Posts Tagged ‘San Diego Musical Theatre’


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.


Compelling San Diego Musical Theatre’s “Next to Normal” Illuminates Mental Illness

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

By Barry Jagoda

Frequent patrons of San Diego Musical Theater are in for a shocking change from the company’s fare of light Broadway-style musicals when they have the intense experience of the current production, “Next to Normal,” which opened last night (September 27) and runs through October 12 at the North Park Theatre.

This is an extremely well-written and well-produced play, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 and, in 2009, a collection of “Tony’s” for its Broadway run that year.  Although it must be said that the story has its depressing moments there are also many uplifting scenes and educational lessons.

Though the producers like to refer to their production as a “rock musical,” in truth it is a searing look at mental health issues, particularly the painful and distressing bipolar disease, often referred to as manic-depression.  “Next to Normal” is very serious drama masquerading as rock theater.  The small live orchestra and the outstanding voices of the six cast members help to relieve the realities of the topic under examination—but agony also comes through in this fearless play.


The brilliant San Diego version is alternatingly painful and illuminating.  With a fine cast of six players and a live orchestra, also of six members, this is the story of one woman’s trauma and how deeply debilitating  bipolar disease is to her and for her family.  Perfectly played by Bets Malone as the mentally ill Mom, she goes though all the stages of medications and psychotherapy and electro-shock treatment.  The idea is to purge whatever bad memories triggered the illness while opening the patient to a mind that can be rebuilt with positive thoughts.

The audience was clearly moved by all this but not to be overlooked in the story is what could be called “collateral damage,” the enormous stress and unfathomable pain suffered by her loyal husband (very well portrayed by Robert J. Townsend) who promises to stay with her no matter what.  Also subject to agony is the couple’s teen-age daughter who has the normal adolescent adjustment problems vastly multiplied by being her mother’s daughter.

The story makes clear that the trauma began with the death of the couple’s eight-month boy, 16 years earlier.  But this demon persists, as the now imaginary son lingers on throughout the play, never far from Mom’s memory.  We are told by one of the psychiatrists that there is often a genetic disposition for bi-polar but the disease is often triggered by a traumatic event.  In “Next to Normal,” that turns out to be the dead infant who never leaves his mother’s psyche.





In our complex society of very rich, very poor and much in-between we do not often have a chance to get inside the skin of a corner homeless person or someone clearly acting “crazy.”  It is one of the many virtues of “Next to Normal,” that theater goers are forced to look deeply into the psyche of mental illness.  This production is wonderful drama and very public-spirited theater.

As a measure of commitment the producers have arranged for a charity sharing procedure and, in this case, the recipient is the International Bipolar Association.  For more information and to contribute to this highly deserving research organization access


San Diego Musical Theater with Rousing “CHICAGO”

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

By Barry Jagoda

The Birch North Park Theatre is a wonderful old San Diego venue, dating from 1929, perfect for “Chicago,” a road-show musical based on Broadway’s third longest running production.  It is heartening to walk into this great space immediately to be confronted with a 14-piece orchestra which occupies half the stage and is soon joined by a cast of 19, including three or four starring roles and a highly professional ensemble.  The musical theatre is very much alive in San Diego.

By way of introduction, on the February 22 opening night, Gary and Erin Lewis, executive directors of the producing organization, San Diego Musical Theater (SDMT), stepped in the front of the curtain and announced that the show was about crime, about murder and adultery.  That about sums up the content of “Chicago,” but the baton of resident musical director, Don Le Master,  keeps the orchestra and the production jumping with comedic charm and “razzle dazzle.”

Nearly 40 years after its Broadway debut, the play has evolved into a mostly empty, jokey story.  But production quality and fast pace in San Diego, results in some high entertainment value—wonderful singing and dancing by the two competing female leads, Kyra Da Costa and Emma Radwick, and a bold, bravura performance by the handsome, fast talking Chicago defense lawyer, played by Robert Townsend, gives the audience a series of delights. Particularly impressive is the constantly visible and hard-working ensemble. Patrons seemed to really appreciate the talents of this group of eight hoofers.  And what one must never forget about this production is that it was first conceived by Bob Fosse, whose “The Chorus Line,” may be the greatest Broadway musical ever.  In “Chicago” the characters are also forced to dig deep into their emotional selves for material although this Fosse trademark is here seen more as comedy and farce instead  of insightful self-analysis.  The San Diego production was directed by Ron Kellum and choreographed by Randy Slovcek.

“Chicago” tells the story of Roxie (below right) who shoots a suitor when she thinks she is being taken advantage of and about another peripheral Chicago dancer, Velma (below left), who wants the attention Roxie seems to be getting.  Billy Flynn, the smooth ” mick lawyer,” takes on Roxie’s case and (shh!) gets her acquitted of murder.  The rest is commentary and good middlebrow musical art, although the lawless violence seen in pre-depression Chicago necessarily reminds one of similar conditions in today’s Windy City.


Several members of the cast were making their professional stage debuts with this production.  One such ensemble member, Ariel Lowell, who spends much of her time seeking theatrical opportunities in Los Angeles, was clearly excited by her chance and she did a fine job throughout the evening.  That was indeed lucky because it turned out that ten members of her family came to Opening Night, including her siblings and parents from Colorado and her grandmother from Virginia.  In one of the production’s more lavish numbers the Ensemble (with Ariel, left center, below) surrounds star lawyer “Billy Flynn,” well played by Townsend.

In early February Ariel and the cast began two weeks of rehearsals and their performances showed a high degree of professionalism.

A huge crowd showed up for Opening Night and it was a diverse group. Quite visible was a former President of the University of California, Bob Dynes, and his wife Ann, who is the retired attorney for UC San Diego.  The audience was obviously  thrilled with the live musical quality and it was apparent that SDMT has begun it’s season with a hit.  After previews and a highly successful Opening Weekend, February 15-17, the show was scheduled, during the last weekend of February and the beginning of March, for eight more performances. Tickets are available on-line, <> or by phoning the box office at 858-560-5740.

Under the leadership of Producers Gary and Erin Lewis, San Diego Musical Theater will bring a total of four large musicals to the Birch in coming months: “The Sound of Music,” May 10-26; “Ain’t Misbehavin,” September 27-October 13 and “White Christmas” in December.