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Theater Reviews: Backstreet: The Musical, The Good Woman of Setzuan, South Pacific and Hamlet

BACKSTREET: THE MUSICAL
Evelyn Rudie, Chris DeCarlo and Matthew Wrather's musical tells the story of a group of Jewish prostitutes working in the red light district of turn-of-last-century Manhattan. It's not a bad idea for a musical — after all, even Sholom Aleichem must have needed a "happy ending (with release)" once in a while — but the sugary effort is unable to overcome the intrinsically bizarre disconnect between its chipper plot and the unexpectedly distasteful thematic underpinnings. In the discreet ghetto manse that serves as the best little whorehouse on Hester Street, several prostitutes primp and pose in their delightful gowns (lush designs by Ashley Hayes), seemingly never entertaining a single client. Meanwhile, hard-boiled brothel owner Uncle (Chris DeCarlo, nicely vile) exploits his girls with matter-of-fact glee, while scheming to gain social respectability by attempting to marry off his inexplicably virginal daughter, Rivkele (Serena Dolinsky), to the local moyle's son, even though she truly loves grocery-store clerk Eli (Brad Geyer). The writers strive uphill to make a story about brothels that's family-friendly. However, director DeCarlo's occasionally awkward staging suffers from superficial, simpering performances, additionally hampered by Rudie and Wrather's densely packed lyrics and obvious melodies (which are themselves prerecorded and sound tinny over the horrible music system). The ensemble, some of whom have lovely voices, gamely prance their way through the goings-on, mugging and thereby creating a creepy, sentimental mood that jars with the tawdry facts of the plot. Although Rudie, in the role of the brothel's chief den mother and madame, manages to limn a character who melds pragmatic good humor with her character's melancholy, other performers demonstrate their relative theatrical inexperience with static, clumsy acting — particularly during the moments in which they're watching other people onstage. The Other Place at the Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; through June 20. (310) 394-9779, ext 1. (Paul Birchall)

GO  FABULATION, OR THE RE-EDUCATION OF UNDINE
Though placed specifically in an African-American context, Lynn Nottage's frightening fable speaks of earthly karma and dire comeuppance for all who turn their backs on those who gave them life and sustenance. In a potent performance, Adeye Sahran portrays Undine, a high-powered Manhattan PR mogul whose world collapses as her sleazy Argentinean gigolo-husband robs her of her lifestyle and her fortune. So it's back to Brooklyn and the projects to face the family she had been pretending had died, when she created her manicured identity 14 years earlier. Though there is some sense that this story is about a particular injustice to black folk who try to rise too high, it is much more interesting as an examination of any person who loses humanity through personal greed and arrogance but reclaims it through acceptance of responsibility and empathy. Brisk direction by Ben Campbell and a remarkable ensemble who jump in and out of multiple roles at a moment's noitce keep the play exciting, and alternately moving and funny. Particularly effective is Lyn Michele Ross, who plays the most extreme characters with confidence. All of whom Campbell creates with a dearth of physical production values; this compromises the event's integrity somewhat but does not ruin it. West Coast Ensemble at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 13. Tix.com, (800) 595-4849. (Tom Provenzano)

THE GOOD WOMAN OF SETZUAN
Gods are no help to man in Bertolt Brecht's bleak parable of a play (translated by Eric Bentley with music by Elizabeth Swados). The question Brecht poses: How does one stay a good person in a bad world? The hapless pivotal character Shen Te (Lauren Lovett) is a former prostitute, who uses her limited funds to help anyone who asks for it — and everyone does. Her most shameless exploiter is her lover, Yang Sun (Benny Wills), who feels no compunction about draining her of her last penny. To protect herself, the lovesick Shen Te devises an alter ego: She poses, in male drag, as her tougher-minded capitalist cousin, Shui Ta, who takes over her affairs when she's "away." The ruse works for a time, but eventually Shen Te must abandon it and continue opting to do others' will even when it runs counter to her self-interest — which it always does. Director Charles Otte has assembled a panoply of impressive technical and onstage talent to present an ambitious and artful staging that communicates the chaos, corruption and senseless suffering inherent in the playwright's vision. Most striking are Alex Wright and Dean Mora's sound design and original music, respectively (the music is live), and the arresting video imagery (Otte's design), which at times even simulates the town of Setzuan's drenching melancholic rain. The problem is that Brecht's epic theater deals with archetypes, and that's the plane on which Lovett and most of the ensemble so capably perform. The result is a dramatic piece worthy of respect rather than one to which I responded emotionally. Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through July 17. (323) 882-6912. (Deborah Klugman)

 

HAMLET
It's anyone's guess what vision might have guided director Ellen Geer's fervent but unfocused, medieval-dress version of Shakespeare's most baroque and psychologically nuanced tragedy. There's certainly little hint of the Oedipal undercurrents or political allegorizing that have been a mainstay of 20th-century productions. Nor is there much sign of the paralyzing conflict between faith in purpose and intellectual certainty, which traditionally drives its hero's famously agonized inaction. In the case of Mike Peebler's Hamlet, neither his mission nor its justness ever seems in doubt; Peebler attacks the role with the zeal and righteous wrath of the recently converted. Even his soliloquies are delivered at the audience as if from a pulpit. Gertrude (Melora Marshall) in turn appears more pissed off at her son's increasingly antic disposition than aggrieved by what it might imply about his sanity. Claudius (Aaron Hendry), by contrast, comes off as positively good-natured, a guy caught with his hand in the cookie jar rather than his fingerprints all over a nefarious regicide. Willow Geer is convincing as a feisty yet vulnerable Ophelia, though even here the method of her madness seems more a response to the murder of Polonius (a very broad Carl Palmer) than any jilting by Hamlet. Director Geer keeps it all moving at a fast clip, but some exasperatingly eccentric blocking divides the focus of too many critical turning points — most egregiously in the mousetrap scene — all but obliterating their dramatic purpose. Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga; in rep, call for schedule; note: some roles double-cast; through Oct. 2. (310) 455-3723. (Bill Raden)

GO  I MADE OUT WITH HIM ANYWAY
Sex and the City 2 has nothing on this show. For less than the price of a movie ticket, you can enjoy a night of dating tales from the dark side, which recall the freshness and hilarity of the HBO show's first couple seasons, without any of the melodrama or fabricated storylines characteristic of both its last season and the beating-a-dead-horse-for-the-money film adaptations. What you get instead are two veterans of improv and sketch comedy, Evie Peck and Kirsten Eggers, describing their romantic maledictions — and male additions — in eminently quotable ways. The laugh lines are edgy, sexy and scandalous at times but always delivered with an understated, wide-eyed honesty that is reminiscent of both Phoebe from Friends and Flight of the Conchords. Evie and Kirsten break into song to describe their bad romances, seamlessly accomplished by the onstage appearance of Jon Lee, who co-wrote the numbers and provides the folksy guitar strumming. The transitions into and out of these songs, as well as between bits, is smoothly orchestrated by director Nick Hoffa, who keeps the show moving at brisk clip. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Kim West's airline–safety card diagrams of proper tongue technique that provide the perfect backdrop to a compact show (running one hour) that, unlike the aforementioned franchise, actually made me want a sequel. The Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. & 10:30 p.m.; through June 24. (323) 960-1055, plays411.com/imadeout. (Mayank Keshaviah)

GO  MADAGASCAR JT Rogers' intriguing drama is set at various times in a hotel in Rome and begins with three ostensibly unconnected monologues. A 20-something woman named June (Deana Barone) expounds with intensity about individuals who mysteriously disappear. A condescending matriarch, Lillian (Taylor Gilbert), confides how she copes with life's unpleasant realities. And a rumpled economist, Nathan (Sam Anderson), reveals his social awkwardness and professional limitations, contrasting his gracelessness with the brilliant charm of his colleague Arthur, sought after by governments and multinational companies. Gradually the links between these troubled people emerge. Haunting all three is the anguishing specter of June's twin brother, Paul, who, obsessed over by his mother and sister, escaped to Africa and then vanished without a trace. Rogers' rich, dense dialogue winds back and forth over decades, and comes full of twists and turns that startle the characters, as well as the audience. This provocative and enthralling ride is facilitated by three memorable performances (Anderson's confounded and melancholy paramour is indelibly moving). Director Brendon Fox's elegant staging works with Helen Harwell's set, Christian Epps' lighting, and David B. Marling's sound design to form the integral elements of this accomplished production. Road Theatre Company at the Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., N.Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; in rep through June 26. (866) 811-4111, RoadTheatre.org. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  SMALL CRAFT WARNINGS
Tennessee Williams never had much patience for slowly and gently unwrapping the pretty packages people dress themselves in before revealing their grubby, oft-mishandled hearts. Usually, bows and paper are hanging on only by one last desperate bit of Scotch tape at the top of the action. With mascara-smudged, tear-glassy eyes and the opening line, "I'm famished — lonesome — and famished," mentally touched Violet (Gina Manziello) shows that she has long transcended despair. Williams gathers the flotsam of a small, Southern California coastal town in the bar owned by Monk (Alexander Wells): "You're running a refuge for vulnerable human vessels," Doc (the excellent Barry Jenner) tells him, as the denizens feast on their daydreams of escape. More a series of monologues than a cohesive play, the pace drags until the talented but miscast Elizabeth Karr, as Leona, the beautician/matriarch and a central character, finally finds her footing. Still, the silent action staged by director Michael Murray is more riveting than the highlighted speeches. Even in near darkness, the way Violet wavers between satisfying Bill's pathetic arousal (Robert Dolan) and stroking Steve's buckled manhood (Norman Scott) is mesmerizing; though partially obscured, Steve's sloppy-drunk devouring of two hot dogs transfixes. In fact, in a strong cast, Scott's Gumby-like physicality, stiffened only momentarily by a sharp, vocal rebuttal of his lot in life, is nothing short of a wonder. Classical Theatre Lab, Fiesta Hall in Plummer Park, 1200 N. Vista St., W.Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 12. (800) 838-3006. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

 

THE SOCIALIZATION OF RUTHIE SHAPIRO
Anyone with personal memories of the 1960s might be forgiven for not recognizing the lunar landscape that playwright Barbara Nell Beery's colorless coming-of-age drama passes off as 1967 L.A. For a watershed year in such a culturally iconic decade, one could reasonably expect to find at least one issue of Tiger Beat or even a Davy Jones pinup in the bedroom of Beery's 12-year-old heroine, Ruthie (Claire Partin). But designer Jeff Rack's generic jumble of set pieces is as devoid of character-defining details as Ruthie is of the hormone-roiled obsessions of real-world adolescence. Instead, Beery's "memory play" about a secular-Jewish math prodigy's quest for popularity at her new junior high school is the kind of anodyne, life-in-a-vacuum fairy tale seemingly designed to reassure parents that their little darlings aren't dreaming up anything darker than comically corny routines for the school talent show. Beery's cumbersome device of having Partin step out of character as the adult Ruth to redundantly re-narrate already-played scenes proves hazardous to director Susan Morgenstern's attempt at close-focus intimacy. Worse, it wastes valuable stage time, which would have been better spent developing the implicitly imploding marriage of Ruthie's mother (Constance Mellors) and an absentee father. By the time Ruthie pays the price of being popular — by ostracizing her naively bigoted outcast of a best friend (Heather Keller) — the moment feels like a forced, bathetic footnote rather than the innocence-shattering act of cruelty that the grown-up Ruth claims it to be. Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through July 11. (No perf July 4.) (323) 851-7977. (Bill Raden)

GO  SOUTH PACIFIC So this tragic hero, a stern, sensible Princeton-educated U.S. Marine named Lt. Joseph Cable (Anderson Davis ) finds himself in the South Pacific amidst a herd of guys from the U.S. Navy. He'd love to get some intel on what the Japs are up to, because World War II is still in play. On the nearby mystical island of Bali Ha'i (mystical because that's where all the young daughters of the local French families are hiding), Cable falls for a native daughter named Lait (Sumie Maeda), who looks about 12 years old, but she's sure a good kisser who gently strokes his hair — and probably other parts as well. "I know what you're thinking," he chides skeptical onlookers; sure he does, because it is what we're thinking, too: You're a perv, dude. She's Cable's fantasy lover because she gazes at him adoringly and doesn't talk back. In fact, she doesn't talk at all, which is even better. Cable's anthem-in-song of love to barely pubescent Lait is "Younger Than Springtime," which is sort like an homage to the trafficking of children from exotic, faraway places. Rodgers' and Hammerstein's musical classic, presented by Lincoln Center Theater, is almost stunning for the window it offers onto the perverse America psyche, with its gardens of optimism, salvation complexes and sexual fantasies that come wrapped in a kind of national can-do solipsism. Michael Yeargan's classical storybook sets come with a backdrop of the expansive Pacific, idyllic and isolating, to unify the various settings and to conjure an American homeland far beyond the horizon. Barlett Sher's staging is a gift for a number of reasons. From this production, you can almost understand how we got into the quagmires of Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. Furthermore, his terrific ensemble performs with a vivacity that's nonetheless bereft of the showboating that comes attached to so many musicals. Even with Christopher Gattelli's musical staging with choreography that sashays and snaps, there's a sobriety and sincerity that reveal the musical for exactly what it is, and the 1950s era of Americana that spawned it. Terrific leading performances by Rod Gilfry and Carmen Cusack as the expat Frenchman and U.S.Navy ensign/nurse who play out the boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl — maybe they stick to the formula, maybe they don't. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through July 17. (213) 628-2772. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

3 TRUTHS
There's your truth, the truth of your opponent and then there's the truth. Playwright Naomi Iizuka's mural of Angeleno characters transfers the Agamemnon legend to L.A.'s inner city. It attempts to examine where lies the "truth" behind the cycles of vengeance stemming from the random shooting of a promising 16-year-old Latino high school student by an African-American teenager (Joshua R. Lamont) — an act stemming from the young killer's subconscious angst of abandonment and despair. The play, capably staged in an irreverent oratorical style by Michael John Garcés, completes Cornerstone Theater Company's ambitious four-year "justice cycle" project. Many plots roll through the three-hour epic (wear a coat or bring a blanket to downtown's Water Court amphitheater venue, despite the summer climes). A lost-soul vagrant (Peter Howard) hears voices and envisions the spirits of the past, who assemble on the banks of the L.A. River. He's cursed by his Shakespearean understanding (which stems from his lack of medication) of the interconnectedness between the ghosts of the abused Tongva tribe and the haunting violence that plagues the city. Admidst many riffs of redundant oratory by multiple characters, he rails against the "white men" who decimated the idyllic life of the Gabrileneos. Actually, their downfall was provoked by a blend of the Spanish and their Mexican compatriots, all of whom had drifted north from the motherland; the Yankees finished the decimation that was already well under way by the time they arrived for their silver and gold rushes. That's one tiny example of Iizuka's oversimplifications, which stand in the way of the complex understanding of the "truth" her play seeks, leaving us with little more than already pervasive stereotypes. The other drawback is the prosaic and sometimes jokey language, and its attendant absence of poeticism — poetry being the bridge to the kind of wisdom that would have us leaving the theater richer for the time invested. In his adaptation of Oedipus the King to L.A.'s barrio and its environs, Oedipus El Rey (At Boston Court Theatre, earlier this year), playwright Luis Alfaro demonstrated a blending of slang and poetry, of contemporary life and ancient legend, which resulted in exactly the kind of conjuring Iizuka lays claim to. Here, the spirits of the past float through her net like the wind through a sieve. Still, there are some nice performances, including those by company stalwart Bahni Turpin, portraying a stand-in for Clytemnestra named Cleodora, and by Andres Munar as Orozco, her jittery son, a latter-day Orestes. Michael Hooker's blistering sound design brings the story's violence right home where it belongs — aided by the LAPD and its ghetto birds swirling above the action. Cornerstone Theater Company and Grand Performances at California Plaza, 350 S. Grand Ave., dwntn.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through June 12. (213) 687-2159. (Steven Leigh Morris)


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