Let That Lonely Feeling Wash Away

Dear Evan Hansen,

You may have won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2017, but you were not the best musical of the year and here’s why.

While I would like to applaud the show for opening up a conversation about mental health, especially pertaining to our nation’s teenagers, I must criticize the use of mental illness as an excuse for Evan’s repeated manipulation of everyone around him. Evan’s social anxiety leads him to lie to Connor’s parents the first time about the letter they find in Connor’s pocket (which they presume is his suicide note) and I can believe that. I can believe he would be embarrassed and unsure how to react in the face of the intense grief and accusations from Connor’s parents in that meeting with the principal. I believe he wanted to help and he wanted to help ease their pain and suffering. I can give him a pass on that first lie because he’s young, but to keep the lie going? To work so hard at deceiving everyone? And what comes of this? Almost nothing. His girlfriend (who’s also manipulated and the whole circumstance under which they get together is a total sham) breaks up with him and he loses his “perfect family.” That’s not a lot of consequence for the hurt he has caused.  Though they’re not at all the same thing, the reaction of the Murphys reminded me of the way the courts treat white boys who are accused (and perhaps even convicted) of sexual assault but are granted relief in their punishment because it may ruin their future. Why does the show just gloss over the fact that Evan is avoiding treatment? He stops taking his pills. He barely even tries to write his “Dear Evan Hansen….” letters.  His mom treats him as though he is something that must be fixed which is addressed in a cursory fashion. This is an important discussion to have, but overall it almost feels like the story is trying too hard to be relevant and misses out on some other thematically rich elements of the story.

What do you do when your brother who always threatened to kill you and was your personal tormentor kills himself? Is it okay not to be sad at his loss? Is it okay not to try to make him out to be a good person? According to the show, it’s maybe not okay to feel these things. Sure, no one deserves to be forgotten, but death does not wash away a life of bullying and cruelty. What about grief makes people claim they were closer to the deceased? Why does it go barely mentioned that one of the other characters involved in the Connor Project is only in this for personal gain? That it’s not okay that she leaks the “suicide note” without permission. Why is it not discussed that even though the Murphys were not great parents to Connor that this doesn’t excuse death threats and intimidation from people who thought they caused Connor to kill himself? I can only hope the recent novelization of the musical delves into this.

It’s frustrating that the musical is lauded as the next best thing in theatre, as though it were on par or better than Hamilton, when it’s one of the least diverse casts on Broadway and is a pretty cruddy story that not even the dynamic songwriting team Pasek & Paul can salvage into a great musical. You can’t just put window dressings on a poor structure and expect to have a great product. It’s exceptionally hard to make a great film with a poor story and it’s no different with theatre. Honestly, what’s really inventive about this show? What is it bringing that changes musical theater the way Hamilton did or, better yet, the actual best musical of 2017, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Nothing! There’s nothing in this show that breaks new ground both in its staging or in its storyline. If you know your theatre history, there’s a really incredible musical that is also all about mental illness, Next to Normal. Sure, Dear Evan Hansen specifically addresses social anxiety which is important but is its overall handling of mental illness as good as those that came before it? Definitely not. The difference between Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen though is the former has great characters that are empathetic  and the latter has at most two characters who are relatable — Zoe, Connor’s sister, and Heidi, Evan’s mother who are the heart of the show without really getting their due credit because they are overshadowed by Evan.

I have to hand it to this some of the members of this cast though. Ben Levi Ross, the touring production’s titular character, is as charming as he can be under the circumstances. His voice is incredible, slaying this decade’s “Defying Gravity” for boys, “Waving Through a Window.” One of the real heroes of this story is  Maggie McKenna’s Zoe who brings us a wildly relatable character and the heartbreaking solos of “Requiem” that address the pain of going against societal expectation’s of grief. McKenna has great comedic timing and easiness about her that makes her dialogue feels natural like it’s real conversation. She’s gentle but tough. Vulnerable but guarded. It’s a delicate balance McKenna walks so easily.  Our other leading lady is Jessica Phillips in her role as Heidi Hansen. Phillips is the only character I feel deserves the tears of the audience as she recounts the day her husband left her and she realized she would have to be an only parent to Evan and the pain that might cause him and the shortcomings she might have because she would never be able to fill the shoes of two people. Her vulnerability as she deals with the realization her son wished for another family to be with is emotional and heartbreaking in the way the rest of the musical only dreams it could be. The rest of the cast leaves you wanting for the most part. Marrick Smith’s Connor Murphy lacks the intimidating qualities Mike Feist brought to the character. The qualities that made you believe he really did threaten his sister. That he is the terrible person she describes and the others fear. Aaron Lazar’s Larry Murphy is flat and uninviting in a way that may be more the fault of the book than Lazar’s talents.

There’s more to dislike than there is to applaud yet audiences are eating up this musical at every corner. At least it’s introducing new people to this beautiful art form. At least it’s bringing young audiences to theatre and inviting them into conversations about mental health. Please, make way for something more inventive and original though or at least try to be more diverse.

Sincerely,

Me.

So Quake With Fear, You Tiny Fools

When you think of cult classic films, Rocky Horror probably comes to mind first. With interactive midnight screenings of the film where people dress up and sing along, this is one film that’s here to stay and will be a Halloween classic for generations to come.  Come on, is there a better film to wrap up Halloween season than Rocky Horror Picture Show? A film all about embracing all your quirks and all your strangeness? Isn’t that what this holiday has become in a lot of ways? In that vein, it really is fitting we end our fun on this most strange and campy film and go out in an unquestionably stylish fashion. Dr. Frank-N-Furter wouldn’t have it any other way I’m sure.

gimme that scifi love

Part of the lasting impact of the film is its music including iconic songs like “Time Warp”, “Sweet Transvestite”, and “Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul” keep you coming back for more, bopping along throughout the year even. Becca, my roommate, made a comment like “name a better lyric than hot patootie bless my soul” and you know, I’m not sure I could.  The opening of the film with Lips singing “Science Fiction Double Feature” that drops so many names and so many films that give you just a peek into the zany adventure that’s about to unfold. A film that’s so going to go so far as to bring time warping aliens and a Dr. Frankenstein type into the same story definitely earns its place amongst those iconic sci-fi films.  How do you not jam to “Dammit, Janet”? Next to “Time Warp” that’s probably the second most well-known song from the show (at least in my experience) full of so many references you might encounter at a party.

a finaleThe music is only the second best part of the film though. The performance given by Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter is probably his second most well-known role (the terrifying demon clown, Pennywise, claims the top spot) but what makes Tim Curry such a delight to watch in Rocky Horror is how much fun you can see that he’s having with the role. His “Sweet Tranvestite” is the best version you’ll ever hear and how does your heart not break when he’s singing “I’m Going Home”? Tim Curry’s a true saving grace to a film whose plot is more an homage to the sci-fi films it mentions rather than having a narrative of its own.

oh how fun.jpg

I keep coming back to this film and every year I ask myself, “Why am I watching this? It’s so weird!” but then as the music starts and it hits its glorious campy style you can’t help but have fun. Embrace your inner alien, embrace your oddities and quirks and settle in for a delightful film.

We’re All Damaged. We’re All Frightened.

If you asked me to choose one show I had never seen but I always wanted to see live, I would choose Heathers. Hands down. No second thoughts or doubts about it. Since I got back into musical theatre in 2016 I have been waiting for a chance to see this show; hoping it might come to The Cucpake Theater (still waiting for that, by the way) or that it might tour or get revived. Never, in a million years, did I think I would get to see this production in the West End.

I actually didn’t go to London to see this show or think that while I was there that I would see it. I was across the pond visiting a friend who’s been interning in England for the last year and she was showing me around the city and I saw a TKTS booth (aka your discount ticket mecca if you’re not familiar) and asked, curiously, if she thought they might have Heathers tickets since it had just opened after its transfer. We saw the name on the board but just as we got in line the tickets sold out. Bummer, right? Thinking that was about my only shot at seeing the show we carried on about our merry way until we saw a discount theater tickets shop and I asked if we could see if they had Heathers tickets. To my incredible surprise, they actually did and only for that night. It was like the stars had aligned. The heavens opened up and a choir of angels sang.

To be honest, for the first time in my life I didn’t even care where the tickets were at, I just wanted to sit in that theater for what I was sure was going to be an exceptional two hours of my life.  As though my luck couldn’t get any better, we got tickets in the orchestra (stalls as they’re known in that neck of the woods) and incredible seats for half the price. The sweet Irish guy who sold us our tickets raved about the show after seeing it during its previews so I was so pumped for 7:30pm to come (well, more than I already was anyway).

Once I got on the excitement train there was no getting off and I was a little nervous that the show might not live up to everything I had ever dreamed it would be. Been there, done that before (looking at you, Dear Evan Hansen) but I am literally so relieved to say that it was everything I wanted and so much more. Heathers opened at Theatre Royal Haymarket on September 3, 2018 for a 12 week run. I saw the show on September 5th for night three of this incredible production so I was really lucky to see the full original London cast and be surrounded by so many people who were so excited to be there and knew the show. It’s true what they say about how audiences influence the show and we had such an amazing group of people filling the seats that the theater felt electrified with so much positive energy. I’m sure the actors got the message we all loved their hard so much.

I bet you actually wanna hear about the show now, right? If you don’t know, Heathers is a musical adaptation of the 1988 cult classic film of the same name which starred Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. The musical is not an exact copy of the original dark comedy, it’s lightened up and a little altered but it highlights the heart of the story more easily. I actually prefer the musical (with a book, music, and lyrics by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe who gave us the delightful Legally Blonde musical) to the film. Its characters are more relatable and the story unfolds in a more engaging way, but I don’t doubt this surprises anyone. If you’ve never seen the movie, The Other Palace, where this production of Heathers had its record breaking, sold-out workshop run, has an incredible short synopsis I’d like to share with you:

“Greetings, salutations. Welcome to Westerberg High, where Veronica Sawyer is just another of the nobodies dreaming of a better day. But when she’s unexpectedly taken under the wings of the three beautiful and impossibly cruel Heathers, her dreams of popularity finally start to come true. Until JD turns up, the mysterious teen rebel who teaches her that it might kill to be a nobody, but it’s murder being a somebody…”

Since the show left Broadway in 2014 it’s gone through a few changes that I think are for the best. Gone is the uncomfortably sexual song “Blue” swapped in for “You’re Welcome” that’s still got the troubling thematic roots of its predecessor but is a much better song. There’s also a new song for Heather Duke that didn’t make the 2014 Broadway recording called “I Will Never Shut Up Again.” But the real talk of the town since the news about the West End transfer is a new song for Veronica called “I Say No” and it is so great. This song comes in the second act as Veronica stand up to JD to try and stop this murder spree he’s been on. I want a new cast album to hear this song over and over and over again. There’s not really any great audio of it yet but perhaps as the run goes on we might get some.

Group shot Heathers.jpg
Photo Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Stepping into the blue blazer as Veronica Sawyer is West End favorite, Carrie Hope Fletcher. Carrie brings a more innocent side to Veronica rather than the more angsty, rebellious teen you find in the film but it makes Veronica’s statement, “I believe I’m a good person. I believe there’s good in everyone” during the stunning opening number, “Beautiful,” the running thematic throughline of the musical. Can you still be a good person when your boyfriend’s a psychopath who’s killing people you’re helping to cover it up with forged suicide notes and if Veronica’s not a good person, which of the characters on stage is? Or are any of them? Ah, I digress. Back to Carrie’s perfomance.

Carrie is a master of comedic timing. She lands every joke whether that’s with dialogue or her reaction. One of my favorite moments was during JD’s big solo, “Freeze Your Brain” which takes place in a 7-Eleven. JD’s been singing about his crappy childhood and Veronica, trying to flirt with him, asks, “Does your mommy know you eat all that crap?” to which JD answers that she doesn’t anymore because she’s dead and Carrie gives the visual equivalent of foot in mouth. It’s priceless.

Carrie’s an incredible actress and her voice is stunning. Easily, Veronica’s most famous number in this musical is “Dead Girl Walking.”

Heathers the Musical
Photo Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Carrie slayed this song as though it had been written just for her. It was easily my favorite part of the musical. She’s such a treat to watch. If she’s ever over in the states in New York, count me in.

Playing opposite Carrie’s Veronica is Jamie Muscato as James Dean “JD,” her love interest and the musical’s antagonist. Their chemistry together is off the charts. Its natural and easy. Their banter is so smooth and snappy. It’s everything I wanted out of Veronica and JD.

Jamie is a powerhouse in his own right. I’ll admit, at first, just seeing some pictures of him, I wasn’t convinced he was going the best JD. Christian Slater and Ryan McCartan (the original JD on Broadway in 2014) have such a distinct “bad boy” look. Jamie seemed a little scrawny and soft but once he stepped out in that iconic jacket, slow-mo fighting with the Kurt and Ram, that smirk on his face, I was sold and that’s before his aforementioned solo, “Freeze Your Brain.” Jamie captures the charm of JD but is also so perfectly manipulative. He has these little knowing smiles and smirks that he gives both to the audience and to Veronica throughout the show and while you know that he’s a psychopat, you just have to love him. Fight it all you want, Jamie will win you over, I guarantee it.

veronica and jd.jpg

As far as JD and Veronica go, they’re excellent throughout the whole show but they really shine during the non-stop, explosive finale where we really get to see the scary parts of JD come out and Veronica stand her ground. Those last thirty minutes are theatre at its finest almost exclusively because of Jamie and Carrie’s perfomances.  I’d say that whole segment alone is easily worth the the money.

How can I talk about Heathers without actually mentionting the titular characters, played here by three stunning women.

Heathers the Musical
Photo Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Led by Jodie Steele (Heather Chandler, in red), the Heathers are also comprised of T’Shan Williams (Heather Duke, in green) and Sophie Isaac (Heather McNamara, in yellow).  Jodie Steele’s Heather Chandler lives up to the moniker given to her by Veronica at the top of the show that she is  “a mythic bitch.” Jodie just dominates when she’s on stage as any true queen bee should. Her solos in “Candy Store” were so wonderful and rough. One of the intriguing things about Heather Chandler throughout the show, though, is her cycle from mythic bitch to playful ghost back to mythic bitch. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun to see a softer side of her during “The Me Inside of Me” after she’s dead but it does make you wonder if that’s Veronica’s guilty conscience playing with the memory of her. Either way, Jodie’s a lot of fun to watch.

When we’re first introduced to T’Shan William’s Heather Duke we’re told she has “no indiscernable personality” and up until Heather Chandler’s death that’s pretty true of T’Shan’s perfomance of Heather, not that that’s a bad thing because we consistently see Heather Chandler tamp down anyone who might overshadow her. Once Heather Chandler’s dead though it gives way for Heather Duke to seize the open seat and wear that iconic red scrunchie of power. One of the new songs introduced into the show since its Broadway run is a solo for Heather Duke titled “I Will Never Shut Up Again” and honestly, I think that says a lot about Heather Duke’s arc throughout the show. T’Shan has a really powerful voice and I was so glad to get hear a solo from her. She knocked it out of the park.

Last, but certainly not least, my favorite Heather played by Sophie Isaacs. Heather McNamara has her claws but she’s certainly the softest Heather even despite her sometimes concerning comments to Veronica. To Sophie’s credit, her big solo, “Lifeboat” has never been my favorite song on the cast recording but I really enjoyed Sophie’s perfomance of it. Perhaps her emotional vulnerability during the song as she highlights her isolation and feelings of worthlessness really made it land with me in way that just hearing the recording can’t do.

Honestly, the whole cast is incredible. Some quick shout outs to Dominic Anderson (Ram Sweeney) and Chris Chung (Kurt Kelly) who play Westerburg’s resident idiotic jock bullies and  spend half of the musical stripped down their briefs.

Heathers the Musical
Photo Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Their camraderie on stage is great. They’re a lot of fun to watch even though you spend a lot of time thinking “you can’t say things like that to people” but that’s all part of their charm as characters.

Even outside the acting and singing abilities of this worthy cast, Heathers is so well rounded. The lighting is great! The blocking and choreography is great! The costumes are great! My friend who’s not super into musical theatre anymore went with me ’cause she’s a great friend and throughout the week I was visiting her she kept remarking how great this show was. It’s an impressive production, but not without a fault here or there.

There’s been some talk about the way the show seems to make a farce out the suicide “epidemic” plauging Westerburg. I’m not of the same mindset. I think the show approaches it with the same irreverance that the film does but never once glorifies it. Perhaps its more heavy themes could be treated more seriously but that would betray the spirit of the film.It does clearly make its statements about bullying and sexual harrassment so I would disagree that this show doesn’t go to the same places at the film. Take that for what you will.

Heathers is, once again, playing at Theatre Royal Haymarket now until November 24th. You can get tickets at the theatre’s website or take your chance on the lottery, the TKTS booth, or stop into a little store like I did. It’s totally worth it. If you’re in the London area, DO NOT MISS THIS SHOW!

You Wish to Have the Curse Reversed?

I’ve got some bad news to start off this post. This particular production of Into the Woods I saw has not only closed since I saw it (sorry about that delay, I had a trip to the UK I was prepping for) but there are also no production photos that are up for use so it’s going to be all words. I’ll try to keep it short so as not to scare anyone away with large blocks of text without anything pretty to look at. I can make no guarantees.

This is actually the third production of Into the Woods I have seen in the last couple of years and I find it really fascinating how different each production of this musical can be just by changing a few things here and there. One of the productions I saw was a more classic take on the show which was performed at the Cupcake Theater and the other was a touring production of Fiasco Theater’s take on the show I saw at the Ahmanson in 2017 during my first year as a season ticket holder. Out of the two, I was completely enamored by Fiasco Theater’s production due to its stripped down nature, bare bones approach to telling this show. The production I saw at the Grove Theater Center in Burbank seemed heavily inspired by Fiasco’s take on the show but couldn’t quite live up to that particular level.

When I tried to find this theater, wandering through the small park with the large plane out front, following my Maps app on my phone, I quickly developed a series of doubts about the show quality that were not assuaged when I finally arrived at the easily missed complex that housed the theater. Maybe I’m just becoming a snob, though you’d think I would have learned that theater size doesn’t negate their ability to put on a quality show from The Cupcake. Regardless, I tried to hold on to some optimism about the show as the meager crowd and I entered into the theater. I wasn’t prepared by what I saw.  Color me humbled, but I was suddenly very impressed.

Walking in through the doors, it immediately felt as though I had been swept away to a small cabin in the woods in the 1800s. There was antique furniture on the small stage, including a large steamer trunk, a scrappy piano, and an old wardrobe. Hanging from the rafters and the support beams were carefully placed cobwebs adding to its old cabin aesthetic. Bits  of greenery were interwoven into the set pieces giving it an almost overgrown, abandoned feeling without being over the top. The lighting was warm and cozy. I was ecstatic to see what was going to come next.

Unfortunately, what followed did not live up to the hype their set instilled in me but it was still an enjoyable night out at the theatre. The cast has been scaled down to eleven actors, the orchestra is composed of the scrappy piano (beautifully tuned, of course), a violinist (who plays expertly), and found objects such as a ukulele and an old metal wash bin to name a couple.  The way the show is performed was imaginative and I give this production its due credit on this front. The show unfolds as though you were putting it on at home in your barn (helped tremendously by the feeling of the set), but of course with a professional cast, lighting, costumes, and set. Its cozy and intimate and feels so inviting and personal. It’s like two and a half hours of visual story time and I haven’t sat through a production that feels like it has captured the fairy tale story aspect of this particular musical before. Many kudos to this team for bringing that to light.

There were times throughout the show where many of the actors reached for notes in songs that they couldn’t hit and the songs fell a little short of greatness except for Jacob Krech (Jack) and Tiffany LaBarbera Palmer (The Witch). Palmer plays a pretty standard approach of The Witch. She’s a bit zany, a bit creepy, but overall commandeers attention when on stage with her sheer presence. She did a beautiful rendition of “Children Will Listen” and “Last Midnight” that I thoroughly enjoyed which, I suppose is a true credit to her talent since those are usually not my favorite songs of the show. Jacob Krech, though. Wow.  It was hard to pay attention to anyone else while he was on stage. He was fascinating to watch even when he wasn’t speaking or singing because I was so intrigued by what he was getting up whether that was the way he peeked out from behind the trunk like he was eavesdropping on The Witch and Rapunzel or having fun with Milky White (his best cow) while The Baker and The Baker’s Wife sorted things out center stage. I’m really looking forward to seeing where his career goes from here and hoping he’ll be in something again soon.

Well, I think that’s all I’ll say on this post since the show has closed. I’m a big fan of Into the Woods as a show due to the versatility of the material so I’m really excited to see more productions of this show and see what else people can do with this material.  Keep your eye out for Domino One Productions, too, the company that put on this version of Into the Woods. They could grow into another Cupcake Theater if they keep this up.

Just My Imagination Runnin’ Away With Me

Shortly before I saw Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations during its pre-Broadway run at The Ahmanson in Los Angeles, I had just seen Dreamgirls a few days before so I was in a Motown mood for sure. Coincidentally, one of the actors from this production of Ain’t Too Proud was in the audience at Dreamgirls and Michael Pettinato (the owner and artistic director of the Cupcake Theater) sang his show’s praises so I was pretty hype to see this show by the time it rolled around.

Before seeing Ain’t Too Proud, I didn’t really know anything about The Temptations. I knew a few songs like “My Girl” and “Get Ready” but was unaware of the history behind the group or most of the songs so I was really looking forward to this biopic musical.

Temptations Lineup Main stage
Photo by: Matthew Murphy

From very early on, Ain’t Too Proud is reminiscent of another all male group focused musical, Jersey Boys. This production deviates from the inevitable comparisons by driving the story through a single narrator — the group’s founding member, Otis Williams portrayed by Derrick Baskin. This is fitting since Otis is the only surviving member of the original group, the owner of the trademark name “The Temptations”, and the author or the book on which this musical is based.

Since the musical has a single narrator rather than allowing each member of the group a chance to tell part of the story, the musical unfolds in a more consistent story. At first I was concerned that I may miss the character building opportunities in allowing each original member a piece of the story, but The Temptations are such larger than life characters it’s easy to distinguish them and they each receive their due time in the spotlight.

Some pieces of the story seems a little unnecessary as Dominique Morisseau tries to tell the full story of The Temptations in a little over two hours. As a result the musical falls into that trap of having a fun, upbeat first act and a wildly dramatic (and traumatic) second act. The story’s huge scope also inevitably create patterns with their frontmen each falling prey to the spotlight first with David Ruffin and then Dennis Edwards as well as Eddie Kendricks that can feel repetitive. Don’t get me wrong, showcasing the toxic nature of fame and its corruption of the aforementioned men is an important part of the story but I would have appreciated a more narrow focus. That being said, it was cool to hear how some of the famous songs came to be and the highlighted differences between Smokey Robinson’s songwriting and Norman Whitfield’s songwriting.

The other bummer about having such a huge story arc to cover is the truncated versions of some of the greatest hits of The Temptations. Rather than a few minute number you would hear normally, there may be half a song or a tiny piece of a song rather than a full number.  While this allows for more songs from the Motown catalogue of music, which is great, small tidbits definitely left me wanting.

Enough about the structure and the story…let’s talk about those Temptations!

dancing gents aint too proud
Photo by: Matthew Murphy

These gentleman were incredible. As previously mentioned, Derrick Baskin helms the whole musical as Otis Williams. He may not have many standout solos but he narrates the show as a whole and he brings such a strong, level head to the group and embodies the motto of putting the group first rather than just an individual. Baskin captures the heart and soul of the group with ease.

Jawan Jackson as Melvin Franklin is mesmerizing. Though he may speak too much throughout the show, when he does he’s usually great comedic relief and the voice of reason. His deep bass  adds such a great layer to the harmonies, I definitely wish there were more occasions to isolate his voice from the others. Jackon’s voice is rare but wonderful.

James Harkness brings a subtle brokenness to Paul Williams whose descent into his depression and alcoholism is truly heartbreaking over the course of the musical. He has a beautiful voice, but his emotional presence throughout really impressed me.

Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks was my second favorite Temptation. His falsetto is angelic. Pope emerges halfway through as a real contender for the frontman spot. From the beginning, it’s easy to tell he’ll be trouble. He doesn’t want to join the group because he and Paul have their own duo going and he’s the star, but there’s also something inherently charming about Pope’s Eddie that you have to forgive him as he recedes into a jealous, dare I say bitter, man.

The real stand out of the production for me was Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin.

David Ruffin - Aint Too Proud
Photo by: Doug Hamilton

Sykes brings the slick dance moves and a huge, dynamic voice. He’s easily the star of the show. His presence on stage demands your attention before he even starts to sing. During the section of the show where they have kicked Ruffin out of the group for missing performances and rehearsals due to his gambling and drug addictions, his presence is sorely missed on stage so you can imagine my excitement to have him back at the end of the show. With a voice like Sykes, it’s easy to imagine why Whitfield would feature Ruffin as the lead in the group’s many singles. Sykes is a truly engaging performer and I’m looking forward to seeing him in many more shows to come.

The show as a whole is a really fun night out so if you’re at all interested in Motown music or The Temptations, you’ll probably really enjoy yourself. One last word of caution though, if you’re going to go try your best to get tickets in the center. I sat off center in my usual tickets and the projections on the set was blurry at parts and difficult to see the full picture. Some if it was really cool, like the Fox Theatre in the first picture of the article, but others were a little more difficult.

Ain’t Too Proud is closing September 30th at The Ahmanson but will be making its Broadway transfer in spring of 2019. Get your tickets while it’s still in town either through the Ahmanson site or through Goldstar. (Please note: as of this writing Goldstar is currently sold out of their discounted tickets for Ain’t Too Proud but they may add more during the duration of its run).

Your Dream’s Just About to Come True

The longer you know me, the more you’re going to hear about this delightful little theater here in North Hollywood, The Cupcake Theater. You might recognize that this was also where I saw an unforgettable production of  my favorite musical, Spring Awakening. Since they moved to this location, I have seen nine of Cupcake’s twelve productions (and two of those I missed were produced for children so I’m not sure that really counts against me here). I’m a huge fan of this company not only for their world class talent but also for their mission to provide affordable tickets so everyone can have a chance to come and see the excellent work they do here.  While nothing is ever going to replace Spring Awakening as my favorite show (both as a Cupcake production and on a general scale), Dreamgirls is a truly phenomenal show.

Cast photo
Photo Credit: Joel D. Castro

Producing a huge show like Dreamgirls, is a challenge even larger than Cupcake’s past endeavor of putting on Hairspray (a feat Cupcake made look so simple it garnered attention even from NBC’s Hairspray Live production crew for their incredible work) and once again they rose to the occasion, opening the door, I’m sure, for more small companies to tackle this legendary show. It doesn’t take a fancy set to make a production like this work. You need the right cast to anchor the show with voices that transcend the space, the right band (led this time around by Darrell Alston whom worked with the national tour of Dreamgirls) to capture that Motown sound, a great choreographer (helmed here by Tor Campbell who also directs) who understands the dance styles of the day, and a costume and makeup department to create those iconic looks and handle say…a hundred or so wigs for the cast.

dreamgirls black my cast
Photo Credit: Joel D. Castro

No production of Dreamgirls would get very far without its titular girl group at the center. For my show, I saw Jania Foxworth as Effie, who perfectly captures her journey from diva to humbled starlet with such powerful vocal range; Foxworth’s “(And I Am Telling You) I’m Not Going” is every bit the showstopper you expect but Foxworth also shines during these more pained and revealing songs such as “Family” and “I Am Changing.” Shaunté Massard as Deena Jones also shines, emerging from her early place in Effie’s shadows to take her place as a diva who can go truly go toe-to-toe with Foxworth’s Effie.  A real standout for me, however, was Courtney Kendall as Lorelle.

Lorelle and her boo
Photo Credit: Joel D. Castro

Lorelle is one of those characters that can get lost in the battle of the divas if not tackled by an actress of Kendall’s talent. I enjoyed her character, portrayed as this sweet bundle of joy who believes in her sisters in this group. It surprised me when we got to Lorelle’s big stand out number, “Ain’t No Party” that inside this bubbly young lady was a voice as large as Foxworth and Massard’s. Her dynamic with Jimmy, played by Chad Ra’Sun was one of my favorite relationships on stage. They’re both such large personalities the way they interact is one of the highlights of the show for me.

The whole company is truly fantastic but I’d be remiss not to mention the incredible people behind the scenes. As you can probably tell from the pictures above and below, Cupcake has found a truly incredible costume designer in La Tanya Louis and a brilliant Hair/Wig designer in Byron Batista.

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Photo Credit: Joel D. Castro

With such great talent both on stage and off, Dreamgirls is not a production to miss while it’s running, now through September 30th! This is a great show with a heartfelt theme of sisterhood and its exploration of how fame affects people. Cupcake’s production value will make you believe in your local theaters and their ability to tackle even a large show like this one and deliver. Get your tickets now while they last either from the Cupcake Theater’s website or through Goldstar

A Dream Is a Soft Place To Land

Today’s special: A Taste of Something Special Pie. Start with catchy music from Sara Bareilles. Add in an engaging script from Jessie Nelson. Next, throw in a healthy handful of comedy for zest. Finish with an incredible cast. Bake for 2 hours and 45 minutes (including intermission).

Waitress the Musical
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Okay, okay, okay, I’ll admit that was a little cheesy but I couldn’t resist! Guess I’ll leave the pies to Jenna and the rest of the colorful characters that bring together this truly delightful musical that’s not afraid to dig into its heavy subject matter but presents it in such a palatable and engaging manner. Waitress has you laughing through one scene  and then unapologetically thrusts you smack dab in the middle of domestic abuse. Honestly, that’s one of the things I appreciated most about this show as a whole though. It feels so realistic in its presentation and treatment of this sensitive storyline. Jenna is stuck in a horrible situation, trying to make it through day by day with a little help from her friends and pouring her troubles out into each pie she bakes like she learned from her mom. It’s almost easy to forget what her home life is like until her husband Earl tromps into the scene and saps all the positive emotions right out of the scene.

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Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

It’s a very delicate balance but the groundbreaking all-female creative team behind Waitress make it look so easy with this multi-layered musical full of such incredible heart and soul. I loved this show from start to finish. By intermission, I was looking for my roommate to take our usual selfies and asking when were going to come back for round two.

This whole cast truly impressed me. The show is anchored by Desi Oakley who brings such strength to Jenna but also so much vulnerability especially in her standout solo “She Used To Be Mine” which is easily one of my favorites off the cast album in general. The entire audience loved Desi’s rendition of this particular song so much all of the applause delayed the show for a good thirty seconds. She is incredible! I was completely enamored with her whole performance.  Her chemistry with her costars was so fun and believable, especially with the other leading ladies of the show.

Waitress the Musical
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Lenne Klingaman is such a fun Dawn. She brings the awkwardness of this OCD and anxiety ridden character and makes it completely charming. The sassy Becky is brought to life by Charity Angél Dawson who knocks her solo “I Didn’t Plan On It” right out of the park and way up into the stratosphere. Desi, Lenne, and Charity in their scenes together have the same quick banter that you’d expect from people who have been friends for a long time and there’s no doubt  this trio really care about each other and are having fun time up on that stage living in the shoes of these characters.

I’d be remiss not to mention a couple of the men in the company too.  Though Larry Marshall (Joe) and Nick Bailey (Earl) are both noteworthy in the cast, there’s a couple of other people I’d really like to highlight. The first is Bryan Fenkart who plays Dr. Pomatter, the new-to-town gynecologist, who is so delightfully funny and awkward all at the same time.

Look at them!!!
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Bryan’s performance is so endearing and his comedic timing is just perfect. Honestly, you can’t help but love him. Don’t even get me started on the way he sings “You Matter to Me” with such honest emotion and earnest affection. It’s one of the most beautiful moments of the show.

For anyone who knows the cast album or knows the show though, you’ll know the real scene stealer is the over-the-top and rather ridiculous Ogie played here by Jeremy Morse.

Waitress the Musical
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Jeremy is one of those actors that’s just not afraid to embarrass himself for a laugh. Where Bryan wins for the witty dialogue, Jeremy takes the crown for physical comedy. whether it’s the clog dance in the middle of his big number, “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” or the slips and falls Ogie has pursuing Dawn early into the musical. His performances of his spontaneous poetry? Also pure gold. Jeremy is such a delight to watch and I’d feel bad for him due to second-hand embarrassment if I wasn’t too busy laughing so hard.  Even if you don’t like the rest of the show, Jeremy’s presence on stage I’m confident will at least make you crack a smile.

It cannot be overstated how much fun I had watching this. From the first notes of “Opening Up” to the hopeful tones that round out “Everything Changes”, Waitress is such a good time that you won’t regret this night well spent at the theatre. I am so excited to go catch this again while it’s here at Pantages Hollywood through August 26th.

If you get there early, make sure to snag a little pie either from inside the theatre ($10 for a small jar) or across the street at The Pie Hole which offers discounts if you have your ticket or your playbill.

Truly, Heaven Must Feel Like This

The first musical that launched me into the world of theatre, specifically musicals, was actually Spring Awakening so I can’t think of a better first show to discuss on this blog than the production running at my favorite local haunt, The Cupcake Theater. I have actually seen this show three times while it’s been running and it’s never been quite the same each time which is really the beauty of live theatre.

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Photo Credit: Joel D. Castro

Before I get into the actual experience of seeing this production, I have to really compliment The Cupcake Theater’s artistic director, Michael Pettinato, who, in deciding to do this show, wanted to bring in an all-female team to highlight a softer side to this show and draw out its more nuanced emotional core.  The team has really delivered on this front!  The vocal arrangements are incredible, the choreography is powerful, and the direction has really brought out the stories of the ladies of this show.

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Photo Credit: Joel D. Castro

Shocking as it is to some, Wendla actually has a story to tell beyond her naivety and her tragic romance with Melchior! There is so much more to her character than meets than eye and both Kelly Hancock and Mandie Hittleman draw out different aspects to Wendla in their separate turns on the stage. I saw Mandie Hittleman twice and Kelly once and each performance was completely different from the last and created such a new picture of this character for me. I walked out of that show with a newfound respect and love for Wendla that I previously did not have in comparison to her male co-stars. You really get to see her heart here. She truly loves and cares about the people that are around her that extends even beyond her friends and Melchior. She cares about society as a whole; she cares about helping people who have less than her not just because it’s something they do in church but because she actually wants to help and she wants to make this world a better place.  This kind of idealism can come off as part of this ploy to create her as a tragic naive heroine but there’s more to it than that. It’s really interesting to watch her come into her own on stage as the show progress to its climax that is really brought to attention in this particular production and not so much in its predecessors. Major kudos to The Cupcake for this.

Before I move on there’s one other particular thing I want to highlight with the ladies. The struggles of Martha and Ilse are uniquely highlighted and illustrated through a powerful sequence of choreography during “The Dark I Know Well” that truly captures the helplessness they feel even as they recount the horrors they endure on a daily basis but also those still to come not even just for them but potentially for the other women in the show. This was one of my favorite moments of the show and it’s not one I think I’ll soon forget. I wish there were production stills I could share of this moment to even give you the smallest of hint what it’s like. Such an incredibly smart decision from this team.

I would be remiss to write this post without mentioning the men of this show. A major shout out has to go to Evan Marshall who was such a powerful Melchior. He had that rebellious nature that we know and love about Melchior but played it with such an emotional presence that illustrated what his character has been searching for this whole time — someone who understands him and someone who also wants more than just the stagnant world around them.  In light of this, it’s certainly easy to understand why all the girls on stage are swooning over him during “My Junk.” Don’t even get me started on that voice that can move between the soft falsetto of “Left Behind” into a more grungy rock feel for “Totally Fucked” so easily. It’s incredible. Truly.  You can bet I’ll be on the lookout for another chance to Evan on stage.

Oh. Friendly warning. There’s spoilers ahead.

While I loved Melchior, I have to admit I was a little divided on Moritz. My first time seeing this production, I was delighted to have Thomas Adoue Polk in the role who I had seen in his outings as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors and Will in American Idiot, both at The Cupcake.

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Photo Credit: Joel D. Castro

He brings a more comical side to the character that felt more like the other iterations of the musical I had seen (Deaf West Spring Awakening and…do I dare admit…the bootleg of the original cast) that brings such a levity to the show in all the right moments while also making his inevitable suicide somehow even more tragic. This could be because you really see how “the system” and society’s rejections of him truly destroy him.

Thomas also has a really great voice for the rock leanings of this show’s music so his rendition of “Don’t Do Sadness” was so on point but also a little bit familiar. Not that that’s a bad thing because, as we know, John Gallagher Jr. took home a Tony for his performance as Moritz.The Cupcake put a lot of effort into doing some new with the rest of the show and everything sounds so fresh and new, I did want a little bit more variation from him. Take that with a grain of salt though since I truly enjoyed his performance and was looking forward to seeing him a second time.

I did end up seeing Robert Manion twice in the role of Moritz, not Thomas, and his approach to Moritz is almost the exact opposite of his castmate.

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Photo Credit: Joel D. Castro

My first time seeing Robert, I was underwhelmed. He presented a Moritz that is somber and morose the entire show in a way that  sucked the energy from some of the scenes that he was in, especially those moments before “Bitch of Living” and “Touch Me.” This approach to his character really works well for the second half of the show when we see Moritz spiral but it left me  wanting more of an arc from him.  I wanted to see Mortiz change and grow and move toward something, and it frustrated me to see the same thing from Robert in each scene.

Now, that being said, I also saw him a second time that was far more balanced. More reserved than my experience with Thomas,  but not nearly as one-level as the time before. Robert has this soft voice that is beautiful  but also such a  commanding presence on stage that is a really unique combination especially for Moritz. He sings with a more timid voice which really works for “Don’t Do Sadness” in illustrating this struggle Moritz is having with his decision to kill himself. You can see his fear and the utter despair in his soul which lands so much more heavily on the audience when you see those moments of hope and utter joy from the first act. I understand, on one hand,  the instinct to portray Moritz as this almost haunted individual who, from the beginning, doesn’t fit with the people around him and is struggling to conform to society and perform at the level everyone so rigidly expects because it really highlights Moritz as a victim. I do think Moritz is a clear victim, like Wendla and Melchior, but I prefer an approach that doesn’t make his suicide seem inevitable from the first moment we see him. The second time I saw Robert, he captured more of that and I enjoyed the show even more as a result.

Before I go, here’s one last production still before I go during one of the most popular and iconic songs from this show, “Touch Me.”

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Photo Credit: Joel D. Castro

In the middle is Rehyan Rivera who was one of the stand outs for me. I’ve seen him in a couple of shows at The Cupcake but never quite like this.  He is such a delight to watch. He’s an incredible dancer (and choreographer, actually! He recently won a Valley Theatre Award for his choreography for Cupcake’s production of Legally Blonde. Congratulations!) and his voice is so smooth and strong. Incredible job all three times I had the privilege to see him. I can’t wait to see what’s next for him.

Honestly, you can’t go wrong with this production. The Cupcake has really put forth what I think is their best show to date. Now, I might be biased because this kind of heavy and tragic musical is pretty much my aesthetic but I’d like to believe I still have some objective opinion on every show I have a chance to see.

Spring Awakening is closing very soon so if you’re in the LA area and aren’t sure what do this weekend, check it out before it closes on July 8th! You can get tickets either through The Cupcake’s website here or grab some slightly cheaper tickets from Goldstar. Do what you can to get out there and support this theater. I’d be going again if I weren’t already seeing something weekend. Maybe I should rearrange my schedule to go anyway….