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Theater Reviews: The Redhead Musical Manifesto, The Belle of Amherst

R.R.R.E.D. -- The Redhead Musical Manifesto
Eric Scot/GTC

AGAMEMNON Stephen Wadsworth stages Robert Fagles’ translation of Aeschylus’ tragedy in the amphitheater at the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Sept. 27. (310) 440-7300. (See Theater feature.)

 
BEETHOVEN, AS I KNEW HIM Writer-performer Hershey Felder is the Liberace of the 21st century — and a better pianist, too. This is not entirely a compliment, despite Felder’s expert storytelling skills, his pristine instincts for timing and his irrepressible love for the classical composers he impersonates in what’s become a cottage industry of his monodramas with music. Here, he takes on Ludwig van B., through the prism of Beethoven’s last known friend and biographer, Gerhard von Breuning of Vienna. Erik Carstensen’s sound design brings the clean, digital sounds of a full orchestra in support of Felder while he’s seated center stage at the stool of a baby grand, plunking out one of the great piano concertos. There’s a divan stage-left, draped in a twinkling cloth cover, and you think — as Felder rapturously hums from Beethoven’s musical treatment of Schiller’s poem, “Ode to Joy” — gads, this isn’t 19th-century Vienna, this is 21st-century Las Vegas. The show is a compendium of fascinating biographical details, smartly told — homing in on the personal agony of a man whose creation of music is his life’s centerpiece, slowly losing the ability to hear. If you know anything at all about Beethoven’s life, Felder’s show isn’t going to add to your knowledge. In fact, the audience “aahhed” and “oohed” in recognition of facts and melodies that Felder uses to punctuate the biography. There’s more recognition here than surprise, which makes Felder’s homage more comfortable than probing. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Sept. 28. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  THE BELLE OF AMHERST Few writers embraced as many contradictions as 19th-century New England poet Emily Dickinson. Though a lifelong spinster and recluse from the age of 30, she was a doubter with a longing to believe, a reverent iconoclast, a fiercely romantic virgin and a timid soul who wrote daring verse. (Only seven of her poems were published in her lifetime.) Playwright William Luce captures more of her in this monodrama than one might reasonably expect, weaving her poems into the dialogue so gracefully that one hardly realizes what he’s up to until a rhyme or a familiar phrase rings out. Modern scholars have suggested that this shrinking violet may have concealed a lurking serpent: Luce has her say, “My love frightens people.” And her mentor, the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, admitted to being afraid of her, and thanked his stars that she lived no closer. Under the deft direction of Tony Sears, actor Kate Randolph Burns gives us a rich, multilayered Dickinson, capturing her thorny charm and wicked humor, as well as the pain and fear of a woman who could write, “Will there really be a morning?” and died uncertain if her “letter to the world” would ever be received. The Actors Forum Theatre, 10655 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Oct. 12. (866) 811-4111 or www.theatermania.com. (Neal Weaver)

GO  LONG STAY CUT SHORT features gripping stagings of two little-known, heartbreaking Tennessee Williams one-acts. In “The Unsatisfactory Supper,” crass but caring Baby Doll (Jolene Adams) and her irritable husband, Archie Lee (Grady Lee Richmond), finally tell their doting Aunt Rose (Eve Sigall) that, despite having nowhere else to go, she has overstayed her welcome with them. In “Hello From Bertha,” an aging alcoholic — and probably mentally deranged — prostitute (Kara Pulcino) resists being thrown out of her brothel by the sympathetic but practical madame (Josie DiVincenzo). Despite some self-conscious blocking, uncertain pauses and a few distracting improv moments, Jack Heller’s direction elegantly draws into stark relief the frantic and desperate delusions of Williams’ two very different heroines. Each struggles with her own obsolescence and loneliness, one by surrendering herself with open arms to the cold and bitter world, and one by recoiling from it entirely. It’s a nice contrast, and one that illuminates unique complexities in the playwright’s repertoire of tragic women. Actors Art Theater, 6128 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Wed., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Sept. 21. (323) 969-4953. (Luis Reyes)

MOLIÈRE PLAYS PARIS Help me out here. Say you’re an artistic director planning your season. You’ve got the entire history of stage literature to choose from. Why, then, do you select a surefire miss like Nagle Jackson’s universally panned 1996 biographical pastiche of early Molière? Hubris? The evening mostly consists of Jackson’s own translations of three (justly) obscure Molière one-acts. Staged as period performances, the playlets are tied together by the thinnest of narrative threads taken from Molière tradition (namely, the old blood libel of his alleged incestuous marriage). As the middle-aged playwright (Edwin Garcia II) frets about his upcoming nuptials to his ensemble’s teenage ingénue (Shaina Vorspan), his company performs “The Love Doctor,” a semicommedia about a miserly father (David Stifel) who refuses to allow his young daughter to marry. A laughless, Frankensteinian affair, it was exhumed by Jackson and cobbled together from the Molière corpus. But neither Christina Howard’s too-strident direction nor the cast’s breathless mugging can generate the comic voltage to jolt this hoary creation to life. Act 2’s “The Forced Marriage” fares better; perhaps because it’s the one untampered-with work by Molière — an entertaining farce about a middle-aged man (Garcia) with doubts about his upcoming marriage to his tempestuous teen fiancée (Vorspan). Standouts include Vorspan, and Stifel as the stubborn father, Alcantor, who refuses to retract his permission for the union. But it’s Adam Chambers, with his hilarious deus ex machina appearance as a ludicrously foppish Louis XIV, who walks off with the show. Knightsbridge Theater, 1944 Riverside Dr., Silver Lake; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; thru Oct. 12. (323) 667-0955. (Bill Raden)

GO  ONCE ON THIS ISLAND This is a production that truly deserved its opening-night standing ovation. This beautifully simple 90-minute musical, composed by Stephen Flaherty with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, eschews the popular mechanics that seem more important than performances in most Broadway musical fare. Instead, director Billy Porter and choreographer Bradley Rapier count on their brilliant cast to provide powerful singing, gorgeous dance and emotion-packed athleticism. Based on the novel by Rosa Guy (a young product of the Harlem Renaissance), the story follows the plight of Ti Moune (Kristolyn Lloyd), a dark-skinned peasant in the French Antilles, who rescues noble mulatto Daniel (Jesse Nager), half-descended from the island’s now-departed colonists. Taking its cue from The Little Mermaid, the musical has Ti Moune ingratiate herself into the ruling class with tragic results. The cast’s topflight skills are supported by a fine small orchestra, directed by Darryl Archibald. Anita Yavitch’s beautifully crafted Caribbean costumes provide visual flair — especially as they flow with the actors’ constant physical movement. John H. Binkley’s set design maintains the Reprise style of simplicity while creating its own magic — particularly the moving creation of a symbolic tree that allows the story to rise above its tragic conclusion. Freud Playhouse, UCLA Macgowan Hall, Westwood; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Sept.14. (310) 825-2101. Presented by Reprise Theatre Company. (Tom Provenzano)

GO  R.R.R.E.D. — THE REDHEAD MUSICAL MANIFESTO This world-premiere musical was first developed by Adam Jackman and Katie Thompson in the New York cabaret scene as a response to a finding that the gene for red hair could become extinct by the year 2100. The loose storyline centers on a meeting of the Real Redheaded Revolutionary Evolutionary Defiance, led by CEO Victoria (Thompson) and Intern G.J. (Patrick Livingston, who co-wrote the book), whose goal is to increase the redhead population through wanton procreation. During the show there are a series of “testimonials” in which members of the “audience” come to the stage to share their experiences as redheads in song. Stephanie (Shauna Markey) performs the hilarious “I’m Not Pregnant, I’m Just Fat” and Craig (Jackman) similarly leaves the audience in stitches with “I Like You.” The rest of the time, Thompson and Livingston carry the show effortlessly with their powerful voices, acrobatic piano playing, and spot-on comic timing. The songs, with their bawdy, satirical lyrics, are a treat, and Kevin Cochran’s direction is appropriately over-the-top, bringing out the best in his actors’ skills at physical comedy. Set against Leonard Ogden’s eye-catching and versatile design, this smartly crafted and executed show left me laughing from start to finish. Grove Theater Center, 1111B W. Olive Blvd., Burbank; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Sept. 27. (818) 238-9998. (Mayank Keshaviah)

ROSE’S DILEMMA “I told you to get rid of the sun!” barks author Rose Steiner (Margaret McCarley) to her caretaker, Arlene (Elizabeth Gordon), in her daily snark attack against the world. Five years ago, the grande dame of letters lost her pulp-fiction lover, Walsh (Don Savage), to a heart attack; no matter, he — or her imagination’s recollection of him — visits her every night for arguments and nookie. Rose has the force of a battleship, while Arlene, who has her own trite agenda, tries desperately to stay afloat. Still, to finish the last 40 pages of his uncompleted manuscript, Walsh presses her to hire a hustling but prideful ghostwriter named Clancy (Norman Dostal), who feels like the most authentic character in this bantamweight play. Compared to his other comedies, Neil Simon’s latest work is meant to be a sincere parlor play, but its big themes of grief and narcissism still feel more like ideas treated for a sitcom. Among the several poignant throwaway moments is when Rose defends embellishing her memories of a wild trip to Mexico with an invented yarn about shagging through prison bars. Yet, Simon can’t resist sweeping that, plot holes and other gestures toward depth tidily under the rug in time for a sweet but unearned resolution. Roxanne Barker directs. Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; thru Sept. 27. (626) 256-3809. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  TRUE LOVE This biographical play, written and acted by Walter Williamson and Larry Thomlinson, deals with the relations between Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright John Patrick (Williamson) and his lover-companion of 41 years, Bill Meyers (Thomlinson). Patrick’s plays, The Hasty Heart and The Teahouse of the August Moon, had been great hits in the 1940s, but by the end of his life, he was regarded merely as a writer of slight, outdated comedies for amateurs and dinner theaters. But Patrick was “the talent” and the breadwinner (having amassed a large fortune with his movie and television writing), while Meyers was the adult, housekeeper, manager and facilitator. (Apparently in his writings, Patrick referred to Meyers as The Tall Man and to himself as The Little Boy.) This arrangement served them well, despite Patrick’s egotism and emotional demands, till their 80s, when Meyers’ health began to fail, unleashing fears, rivalries and insecurities, and causing their relations to turn toxic. The play is set during their last months together, when bitchy gossip and affectionate exchanges give way to lacerating quarrels and estrangement. These “celebrity-portrait” plays seldom achieve real depth, but here, the passionate commitment of the two actor-writers makes this a thoughtful, moving picture of emotional ambivalence in a tempestuous relationship. The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Oct. 12. (323) 960-1053 or www.Plays411.com/truelove. (Neal Weaver)