewis as Nina
Here a typical group of romantic hopefuls compete to find love, but there’s a twist. Among their ranks is a renegade who represents the skeptics of the world. Unlike the others, philosophy student Jeff (Adam Kantor) comes on the show in hopes of winning his ex-girlfriend back but finds she didn’t make the cut in auditions. Surprisingly, he decides to stay when he realizes he’s found the perfect topic for his ontology dissertation, and sets about to expose the “gaps between reality and what we might intrinsically be.” As the rest of the contestants pair off and try to keep from being eliminated, Jeff remains aloof and condescending, until he ends up falling for the show’s down-to-earth production assistant, Jenny (Jenni Barber), a twist that drives fans at home crazy with anticipation.

Michelle Tattenbaum gamely directs a first-rate cast full of recognizable characters. Lauren Molina’s party girl pairs off with Christian hunk, Christian (Kelsey Kurz), who’s saving himself for marriage. Her constant efforts to seduce him make for plenty of laughs, especially when she strips down to entice him in the hot tub in “Come on In.” Samantha (Kate Morgan Chadwick) is so desperate for love that when her onscreen player-in-a-blazer Dominic (Alex Brightman) is eliminated she makes a play for Christian, and though it doesn’t last, she manages to turn her fifteen minutes of fame into a lucrative speaker business and book deal. If one can’t have love, one can at least be famous, right?


Brightman
 (pictured above) plays two other very funny characters in the show. As Jeff’s slacker roommate Chazz he shows off his ability with deadpan comedy, and as Jenny’s roommate Evan, he is hilarious as the ultimate obsessed gay fan of the show who tweets his every thought while wearing a periwinkle blue OnePiece of Norway. Altar has even written a brilliant twitter song for him that will make you laugh out loud, but be careful you don’t miss any of the lyrics. They’re just too good. It’s one of seventeen terrific tunes with smart, inventive lyrics you could blast in the car if there was a cast recording available. The singers, together with music director Vadim Feichtner and his band, bring these songs vividly to life. Production values are high; lighting designer Tyler Micoleau dresses the stage like an artist with bright colors and warm tones that fill out Michael Schweikardt’s cheesy pop-up game show set.

 

Composer Itamar Moses describes reality TV as a “fascinating slow motion train wreck” and there’s no doubt that as much as we may ridicule it, we still can’t look away. Sadly, that too has become part of our culture.

Clifton Duncan as Haywood Patterson and the cast of The Scottsboro Boys

The story of
The Scottsboro Boys is a train wreck of another kind that we might wish we could look away from but that history dictates we cannot. The racially charged south of the 1930s is brought to life with charismatic originality via Kander & Ebb’s jingle jangly minstrel show. Using this outdated form of American entertainment (outdated for good reason) will definitely cause you moments of discomfort as you watch its blunt presentation of black and white stereotypes but it’s actually the perfect lens through which to view the sheer horror of what happened to the Scottsboro Boys.

The Old Globe’s production is one of the true highlights this season in San Diego and if you are anywhere within driving distance it’s a “must see musical.” Five time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman directs and choreographs an athletic production that never misses an opportunity to use the theatricality of the stage to highlight the circus spectacle nature of the case. And it comes with a whole lotta singin’ and dancin’ to drive the message home.

Kander & Ebb’s score is packed with songs that will linger in your ear long after you’ve left the theater. “Commencing in Chattanooga” will have you bouncing in your seat with its infectious upbeat melody just as “Alabama Ladies” will make you laugh and squirm at the same time. Tap dancing in prison with men being electrocuted wins dumbfounded kudos for its audacity and “Go Back Home” is a heartbreaking ballad led by Haywood that is simply beautiful.

Jared Joseph, Ron Holgate, and JC Montgomery

Every single performer onstage is outstanding and together they create an extremely moving musical. It’s hard to single any of them out for they are all uniquely featured, sing and dance with ridiculous precision, and bring every ounce of energy they have to their roles.
Jared Joseph and JC Montgomery as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo rip through numerous stereotypical characters with brash authority and Clifton Duncan, as Haywood Patterson, is especially powerful as a man who isn’t willing to buy his freedom with a lie, even though it is a lie that has jailed him in the first place.


The rest of Scottsboro Boys are David Bazemore as Olen Montgomery, Nile Bullock as 13-year old Eugene Williams, Christopher James Culbertson as Andy Wright, Eric Jackson as Clarence Norris, Cornelius Bethea as Willie Roberson, James T. Lane as Ozie Powell, Clifton Oliver as Charles Weems, and Clinton Roane as Roy Wright (who teaches Haywood how to read in prison). Master of ceremonies Ron Holgate plays the The Interlocuter and C. Kelly Wright is the Lady - a haunting presence throughout the show.


Technically the production uses simple but bold elements to enhance the storytelling. Scenic designer 
Beowulf Boritt wraps the stage with a purposely off-kilter set of frames that resemble the outline of a boxcar, or pages of a story book gone wrong, and supports the progression of chaos in the story with the heap of chairs, used to create different locations, that become increasingly more of a mess. Ken Billington’s lighting design is equally as powerful and together with Jon Weston’s sound design and Toni-Leslie James’ costume design, make for a rich visual experience.

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