Performance

LAB Performs Best Nutcracker To Date

Arabian11-122The Los Angeles Ballet opened it’s sixth season last weekend with their annual production of “The Nutcracker. ” A favorite Christmas tradition of many since its popularity exploded in the mid-twentieth century, the ballet draws people of all ages to share in the Christmas spirit.

LA Ballet prides itself on having an original production of “The Nutcracker.” The story-line is the same and if you don’t look closely at the program, you might not even realize the Sugarplum Fairy is now referred to as “Marie” (which was the name of the Clara character in the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story) and her Cavalier is her “Prince.” The dancers in Act II are originally named for presents under the tree (Spanish Hot Chocolate, Arabian Coffee, Russian Candy Cane, and Danish Marzipan), but LAB has shortened them to Spanish, Arabian, Russian, and then a reappearance of Harlequin and Columbine from Act I. And finally, the most visual change is “The Rose” amongst the daisies in what is traditionally called “The Waltz of the Flowers.”

Act I opens with party goers on their way to the Staulbaum house for Christmas Eve. The setting is Victorian and beautiful, and the costumes are exquisite. The lack of dance shoes and dance attire considerably limits the amount of balletic movement in Act I. Clara (Mia Katz) and her youthful friends perform adolescent pointe routines and the young boys entertain with their serious faces and synchronized marches. Peculiar Uncle Drosselmeyer (Nicolas de la Vega) enters, bearing special gifts for the children, enabling the only true dancing in the party scene, when the toys come to life. The Harlequin, Columbine, and Cossack Dolls, danced by Isabel Vondermuhll, Angel Lopez, and Chehon Wespi-Tschopp, all sparkle perfectly in their dances before freezing up and becoming still toys again.

This year’s party scene was the most comedically infused to date, and very enjoyable for the audience. Casting questions arise as we meet Uncle Drosselmeyer, the role that becomes consistently younger and younger over the company’s 6 productions. We wonder perhaps if LA Ballet intends him to be an older brother returning for the holidays in extravagant clothing, rather than an enigmatic Godfather to whom Clara bears a special bond.  Considering the history of the character it is a distracting element to the theatricality of the story.

After the party, Clara goes to bed with her favorite of Drosselmeyer’s bestowments, her Nutcracker doll. Clara is awakened into a magical world where her Nutcracker (Nathaniel Solis) is fending off rats and slays the Rat King. The rats are less than beautiful to watch (although children love them), yet it cannot go without saying how incredibly hard it must be to do chaine turns in a huge rat suit.

The Nutcracker’s victory has not only turned him into a handsome prince, it also has bore entrance to the “Land of Snow” and dancing snowflakes. The Waltz of the Snowflakes is heralded as one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the entirety of the ballet; with snow falling on the dancers for the length of the dance, and flawless unity of the dancers. In the past, LAB has been guilty of the Corps de Ballet of not perfecting synchronization: either the extensions were not the same height, dancers were one beat ahead of the rest, or lines were not straight. But it is breathtaking to see the body of dancers move as a unit and LAB did just that. The only lacking element is the absence of a live orchestra, which means for this piece, an absence of a choral group. It does seem excessive to hire singers for one song of a whole ballet, but there is nothing quite like hearing angelic voices singing to live music  while watching perfect dancing. Wishful thinking for future seasons.

As the curtain opens on Act II, we find ourselves in a Moroccan-esque setting known as the Palace by the Sea (traditionally known as The Land of Sweets). The presents have come to life to dance for Clara, the Prince, and Drosselmeyer. Marie and her Prince perform solos, and due to an injury of principle dancer Christopher Revels, the part of Marie’s Prince was danced by Kenta Shimizu. Shimizu is a powerful dancer from Japan, who flies to LA once a year to perform in select performances for LAB. Although Revels is an excellent dancer, it was a wonderful surprise to find out Shimizu was understudying. His stunning and powerful jumps seem effortless as he soars right through the first piece. The well known “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” makes audience members sit up straighter in their seat, as soon as they recognize the music, and LAB Sugarplum veteran Allyssa Bross is well equipped for the famous dance. The ballet picks up speed as we move through the dances from around the world. “Russian” (Chehon Wespi-Tschopp, Christopher McDaniel, & Tian Tan) is momentous, but because this is usually the crowd jaw dropper, it did seem to want more acrobatics and dance stunts to wow the audience.

“Arabian” (Julia Cinquemani & Alexander Castillo) was wonderful and impressive; there was nothing lacking here but the marriage of choreography to music. The music rightly suggests that each movement be languid until it hits its full extension. One should feel as if the dancers are moving through molasses while dancing, which makes the dance even more impressive because the muscles cannot rely on momentum to reach the height of their flexibility. Instead the choreography found all the final spots without the liquidity of getting there. The Pas de Deux was beautiful, a little shaky on some of the shoulder jumps but the foite turns by Bross were clean and impressive.

And we revisited Harlequin and Columbine from Act I which was short and sweet, but jarring to see Lopez’s toes not pointed. The standout of the evening was Allynne Noelle, “The Rose” in the Waltz of the Flowers number. Noelle, backed by the Corps de Ballet dressed as daisies, was the most engaging and in control dancer on the stage. As soon as she entered, eyes were glued to her and as soon as she exited, you wanted her back on the stage. Noelle is in her second season with LAB, and they will be lucky to hold on to her.

The Corps was also flawless and in synch once again. And when the final dances have been danced and Clara bids adieu and returns home, her parents find her asleep on the floor and carry her to bed. The curtain closes after Clara sits up realizing it may not have been a dream, as The Nutcracker and Uncle Drosselmeyer are lit upstage.

LA Ballet performs their best Nutcracker to date, proving they continue to grow and improve into what is sure to be a most promising resident dance company. Later this season they will dance Swan Lake and NextWaveLA, new dances with famed choreographers such as “So You Think You Can Dance” Sonya Tayeh.

The Nutcracker runs December 17th and 18th at UCLA’s Royce Hall and December 22nd-24th at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. For tickets, visit www.losangelesballet.org

- By Deidre Moore

 

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Giselle! Giselle!

616255281On Friday, May 27th, I attended the final weekend for LA Ballet’s performance of Giselle at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The ballet Giselle is near and dear to my heart because it was the first ballet that I performed a leading part in, dancing the role of Myrtha. Also, this marks the third time I have seen Giselle performed professionally. The first was The Royal Ballet in London and the second was ABT at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Both were wonderful, although my nosebleed seats for the Royal Ballet definitely left much to be desired.

What one notices first about the LA Ballet as the lights go down, is that there is no orchestra. You hear murmurs around you whispering, “Is this a recording?” There is something magical about hearing the musicians tune and warm up before the show starts, it sets the tone that something big is about to happen. When LAB has more of a foundation, I very much hope that they put funding into an orchestra, at least for their full length ballets.

When the curtain rose, we found ourselves in the Rhineland of the Middle Ages during the grape harvest. The set consisted of two tudor style houses, one that housed Giselle and her mother, and the other was in possession of the Duke Albrecht, who disguised himself as a peasant in order to sow some wild oats before his marriage to a noblewoman. Giselle and the disguised Duke meet, and of course fall in love, much to the dismay of Hilarion—a gamekeeper who is also in love with Giselle. Giselle’s mother worries for her weak heart as Giselle and others dance for the noblewoman (Albrecht’s betrothed) and her father who have come upon the scene. Hilarion reveals the truth about Albrecht, sending Giselle into a mad fit that her heart cannot handle, and she dies in Albrecht’s arms at the end of the first act.

Like many two or four act ballets, the first half is dedicated more to story set up, and the second half is dedicated more to dancing. I usually can not wait until the second half for the juicy pas de deuxs and sad climaxes that my favorite ballets have in abundance. That being said, I very much enjoyed the entire first act. Allyssa Bross danced the title role to perfection. Bross is a first season dancer at LAB but a huge standout. She also danced the Sugarplum Fairy in 2010′s Nutcracker. What made it so enjoyable to watch, because of the route many first halves have to contain too much set up, was her complete embodiment of Giselle. Bross was so sweet, excited, and in love the way teenagers are. Shy and overreactive in very charming ways. The audience would laugh at her facial expressions because they were so endearing. Opposite Bross was Christopher Revels, also a first season standout. A Tommy Kirk doppelganger, Revels is strong and promising. He did take a fall during a group dance, and you could see him lose momentum on his face after that. There was nothing behind that smile but disappointment, understandably, until enough time has passed to shake it off. Hilarion, danced by Chehon Wespi-Tschopp, was not given much to do in the first act but look discouraged. Unfortunately, Wespi-Tschopp is less of an actor dancer, and his actions did not fill the space, which drew attention to it being a “play,” simply because he did not commit enough.

The high point for me in the first act was the Peasant pas de deux, danced by Allynne Noelle (also a first season dancer) and Kenta Shimizu (Guest Artist from K-Ballet and Miami City Ballet). Noelle had excellent side extensions and was in full control of her body. A series of pirouettes with a preparation from Noelle on one knee were especially impressive. Both Noelle and Shimizu had strong and impressive solos, and the audience was eager to erupt into applause after everything they did. The reason for the solos and pas de deux by the peasants is very much lacking. Giselle leads them forward to dance, and they do, and then we never see them again. But when the dancing is so impressive, who cares why they are doing it? If it were a modern ballet, it would be easier to criticize the choreographer’s plot intentions. But Giselle was first done in 1841, and although the choreography has changed a bit, most of what we see in modern versions is still from the stagings in 1884 and 1903. So even the newest version is over one hundred years old.

The second act takes us to the woods where Giselle has been buried. Giselle is summoned from her grave by the Wilis, the spirits of women who have died before their wedding day and roam the night seeking revenge upon any man they meet, by dancing him to death. Hilarion searches for Giselle but meets his end with the Wilis. Albrecht also searches and finds her, Giselle still loves him and forgives him, and unlike Hilarion who is found by the Wilis and thrown in a lake, Albrecht is protected from them by Giselle. When day breaks, Giselle’s soul is freed because she did not succumb to vengeance and hatred of the Wilis.

I have to hand it to LAB; I have never seen the Wilis portrayed in a more unearthly way. I used to watch a VHS of Natalia Makarova’s Giselle with the Kirov Ballet, and even then it did not come close. The Queen of the Wilis-Myrtha (danced by Kate Highstrete) begins the second act with three solos. She did have a little trouble with her ponches, but she made up for it. Her moves were robotic but yet still enchanting. Her looks to the audience were jerky and blank, not fluid and soft which we are so used to knowing as beautiful ballet. I could not take my eyes off her, she was other worldly which is fascinating to see danced. The Corps de Ballet of her Wilis had their own ethereal qualities. They kept their eyes down to the ground and looked very sad. It was haunting. When the Wilis kill Hilarion they come alive and we the audience finally see why Wespi-Tschopp was cast as the unrequited lover. His dancing in the second act is more visceral and exciting than anything else in the entire ballet. Bross and Revels dance the lovers pas de deux and feature some gorgeous lifts to Adolphe Adam’s score. When beautiful dancing meets beautiful music, I cannot think of anything more exquisite.

Giselle marked my sixth LAB production and it was by far the best that I have attended. The company has nailed down some very talented dancers. One can only hope that we get to keep them here in Los Angeles and not lose them to other cities with older and more well known ballet companies. I may be old fashioned but I very much look forward to more full length ballets in the upcoming seasons. The ballets under consideration are Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Onegin, Coppelia, and Romeo and Juliet. LAB is finished for the season, but will open their sixth season in the fall with the tradition of The Nutcracker.

- By Diedre Moore

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Pearly Gates, the Musical

poster-300x251The March 18 world premiere of Pearly Gates, the Musical at the famous El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood was a surprise. There was no advance notice, beyond a casting call last December. There was no advertising, nothing on Goldstar. A friend of mine knew a guy who knew someone in the cast – so I went.

The place was packed, completely sold out. We took our seats to jazz standards, played by the show’s music director/pianist/composer, Joshua Rich, and his bassist and drummer. By the time their set was over, the audience was in a pretty good mood. Not a bad way to open a show nobody ever heard of.

The story is by Scott Ehrlich – who has never written anything. The book is by Scott Ehrlich and Penny Orloff. The lyrics are by Joshua Rich… and Scott Ehrlich. The show is produced by Scott Ehrlich. And to cap it all off, starring in Pearly Gates is… you guessed it – Scott Ehrlich. In the program notes, Ehrlich clearly states he has never sung before, and never done a play, but those activities were on his “bucket list.”

So, how does Ehrlich do? I have to say that, except for a few missed pitches, his singing is okay. Sometimes, better than okay. Except for a few awkward actions, he does fine any time he is on the stage – which is about 90 percent of the show. There is something admirable about his commitment to the performance, that goes beyond talent. In a unique way, he succeeds as Jason Burns, a man who finds out he has only a short time left to live.

Of course, he has help. Lots of help. A large cast backs Ehrlich up. Fiona Bates gives a powerhouse performance as Jason Burns’ wife. Ehrlich’s daughter, Taylor Ehrlich, plays his onstage daughter. Zachary Rice plays her little brother. They both have a natural ease onstage that sets them apart from the usual, artificially cute Hollywood kid actors. Both children have sweet, clear soprano voices that make the final scene heartbreaking.

A stand-out as Jason Burns’ father  is 80-something Tony Molina, who apparently shared the marquee with Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sammy Davis, Jr., back in the Roseland era. His beautiful voice is still strong, and his phrasing is wonderful. Playing opposite him as Jason’s mother is a pretty and slender senior citizen, Miriam Rosen. Rosen’s timing and delivery get big laughs, and she was the only actor whose speech was completely clear. Her voice is incredibly powerful, going from alto to high soprano, and she can make it do absolutely anything. Her song in the funeral scene was just beautiful. Rosen even dances, easily keeping up with much younger cast members.

The director was Trace Oakley, who kept the proceedings moving along. There were a few really great touches, like when a chorus of senior citizens mimes despair behind white masks. The small amount of choreography by Neisha Folks isn’t that good – kind of awkward jazz steps that don’t really suit the dancers.

The songs are pretty standard musical numbers, but a lot of the lyrics are really clever. Joshua Rich begins with a fun full-company number and ends with a big anthem. In between, his songs go from funny to angry to wistful to tragic, and the tunes stay with you after the curtain comes down. The show moves to Lancaster and Thousand Oaks, and there is talk of an off-Broadway run in the Fall.

- By Ellen Kahan

For information or tickets, go to www.pearlygatesmusical.com.

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Interview with Neil Labute

neil_labuteA few weeks back, I wrote an article about “An Evening with Neil Labute,” where I attempted to analyze the appeal and occasional controversy of Labute’s work. His play Mercy Seat, which runs at [Inside] the Ford Amphitheatre until April 24th, is one of my favorites, and I was fortunate enough to be able to ask him a few questions about the piece and his work in general:

Q: Mercy Seat, for many, seemed to be your ‘mercy seat’ as a writer in that you seemed softer, for lack of a better word. Here you were taking on a subject that could have been more provocative and controversial (at least at the time of the original premiere) than anything you’d written to that point. And yet, at least in my opinion, it turned out to be one of your more emotional pieces. Is there truth to this claim, and if so, why do you think that is?

A: I don’t suppose I can judge any of that very clearly—as the author you’re just usually too close to the damn thing to know the truth. That’s why you spend so much of your writing time searching for the truth—in good literature, it never feels like the author is there as a teacher but as a fellow explorer. Struggling to find meaning if any exists. If the play was softer and more emotional in the end it’s simply where those characters led me—I go on the ride and see where it takes me but I do know that I cared for the characters and the dilemma they found themselves in and that’s my job as an author: to create people that an audience can find interesting and complex enough to care about, even if what they’re up to is highly questionable.

Q: In hindsight, do you feel Mercy Seat makes a political statement at all? And do you feel any responsibility toward exploring bigger global/societal issues in your work? Or is the personal political in itself?

A: I try to steer clear of politics, on the page and in my life. Personal politics are where I find my work and my interests colliding most successfully. There are enough people out there who want to screw things up on a local, national and global basis; they don’t need an amateur like me helping them out.

Q: I’ve read and seen much of your work, and the more I investigate it, I can’t shake the idea that a lot of it might be allegorical? Do you ever write with the intention of allegory?

A: Some of it probably is but I try not to do it too intentionally—I did a bit more with my newer play THE BREAK OF NOON and I received many resounding critical slaps for it. Mind you, that won’t stop me doing it again; I have a general disregard for authority that makes me want to push back when I get pushed.

Q: Have you ever received (or considered receiving) any chances in your own life to simply start over? Escape? Or does drama and the theatre provide such escape already?

A: That’s a great question and I probably won’t answer it honestly—but yes, my work is a great escape. It allows me to turn the page (quite literally) all the time and start fresh with new ideas and faces and locales. I couldn’t ask for more (or could I?)

Q: The last time I saw you talk, you brought up how much you love seeing the work of younger playwrights. I was wondering if you could recommend any?

A: I love other writers, whether they’re young or not. I think Christopher Shinn is writing very good stuff lately and Polly Stenham over in London. It’s happening all the world (new writing), it’s just getting the stuff produced that’s the trick. I like when people do not take ‘no’ for an answer and produce the work themselves—I’d like to see more of that from young writers.

Q: Mercy Seat is partly about revisiting one’s life, reexamining it. And for you, this show presents another opportunity for you to reexamine your own work. How would you compare that process to putting up a brand new production?

A: Sadly I’ve been out of the country so it’s been a bit from afar—that said, I always take a look at the play again and I think this one holds up. I love a good two-hander in real time and I think MERCY SEAT is a great test for actors. I’m working on a new one in London right now and it’s the same thing—a real Olympic event for actors. I like it on stage when there is no place to hide; just like a wounded animal, actors are at they’re best when they are a little scared, a little wounded and completely cornered (or without props!)

Q: One criticism I’ve read of your work is that you write for an ending. Is this true? If not, what do you say to that?

A: Critics, like cabbages, should be eaten and not heard (to anyone who’s had his or her work reviewed by the critical community, this meaningless phrase will make complete sense).

Q: What is it about infidelity that attracts you and so many other writers? Is the subject ever exhausted?

A: Betrayal is a pretty fascinating subject—why people turn on those they supposedly love or care about. Betrayal of a sexual nature is only one tree in this fertile soil (to coin a really lame expression).

Q: There’s a sense of humor that’s prevalent in most of your work, even at its darkest. And this is a trend I see more and more in mainstream drama (the show Eastbown and Down is one example that comes to mind). What is the effect, do you think, of blending darkness or sadness with comedy? And why not just attack pathos straight-on?

A: Comedy is the ‘Neosporin’ of dramatic life—I like to apply a little from time to time to make the audience feel a false sense of hope and security. I’ve done this ‘theater’ thing enough that people should know that we’re going to be peeling the scab off at some point during the evening but they still like to laugh and think it’s all going to be ok in the end. That’s fine by me—theater is about allusion and if laughter helps, then I’m all for it.

Q: Finally, I wonder what advice, as a director, you would give (or have given) an actor preparing to perform your work?

A: Take no prisoners. People are there for the ride and want you to show them something magical and different and new. No one gets points for being mediocre, so go for it.

Neil Labute’s The Mercy Seat, presented by Vs. Theatre Company and starring Michelle Clunie and Johnny Clark, runs at [Inside] the Ford Amphitheatre until April 24th. Wednesday evenings are pay-what-you-can nights. For more information, visit www.fordtheatres.org, or call (323) 461-3673.

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A Celebration Indeed: Review of Los Angeles Ballet’s Latest

coverI attended LA Ballet’s second weekend of their new ballet Celebration in Redondo Beach last Saturday. This is my sixth LAB performance, though half of them have been The Nutcracker, so it’s extra exciting to see something brand new. I read it would be a combination of George Balanchine and Sonya Tayeh choreography, but that is the extent of my knowledge of what the evening would bring. The program was divided into three pieces, Balanchine bookending Tayeh’s world premiere of My Greatest Fear.

The first piece was entitled Raymonda Variations. Raymonda is a ballet originally staged in Russia at the turn of the century. Balanchine revived the full length ballet in the 1940′s, and extracts of the ballet in the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s. LAB’s extracts consisted of nine of Balanchine’s staged variations. First, an opening piece with corps de ballet (but some are singled out for solos later) in medium flowing tutus, and introduction to the lead ballerina (Monica Pelfrey) in a blue pancake tutu. LAB has very talented dancers. But what I always notice, if my seats are good enough, is how young they are. It’s wonderful to see such fresh faces on the stage, but it comes at a price. The main weakness that I notice at every show is when there are two or three dancers doing a combination across the stage, it is rarely ever completely synchronized. One dancer is a beat behind, one has her arm too high, or one is noticeably better (which reminds me of recitals with standouts, not professional ballet). That being said, the piece was beautifully staged and many of the dances were wonderfully danced.

Pelfrey performed a pas de deux with Christopher Revels that was beautiful. Balanchine’s choreography is so interesting because you could easily mistake the piece for a classical one staged one hundred years earlier. But the lifts and the holds are unique and modern. Instead of Revels’s hands on Pelfrey’s hips to dip her in an arabesque, he does it one-armed, with his right arm across her waist to reach her right side—and the result is stunning. When dancing a pas de deux, most of the thankless work falls on the male dancer. He is there to make his ballerina look good. So he must be solid in all his holds and catches when she balances, or does turns, so she looks clean and controlled. This couple did look a bit shaky, and when Pelfrey performed solos, she was solid and spot on. So again, I think that Revels is a very young dancer, still learning his footing.

Variation V, danced by Julia Cinquemani, was the standout for me. She was perfect. Also wonderful were Grace McLoughlnin and Isabel Vondermuhll—the first with a hop arabesque finale across the stage that I have never seen before, and the second with an extremely difficult turn combination she pulled off brilliantly. If nothing else, Balanchine challenged his dancers and staged many of these variations to stay on pointe during the turns and combinations, which is harder than it looks. LAB took on the challenge quite well, and while the other two pieces looked very impressive, I would wager that this classical piece was the hardest to dance.

The second piece was a world premiere by So You Think You Can Dance choreographer favorite, Sonya Tayeh. Entitled My Greatest Fear, the piece is plainly about death, which was reveled to us before the curtain was drawn. The men wore only tight black pants, and the women wore black leotards so revealing that only a dancer could pull one off. Maybe it’s my own particular taste, but I really do love modern dance in pointe shoes. Modern dance on its own has a tendency to teeter too closely to performance art at times. But when the choreography is modern dance and the dancers are ballet trained and on pointe, it can be so beautiful and emotional. Such was Tayeh’s piece. It begins with the entire cast frozen on stage before going into frantic movements. Throughout, one can feel the heaviness that seems to be carried around on all of their shoulders, which contrasted with the pairings’ lifts, which looked as light as a feather.

Even with the knowledge that the dances were about fearing death, it was hard not to see them as already dead, in a personal state of purgatory. I was blown away with how beautiful the extensions and lines were, especially with the juxtaposition on how pain and ugliness were emanating beneath the surface. The men especially stood out in this number. Tyler Burkett’s solo was exquisite and the partnering was so solid, it really spotlit just how powerful these dancers can be. Tayeh’s piece closed to Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, which was beautifully fitting to the visual of all the dancers joining to slowly wave to the audience, perhaps letting their limb speak for their body as a surrender flag.

To close the evening was Western Symphony, another Balanchine choreographed ballet. Although I knew it was ballet, I definitely felt like I was watching an extremely well danced version of Oklahoma! and the dancers might break into song with The Farmer and the Cowboy Should be Friends at any moment. A cheesy backdrop of an Old West town was the perfect setting for the saloon girls and cowboys to dance in front of, as they sported all the colors of the rainbow. All but one dancer had black tights and dyed black pointe shoes, giving their costumes the absolute musical theater look. Extremely upbeat numbers were fun to watch and you could not help but to smile at the theatricality of it all. It could be because we live in Los Angeles, where everyone is “also an actor,” but I was delightfully impressed with how much character and sass each dancer put into the numbers. Without it, the dances would have fell flat, even if danced perfectly. Which, for the most part, they were. The company seemed confident, as if they were having just as much fun as we were. That is, after you give in to the extreme goofiness of it all, while still realizing you are at the ballet and not watching the barn raising from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. I found it to be the parts of a musical I enjoy the most, the dancing. It was a happy way to end the evening, but did not stay with me the next day, like Tayeh’s piece.

- By Deidre Moore

For more information on the Los Angeles Ballet, please visit www.losangelesballet.org. Next in their Season 5 lineup will be Giselle in May.

 

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I Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath Playhouse

PLATH_POSTER_email-e1298423203124The first of many impressive technical and performance stunts in the Los Angeles premiere of Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath by Edward Anthony comes at the very beginning. I don’t want to give it away, but it involves the protagonist, Esther Greenwood (Amy Davidson), awaking from her own death, as if she were dreaming and suddenly remembered she left the oven on (there’s a hint).

Esther is not Sylvia Plath, but they do share a lot in common. For one, Esther Greenwood is the name of the heroine in Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. They’re both repressed writers in the 1950’s/early 60’s, frustrated with the very idea of womanhood, motherhood, and society in general. And they’re both married to asshole poets with tendencies toward infidelity.

Wish I Had A Sylvia Plath explores the life of Esther, in the moments of (or possibly in) her death through her own words and poetic machinations. The refrain she often returns to in these varied fantasies and half-memories is a kind of Martha Stewart-style home and garden television program, cleverly entitled ‘The Tome and Garden Show.’ In this show, she goes about explaining how to cook such exotic cuisines “52-liar lasagna, a black-tar brain soufflé and a perfect life.”

As an actress, Davidson doesn’t just do heavy-lifting, she does speed-heavy-lifting. She doesn’t allow herself the  moments of melodramatic self-congratulations  typical of most one-person shows. She doesn’t have time for all that. She’s dying, and we can feel it. Yet even in her death, Davidson cranks her with life. Her Esther is at her best when she is at her most physical. At one point of pure madness, she arms herself for battle with a pasta strainer helmet, a spatula sword, and a kitchen-table shield. The humor is there already in Matthew McCray’s direction, but the spirit is in the performance.

And though Davidson is the only actor on stage the entire 70 or so minutes of this darkly humorous rant, it is far from a one-woman show. Adam Flemming, a multi-award-winning video-designer provides many of Esther’s hallucinations with impeccably timed projections of her mother criticizing her baking methods, her father on his death-bed, and most wrenching, her husband confessing his sins. Lighting designer Dan Weingarten, sound designer Joseph Slawinski, and scenic designer David A. Mauer also all deserve their praise. Thanks to them, Esther’s kitchen feels like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse version of death, and one that you don’t mind breathing in for a while.

My only critique of this highly enjoyable production—and it is a production—is that its own production sometimes takes away from the possible depth of the situation. Esther and her playhouse are so animated, and the demands of time are so stringent that occasionally, a self-congratulatory moment might be welcomed. Plath once wrote to her mother that The Bell Jar was her take on “how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown,” and frankly, Esther doesn’t seem that isolated.

Nonetheless, it’s a show not be missed, whether you’re a theatre techie, an acting nut, or simply a person who wants to see a show that teaches an important lesson, which is that death is most certainly not the end of life.

- By Joshua Morrison

Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, a Rogue Machine Production, runs at The Lounge Theatre, located at 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. until April 17th. For more information and to order tickets, please visit www.roguemachinetheatre.com.

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Labute’s Own Mercy Seat

labute

There’s not a lot of middle-of-the-road when it comes to Neil Labute—not in his work, or in the reaction to his work. He creates lean, hard-nosed, often reverse morality tales fraught with meticulously manipulative or ethically challenging characters, and people either love it or despise it. Almost no one, however, will dismiss it.

Having read pretty much his entire published oeuvre, and even acted in a short film he recently wrote, I can confidently say I fall on the love side of things, but I do understand his critics. For instance, Labute has a penchant for what some call a “twist” ending. And I quote this word, because I’m not sure what it means—“twists” can either be a reveal (i.e. Bruce Willis was dead the whole time), or a kind of re-write (i.e. it was all a dream). Labute likes to work with the former type of “twist,” and as exhilarating as it can be, it does beg the question of why? Why not show us the behind-the-scenes footage of Evelyn’s project in The Shape of Things? Why not reveal sooner the true intentions behind the main characters in Some Girl(s) or In the Company of Men or This is How It Goes? Is it all for the reaction?

Another much-discussed facet of Labute’s work is the misogyny. All of his early plays, in the words of a former acting teacher of mine, always end up with hate. And though my acting teacher was prone to exaggeration, there is no doubt that hate, especially toward women, does happen in said plays. Very few people write male assholes as well as Labute can—or as harshly. He presents his characters’ defects without apology, which can lead to accusations about the author, and leaves audiences, once again, asking why? Why show us, over and over, the worst version of ourselves, if not to exorcise some demon within you? Is it all for the reaction?

Labute’s style of dialogue—raw, biting, direct—is maybe the one part of his writing most people agree is well-crafted. Well, almost. I do recall forcing my ex-roommate, a bright and articulate critic of all things media, to watch the film version of The Shape of Things. And like any time I’ve pushed some hobby or piece of art upon somebody, the reaction was not what I’d hoped. He vehemently disagreed with the film  and when it was done, beckoned me to recite one single line from the movie I thought to be a “good line.” I couldn’t do it. I was sure Labute was a good writer, and I felt strongly about the merit of his language, but I couldn’t come up with one single zinger. Why? Does Labute exist wholly outside the world of aphoristic dialogue? And if so, does that not somewhat contradict the idea that he writes for reaction?

I wish I had all the answers. But to further quote the acting teacher mentioned above, “the only way to do Labute is with a question.” And that I believe. There may be a small middle-of-the-road with him, but that’s probably only because the sides are not so defined. Therefore, I encourage anyone who mildly interested in acting or writing or directing (and has some expendable income) to show up tonight, at 7 PM to the Howard Fine Acting Studio in Hollywood for “An Evening With Neil Labute,” a benefit for the non-profit Vs. Theatre Company (who are producing his Mercy Seat later this year) as well as the charity organization, 9/11 Health Now. Actors suspected to join him include Amanda Peet, Johnny Galecki, Sharon Lawrence, and Bill Pullman. Between them all, you might even get to ask Neil a few questions.

- By Joshua Morrison

For tickets and more information, please call 800-838-3006 or go to www.vstheatre.org.

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Mishappen Pearl: Win Tickets to See L’Arpeggiata Live!

Baroque is one of those words that seems to have somehow morphed into a false and flavorless definition over the years. These days, when I hear something described as ‘baroque,’ I instinctively think of haunted archways and Gothic ornamentation, but more than that, I think….old, dead, of the past. My old music teacher in middle school used to have a chart that mapped out, with cartoonish illustrations, the major periods of Classical music, and I distinctly remember the baroque portion of the chart appearing creepy and cold.

But despite my probably colored memory and purely individual reaction to the term, I still feel our societal understanding of baroque, in general, has come a long way from the original adaptation of the Italian word barocco, meaning mishappen pearl—a singularly beautiful phrase. And one listen to the French early music ensemble, L’Arpeggiata, a collection of some of today’s most pre-eminent soloists who will be performing “Baroque Variations” at the Walt Disney Music Hall on Wednesday, January 19th at 8 PM, will illuminate that beauty within the word.

Their mission as a group is “to revive an almost unknown repertoire and to focus especially on works from the beginning of the 17th century,” and that they do. When you watch the video above, or listen to one of their recordings, they don’t sound or look old, dead, or cold, they don’t even appear to be in strenuous revival-mode. They simply seem like they’re a group of extremely talented, modern musicians, having fun on stage. Which, I believe, is what the original baroque practitioners were doing as well.

To win tickets to see L’Arpeggiata perform “Baroque Variations” at the Walt Disney Music Hall on Wednesday, January 19th at 8 PM, simply enter your first, last name, and e-mail address into the form below, and you will automatically be entered into the running to win not only those tickets, but the tickets for our next three giveaways as well. Talk about a pearl.

- By Joshua Morrison

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The Aging of Aquarius

Hair TourAs 2012 is supposedly the true dawn of Aquarius, and as we are currently involved in at least one overseas military conflict with no foreseeable resolution, and as baby boomers’ babies are now reaching the age of maturity, and as the state of musical theatre in America seems to be careening in the direction of over-hyped, big-budget cartoon adaptations, Hair would seem to be the ideal show not just to revive, but to re-invent for a new generation.

After seeing the Tony Award-winning production, directed by Diane Paulus, on its opening night at the Pantages on Thursday (it runs until the 23rd), however, I realized the producers made no such effort toward re-invention. Instead, the non-stop round of musical number after musical number—sung as if the characters were participating in a cocaine-fueled campfire Kumbaya session—comes off as kitschy and embarrassing for anyone (like my one-time-hippy mother and father) who may have actually lived through the Summer of Love. In that sense, the show not only fails to adapt to post-millennium politics, but also to resuscitate the actual feelings that created the 60’s counter-culture in the first place.

If there was ever any plot to speak of in Hair, I didn’t catch much of it in this production. Essentially, there’s a commune of hippies living in New York City who spend their time singing and dancing about sex and their parents and sometimes the Vietnam War. The protagonist, Claude, a soulful lover and wanderer played efficiently by Paris Remillard, struggles to negotiate between his ‘duty’ to join the military and his new-found identity amidst the  tribe of peace-loving protesters. There are mild hints of potentially interesting love triangles within the commune—Jeanie (the beautiful Kacie Sheik) is in love with Claude, who, in turn, loves Sheila (Caren Lyn Tacket), who really loves Berger (Steel Burkhardt), etc.—but they are glossed over, much like every other breath of complexity.

And I realize many great musicals thrive upon their emotional simplicity (why else would anyone spontaneously break into song if not propelled by some deep, irreducible desire?) The problem, though, with painting hippies, in particular, with a one-color palette is that their critics (i.e. their parents, their teachers, even their government) start to make sense in comparison. When Claude is the only person out of his entire “tribe” not to burn his draft card, for example, I respected him. He showed to be capable of individual thought. Yet still, when he is asked by why he acts and dresses the way he does, all he can do is sing a non-sensical song about…well, hair.

The cast, however, is in no way to blame for my issues with the show. In fact, I appreciated seeing actual human body-types on stage—even in the infamous nude scene—showing off realistic stomachs, flabby biceps, and of course, curls of hair. Their genuine excitement was fun (if not completely contagious), and their voices were tremendous. They collectively proved you don’t need to look beautiful to be beautiful. I especially enjoyed Matt DeAngelis, who played the slinky, acid-burned Woof, and Josh Lamon, a legitimate show-stopper in his turn as Margaret Mead.

The one cast member, though, who gave the most exhilarating performance, by far, was the audience. Like a true method actor, they were “on” before the curtain even parted. It was strange. I’ve been to a bunch of huge Broadway shows and tours, on opening nights and closing nights, in London and New York and LA, and rarely have I seen this much palpable enthusiasm for a show. They absolutely carried the other, weaker actors on their backs the entire time, and in the end, proved the whole 2-plus hours to be a worthwhile endeavor—in my eyes—when they were duly invited on stage to sing a massive, rousing rendition of “Let the Sun Shine In.” Watching with glee as middle-aged women joined young, effeminate men and dolled-up, heel-clad girls in a shamanistic rage of song-and-dance, I thought, for maybe the first time in the production, this is something my mother and father would like.

- By Joshua Morrison

Hair runs until January 23rd at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. For more information, please visit www.broadwayla.org, or call 800-982-ARTS (2787).

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Artistic Capital of North America???

la-arts-monthIs Los Angeles really the “arts capital of North America?” How about “the world?” According to Steve Rountree (President of The Music Center), Antonio R. Villaraigosa (Mayor of Los Angeles), Olga Garay (Executive Director of the Department of Cultural Affairs for the city of Los Angeles), and many others in attendance at Wednesday’s kick-off for the 3rd Annual LA Arts Month—which took place outside, between the Music Center and the Ahmanson Theatre—it is. Which brings to mind another question: if you repeat something enough times, and you really believe it in your heart of hearts, does it start to become true?

Los Angeles Arts Month—or January, as most people know it—was put together three years ago in an effort to promote tourism and encourage artistic community engagement. And from what I gather—although it was difficult to ascertain during the afternoon’s strange launch party, which included a Glee-like performance from the Hollywood High School Choir and a body-bending tidbit from this coming summer’s Cirque du Soleil show at the Kodak—it’s essentially a couple ticket give-aways, free museum entries, and of course, lots of media coverage.

Of course, any Angeleno—no matter how prideful—who’s ever been to New York will tell you Los Angeles is not the artistic capital of North America. And anyone who’s ever been to most any major city in Western Europe will scoff at the notion that Los Angeles is the artistic capital of the world. Don’t get me wrong: I spend a lot of time supporting and enjoying LA’s enormous, eclectic, and vibrant arts scene, but I would never claim it to be any more than it is—which, at least on the government-supported side of things, is struggling.

25 full-time positions, between last year and this year, were eliminated in the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA); grants and donations to the DCA decreased significantly from 2009 to 2010; the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT), responsible for a quarter of the Department’s entire budget, was decreased by approximately $1.6 million; and the expenses for the coming year are projected to be about $0.7 million more than last year.

And these numbers are not just numbers. They actually do affect our city in a major way. The DCA, through grants, is responsible for producing over 400 free or low-cost exhibitions, classes, performances, film screenings, and festivals each year. So all those times you go out to a cool, free event at LACE or LA Theatre Works or the Echo Park Film Center or even make the trip downtown to MOCA or the LA Philharmonic, you can thank the DCA. Not only that, but they provide grants to over 25 individual artists each year, they uphold historic sites like the Watts Towers, and they make sure those many murals all over town stay in tact.

So, if the DCA is in trouble, why all the bravado? Well, on one hand, there is a significant amount of money coming in through grant awards. These include the Arts and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. stimulus), Pacific Standard Time (an award to fund a massive collaboration of over 50 exhibitions throughout the city designed to show off Los Angeles’s contribution to modern art), and the Mayors’ Institute on City Design 25th Anniversary Initiative (a plan to install affordable artist housing in Downtown LA). On the other hand, it may have more to do with what I mentioned before—that the illusion of a thriving artistic capital (much like the illusion of easy weightlessness created by the Cirque du Soleil dancer as she balanced her entire body on top of her chin) is less challenging than the reality of a city that’s come a long way, but must still use every practiced muscle in its body to pull off the act.

- By Joshua Morrison

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