Om Meets Shalom in Amanda Miller’s “The Jew in the Ashram” @ the Whitefire Theatre

Playwright, performer, and yoga instructor, Amanda Erin Miller was at a point in her life, where she had defined herself as ‘lost,’ and went as far away as possible, namely an ashram in India, to find herself and seek spirituality and oneness, the actual essence of yoga. Such is the framework of her awe inspiring solo show, “The Jew in the Ashram,” recently performed at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks. This petite, pretty actress opens her show with a stretch and a chant to set the mood and welcome her audience. Directed by Rachel Evans, this show has been presented in a variety of settings throughout New York, and now graces the stage of theatre in Los Angeles. At a crossroads between college and career, Amanda questioned what to expect from life, and in turn, what life expects from her, setting her in motion to explore meditation and yoga, and its worldwide appeal. And off she went… to an ashram in India, completely out of her comfort zone of her home in New York. This line speaks volumes: “Life is about change. We never see it coming.” Shutting off outside distractions and immersing herself in a whole new state of mind, she sits in a quiet space, with her yoga teacher and new friends, as the audience vicariously joins in. Amanda cleverly incorporates audience interaction, as she stretches and practices various yoga moves and salutations, inviting the audience to stand and join in. At show’s start, she recites the universal chant of Om,
(interestingly, the last two letters of shalom), sending positive, healing energy throughout the theatre. Her aura, dialogue, and movement reflect a ray of light and sunshine, radiating to all in her midst.
Even the simple and tangible act of peeling and eating a ripe, juicy orange satisfies both her physical and spiritual hunger, nourishing and quenching the audience’s need for self awareness, as well. It’s clear, from the start, that we’re all in this journey together. Amanda’s poignant journey, with her creative mix of drama and humor, comes to tell us the value of quieting one’s soul, unplugging. She has a unique, subtle yet visceral, vivid way of revealing her transformation, across the pond. The entire theatre space was transported to a venue of tranquility and serenity, replete with chants of mantras in the background. Perhaps, scented candles or aromatherapy would make it a multi-sensory extravaganza. Two very important and influential figures in Amanda’s formative years were her father and grandmother. She portrays her dad, donning a baseball cap, teaching her to believe in herself, while she portrays her grandmother, who perished in the Holocaust, uttering pearls of wisdom, while wrapped in a shawl. Amanda delicately brushes on the oft-taboo subject of death, in a trance of denial, stating, “it’s not something that will happen to my family, to anyone I know, or to me.”

Amanda leaves India, with a sense of gratitude, and the tools for a self actualized life, come what may. At show’s end, she wishes everyone ‘namaste,’ her smile aglow, her father’s and relatives’ spirits shining from the heavens above. Amanda’s one woman show succeeds in bringing in 2020 with a sense of purpose, inner peace, and potential. The rendition of Leonard Cohen’s song, Hallelujah, is indeed, breathtaking.

http://www.thejewintheashram.com

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Happy Days Are Here…w/ Kristin Chenoweth @ Disney Hall

Kristin Chenoweth rang in New Year’s Eve with humor, elegance, and talent galore at Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown Los Angeles. As she stated at show’s start, music is what makes people happy, and her entire show was performed to this end. A special duet of Chenoweth with guest Shoshana Bean, as Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand singing a blend of “Come On, Get Happy,” and “Happy Days” was perhaps the standout number. The song, “You Don’t Own Me,” with its message of women’s empowerment, accompanied by vocalists Crystal and Marissa, also garnered applause and good energy from the audience. Another guest performer, Cheyenne Jackson, entertained with two upbeat tunes, having just finished a critically acclaimed run of The Most Happy Fella, in New York. Chenoweth’s rendition of “Memories, The Way We Were,” was the perfect way to say goodbye to a year filled with both sorrows and joys, and to welcome a new year, replete with hope. Kristin Chenoweth is a class act, an artist of elegance. She dazzled the audience from beginning to end in a most majestic of venues.

LA Phil @ Walt Disney Concert Hall

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Schtick Gone Holiday… in a Night of Xmas Comedy at Feinstein’s @ Vitello’s

‘‘Tis the season to laugh and be merry, and what could be a better treat than “A Night of Kosher Comedy” at Feinstein’s @ Vitello’s.  Hosted by the talented Dan Frischman, he took the stage and opened with a witty monologue, filled with schtick, and continued on with magical tricks and optic illusions at every interval.  The atmosphere likened a Catskills vaudeville show right here on the west coast.  Filled with audience participation, at one point Dan called up to stage a woman in the front row, who tore white and red tissue papers to shreds, and voila,’ a Santa hat emerged intact from the scraps.  The show ensued with such gems of comedy, many from popular TV sitcoms, such as Marc  Price, Skippy, (Family Ties), a blast from the past who made us all laugh this holiday and ‘forget our troubles, come on be happy.’  One memorable sketch was how his cell phone ring tone had descriptive apropo songs of each relative and friend, ranging from Trump to liberals to dating sites.  His style is both hilarious and clever, in one.  His physical comedy in standup is his forte, he was comical early as age 14, with inspirations the likes of George Burns, Milton Berle, Jackie Mason, and Jerry Seinfeld.  Price brought much needed joy and levity to the audience, a winter wonderful distraction from the stressors of life.  Setting the mood for whimsy and frolic, was the opening routine from comedian Jimmy Brogan, a self proclaimed ‘only goy in the show,’ yet an honorary member of the tribe.  Brogan recalled his days as a regular on the late night circuit, often a guest of Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and a writer on  Jay Leno for nine years. To the audience’s delight, Brogan revealed a recent anecdote of when he and dear friend Leno got stalled on the 405 in a classic car, on the way to Magic Comedy club in Hermosa Beach.  Onlookers stopped and said, “wow, there’s Jay Leno and Prince Charles,” (Brogan’s doppelgänger to a degree.). His segment was filled with improv and spontaneous interaction with audience members about their careers and life, proving his ‘think on your feet’ ability, literally.  Following this kind of laugh a minute schtick, was Cathy Ladman, comedienne extraordinaire.  Amidst all the chaos and conflicts of family holiday gatherings elsewhere, this audience had the privilege to escape into the hysterical world of Cathy’s humor.  A New York transplant, now in Los Angeles, Ladman opened with how much she is loving going ‘naturally gray.’  “It’s amazing how much attention I get by men when they realize I’m beyond child bearing years.”  A long time comedic writer and performer on television, such as HBO’s “One Night Stand,” and Curb Your Enthusiasm, to name a few, Ladman’s ingenious specialty is jokes on the human condition, quirks, neuroses, and all; as well as material she acquires from real life scenarios and personal relationships.  She shares a warm fuzzy tale of how she and her dog have a special bond, each time she returns home, truly resonating with pet lovers in the crowd.  Completing the lineup was Wayne Federman, a ‘Renaissance comedian,’ replete with musical talent, as he performed his routine at the piano.  He is a musician/ comic/storyteller who has taken his passion to the stage, and his love of entertaining emanates from within.  His joie de vivre was clear, as he greeted the audience, “it’s almost a new year, a time of diversity, so glad to be alive.”  Federman’s comedic banter comes as naturally to him as breathing.

These five funny dynamos  brought a night of laughter, frolic, and nostalgia to Feinstein’s @ Vitello’s, presented with heart and soul.

http://www.feinsteinsatvitellos.com

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Take a Dip in Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake”

Matthew Bourne brings a new twist to the classic favorite ballet of all time, “Swan Lake,” now in its run at the Ahmanson.  He artistically brings his own interpretation and imagination to the characters of the Prince, the Swan, and the Swan Queen. Dancing these roles are James Lovell; Will Bozier; and Nicole Kabera, respectively, who bring strong technique and distinctive moves into their performance.  A clever conceit is that the ballet starts out as an ordinary classic ballet, filled with the classic pas de trois, and by act one’s end, evolves into a ‘ballet within a ballet,’ as the guests sit on the sidelines watching the swans take form and spring into life.  This technique is much like Clara watching the Nutcracker magically appear before her eyes.  The men, though strong and agile, dance and prance onstage with delicate birdlike fragility, transforming from ducklings to elegant white feathery swans.  Of note is costume designer (Lez Brotherston), mesmerizing the audience to every movement in step the swans take.  The wintry white feathers and plumes add a dreamlike stance to this sequence.  The choreography is exquisite, as the reigning male dancers seamlessly weave their way through a most creative rendering of the original Swan Lake.

Matthew Bourne manages to add some comic relief and levity to an otherwise quite serious production.  The masquerade scene was, without doubt, the highlight of the show, with the dancing full of personality throughout.  The lake sequence is majestic, and the synchronized movements and choreography suggest mystique and romance in one.  Matthew Bourne was quoted, when creating his original version of Swan Lake, “ I wondered what it would be like to use male dancers and bring out the swans’ aggressive, muscular side.”  He, in fact was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, in his portrayal of the swans.  As always, Tchaikovsky’s score is a masterpiece, the performance, powerful, the dancing, impeccable; overall this show makes for the consummate holiday treat, sure to ruffle your feathers. 

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Migenes’ Musical Memoir “La Vie en Rose” @ The Odyssey

The term ‘La Boheme’ completely resonates with me, as it does with the French diva extraordinaire, Julia Migenes, in her riveting one woman operatic musical show, “La Vie en Rose,” now in its run at the Odyssey Theatre.  Her repertoire includes popular all time faves, such as “Mon Homme,” by Maurice Yvain; “Milord” by Georges Moustaki, “Hier Encore,” by Charles Aznavour; “Avec Le Temps” and “Tu Ne Dis Jamais Rien” by Leo Ferre; “Les Paumes Du Petit Matin” and “La Chamson des Vieux Amants” by Francois Rauber and Jacques Brel; “Un Homme Et Une Femme” by Pierre Barouh; “La Valse des Lilas” and “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” by Michael Legrand,  the signature nomme de plume “La Vie en Rose” and of course, “La Boheme” by Charles Aznavour.  This song comes to represent the rather artistic, romantic tone in a bohemian Gypsy lifestyle.  Julia Migenes, a Grammy award winning chartreuse/soprano had an excellent idea for a solo show and brought her dream to fruition in this excellent showcase of song, story, and theatrical musical memoir. She travels back to the Paris of her youth, singing a medley of love letters in song to the melodic masters, such as Edith Piaf, Aznavour, LeGrand, and Brel.  Everything falls into place beautifully as she chants from her heart with a vocal range of opera to jazz.  The show follows her true life chronological journey as a young girl in New York City, as a school girl filling in at the Metropolitan Opera house in “Madame Butterfly,” to her young adulthood in the cabarets of Vienna, to Berlin, Paris, and full circle to the Met as Carmen, opposite Placido Domingo.  The audience is privileged, indeed, to get a full glimpse of her autobiographical journey, both personally and professionally, as we experience her shifts and growths in career through relocation, and ‘an end of innocence,’ as it were.  The theatre space’s acoustics, as well as the magnificent accompaniment of pianist Victoria Kirsch, makes for a most romantic, nostalgic of evenings, taking us back to a more carefree,sentimental time on the streets of the ultimate city of lights.  Amidst a cacophony of the outside world, inside this theatre, thanks to Migenes and Kirsch, we have only harmonious bliss.  As her love life is stripped away from her (on more than one occasion), we live vicariously through her, as her songs evoke so much emotional pain and vulnerability. It seems she still lives and yearns for yesterday, not yet caught up to the present moment in time, almost as if the life of her youth stands frozen. When Europe no longer feels like home, she bravely journeys back to the states, with a courageous stance of moving forward, not recessing back.  Just as we are excited to learn of Migenes’ own journey, she has always been mesmerized by the legendary, iconic Edith Piaf, and through her music, she was educated on life, love, and friendship.  The two women seem to live parallel lives, as they share a unique bond as genius eccentrics who could only truly be understood by their heartfelt, poetic lyrics. Julia  sings and belts her heart out with songs of a different caliber, stories of travels, musical interludes, and conditions of pure rapture.  I perceive this vocalist/actress extraordinaire as a musical damsel with a parasol, yearning to break free of all barriers, to be seen, heard and understood.  She is a formidable prodigy, bar none.  When she sings, all inhibitions are set free. 

Through Dec 14

Odyssey Theatre 

2055 S. Sepulveda 

(310)477-2055

http://www.odysseytheatre.com

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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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