A CHORUS LINE is the musical about a musical, and about the poor schlubs who dance their hearts out just for a chance to be seen in a Broadway show. This is the great-grandfather of Survivor. Through gratingly intrusive interview questions, we get glimpses into the lives of the thespians and then watch the elimination matches as slightly compassionate, slightly sadistic choreographer Zach (Michael Gruber) sends home the disqualified. A Chorus Line’s real choreographer, Michael Bennett, directed the original; co-created by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, lyricist Edward Kleban and composer Marvin Hamlisch, the 1976 production put the New York Public Theater on the map and was the longest-running Broadway musical (more than 6,000 performances) for about seven centuries. Here, Baayork Lee has restaged Bennett’s choreography, and the show is directed by the original co-choreographer, Bob Avian. The revolving-mirror backdrop (parodied in The Producers) is combined with catchy, superficial performances, for a celebration of narcissism wrapped around an homage to dance. The snappy, shape-shifting patterns of the jazzy choreography are gorgeous, and there are moments of pathos from Nikki Snelson’s Cassie. She’s Zach’s ex, now unemployed and trying to fall back into a chorus line after a failed pursuit of Hollywood celebrity. Because the chorus line is where home is. Uh-huh. Gabrielle Ruiz’s spunky Puerto Rican dancer, Diana, handles “What I Did for Love” with gentle esprit. And Natalie Hall’s Val (“Dance: Ten; Looks: Three”) has the squeak and spunk of a young Bernadette Peters. But with so much posing and strutting in this hall of mirrors, the production has all the poignancy of American Idol. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. (July 6 perf at 8:30 p.m.; no Sun. eve perf June 22; added mats Thurs., June 19 & July 3, 2 p.m.; thru July 6. (213) 628-2772. A Center Theatre Group production. (Steven Leigh Morris)
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A Chorus Line
DREAM MAN We’re several decades past the era when a queer-themed play could earn accolades just by daring to exist. James Carroll Pickett’s one-man one-act about a gay phone-sex operator returns to the theater where it premiered in 1985, but struggles to justify the reprise. On a slow night, Christopher (Jimmy Shaw) fields calls from two lonely-hearts, a psychopath and his ex-boyfriend, while waxing grandiloquently about sex and illusion. Both the scant action and the actor himself are drowned in Pickett’s gilded prose; one of this staging’s crucial weaknesses is that a man who manipulates with words can’t get a handle on his own. He’s too melodramatic to be taken at face value, but his speeches aren’t delivered with a wink. What’s hammered home is that hired seduction hollows the soul and we all mask a dash of perversion — obvious truths made even more obvious by Michael Kearns’ hand-holding direction, which presses Shaw to overact, underlines his big moments with thunderclaps and even has him writhe on a platform under red lights each time he rhapsodizes about screwing. YouTube records show that Kearns, who originated the role, allowed himself more naturalism — a necessity for a play that’s on the brink of losing its relevance. Skylight Theater, 1816 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru June 1. (310) 358-9936. A Camelot Artists Production. (Amy Nicholson)
GO GROUNDLINGS KEY PARTY The latest collection of sketches by the Groundlings is fast-paced and furiously funny. Sharply directed by Ted Michaels, no skit goes on too long, a frequent problem with other comedy troupes and a recurrent complaint about Saturday Night Live. In the evening’s first sketch, “Mistaken Identity,” gender roles and expectations get skewered by writer-performer Annie Sertich and performers Stephanie Courtney, Tim Brennen, Mitch Silpa and Michaela Watkins. Equally amusing is Watkins’ “I’m Alright,” a skit about a drunken cousin who won’t relinquish the microphone at a wedding. Edi Patterson’s “Campbell’s” offers a hilarious spoof of nonactors who can’t stick to a script. Director Michaels oversees several brief improv segments throughout the evening, most of which incorporate audience suggestions, and in one bit, Courtney and Ariane Price were hilarious as a pair of polygamist standup comics. Hidden under a series of cheap wigs, Silpa is uproariously funny in all of his sketches, and particularly in “Extra Extra” (which he co-wrote with Watkins), a bit about inexperienced actors trying to master the “spit take.” Music between the skits is courtesy of Willie Etra, Howard Greene and Larry Treadwell. Groundlings Theater, 7307 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 & 10 p.m.; indef. (323) 934-4747, Ext. 37. (Sandra Ross) *
GO I GELOSI Writer-director David Bridel underpins his delightful comedy with historical events, making a vastly entertaining work richer and more relevant. I Gelosi (the Jealous Ones) are 16th-century commedia dell’arte performers, plucked from the history books and operating against the backdrop of the Catholic-Huguenot wars. Company director Francesco (Albert Meijer), a vain but likable hothead, is a war veteran who gets nightmares. He and two other players are penniless nomads until they hook up with talented playwright Isabella (Paige White) — whom Francesco marries — as well as the starstruck nephew (Jon Redding) of the Duke of Mantua (Christopher Tillman). With the duke’s help, the group soon becomes the toast of the French court. Meanwhile internal conflicts — arising from Francesco’s adultery and the bitchy machinations of the duke’s ambitious mistress (Eleanor Van Hest) — ravage the company. Weightier problems loom after the troupe stages a scathing satire of the pope. The production boasts many virtues, chief among them its characters’ layered complexity, skillfully rendered by every member of the ensemble. Bridel’s droll use of contemporary vernacular, in tandem with period costuming, set and language, also vivifies the humor. Strewn with antiwar and anti-authoritarian motifs, the play asks whether the art of theater is the expression of deep feelings or merely a fraud. Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru June 14. (310) 396-3680. A Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble and Powerhouse Theatre Company Production. (Deborah Klugman)
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The Legendary Times of Bulgakov
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Groundlings Key Party
KINGDOM COME Originally a work from the Andes discovered in Bolivia, The Tragedy of the End of Atau Wallpa is a lament about the arrival of the Conquistadors and the inevitable demise of the Incas. It was translated from the Quechuan language into Spanish by Jesús Lara, and here has been adapted into English by director Dan Oliverio. Eleven actors provide narrations from all corners of the globe, each focused on some impending catastrophe, from the bombing of Hiroshima and the Holocaust to various disasters in Kansas, Indonesia, Carthage and Mongolia. The production then settles into the dreams of an Inca chief and priestess, who see visions of “red-bearded men” floating on the sea and arriving with spikes and steel on their legs. This noble ensemble effort gets tripped up by the unwavering portrait of unshakable, unyielding, unequivocating conquerors barking orders in a language (here depicted as foot stomping) of which the comparatively docile Inca have no comprehension. Though a fascinating spin on an ancient document, it nonetheless follows the Incas’ ride along a straight highway to oblivion. Some curves in the road might have been diverting. Diana Wyenn’s costumes nicely capture the production’s reach into all corners of the globe, and the span of the centuries, and Chris Covic’s beautiful set design has a rope ladder ascending into the upstage wall while the motifs of planks extend along the sides of the stage. Unknown Theater, 1110 N. Seward St., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; thru June 28. (323) 466-7781 or www.unknowntheater.com. (Steven Leigh Morris)
THEATER PICK LADY The Lady here is a hunting dog with an avid taste for Pop Tarts, but her story is only one strand in Craig Wright’s complex tale of three old friends on a hunting trip. Lady’s friend and owner is Kenny (Matt Kirkwood), a goodhearted slacker who spends his days watching old movies and smoking the medical marijuana supplied to his cancer-afflicted wife. He hates political talk because, like Rodney King, he wants everybody to just get along, though there’s little chance of that once Dyson (Shawn Michael Patrick) and Graham (Mark Doer) get together. Dyson served as a campaign manager for Graham during his successful run for Congress on the Democratic ticket. Once elected, Graham turned neocon Republican, ardently supporting American supremacy and the Iraq War. Militant pacifist Dyson regards this as betrayal and blames Graham for his son’s decision to join the Marines and risk his life in Iraq. Wright’s taut drama is less political debate than examination of the unpredictable ways in which conflicting ideologies undermine old loyalties, bonds of friendship fray, and lurking hostilities turn murderous. Scott Alan Smith directs with a sure, subtle hand, eliciting eloquent performances from his three actors on Stephen Gifford’s handsome, semi-abstract set. Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru June 14. (866) 811-4111 or www.roadtheatre.org. (Neal Weaver)
GO THE LEGENDARY TIMES OF BULGAKOV The American Russian Theatre Ensemble Laboratory (ARTEL) presented a workshop of this ensemble-created piece at Highways in December. This labor of love — love not only for banned Soviet novelist-playwright Mikhail Bulgakov but also for the investigatory impulses at the core of theater itself — may have overshot its mark, but it remains a finely crafted creation of riveting visual theatricality, macabre symbolism and high-wire emotion. The four excellent performers (Bryan Brown, Keirin Brown, Olga Petrakova and Ilana Gustafson Turner) sing and speak in a collage of Russian phrases that become a cartoon of life in a crowded Moscow apartment. We hear a speech by Lenin, and watch Bulgakov (Brown) circled by his three wives like a nucleus with its electrons. There are readings from Bulgakov’s novels, The Master and Margarita and The Heart of a Dog. After the latter, a literary committee (the women, as cartoons of pompous magistrates) stand smoking, dismissive and uncomprehending. The company’s theatrical language consists of a sequence of visual images that roll through his marriages: One of Bulgakov’s books gets opened, scrubbed inside with a steel brush, dipped in red paint and hung on a tree branch; later, two women read while, very slowly, rose petals descend from their mouths onto the pages. Played out on Julian Rozzell’s set, slathered with copies of the graffiti that adorns Bulgakov’s Moscow apartment, this conception is largely dependent on a prior knowledge of Bulgakov’s writings, his marriages and his tortured life in order to summon bursts of recognition. ARTEL’s style is that of a train in motion, challenging us to jump aboard and discern from the views that unfold, rather than stopping at a station, opening the doors and announcing where we might be headed. The image of Bulgakov’s text being scrubbed while he stares forlorn serves as a condemnation not only of his censorship by the Soviets but of censorship itself — of Senator Joe Lieberman taking aim at what should be allowed on the Internet. This is a work that shouldn’t be missed. Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru June 14. (323) 871-8382 or www.arteltheatre.org. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO NATURAL SELECTION Imagine a theme park where caricatures of other cultures are put on display for the amusement of tourists. Disneyland, you say? Close, but the mouse has yet to take it to the level that Eric Coble does with “Culture Fiesta,” an ethnic theme park in the not-so-distant future. When a Native American performer dies, Henry Carson (Joel Huggins) is sent on a mission by his fast-talking corporate-dragon lady boss, Yolanda (Janet Colson), to find an authentic replacement. Flying over the Western desert with pilot Penelope (Abigail Eiland) and bounty hunter Ernie (Josh Zagoren), Henry finally breaks out of his milquetoast existence when he shoots Zhao (Adam G) from the helicopter with a tranquilizer gun. However, Henry soon discovers that Zhao is not a “real” Native American, and the two become complicit in a quid pro quo scheme. As events play out, the play cleverly satirizes many cultural touchstones, most notably our obsession with technology and vicarious existence. The ending, reminiscent of Mickey Birnbaum’s Big Death and Little Death, contains a few surprises, but feels a bit abrupt and incomplete. Still, Jayk Gallagher’s nimble direction moves the scenes along fluidly, aided by Ian Forester’s wonderfully minimalist set and Josh Cuellar’s creative lighting. Huggins, Zagoren, Adam G and Marie Lively (as Henry’s blog-obsessed homemaker wife) are hilarious in their performances. 2100 Square Feet, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru June 29. (800) 838-3006. A needtheatre Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)
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NYMPHONY IN 12-D Playwright Gib Wallis’ musical farce is one of those mildly exploitative gay-fantasy comedies in which young men with the bodies of Greek gods run around a lot in nothing but towels while making improbable jokes about the opera. The unfortunate thing is, no one seems to have told Wallis (who also directed) that farce needs to be staged with breakneck, scattershot fury — not with the languor of a Tennessee Williams hangover. Handsome tenor Brick (Rusty Hamrick) dreams of breaking into the Big Time Musical World, even though his main claim to fame is merely appearing as a Drag Queen Zarzuela singer. Brick’s career is secretly helped along by a beautiful magical-nymph muse (Beth Whitney), who has lived in his apartment for decades. The muse turns out to be more nymphomaniacal than nymph, though, and requires regular sessions of romance to “recharge” her magical power. Brick, gay and attached to young, neurotic waiter Michael (James Gaudioso, awkwardly channeling Woody Allen in a dither), wants the muse’s magic — but not her female “extras.” The highlight of Wallis’ uneven production is the musical numbers, which are belted with soul and energy — particularly Hamrick’s love songs. Additionally, entire plot twists make no sense, while imprecise line readings and clumsy movements accentuate the show’s flaws. Meta Theatre, 7801 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru June 21. (323) 860-6625. A Playwrights 6 Production. (Paul Birchall)
RED DOG HOWLS Michael Peretzian’s chiseled staging of Alexander Dinelaris’ new play establishes a portentous tone from the start. Matthew Rauch plays brooding Michael Kiriakos with crisp eloquence in speeches to the audience that are a more arty version of Joe Friday’s in Dragnet. Dinelaris has the poor guy telling us, via many direct audience addresses and in a variety of permutations, that some awful truth is about to unfold, rather than simply allowing that awful truth to unfold. Michael has an unborn child, a slipping marriage and an Armenian heritage he knows little of that’s about to come crashing down on him. The dragnet of this play is Michael’s search for his past and, therefore, himself — a source of the understandable and tartly expressed frustration of his pregnant wife (Darcie Siciliano). Letters from Michael’s late father lead him to the Washington Heights home of his paternal grandmother, Vartouhi Afratian (Kathleen Chalfant); the play finds its stride in Michael’s many visits to Vartouhi, who, like Dante’s Virgil, leads him step by calculated step into the cauldron of the 20th century’s first genocide. Chalfant’s performance is simply masterful — so stoic and forged from steel that her tumult of emotions seems to explode in the space between her and her grandson, while he ducks for cover until there’s no place left to hide. Her climactic revelation is emotionally awesome, in the traditional sense of that word, but Dinelaris’ foreshadowing is text-messaged, undermining his attempt to capture the unspoken mysteries of history and its darkest revelations. El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 3 p.m.; thru June 13. (818) 508-4200. A Gang of Five–New York Production. (Steven Leigh Morris)
*Editor's Note: An earlier version of the Groundlings review incorrectly left Ariane Price's name out of the review. We regret the error.