By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
The result is just a little heartbreaking: The essence of what made it so rare at Sacred Fools has been revamped and muddied into a comparatively generic bio musical, like Stormy Weather (about Lena Horne) or Ella (about Ella Fitzgerald). It used to be so much more, because it was so much less. What was a kind of musical poem is now an explanation. What was mysterious is now explicit, not only in the play but in slide projections. What made this musical so rare was the simplicity of its premise: Prima, a lounge-act singer whose act is dying, brings in a 16-year-old, Smith, to save his act. She falls for him; he tortures her by rebuffing her romantically and exploiting her offstage passions onstage. After they eventually marry, her talent overshadows his, and the offstage jealousy and hostility energize the stage act.
Prima’s yearning for fame leaves him exiled and in a coma, where the play begins and ends. This entire story was channeled through the two characters and the onstage band. Every song, from “Basin Street Blues” to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” was a manifestation of either Prima’s quest for immortality or the jealousies occurring in their partnership. The music met the textbook definition of how songs are supposed to serve a musical, to express what can’t be said in life. But if Frank Sinatra grabs the stage to croon a song that comments on their marriage, or Prima’s mother stands ironing stage left, that rarefied bubble is shattered. There was one riveting scene in which young Keely Smith approached one of the musicians for comfort — sliding precariously down the slope of betrayal. That scene, an illustration of how a story could be told within the strict confines of a tightly constructed world, is gone, but so is that world.
Hackford clearly never understood or appreciated the pristine theatricality of what Broder, Smith and Aldridge had carved. The play’s core and tone have been diminished by the cinematic expanse of a documentary, rife with psychological theories and the gratuitous appearance of (and scenes with) other characters. Add to that a tonal shift: The musical’s original heart of darkness has been sprayed over by a larger proportion of upbeat numbers replacing some of the reflective ballads. Gone are “Tenderly/Can’t help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
The good news is the terrific musicianship, the musical direction originally by Dennis Kaye and now shared by Broder and Paul Litteral, remain as sharp as ever, as are the title performances. Broder’s lunatic edge and Bobby Darin singing style has huge appeal, while Vanessa Claire Smith has grown ever more comfortable in the guise and vocal stylings of Keely Smith. It was the music that originally sold this show, and it should continue to do so. With luck, perhaps Broder and Smith haven’t thrown out their original script. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m.; Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 3:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; through April 26. (310) 208-54545. (Steven Leigh Morris)
THEATER PICK PHOTOGRAPH 51 This West Coast premiere of Anna Ziegler’s powerful yet subtle play Photograph 51, concerns Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who was instrumental in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Set against Travis Gale Lewis’ cleverly accretive set and illuminated by Kathi O’Donohue’s complex and variegated lighting, the play takes us into a seminal period in biophysics. No sooner are we introduced to Rosalind (Aria Alpert), her colleague Dr. Wilkins (Daniel Billet), and her graduate assistant, Maurice Gosling (Graham Norris), than Rosalind declares in no uncertain terms, “Dr. Wilkins, I don’t do jokes. I do science.” Her confidence and professionalism lead to an uncomfortable friction with Wilkins and the rest of the chauvinistic male scientific establishment, including Watson (Ian Gould) and Crick (Kerby Joe Grubb), who are simultaneously in search of the genetic blueprint.
While Rosalind remains the consummate professional, even cold at times, she does reveal slivers of her inner life through correspondence with American scientist Don Casper (Ross Hellwig). As each side gets closer to the genetic blueprint, one of Rosalind’s photographs ends up becoming crucial to unlocking the mystery. Director Simon Levy efficiently orchestrates the manipulation of time and space, turning vast leaps into imperceptible segues, and inspiring powerful performances from his actors. The entire cast sparkles behind Alpert, whose portrayal of Rosalind’s ruthless efficiency, biting wit and deep pain is a tour de force that brings to mind Meryl Streep’s take on Anna Wintour. This tribute to a woman who helped to crack the Pyrex ceiling reminds us of the need to reexamine “his”tory and should not be missed. The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through May 3. (323) 663-1525. (Mayank Keshaviah)