Theater Reviews: From Hoboken to Hollywood: A Journey Through the Great American Songbook 

Also, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, When Garbo Talks!, Wicked Lit and more

Thursday, Oct 28 2010

BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE First produced in 1958, writer John Van Druten's creaky comedy extols the notion that women may lay claim to marital bliss only when they've relinquished their power. A forerunner of the TV sitcom Bewitched, the plot revolves around a young witch named Gillian (Willow Geer), who concocts a wildly successful spell to corral the adoration of her attractive upstairs tenant, Shep (Michael A. Newcomber). Gillian's subsequent predicament is twofold: First, she cannot allow her lover to learn that she's a witch; second, she must not actually fall in love with the guy, or else she will lose her magic. With its fantastical premise, stale humor and contrived plot, the material would present a challenge to even the most adept and charismatic performers (Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer starred in the successful stage original). Under Richard Israel's direction, Geer — decked out by costume designer Sharon McGunigle in high heels and an unflattering period dress — appears stiff and uncomfortable throughout Act I, while Newcomber's plodding persona, though persuasive, exudes little charm. The duo fares better in Act 2, when Geer's character, having something to conceal, is presented with a real conflict. The flames of passion between them never flare, however, adding another deficit to the production. William Bradley does a respectable turn as Gillian's mischief-making brother, while both Mary Jo Catlett as her dippy aunt and Benton Jennings as a nosy writer rely on comedic shtick. Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Nov. 21. (818) 558-7000. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  FROM HOBOKEN TO HOLLYWOOD: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK The big-band show in this musical (book by Luca Ellis, Paul Litteral and Jeremy Aldridge) is staged as a behind-the-scenes live taping of a late-1960s television special with a star identified in the program only as "The Crooner." James Thompson's authentic set comes with sound booth, TV cameras, microphones, lighting, a spacious bandstand and stage, overhead video screens and neon applause signs. Adding to the realism is lots of backstage banter, numerous gaffes, miscues and retakes, and some well-placed comedy and drama played out between director Dwight (Al Bernstein) and his overworked and underappreciated assistant, Andy (Pat Towne). There are also cheeky commercial breaks for Shmimex watches and the all-new Ford Mustang. Musical director Litteral and his nattily dressed 12-member band (Jessica Olson's costumes are entirely on cue) combine into a flawless, robust performance redolent of the best of Ellington or Basie. Luca Ellis is a knockout from start to finish as the Crooner. How good is he? If you close your eyes while he sings familiar tunes such as "That's Life," "New York, New York" and "Fly Me to the Moon," you'd swear the Chairman himself had come back for one last encore. As masterfully woven together by director Aldridge, the material is so good that the applause signs aren't really needed. Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 15. (310) 392-7327. (Lovell Estell III)

LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS Neil Simon's 1969 play (among his earliest) evokes the permissive decade of "free love." Barney Cashman (John Combs) is a paunchy, balding and married nebbish who wants to join the sexual revolution before it's too late. A gentle, inept soul, he attempts three seductions: a sexpot who likes cigarettes, whiskey and other women's husbands; a delightfully daffy wannabe actress whom he discovers is a nutcase; and his wife's best friend, who turns out to be a depressed nihilist. The play hasn't been staged in L.A. for almost 20 years, perhaps because of its dated feel, drawn-out second act and lack of satisfying payoff. This production by the West Coast Jewish Theatre is solid in its direction and staging (by Howard Teichman) and its performances. Playing potential mistress No. 1, Maria Spassoff is seductive and suave, channeling the alluring sexuality of Streisand in her heyday. She combats Barney's awkward fumblings with dry sarcasm, until her enthusiastic determination is eventually quenched. As the goofy hippie-chick, Ashley Platz brings a zany charm to her role. Tracy Winters also does well with the uptight and melancholic housewife who, in a smidgen of nihilistic humor, confesses she's seeing a therapist until she's well enough to drive off a bridge and end it all. Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Nov. 21, (323) 821-2449 or wcjt.org. (Pauline Adamek)

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JAMES W. THOMPSON - Hoboken To Hollywood
  • Hoboken To Hollywood

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THE OHIO 4TH This backstage farce by Daniel Schoenman is set in a theater in Marion, Ohio, on the opening night of a play based on the life of former president Warren G. Harding. (I'd consider this far-fetched if I hadn't once seen a musical based on the life of Vice President Alben Barkley.) When the star (Michael Butler Murray) drops dead onstage, all hell breaks loose. For reasons never entirely clear, producer Emily (Cori Clark Nelson) decides they must conceal the death — and the corpse. She enlists the aid of director Josh (John Lavelle), the head of the local cultural center (Weston I. Nathanson) and the actors to join the cover-up and fend off the visiting VIP, Sen. Will Peck (Murray). Schoenman's script is so slapdash that it sometimes seems the actors are making it up as they go along, but he provides some funny situations, and director Annie McVey makes the most of them, assisted by a nimble cast. Lavelle is a master of low-key but hilarious reactions, and Kim Swennen shines as both an affected actress and the senator's ambitious trouble-shooter. Chloe Peterson and Allen Cutler neatly round out the cast. Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Nov. 21. (323) 960-7714 or plays411.com/ohio4th. Produced by the Inkwell Theatre. (Neal Weaver)

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