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Theater New Reviews: Ballroom With a Twist, Cologne, Cyclops: A Rock Opera

GO  BALLROOM WITH A TWIST One of Dancing With the Stars' professional dancers, Louis Van Amstel, stages his own show after an illustrious 20-year career as a performer and competitive dancer. His fluidly staged, marvelously high-caliber entertainment (with a couple of also-ran American Idol singers, Gina Glocksen and David Hernandez, thrown into the mix) moves seamlessly from fast numbers to slow ballads, from dance to song and back again. Athletic bodies draped with Randall Designs' gorgeous costumes cavort through Van Amstel's well-orchestrated spectacle, which also celebrates diversity with its casting of various races and body shapes. Van Amstel hosts the evening, assisted by hilarious comedian Niecy Nash (his partner from the most recent season of DWTS). She brings welcome humor when not tearing up the dance floor. The costumes are figure-hugging sexy, flowing and dazzling (with rhinestones) as well as casual and relaxed for some of the modern dance numbers. Van Amstel's exceptional choreography feels liberated from the constraints and repetition of competitive ballroom regulations. Salsa, paso doble, jitterbug, quick-step, waltz and Argentine tango — Van Amstel name-checks every dance style while employing everything from slow ballad duets to clubby dance mixes of classic and contemporary tunes — something for everyone. El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; perfs Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sat.-Sun., 3 p.m., through Feb. 13. (818) 508-0281, elportaltheatre.com. (Pauline Adamek)

CAVALIA A horse is a horse and something more: the symbol of might that helped humans conquer the world. (Cirque du Soleil wouldn't stage Cowvalia.) "Helped," however, is an overstatement. We're drawn to horses despite — or because of? — their flagrant lack of interest in us. Lions and Labradors track their trainers with their eyes. At Cavalia, horses get rapturous applause simply for walking sideways — we're flattered that these awesome beasts have deigned to do our will. It's empowering to see that these equine masters can literally take a horse to water and make it drink. Still, there's a limit to what a horse can actually do: walk, run, run in geometric patterns. Where the human spine can turn the body 360 degrees, theirs are stubbornly parallel. At least they make gorgeous balance beams for humans to leap, tumble and swing across their backs. And in one routine, the riders stand astride a pair of ponies like water skis. Ponderous and pretty, the show dresses up its cast in medieval and caveman garb to tap into the primal wonder of the man-horse bond, and the music and stunts seem designed not to spook the livestock. But when the riders pay homage to rodeo star Yakima Canutt with some full-speed riding tricks, the thrill of danger wakes up the crowd. The showstopper, though, is a slow bit where trainer Sylvia Zerbini mesmerizes nine white, unbridled horses into lining up and running laps on her command, thus becoming the idol of every girl under the big white tent, especially the 4-year-old next to me, who kept exclaiming, "Horsies!" Under the Big Top/downtown Burbank, 777 N. Front St., Burbank; Wed.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 3 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m., through Feb. 6. 866-999-8111. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  COLOGNE In this solo drama, writer-director Tony Abatemarco eloquently describes growing up gay in the 1960s in a part of rural Long Island that "looked exactly like Iowa." If the piece is not, strictly speaking, autobiographical, it's clearly highly personal. In the world of horny teen boys who haven't yet mastered the art of dealing with girls, blatant homoeroticism and rabid homophobia exist side by side (one of the boys performs a spectacular strip-tease to an enthusiastic audience). The protagonist, Harry (Harry Hart-Browne), is a gay boy who's fascinated with Robert, a truculent local hero who's already a man among boys. He sets out to seduce Robert, and to some extent succeeds. Later, when Harry is fearful of being outed, he outs Robert instead, setting him up for a severe beating by local bullies. He retains a lifelong fascination with Robert, even after the Stonewall riots provide a measure of personal liberation. Oddly, the narrative is presented in the third person, which has a slightly distancing effect, perhaps necessary to keep the graphic sexual descriptions from being too personal. Hart-Browne delineates his characters sharply and with enormous conviction. Skylight Theatre, 1816 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m., runs indefinitely. (702) 582-8587. (Neal Weaver)

GO  CYCLOPS: A ROCK OPERA It gets so wearying — all the satyr plays being done in L.A. ... No, hold on, sorry: Was confusing satyr plays with autobiographical solo shows. Satyr plays are an ancient Greek oddity: violent, erotic, comedic concoctions that used to be performed with three tragedies in annual festivals. Only one still exists, Cyclops by Euripides, filched from the Homeric legend of Odysseus being drawn to the shores of Mt. Aetna by the seductive love call of the Sirens. In Louis Butelli, Chas LiBretto & Robert Richmond's scintillating rock-opera adaptation, featuring a hedonistic band (the Satyrs) in goatskin pantaloons and a bare-chested drummer (Stephen Edelstein), that love call sounds like so much caterwauling. Co-directed by the co-adapters, the event recalls Radoslaw Rychik's adaptation of Bernard-Marie Koltès' In the Solitude of Cotton Fields last year at REDCAT — a similar kind of rock cantata backed up by the Polish band Natural Born Chillers. Here, almost everyone's eyes are rimmed in goth black paint, and half the cast have fingernails to match. The music ranges from twisted ukulele-accompanied ballads, to Mick Jagger and punk lampoons, singing the story of how Odysseus (LiBretto) subjugated (by intoxicating with wine and then blinding) the one-eyed cycloptic monster, Polyphemus (Jayson Landon Marcus), who has been holding Dionysus (Casey Brown) captive, along with almost everyone else in the shadow of the mountain. (Polyphemus is the embittered son of Poseidon, if you follow such things.) A trio of gorgeous Maenads (Nicole Flannigan, Madeleine Hamer, Liz Sydah), attired in figure-clenching silks (costumes by Caiti Hawkins), serve as backup singers (and more). One of them mentions that cruelty in life brings a legacy of contempt, whereas kindness brings a legacy of enduring love. This beautiful idea doesn't sound particularly Greek, given their rigid codes of honor and revenge. Whether or not Homer or Euripides gave it lip service, that Shakespearean notion anchors and gives this ancient comic-book update its humanity, a moral hall pass for the hedonism it wallows in so gleefully, and with such style and skill. Psittacus Productions at Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; in rep with SOS' Company Creation Festival, Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 5 p.m., through March 6. sonofsemele.org. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

EMILY'S SONG Its promo tagline, "An epic musical journey straight to your heart," would seem to place writer-director Chet Holmes' musical in the same category as straight-to-video releases with similar epithets. Considering Holmes' background in screenwriting and his desire to tell "highly satisfying commercial stories that appeal to the masses," it's hardly surprising that his foray into musical theater fits the bill. In it, aspiring musician Charlie Everson (Tom Schmid) gains a daughter and loses a wife on the same day. Though young Emily (Darcy Rose Byrnes) grows up motherless, her talent for music brings her close to her father. Then one fateful evening, Charlie disappears, leaving Emily an orphan with housekeeper and de facto nanny Rosa (Elena Campbell-Martinez) as her only family. The next 10 years involve both older Emily (Lindsey Haun) rising to stardom as a singer, and Charlie starting over after he is robbed of his memory. Although the premise is interesting, the problem is that the story is told so cinematically: There are close to 100 scenes, some of which are four lines long before a blackout. While this may work on-screen, it is disjointed and jarring onstage. The songs, co-written with Amanda Holmes and Tom Shepard, are pleasantly melodic, but many are too short to be musically satisfying. Still, Haun's voice is a highlight of the show, and she and Schmid do the numbers justice. The two of them, along with the perky and precocious Byrnes, are very talented performers, but, like the rest of the cast, they're constrained by the formulaic and at times melodramatic storytelling. Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m., through Feb. 27. (323) 960-7788, emilyssong.com. (Mayank Keshaviah)

EXPRESSING MOTHERHOOD There's little doubt that motherhood is one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs on the planet, but this stringing together of a dozen anecdotes told by as many moms reduces the maternal experience to a trite series of events navigated by sleep-deprived women in minivans. Not that the performers lack talent, and the material isn't without dramatic merit, but the cumulative effect is like a greatest-hits album of mammary musings, a formulaic collection of tracks lacking the subtleties of a seminal album. Stand-out performers include Susanna Brisk, who hilariously seethes her way through an original rap about her sniveling offspring, and Beth Littleford, whose letter to her son's future therapist is good for a few chuckles. But the scene-fest model allows for an excess of confessional blather, stories that are sometimes heartbreaking but by and large not stage-worthy. Though co-creators Lindsay Kavet and Jessica Cribbs make a well-intentioned attempt to give mothers their due, their vehicle doesn't serve their subject matter: Motherhood includes too many experiences that can't be expressed in words, too many shifts in emotion and spirit that defy vocalization. Elephant Stages' Lillian Theatre, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through Jan. 30. (866) 811-4111. (Amy Lyons)

FREE Are special talents a burden or a blessing? Set in a fantastical backwoods America, Barbara Lindsay's lightweight comedy concerns the woes of an itinerant performer named Free (Michael Earl Reid), whose uncanny ability to levitate and then float in the air does little to make him happy. Tired of being gawked at, he declares his intention to chuck the carny life and get a job making beds at a seedy California motel. The announcement dismays his manager and longtime pal, Stoney (Greg Albanese) — not surprisingly, since Stoney's income depends on his friend's mind-bending forte. Ultimately rescued by several comedic performances, the play is slow getting started, in part because Free's bellyaching persona is so simplistically crafted at the top, and also because it's never clear what has triggered his crisis. Directed by Wendy Worthington, the production eventually comes alive around Dagney Kerr's sidesplitting portrayal of Althea, an obsessive fan who perceives the wussy Free as the source of her own salvation. Donaco Smyth is likewise extremely funny as Althea's hulking husband with the disposition of a lamb. Also noteworthy are Jane McPherson as the hotel housekeeper who inspires Free's decision to change his life, and Albanese as a wannabe slick operator who turns out to really have a heart. [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 & 7 p.m., through Feb. 27. (323) 461-3673. A Neo Theatre Ensemble production. (Deborah Klugman)

 

LOVING REPEATING: A MUSICAL OF GERTRUDE STEIN The most pressing question raised by director caryn desai's staid staging of Stephen Flaherty and Frank Galati's 2006 "chamber musical" is one of form. Is Galati's reductive editing of Stein's experimental poetry and prose into lyrics for Flaherty's anodyne show-tune melodies really the most fitting tribute to a woman whose life and work so fully epitomize the European avant-garde of the early 20th century? Cheryl David gives a spirited recital as the late-middle-aged Gertrude, whose lecture on her life threads through extended flashbacks comprising the bulk of the 90-minute show's 32 songs. As young Gertrude (Shannon Warne) abandons America for the art world of pre–World War I Paris, where she quickly meets her lifelong partner and muse, Alice B. Toklas (Melissa Lyons Caldretti), Galati's book drifts from a celebration of Stein as a pioneer of modernist poetics into her perhaps more enduring status as an icon of gender-identity politics. This subordination of art to romance is emblematized by Kurt Boetcher's valentine of a set (ably lit by Donna Ruzika), in which Gertrude and Alice's love story plays out under a heart-shaped wreath festooned over a stage platform painted in quasi-Picasso figurative abstractions. The musical's climax comes in the camped-up comedy of Galati and Flaherty's five-part take on the 1922 story "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" (sung by the company). (This is where Stein first used "gay" as a sly coinage signifying same-sex gender preference.) The singers acquit themselves well enough in a score that is purposefully but wearyingly redundant. Gertrude probably would be bemused and mortified. International City Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through Feb. 13. (562) 436-4610, internationalcitytheatre.org. (Bill Raden)

GO  ROOM SERVICE Twenty-two jackals — I mean, actors — have run up a $1,200 bill at a posh hotel in 1930s Manhattan, and their producer, Gordon (Derek Manson), is desperate to skip out on the tab. Fat chance with manager (Phillip William Brock) and corporate heavy (Charles Dennis) blocking their escape. Since Gordon, the director (Joe Liss), the playwright (Dustin Eastman) and the rabble are on the 19th floor, they can't jump. Better options are playing sick, suffering a hunger strike, faking suicide and dabbling in bank fraud. John Murray and Allen Boretz's madcap comedy ran for 14 months on Broadway in 1937, and if the quips and the wise guys (especially Daniel Escobar's cheery lug) smack of a Marx Brothers movie, that's because it was one in 1938. Except for Eastman's guileless writer, these starving artists aren't suffering for the sake of art; their play seems secondary to saving their own skins. When real talent, a Russian waiter who studied Chekhov (Elya Baskin, excellent), auditions into their hotel room, his breathtaking monologue goes ignored. This three-act contraption gets going in Act 2 after co-directors Bjørn Johnson and Ron Orbach ease the cast into the comedy's chirpy rhythm. It's a slender pleasure, despite the directors' argument that it makes us reflect on our current economic crisis. Better just to enjoy the physical comedy that makes full use of every corner of Victoria Proffit's suite set; the ensemble leaps over furniture and gobbles down smuggled food like wild, wisecracking animals. Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through March 12. (323) 882-6912, openfist.org. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  TRACES comes courtesy of Canadian company Les 7 Doigts de la Main. Though they lack the megabudget, media splash and spectacular set constructions that are fellow Canadian Cirque du Soleil's hallmarks, this young seven-member cast (six men and one woman) entertain with spellbinding precision, energy and panache. The show fuses dance, acrobatics, music, skateboarding, lowbrow theater and even some basketball drills, all masterfully contoured by the troupe's athleticism and assured attitude. And the show possesses the intimacy lacking in Cirque productions. At the start a mic pops down from the sky and the artists introduce themselves, telling where they are from and offering a detail about their personal lives. This informal atmosphere is nicely underscored by a sparse stage consisting of an odd-looking piano, chairs, hanging tarps and two long vertical poles. At times it seems like you're hanging out at a derelict yet comfy public space, watching gifted street artists do their thing. All this is beautifully packaged by Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider, who handle direction and choreography. Ricardo Montalban Theatre, 1615 North Vine St., Hlywd; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m., Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m., Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m, through Feb. 20. (800) 982-ARTS, broadwayla.org. (Lovell Estell III)

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