Inspired after learning his son “Buddy” was being bullied at his prestigious private school by a racist student, Tony Award-winning actor and writer John Leguizamo delved into books about Latin history to find his son, and himself a Latin hero. While researching, he discovered honorable Latin leaders and epic civilizations that school textbooks overlook. With this wealth of information, he created his one-man show “Latin History for Morons.”

Under the direction of Tony Taccone (directed the first inception of “Angels in America” at the Mark Taper Forum at Center Theatre Group), this Latin 101 show is similar in how Lin-Manuel Miranda educates audiences about American History in “Hamilton”. Legiuzamo’s spoken word and sexy Tango, Mambo, Samba and Cha-Cha moves engage the audience filled with “morons.”

Lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols and sound designer Bray Poor’s original music enhance the scenes with Rachel Hauck’s classroom set that includes an old school chalkboard, stacks of books, file cabinets, a desk, and chair.

Growing up feeling like a second class citizen, the actor says in the Playbill “I need to please me, because that’s who I write for, really, and if I can write for myself and please myself, then I know it’ll please somebody else.” All of this knowledge “un-moronized’ and empowered him.

Leguizamo’s teaching style is engaging, crass, informative and entertaining. He probably would be fired on his first day for his raunchy drawings and multiple f-bombs, but for adult students, this one-man show is eye-opening and thought-provoking.

For 110 minutes, this talented actor becomes different people by changing vocal tones and inflections. He is a past teacher at his underfunded New York City public school; his low maintenance Jewish wife; his smart, but shy son; his wise teenage daughter; and an array of world leaders and discoverers.

Leguizamo shares with us how he was a “ghetto nerd” and felt invisible as a child in school, because his heritage was seldom taught in the classroom, emphasizing “Those who can not remember your past, will repeat it.” Leguizamo is not afraid to discuss our current President and his administration. His storytelling of 3,000 years of Latin history from the Mayans to Donald Trump, includes the King of Spain putting Latin people in cages, and with a straight face and tone, he says “Good thing that isn’t happening anymore.”

He points to a few audience members to answer some of his questions. When one man couldn’t answer correctly, the actor shouts out “Blame Betsy DeVos.”

Other political lines include how “Columbus was the Donald Trump of the New World” and the similarities of Cortez and Montezuma to Trump and Vladimir Putin’s relationship.

The audience roared in laughter when he uses the blackboard to sketch the world as a raunchy version of the super mellow PBS artist and teacher Bob Ross.

Another laugh out loud scene was when Leguizamo uses blackboard chalk to look more like U.S. 7th President Andrew Jackson, while educating us about the “Trail of Tears.”

“Latin History for Morons” concludes with “Latins are so American that it hurts. They have shed blood for America in every war in America, and are the most decorated soldiers.” If all this information was put into history books for our children to read, imagine how Americans would see Latin people and how Latin people would see themselves.

My favorite line in the show was when Leguizamo becomes his wise daughter offering advice, “If a bully is like sandpaper, he is going to hurt you, but in the end, he will wear out and you will be polished.”

For those who want to learn more about Latin History, Leguizamo lists an index of books in the Playbill to continue your education after the show.

Tickets are available at http://www.TheatreGroup.org, by calling Audience Services at (213) 972-4400 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles). Tickets range from $35 – $145 (ticket prices are subject to change). 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.

This review is featured OnStage Blog

Lackawanna Blues Wins Hearts in LA

Taking my seat during the opening night of Lackawanna Blues, two women named Pam and Sally sat down next to me. They started talking about their friend, writer, performer and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson. They shared with me how Pam is Ruben’s publicist, and that the first reading of Lackawanna Blues was in the living room of Sally’s home. Later I discovered I was sitting next to actress Sally Struthers and her publicist and good friend Pam Sharp.

Ruben’s deeply personal musical montage began with a spotlight shining on Grammy Award-winning blues guitarist, composer, and performer Chris Thomas King. While strumming his guitar, another spot illuminates Ruben standing in front of a brick boarding house with the number 32 above the doorway.

For the next 85 minutes, he reminisces about childhood growing up with Miss Rachel also known as ’Nanny,’ while growing up in Lackawanna, New York. He opens “I didn’t know what love was until I had Nanny’s cooking.”

While returning to his roots, he re-enacts over 20 characters that include a couple of drunks, a few mentally challenged individuals and some physically scarred characters. Ruben’s smooth storytelling is enhanced by his pleasing voice, fluid movements and exquisite harmonica playing.

‘Nanny’ grew up on a tobacco farm in Virginia and moved to Lackawanna in 1956. It was a fertile time, and she invited and brought families to her new town to help them succeed. She bought and opened her own boarding house and charged tenants $30 a week.

Ruben lived in one of the rooms with his mentally ill mother who abandons him in the evenings. ‘Nanny’ notices this and becomes his loving surrogate mother. The audience grew quiet as Ruben shares his stories about how he went everywhere with her.

IMG_1235

Sitting next to me Struthers rich laugh was contagious as we both chuckled and giggled as Ruben describes one of the tenant’s Mr. Taylor. “He was a man who looked like a giant negro iguana.” Mimicking how his tongue jumped in and out of his mouth, the scene grew more poignant when we learn how this man died.

He shares that ‘Nanny’ not only took in down-and-out people, but also a baby raccoon, a pig who lived in the basement, a three-legged German Sheppard, hamsters, and others.

The audience roared again with laughter when he demonstrates the scandalous 1960s ‘dog dance’ that some of the tenants would do in the evening. Interspersed between and during these stories, Ruben would pull out his harmonica and play along with King. At times I looked around the audience and noticed many were moving their heads to the bewitching beat before offering another round of beloved applause.

As ‘Nanny’ develops health issues and is admitted into the hospital, Ruben expresses how he wants to die before she does. He doesn’t want to live without her. Lighting designer Jen Schriever silhouettes Ruben beautifully in this scene, as ‘Nanny’ reassures him that he is a breath of fresh air to her, and they will always be together.

This moving tribute for a wonderful woman born in 1905 is similar to what Ruben dedicates in the Playbill to his creative partner and award-winning music composer Bill Sims Jr. For more than 20 years Sims Jr.’s music was the foundation for everything they did together. When they created Lackawanna Blues, Ruben once told Sims Jr. that he didn’t think he could ever do the show without him. Sims Jr. responded. “I’ll be there. You might not see me, but I’ll be there.” Sadly Sim Jr. passed away this year.

After an enthusiastic standing ovation with screams of “Bravo” being shouted from the audience, Ruben took his bow with tears of joy in his eyes, looked toward the ceiling, pointed up, winked and smiled. I hope he felt Bill’s and maybe even ‘Nanny’s’ presence during the opening night of his show. I sure all felt the pleased presence of everyone in the audience.

This review was featured OnStage March 15, 2019.

Produced by Center Theatre Group, the production runs through April 21, 2019.

The design team includes scenic designer Michael Carnahan, costume designer Karen Perry, lighting designer Jen Schriever, and sound designer Philip G. Allen. The production stage manager is David S. Franklin.

Opens Wednesday, March 13 at 8 p.m. (Previews March 5 through March 12) Runs through April 21, 2019.

Mark Taper Forum

Performance Days and Times:

Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.

Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m.

Sunday at 1 p.m.

No performance on Mondays.

Exceptions: Added 6:30 p.m. Sunday performances in lieu of a 1 p.m. performance on April 14 and April 21.

No public performances on Tuesday, March 19; Wednesday, March 20; Thursday, March 21 and Friday, March 22.

No 8 p.m. performance on Tuesday, April 16.

Run Time and Intermission:

“Lackawanna Blues” runs one hour and 20 minutes with no intermission.

Ticket Prices: $30 – $109

(Ticket prices are subject to change.)

Tickets are available http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

or calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213.628.2772.

Group Sales: 213.972.7231

The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012. Visit centertheatregroup.org.

Go See Valley of the Heart at the Mark Taper Forum

As the front doors opened at the Mark Taper Forum, three Japanese style drummers led the audience into the theatre to see Luis Valdez’s newest stage production Valley of the Heart.

Sitting in my seat, I looked down admiring John Iacovelli’s exquisite wood floor stage displaying rays of sun, and a mesmerizing thin blue line serpentining across the stage representing a long irrigation canal. Below the canal was a patchwork of agricultural fields, representing a fertile California agricultural valley.

In the center of the stage was an empty wheelchair and floor-to-ceiling white Japanese-style shoji screen. These sliding screens are a canvas for projection designer David Murakami’s visual storytelling of immigrant farmers, President Roosevelt declaring war on Japan, and horrific internment camps in California and Wyoming.

IMG_4848-2

Valdez is a legendary storyteller in Latino theater, as the founder of the Obie-Award winning El Teatro Campesino (The Farm Workers’ Theater), with credits including the award winning “Zoot Suit,” “La Bamba,”and “The Cisco Kid.”

This is a family affair for playwright and director Luis Valdez. His brother Daniel Valdez plays the patriarch Cayetano of the Montano family, and Cayetano’s son Benjamin is Luis Valdez’ talented son Takin Valdez.

It begins with Benjamin as an elderly man, telling the audience his life story about hard working immigrants from Japan and Mexico working side by side if the fields. We meet the Montano family, sharecroppers living on the Yamaguchi farm in Cupertino, CA, long before this area became the headquarters for Apple Inc. Cupertino’s primary economic activity was once agriculture before it became known as the Silicon Valley.

This beautifully written love story focuses on young Benjamin falling in love with Thelma “Teruko” (Melanie Mah) Yamaguchi right before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The choreography of their forbidden love is witnessed while these two harvest broccoli in the fields, and is silhouetted in the upstairs window inside the Yamaguchi home.

Thelma’s immigrant father Ichiro Yamaguchi (Randall Nakano) promotes Benjamin as foreman of the farm, after President Franklin Roosevelt executes his Executive Order and declares war on Japan in 1942. We sadly watch the Yamaguchi family burn and bury everything they own representing their Japanese heritage. When Ichiro turns himself in to protect his family and the farm, I heard nearby audience members sob, as these scenes brought back painful personal memories.

IMG_4846

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness disappears overnight to hundred of thousands of people of Japanese ancestry, as they were forced to report to relocation centers near their homes. Many lived in horse stalls in a San Jose racetrack or the Los Angeles’ Fairgrounds in Pomona until transferred to more permanent wartime internment camps in California, Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wyoming.

Soon Thelma, pregnant with child, and her family are forced out of their house, and Benjamin and his family promise to maintain and protect the farm.

Christy Sandoval as Benjamin’s sister Maruca Montano provides comic relief while enjoying life in the Yamaguchi’s more modern ranch house, demonstrating how the Montano’s life improved, while the Yamaguchi’s life tragically changes.

This emotionally powered production slows down in movement after intermission, as the audience watches a recitation of letters between Thelma and Benjamin. About 15 minutes could be shaved from the length of the play here, yet the lighting by Pablo Santiago, sound by Philip G. Allen and multi-media visual display on the back screens enhance these scenes.

One walks away reflecting on the injustice today’s immigrants are facing as they struggle to provide a future for their American-born children. It’s eerily a repeat of history as our current administration pulls apart families and separates them into relocation camps.

The cast of “Valley of the Heart” includes, Mariela Arteaga, Moises Castro, Justin Chien, Melanie Arii Mah, Randall Nakano, Michael Naydoe Pinedo, Joy Osmanski, Rose Portillo, Christy Sandoval, Scott Keiji Takeda, Daniel Valdez and Lakin Valdez.

The creative team includes set design by John Iacovelli, costume design by Lupe Valdez, lighting design by Pablo Santiago, projection design by David Murakami and sound design by Philip G. Allen. The production stage manager is David S. Franklin.

The play runs through December 9, 2018. Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. No Monday performances. Exceptions: No public performances on Tuesday, November 13 and Wednesday, November 14. Added 8 p.m. performance on Monday, November 19. No 8 p.m. performance on Thanksgiving, November 22.

Tickets are available online at CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling Audience Services at (213) 628-2772 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles). Tickets range from $30 – $99 (ticket prices are subject to change). The Mark Taper Forum is located at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.

This OnStage Blog review was featured on Nov. 10, 2018.

Dear Evan Hansen

It was a star studded opening night at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles as I spotted Nia Vardalos, Producer Stacey Mindich, book writer Steve Levenson, and music creators Benj Pasek & Justin PaulKaty Perry and her entourage take their seats right before the house lights clicked to black.

Scenic designer David Korins (Hamilton) symmetrical panels and boxes onstage display a chaotic projection design by Peter Nigrini of photos, DMs and familiar social media icons with unclicked “likes.” He also cleverly placed the musicians onstage up in a mezzanine level looking down on the cast.

IMG_3766

I’ve been fondly listening to the  2017 Tony Award winning Best Musical “Dear Evan Hansen” soundtrack for weeks, and happily the show starts with a bang within the first few minutes as the moms – Heidi Hansen (Stage and TV star Jessica Phillips) and Cynthia Murphy (Tony Award nominee Christiane Noll) sing one of the most popular tunes “Anybody Have a Map?”

Both moms are broken and trying hard to survive with son’s who live a recluse life their senior year in high school. Heidi is a hard working single mom and Cynthia is rich, doesn’t work and is going crazy trying to engage with her son. Both actresses sing beautifully, while stumbling for the right thing to say to their sons. Heidi encourages Evan that going to college will be great “how many times do you get to start over in life?” She wishes she could go to college with him and restart her own.

IMG_3765

As a parent I could relate to the exhausting and sometime terrifying responsibility of raising happy and productive children in today’s world. Especially when children want to shut their parents out, glare at technical devices, and not listen to advice or guidance. This catchy tune is so well liked that they sell the title of this song on T-shirts in the lobby.

The book by Tony Award-winner Steven Levenson is an interesting story, yet I was’t satisfied with the ending. In fact, I was disappointed.

IMG_3764

What you will love is the score by Grammy, Tony and Academy Award winners Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (“La La Land,” “The Greatest Showman”). The songs are brilliant and catchy from the get-go, with themes about the sun streaming in, you will be found, and darkness crashing in. I learned that the musical has its origins in an incident that took place during Pasek’s high school years. Each song is a winner and will stay in your mind driving home, and for days, weeks or months after seeing this show.

Direction by four-time Tony Award nominee Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Next to Normal”) begins at a fast and fascinating pace all the way through intermission. I sat riveted watching Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen in his first national tour. Ross wows the audience as an adorable, yet awkward loner who is so socially uncomfortable, reciting lines at such a fast pace, similar to an auctioneer. His anxiety ridden mannerisms, also remind me of Dr. Shaun Murphy in the television hit The Good Doctor. There is a vulnerability, as he stands alone in the center of the stage singing another beloved number “Waving Through The Window,” providing vibrant colors to the lyrics with his powerful and pleasing voice.

The comedy grows darker as we meet Connor’s sister Zoe (Maggie McKenna) who believes her brother is a psychopath. This assessment is confirmed by someone at school labeling Connor’s attire as “very school-shooter chic,” causing some of us gasp in our seats.

IMG_3763

Meanwhile Heidi reminds Evan to take his daily anxiety pill and to start each day by writing a “Dear Evan Hansen” letter (thus the name of the show) beginning with “Today is going to be a good day….” This letter gets into the wrong hands leading to a confrontation at school between Evan and Connor and later inadvertently welcomes Evan into the despondent Murphy family.

As Evan seeks help from acquaintance Jared Kleinman (Jared Goldsmith is hilarious and provides comic relief) in the deceit, the two continue this insane and misguided attempt by fabricating a friendship to keep Connor’s memory alive, so Evan can stay in the spotlight.

This plan transforms everyones life in the show, and elevates the social status of Evan, Zoe, Jared and precocious opportunist Alana Beck (Phoebe Koyabe).

The unlikely chemistry between Evan and Zoe develops when they are together singing the engaging song “If I Could Tell Her.” When the cast sing the ethereally number “Disappear” in perfect harmony, it gave me chills, as did “You Will Be Found.”

During the 15 minute intermission, my friend and I wondered how this story would end, because the lying and deception was spinning out of control as Evan, Alana and Jared encouraged the world to help fund and raise $50,000 for #TheConnorProject.

I felt the pace disappointingly slowed down after intermission, yet I was happy to see the talented Broadway star Aaron Lazar (who I reviewed when he performed in Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts) as Connor’s father Larry singing “To Break In a Glove”.

The music intensifies when Heidi, Alana, Jared and Evan sing “Good For You” and when Heidi sings her gut wrenching melodic solo “So Big/So Small.”

The cast is splendid in their roles and the songs soar filling the entire theatre, yet the story line fails at the end with its weak consequence for such a selfish plot by a teenage boy. While creating an important role for himself to feel a sense of belonging, the boy gets girl and then loses girl, disappoints many because of his dishonest actions.

DEAR EVAN HANSEN

“Dear Even Hansen stars Ben Levi Ross in the title role, Jessica Phillips plays Heidi Hansen. Christiane Noll, Aaron Lazar, Marrick Smith, Maggie McKenna, Jared Goldsmith and Phoebe Koyabe complete the on-stage company.

Book by Steven Levenson, and score by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul and Direction by Michael Greif. Scenic design by David Korins, projection design by Peter Nigrini, costume design by Emily Rebholz, lighting design by Japhy Weideman, sound design by Nevin Steinberg and hair design by David Brian Brown. Music supervision, orchestrations and additional arrangements are by Alex Lacamoire. Ben Cohn is the Associate Music Supervisor. Vocal arrangements and additional arrangements are by Justin Paul. Danny Mefford is the choreographer.

Following its run in Los Angeles, “Dear Evan Hansen” until November 25, 2018 the show will move to ASU Gammage in Tempe, Arizona (November 27 – December 2, 2018), The Curran in San Francisco (December 5 – December 30, 2018) and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa (January 1 – 13, 2019). The First North American Tour of “Dear Evan Hansen” will begin a digital lottery for the Los Angeles run at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre on Monday, October 15 at 11 a.m. Fans can submit for the chance to purchase a limited number of $25 tickets available per performance. Tickets range from $99 – $285 (ticket prices are subject to change). The Ahmanson Theatre is located at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles, 90012.For tickets and information, visit CenterTheatreGroup.org or call (213) 972-4400. Media Contact: CTGMedia@CTGLA.org / (213) 972-7376. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

This review is featured OnStage Blog – 

Soft Power Wakes Up Americans

*My review The Gut Punch that is Soft Power is featured OnStage Blog http://www.onstageblog.com/reviews/2018/5/21/review-the-gut-punch-that-is-soft-power. Here’s a longer version with a different title and photos –

While sitting one row behind Tony Award winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), I looked over to see his expressions throughout the opening night performance of his latest musical Soft Power. He seemed very pleased. Hwang has had great luck and success at Center Theatre Group, where he premiered Pulitzer Prize finalist “Yellow Face” and his Tony-nominated revival “Flower Drum Song.”IMG_4075

Reading the program, I learned Hwang’s premise about how the Chinese see Americans took four years to develop, before it was presented to the Center Theatre Group Los Angeles. It’s an eye-opener that will have you squirm in your seat with the truth of his prose.

Conrad Ricamora plays a Chinese executive Xue Xing who comes to America to help China gain Soft Power. He meets with DHH (an acronym for David Henry Hwang), a Chinese-American playwright, played by Francis Jue (also in M . Butterfly on Broadway). Since China is a nation that increasingly has a lot of hard power and is becoming a superpower of the 21st Century, Xing is now seeking Soft Power to develop cultural influence to enrich international relations. 

Michael Henry Hwang was inspired to write “Soft Power” after seeing the classic American musical “The King and I.” Ricamora starred in the show on Broadway and his appealing singing voice shines also in Soft Power.IMG_4078

The show opens as a comedy, not a musical, as DHH and Xing sit in the office of Hollywood Dragon Media pitching a television show to be shot in Shanghai, China. 

Xing tells DHH “Don’t think like an American, think like Chinese.” He also questions why China has never made a #1 movie. DHH states “China tries to control their image, but it comes off fake. In America we show our flaws. Americans show the good and bad to gain Soft Power.”

One way Xing will produce this show is if his 27 year old girlfriend Zoey (Alyse Alan Louis) can have a role.

The next scene is Xing and DHH going to a Hillary Clinton fundraiser at the Center Theatre Group’s staging The King and I. Xing admires the good-hearted U.S. leader. Standing near a “I’m ready for President Hillary 2016” sign, Xing tells DHH that he met her and appreciates how she is open to positive relations with China. “She believes we can learn a thing or two from China,” says Xing. “I told her China believes in global warming, because we believe in science.” It’s the first of many slaps to our current government policies. 

Months pass and the power balance between their two countries shifts following the 2016 election results. Xing is shocked to learn Clinton lost and believes Democracy doesn’t work.

When DHH is stabbed in the neck while walking down the street in Brooklyn (this horrific act actually happened to the playwright), he loses blood, stumbles and goes into a dreamlike state. 

This when the music amps up and we learn how China can gain Soft Power through the delivery of a musical through the Chinese view of the future. IMG_4076

The musical fantasia opens with set designer David Zinn’s China Airlines airplane touching down to fly Xing to Hollywood. Before leaving, his daughter Jing says “I hear in America everyone carries a gun, even children,” (Tragically after seeing Soft Power, I woke up to learn a 17 year old boy in Texas brought two guns to Santa Fe High School, killing 10 people and injuring 10 others). Jing has a beautiful melodic voice as she sings “Papa I’m afraid. I’m scared for you in America.” Guns are displayed and mentioned often. Two truthful lines that sent chills throughout my body include “You can’t force your mentally ill in America to give up their guns…not even the police can take guns away from the mentally ill.”

Collaborating with Hwang in lyrics and music is Tony Award winner Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), she believes musicals are a great delivery system to impact an audience. Their songs are good, however not so memorable that I hummed any bars on the drive home. The finale however did get people up on their feet, raising their arms in the air as if we were all attending a gospel revival.

 Director Leigh Silverman and choreography by Sam Pinkleton heighten the fun with the musical numbers. Most are reminiscent of the 1940s and 1950s Broadway hits “Singing in the Rain”, “Music Man”, and “Oklahoma” on up to current hip-hop culture. IMG_4079

One of lively scene is the Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis) number where she is dressed in Costume designer Anita Yavich sparkling red pant suit peeling away layers of clothing to reveal to a Wonder Woman outfit. Seeking to please everyone, she taps and twerks at a frenzied pace while standing in “America’s greatest restaurant” under the Golden Arches. It’s a little over-the-top, but then again, this is the Chinese perspective of America. 

Another is when the Xing goes to Hollywood and Vine and is confronted by a gang of cowboy attire thugs slinging guns. He states “I was kidnapped and killed and have only been here three hours,” while a group of female rappers look on. 

One of my favorite characters is the likable Asian-American thug, turned hero named Bobby Bob. Played by the talented Austin Ku, he has quite a presence onstage. IMG_4080

The intelligent writing by Hwang includes a lesson in the Electoral College process which stems from “In the early days, when it helped the voters keep their slaves.” 

Clinton fans will have sympathy for the defeated politician during the comedic pizza and ice cream gorging scene, while she mumbles she hasn’t washed her hair or changed her clothes in 10 days. IMG_4077

Xing cheers up Clinton while singing about “10,000 trees in China covering the walkways so green.” It’s another plug on how China is investing in clean energy, and trying to make a better life for everyone. 

Even though Clinton’s name is mentioned in Soft Power, Trump and Pence are never uttered, only implied as “The opponent doesn’t know anything about government and he hates China.” 

A somewhat disturbing scene is when Xing pays a visit to The White House. Inside are columns with Budweiser logos and government officials holding Winchester style guns and semi-automatics, while singing “Good Guy with a Gun.” An ensemble of Ivanka Trump look-alikes give an aside “This is the worst place for a girl” while being a decorative ornament on the arm of each gun slinging male. IMG_4082

Hwang slaps us one last time when these men sing “No American will throw away his gun.” 

To create a very unrealistic happy ending, Xing urges the American officials to “Lay down your pride, lay down your guns” and join China in building a new Silk Road with other countries focusing on clean energy. When asked “how did you get the Americans in the White House to do that?” Xing replies “They just needed someone to go in and say STOP IT!” I wish it could be that easy.

In the end DHH wakes up in the hospital bed believing that he was stabbed in the neck because he is not American enough. He feels a fake, not Chinese and not American. The police don’t find the attacker, and he feels he was targeted for his appearance. 

Louis has one last beautiful solo about how we have the power to change. “How can I turn my back to democracy? People can be wise enough, just enough, good and big hearted enough to lift us up somehow.” The audience raises their hands, and as the house lights go up, its one of those awesome moments in theatre.

Soft Power is filled with truth, romance, laughter and cultural confusions with hints of America’s tumultuous future, seen through the lens of an East-meets-West Broadway style show. It’s not perfect, however it’s message is timely, loud and clear “STOP IT NOW!”

Soft Power runs from May 3 – June 10, 2018 Ahmanson Theatre. To get tickets: https://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/.

Water by the Spoonful

Latin music sets the mood for Quiara Algeria Hudes emotional journey of Water by the Spoonful. It’s the second story of a trilogy about struggling with addiction and how it can affect one’s social and family life. Each character in Water By the Spoonful has obstacles, flaws and struggles that they must confront in order to move forward.

IMG_8149

The 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz offers two main plots that intertwine on the clever set design by Adam Ring. The sparse open room with eclectic furniture, a small kitchen, and two different types of swivel office chairs, that also become different computer stations, as large screens illuminate above the set with screen names that include Haikumom (Luna Lauren Velez), Fountainhead (Josh Braaten), Orangutan (Sylvia Kwan), and Chutes&Ladders (Bernard K. Addison). Throughout the play we watch as they type their name to reveal how they each share a common denominator – they are all crack cocaine addicts who frequent Haikumom’s online recovery support group to seek and maintain sobriety.

IMG_8148

We learn Orangutan is a recently sober 26 year old college graduate who moved to Japan to seek sobriety and possibly meet her birth mother. This unknown woman gave her away before she was adopted by an American family. Orangutan is active in the chat room and longs for a real relationship without one consisting of letters and numbers on a keyboard. Her closest screen friend is Chutes&Ladders, a black “50 years old on a good day” man. He was the the “kid who ate crayons” and now works at the IRS as a paper pusher. “Life is messy and disappointing,” even though he has remained clean for 10 years. With a strained relationship with his son, he is too afraid to reach out to him for fear of rejection, so he keeps “staying in a box” and not venturing out of his comfort zone.

Chutes&Ladders pours salt into newcomer Fountainhead’s wounds, making him face his successful businessman facade. He’s a crack head with a wife who has no idea. Chutes&Ladders is brutally honest about how Fountainhead “is in for the fight of his life, if he really wants to get sober.” To gain sobriety, one must “pursue feeling good, no matter how bad it feels.” Each day, “staying clean is like tap dancing on a mine field.”

Odessa/Haikumom cleans toilets as a janitor and seeks redemption from a horrific event that happened while she was a crack addict. Committed to sobriety, she creates a recovery chat room. As the site administrator, her mission is to save others and enforce peace among the strong personalities entering her online community.

When her sister dies, the lead character Elliot (Sean Carvajal) comes back into her life seeking financial help for a proper burial for his aunt. This isn’t the first time Carvajal played this role. He starred in the off-Broadway production in 2016, and looks thrilled to be in Los Angeles bringing Elliott to life once again.

We learn after intermission what “Water by the Spoonful” means. Elliott tells the story to his cousin Yazmin (Keren Lugo) of how he and his little sister were so sick that they couldn’t hold anything down. When their mother Odessa/Haikumom took them to the doctor, he told her to give each child a spoonful of water every five minutes. As a crack head, Odessa couldn’t do it and Elliott’s baby sister died from dehydration. Elliot was found by Social Services, who took him away to live with Odessa’s sister.

Elliot is an abuser too, not crack, but opiates. After an honorable discharge from the Marine’s and four leg surgeries, Doctors give him as much pain medication as he wants to help with his injury and slight limp. He also takes it to block out the war ghost (Nick Massouh) who haunts his nightmares repeatedly throughout the play, saying “Can I please have my passport back” in Arabic. Massouh is versatile, also playing Professor Aman who interprets the war ghost’s haunting demand, and a policeman in a Japanese train station.

Music plays a big part in this show and Yazmin enters as a college music teacher, lecturing to her class (the audience) about John Coltrane’s deeply spiritual work, A Love Supreme. As one of Coltrane’s masterpieces, the song resonates his personal troubles, and struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.

Throughout the play we see how drug abuse leads to isolation, poverty and tears families apart. We learn how community, family, forgiveness, and courage help in the recovery process.

The play ends with Yazmin helping Elliot with their aunt’s dying wish, to have her ashes spread in Puerto Rico. It’s a moving scene as the two stand above the set in a lush Puerto Rican rain forest. With the help of lighting design by Yi Zhao, sound designer Jane Shaw and projection designer Hannah Wasileski, one can just imagine a waterfall, as mist and later water rushes down and sweep the ashes away.

Since this is the first show I’ve see in the Elliot trilogy, I’m not sure why the war ghost is constantly repeating “Can I please have my passport back.” It seems every character is seeking something, and at the end, come to terms with reality and finding oneself.

IMG_8151

With the damage from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the Mark Taper Forum had a sign displayed titled Give To A Good Cause! The Hurricane Relief Campaign Pa’ Arriba Puerto Rico is a campaign that Elliot Trilogy playwright Quiara Algeria Hudes supports. Pa’ Arriba is raising money to provide survival supplies and adopt service organizations in Puerto Rico, with a focus on the towns of Vieques, Arecibo and Utuado. They are helping families whose homes were leveled in the storm to relocate to Philadelphia. You can donate to www.elliottrilogy.org #puertorico.

This review is also featured OnStageBlog.

Something Rotten! is Hilarious

We learn that “Shakespeare is hotter than hot, and any other writer is not,” during Act One of Something Rotten! Especially in “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” with the line “Don’t be a penis, the man is a genius,” as we meet the Bottom brothers stuck in the shadow of Renaissance rockstar Will Shakespeare.IMG_4792

Brothers Karey (Golden Globe Award and Tony Award nominee) and Wayne Kirkpatrick (Grammy Award winner and Tony Award nominee for music and lyrics) spent almost five years writing this musical before it made its debut on Broadway.

Nominated for 10 Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Musical, “Something Rotten!” just arrived in Los Angeles with three of the Broadway stars Rob McClure as Nick Bottom (also the name of the character in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream providing comic relief throughout the play), Josh Grisetti as Nigel Bottom and Adam Pascal playing Shakespeare with a Billy Idol-esque flair. Wait, is this the Adam Pascal who played the dreamy Roger Davis in RENT on Broadway and in the 2005 movie? YES!

During the standing ovation at the end of the show (the night before Thanksgiving), Pascal sang RENT’s Glory and brought down the house. All for a good cause to raise needed funds for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Casey Nicholaw (“The Book of Mormon,” and “Aladdin”), this musical is set in 1595 with Nick Rashad Burroughs opening the show as the energetic Minstrel singing “Welcome to the Renaissance” with a talented ensemble in puffy pants, leather boots, beards that look like swallow tails, exaggerated petticoats and large codpieces created by Costume Designer Gregg Barnes. The award-winning design team of Broadway, Scott Pask creates a Tudor style set with lighting designer Jeff Crofter enhancing the stage.

IMG_4793
One of the costumes in Something Rotten!

Shakespeare knows how to “write a bitchin’ play” and Nick hates everything about him. “Shakespeare is a problem – a giant sun that shines so bright that no other sun is seen.”
A fun song, “Right Hand Man” introduces Nick’s wife played by Maggie Lakis. It’s a reverse of Shakespeare plays were men perform women’s roles. She is a women’s libber who wants to dress as a man to help out the household and earn some income. “This is the ’90s (1590s). We’ve got a woman on the throne,” Bea tells the Bottom brothers.

Shakespeare is everything Nick ever dreamed to be. Desperate, he takes the family money box and goes into the mystic underworld to seek direction. We meet Nostradamus played by the hilarious Blake Hammond, who looks into the future and forecasts that “musicals will be the most spectacular thing in theatre.” He sees that the plot advances through song and audiences will sit in “cushy gold seats with a roof over their head.” The audience laugh when Nostradamus projects “that much for a glass of wine?”

Nostradamus predicts “a musical will have just two acts and involve singing, dancing and acting at the same time. With this lead, Nick, an idea man, sets out to have his brother Nigel, a poet, help write the world’s very first musical.

Watching the number “A Musical” is the reason why people go to musicals, to tap their feet and rise out of their seats for a standing ovation in the middle of Act One. The actors onstage were surprised by the adoration. As the audience settled back into their seats and the theatre became quiet again, Nick offered his next line, “You really think that will work?” The audience applauded and laughed even louder.

The plot thickens when brother Nigel falls head over heels in love with Portia, a Puritan and daughter of Brother Jeremiah, played by a very funny and slightly affeminine Scott Cote. Portia sings with such a girly, sweet voice that it reminded me of a young Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked.

Tongue and cheek lines include when Nigel pulls his sonnets out of his codpiece to recite to Portia. Nigel and Portia are similar to Romeo and Juliet, especially when her fathers banishes her from ever seeing the handsome poet again.

When the brothers have a falling out, Nick teams up with Shylock the theatre producer.

After another visit with Nostradamus, Nick follows his lead to write Omelette: The Musical, that includes a danish and some ham.

Musical fans will recognize the melodic and choreography references to over 20 beloved shows from “Music Man, West Side Story and Les Misérables,” especially in the second-act number “Make an Omelette.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel Act Two was as strong, as Act One. It was slow at times and the dancing Omelette musical was just too silly.

Strong rock-style musical numbers include “Will Power” and “Hard to Be Bard,” as Pascal struts the stage with rock style back up dancers and entourage of swooning fans.
Shakespeare disguises himself as a new York actor, and becomes a literary thief stealing Nigel’s soulful prose, and turning his beautiful sonnets into one of his most popular tragedies, Hamlet.

During “To Thine Own Self” Shakespeare saves this cast of characters from being killed and helps them sail over to The New World – America. While in the Land of Opportunity, they finally write Nigel’s musical about two orphan boys who succeed.

Looking for something fun to do now until New Year’s Eve, Something Rotten will have you leave the theatre laughing and smiling all the way home.

This review was also featured in The Stage Review – https://thestagereview.net/2017/11/26/guest-review-something-rotten-ahmanson-theatre/

Understanding The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

One of the most memorable lines in the 1892 book The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.” It’s featured in the story about the disappearance of a prized racehorse. Sherlock Holmes deduces that the nearby dog didn’t make a noise while the horse was stolen, because the dog knew the person committing the crime.

IMG_0023

That line and the premise of the story is featured once again in the 2003 title of Mark Haddon’s best selling mystery novel. With its success, it was turned into an award winning National Theatre production that is currently at the Ahmanson Theatre.

The story is about a “15-year, three-month, and two-day old” boy named Christopher, who relates to his idol Holmes by using logic when solving mysteries. The production opens with scenic designer Bunny Christie’s black and white stage and a large white dog with a pitchfork in it’s side, near it’s heart. The audience learns that Christopher (played brilliantly by Juilliard graduate Adam Langdon) likes dogs (he also likes his pet rat named Toby) and did not kill his neighbor’s dog named Wellington.

IMG_0019

Determined to find the murderer, the audience witnesses the scintillating mind of Christopher through the use of swirling strobe lights by lighting designer Paule Constable, frantic videos by designer Finn Ross and intensified decibels of sound by Ian Dickinson, to recreate the mindset of someone with Asperger syndrome.

Though the word “autistic” and “Asperger’s” is never used in the dialogue, Christopher’s posture, facial expressions and mannerisms are classic conditions. He can’t stand to be touched, is hyperfocused on math and astronomy, and shies away from eye contact with others. He finds others very confusing, especially when they “say a lot without using words.”

We learn that his parents marriage has crumbled due to the strain and struggles of raising a special needs child. We see their frustration, disappointment and need to mentally and physically connect with their son, especially with Christopher’s father Ed, played compassionately by Gene Gillette.

We also pity his mother (Felicity Jones Latta) as she shares in a monologue the freedom she experienced swimming in the ocean, and a meltdown Christopher had during a Christmas shopping outing.

When his mother “dies of a bad heart,” Christopher is not sad, because, “How do you tell a rational person where heaven is?”

Actress Maria Elena Ramirez plays Siobhan, a therapist who enjoys reading Christopher’s diary aloud, and encourages him to turn it into a book. While reading his story, Christopher plays out the scenes while assembling a train track and London village onstage, grabbing props from inside hidden cabinets behind cleverly designed solar panels lining the walls. Siobhan reads, listens and offers advice to Christopher onstage and sometimes out in the audience.

IMG_0021

Director Marianne Elliott and choreographers Scott Graham, Steven Hoggett creatively have the ensemble carry Christopher and his beloved rat Toby around the stage as if they are flying through space with stars and constellations twinkling in the night sky. Christopher thinks he would be a very good astronaut when he says, “You have to be intelligent and not mind being in a small spacecraft.” Computers, machines and outer space are more comforting than people.

The plot thickens when he discovers who killed Wellington, which helps him discover the mystery of his mother’s disappearance, and motivates this young man to venture out of his “bubble” to find her.

The graphics and projection during the train scenes, along with Langdon’s interesting movements were thrilling watch. He walks on the side walls and flips 360 degrees with the help of the cast.

Four scenes I really enjoyed include when Christopher visits and questions his neighbors about the murder; all the chalk drawing scenes that are ingeniously projected on the side and back walls; and the fast paced train station and when his father presents him with an adorable puppy that showers Christopher with playful adoration.

IMG_0015

Be sure to stay after the curtain call, just as the house lights turn on and the audience rises out of their seats, Langdon comes back out onstage to explain how he passed his school exams. With a pop of confetti at the end, you will walk out with a smile and eagerness to discuss the show with others.

Years ago I read part of the book, yet never finished it. Now after watching this stellar production, I’m motivated to read the book again to rediscover the intricacy and nuances of this fascinating story.

This review was also featured in The Stage Review.

Seeing Mary Louise Parker in Heisenberg

I’ve never seen the Mark Taper Forum stage transformed to look like a fashion runway,  and chuckled when I heard one audience member ask an usher “Is the stage always going to look like this?”
Scenic designer Mark Wendland’s stage worked well for the two award winning performers Denis Arndt (Tony nominee) and Mary-Louise Parker (Emmy, Tony and Golden Globe winner) in HEISENBERG. Both reprised the roles they played on Broadway in 2016.
Written by Tony Award and two-time Olivier Award winner Simon Stephens, HEISENBERG is set in London and opens on a train platform. The play is named after German Nobel Prize winning physicist Werner Heisenberg, who is known for his contributions to quantum mechanics.
It begins with the house lights on as Arndt and Parker walk onstage. Austin R. Smith’s lighting dims and David Van Tieghem’s distinctive pinging sound alerts the audience to the first scene and others that follow. Throughout the play, Drama Desk Award winning director Mark Brokaw has both characters move the two tables and chairs at each scene change.
Arndt plays Alex Priest a 75 year old butcher who lives a very simple life. He never married and lives alone. This “silver fox” seems an unlikely suitor to Parker’s 42 year old explosive and loquacious Georgie Burns, who befriends Alex after planting a kiss on the back of his neck. Looking for a Sugar Daddy to fund her trip to America, this improbable human connection becomes even more unbelievable when we learn she lies to Alex about her job and marital status, while dropping F-bombs throughout the show.
There is hardly any costume changes by designer Michael Krass, because the cast is onstage the entire show without an intermission. Dressed casually in somewhat neutral colors, I did like Georgie’s shiny black shoes, and found Alex dapper in a denim jacket.
Georgie pursues Alex by visiting his butcher shop after finding it on Google, much to his surprise. Parker’s explosion of words, rarely gives her any breaks to catch her breath in this demanding role. We learn she talks, because she is afraid of what people will think of her. She knows people will reject her if she stops, just as her 18 year old son did. Georgie tells Alex her son wants nothing to do with her and broke off all connection with his mother by moving to New Jersey.
When Georgie asks Alex to take her out on a date, she calls him a “wily old fox.” After the date, it leads to going back to Alex’s house to sleep together. As Georgie says, “and I don’t mean sleep.” It’s a tender scene and awakening for Alex, causing him to cry. The human connection is dramatic with a pinch of comedic confetti. Georgie asks Alex for money to travel to the United States to find her son. Alex realizes its premeditated from the minute she noticed him on the train platform. Since these two grow a mutual affinity to one another, she feels bad asking. When Alex shows up at her job at a school and insists she take the money, she does with an offer for him to accompany her, “We live once – we can’t go around wasting it.”
At the end, when Georgie and Alex take the trip and can’t find her son, she has so much sadness that she could “fill a well.” She grabs Alex’s hand and they dance together. Holding each other closely, she asks Alex if he would go anywhere with her? When he assures her that he would, you realize that the play is about how these two lonely and unlikely souls, enrich each others life. Knowing someone wants to be with you and share in your life journey is a lot better than living alone.

This article was published in THE STAGE REVIEW – https://thestagereview.net/2017/07/12/guest-review-explosion-words-heisenberg-mark-taper-forum/

Joyous Jersey Boys

Los Angeles has become a theatre destination, similar to NYC. The touring company of Jersey Boys rocks with Mark Ballas (Dancing With The Stars), Aaron De Jesus, Miguel Jarquin-Moreland, Matthew Dailey, Keith Hines, and Cory Jeacoma. Here’s my review of Lyrics by Bob Crewe, Music by Bob Gaudio, Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Directed by Des McAnuff – https://thestagereview.net/2017/05/22/guest-review-jersey-boys-ahmanson-theatre/.