Killing them softly: Judy Kaye as deluded diva Jenkins (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
Killing them softly: Judy Kaye as deluded diva Jenkins (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Theater Reviews

{mosimage}PICK SOUVENIR In the 1940s, singer Florence Foster Jenkins (Judy Kaye) achieved unlikely fame due to her spectacularly awful performances. A wealthy, tone-deaf society matron, she performed in charity concerts, and because of her supreme self-confidence (she thought hostile critics were motivated by jealousy), genuine dedication, naive pretensions and the absurdity of her caterwauling, she attracted fanatical camp followers. Her recordings sold well, and she eventually played Carnegie Hall. Playwright Stephen Temperly examines Jenkins’ relations with her long-suffering accompanist Cosme McMoon (Donald Corren). A gay, hip and accomplished musician, the young Cosme is appalled by Jenkins’ singing but needs money and accepts a onetime gig as her pianist. It’s a job he never leaves and one that will affect his musical career. Though Jenkins’ success makes Cosme a laughingstock, he becomes her champion and loving protector. Corren delivers a wryly affectionate portrait of Cosme, as adept at the Bechstein as he is at the comedy. Judy Kaye is both touching and hilarious, bellowing her way through Verdi’s delicate “Caro Nome,” screeching the Bell Song from Lakme, and proving that singing badly can be an art. Mercifully, she’s allowed one lovely number, Gounod’s Ave Maria, as Jenkins imagines she sounds. Director Vivian Matalon serves up a delectable production on R. Michael Miller’s jewel-box set, garnished with Tracy Christensen’s zany costumes. Brentwood Theater, Veterans Administration Grounds, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Nov. 12 (no perf Oct. 31). (213) 365-3500. (Neal Weaver)

If only Betty Friedan had included a chapter on mothering a school shooter, Janice LaRue (D.J. Harner) would have some help sorting out what she should feel from what she actually does feel after her son Eric (Will Collyer) goes on a murderous rampage. Instead, she — and most of Brett Neveu’s earnest but frustrating drama — suffocates from unctuous advice offered by both her newly devout husband (Mark L. Taylor) and the awkward Pastor Steve (Johnny Clark). The reverend, in fact, deems Janice’s past pains unhelpful and would rather pretend to find wisdom in how she ties her shoelaces. No wonder Janice mainly feels bewilderment mixed with a dollop of defensiveness. There’s an initial car-wreck fascination in watching Janice’s emotional oppression at the hands of these do-gooders, but as Neveu’s talky play is more focused on the responses to grief than grief itself, the story ultimately feels as restless and misguided as her therapy sessions. Neveu holds back the emotions to amplify the last scene’s wicked shakeup, but anger’s most effective when it gets to build before exploding. Under Howard Fine’s direction, Julie Lancaster and Barrow Davis-Tolot give raw, rattling performances as the mothers of two of Eric’s victims, while Harner consistently knocks it out of the park. ELEPHANT THEATER, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Nov. 19. (323) 860-3283. (Amy Nicholson)

FLIRTING WITH MORTY Tremendous ensemble work characterizes this production of playwright Paula Mitchell Manning and composer John Lathan’s dark musical about sexual abuse and racism. The play opens immediately after the death of Martin Grey Jr. (Dorian Harewood), a popular singer who’s been shot by his father. R&B-­flavored numbers sung by Grey lead us through the main story of one of his fans, the suicidal Baby Hunter (Nadine Stenovitch). While downing handfuls of pills and liquor, she tells the silent, black-clad Morty (Sean McNabb, alternating with Dean Cleverdon) about her abusive family, which included an uncaring mother (Alison Arngrim) who left the young Baby (Corinne Spicer) with her pedophile boyfriend (Michael Erger). Many of the songs, such as “Candy Girl,” provide an ironic counterpoint to the bleak material. Under Phil Ramuno’s direction, the cast is remarkable, and the scenes of abuse are particularly wrenching. Harewood and the Doo Wop Singers (Mayo Best, Johan Nairne Beckles, Frit & Frat Fuller, Brandon Jilkes and composer Lathan) are outstanding, as is the choreography by the Fuller brothers. Unfortunately, the play becomes exposition-heavy at times. Mel Grayson’s underwhelming set design and Larry Mitchell’s still photographs and film projections add little to the production. ACME COMEDY THEATRE, 135 N. La Brea Ave., Hlywd.; Sun., 5 p.m.; Mon.-Tues., 8 p.m.; thru Nov. 7. (323) 525-0202. (Sandra Ross)

HUCK & HOLDEN Rajiv Joseph’s play has a Play It Again Sam feel to it. The hourlong comedy is about an Indian college student from Calcutta, studying in America, who conjures a hip mentor-spirit partly inspired by The Catcher in the Rye narrator Holden Caulfield. Yet Joseph doesn’t carry the conceit far enough — or take much time to even explore it — to allow the evening to ever leave the ground. BLACK DAHLIA THEATRE, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Nov. 19. (866) 468-3399 or (Steven Mikulan) See Stage feature next week.

LEIPZIG Alzheimer’s disease and anti-Semitism are worthy themes for exploration, but playwright Wendy Graf’s thinly textured melodrama does little service to either. The plot revolves around an Alzheimer’s victim, Eva Kelly (Salome Jens), whose increasingly frequent lapses from the here-and-now mingle with long-repressed recollections of her childhood as the daughter of German Jews. Eva’s buried past, seen in flashback, comes as news to daughter Helen (Mimi Kennedy), who then tangles both with her dinosaur dad (Mitchell Ryan) — who wants to re-inter his wife’s secret — and her own newly discovered Jewish angst. She turns to Jesus (Paul Witten), who materializes — in the script’s lamest attempt at humor — as a down-home savior with a flair for irony. Under Deborah LaVine’s direction, the ensemble appears under-rehearsed, exacerbating the shortcomings of a formulaic script. The sense of a real family, ruptured by real disease, is simply lacking. The back story, enacted with bad German accents, is even more awkwardly clichéd. Designer Daniel L. Wheeler’s cramped, shadowy set is beautifully nuanced, but unfortunately leaves little space for the performers to maneuver. Against long odds Jens stays charismatic, if not entirely convincing. LEE STRASBERG INSTITUTE, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 10. (323) 650-7777. (Deborah Klugman)

OUT OF THE BLUE On a raised platform a bouffant-sporting old lady sits on what could be a throne or an electric chair. Or maybe it’s a hospital bed or the rooftop in a recently flooded metropolis. You be the judge. In the fourth installment of playwright Murray Mednick’s “Gary Plays,” our hapless antihero Gary (Lee Kissman) begins a phantasmagoric journey when he is summoned by his mother, Mama Bean (Tina Preston), to pull the plug on her own life support. Once deposited at her side by helicopter, he is soon guided by a fastidiously dressed Angel of Death named Antonio (a dazzling Mark Adair-Rios) to Purgatory to learn the truth of his son’s murder, an event that has been all-consuming for the otherwise self-absorbed actor. The sundry characters’ pontifications on life, love and death are quite intriguing at the beginning, especially a hilarious harangue by Gary’s stepfather, Daddy O (Hugh Dane), on the arrogance of SUV drivers. Eventually, however, the myriad monologues and cryptic conversations are consumed by their highly stylized presentations. Director Guy Zimmerman offers striking staging that is complemented by the evocative scenic design of Jeffery Atherton, Jason Adams and Alicia Hodge, and Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes. Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Nov. 4. (323) 993-6944. (Martín Hernández)


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