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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

F3Stage Review: A far from Indecent history lesson

Film Flam Flummox


From the moment one enters the Ahmanson Theatre to find its entire cast already seated, silent, on an open and nearly bare stage, director Rebecca Taichman announces the simple yet boundlessly clever stagecraft she brings to Indecent, which, as subtitled on a projection right above the cast, tells "the true story of a little Jewish play." That subtitle succinctly sums up the ostensible subject matter of Paula Vogel's play, but as the piece plays out over its brisk yet loaded two-hour, intermission-free run time, Vogel and Taichman's main concern appears less about that specific story and more about the greater and still-all-too-relevant scope of its thematic concerns.

One is also tempted to say one of those concerns is theatrical technique, for despite its undeniable creativity effectiveness, Taichman's approach keeps one hyper-aware of the theatrical artifice. Six of the seven actors in the cast are officially billed as just that--"Actor"--in the program, for they rotate with remarkable fluidity and versatility through a succession of roles in telling the decades-spanning story of Sholem Asch's landmark Yiddish play God of Vengeance. It begins from it and its author's humble beginnings in 1906 Warsaw and through the global success that leads the work to reach America and finally the Great White Way of Broadway in 1923. It is in the theater capital of the fabled land of the free that, ironically enough, the work runs into its big obstacle in its worldwide journey. A melodrama which earnestly tells of a romance that develops between two young women, including on-stage kiss between the two lovers--which then leads to it being shut down on grounds of indecency and its troupe of actors accordingly arrested. On the base level on the page, Vogel tells this story in as straightforward manner as summarized, with that somewhat by-the-book approach spilling over on stage with copious text supertitles being projected on the back wall (and, in a nice and rare note of mindfulness to those sitting on the sides, also on the left and right walls) serving as lower-thirds chyron equivalents for live theater, labeling characters, locations, time periods, and sometimes even offering supplemental information.

Those identifiers are crucial, not only as Vogel moves through the years but also as the actors impressively shuffle through different roles and even switch languages and accents, at many times on a dime. As mentioned, all but one of the acting septet covers multiple roles, classified by age group and temperament, the sole exception being Richard Topol (one of the four cast members from the original 2017 Broadway production reprising their roles at the Ahmanson) as Lemml, who is not only stage manager for God of Vengeance as it travels the globe over the years, but also serves as a meta one for the very production the audience watches. Thus encapsulates the central conundrum at the heart of this production. While the non-Topol six have a few roles that recur, including that of playwright Asch himself (which is shared by two of the billed Actors, Joby Earle and Harry Groener, at different ages), Vogel's script's briskness covering decades and the many people involved necessitates never delving too deeply into any of the characters, with Lemml and Asch the only having discernible arcs. But if characters then don't forge a strong connection with the audience, it then brings to greater prominence the broad thematic strokes of the piece, which appear to be Vogel's most paramount concern anyhow. While telling of a specific incident in history that centers around a specific community, not only are the general themes such as artistic censorship, immigration, ethnic and LGBTQ prejudice more universally relatable, they are sadly very relevant and timely in this day and age. In fact, given the political atmosphere of contemporary America, the entire scenario could have easily been adapted to current times, and it would ring all too painfully true.

Further making the ideas more resonant is Taichman's ingenious direction. The story theater approach, which frames the events as being presented by Lemml and his troupe from beyond the grave--or, rather, from ashes--may initially strike as a bit precious and on-the-nose, but by the haunting end, it becomes rather chilling. In between though, there's a fair amount of pure enjoyment to go with the heart rending drama, with a mix of period and original music by Lisa Gutkin (who, along with Patrick Ferrell and fellow Broadway production musician Matt Darriau, are on stage the entire time, even intermingling with the cast) making for some memorable dance moments (choreographed by David Dorfman) and serving as a propulsive engine through the numerous changes of scene, with Riccardo Hernandez's spare scenic design lent much versatility by Christopher Akerlind's expressive lighting concept. But most impressive is the cast, which in addition to Topol, Earle, and Groener includes Elizabeth A. Davis (who, in one scene, also plays the viola) and Broadway cast members Adina Verson, Mimi Lieber, and Steven Rattazzi. They all convincingly embody their numerous characters, and watching the six of seven seamlessly, repeatedly transform over the two hours adds additional excitement and even suspense. Indecent may ultimately be an informative if basic primer into the history of God of Vengeance and traditional Yiddish theater and Jewish-American playwrights, but it is executed in such an enthralling and inviting manner that one does feel compelled to investigate further.


Adina Verson and Elizabeth A. Davis in Indecent
(photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Indecent is now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles through Sunday, July 7.

Buy the Indecent Original Broadway Cast album CD here.
Buy the Indecent play text by Paula Vogel here.
Watch the Indecent Original Broadway Production here.
Buy The God of Vengeance play text by Sholem Asch here.

(Special thanks to Center Theatre Group)


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Sunday, June 9, 2019

F3Stage Review: Phantom's music of the night soars over restaging missteps

Film Flam Flummox


For many such as myself, The Phantom of the Opera holds a special place in the heart as the "gateway drug" that led to a lifelong love of live theater. Its status as an icon in pop culture, never mind in the ever-increasingly niche corner that is live stage, is no accident, for this is one of those singular feats in entertainment where everything appears to have magically fallen into place: the Gothic romance and horror hook--deformed, masked, musical genius goes to murderous lengths to win the affections of his young soprano protégé--of Gaston Leroux's original novel, Andrew Lloyd Webber's soaring melodies, Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe's evocative lyrics, director Harold Prince's revolutionary stagecraft, all assembled with utmost care by producer Cameron Mackintosh. With the original London West End and Broadway productions still going strong some three decades on without any signs of slowing down, it would appear to be a bit foolhardy to tamper with what has long worked and still to this day wins over new fans (or, rather, "Phans"), yet that's what Mackintosh has done with the current, restaged touring company, now in the midst of its second visit to the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Billed as "the spectacular new production," anyone who's seen the original Prince-directed incarnation will only agree with the "new" part of that statement, but even then, the power of the music of the night overwhelms any shortcomings and outright missteps in this version.

This version, originally launched in the United Kingdom in 2012 and here in North America in 2013, is directed by Laurence Connor, who was also responsible for another scaled-down production of a Mackintosh mega-musical, Les Misérables (which, as it happens, directly preceded this production in the current Pantages season). While his downsizing work on that piece can be easily, though not comprehensively, summed up in two words--no turntable--given how Prince and his scenic and costume designer Maria Björnson crafted an exquisitely ornate spectacle from top to bottom, Connor and his designer, Paul Brown's, alterations to Phantom are a bit more extensive. With touring smaller venues in mind, the physical production streamlines and sometimes outright jettisons some of the more elaborate design touches in the original, and not just the larger ones such as the famous chandelier; in the title song alone, for instance, the descending catwalks and candelabras that ascend from the bottom of a misty lake are long gone. While noticeably more cramped than the Prince version, aside from the reworked chandelier, whose iconic rise and fall would be incredibly underwhelming here even for a first time live Phantom viewer, Brown's newer designs are perfectly adequate, if necessarily lacking the seamless, cinematic fluidity of Prince's scene transitions. Ironically enough, in compacting this production, Connor and scenic designer Paul Brown have done a reverse Les Mis, introducing a central revolving set piece here, a cylinder that most impressively makes for a more practical but still visually interesting passage into the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House that opens up to reveal Phantom's (Derrick Davis) lair as well as houses the offices of hapless opera house owners Firmin (David Benoit) and André (Rob Lindley). While overall not as grandiose, Connor and Brown do exercise some visual creativity in their substitutions, such as the hall of mirrors that replaces the grand staircase in the act two opener, "Masquerade."

Where Connor runs into some entirely self-created problems is in the blocking, which in the first act comes off as change for change's sake. This most blatantly and unfortunately arises in one of the most famous passages in the show, "The Music of the Night" and its immediate aftermath. Not only a key moment from a narrative and character standpoint, with the Phantom whisking away his beloved Christine Daaé (Eva Tavares) to his lair after her triumphant singing debut and reasserting his sensual musical thrall over her, it's also one from the cast perspective, for it's a crucial chemistry building between the leads to sell the entire romance. Prince's original staging, for all the accoutrements that fill the stage, wisely keeps focus on the actors and relies on their skills and developing rapport, and as their push-pull gradually, inevitably moves from an intangible one to a physical one, ending in--when the pairing of actors works--a complete surrender and tangible connection. Connor, for no good reason, turns this into some weird, overly busy quasi-S&M scenario with the Phantom blindfolding Christine and her stumbling about for the bulk of the number. The less said about the scene that follows, originally a critical beat of agency by Christine involving the Phantom's mask that for some reason now has barely anything to do with the mask, the better.

Apparently having gotten over the urge to force a differing "vision" onto the material, after intermission Connor apparently learns to more completely trust it, which is still entirely involving and enveloping after 30 years. He's helped immeasurably by a solid cast. If the character of Raoul, Christine's upstanding suitor, is still an incredibly thankless part, Jordan Craig sounds good and strikes the necessary, earnest bond with Tavares in their key duet, the now-wedding song staple "All I Ask of You." Singing beautifully from the start, Tavares only grows in strength much like her character does as the story goes on, really hitting her stride from the underrated early act two gem "Twisted Every Way" onward. Her chemistry with the charismatic, menacing, and piercingly empathetic Davis, despite that bizarre "Music of the Night" staging, is palpable, reaching a feverish erotic boil in the climactic "The Point of No Return." That song, as ever, is aptly named, for that begins one of those most tense, suspenseful, emotionally urgent final stretches of any musical--which, in Connor's one truly inspired deviation from the Prince template, manages to be even more devastating. No spoilers, but the Phantom's--and the show's--final line now has an even more bittersweet lead-in that results in an even bigger wallop, further amplified by Davis's towering star turn. By the famous closing notes, the music of the night once again proves its everlasting power, undiluted by some less than ideal direction and production choices.





Derrick Davis as The Phantom, Eva Tavares as Christine Daaé
(photo by Matthew Murphy)

The Phantom of the Opera is now playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through Sunday, July 7; the touring company then continues Southern California at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from Wednesday, July 10 through Sunday, July 21 before moving on to other cities through the rest of the year.

Buy the The Phantom of the Opera Original London Cast album CD here.
Buy The Complete Phantom of the Opera book here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera movie Blu-ray here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera movie DVD here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera movie soundtrack CD here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall: In Celebration of 25 Years Blu-ray here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall: In Celebration of 25 Years DVD here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall: In Celebration of 25 Years CD here.

(Special thanks to Hollywood Pantages Theatre)

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Friday, June 7, 2019

The Movie Report #1023, June 7, 2019

The Movie Report

#1023, June 7, 2019


MOVIES:

  • Dark Phoenix ** 1/2
  • The Last Black Man in San Francisco *** 1/2
  • Late Night *** Emma Thompson & Mindy Kaling introduction at CinemaCon
  • NGK: Nandha Gopala Kumaran ** 1/2
  • Pavarotti ***
  • The Secret Life of Pets 2 ***

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Thursday, June 6, 2019

Samuel L. Jackson returns as Shaft in Hollywood

Film Flam Flummox



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Saturday, June 1, 2019

Randall Park & Nahnatchka Khan's rom com reflections on Always Be My Maybe

Film Flam Flummox



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