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Theater Reviews: Wicked, Trying, Monsieur Chopin

(Photo courtesy Zombie Joe)

(Photo courtesy Zombie Joe)

ALICE IN WONDERLAND THRU THE LOOKING GLASS Zombie Joe’s Underground presents Lewis Carroll’s dream with songs (musical score and lyrics by Christopher Reiner), as reimagined by Alice’s great-granddaughter (Jessica Amal Rice), by way of the drug-induced distortions of her offstage hippie mother. “Dream your own dreams,” Alice’s Sister (Jana Wimer) counsels the kid before Alice takes a nap, and we’re off. The premise here is Oz-like, but instead of journeying to meet the Wizard, our heroine seeks to murder the Queen of Hearts (Wimer) for having beheaded her sexual fantasy, The White Knight (Jackson Baker), in one of a frenzy of decapitations throughout the queendom. The 70-minute production’s arch and unmodulated presentational style becomes something of a shriek fest, removing all quiet wonder from wonderland and neglecting to emphasize many of the plot-turn signposts and gentler emotional textures embedded in the script. The piece nonetheless flies to dystopia on the cleverness and the whimsy of co-directors Denise Devin and Zombie Joe’s adaptation, in conjunction with their blazingly theatrical impulses that include Jeri Batzdorff’s hyperanimated costumes, and Wimer’s storybook gothic mural (with shades of Brueghel the Elder). This backdrop is painted across the theater walls, depicting pastures with leafless trees, their roots exposed as veins and capillaries, and a once-bucolic lake (mushrooms on the shores) now filled with little headless creatures floating in small pools of blood. ZOMBIE JOE’S UNDERGROUND, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; thru Sept. 8. (818) 202-4120. See Stage feature next week. (Steven Leigh Morris)

CESAR & RUBEN Ed Begley’s spirited musical tribute to labor activist Cesar Chavez (Danny Bolero) and L.A. Times labor reporter Ruben Salazar (Mauricio Mendoza) — also news director for L.A.’s Spanish-language television station KMEX — begins in an eerie café in the afterlife. It’s here that the lives of the duo play out in panoramic fashion, with the help of video stills. Most of this two-act production essays Chavez’s story: his hardscrabble start as the son of an itinerant worker in Arizona, a childhood that was marred by racism and debilitating poverty, his vibrant family life and gradual rise to become one of the most powerful and influential labor leaders of the twentieth century — an ascent that placed him in the orbit of heavyweight politicos such as Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. In Act 2, we learn of Salazar’s tragic shooting by an L.A. County Sheriff’s deputy during a riot at a 1970 Chicano Moratorium protest of the Vietnam War. (Salazar was mortally struck in the head by a tear-gas canister while he was taking a break in a restaurant; no charges were filed against the deputy.) For the sake of balance and the underlying reasons that these two men meet, more needs to be dramatized about the pioneering Latino journalist. Under Begley’s smart direction, Bolero and Mendoza are rock solid, and the lives of their characters unfold with compelling interest. The music (taken from extant ballads and pop songs) and lyrics are an enjoyable mix of styles: blues, ballad, salsa and mariachi, performed with clarity and flair, courtesy of musical director Ron Snyder and musicians Michael Alvarado, Joey Heredia, Rebecca Kleinmann and Rufus Philpot. NOHO ARTS CENTER, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 8 p.m.; thru. Sept. 9. (818) 508-7101. (Lovell Estell III)

ENTERTAINING MR. SLOAN In 1964, Joe Orton’s then-shocking concoction — part A Clockwork Orange, part Oscar Wilde — set British and American theater on a jubilantly profane course. With all of the biting wit of his later farces, but little of the whimsy, Sloan slapped the English middle class hard in the face with its own moral hypocrisy. Mr. Sloan (Nicolas Levene) is a 20-year-old ne’er-do-well taken in by the sexually desperate 41-year-old Kath (Caroline Langford), much to the distaste of her tough-guy businessman brother, Ed (Ethan Fowler). Both end up falling for Sloan’s charms, but their lusts are endangered by information held by their father, Kemp (Clement von Franckenstein). While the four British performers speak with distinction and reveal their characters’ many layers, director Charles Marowitz has gutted the humor from the intensely dark comedy, leaving the actors wallowing in the horror and violence of the unsettling events around their characters, as though they’re in a family drama by Sam Shepard. At least Langford underscores her character’s repellent lies with complete, if momentary, sincerity. The relationship with her brother doesn’t quite jel because their ages are so far apart — she is playing younger than her own age and he seems like a kid with gray-hair makeup. But most disappointing is their relationship with Levene’s Sloan, who just doesn’t possess the breezy sex appeal required to manipulate everyone. He is by fits and starts charming, angry and sulky — but never smooth. MALIBU STAGE COMPANY, 29243 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Aug. 26. (310) 589-1998. (Tom Provenzano)

PICK MONSIEUR CHOPIN In the 1945 biopic A Song to Remember , Cornel Wilde, as Chopin, pounded out the Polonaise Militaire on a pianoforte, while blood from his (supposed) tubercular hemorrhages dripped onto the keys. Writer-actor-musician Hershey Felder gives us a less melodramatic, more nuanced version of the story. He frames his monologue as a music class conducted by Chopin on the day of his last, accidental meeting with his inamorata, the flamboyant, cross-dressing woman writer George Sand. His capsule biography includes Chopin’s Polish upbringing, his patriotism in the face of a cruel Russian occupation, and his departure for Paris to pursue musical fame. This Chopin teaches via demonstrations from his own works, providing Felder, a virtuoso pianist, with the opportunity to perform several of Chopin’s greatest hits with verve and skill: the famous Polonaise , the doleful Funeral March, the Grand Valse Brillante , and (in an encore) the Fantasie Impromptu . Felder is a skillful researcher and writer, and an able actor, but it’s the glorious music that places this production head and shoulders above most solo shows. Joel Zwick directs with a tactful, unobtrusive hand, and Yael Pardess provides a lush Victorian set. GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd.; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. (no perf Aug. 25); thru Aug. 26. (310) 208-5454. (Neal Weaver)

TRYING Set in 1967-68, playwright Joanna McClelland Glass’s memory play chronicles her working relationship with American blueblood, Francis Biddle (Alan Mandell).  A Democrat and union sympathizer despite his wealth and power, Biddle’s distinguished career included clerking for Oliver Wendell Holmes and serving as Attorney General under FDR, and as a judge at the Nuremberg trials. Here, Glass' standin, Sarah Schorr (Rebecca Mozo), is a 25 year old newlywed from Saskatchewan when Biddle’s wife hires her to assist the 81 year old former public servant with his memoirs and other correspondence.  The play turns on the developing rapport between the cantankerous octogenarian, now suffering ill-health and memory lapses, and the disciplined young assistant determined to survive his irrational temper. Directed by Cameron Watson, the production benefits from designer Victoria Profitt’s handsome period set and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s smartly coordinated costumes.  Its strongest asset is Mozo’s crisp performance as an up-by-her-bootstraps gal blessed with intelligence and compassion.  Mandell, an accomplished performer, engenders plenty of laughs as the aging patrician; it’s a scrupulous portrayal that nonetheless glosses over the respected dignitary and the grieving father his crotchety character used to be. (These things are talked about but never explored.)  The problem goes to the limitation of the script; unprobing, it seems powered by indulgent laughter at a senile old guy beginning to resemble a child. COLONY THEATRE, 555 N. Third St., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (added perfs Aug. 18 & 25, 3 p.m.; Aug. 30 & Sept. 6, 8 p.m.); thru Sept 9. (818) 558-7000. (Deborah Klugman)

WICKED Yes, of course Stephen Schwartz’s music is pop drek (though not his lyrics), and the idea that the ostracized “wicked witch” is actually goodhearted in a wicked world is probably lifted from Phantom of the Opera, along with that musical’s looming dichotomy of the dark and the light. (Here it’s the green and the light, epitomized by the respective skin colors of two girlhood friends who form the story’s center.) For all that recycling, I completely empathized with those hordes of 12-year-olds who made this musical riff on the witches of Oz (book by Winnie Hollzman) a Broadway hit. In a production that’s settled in nicely at the Pantages, Eden Espinoza as the green-hued, bookish and bespectacled girl-witch Elphaba has a contagiously appealing intelligence and grace for somebody who’s been so neglected by her parents and scorned by her peers. The weight she carries grows only heavier when she realizes the Wizard (John Rubinstein), whom she’s been so eager to meet, has a civil rights agenda that would place him politically just to the right of Dick Cheney and Alberto Gonzales. Elphaba agonizes when her erudite teacher, a goat (Timothy Britten Parker), is removed from his post, and soon, thanks to the Wizard’s doing, all the animals in Oz are denied their powers of speech — not just free speech, but any speech. After recognizing that Elphaba’s not going to power-play along with this Stalinist approach to a harmonious society, her spiritual adviser, Mrs. Morrible (the delightful Carol Kane), starts a witch hunt for the girl, sending her careening into exile. Smacked in her green face with such betrayal and cruelty, our heroine rises at the end of Act 1 on her broomstick (“Defying Gravity”). It’s a call to arms against the kind of Orwellian future that we’re so obviously facing, and it’s as glorious as Eugene Lee’s set of timepieces and Swiss-watch machinery. On the night I attended, understudy Emily Rozek turned in a sublime rendition of Elphaba’s privileged friend, Glinda, a squeaky-dumb blonde with just enough campiness to hint at underlying smarts. It’s easy to confuse benign conformity with stupidity in such a nefarious world. Joe Mantello directs a marvelous spectacle with flying monkeys and a fire-spouting dragon in a show that looks like a diversion but is actually quite the opposite. PANTAGES THEATER, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; indef. (213) 365-3500. (Steven Leigh Morris)