Friday, December 16, 2016

Review: LITTLE DRUMMER BOWIE is the Best Bauble of the Season

L-R: Katie Kitani, Katie DeShan, Rick Batalla, Joseph Leo Bwarie,
Niles Rivers, and Cloie Wyatt Taylor. Photo by Sasha A. Venola

Savvy theatre companies know the secret to success is simple: find your niche, do it better than anyone else, keep growing, and give the people what they want. Do those four things and you’ll be among the handful of companies who never want for an audience. Do it good-naturedly, with a healthy dose of humor, and you’ll work your way into the hearts of that audience so deeply they will claim you as their very own and follow you wherever you go.

The Troubadour Theater Company is such a company. Their home base is the Falcon Theatre in Toluca Lake where the late Garry Marshall – family man, beloved mentor, and cherished friend – always encouraged them to “give it a shot” and try new things. With his passing this year, the Troubies’ latest original work Little Drummer Bowie carries with it a touch of the bittersweet. 

Their champion is no longer sitting in his usual corner seat grinning as the jokes fly fast and furiously from the stage. I can only imagine how much they miss him, though I’m sure he is still watching, albeit from a much loftier vantage point, and smiling, nonetheless. For the record… we, in the audience, miss him as well.

Perhaps it is fitting then that Little Drummer Bowie, a Christmas story about the search for love and the importance of family is their musical of choice for 2016, a year in which we also lost pop icon and glam rocker, David Bowie, another family man admired for his innovative work.

Katie Kitani, Rick Batalla, Lisa Valenzuela, Joseph Leo Bwarie, Niles 
Rivers, Katie DeShan, and Cloie Wyatt Taylor. Photo by Sasha A. Venola

Bowie’s music lends itself beautifully to the Troubies’ unique brand of theatre, which takes a well-known classic story (in this case, the 1968 stop motion animated special The Little Drummer Boy) and the songs of a famous musician (like David Bowie) and morphs them into a wonderfully warped original tale. Troubie trademarks include a circus-style sensibility, shtick-loving comedy, song parodies, dance sequences, a house band to rival anything you’ll hear on late night television, and a troupe of actors who throw themselves into the fun house, full-bore, every time. Audiences can’t get enough of it.

For Little Drummer Bowie, A Musical Parody of Biblical Proportions, Bowie’s alter-ego Ziggy Stardust is dropped into a Troubie-fied version of The Little Drummer Boy as its title character. Ziggy (Joseph Leo Bwarie) is adept at playing the drum but doesn’t play well with others, choosing instead to eschew the company of people and spend his time with animal pals Babaa (Katie Kitani) and Samson (Cloie Wyatt Taylor).

But this is Jerusalem before the birth of Christ (don’t worry, that’ll take place before the final curtain) and Ziggy has no way to pay his tax so he agrees to join Ben Haramed (Riccardo Berdini) and sidekick Ali’s (Beth Kennedy) traveling show to earn money. What he doesn’t bargain for is how the rush of fame will change him.

L-R: Rod Webb, Rick Batalla, Beth Kennedy, Eric Heinly, Niles Rivers,
and Dana Decker. Photo by Sasha A. Venola

Chance meetings with Mary (Lisa Valenzuela) and Joseph (Rick Batalla) of Nazareth; three famous Kings following a star – Don (Niles Rivers), Larry (Batalla) and Billie Jean (Kennedy) – and a trio of wandering shepherds – Rivers, Batalla and Katie DeShan (as spicy Little Bowie Peep) give Ziggy pause to question the meaning of life while simultaneously ensuring the audience a grand good time.

Even though the show is a complete ensemble piece, each member of the troupe has a specific function within it. Little Drummer Bowie makes great use of its longtime members’ strengths, like Valenzuela’s vocal chops (girl can belt!) and Batalla’s improv skills. She turns “Fame” into one hot number (with Berdini) and he will chew on a comedy bit until he gets his groan from the audience no matter how long it takes. Running gags are his specialty and this time around it’s 20 hilarious years in the evolution of the mobile phone. Watch out if you’re sitting in the front row, or anywhere he can see you. You’re fair game.

The detail with which Kennedy creates characters is so remarkably impressive and genuinely wacky that I’d put her skills up against Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett any day. During Ziggy’s emotional ballad “Life on Mars?” she’s over in the corner doing a dance of the veils that finds her writhing on the floor and twirling tassels at hyper speed. She also has a way of pinning the laughs mid-air for those brief serious moments that call for dramatic sincerity. That’s when you see how deep the well really is.

Joseph Leo Bwarie and Beth Kennedy. Photo by Sherry Greczmiel

Bwarie brings considerable star quality to the production. The Broadway ringer and studio musician holds the record for the most performances as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys (over 2000) and his association with Garry Marshall goes back over ten years to the world premiere of Marshall’s musical Happy Days in which he originated the role of Chachi. Incidentally, that’s the gig that got him Jersey Boys when Carole King heard him sing.

Here he pays homage to David Bowie with moody magnificence, channeling the many levels and idiosyncrasies of the icon with stunning facility. And that voice. From where I was sitting I could see quite a few audience members, both male and female, caught up in the Bwarie-Bowie swoon worthy charm. It’s hard to pick a favorite from the half dozen or so songs he sings but that intro to “Space Oddity” (better known as “Ground Control to ‘Captain’ Tom”) is up there at the top of my list.

The show is co-directed by Bwari and artistic director Matt Walker who, for the first time, isn’t on stage with the rest of his trusty comrades. He’s missed – not because they can’t do without him – but because Walker’s unique style and ringmaster sparkle have always been the driving force behind all of the zaniness. We do get to hear him as The Voice From Above and you’ll still recognize his hand at work throughout the show. Batalla and Kennedy shoulder the heavy lifting in his absence and they do it admirably. Newcomers rise to the occasion, particularly Wyatt Taylor as a dancing donkey with attitude. Choreography by Jordana Toback is crisp and well-executed.

Longtime Troubie musical director Eric Heinly’s arrangements of Bowie’s hits are full of bright textures and rich sound. “Starman,” “Changes,” “Under Pressure,” “Oh! You Pretty Things” and the aforementioned “Space Oddity,” “Fame,” and “Life on Mars?” will remind you how prolific Bowie was and this set list is Heinly’s forte. There isn’t a weak musical moment anywhere.

L-R: Katie Kitani, Cloie Wyatt Taylor, Katie DeShan, Rick Batalla, Riccardo 
Berdini, Beth Kennedy, Niles Rivers,and Lisa Valenzuela. Photo by Sasha A. Venola 

Neither is there a lack of color. Sharon McGunigle’s costumes are an ingenious blend of fantasy, desert garb, and candy-colored ‘70s and ‘80s nightclub gear. Scenic designer Christopher Scott Murillo places three interlocking pedestals center stage in front of the band to capitalize on the rock concert aspects of the show and a Wailing Wall behind them that creates a polished diorama-like setting under the glow of JM Montecalvo’s lighting. Its the kind of design that would travel nicely should they ever want to take this Christmas confection on the road.

David Bowie once said, “I don’t know where Im going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” The same can be said of every Troubie show I’ve ever seen. You never know what they’ll say or do next but this bunch of inspired clowns has mastered the fine art of making theatre fun, and that’s what people really want at this time of year. Little Drummer Bowie is the roller coaster ride you need to get you through the mayhem and madness of the holidays. For sheer entertainment value, you can’t beat it. Best bauble of the season, bar none!

L-R: Rick Batalla, Katie DeShan, and Niles Rivers. Photo by Sasha A. Venola

Riccardo Berdini. Photo by Sherry Greczmiel

Joseph Leo Bwarie. Photo by Sherry Greczmiel

November 30, 2016 - January 15, 2017
The Troubies at the Falcon Theatre
4252 Riverside Drive
Burbank, CA  91505
Tickets: (818) 955-8101 or

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