Theater to See in L.A. This Week, Including a Triumphant Return of a Latter-Day Judy Garland
Tracie Bennett knocked the socks off our critic Tom Provenzano with her impersonation of Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow at the Ahmanson, which he made this week's Pick of the Week. Also Bill Raden had good things to say about S.O.E. -- Jami Brandli's clever, three-character riff on the venerable West End murder mystery The Mousetrap at Atwater Village Theatre -- and Lovell Estell praised Roger Matthew's revival of Trainspotting at the Elephant Theatre. For all the latest New Theater Reviews, see below.
In this week's Theater Feature, Zachary Pincus-Roth gives kudos to Center Theatre Group for premiering a new play by a local scribe, Jennifer Haley's The Nether, though he has mixed feelings about the play itself.
It's L.A. Weekly Theater Awards time: Monday evening, April 8, at Avalon Hollywood. Doors open 6:30 p.m., show starts at 7:30 p.m., hosted by Lost Moon Radio. Theme: Theater's survival post-apocalypse -- dress accordingly. Post-show reception is hosted by Shamshiri Grill. Nominees please RSVP at (310) 574-7208 before Friday, April 5. Friends, family and others, book tickets here.
NEW THEATER REVIEWS, scheduled for pubication March 27, 2013
PICK OF THE WEEK END OF THE RAINBOWJudy Garland's legendary triumphs and tragedies, dish and dirt have been chronicled so often and in so many forms, it would seem no nuance is left to be unearthed. Then there is Tracie Bennett, a performer whose colossal vocal and emotional power in End of the Rainbow pull us eagerly into a known quantity of expected bathos, then without warning sheds sentiment in favor of caustic reality, portraying Garland as less a victim than vicious miscreant. In the last year of her life, broke and desperate, the star leans on her new young fiancé,Mickey Deans (a perfectly tacky Erik Heger), to whom she is simultaneously delightfully brittle, cruel and irresistible as he arranges her last-chance gig -- a five-week concert run in London. At her side also is accompanist Anthony (smartly played by Michael Cumpsty), who represents her enormous gay following. The two men alternately join forces and skirmish, attempting to keep Garland clean, sober and stage-ready. Peter Quilter's lean and piercing script leaves little room for the maudlin, focusing instead on Garland's extremely sharp wit and lifelong addict's tricks to stay one step ahead of her keepers at all times. Masterful director Terry Johnson keeps the cast tightly connected to the material while allowing his star to soar in her myriad musical numbers, both in messy rehearsals with Anthony and during her bright moments in front of packed houses. Music director Jeffrey Saver and his band consummately create those moments through Chris Egan's classic orchestrations and the simple brilliance of Bennett's performance. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Dwntwn: Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through April 21. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org (Tom Provenzno)
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST While the latest offering from the Banshees is surely earnest, director Sean Branney and the ensemble don't quite capture the delicate rhythms of Oscar Wilde's language nor the precise comic timing necessary to properly realize Earnest. The conflict between Jack (Cameron J. Oro) and Algernon (Kevin Stidham) initially misses the mark, as Oro is too congenial to delineate the contrast between the bachelors, leading Stidham to overdo the cheek a bit. Their dynamic soon recovers but it never finds Jack's stringent propriety, which provides the necessary foil to Algernon's antics. Andrew Leman's Lady Bracknell, while quite different from Dame Edith Evans' classic portrayal, comes into her own and continues the tradition of male casting for the role. Gwendolen (Sarah van der Pol) and Cecily (Erin Barnes) are pleasant and perky, but their claws aren't razor sharp in their classic tête-à-tête over tea, though Barnes' energy gives Cecily a youthful exuberance. There is brilliance in Branney's "set-change ballet" between Acts II and III, showcasing Arthur MacBride's artfully crafted set, but it's not enough to elevate a merely competent take on the classic. Theatre Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through May 5. (818) 846-5323, theatrebanshee.org. (Mayank Keshaviah)
Alec, Jessica Noboa and Ryan Mulkay
When Eastern European Communism collapsed, only Romania spilled a lot of blood -- from soldiers firing on citizens to the Christmas Day execution of its husband-and-wife dictators, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. When familiar faces quickly regained power, Romanians wondered if the events of late 1989 should have been labeled a revolution at all. Mad Forest delves directly into that abyss, spinning history into parable via playwright Caryl Churchill's canny postmodern aesthetic. Part 1 sets the stage with tableaux of Romanian life under the secret police. Part 2 becomes an oral history of the violence, and Part 3 dramatizes the unraveling of hope, goodwill -- and, to some extent, sanity -- in the messy aftermath. Mad Forest, with its heavily expository nature, may not have stood the test of time as well as some of Churchill's other works, but its engagement with the impotent rage of those whom history treats as pawns remains on point. Director Marya Mazor stylishly wrangles her large cast and multimedia staging. Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through May 4. (323) 882-6912, openfist.org. (Mindy Farabee)
Lauren Swann and Tanya Zoeller
"Meta" might be a bit of an overused critical term these days, but it's an apt description of this intriguing if ultimately flimsy performance art piece about performance art pieces, from New York City's Ugly Rhino Theater Company. Director Nicole Rosner's site-specific narrative unfolds at a red-painted cinderblock downtown loft, full of edgy art works, where audience members mingle with actors who are portraying artists, bartenders and other guests. Before long, we find ourselves drawn into the story of the party's hostesses, Auden (Lauren Swann) and Tahnee (Tanya Zoeller), who develop a bizarre love triangle with a handsome but mysterious party guest (Zachary Puchtel). It's undeniably charming to wander around the loft during the party scenes, luxuriating in the fact that (for one night only) you are "hipper than thou," while interacting with folks who might be either random audience members or disguised actors. It's unfortunate, though, that the show's "plot" is slight to the point of being utterly inconsequential -- divorce it from the engagingly ambiguous context and the play itself is almost nonexistent. The Red Loft, 605 E. Fourth St., dwntwn.; schedule varies, through April 6. uglyrhino.com. (Paul Birchall)
GO THE NETHER Jennifer Haley's new virtual reality play at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. See Thater Feature.
NUTTIN' BUT HUTTON Betty Hutton was known in her heyday as the Blonde Bombshell. After a brief Broadway career, and a stint as a band singer, she made her name in Hollywood in screwball comedies like The Miracle at Morgan's Creek and became famous for her manic, zany, over- the-top performances of comic novelty songs such as "I'm Just a Square in the Social Circle," "Murder, He Says" and "His Rocking Horse Ran Away." She went on to triumph in the film version of Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun and Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth, only to abandon her Hollywood career and wind up as a dishwasher in a Catholic convent. Writer-performer Diane Vincent clearly idolizes Hutton and set out to celebrate her. But instead of relying on Hutton's own potent story, Vincent has chosen to tell the hackneyed tale of a singer trying to mount a show about Hutton, featuring a large array of Hutton's signature numbers, with snippets of information of her life and career shoehorned in. Vincent is an able performer, and her show is a labor of love, but Hutton would have been better served by a more straightforward treatment of her life and talent. Noho Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through April 28. (800) 595-4849, nuttinbuthutton.com. (Neal Weaver)
GO S.O.E. Build a better mousetrap, it is said, and the world will beat a path to your door. Or at least to Atwater Village, where playwright Jami Brandli's clever, three-character riff on the venerable West End murder mystery The Mousetrap is attempting to give Agatha Christie a run for her money. Call it a hipster whodunit. Actually, "who-maybe-dunit" might be the better descriptive, because in Brandli's ironic puzzler of red herrings and drifting ambiguities, the ostensible murder ratcheting its mystery-plot mechanics might not have even occurred. Brandli's recipe is deceptively familiar: Take a connivingly ambitious, aspiring-writer grad student (Diana Wyenn); place her in the blizzard-isolated Boston apartment (by set and lighting designer Aaron Francis) of an absent breakout novelist; mix in an achingly needy and sexually insecure roommate (Michael Kass); introduce a chronically possessive editor-lover with a bad disposition and a tripwire temper (Jessica Hanna); season to taste with betrayal, double dealing and buried family secrets. Then bring to a rapid boil and stand back. Director Darin Anthony stirs Brandli's irresistible, toxic stew of psychological grotesques with a sure hand and a comic touch, while Joseph "Sloe" Slawinski's sound helps crank the mounting paranoia and uncertainty all the way up to 11. Atwater Village Speakeasy Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater; Sat. & Mon., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through April 15. (323) 644-1929, soetheplay.com. (Bill Raden)
Alison Walter and Jonathan Roumie
Tyson Wade Johnston
Director Roger Mathey and Seat of the Pants Productions return with a solid revival of their 2002 production about four lower-class Edinburgh youths prematurely entombed in a hellish world of sex, heroin addiction and violence. The story is based on the 1993 novel by Irvine Welsh (the source material for Danny Boyle's 1996 film) and adapted for the stage by Harry Gibson. Mathey sacrifices nothing in the way of raw, nausea-inducing moments in this outing (shit really does fly, and there is full nudity), and this time he efficiently uses a larger cast, with some actors taking on multiple roles. Justin Zachary returns as narrator-protagonist Mark Renton, who in spite of numerous attempts at rehab can't kick the habit. Also returning are David Agranov as Mark's close friend Tommy, who eventually succumbs to heroin's lethal allure; Matt Tully as Begbie; and Jonathan Roumie as Sick Boy. In spite of the dismal subject matter, Mathey unearths some necessary humor, a lot of it coming from Mark's often ironic, understated commentary. Still, at times the Scottish accents make it near impossible to understand the dialogue (Tully often sounds like he's chewing a mouthful of oatmeal). Jason Rupert's scenic design consisting of a platform that doubles as a home interior, bracketed by two graffiti-pocked walls, is suitably raunchy. Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd; Hlywd., Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through April 13. (323) 960-7785, plays411.com/trainspotting. (Lovell Estell III)
WOLVES For a few minutes Steve Yockey's horror spoof -- pretentiously billed as a psychological drama -- shows literary promise. A narrator (Katherine Skelton) with an air of foreboding tells us about Ben (Nathan Mohebbi), a nebbishy guy from a small town who salves his loneliness with casual lovers, then freaks when they don't want to commit. When his ex, Jack (Matt Magnusson), now a platonic roommate, brings home a handsome "wolf" (Andrew Crabtree), Ben loses it big-time and the blood flows. Hinting at deep truths and dark revelations, the piece then segues into banal dialogue among three guys in a sex triangle. Anyone who's ever been caught up in a dating scene, gay or straight, could improvise this drivel. None of the performers rises above the material, including Skelton, whose storyteller assumes a grating simper. Designer Tim Swiss' lighting displays accomplished talent and Cricket S. Myers' sound is effectual. Michael Matthews directs. Celebration Theatre, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through May 5. (323) 957-1884, celebrationtheatre.com. (Deborah Klugman)
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