COMING OF AGE ON STAGE

At the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, a coming of age play in what might be described as a coming of age theatre, entitled Good Grief, now through March 27th. It is written by coming-of-age playwright Ngozi Anyanwu,

No, it is not about the life and times of the cartoon character Charlie Brown. As I comment on public radio 97.5 KBU, radiomalibu.net and select websites, it is about a sensitive, if overwrought, Afro American girl coming to terms with her angst filled life and the tragic death of her puppy love in suburban Pennsylvania.

To be sure, it is the stuff of student drama workshops, where wanna be playwrights and screenwriters are told not to conjure up far away fantasies, but to pen real stories from their budding lives.

Good grist for the Douglas, which was founded to be a stage for new works and new voices, a satellite of sorts for the mother lode Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson and Mark Taper Forum downtown.

Not incidentally, now at the Taper is a riveting revival of “Zoot Suit,” which 40 years ago raised the curtain on the very political and public Latino experience in L.A.

In contrast, “Good Grief “evokes the main character’s Nigerian roots, but is very personal, and to anyone who has been parent to an adolescent girl, very familiar.

She was, shall I say it, a drama queen, lots of exclaiming, and gestures, intense faces, some crying. She loses her best friend, loses her virginity , but not her anxieties.

A grief counselor would have helped, though her caring parents, wonderfully played and effecting, deserved the applause they received during the play.

And you had to like the principal focus of the play, the young girl, acted no less than by Anyanwu, the playwright herself. It was a hell of debut, a high dive or sorts into the professional pool of the dramatic arts.

Perhaps it was the American suburban oven the story was cooked in, but to me the African sauce had a pinch of kosher salt. One could call the concoction “schmaltzy,” a soulful, timeworn tale.

Helping immeasurably was the staging: the spare sets, by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz , assorted costumes by Karen Perry, and the polished, crisp direction by Patricia McGregor. It made for an engaging evening in the theatre.

 

 

 

ALVIN AILEY DANCE THEATRE COMING TO L.A.

I usually don’t do previews of the arts and entertainment productions that interest me, preferring instead reviews. I frankly feel more comfortable lending my opinions to something I have actually witnessed, be it for public radio, and my own enjoyment.
 
But as I comment on 97.5 KBU and select websites, the incomparable Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre is coming to the L.A. Music Center next week is an exception.
 
The Ailey engagement will only be here for five days, beginning March 8, a Wednesday, through March 12, Sunday. My reviews run on Fridays, so I’d have to see it Wednesday, write and record Thursday, for Friday air time.
 
That immodestly is no problem for me, but it means for my listeners and readers if my reviews prompt them to see a performance, they have at best only three days to do it. And further, the chances of scoring what I anticipate will be a very hot ticket, would be a challenge. So this preview will give you a heads up.
 
Further, having enjoyed the dance company since its founding in New York City in 1959, which is when I happened to start writing for the New York Times, I’m confident that the program will be marvelous, just as thy have been for me over these very long years.
 
Indeed, I can close my eyes and actually see in my mind’s eye memorable moments from performances I attended in my distant past. I think the first time was in New York’s City Center, on a cold winter’s evening,.
 
I remember also when after the performance I hurried a block away, to the Carnegie Deli, for an equally memorable cup of chicken soup, equal to my mother’s, and an overstuffed, Pastrami sandwich of crusted, warm rye bread. schmered with Russian dressing. a juicy sour dill pickle on the side. The Carnegie sadly is no longer, a moot point since at my doctor’s advice I can no longer eat fatty, spiced Pastrami.
 
But the Alvin Ailey continues, as one of America’s premier dance companies, presenting I anticipate a challenging program of new pieces, set to stirring music, sumptuously staged, and framed by imaginative sets: an evening to be remember.
 
And according to the program, every performance ending as always with Ailey’s signature “Revelations.” a transcending spiritual drama that if you never seen, you must.  3.3.17

OFF BEAT ON STAGE AT THE WALLIS

The title of the latest ambitious production at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills is “946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips..”

If the title is cryptic, so is the production, as I comment on my weekly arts and entertainment observed on public radio 97.5 KBU and select websites.

But let me add, it is also engaging, at times indeed dazzling, if somewhat scattered. And adding to the stew on stage is that it is based in part on a true story, and as we know, the truth often can be messy.

“946” in the title stands for the number of troops actually killed in a disastrous single-at-sea military exercise in preparation for the D-Day Normandy landing in June, 1944.

“The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips” is a popular children’s book by Michael Morpurgo about a lost cat of a girl coming of age during World War Two in a village in England where American troops were stationed, many of whom died in the exercise.

Morpurgo adapted the play with Emma Rice, who directed the distinct mash up style of the English production company of Kneehigh , replete with an on stage swing band, a parade of puppets and a large cast of jumping jack actors.

Throw in a clutter of washtubs filled with water in the orchestra pit fronting the stage representing the English Channel where the troops tragically died. And then there are the toy jeeps, the occasional bicyclist coming out of nowhere and going nowhere and, well, you get the picture. You might kindly label the effort innovative. Others might say it is a muddle.

As for the story line, the young girl loses her cat named Tips, or vice a versa, and spends most of her time on stage looking for her, aided by a couple of jitter bugging American soldiers based in the village.

Then there are several sub plots, some somber – after all a war is going on—and sweet, a young woman is coming of age. By the way, the performance of the girl by Katy Owen animated by flying pigtails and flailing arms and legs enlivens the stage, and lends the tale a winning focus.

It all might be untidy, but it is fun to look at, and actually to join in at, in a rousing finale. You leave the theatre smiling.

“946” runs through March 5, at the welcoming Wallis

2.17.17

 

 

 

A GRACIOUS GORDY REMEMBERED

Monday night, January 9th,  at the Ahmanson Theatre downtown there will be a memorial for Gordon Davidson, who died last fall at the age of 83, one of the truly liked notables of the L.A.’s arts and entertainment community.
 
I will be attending as a friend dating from way, way back, as I comment on public radio 97.5 KBU, radiomalibu. net and select websites everywhere.
 
The founding artistic director of the Center Theatre Group for 38 years – from 1967 to 2005 – Davidson guided the center and the city to unquestionably the crest of regional theatre across the country.
 
More than that, I feel, he established Los Angeles as a theatrical wellspring in its own right, separate from New York, though, to be sure, always looking respectfully and at time enviously at the Broadway of his home.
 
And Broadway looked back at Davidson also with respect. It awarded him a Tony in 1977 for his direction of “The Shadow Box,” a play by Michael Cristofer he brought to New York after polishing it in L.A. The same year the center’s centerpiece Taper was awarded \a Tony for outstanding regional theatre.
 
That recognition was followed in 1978 with the resounding success of “Zoot Suit,” as both a play and a social commentary , exposing the bitter injustices toward Mexican Americans in L.A. That also went on to New York to great acclaim.
 
Then there was also the landmark production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” that explored the AIDS epidemic in two six hour epics. Staged at the Taper in 1992, it went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes.
 
Davidson was an unabashed liberal sensitive to the social and political issues of the day, for which I truly respected him, pursuing with an uncommon passion productions that challenged the status quo. He loved directing, but I feel his conscience compelled him to be a producer.
 
And on a personal note, he also had been an actor, in college, at Cornell University. That is where I first met him and, truth be told, where we were in several productions together, including Elmer Rice’s Street Scene and Bertold Brecht’s “Good Woman of Setuzan.”
 
Back then 60 years ago he was known as Gordy., and a causal friend then, and also through the years, in New York and L.A. And once, through the center, actually encouraged me to finish a play I was struggling with, and mercifully didn’t finish.
 
He was a good person, and a great stage producer. He will be missed. The memorial will be at 7.30, I intend to be there. on cue..
 

FOR THOSE WHO LOVE STEPHEN SONDEIM

If you love the much honored and revered composer and lyricist Stephen Sondeim, as I do, you should hurry to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills for the production of “Merrily We Roll Along,” before it closes December 18th.

It may not be as stirring and memorable as Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and “Sunday in the Park with George,” among others

But as I comment in my review on public radio 97.5 KBU, “Merrily” is still Sondheim, and has a sting that prickles long after the bows are taken to a well deserved applause.

And, to be sure, you can see and hear the flaws that marked “Merrily,” in its debut in 1981, and crashed after only 16 performances. The book based on a 1930s play by the legendary George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and written the late George Furth moves awkwardly from the present to the past, in the musical 1978 back twenty years .

It traces the demise of the collaboration of a success obsessed composer, played perhaps too convincingly by Aaron Lazar – it makes him unlikable – and an idealist playwright, played with an appealing passion by Wayne Brady. A Greek chorus of an abiding friend is played by an edgy Donna Vivino. It does make for a stew of a soap opera of sorts.

But then all becomes a hazy back story and flimsy structure for the captivating songs, delivered with an appealing verve by Brady, an aching quality by Lazar, and a pitch perfect professionalism by the accompanying cast.

They all moved well in and out of shadows in sensitive lighting and on a modest yet imaginative set designed by Dane Laffrey.

As for the direction, the flawed book and structure no doubt was a challenge to Michael Arden, as I might add they obviously were way back when to the celebrated Harold Prince.

The musical does have a lot of musical parts and disparate characters, and the stage at times does get crowded, and confusing. And, yes, the ill-fitting, and for a few, not flattering costumes are distraction.

But the score by Sondheim transcends, and makes for a wonderful evening’s entertainment. Go see it if you can.

 

HIGH TECH, HIGH ART IN A LANDMARK THEATRE

I’m making an exception for a limited engagement high tech, high art performance in a revitalized landmark theatre in Hollywood, as I explain in my weekly arts and entertainment commentary for 97.5 KBU, radiomalibu.net and select websites.

I usually prefer first experiencing the productions, exhibits and assorted offering I comment on, before recommending them, or not.

But since the production labeled Proxima will be at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre, a few steps south of Hollywood and Vine, for just three days, this evening, tomorrow and Sunday, I made an exception.

Prompting me was that the performance promises something distinctly different, which I tend to welcome, for whatever different is and does, it expands my critical context.

The cutting edge sometimes cuts both ways, and evenings can become forgettable, as well as memorable.

Proxima is being promoted as a unique futuristic melding of acrobatic dance in a bombardment of digital projections, composed of colorful, geometric designs.

The performance is by a Tokyo based dance company entitled Enra, a name with roots in the mythical shape shifting and smoke-like Japanese spirit called “enenra.”

And like a shape shifter lurking in a thick cloud, you have to catch a glimpse of it while you can. You may not like it, but you’ll never know if you don’t see it.

In this case, you can check it out, as I did, on You Tube, where its performance for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic bid went viral. For happenings like this you have to love YouTube. Key word, ENRA. There are several performance pieces that can be chosen.

But seeing Enra live promises something special, particularly for performing in the Montalban. It is an eyeful, the theatre having been designed in the gilded Beaux Arts style by the renowned architect of his time, Myron Hunt.

Built in 1926, it has persevered over the years, and is one of the few remaining mid-sized and fully equipped proscenium theaters in Los Angeles, with excellent sightlines and acoustics No doubt from what I could tell from the You Tube teases, they, and the human form of the dancers, will tested by Proxima.

 

ART ON DISPLAY IN MALIBU CIVIC CENTER

As heralded here last week and reviewed this week  of OCTOBER 8. 2016,  in my arts commentary on KBU and radiomalibu,net, an exhibit featuring the photography of Fred Ward has opened at City Hall with a celebration of his prolific life.

The exhibit lends a welcomed dual use to the muted municipal building at the end of Stuart Ranch Road, organized by the city’s Cultural Arts Commission and the Ward family. He died at his home in Malibu this summer at the age of 81.

On display is an arresting selection of photographs culled from Ward’s career freelancing for the leading newsweeklies and preeminent magazines of a half-century ago, when print ruled the media, before the age of tedious television and the blathering Internet.

It was also a time of a magnanimous media for top tier writers and photographers, as Ward obviously was, a life of front row seats, exotic assignments, living wages, and generous expense accounts, making the exhibit particularly nostalgic for this former correspondent.

The assignments for Time, Life, Newsweek and the National Geographic took Ward everywhere around the world, evidenced by the exhibit’s display of the diversity of places and people he captured in composed and revealing photographs.

His was an art, be it capturing the obscure, such as the photos of a Maasai warrior in Kenya, or a little girl with a wig in Guadeloupe Or the famous, presidents Kennedy and Ford, the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Fidel Castro and the Dalai Lama, among the many.

And then there are also his exquisite photographs of gems, among them, the Hope Diamond, and crown jewels of Iran, hinting at his fascination with these earth treasures that he documented in several books, and led him in later life to be a gem dealer and gemologist. ,

Ward’s life was indeed fascinating, and well documented by tens of thousands of prints, which his son, Chris, culled with obvious love to about a hundred for the exhibit. Happily the display will be revolving, and several hundred other favored print s also will be shown during the exhibit, which runs until mid January.

It certainly will be an excuse for me to visit several times

Also on display in the Civic Center will be a special art exhibit this Saturday, from 3 to 7, at the Canvas Boutique and Gallery.  Organized by the gallery and the Los Angeles-based First Responders, it will benefit the International Medical Corp., and feature the works of local artists, including one of my favorites, the sculptor Eugenie Spirito. Check it out, at 23410 Center Way,

 

NEWS PHOTOGRAPHY AS AN ART

Malibu’s City Hall happily will be the site for yet another exhibit featuring the work of a local artist, the photographer Fred Ward. The exhibit opens Saturday, and promises to be haunting, as I comment on public radio 97.5 KBU.

Though Ward was first and foremost a deadline driven news photographer, he was in my estimation an artist; his work having risen to the level of iconic images, evocative of a time and place. He passed away at his home in Malibu, in July, at the age of 81.

For some of us the exhibit will be a trip back in time to the turbulent 1960s, for which we can thank the Malibu Cultural Arts Commission in a its continual laudable attempt to tap into the city’s scattered artistic history and celebrate its artists.

Fred Ward was a photographer for Life, Time and Newsweek magazines, back in our fleeting history when weeklies were the crown jewels of print journalism.   And the most glistening, polished by a circulation that at one time topped 13.5 million copies, was Life.

So to be a photographer for the photo featured and promoted Life was to be a journalistic super star. The notable writers there that included during that time Joan Didion and Jane Howard were admittedly envious.

Indeed, all newspersons that toiled in the trenches of print at that time were envious, including those at the august New York Times, where I worked as a young reporter. Pay was said to be good at the newsweeklies, expenses better, and deadlines were only once a week.

And when journalists gathered then at select midtown watering holes to celebrate their publications being put to bed, getting a photo on the cover of Life was the equivalent to getting an Academy Award.

Ward had several, most notably in 1963 of a grief stricken, Jacqueline Kennedy with her two children before the casket of the assassinated President Kennedy. It was this photo that Andy Warhol turned into his famous print.

And in was Ward who a few days earlier had captured the image of the first lady returning to Washington with her husband’s blood on her legs.

These and other select photos of Ward when on assignment for the news weeklies and later the celebrated National Geographic are included in the retrospective. Also featured is a short video on Ward’s very full professional life, produced his son, Chris. The exhibit runs until January 13 of next year.

 

 

OFF BEAT L.A. OFFERINGS

You have to love L.A., not only for its benign weather, drought or not, but for its cultural diversity, and fun. When I peruse what’s happening here and there for my arts and entertainment commentary on 97.5 KBU and select local websites, I inevitably happily come across a smattering of engaging offbeat offerings.

For examples, downtown L.A. Friday night, at the recently restored but still funky, folksy Clifton’s Cafeteria ,there will an Earth Day celebration that promises to be an experience.

The dining room with its open seating is to transformed – their word, not mine—into an exotic animal sanctuary, featuring costumed performers roaming the tables as lions, leopards, deer and exotic birds. Selfies are to be encouraged, as I presume so is acting out.

There will be live music by Miranda Lee Richards and friends up from New Orleans, with a trio of chattering hip deejays. You can also get a cocktail for 35 cents, if you can convince the host or whomever, that hearing this on KBU is equivalent to reading an advertisement in the L.A. Weekly.

Harder will be finding a parking space near Clifton’s, at 648 Broadway, a L.A. landmark, you can’t miss it.

And continuing in the category of the offbeat, upcoming is yet another site specific performance of the Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre, still going strong after 30 years.

Entitled Parts & Labor, the dancers will be performing at a car wash, May 7 in two weeks, but the always rare and in demand tickets for the singular performances are on sale now. Look them up on the web, on Facebook, or calling 818 784 8669. )

The performance will be at the Santa Palm Car Wash, at 8787 Santa Monica Boulevard, in West Hollywood, at 8 P.M.

Your car will not get washed, but there will be valet parking. And as advertised, an incredible experience is promised. Just when else will we have the chance to see a dance performance at a car wash, and live musicians play a vintage automobile as percussion?

 

 

 

 

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and Beyond

While combining pleasure and work surveying cultural tourism in Europe a few months ago, I could not help but wonder if there also were some lessons for my Malibu.

And indeed there was one in particular, a diverting arts and entertainment experience in Edinburgh that for years has been hyped by au courant friends and family.

The Scottish city, of course, is on a completely different scale, if not planet than Malibu, with a very successful history as arguably the world’s leading festival city.

Its International Festival was launched in the wake of World War Two, as a much needed celebration of the creative human spirit. It then flowered into a host of cultural happenings: music, dance, film, art, books, drama, you name it.

Most interesting for me, and harboring some ideas for Malibu, is Edinburgh’s aptly named Fringe Festival. Whatever engages and entertains, be it single performers or ensembles, is material for the decidedly democratic festival.

This year’s was a grand affair, hosting an amazing 50,459 performances of 3,314 shows in 313 venues across Edinburgh, in school halls, university auditoriums, a few aged theaters, churches, under tents, in public parks, private gardens, living rooms and on closed streets and dedicated sidewalks.

Everywhere you wandered in the ancient city there was a peek at a production. Nearly 2.3 million tickets were issued, at modest prices, half price near curtain time, and many free.

The challenge was what to see: an acclaimed company performing an act from a London bound play, a comedy team from Germany doing mime, a Korean dance troup, juggling ballet dancers, acrobatic office workers, standup comics, stand down story tellers,, and buskers everywhere, behind every bench and bush, and on sidewalks and streets, to be sure each spot dedicated and subject to scheduling

It was all doable, because performances were limited to an hour or so, and if you were alert to the buzz, you might score the best of the fest.

The result were wild and wonderful, in part made so because the festival amazingly is open all; absolutely anyone so inspired can stage a show or event, though helping would be having a producer and securing a venue and a time slot. There are no auditions, no second guessing by bureaucrats or politicians. It’s about having the hubris and hustling.

Can something like the fringe on a thumbnail scale work in Malibu?

There are certainly scattered spaces and places that can be transformed temporarily into performance sites, schools, churches, city hall, shopping plazas, parking lots, indeed Legacy, Bluff and Trancas parks. For sure not in the crowded summer, but anytime else, thanks to our weather.

Malibu already has the cache. All it needs is the creativity and flexibility.

If the Cultural Arts Commission can ease its bonds with the city’s innately conservative council and faint hearted city government, and tap its laudable commitment, become transparent, and inspire the city’s many talented incipient residents, it can happen.

Speaking as a former if briefly Disney Imagineer, needed is imagination. It is also what the ever candid Scots in Edinburgh would say.