Friday, February 03, 2017

Kinky Boots


What do you get when you mix singer/songwriter Cyndi Lauper with actor/playwright Harvey Fierstein? You get glitz and glam and a fabulous production, with a pair of shoes at the center of it.

The long-awaited “Kinky Boots” is now causing toes to tap at the Community Center Theater in Sacramento. It is a non-stop singing, dancing extravaganza with more sequins than may have graced the Community Center stage in years. The colors! The lights! The music! All pour out over the audience, which caught them with whoops and cheers.

The story (yes, there is one) is actually based on the true story of a five-generation family factory (W.J. Brooks) in Northampton, England. The whole town made shoes, but because of cheap imports that flooded the market in the 1980s and ’90s, many companies were going out of business and Brooks was forced to cut his staff by more than half.

Just as all seemed bleak, the current head of the factory received a call that would change his life. A fetish store in Folkstone commissioned him to create ladies’ shoes for men. Soon, Divine Footwear was born, a subsidiary of W.J. Brooks dedicated to making “kinky boots.” By 1999, the specialty shoes made up 50 percent of the company’s revenue.

(A sad P.S. to the story was that an American company dumped a big debt on Divine Footwear and they were forced to stop production.)

But proving that there is a silver lining to dark clouds, out of that story came an indie movie (non-musical) and now this amazing musical production showcasing the music of Lauper, her first-ever Broadway show, which won her a Tony for Best Musical and Best Original Score, as well as countless other awards.

“Kinky Boots,” however, is more than just the story of rescuing a factory and creating fabulous shoes. It’s about a guy who thought outside the box and took a chance on doing things a little differently. It’s about how unlikely people overcame their differences.

It’s about how two men come together and end up healing each other and accepting each other. And in the end they end up accepting themselves too.

Curt Hansen is Charlie Price, who really isn’t into shoes and who wants to break with tradition and go to London with his social-climbing girlfriend Nicola (Katerina Papacostas). But life changes for him when his father (Tom Souhrada) dies suddenly and Charlie must decide what to do with the factory, and its employees, who have been his lifelong friends.

J. Harrison-Ghee, as Lola, is a force of nature as he bursts though a shimmering curtain and joins the rest of the dancers at a seedy London club where he first meets Charlie. He inhabits the drag-queen role with every ounce of energy he has, and an assortment of gorgeous wigs and costumes. Seeing him on stage is worth the price of admission alone.

In the Fierstein-Lauper version of the story, both men are victims of failed parental expectations, which brings them a bond of understanding, beautifully highlighted in one of the show’s most moving songs, “Not My Father’s Son.”

Each man has his own signature song that comes from the depth of his pain. For Charlie it is “Soul of a Man” berating himself for not being as passionate as his father, and for Lola it is “Hold Me In Your Heart” an accept-me-for-who-I-am statement in the manner of “I Am Who I Am” from “La Cage aux Folles.”

Surrounding these two men are a host of talented actors, including Aaron Walpole as Don, the factory worker who, after a rocky start, learns to accept Lola for who she is.

Rose Hemingway plays Lauren, the girl who has a secret crush on Charlie and who is his biggest supporter when things go wrong. Her “The History of Wrong Guys” was gut-wrenching, and perhaps more lyrical than any other song in the show.

All’s well that ends well and Lola’s “angels,” a sextet of drag queens, save the day in the rousing finale, “Raise You Up”/”Just Be.”

After all, there’s no business like shoe business.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Becoming Dr. Ruth

Anne O’Sullivan got the audience’s attention right away.

“People don’t look at the elderly as sexual beings. … Worse, some older people don’t see themselves that way.” Since most of the people in the audience for the performance I attended had white hair, they were interested immediately.

O’Sullivan is playing famous sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer in a new play, “Becoming Dr. Ruth” by Mark St. Germain, now at the B Street Theatre, directed by Jerry Montoya.

Like Julia Child (who worked for the OSS during World War II), the diminutive Westheimer has a more interesting back story than simply that of a cute little old lady who likes to talk about sex. In fact, though she delivers sexual advice throughout the 90-minute show, sex is actually the least interesting part of her story. The very last thing this show is is salacious.

The setting is Westheimer’s apartment in 1997, shortly following the death of her third husband, Fred Westheimer (to whom she was married for 36 years and raised two children). She is preparing to move across town and as the show opens, she is on the phone talking to one of the movers, to whom she ends up giving marital advice.

As the lights come up and she notices the audience, she hangs up the phone and begins talking to those watching. As she packs various items into boxes, she reminisces about them and the memories they evoke.

Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Wiesenfeld, Germany, in 1928 into what seems to have been a close, loving Jewish family. Though not religious, she did get early training in Judaism by being taken to synagogue by her father, from whom she learned the lesson of always keeping a smile on her face and never allowing her negative feelings to show on the outside.

Her father was captured by the Nazis when she was 10 years old and taken to a labor camp shortly after Kristallnacht (“night of broken glass” when windows of stores, synagogues and homes were broken in the first night of a series of pogroms). Young Karola was sent to Switzerland under a program called Kindertransport, and thus avoided the fate of her family, all of whom eventually died at Auschwitz.

Life was not great for her in an orphanage in Switzerland and when she was 17, she moved to Palestine, where she lived on a kibbutz. She had her first sexual experience there … and liked it.
She joined the Haganah, part of the Israeli Defense Force, but because she was so short (4-foot-7) she was trained as a scout and a sniper. She was wounded by an exploding shell during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 and it took several months before she could walk again.

The play continues to tell her experience trying to get an education in France and in the United States, where she eventually earned her teaching credential, something she had wanted all of her life.

Her first radio show ran for 15 minutes in 1980 and was immediately so popular that it expanded to an hour. The Dr. Ruth phenomenon was born, and continues to this day, where she still answers questions, but now through her website.

Director Montoya nicely moves Westheimer’s story through her apartment, designed by Alex Polzin. At all times, the audience feels like a visitor listening to a fascinating lady tell her story.

O’Sullivan honors Dr. Ruth and makes her a believable character rather than a caricature.

Some performances will have talk-backs following the show. Our talk-back featured a fascinating Holocaust survivor whose own story was as harrowing, or more so, than Dr. Ruth’s herself. By all means, stay.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Betrayal

Capital Stage’s current production of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” is a beautifully directed (by Janis Stevens), wonderfully acted, handsomely designed story of three people that we really don’t like very much at all.

The one-act play, which starts at the end of the story, works backwards in nine scenes to the beginning. The plot closely parallels Pinter’s own life at the time. The married playwright was in a seven-year affair with a BBC reporter, whose husband was his own best friend.

The set for this production, designed by Paul Kreutz, is very stark, but somehow compelling. It is an all-white stage with three platforms that overlap each other. A bed is suggested on the top level, with a lovely shimmering golden blanket (the only hint of color on the stage).

A table, bench and chairs are moved by the efficient stage crew from scene to scene to suggest the next locale. Three large screens stretch across the back, each showing a video that lets the viewer know the year, the season and the location. (Projections are by Russell Dow.)

As the show opens, Emma (Elena Wright) is waiting in a pub for Jerry (Chad Deverman). Dialog reveals that they have not seen each other in two years, and that they had a seven-year affair. They talk of her husband (whom she is about to divorce) and Jerry’s wife and whether the spouses ever knew of their involvement.

In the next scene we meet Emma’s husband Robert (Michael Patrick Wiles), who is the quintessential example of the British “stiff upper lip,” as he and Jerry dispassionately discuss the affair with Emma and whether they should get together to play a game of squash or not.

As the scenes move backward, we find betrayal everywhere. Emma lies to Jerry, Robert lies to Emma, Jerry lies to his wife, and to Emma. They have created the proverbial tangled web and lived it for seven years, and are still living with the consequences.

Elena Wright starts the story as a somewhat nervous yet likable Emma meeting her former lover after two years, but as their conversation continues, her need for reassurance that he still has feelings for her and her apparent willingness to give it another go gradually erase that likability and she starts to be annoying.

Costumer Gail Russell has chosen a violet palate for Elena, and in every scene she is wearing a new costume, but always in the same shade of violet, which is very becoming on her.

We don’t really start to dislike Jerry for several scenes. He seems an OK fellow, until he doesn’t. Russell has created a striking series of costumes for him, in colorful pastels that shouldn’t match, but do.

Wiles, as Robert, in contrast, is in a more nondescript costume that doesn’t really stand out, which matches his personality. Wiles does well keeping his anger quietly simmering just below the surface while engaging in polite conversation with his best friend, who is sleeping with his wife.

Graham Scott Green adds a much-needed touch of humor in his brief scene as the waiter in an Italian restaurant.

Perhaps the problem with this play is that there is no mystery. We know from the beginning how the relationship ends and there is nothing much surprising about how it begins.

The play is billed as one of Pinter’s “masterpieces,” but I much preferred his “Homecoming,” also directed by Stevens, which Capital Stage presented two years ago.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Shape of Things


When I left the Lab Theatre in Wright Hall on the UCD campus after seeing a fine production of Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things,” directed by Gregory Holmes, my first thought was: “How in the world can I review this show?”

To discuss most of the plot is to destroy the discovery that audience members will make during the 90-minute one-act play.

And so I will try to be obtuse, but still give it the attention it deserves.

Taylor Church is Adam, a somewhat nerdy grad student working two jobs to put himself through school. One of his jobs is as a guard in the campus art museum.

Melissa Cunha is Evelyn, a free spirit, an art student working on a performance-art project, who has come to the museum to deface a statue she believes has been ruined by moralistic faculty members.
In trying to convince her not to use her can of spray paint, Adam finds himself attracted to her, and, despite his reticent nature, he ends up taking her out for coffee.

Out of this, a relationship begins to grow. Because of his feelings for her, so contrary to her open, almost amoral nature, he finds himself wanting to please her and begins to make improvements in himself.

The couple meet Adam’s old roommate Philip (Emile Rappaport), a brash, outspoken man who bristles at Evelyn’s ideas. They are oil and water, and an immediate animosity exists between them.
Philip’s fiancĂ©e Jenny (Kelly Tappan) is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken woman, interested in planning their upcoming wedding.

The four actors give excellent performances, particularly Cunha and Church, as they examine the meaning of friendship, loyalty, manipulation, love, betrayal and what constitutes “art.”

The scenic design of Elizabeth Kang consists of a series of white blocks, creatively assembled to represent tables, chairs and beds, each of which quite believable (who needs real furniture when you can work so creatively with blocks?)

The costume designs of Colleen Smith are particularly good, especially for what she does with Adam.
The mood is beautifully created by the lighting design of William Ebler.

As the play comes to an end, audience members will leave the theater talking about what just happened and how they feel about it.

People considering attending this show should be aware that it contains adult language and adult situations and is not suitable for children.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Whale



Charlie is dying. He’s 600 pounds and housebound. He is grieving the loss of his partner Alan, and he is eating himself to death. His apartment is littered with the detritus of a diet of junk food: candy wrappers, pastry boxes, KFC buckets and a vat of some sort of sweet drink.

His COPD will take him soon — maybe tonight, because he’s having chest pains. But he refuses to go to the hospital because he has no insurance.

Charlie is the unlikely hero of Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale,” presented by California Stage and directed by Shawn O’Neal. The play is the recipient of the 2013 Lucille Lortel Award, Best Play, the 2013 Drama Desk Award for Significant Contribution to Theatre and the 2013 GLAAD Media Award, Outstanding Theatre.

Joel Mario Rickert gives a memorable performance as the reclusive Charlie, who teaches writing courses over the internet — but doesn’t use a webcam because he doesn’t want to be seen.

The most important person in his small circle is Liz (Melita Ann Sagar), a nurse, who visits every day, brings food, takes his vitals, and tries to encourage him to go to the hospital. They have known each other for many years and truly like each other.

But it is Elder Thomas (Thomas Dean), a young Mormon on his “mission” who makes the biggest impact. Fortuitously catching Charlie in the middle of one of his spells, he helps quiet the pain and get him back on track. He wants to tell Charlie about Mormonism so that he can be redeemed before his death. Elder Thomas, though filled with Mormon zeal and that fresh-faced missionary smile, is hiding his own secrets, we will learn later.

Along comes Ellie (Soren Lipman), who is Charlie’s rebellious 16-year-old daughter, from a brief marriage to her mother Mary (Aviv Hannan). Charlie has not seen the girl in 14 years, since he left her mother for Alan, but she keeps him up to date on the girl’s progress. Ellie has tracked him down and wants to meet him. She finds him disgusting, yet at the same time fascinating. She stalks out in anger many times, but she keeps coming back.

Despite the many obvious potentially negative aspects of this play, it is a surprisingly uplifting story of love, truth, raw emotion — and maybe redemption. No, Charlie is not converted. No Ellie does not fall into his arms and tell him she loves him. But it’s all OK in the end.

Charlie is a gentle, sensitive soul, beaten down by his circumstances, who affects those around him and who, conversely, is affected by them as well. There are wonderful conversations about Mormonism (it does not come out untarnished), parenting and taking control of your life.

This is an unusual play, but unique and one that is likely to stay with the viewer for a long time to come.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

It’s a tale as old as time: She’s the daughter of the crazy old town inventor, ridiculed by the townsfolk for her bookishness and her dreams of finding her prince charming. He’s a prince with a curse on his head, hiding his hideous form away in a creepy old castle, feared by the townsfolk because he’s “different.” Spoiler alert — the two outcasts find each other, fall in love, and live happily ever after.

“Beauty and the Beast,” directed by Angela Baltezore, with musical direction by James C. Glica-Hernandez and choreography by Staci Arriaga and Eva Sarry, has waltzed onto the stage of the Woodland Opera House, there to enchant any in the audience who allow themselves to be swept into the story.

At the outset, I must give great kudos to set designers Mark and Christine Deamer, surely the best purveyors of trompe l’oeil in the area. One should carefully examine the set for Belle’s town to see what I’m talking about!

Dalton McNeely is the Beast, under a spell by a sorceress for being rude to her. He is turned into a hideous beast and all of his castle staff are slowly turning into household objects. The spell can be broken only if he learns to love — and if someone loves him in return.

Crissi Cairns is Belle, the spunky heroine who, to save her father, agrees to live in the castle of the beast forever. While she does not have a powerful voice, she has a clear, true soprano and her growing affection for the beast was touching.

McNeely could not have been more perfect as the Beast. His size made him impressive and, clad from head to toe in beastliness by costumer Denise Miles, he was a ferocious sight to see. However, watching him discover that he has feelings for Belle was lovely and when they waltz around the stage, it made the hardest of hearts melt. His first-act finale, “If I can’t love her” was a high point of the evening.

The town hunk is Gaston (Daniel Silva) who is the most handsome man in the world (according to him) and he wants to marry Belle, whether she wants him or not. Silva is suitably Trumpish in his self-grandiosity.

As his sidekick/flunky, Lefou, Eddie Voyce was appropriately subservient, but I wish they could have tamed his hair a bit.

Richard Lui is Maurice, Belle’s father, the crazy inventor who wanders off into the woods and gets lost  and then captured, at the Beast’s castle.

The Beast’s household staff always steal this show. Darryl Strohl-DeHerrera played Lumiere with the proper degree of foppishness and pulls it off despite having his arms raised above his head holding candles throughout.

Then there is Cogsworth (Erik Catalan), who is turning into a clock and dear Mrs. Potts (Kara Cummins), the teapot, with her little son Chip (Severin Sunshine Morena), a disembodied head on a tea cart. All were delightful. Morena sings the title song and it is lovely.

Jaelle LaGuerre is Madame de la Grande Bouche, the former opera singer becoming a Wardrobe, while adorable Franchesca Sonoyoma flits around the house as Babette, the flirty feather duster.

After the Beast allows Belle to return home to see her father, the town calls Monsieur D’Arque, of the local insane asylum, to commit him because they all feel he is crazy. Andy Hyun outdoes himself in his gleeful evilness.

This is a show that will amuse and delight children and adults alike, and at its end you will believe that miracles do happen, people can live happily ever after, and that inner beauty can tame the beast.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Christians

Kurt Johnson, Darian Dauchan and Greg Alexander perform in
B Street Theatre's production of “The Christians.”
Rudy Meyers Photography/Courtesy photo

If you are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or any other non-Christian religion or non-religion, you might want to steer clear of B Street’s new show, “The Christians,” by Lucas Hnath, hailed by the New York Times as “one of the freshest play-writing voices to emerge in the past five years.”

The show was apparently the break-out hit of the 2014 Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville, Kentucky, and has received good reviews Off-Broadway and all across the country.

Though it more than meets the promise of “powerful and thought-provoking,” the piece assumes that everyone accepts the divinity of Jesus Christ and follows the teachings of the Bible.

Pastor Paul (Kurt Johnson) is the head of a church (presumably non-denominational since no specific religion is mentioned), which has grown from a small group into a megachurch, ministering to thousands of believers. He has the smoothness and likeability of a Joel Osteen. He has just paid off the final debt for this beautiful edifice, he announces.

The edifice is, indeed beautiful. Scenic designer Samantha Reno has created a beautiful church altar, with a huge stained-glass window behind a golden arch and side choir stalls in which a dozen unnamed choristers add to the authenticity as they sing several hymns.

There is a lot of talk about emotional distance between the pastor and his flock, only heightened by the use of hand-held microphones throughout the show, even in intimate scenes between the pastor and his wife (Margaret Laurena Kemp).

In an overly long sermon, which began to feel like real “church,” Paul examines an emotional struggle he has been having after hearing a missionary describe a particularly painful experience of violence following a car bombing. After much prayer and study, Paul began to question the concept of “hell” and whether there really was a “hell” that was designed for all non-believers (e.g., Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.) He declares that from now on, his church rejects the concept of hell and would be all-inclusive.

This sets off a terrible division in his congregation, led by associate pastor, Joshua (Darian Dauchan) who adheres to what he believes is the strict interpretation of the scriptures.

Representing the congregants who are upset by the new thinking is one of the choristers, Jenny (Tara Sissom) who asks pointed and very difficult questions about the loss of hell and what that means for people like Hitler. When she dies, will she be in heaven with Hitler?

At first Paul’s financial backer Jay (Greg Alexander) stands by him, but as more and more congregants leave the megachurch to follow Joshua to his newly formed church, Jay also withdraws his support.

Discussion between Paul and wife Elizabeth is very painful and reveals not only cracks in religious beliefs, but in their marriage as well.

There are good dialogs going on in this show, but more and more I began to wonder if there were any non-Christians in the audience and how they felt about it, and I almost felt embarrassed to be sitting there ignoring other religions.