The Rocky Horror Show @ Underground Theater

Perhaps the best reason to see this show is that it hasn’t been seen on stage in Los Angeles in quite a few years. When it first premiered back in 1973, The Rocky Horror Show was shocking, new, and a hell of a lot of fun. It’s still an enduring musical primarily because its devoted fans will never let it die. It’s not a perfect show, but the spirit of wacky weirdness touched a nerve with many of its fans. But those same fans can be as cold and unforgiving if not done right. Big Brit Productions’ mounting of The Rocky Horror Show gets a rocky start at best at the Underground Theatre and goes down hill from there.

It would be unfair to start off this review on a negative note, however, due largely in part the work of some of these talented actors in the cast. The production has major problems that are hard to overcome, but they knew right off the bat that the talent needed to be top-notch, and that’s exactly what they’ve got – for the most part. Troy Guthrie and Molly Laurel are an excellent choice for the roles of Brad Majors and Janet Weiss. Guthrie possesses a rich voice that holds up throughout the musical numbers, but really gets its showcase in Act II during “Once in a While.” Carey Embry’s Frank-n-Furter is sassy and over the top… perhaps a little too big for the size of this stage at The Underground Theatre. Kelly Devoto steals the show as Columbia, but sadly, there isn’t enough of her in the show. The performances, overall, are appropriately campy and very tongue-in-cheek, though at times the actors seemed a bit distracted with awkward blocking, staging, and choreography.

Which brings us to the major problem plaguing this production. The space at the Underground is small – too small for big-scale musical productions. Director Allison Austin’s direction is choppy, with awkward starts and abrupt stops and a lot of gaps between scenes. Lindsey Glick’s choreography is too cluttered for the big numbers, but miraculously, it sometimes works when all elements are in place – such as some moments in “Time Warp.” Perhaps a scaled down, bare bones production of this show would be a better option on such a small space (it has been done before successfully with other shows on smaller scales), but it would require a bit of visionary genius to pull it off. Unfortunately, this production relied a little too much on the movie version.

The Rocky Horror Show runs through July 10 at the Underground Theater at 1312 Wilton Place in Los Angeles. For tickets and more information please visit their website at www.rockyhorrorunderground.com.

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RENT at Musical Theatre West

When it first opened on Broadway in 1996, Rent quickly became a welcome sight for an institution that was becoming dated and bland. It also became the vehicle that opened up the door that allowed the unimaginative and, yes… bland jukebox musical to dominate the Great White Way. So the question is, did Broadway learn anything from this landmark and important piece of musical theatre? Apparently, not. For twelve years Jonathan Larson’s seminal rock opera, based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème showed us what Broadway could really be. Along the way, Rent picked up an avid group of followers affectionately known as RENT-heads who will follow it no matter where it goes.

On September 7, 2008, Rent closed after 5,124 performances and placing it as the 8th longest running show on Broadway. Without even mentioning the four Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the other countless awards it has garnered, Rent has definitely touched a nerve with audiences. Has it been around long enough to have jumped the shark?

The answer could easily be a resounding “yes.” However, Musical Theatre West has been given the honor of being the first professional regional theatre company to produce their own production of this musical. The result is a refreshing and inspiring breath of life to a show that celebrates the “No Day But Today” credo that resonates throughout the play. Director Nick Degruccio pays homage to the original production while deftly incorporating his own vision that focuses on the character’s relationships to one another. The band on stage sounds great as ever with Michael Paternostro in the Musical Director seat. The set, provided by Plan B Entertainment is a scaled down version of the original with some inspiring additions that allow the characters to move and interact in a way they’ve never been able to do.

The cast, however, is the reason to see this show for the first time or the 30+ times (as is the case for this reviewer.) It’s always fun to see talented actor take on the Joanne/Maureen dynamic and add their own spin on the characters. Callie Carson is bigger than life and wonderfully joyous. Nicole Tillman’s Joanne is a perfect match as the straight-arrow lesbian wholly in love with Maureen’s wild spirit. Jai Rodriguez is absolute heaven to watch as the tender, loving AIDS-ridden cross-dressing Angel. He is the glue that holds this makeshift family together and Rodriguez is just the right actor to portray him with humor and poignancy. Mel Rovert is extremely convincing and moving as Tom Collins, Angel’s lover – especially in ACT II. Sabrina Sloan’s Mimi Marquez is brash and full of life and able to belt out a resounding version of “Out Tonight.” Her love interest, however, left a lot to be desired – not so much in the vocal department, but more so in P.J. Griffith’s Iggy Pop/Keith Richards portrayal of Roger. The way he slinks along the stage distracts from the core of emotion that defines Roger. Luckily, the principal cast and the rest of the talented company are able to carry him through and he is able to connect emotionally with Sloan in Act II. Beau Hirshfield’s Mark effectively portrays Mark Cohen, the lonely filmmaker trying to create a family of his own in New York City with this group of bohemians trying to make it on their own despite the obstacles they must face.

The themes of youth, death, life and love still resound within the hardcore fans in attendance on opening night. It’s testimony to Jonathan Larson’s legacy that compelled him to write this musical. Musical Theatre West could not have been a better choice to kick off the new life that Rent will enjoy at a regional level. Not all productions will be great, but at least this first one has set the standard for what it should be – it may well have surpassed even the original production, if not at least matched it on all levels.

Fiddler on the Roof at The Pantages Theatre

2,500 performances strong and Topol does not look like he’ll be slowing down in the role of Tevye in Tony Award-winning musical Fiddler on the Roof, which is now touring the U.S. in what is being called the actor’s farewell tour. It’s been a role identified with the actor since he appeared in the 1973 film version that earned him a Golden Globe award and an Academy Award nomination.

The touching story of Jewish life in turn of the century Russia deals with old world traditions on the eve of revolution. Tevye and his wife, Golde (Susan Cella) holds fast to the dying traditions that keep life in balance in the small town of Anatevka. He compares this precarious balance of traditions to a fiddler on the roof. But even before the changing world comes to his village, life is slowly unraveling for him when his eldest daughter, Tzeitel (Rena Strober) and Motel the Tailor (Erik Liberman) become engaged, going against the Matchmaker’s (Mary Stout) match to have her marry Lazar Wolf, the butcher (David Brummel), much to Tevye’s dismay. Perchi (Colby Foytik), a revolutionary student staying with Tevye’s family, upsets the traditions during Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding when he asks Hodel (Jamie Davis) to dance.

Later Perchi and Hodel reveal their union even as Perchi is arrested and shipped off to Siberia. Hodel goes to join him and his cause. So, his daughters pair off with men that they have fallen in love with, an idea that is foreign to the older folks in town and in this way, the younger generation forges their own traditions even as the world finally comes knocking at their door forcing them out and into an uncertain future.

Directed by Sammy Dallas Bayes, reproducing Jerome Robbins original choreography, the show never seems a nostalgic romp into Broadway canon. One thing that is very clear is the precision of the show, from staging to choreography to the nuances of the actors on stage.

But this production is, of course, all about Topol. In the role that made him a star, he never disappoints at over seventy years old. Every movement on stage is clearly coming from decades of portraying this father having to deal with his forward-thinking daughters. His voice, deep and precise, gives the character of Tevye a level of depth that is required for the role-especially when he has to hold firmly to his belief when he disowns his daughter Chava (Deborah Grausman) for marrying outside the faith.

But to say that it is only about Topol would be a mistake. Like a professional actor, he takes from what the newer actors give, thus giving it a fresh approach to the role. Cella as his wife of 25 years, matches Topol in scope as does the rest of the fine cast that makes up this touring production. This is almost necessary for a musical that’s been around for some time now. It not only entertains with memorable songs (music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) such as “Tradition,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” and “If I Were a Rich Man;” but Joseph Stein’s book also digs deep into our own lives, whether we are Jewish or not, for the musical delves into the commonalities of all human beings: acceptance, change, family traditions, and sacrifice.

Hair at The Chance Theater

From the moment the young, energetic and handsome cast of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical is done with the opening number “Aquarius,” at the Chance Theatre, the infectious tribal beats of Galt MacDermot’s score has firmly rooted the direction of this sleek and timely revival of the very first rock musical.

It’s been 41 years since the original Broadway cast staged their now infamous and much talked about nude “Be-In,” and while at the time, its controversy was basis for censorship, its deeper message of (as stated by director Oanh Nguyen) “pride, loyalty and subversive nature that are inherently a part of the American spirit” remains as relevant today as it was back then.

For Nguyen, America’s involvement in the Vietnam War is a part of history very personal to him. The Vietnamese-American director came to the U.S. as part of the evacuation of Saigon in 1975 and for that reason, the production of Hair relies less on nostalgia and, instead, focuses on “who these young people were and what they were so passionately fighting for.”

While firmly rooted in the flower power era of the volatile and changing era of the late 1960s, under the very capable direction of Nguyen, the whole design, starting with Erika C. Miller’s costumes that cleverly mixes some modern and vintage costumes, yet retaining an overall feel for the 60s; Christopher Scott Murillo’s New York gritty street scene; and KC Wilkerson’s psychedelic lighting design all work seamlessly to achieve the overall feel of a fresh, hip, and fun revival.

Hair’s almost bookless (book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado) story revolves around a group of politically active hippies collectively known as The Tribe, led by the free spirited Berger (Armando Gutierrez).

Through a series of musical vignettes, a story unfolds in which Claude (James May), a member of the tribe, is torn between burning his draft card in protest of the war or actually going off to fight for his country.

In the meantime, Sheila (Michaelia Leigh), a student at NYU is in love with Berger and Jeanie (Jeanie), is in love with Claude, but carrying someone else’s baby.

Woolf (Cody Clark), self-proclaimed gardener, is hung up on Sheila and Berger. As a group, they aimlessly haunt New York’s Central Park and other areas staging Be-Ins, taking illegal substances, protesting the war, and pay satiric tributes to the American Flag.

As a whole, the strength of this musical is in the catchy and diverse musical styles that sample a wide range of musical genres ranging from folk rock, rockabilly, rock and roll, R&B, acid rock, and pop music.

The cast of this production is so versatile and talented-vocally and kinetically, that they are able to fluidly weave in and out of the musical numbers revealing an almost awe-inspiring feat of choreography under Kelly Todd’s supervision.

Notable in this production is David LaMarr as the militant African-American Hud. He was last seen along with Gutierrez in the Chance’s production of The Girl, The Grouch, and the Goat, where he demonstrated his comedic timing. Here, LaMarr shines with attitude and full vocal cords (he wears two hats in this production as Vocal Captain, too.)

Gutierrez shows that he can be versatile, going from shy and awkward in Goat to sexually charismatic in this production. Leigh Louise Kato, Amber J. Snead, and Jenna Romano head a strong female cast as various members of the Tribe and other characters.

Hair just won a Tony for the Broadway revival earlier this year. It’s just one of those shows that, when done properly, it is a definite crowd pleaser. If there is to be any fault in this production, it is that the space is too small to contain such a burst of energy and celebration.

Luckily, The Chance sees no limitations and carries on their mission of “exploration of intimate live theatre.”

Little Shop of Horrors at Musical Theatre West

That lovable mean green man-eating plant that reigned supreme in one of the longest and most popular crowd-pleasing Off Broadway musical has landed in Long Beach in a sleek, off beat, and thoroughly entertaining production since the revival touring company hit Los Angeles just a few years back directly from Broadway.

That Musical Theatre West’s production of Little Shop of Horrors closely resembles that production is not an accident and it is not necessarily a liability.

Sets, costumes, and the puppets are modeled after that successful run and Michael A. Shepperd, also Artistic Director of Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles, reprises his 2003 Broadway role as the voice of Audrey II.

Martin P. Robinson’s original 1982 Audrey II designs (this time by way of the Jim Henson Creature shop) are also featured with no less than four incarnations of the blood-thirsty creature from outer space.

A down and out florist’s assistant, Seymour Krelborn (Danny Gurwin) suddenly finds success, fame, and the girl when he discovers an exotic plant that turns out to be a little more than he bargained for. As with any story of sudden fame and success-it comes with a high price and for Seymour it comes in the form of this blood sucking plant that demands fresh meat in order to thrive.

Prominently displayed at Mr. Muschnik’s (Stuart Pankin) skid row flower shop, Seymour garners not only attention from everyone, but also from his co-worker, Audrey (Lowe Taylor) who’s taste in men includes a masochistic rebel motorcycle dentist (Peter Paige).

The opening number (“Little Shop of Horrors”), as sung by a Greek Chorus of three street urchins (Meloney Collins, Frederika Meek, and Kamilah Marshall) with names from 1950s girl groups is the weakest element in the show with a stiff choreographed number (choregraphy by DJ Gray).

However, by the next number (“Skid Row/Downtown”), they recover completely and maintain a strong hold through the end. Gurwin is ideal as the loveable but nerdy Seymour, with a robust voice and Taylor absolutely steals the show with the signature musical number, “Somewhere That’s Green.”

Queer as Folk veteran, Peter Paige is also hilarious as the demented Dr. Orin Scrivello, DDS and various other characters.

As a whole, the cast is magnificent in Howard Ashman (lyrics) and Alan Menken’s (music) 50’s R&B, do-wop score of a horror spoof. Director (and Associate Artistic Director of MTW) Steven Glaudini’s fun pacing keeps the show moving along to the music while the colorful sets and costumes from the original Broadway revival production enhance the experience to bring a truly enjoyable musical back to the Los Angeles area.

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