Posts Tagged ‘La Jolla Playhouse’

Lucky We Are To Have Loving Families

Monday, July 15th, 2019

by Barry Jagoda

The Luckiest, now up at La Jolla Playhouse until July 28th, is one of the best short dramatic productions there in recent memory.

Playgoers may be slightly confused by the opening foreshadowing sequence of events which lead to the death of “Lissette’s” character.  She has suffered from numerous medically diagnosed illnesses, dooming her.  This is why we first see the brilliant actress, Aleque Reid, as “Lissette,” on stage briefly in a high tech wheelchair.

Below is Ms. Reid, funny, passionate, argumentative and loving, seen in the world premier of Melissa Ross’s fine and moving drama, directed by Jaime Castaneda.

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Most of the 95-minute play, with no intermission, is taken up with arguments and love-talk among “Lissette,” her Mom, “Cheryl,” seen here effectively portrayed by Deirdre Lovejoy, and “Peter” the new family member/boyfriend, starring Reggie D. White, in a unforgettable performance.

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The Luckiest is the heart-rending dramatic story of our families and the families we choose—-making clear how lucky any of us may be to have such deep relationships which will survive the most trying adversities of family separations and medical end of life situations.

The terrific drama gives one leaving the theater a deep appreciation for what Playhouse Artistic Director, Christopher Ashley, has written is that understanding from family is among the luckiest things one can possess.

 

 

When the Ladies Are Murderers for Hire: Dark Comedy at La Jolla Playhouse

Monday, August 7th, 2017

The perfect story for the age of Donald Trump, Jr. has just arrived at La Jolla Playhouse.  The name of the play is “Kill Local,” and I’m happy to recommend this Playhouse experimental effort.

So, for some summer laughs and gender role reversal, hurry over to catch this farce with a morality play angle.  The more gruesome parts are in the first act but patrons will definitely stay around for the conclusion.

This reviewer was amused that with the world-wide feminist call for gender equality, this dark comedy comes along to show what can happen when women are completely in charge.  This makes for refreshing drama and helps one understand the often leavening  role of art.

Though bloody, the acting was quite good even as some of the players lines could have used better microphone boosting.  Same for the innovative directing—the play had to be stopped for a stage correction on opening night.

But the script is well-written, a tribute to the partnership between UCSD Theater and the La Jolla Playhouse.  The fine writer, Mat Smart, studied at University of California, San Diego before migrating to New York and now has temporarily come back to delight the home folks with a script and staging that has echoes of Theater of the Absurd and is a bit unusual but—amazingly—it works!

The players should be recognized for their good acting and hard work in this physically demanding performance.  They are Matthew Amendt, Carolyn Braver, Candy Buckley, Amanda Quaid and Xochiti Romero.  Braver’s parents drove in from Tucson to delight in the work of their 25-year-old daughter who effectively plays a semi-naïve 17-year-old.  Her very proud dad confided that she had already had a Broadway role and was thrilled to be in this La Jolla production.

Amanda Quaid as Shelia (left) and Carolyn Braver as Ami

Amanda Quaid as Shelia (left) and Carolyn Braver as Ami

The other stars are a devilish Mom and her two daughters who run a small family killing-for-hire business which is the heart of the production.  Their extraordinary foil is Amendt a dead ringer for Donald Trump Jr, looking-alike, sounding-alike and a capitalist—selfish at any cost.

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Amanda Quaid as “Shelia” (left) and Candy Buckley as “Gloria”

One could delight merely in this character’s swinging around at the mercy of his guns-for-hire captor.  But there is much more in this playful script for which you’ll have to scurry over to the playhouse to get the inside story: La Jolla Playhouse

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Amanda Quaid as “Shelia” (left) and Matthew Amendt as “Todd”

Most everywhere one turns these days in the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego one sees partnerships between UCSD and various elements of the community.  Presentation of “Kill Local,” as said, fine experimental theater, is a marvelous tribute to the long-time synergy created in the “Theater District.”

At the same time, UCSD Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla must be congratulated also for providing a temporary home for SummerFest 2017, our grand musical event—on a class with the very few top musical festivals in the world.

Incidentally this is the same academic leader who brought the Dalai Lama to La Jolla—a courageous act in face of anti-free-speech propagandists who flooded his switchboard with nasty phone calls.  It was a pleasure to see the Chancellor at the Playhouse opening night of “Kill Local” in this case accompanied by his articulate and handsome son.

Check out “Kill Local” during this limited run in August.  Ticket details are available at the site La Jolla Playhouse.

 

Cheers for La Jolla Playhouse Opening “Escape to Margaritaville”

Monday, June 5th, 2017

 

by Barry Jagoda

“Escape to Margaritaville” brings fun and laughter from a tropical isle all the way back to Southernmost California pleasuring cheering audiences attending the current production at La Jolla Playhouse.

An escape musical, the happy show features a large ensemble, a fine live mini-orchestra and wonderful singing and dancing. Stars, seen below, Alison Luff (as Rachel) and Paul Alexander Hamilton (as Tully) are perfectly cast, she to let us run away and he to gather her loving attention, both to help the audience appreciate the value of an island escape.

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The story features a couple of urban women getting away from it all, falling into the arms of island charmers—truly overturning inhibitions and casting off their 9 to 5 lifestyles.

This show, inspired by songs from Jimmy Buffet, with highly imaginative staging and welcoming island artifacts from the lobby to the ballon drop (shh!) at the very end is easy to recommend.  This wonderful world-premiere will run through July 9.

Playhouse artistic director Christopher ashley has found the perfect production to get the Playhouse 2017/2018 season off to a rousing beginning. Upcoming shows, “The Cake,” “Summer,” “At the Old Place,” “Kill Local,” and “Wild Goose Dreams” are featured upcoming productions not to be missed.

 

BEGUILING “UP HERE” IS ATTRACTIVE, TEMPTING AT LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE

Friday, August 14th, 2015

by Barry Jagoda

For a real treat go see “Up Here,” the lusty neuroscience musical playing through September 6 at La Jolla Playhouse.

Just for a chance to see the stars, sexy Betsy Wolfe and mind-plagued Matt Bittner, in the roles of beautiful Lindsay (she even says she has quite a “rack”) and Dan, “the computer man,” whose head is populated by a huge group of demons and encouragers, is more than worth the price of admission.

Dan (Matt Bittner) crazed by his love for Lindsay (Betsy Wolfe)

Kudos to Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the married couple who created the book, music and lyrics.  (On Broadway he won a Tony Award for “The Book of Mormon” and she won prizes for the Off Broadway musical “In Transit.”)  What a splendid assemblage by the Playhouse.

The love affair, at the center of this charmer, is a kind of a conventional meeting and matching and rejecting and rejoining where he has confidence problems and she is too compelling to lose.  The back-and-forth is played out in front of a set that also makes frequent references to evolution.  Alas, we see and hear much of the voices in Dan’s head, challenging his insecurities and Lindsay is also nervous about a new job and an old beau.  At a certain level much of this drama for fun plays out in our own anxiety-driven lives.

But this is real entertainment combining the Playhouse tendency to stage productions that please their upper-bourgeois mainstay audience with a brilliantly funny script that touches up and back with more meaty mental health issues delivering an undercurrent of contemporary focus that will please those seeking, also, something to think about.

The colorful production is directed by Alex Timbers and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, both prize winners with an eye on the stars and delightful use of the ensemble mostly to emerge from Dan’s head as he tries to get it straight.  With a number of small sweet tunes the production, for a musical, has so few big numbers that there is not a listing of the songs in the patron’s program.

Demons and Do-Gooders inhabit Dan's Brain

Set designer David Korins has created stage with allusions to the human brain but it is one’s funny bone that that get tickled in this memorable production.

 

Muslim-American Culture, with Passion, Insight and Humor, At La Jolla Playhouse

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

by Barry Jagoda

Vision, courage and a willingness to create theater out of a central conflict of our time was required for La Jolla Playhouse to stage a drama focusing on a Muslim-American family and the contradictions this religion has created all over the world.

The February 19 world premier of an unforgettable play “The Who & The What,” by Ayad Akhtar, was a triumph not merely because the production was a “crowd pleaser.”  Playhouse opening night audiences are not used to deep and thoughtful theater—which this production truly is.  And there was enough humor and superficiality to draw loud and heartfelt applause throughout the evening.

But if one seeks depth on the topic of religion, particularly the Islamic faith, go see this play!  It is a wonderful exposition of Muslim culture, with references to a homeland in Pakistan but otherwise the story plays out here at home in America, with a healthy infusion of wit and wisdom underlying much seriousness. The play is contemporary and set in Atlanta.  It will be performed nightly at The La Jolla Playhouse until March 9th with two matinees each weekend.

The story is of a traditional, but transplanted, deep believer in the Prophet Mohammed, but now a taxi driver in Atlanta whose wife (“broken” by her husband) died of cancer, leaving the father of two daughters struggling with their faith but a father whose Muslim tenants are NEVER doubted.   Of course the girls have other thoughts about this.  The three are seen below:

An unlikely fourth player is the part-time Iman of a local mosque, an intellectual plumber when not engaged in his faith work.  Named Eli, he ends up marrying one of the girls—fights ensue, but a baby is born.  An American convert to Islam, the young clergyman has a modern view of religious requirements.  Iman Eli and his wife, Zarina, the brilliant older of the Muslim women–she has a Harvard graduate degree in literature and her life’s work is a novel with a very questioning perspective on the Prophet–are pictured below

Kudos particularly go to Artistic Director Christopher Ashley who signed up this project after just one dramatic reading.  In so doing he accepted the enormous challenge of bringing a serious play on the subject of Muslim culture (particularly in its American context) to a venue which has been more partial to mass cultural theater than to an extremely thoughtful, highly cerebral examination of what is perhaps the world’s most vexing issue.  Religion, and particularly the Islamic faith of more than 1.2 billion persons world-wide, get an examination in this case study of the girls, their various boyfriends—and husbands—and the dictatorial influence of the father.

 

Playwright Aktar’s Pulitzer Prize in Drama for an earlier production, “Disgraced,” had not been announced prior to The Playhouse taking on this new story thus adding to the leap of faith by Ashley and his creative team.   They brought in Director Kimberly Senior (who had earlier worked with Aktar) and the four stars of the play:  Monika Jolly, Meera Kumbhani, Kai Lennox and Bernhard White.

To their lasting credit, the producers did not water down this project.  The many conflicts about The Prophet—particularly what the playwright calls “gender politics”–are present and the subject of many long, loud, passionate and very interesting arguments.

Amazingly, for all the bluster and anger in the family, there is a happy ending.  Dear Reader, you are invited, even encouraged, to go see for yourself.

 

Great Paul Robeson Passionately Portrayed by Daniel Beaty at La Jolla Playhouse

Monday, October 14th, 2013

For La Jolla Playhouse patrons who crave socially relevant drama a magnificent such work currently occupies the stage in the form of a biography of the great American black actor, singer and political activist, Paul Robeson.   The production, titled “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” stars another world-class great actor, Daniel Beaty, who, in a one-man performance, gives the audience an unforgettable and highly emotional experience, playing the parts of 40 persons and bringing to life at least 15 songs, including “Ole Man River,”  “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Battle of Jericho.”

 

Robeson, born in 1898, son of a run-away slave, was an All-American football player at Rutgers, a distinguished graduate of Columbia University Law School and a star of stage and screen—with one of the truly amazing voices in the history of the American and world-wide stage.

Tired of “nigger this” and “nigger that,” in his home country, he became enamored of the Soviet Union making an enemy of the dangerous Diretor of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover.  Eventually called before the House Committee on Un-American Activity and blacklisted during the 1950s cold war period of Senator Joseph McCarthy, Robeson’s performing world collapsed when his passport was taken away for eight years at the height of his stage career.

Though Robeson is now remembered as a great and patriotic American, perhaps the most well-known black man for most of the 20th Century, his life and his amazing story comes alive in this Playhouse production as portrayed by Beaty, the brilliant actor and vocalist  whose work is completely deserving of the story of the heroic Robeson.

Accompanied by a musical trio and perfectly staged by veteran director Moises Kaufman this is a play not to be missed.   There is plenty of time to get tickets and go before the production closes November 3.

 

Electric “Tribes” Engages La Jolla Playhouse Audience

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

by Barry Jagoda

“Tribes,” the wonderful drama currently on stage at The La Jolla Playhouse, did not look all that interesting at first glance but it turns out to be one of the most compelling presentations in years from this potentially wonderful San Diego house of creativity.

Many Playhouse productions have seemed to be tryouts for Broadway, particularly under the leadership of the much heralded Des McAnuff, the former Artistic Director.  But the team of Christopher  Ashley (who replaced Des several years ago) and his sidekick, Managing Director Michael Rosenberg, are making a valiant, and often successful, effort for the Playhouse to become relevant for those who want theater to be stimulating and not merely a site of ego gratification for the swells of La Jolla who come to hear bells and whistles and show up on Opening Night at what they think is world class when it has often been mindless froth.

Not “Tribes.”

This is a brilliant story of family dysfunction, one tribe comprised of an insufferable intellectual father, an overly empathetic mother and three children.  One of their kids, in this British-Jewish home, was born deaf.  The other two are aggressively hungry for their own success in music and academia.  Another tribe started as two deaf parents and their lovely hearing daughter.  When the two young deaf kids meet and fall in love they eventually try to start a third tribe, their own home and love.  This causes the boy—whose folks had forbidden him to learn sign language—to go the other way and completely embrace deaf culture.  Unfortunately his new girl-friend, gifted from birth with hearing but now in her twenties and herself losing it to painful noises of black rushing sounds, (evolving toward her parents and  their “disabled” life-style), announces, “I don’t want to be only deaf.”  Will they break-up?  (Earlier the audience,  including many without hearing, gets a huge laugh at the line, ‘The deaf are the Muslims of the disabled, handicapped world.”)

“Tribes” is a universal, painful story filled with life lessons about cultural relativity  and continuously asking the question of which of the many “tribes” among us is normal.  All six characters are wonderfully cast:  After a while one can easily forget you are inside a theater and begin to think you are at someone’s home in Britain trying to help sort out their problems.  “Tribes” is a treasure for the mind!

(L-R) Thomas DellaMonica, Meghan O’Neill, Russell Harvard, Lee Roy Rogers, Dina Thomas and Jeff Still share top billing in “Tribes

To it’s much appreciated credit the Playhouse has maintained deep skill in  understanding production values, lighting, costuming, set design and casting. Director David Cromer has turned this play into something most always understandable even with deaf characters communicating in the venue of the nearly wrap-around, thrust stage auditorium of the Playhouse Potiker Theater, not a simple task.  Of enormous help are the electronic surtitles flashed all around invoked not only to interpret the large amount of sign language being employed but also for such pedestrian assignments as warning the audience to “turn off cellphones.”  With “Tribes” we have the happy combination of great, unforgettable drama married to La Jolla Playhouse’s expected mastery of production values.  Unlike many Playhouse presentations the story is so good that, finally, the bells and whistles become merely an accompaniment instead of the main focus.

But, dear reader, if you are one seeking more and deeper substance, be advised that Des-the-Knife, like Mack-the-Knife, is back in town and directing an old San Diego favorite, “Sideways,” based on the charming buddy movie about two guys who take a car trip from San Diego to Santa Barbara,  We’ll review, in the next couple of days, what the old La Jolla Playhouse, with direction from the locally (and internationally) much-beloved McAnuff, does with this story.  Will he  have spoiled it trying to make his superficial audience entertained? One high-ranking, and very well informed Playhouse official whispered to this reporter, “I hear Des wants to take “Sideways to Broadway!”   We will let you know in this space next week.  This same Playhouse executive booster was particularly proud that the organization now has what appears to be a successful outreach all over San Diego.  ”We used to present five shows a year but now we have a total of 16 in communities all over the region and this all takes major donations and regular subscribers.”

Meanwhile, back to “Tribes.”  I do hope to be forgiven for turning to the ubiquitous Russian author Leo Tolstoy whose first sentence, in what some believe is the greatest novel of all time, “Anna Karenina,”Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  The Anna Karenina Principle describes an endeavor in which a deficiency in any one of a number of factors dooms it to failure. Consequently, a success (subject to this principle) is one where every possible deficiency has been avoided.

In, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” his brilliant book of anthropology and geography, the unsurpassed Southern California intellectual, UCLA Professor Jared Diamond further explains the Karenina principle:  So few wild animals have been successfully domesticated, because a deficiency in any one of a number of factors can make a species “undomesticable.”

At the heart of “Tribes,” a play about language and love, is the question of what is a “deficiency” and what is “normal?”   Nina Raines, the author of the novel on which this production is based, seems to find deafness not really a deficiency, at least compared to the secular, intellectual striving and craziness of the main family on stage.  Go see (and hear) for yourself:  Tribes plays only until July 21.

At the end of the several hour production, which zoomed by on Friday night, July 19, as though in an instant, the sizable deaf contingent in the audience (provided with interpreters to sign for words that could not be heard) rose to their feet waiving arms and hands high, the American Sign Language signal for wild applause.  Others in the audience clapped vigorously in the “more normal” manner while “Bravo” also rang out after an unforgettable night in La Jolla.

 

 

Brilliant Charlie Chaplin, Despairing Dostoevsky at La Jolla Playhouse

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

     It is mystifying to think about how one of the nation’s leading theater companies, La Jolla Playhouse, could simultaneously present to its loyal audiences a brilliant musical biography, the most enjoyable and historically significant “Limelight, The story of Charlie Chaplin,” while also serving up in an adjacent theater the vile, meaningless 90 minutes of useless agony, a version of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground.”

     It was only toward the end of “Notes” that patrons starting walking out, a final on-stage rape scene was ultimately too much to bear, but we all should have left in the beginning as it became apparent that the whole production was to consist of a maniac repeatedly proclaiming that his life was completely evil and that he was in perpetual agony.

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Contrast this with the uplifting life of Chaplin, who rose from the slums of London to become, on the basis of pure talent and a genetic ability to perform, one of the very greatest Hollywood entertainers and movie stars.  His story, a great crowd pleaser in La Jolla, is likely to end up on Broadway as have many other productions from these uneven creative stages.

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     “Notes,” an adaptation of an early novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky, who became one of the two or three greatest Russian novelists, did feature interesting staging in this Yale Repertory-La Jolla co-production, and there is one other positive reflection:  A community that prides itself on serving up the “good life,” as does San Diego, can use an artistic nightmare here and there.  In fact it is the very absence of this kind of humanistic struggle, the turning away from issues of alienation, that makes the local culture less appealing than in other major centers.  So, bring on a little lower Manhattan or some sordid San Francisco, to say nothing of painful 19th Century Russia.  We need a little shaking up in a place that calls itself “America’s Finest City.”

 

     Chaplin’s thought-provoking life encompasses so much about the 20th Century—urban poverty in the world’s cities, immigration, mama-inspiration, imaginative bravado, the Cold War and American political repression and H o l l y w o o d that it is an absolute natural for telling a big story with its emotional highs and lows.  At the heart of this wonderful story is a show about how to please an audience.

 

     In telling the life of this natural and consummate entertainer, who built on his vaudeville training to become a star in the earliest silent films and then the “talkies,” the La Playhouse has gone all-out, as this company can do when it is when focused on a good story.  In the current production we have a wonderful orchestra, singers, dancers, stars.  Chaplin, a world-class womanizer, took four wives and then, as he left the stage driven away by the horrible anti-communist blacklist, moved to Switzerland and had eight kids with his last wife. 

 

     What the audience might best remember, besides the perfect showcasing of Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, is the truth about a life, about mass culture and how the left-wing idealism bit so deeply into almost all its adherents that the challenge of know-nothing attacks by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his fellow demagogues at first seemed irrelevant.  But these attacks were just plain poison on our whole culture.  This production is a truth-teller, retaining the mean-spirited backdrop of poverty and political controversy of the worst kind of 20th Century pain, yet delivered in the form of a wonderful musical giving pleasure and delight to the audience with its terrific script and story and show casing the greatest figure in early Hollywood.

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These two plays are at La Playhouse <lajollaplayhouse.org> through mid-October.