Dropping the Disco Ball Early In Donna Summer, the Musical @ Pantages

When you think of a disco 70’s queen,’ the first  vocalist to come to mind is the iconic, dazzling Donna Summer.  Los Angeles theatre goers have  recently had the  pleasure to experience her eventful life onstage at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.  The show cleverly portrays Donna in triplicate: Disco Donna (Alex Hairston), at height of her career; Duckling Donna (Olivia Elease Hardy) in her adolescence; and Diva Donna (Dan’Yelle Williamson) at a more mature stage, reflecting back. The show presents standout sequined dazzling choreographed numbers such as “Enough is Enough,” “I Feel Love,” “On the Radio,” and culminates with “Last Dance.”  Each song brings nostalgia of my teenage years during that decade, as Donna Summer’s music provided the soundtrack, including memorable moments, dancing at parties,  homecoming and prom.  Not all sugar coated, the show also delves into traumatic cornerstones of the vocalist’s life, such as loneliness on her path toward stardom, away from her daughter; domestic abuse; and a diagnosis of terminal cancer.  Donna Summer proves her internal strength and ‘survivor chops,’ as she overcomes obstacles and continues performing.  A particular favorite of mine, “MacArthur Park,” evoking visceral images of the landmark, right in the backyard of downtown Los Angeles.  Her tunes change mood and setting, in a matter of minutes, from “Dim All the Lights,” to “Bad Girl.”  Truly, all songs give the audience the opportunity to breathe in the magic of a legend, diva singer & dancing queen, gone way too soon, at the height of her career.  Another number promoting women’s empowerment, a timeless subject about gender rights for equal pay, is “She Works Hard for her Money.” Donna is backed up by an exquisite ensemble, singing their hearts out.  The finale of “Last Dance” leaves the audience wanting even more, as elegant silver confetti tangibly  drapes the front of the theatre, replete with strobe lites and silver disco ball. Snappy songs, over the top costumes, and turbulent personal life add to the overall musical, in portraying her compelling life story.  In total the show’s score consists of 23 songs, written primarily  by Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Pete Bellotte, and Paul Jabara.  As Broadway has taken a chance with presenting larger than life biography stories on a theatrical level, it has indeed succeeded with the story of Donna Summer.

http://www.hollywoodpantages.com

(800) 982-2787

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Thanksgiving for All…@ The Geffen

If one is not yet familiar with playwright Larissa Fasthorse’s impressive body of work (What Would Crazy Horse Do?; Urban Rez/ Native Nation/ Lakota Project Trilogy), all delving into the Native American people, then “The Thanksgiving Play “ now at the Geffen, is the one to see.  This show, written by Fasthorse and directed by Michael John Graces, displays their tremendous genius and knack for brilliant ensemble narratives.  The cast includes Noah Bean as Jaxton; Alexandra Henrikson as Alicia, Jeff Marlow as Caden; and Samantha Sloyan as Logan.  The Thanksgiving Play is a bittersweet holiday story filled with joy, nostalgia, and good intentions, as the four characters join together to put on a ‘play within a play,’ honoring native Americans and literally singing their praises.  As the plot thickens, the characters focus in on the bigger picture questions of preserving cultural identity versus assimilation, sharing pain amidst laughter, and ultimately life lasting connections.  

Larissa herself was hoping for “a story universally American,” and landed on the “reality of what this holiday is and where it came from.”  In dealing with a highly emotionally charged subject matter, it is quite intuitive on her part to bring some levity and playfulness into the mix.  The cast, with extraordinary rapport and chemistry, includes  Logan (Sloyan), a perfectionist, anxious high school drama teacher, who collaborated with boyfriend/artistic director Jaxton (Bean), to create a historically and politically correct educational theatre masterpiece, a lofty goal, indeed.  Caden (Marlow) is the group’s historian/researcher, with an obvious crush on cutesy new student Alicia (Henrikson).  Fasthorse, with her shrewd ability to commingle satire, poetry, and dark humor and timely topics into one entity, can be likened to a Sam Shepard of modern time.  

Just as the plot contains dark images, such as a graphic scene involving plastic, bloodied Native American doll heads, the characters unwittingly dance around their own guilt.  Kudos to the set designer (Sara Ryung Clement) and lighting designer (Tom Ontiveros), for creating a vibrant, colorful, upbeat classroom, amidst the dark satirical subject matter, the ultimate juxtaposition. As Fasthorse states, “that is what the whole play is about.  To do something, make a mistake, and  own it, allowing us to move forward, having learned something .  

The play is filled with such blatant contradictions throughout: vibrancy and darkness; tragedy and comedy, and the cast members leap from one emotion to another, almost effortlessly.  The play is a constant roller coaster of extreme emotions, keeping the play  multi dimensional and allowing the audience to come to its own conclusion.

The symbolism of playing and singing sweet, familiar Thanksgiving  games, tunes, and stories, runs in complete contrast with major life and death decisions families and friends must make, right in the moment, because life is fleeting, and every diverse voice needs to be heard, loud and clear.

Through December 

Geffen Playhouse 

http://www.geffenplayhouse.org

For tickets, call (310)208-5454

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“Ruthless, the Musical,” To Die For, @ Theatre Palisades

         My first experience with “Ruthless, the Musical,” was in 1993, when it made its west coast debut at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills.  Much to my pleasant surprise, a revival of this amusing but dark musical comedy takes the stage at Theatre Palisades.  With shades of Gypsy, Auntie Mame, A Chorus Line, and the Bad Seed, this story begins quite innocent and frivolous, then quickly evolves into a literal ‘dog eat dog, cat fight,’ between two young girls vying for the coveted role of Pippi Longstocking in the school play.  Enter Benni Ruby, who was truly born to be a star, a true gem of the musical theatre genre, as the lead role of Tina Denmark, where nothing or no one will get in her way to the top.      

Being told by her competitor Louise (Jessica Stone), that she ‘has no range,’ and could never land the lead, Tina musters up all her energy and inner devilish inclinations to become the star, rather than an understudy, and in turn, finds no other solution than to kill Louise.  Ironically, the audience comes to learn that Benni Ruby, as Tina, does indeed have quite a range of both emotion and talent, through her polished tap dancing skills and her amazing vocal belting.  Not too mention, she is quite sophisticated in revealing emotions ranging from anger to happiness, frustration to pride, through vivid facial expressions and physical slapstick. The entire cast is female driven, with the uber talented  Jenna Nicole Sullivan portraying Tina’s mother Judy Denmark in true 1950’s housewife style, with a dazzling transformation to Broadway diva in her own right; Jon Sparks as Sylvia St. Croix, strong powerhouse talent agent; Randi Cee as vivacious Lita Encore; and Carly Reeves, the perfect caricature of drama teacher Myrna Thorn.

        While the play has a camp/cartoonish vibe, perhaps this is why the show has universal appeal and wide following  for all genders and ages, spanning the generations from its beginning in the early 90’s to current time.  Ruby’s performance is a standout, and larger than life, a Shirley Temple meets Ethel Merman. Some musical numbers that garnered quite a welcoming reaction from the audience were: “Born to Entertain,” “I Want the Girl and naturally, the signature tune, with reprise, “Ruthless.”

Ruthless is a must see this holiday season. You won’t be sorry.

Theatre Palisades Pierson Playhouse 

Through December 8

941 Temescal Canyon 

Fridays and Saturdays 8pm

Sundays 2pm

http://www.theatrepalisades.org

(310) 454-1970

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Flexible Feet Perform Remarkable Feats in “Humans By Circa”

One of Australia’s leading circus arts companies, Circa, features ten outstanding acrobats, exploring the human spirit through strength, agility, vulnerability, and determination. The company’s repertoire combines contemporary circus skills with acrobatic dance, much like its French counterpart, Cirque Du Soleil. The performance space is minimalist, with the barest of sets, costuming, and lights. The company’s artistic director, Yaron Lifschitz, has worked in the art forums of opera and physical theatre, while the performers have extensive experience in acrobatics, break dancing, and modern dance. The show, recently completing its run at the Wallis Annenberg, pushes the envelope, with no holds barred, seemingly impossible physical feats, with awe inspiring numbers. Each piece shares a common theme: an innate connection to being human. Through exquisite movement, sensuality, and each dancer being completely in touch with his/her body, we come to realize how our bodies, minds, souls are intertwined, with trust in each other of utmost importance. The polished rock stars of this ensemble include Caroline Baillon; Marty Evans; Piri Goodman; Keaton Hentoff-Killian; Cecilia Martin; Hamish McCourty; Daniel O’Brien; Kimberley O’Brien; Jarrod Takle; and Sandy Tugwood. They bring a combination of energy, elegance, and passion to the art of dance. Their dynamic and fluid moves continue to dazzle throughout. From flying above the ground…to immaculate posture onstage, with ballet grace to athletic prowess, the performers bounce, tumble, and build human towers, bringing the world of circus art and dance to new heights.

http://www.thewallis.org

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“Jesus Christ Superstar” proves Super Show Status @ Pantages

Jesus Christ Superstar is a dynamic musical composed by the iconic Andrew Lloyd Weber, with lyrics by Tim Rice, with an almost camp/cult like following and a worldwide fan base.  This spectacular, mesmerizing show from start to finish, in its recent run at the Pantages, surely pleased Los Angeles audiences.  The show is set against the extraordinary backdrop of Jesus’ final days of life, and had an almost uncanny similarity to Hair or Rent, or Tommy, Rocky Horror (as a rock opera), with its ensemble, leads, and rock concert vibe.  The memorable score includes faves, such as “I Dont Know How To Love Him,” and “Superstar,” which many an audience member will sing or hum on his/her way out the door (a key indicator of a hit song).  The songs and high notes are belted out by rock vocalists, the likes of which compare to the stage stars on Broadway or London’s West End.  Each scene contains emotional intensity, each one more riveting than the previous, with thought provoking moments and a stirring score.  Both satiric and tender hearted in one, Jesus Christ Superstar tugs at one’s heartstrings as it reveals Jesus’ inner turmoil as well as interpersonal struggles with his disciples.  Costume design by Tom Scutt was extremely well executed, with creative, more flashy, avant-garde modern touches, as well as authentic adherence to the traditional, muted tone Biblical era garb.  The set, also by Tom Scutt, was both elaborate and simple at various times throughout the show, with exceptional special effects, such as light displays and smoke machines, adding a fantasy/Disney-esque quality to the performance.  Aaron LaVigne impeccably captures both the compassionate and nonchalant/stoic sides of Jesus. James Delisko Beeks portrayed Judas with understanding and sensitivity to the character’s messages and Jenna Rubaii, as Mary, vocals so soft and resonant, delivered meaningful words and lyrics.  Many numbers, replete with half naked cast members, added to the bare, vulnerable human spirit and passion portrayed.  Each and every supporting cast member added his/her own personality and imprint, perfectly commanding the stage in vocal harmony.  Choreography, by Drew McOnie was electrifying; the rock band was phenomenal, conveying the power of the story, and a necessary accompaniment to the performers.  High tech glittery lights and drifting fog culminate the intensity.  Now, fifty years since the original performance, and the music, lyrics, and message still resonates to audiences today.

http://www.hollywoodpantages.com

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Louise Reichlin’s Legacy of Dance: From Generation to Generation

Louise Reichlin & dancers recently presented two afternoon shows: “The Patchwork Girl of Oz” and later in the afternoon, “The Tennis Dances,” and “A Jewish Child’s Story.” Oz was a poetically choreographed presentation of L. Frank Baum’s classic story, featuring the patchwork doll (Coree McKee), scarecrow (Kenziwe Mathebula,) Dorothy (Jill Elaine Collins), Unc Nunkie (Dion Pratt), Glinda (Eve Metsaranta), and narrator (Louise Reichlin). These characters wish to turn back time and enter the magical world of Oz, replete with country munchkins and the chance to have all wishes and dreams fulfilled. The colorful, whimsical dancers and costumes, set to upbeat tunes is the perfect combination of fantasy becoming reality. Audience interaction is abundant and this dance company would be an ideal choice for a birthday party for children of all ages. “The Tennis Shoes” first premiered in 1979 for USC Dance Theatre, with a reprise in 2019 at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre. This exquisite piece, performed by Challyce Brogdon; Jill Elaine Collins, Corrina Gemignani; Coree McKee Gonzalez; Danny Guerrero; Dominique Kerch, Kensiwe Mathebula; Eve Metsaranta; Dion Pratt; and Louise Reichlin is brought back to life onstage, celebrating 40 years of talent in movement. In “A Jewish Child’s Story,” again the theme of dream meets reality resurfaces, as the little girl falls asleep to visions of K’tonton, the thumb sized boy; the Biblical heroines, Rebecca, Miriam , the Hanukkah hero Judah; and Wonder Woman. The theme of living water (mayim chayim) is ever present too, with both Rebecca at the well and Miriam’s timbrels of water, immediately inviting dance and celebration to the festive scene. Reichlin’s use of props and costumes (Linda Borough) is of memorable note as well. K’tonton is draped in a jacket reminiscent of Joseph’s coat of many colors; while Miriam’s basket is an excellent prop. This show is the perfect blend of tradition meets assimilation. A true mix of all characters from biblical heroes to superheroes performing interpretive stories through dance of the wondrous miracle of survival. http://www.LAChoreographersanddancers.org

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Keep on Dancing With Treya @ The Hudson

“Treya’s Last Dance,” now in its run at the Hudson Theatre,  is a stunning one woman show that amuses, tittilates, and disturbs us all in one.  It is written and performed by the multi talented Shyam Bhatt and directed sharply by Poonam Basu.  At show’s start, the audience is pleasantly introduced to Treya through her dance, Indian, Bollywood style, maybe her last traditional steps.  Quickly after, we witness her morphing into a denizen of London, trying to understand her complex mix of sexual, emotional, and intellectual needs in a society that has deemed her a pariah.  She plays many of the characters she runs into, or the people in her life, and she is a master at revealing the extreme uniqueness of each persona.  As a writer, she paints a disturbing portrait of discrimination, rather than society embracing diversity.  She displays the vagaries of a duplicitous society, steeped in the puritanical veneer, juxtaposed with the multi cultural populace that almost seems at war with themselves.  As an actress, she shrugs, cajoles, and prances with a combination of pixie condemnation against her enemies and a yogic calm, a signature characteristic of Indian culture.  Her aura will amaze you, as it did me.  Shyam Bhatt is a professional film, television, and theatre actress, raised and trained in London.  She has been seen in The Domestic Crusaders, as Fatima, and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, as Gloria, and has won ‘Pick of the Fringe’ at the Hollywood Fringe Fest.  Poonam Basu has appeared in over 25 stage productions, in places as varied as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Madrid, also a Fringe award winner.  She has produced six short films, and has won Best Experimental Film award at Vegas Movie Awards.  She has done an exemplary job in this play, a challenging statement on presenting a strong woman, not afraid to speak her truth, in an environment where a proper, dignified Stepford Wife is the preferred norm.  In the words of playwright/poet Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night.  Rage, rage against the dying of the light.  Treya’ s pain and angst is so real and visceral, as she battles for her voice to me heard.  Go see it and you’ll be charmed at first sight. 

Through October 23

http://www.hudsontheatre.com

(323) 856-4252

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