This week's favorites by L.A. Weekly critics include The Burning Opera, How to Survive an Apocolypse; Les Miserables at the Ahmanson; Margo Veil presented by Evidence Room and the Odyssey Theatre; and Twist at the Pasadena Playhouse.
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NEW REVIEW GO THE BURNING OPERA: HOW TO SURVIVE AN APOCALYPSE
If art, as Josef Albers insisted, is concerned with the how, not the what, then Ghostlight Gypsies' musical art carnival ranks as an unqualified coup de theater. The “what” in this case is the sprawling, 25-year history of “radical self-expression” in the Nevada desert known as Burning Man, at least as reimagined by composer Mark Nichols and lyricist Erik Davis in their rousing, mythic rock pageant. The “how” is the inspired decision by Nichols and fellow directors Stephen Hues and Julie Lewis to forgo the formality of a traditional theater or mise en scene for the intimacy of a downtown artist's loft and an environmental staging (designed by Daphne Vega and Yoni Koenig) that mixes live actors (in Wendy Doyle's eye-popping fetish costumes) and shadow puppetry with deejays, art installations, roving belly dancers, and food and craft booths. The result is part rock opera and part art party that — for those old enough to remember — evokes the anarchic spirit of L.A.'s underground Theoretical punk-rock performance art events of the late-'80s. Two large shadow screens flank a live band (Nichols sits in as musical director) as the show sets the misadventures of a pair of archetypal “newbies” (Nichols & Lewis) against the larger tale of the desert festival itself and the eventual falling-out of its founders (Nichols & Troy Guthrie) over the conflict between Burning Man's phenomenal commercial success and its nonconformist ethos. Nichols' winning score works a Hair-era musical vocabulary of R&B and acid rock by way of Kurt Weill, while Davis delivers sardonic counterpoint in the role of the wisecracking narrator, The Bunny. The evening's stars are the polished, 15-member musical ensemble, which collectively boasts one of the best sets of pipes heard on any stage in L.A. this year. The magic comes courtesy of the inventive wit of puppeteers Nathan Fairhurst, James Murray and Vega. Syrup Loft, downtown (address and directions will be emailed to ticket purchasers); Fri.-Sun., 8:30 p.m.; thru Aug. 6. Ghostlightgypsies.com. (Bill Raden)
NEW REVIEW GROUNDLINGS STATE PENITENTIARY This latest show by local sketch-comedy troupe The Groundlings hews overmuch to many of the now-traditional elements of the company's comedy style. A majority of the Jim Rash-directed skits are unexceptional examples of what we would call “what ifs”. What if, for example, several clueless, dorky middle-aged goofs (Ryan Gaul, Jillian Bell, and Charlotte Newhouse) were hired as a focus group for a trendy toy? What if three friends were taken on a camping trip by a guy (Laird Macintosh, amusingly creepy), who just happened to be the lover of well hung, hirsute, backwoods monster Bigfoot? And, as in many Groundlings shows, a single performer inevitably manages to steal much of the audience's attention – this time it's the versatile Jeremy Rowley, who is hilarious as a disturbingly passive-aggressive Asian game show contestant and demonstrates artful comic timing as a panicky guy on a date with a sexually predatory beauty (Newhouse again). That said, this is not the most comically successful Groundlings show, marred as the work is by many sketches which feel threadbare in premise or which are sabotaged by unexpectedly awkward timing. In a series of vignettes that are frequently about extremes, the farce rarely reaches high enough levels of freshness or intensity, while the structure is sometimes clumsy. As usual, on the night attended, the least successful moments occurred during the uncomfortable audience-suggested improv sketches – although one improv, in which an audience suggestion called for the crack Groundlings house band (led by music director Willie Etra) to perform a Muzak medley, was surprisingly droll. Groundlings Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave, L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat, 10 p.m.; thru July 9. (323) 934-4747, Ext. 37. (Paul Birchall)
NEW REVIEW THE INTERLOPERS
In a doctor's waiting room two unconventional people meet: Michelle (Trevor Peterson), a shy pre-op transsexual transitioning from male to female, and Lou (Diarra Kilpatrick), her gregarious polar opposite, also transsexual, but looking to transition from female to male. Lou is immediately smitten; Michelle, reluctant to engage, is eventually won over by Lou's flattering professions of devotion. From there, the drama expands to examine the dangerous discord within their families: Michelle's unhappy overweight mom (Tara Karsian ) supports her child's choice, but her splenetic dad (RD Call ) insists that his son “Michael” is, and always will remain, a male. Lou's widowed father (Leandro Cano), a blue collar Hispanic, likewise cannot accept that his little girl “Louisa” wants to be a man. Written by Gary Lennon, the script features engaging moments of humor and a compelling message about identity and tolerance, but it lays out its story with the overly broad strokes of an “issue' play, leaving depth and nuance to the disposition of the (fortunately) adept ensemble. The plot also relies on a couple of iffy contrivances – including a not entirely plausible catharsis – to power its dynamic. Director Jim Fall opts for video images to depict locales – the Hollywood Hills or a street of shops -as well as to flash back to the past with family snapshots; these latter photos – in tandem with Mervyn Warren's score – add a soapy veneer to the drama. Anchoring the production, Peterson transcends the bathos in an eloquently subdued performance. Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A., Fri-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun, 7 p.m.; thru July 17. (213) 389-3856. bootlegtheater.com. (Deborah Klugman)
NEW REVIEW GO LES MISÉRABLES Cameron Mackintosh's 25th Anniversary tour of the international phenomenon arouses its crowds like a rock concert. The Victor Hugo novel of 19th century France's struggles with poverty and power (turned melodramatic operetta by Claud-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil) has never been out of theaters. This inspired new production is commercial theater at its finest. Of course singing prowess is the first responsibility of such an endeavor, and the astounding cast shows spellbinding assurance, particularly headliners J. Mark McVey as Valjean, Andrew Varela as Javert , Justin Scott Brown as Marius and Chasten Harmon as Éponine. Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell beautifully adapt Trevor Nunn's original staging to a stunning new mis-en-scene, utilizing the newest theatrical arts and technologies in lights (Paul Constable), sound (Mick Potter), costumes (Andreane Neofitou) and sets (Matt Kinley) — all integrated with emotionally stirring, animated rear projections. Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtwn.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thry July 31. (213) 628-2772. centertheatregroup.org.
NEW REVIEW GO MARGO VEIL
Moody, mysterious and comedic – Len Jenkin's noir fantasy takes us on a surreal trip as its central character, third-rate actress Margo Veil (Dorie Barton), endures some bizarre shape-shifting adventures guided by an ancient Lithuanian spirit statue. Similar to Alice's journey down the rabbit hole (Lewis Carroll's classic is overtly referenced), our plucky heroine accepts a questionable assignment from her talent agent; assuming the identity of a mourner to accompany a corpse on the train. Instead of gaining a paid passage back to her home country town, Margo is somehow abducted into an underworld where her body is used as a shell for other persons to inhabit. Dream-like logic ensures delightful unpredictability while the cyclical nature of the story provides a neat ending. Contemporary pop-culture references clash with the retro-noir flavor and costuming (elegantly realized by Ann Closs-Farley). Self-conscious narration hands off from character to character and the tone swings wildly from broad comedy strokes and exaggerated acting to a more serious second half (85 mins, no intermission). Much of the humor comes from live sound effects provided by cast members in addition to John Zalewski's expert sound design. While enjoyable, one is left with the impression that had director Bart DeLorenzo the courage to take this material into darker, more sinister Lynchian territory, we'd have an edgier result. Colleen Kane stands out in numerous roles while Jeremy Shranko plays a mean air guitar, redneck-style. Evidence Room and Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Wed.-Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru July 31. (310) 477-2055. odysseytheatre.com (Pauline Adamek)
NEW REVIEW RICHARD III
Following a couple of progressive festivals, RADAR LA and Hollywood Fringe, with a traditional staging of Shakespeare is like following a gastronomically experimental meal with a bowl of plain vanilla ice cream. It's fine, of course, but you really were hoping for the ice cream to taste like foie gras or something equally surprising. Maybe if Melora Marshall had been playing the title role –director Ellen Geer has employed cross-gender casting — on opening night, the production wouldn't have seemed so pedestrian both conceptually and in pace. But the play, second only to Hamlet in length, needs the kind of sprightly staging that a theatre carved into the hills of Topanga Canyon just can't support. Unfortunately, the production seems to offset its innate weaknesses with overacting. From the opening monologue, Chad Jason Scheppner's Richard spends more time mugging for the audience than allowing Shakespeare's already wry verse and textual characterization of Richard as anti-hero do their work naturally — a real shame, considering the glimpses of talent that peek out from beneath this schtick. A couple of actors fare better (notably Earnestine Phillips, whose dagger-throwing delivery works with the vitriol she spits), but none enough to make you glad you stayed for dessert. The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga Canyon; Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Oct. 2. (310) 455-3723. (Rebecca Haithcoat)
NEW REVIEW SYLVIA
“Always remember your dog is a dog . . . and woman names make trouble,” a stranger (Tom Ayers) warns Greg (Stephen Howard), an empty nester in the thrall of a Labradoodle named Sylvia (Tanna Frederick). The stray bitch solicited Greg at the park, bounded into his Manhattan apartment and immediately made enemies with his wife (Cathy Arden), a smart careerist blonde just getting settled into having the house — and her husband — to herself. Greg, naturally, struggles to stick to the man's advice. So, too, does the audience, as the dog is played by a redhead in a tutu who references The Odyssey and calls Greg her “knight in shining armor.” What man could resist? Underneath the tutu, Frederick wears kneepads and with good reason: for two hours, she crawls, leaps, and tumbles with the humans taking turns dragging her around the stage. It's a showy gig and director Gary Imhoff has Frederick — an actress of boundless energy — frolic as if failure meant the pound. If you find Frederick too manic, as I certainly did, you soon side with the missus in wanting to call the dogcatcher. Playwright A.R. Guerney's decision to make a human play canine sharpens the love triangle between man, woman and beast. When Frederick sprawls spread-eagled on the ottoman, what wife wouldn't glare? But Gurney's smart observations about the cross-species bond clash with his sell-out, feel-good ending (was he afraid dog lovers would torch the building?), a flaw further thrown out of whack by Imhoff's need to earn laughs by any means necessary, even updating the 1995 script with Sarah Palin jokes and a dance break to Lady Gaga. By the time the cast takes their final bow to “Who Let the Dogs Out?” all but the most dog-obsessed are eager to vow their allegiance to Team Cat. Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; thru Aug. 14. (310) 399-3666. edgemarcenter.org (Amy Nicholson)
NEW REVIEW GO TWIST
This big, splashy musical, with book by William F. Brown and Tina Tippit, lyrics by Tena Clark, and music by Clark and Gary Prim, is loosely adapted from Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, reset in New Orleans and given a bi-racial spin: Twist is a mulatto, son of a white mother, Angela (Ava Gaudet), and a black father (Jared Grimes). They are attacked by the local Ku Klux Klan, including Angela's arrogant and unscrupulous brother Lucius (Pat McRoberts), and the infant Twist is left in an orphanage. Jump to 1928: Twist (Alaman Diadhiou) is now 10 years old, ignorant of his parentage, and still in the orphanage. But greedy Uncle Lucius, having learned that the family fortune has been left to Twist, seeks to grab him as a key to the money. Dickens' Nancy becomes the good-hearted prostitute Della (Tamyra Gray) who befriends the boy. Fagin and Bill Sykes are combined in the role of Boston (Matthew Johnson), the local vice-king, bootlegger and Della's pimp. The score is seldom memorable, but it gives the huge, terrific cast a chance to shine on Todd Rosenthal's lavish, fast-moving, New Orleans-flavored sets. Director-choreographer Debbie Allen leads the athletic dance-ensemble in several dynamic musical numbers, including a Mardi Gras parade, complete with floats, stilt walker, “native” dancers, and yards of Mardi Gras beads. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molina Ave., Pasadena; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m., Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. (added mats July 6 & 13, 2 p.m.); thru July 17. (626) 356-PLAY or pasadenaplayhouse.org. (Neal Weaver)