SEPTEMBER 2008

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9 to 5: THE MUSICAL by music and lyrics by Dolly Parton, book by Patricia Resnick | Ahmanson Theatre
BE LIKE WATER by Dan Kwong | East West Players
DON'T TALK TO THE ACTORS by Tom Dudzick | Laguna Playhouse
AN ITALIAN STRAW HAT by John Strand and Dennis McCarthy | South Coast Repertory
MEMPHIS by Joe DiPietro, music and lyrics by David Bryan | La Jolla Playhouse
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR by William Shakespeare | The Old Globe


Stephanie J. Block, Marc Kudish, Allison Janney and Megan Hilty in '9 to 5: the Musical' at the Ahmanson. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Hello Dolly

Putting the goods up front has always worked for country-pop icon Dolly Parton. And, true to form, 9 to 5: the musical wastes no time in filling the Ahmanson Theatre with the nudging eighth-note thump of the 1980 film's title tune. Unlike the characters who sang it, the song rocketed to the top, taking the #1 spot on Billboard's pop and country charts and earning the singer-songwriter an Oscar nomination and two Grammy Awards. But thoughts that this musical version (through October 19) is resting on past laurels without anything new to back it up can be dismissed. Rich in talent and ideas, this 9 to 5 parallels the Parton lyric "don't judge me by the cover, 'cause I'm a real good book."

That opening song is the only "cover" in the show, directed with firm control and great originality by Joe Mantello. Nineteen new songs weave through a real good book by Patricia Resnick, who scripted the film. They include "Backwoods Barbie," a Parton mini-biography (with the lyric quoted above) that is the title track of Parton's February 2008 CD.

The story is set in a microcosm of the American workplace at the dawn of the 1980s. Typewriters clack away as dinosaur copiers chew documents. An aloof executive, Franklin Hart, Jr. (Marc Kudisch) terrorizes his employees, cheats on his wife Missy (Lisa Howard), and hits on Doralee (Megan Hilty), a hard-working staffer who happens to enjoy looking like a showgirl. While she forsakes easy advancement by rejecting Hart's advances, he spreads rumors to the contrary through his devoted office manager, Roz (Kathy Fitzgerald). That isolates her from the other women, including the leader of the workers, Violet (Allison Janney). Violet, three years a widow and with a teenage son to raise, regularly sees the promotions she has earned go to men she has trained.

The show begins as Judy (Stephanie J. Block) arrives in an outfit Pollyanna would have worn (William Ivey Long created the beautiful period ensembles). Making it clear that unfair practices extend from boardroom back to bedroom, the script introduces a divorcing Judy, cut loose by a husband seeking younger, looser women. She, Violet and Doralee will eventually split their differences and become friends as they share Cannibis-fueled fantasies of smoking the boss. Unintentionally, one of the plans gets played out and they spend Act II trying to avoid getting caught for kidnapping.

Like the movie, the musical slips its message about workplace inequalities and indignities suffered by women into a universal message. The song, in fact, is a non-discriminatory blast at exploitation of workers of both sexes. Thanks to Kudisch's wonderful characterization, Hart is hateful, but with just the right cartoon shading. Maybe it's too many performances of Pirates of Penzance on Broadway, but his style, especially in his introductory "Here for You," suggests the glinty-toothed smarm of Disney's Captain Hook. That the sycophantic Roz looks like Smee and "Violet's" fantasy is played out in Snow White dress and Minnie Mouse hair bow, are further invitations to Disney world.

Musically, Parton works her crossover magic with country, Nashville and pop styles. She is well-served by Stephen Oremus' crisp direction of one of the finest pit bands in memory, richly delivering the range of styles from lush ballads to a funky instrumental break that would make Quincy Jones proud.

The cast is excellent down to the last dancer, and though Janney may not be a Broadway singer, she acquits herself just fine. Mantello's decision to trade off for a lead grounded in acting (and with "West Wing" celebrity) is welcome. Like all the leads - including Fitzgerald - she makes the most of the showcase solos Parton has created. In addition to her "Barbie" number, Hilty gets a domestic pop duet with her husband (Charlie Pollack) that could justify Parton reuniting with the Gambler to chart those "Islands in the Stream" waters. Block's self-determination epiphany, "Get Out and Stay Out," is the kind of great stand-and-deliver Broadway moment that builds to an audience-tingling climax. As the show really gets its legs, the audience may well find its and give her a mid-act standing O.

While the women's fantasy numbers - including one for Roz – are what Broadway audiences pay to see, they come at the expense of neglected story development. However, with a Scott Pask set that seems to reconfigure as quickly and magically as a kaleidescope - thanks in part to a massive diamond vision screen for an upstage wall - it's a gripe that hardly seems worth making. (One typically ingenious backdrop is a forced-perspective, black-and-white world right out of a Stanley Kramer film.)

But for all her charming music, Parton owes her success to Mantello and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who pass control of the action back and forth in a fluid exchange. Blankenbueler inserts plenty of story-specific gestures into his moves while seamlessly incorporating phones and other office machines into the movement. Montello beautifully manages the overlapping time frames: providing a sense of the mini-arc of a nine-to-five workday (beginning with the percussive swatting of morning alarm clocks); the longer arc of Judy's beginning career; and the play's kidnapping plot (including a "where-they-are-now" epilogue that sums up entire lifespans).

While the show's office equipment may be a thing of the past, office gossip and sexual politics are not. Parton and Resnick surely don't want to suggest that they are or ignore a chance to say they still need addressing. So, they take advantage of a scene in which, under Violet's temporary management, the company has undergone some minor progressive changes. It's a quick salute to acknowledge we're on the right track. It may be only a momentary tie down to the real world, but it's one more good reason to leave 9 to 5 feeling good.


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9 TO 5: THE MUSICAL

music and lyrics by DOLLY PARTON
book by PATRICIA RESNICK
choreography by ANDY BLANKENBUEHLER directed by JOE MANTELLO

AMMANSON THEATRE

September 3 - October 19, 2008
(Opened 9/20, rev'd 9/21m)

CAST Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block, Megan Hilty, Andy Karl, Kathy Fitzgerald, Marc Kudisch, Ioana Alfonso, Timothy George Anderson, Jennifer Balagna, Justin Bohon, Paul Castree, Dan Cooney, Jeremy Davis, Gaelen Gilliland, Autumn Guzzardi, Ann Harada, Lisa Howard, Van Hughes, Kevin Kern, Brendan King, Michael X. Martin, Michael Mindlin, Karen Murphy, Mark Myars, Jessica Lea Patty, Charlie Pollock, Tory Ross, Wayne Schroder, Maia Nkenge Wilson, Brandi Wooten

MUSICIANS Stephen Oremus, Conductor/Keyboard; Matthew Gallagher, Associate Conductor/Keyboards; Brian Scanlon, Woodwind 1; Rusty Higgins, Woodwind 2; Chris Eble, Trumpet 1; Marissa Benedict, Trumpet 2; Robert Payne, Trombone; Craig Ware, Trombone 2; Brian Reardon, Guitar 1; Jay Leach, Guitar 2; Ken Wild, Bass; Sean McDaniel, Drums; Marvin Gordy, Percussion; James Sitterly, Violin; Miguel Martinez, Cello

PRODUCTION Scott Pask, set; William Ivey Long, costumes; Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer, lights; John H. Shivers, sound; Peter Nigrini, Fisher + Eisenhauer, imaging; Paul Huntley, wigs/hair; Alex Lacamoire, dance arrangements; Bruce Coughlin, orchestrator; Stephen Oremus, music direction and vocal/song arrangements

HISTORY World Premiere


Stephanie J. Block, Marc Kudish, Allison Janney and Megan Hilty
Craig Schwartz

Enter the year of the dragon

In Be Like Water, receiving its world premiere at East West Players (through October 12), playwright Dan Kwong, whose primary credits are as a performance artist, reveals an ability to adapt the huge issues (racism, mother-daughter stalemates, application of ancient wisdom) to living-room scale. He balances these disparate dimensions so that the expansiveness, danger and instruction of the unknowable elements of his story are just as active in the day-to-day trials of these familiar family characters.

Michael Sun Lee, Pam Hayashida, Ariel Rivera, Saya Tomioka and Shawn Huang in 'Be Like Water' at East West Players. Photo by Michael Lamont

Director Chris Tashima has accepted Kwong's challenge to find four teenagers who can carry most of the show's weight. The toughest roles are the play's lead, Tracy, played by Saya Tomioka, and her friend played by Shawn Huang. For the most part they hold her own. Tomioka is good as the pivotal Tracy. She hasn't figured out how to modulate her big fights with her mom into something more than screaming. And all the kids seem blissfully unaware that the pervasive attitude of sarcasm (as in, "hel-LO") developed since the '70s. It's a contemporary cliche that would be wise to lose. But these are clearly dedicated performers and nuance will come. Fortunately, she is sharing the stage with one of the most wonderful characterizations seen this year.

As the Ghost of Bruce Lee, Cesar Cipriano turns what could be a poster-thick movie star portrait into a tribute to the actor and all the Asian American teens who saw in him a powerful, uplifting on screen reflection. Though Lee's movies never merited more than a B, the star was by default the A-list Chinese actor in America. James Hong, Jack Soo and Pat Morita weren't about to challenge Stallone, Norris and Reynolds in the testosterone department. The emergence of Lee, even in his tragically short life (mirrored by the short life of his son Brandon, who like Dad died just before his biggest film was released), gave young men - like Kwong, one assumes - reason to stride out of a theater with head high.

Cesar Cipriano in 'Be Like Water' at East West Players. Photo by Michael Lamont

Cipriano looks like Lee, moves like Lee (at least enough to convince the uninitiated), and is clearly a trained dancer - which adds precision to Kwong and Tashima's big theatrical moment. Also, he delivers his aphorisms with a mix of the ancient sage and the deadpan comic, leaving just enough crack between the two to laugh at himself.

Tracy is an only-child daughter of a Chinese-American father (Michael Sun Lee) and Japanese-American mother (Pam Hayashida). Kwong even manages to encapsulate the Sino-Japanese issues of World War II into this relationship, with references to the occupation playing out in the couple's obvious willingness to overlook the brutalities.) Tracy is a tomboy. It's 1978, and disco is setting the style, and style is seeming very shallow. (Dave Iwataki creates a time-travel sound survey.) Tracy's best friend, a diminutive classmate saddled with the outsized name of Bruce Lee (Huang), is not a fan of the film star, but instead a fan of the dance craze. (Speaking of anachronisms, Lil Lee carries a personal stereo, like a Walkman, which wasn't even introduced in Japan until 1979; Tracy switches off her TV with a remote, which were hardly the stuff of poor kid bedrooms back then.)

Together, Tracy and Bruce keep each other from being friendless. Representing Ms. Perfect is Tina (Ariel Rivera), also of Japanese-American descent. She's a model citizen in the eyes of Tracy's mom because she is always dressed like a lady, and participates in school projects.

Part of the non-ladylike behavior that drives Tracy's mom nuts is her study of - and proficiency at - Kung Fu fighting, something her father tacitly encourages. It has made her a schoolyard force to be reckoned with. The play's lone white kid, Jeremy (Jonathan Decker), embodies racism. He lays on the epithets with such abandon that it won't be surprising if a folding chair comes flying out of the audience at him during a performance. Understandably, when Tracy can no longer take the taunts, she lets him have it.

In something between a hallucination and a visitation, Lee's Ghost appears to Tracy to offer guidance. He is a Sifu, a teacher. In accordance with the old Taoist lesson to "be like water," Lee has attained this afterlife travel pass through understanding of the great teachings. How he arrives is another subtle comic device that the team take advantage of, aided by Alexander Gao's projections, in an example of how East West continues to expand its limited stage. (Though projecting the television show Tracy briefly watches seems like a missed opportunity.) Lee explains to Tracy why water,:which seeks the level and flows around immovable objects, is to be emulated.

The nicest moment in the show, which Kwong earns through the steady, honest build of his plot and characters, is a coming together of the sacred and the profane of Kung Fu and disco. Here the Ghost of Bruce Lee and the young, somewhat nerdy Bruce Lee gradually merge fight moves into dance moves and vice versa. It's an original moment that touches this show with magic. Kudos to Diana Lee Inosanto and Ron Balicki, who contributed the martial arts choreography, and Blythe Matsui, credited with the dance moves.

Much of the musical memories, however, come to cover scenery shifts by the busy actors that are adding time to the show and should be refined by Tasumi and set designer Akeime Mitterlehner. Given the great projection screen to help establish location, some simpler piece that doesn't require so much resetting should have been employed. If there's one tip the set design needed, it's the play's title. By being more fluid, the play would also benefit from a Western cliche: less is more.


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BE LIKE WATER


by DAN KWONG
directed by CHRIS TASHIMA

EAST WEST PLAYERS

September 11-October 12, 2008
(Opened 9/17, rev'd 9/19)

CAST Cesar Cipriano, Saya Tomioka, Shawn Huang, Jonathan Decker, Michael Sun Lee, Pam Hayashida, Ariel Rivera

PRODUCTION Akeime Mitterlehner, set; Naomi Yoshida, costumes; JosÈ Lopez, lights; Dave Iwataki, music/sound; Alexander Gao, projections; Diana Lee Inosanto/Ron Balicki, martial arts choreography; Blythe Matsui, dance choreography; Alyssa Ravenwood, hair/make-up/mask design; Ondina v. Dominguez, stage management

HISTORY World Premiere


Michael Sun Lee, Pam Hayashida, Ariel Rivera, Saya Tomioka and Shawn Huang (clockwise from top left); and Cesar Cipriano
Michael Lamont

Logan's run

The character of self-absorbed TV actor Curt Logan may have been miscast for the play within Tom Dudzick's backstage comedy Don't Talk to the Actors, but Steve Vinovich is spot-on to play him. The Laguna Playhouse West Coast premiere (through October 12), is a one-dimensional vehicle that works well in the hands of Rick Sparks' six-member cast. But Vinovich gets a role that is pitched straight for his wheelhouse. As a result, he knocks it - and the production - into next week.

Denise Moses, Joel Polis, Chris L. McKenna, Emily Eiden and Steve Vinovich in 'Don't Talk to the Actors' at Laguna Playhouse. Photo by Ed Krieger

Jerry (Chris L. McKenna), a Buffalo bank teller moonlighting as a playwright, is snatched from community theater celebrity by a chance meeting with a Broadway producer. Don't Talk begins as he and his fiancée Arlene (Emily Eiden) arrive in the dingy New York rehearsal room to which his play, a portrait of his parents entitled The Piano Tuner, has attracted a director from Chicago (Joel Polis), Broadway's "most sought-after" stage manager (Denise Moses), and the two actors: Beatrice Pomeroy (Eileen T'Kaye) and Logan.

Dudzick, who based this script on experiences with his own breakout play, Greetings, initially teases with big issues of chance versus determinism in a neatly rendered distinction between luck and miracles. But, ultimately, it's just groundwork to help excuse the dropping at curtain of a heavy-handed deus ex machina. The happy ending falls with a leaden desperation more at home in the fantasy films of the Depression-era.

By that time however, we've had our fun and are grateful for another chance to see Vinovich give another empty vessel the carefully crafted disguise of sincerity. Like comedy's great male lugheads, Vinovich creates an selfish buffoon we can't help loving. In the middle of serious discussion, what seems to be a deeply held conviction will lose his interest as easily as his LBJ grins slides from his face.

As the awestruck girl in the big city - doubly burdened by a childhood infatuation with Logan - Eiden shows off more than she could in her small part of Taking Steps at SCR last June. She moves effortlessly from unyielding girlfriend insisting Jerry be realistic to moon-eyed pool of jelly when Logan walks in the room. Polis, a journeyman with great instincts, becomes the show's anchor, and with McKenna, one of its two straight men. They admirably do their jobs and let the others - including Moses' depiction of another lunatic stage manager, and T'Kaye's thankless role as the less-than-funny co-star Pomeroy - get the laughs.

And there are laughs, mostly actor driven and certainly plenty for those with a working knowledge of theater. Dudzick can thank Sparks and company - including designers Bruce Goodrich, Julie Keen, Paulie Jenkins, and David Edwards - for making it real, fun and real fun.


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DON'T TALK TO THE ACTORS

by TOM DUDZICK
directed by RICK SPARKS

LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE

September 9-October 12, 2008
(Opened, rev'd 9/13)

CAST Emily Eiden, Chris L. McKenna, Denise Moses, Joel Polis, Eileen T'Kaye, Steve Vinovich

PRODUCTION Bruce Goodrich, set; Julie Keen, costumes; Paulie Jenkins, lights; David Edwards, sound; Peitor Angell, music; Rebecca Michelle Green/Nancy Staiger, stage management


Denise Moses, Joel Polis, Chris L. McKenna, Emily Eiden and Steve Vinovich
Ed Krieger
Erika Whalen, Matthew Koehler, Richard Doyle and Kasey Mahaffy in 'An Italian Straw Hat' at South Coast Repertory. Photo by Henry DiRocco

Candy-coloured song-sicle

Playwright John Strand and composer Dennis McCarthy have raided France's comedy closet for An Italian Straw Hat and re-blocked it for American heads. Stefan Novinski directs the South Coast Repertory premiere (through October 5). Like the 1851 original by Eugene-Marin Labiche and Marc Antoine Amedée Michel, this adaptation is a "vaudeville," inter-weaving 20 short songs from a cross-section of genres. Tipping the hat to tradition, however, has disturbed the balance of the farce. Regular interruptions of stage comedy's most demanding pace makes these tunes (that too often feel like filler) stand out like that fake fruit on the hat within the Hat.

The drag is mostly at the beginning, as plot and tone work to gain traction. Fortunately, Novinski has some of the region's finest musical comedy veterans - Michelle Duffy, Patrick Kerr, SCR's Richard Doyle, Alan Blumenfeld, an impressive Kasey Mahaffy, and the rest - on his side. Behind Daniel Blinkoff's frantic groom and doom, we gladly follow the pretzel plot as it elegantly twists like a Mobius strip, leaving us right where we started, only upside down.

A century after Moliere made farce a French export, "vaudeville" was added to the theater lexicon by smooshing the phrase "chanson du vau de Vire." The folksongs of Vire valley were known for their tart satire. Labiche, and a succession of writing partners, churned out more than 140 plays, most of which blended vaudeville and farce in the service of broad social comment. The French vaudevilles anticipated American Vaudeville of a century ago, as well as song-cycles and musical reviews that continue today.

Italian Straw Hat uses mistaken identity, stock vaudeville characters and what is ultimately a chasing-one's-own-tail plot mechanism to gently poke fun at contemporary morality and its hypocritical critics. Labiche lampoons a 19th Century society that was more concerned with what was on le tete than in it. Ironically, while Vaudeville may have died, at least in some cultures requiring women to cover their heads has not.

On the morning of Fadley's (Blinkoff) marriage to Helen (a delightful Erika Whalen), his horse devours a tree-hung hat whose owner, Annabelle (Duffy), is off bringing her soldier lover (Damon Kirsche) to attention in the bush. Although the tale hangs on the horse-eaten hat, we instead see it lost in a gale. It's a nice metaphor for the random winds of fate, but misleading.

In the original, both Annabelle and hat shop owner Clara (Melissa van der Schyff, in one of two colorful portraits) were former Fadley flames. It's an improvement to have Annabelle be a stranger, but it reduces Fadley's standing as a lady's man, and with it the reasons for his reticence to wed. As a result, Fadley's cold-feet number, "I'll Be Happy," seems an odd show of indecisiveness, and seems at odds with his fervor to replace the hat and get married, which drives the story.

Blinkoff proves himself a natural in the lead. His everyman demeanor and willingness to accept twists is balanced by just the right amount of comic panic. He's good enough to recall two of the 20th Century's great comedians (both of whom are cited in reference materials about Labiche's influence). In both shape and steadiness, Blinkoff's takes often recall the great stone face of young Buster Keaton. From the neck down, he is capable of wonders that he does not overdo, saving for the final moments a difficult bit of physical comedy: a knee-buckled, crumpling-under the weight of the world as deft as silly-walker John Cleese provided for Basil Fawlty.

Also getting high marks is Mahaffy, who was criticized in these pages for a too-Palinesque (the Python; not the "barracuda") delivery in SCR's Taking Steps. Here, he takes his two assignments - a paranoid shop clerk and a morose manservant - to giddy, original heights. Kerr, with his own comedic Keaton genes, is an uproarious sight gag as deaf Uncle Fez (though it seems his mis-hearing jokes could be written more sharply) and at the top of his form, visually and in delivery, as a thickly accented Viscount.

Duffy and Blumenfeld are both personal favorites who lend proven expertise in this kind of broad-swath silliness. For her parts, Duffy has the kind of show-stopping swagger she used to help make Pasadena Playhouse's revival of Can-Can the local hit of 2007. Blumenfeld's double-cast performances actually make Vaudeville seem viable again. Those who saw him keep a handle on his title role in Noise Within's wonderfully over-the-top Ubu Roi, will have a gas seeing his Act I opening in that show echoed in his Act II opening of this one.

Novinski, opening an SCR season with musical director Dennis Castellano as he did with Night Music' a year ago, has his challenges in homogenizing these stylistically complex piece. McCarthy has done well in filling the show with extra songs from across the spectrum of musical styles - operatta, song-and-dance, barbershop quartet, and others. But he's providing rhythmic variety in a show that relies on a precise clockwork pace. These may be inreconciable differences.

The design team is a good one, with Shigeru Yaji showing why he is local theater's couture designer (the subtle, hem-circling hat motif on Clara's dress is only one example). Lonnie Rafael Alcazar has some trouble overcoming the balance between footlights, sidelights and spotlights. Forced to isolate performers downstage (for some reason) we get shadows on faces while backs of heads are lit from one side. And Donna Marquet's Lavender House of Vaudeville is likely in a "hat box" motif. Still, the candy-colored stripes just add another layer of unreality for the cast to work against -- as if the contrivances of musical, farce, Vaudeville and a preposterous story weren't enough.)

Labiche authorized a sans-song version. When Strand and McCarthy first presented their adaptation in a 2007 SCR workshop, it had only half-a dozen songs. Though it seemed a successful compromise, they have gone back to the well and trebled their tunes. It now feels like they've returned with a heavy case of trunk songs. While they have a cast capable of hoisting this Hat high, it's a little wobbly getting it there.


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AN ITALIAN STRAW HAT:
A VAUDEVILLE

book and lyrics by JOHN STRAND
music by DENNIS McCARTHY
directed by STEFAN NOVINSKI

SOUTH COAST REPERTORY


September 5-October 5, 2008
(Opened 9/12, rev'd 9/13m)

CAST Daniel Blinkhoff, Erika Whalen, Richard Doyle, Melissa van der Schyff, Alan Blumenfeld, Patrick Kerr, Damon Kirsche, Michelle Duffy, Matthew Koehler, Kasey Mahaffy and Matthew Bartosch and Jake Wells

MUSICIANS Dennis Castellano, conductor/keyboards; James Mason, flute/piccolo/clarinet; Tim Hall, trumpet; Tim Christensen, bass; Louis Allee, percussion

PRODUCTION Donna Marquet, set; Shigeru Yaji, costumes; Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, lights; Drew Dalzell, sound; Christine Kellogg, musical staging; Jamie A. Tucker/Jennifer Ellen Butler, stage management

HISTORY World Premiere


Erika Whalen, Matthew Koehler, Richard Doyle and Kasey Mahaffy
Henry DiRocco
Montego Glover (singing) in 'Memphis' at the La Jolla Playhouse. Photo by JT Macmillan

Rock 'n' robbin'

The tagline for Memphis, a new musical at the La Jolla Playhouse (on the Mandell Weiss Theatre through September 28), is "The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll." That is good branding for a commercial theater entry with its eyes as much on Broadway as Beale Street. However, in mythologizing how a reckless, soul-smitten redneck named Huey gave radio the Big Bang that created the still-expanding youth market universe, Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan's (music and lyrics) enterprise really celebrates the birth of the commercialization of rock 'n' roll.

Montego Glover and Chad Kimball in 'Memphis' at the La Jolla Playhouse. Photo by JT Macmillan

Huey (Chad Kimball) is a blend of several pioneering radio personalities, specifically Dewey Phillips, a DJ on Memphis WHBQ-AM from 1949 to 1958. Like Huey, Phillips reached across racial barriers to build an audience of rabid fans who then followed him to greater notoriety (and advertising clout) on television. In 1954, it was Phillips who first played a record by Elvis Presley.

While Phillips, and later Cleveland's Alan Freed, were both established before challenging broadcast traditions, the mythic Huey is a nobody when he commandeers the WHDZ microphone and slips a radical disc onto the airwaves while the DJ is away. Immediately tossed out on his ear, Huey is quickly brought back and given his own show when crazed callers demand more.

Christopher Ashley (in his first directing assignment since becoming Artistic Director last year), keeps Memphis' 3Rs - race, radio and romance - spinning in balanced suspense. Anticipating the first act button is like watching a roulette wheel. Will it land in Huey's romance with Felicia (Montego Glover), his meteoric rise in radio, or his near suicidal challenge to entrenched racism?

Those who think the birth of rock 'n' roll should be concerned with the music makers rather than marketers, will instead have to content themselves with metaphor. The roots of rock begin underground (the title of the rousing opening number), in the basement nightclub run by Delray (J. Bernard Calloway). David Gallo's fluid set takes us beneath the street, where the legs of pedestrians parade high above the stage, and then follows the music as it breaks through the tarmac into a whites-only department store where Huey is a frustrated clerk. When he commandeers the store intercom for his 45s and sell more records in an afternoon than have been sold in a week, his ground-breaking point has been made.

The heart of Memphis, however, is the music, and for the purposes of the show Huey must be able to interpret it as well as its practitioners. Thankfully, Kimball is easily up to the challenge. The show gets off to a great start with the opening "Underground," delivered by the always spot-on Calloway, joined midway by Glover. That feeds into Kimball's introduction, when he arrives and brazenly shares the mic with Glover's Felicia on "The Music of My Soul."

But too much of what follows is musical-theater mainstreaming of rock, blues and R&B urgencies, there are moments that capture what all the fuss was about. Calloway is always the real deal, powering each of his songs. But, then, he has been given only one dimension (the essential one) to add. He provides the right level of smoldering anger that was the constant companion of artists and businessmen who were sidelined by recording raiders. In a musical from the perspective of those basement clubs, we might really get down with artists who recall Mama Thornton, Clarence Carter or Millie Jackson. Then, Felicia would be the central character, doing what she needed to do for fame and fortune. Even as a subplot to the Huey arc, Felicia is a great role for someone and, while Glover does fine, one can imagine the songs and sentiments landing more powerfully. She has a tendency to screech at the high end and.

The music doesn't generate too much real sizzle after those opening tunes, until we get within sight of the final curtain. Then, Bon Jovi member Bryan and DiPietro (I Love You You're Perfect Now Change, "All Shook Up") show us , "Memphis Lives in Me" and "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll." Even before the applause on Memphis one can sense that the audience has been uplifted in ways the bulk of the show did not achieve. It's as if these moments were the seed from which DiPietro and Bryan grew the show, which is based on an idea by George W. George (the writer/producer, and son of Rube Goldberg, who died in November 2007).

While the show should have success, it should not be confused with the birth of rock 'n' roll, lest we assume that music is born of clubs, singers and promoters rather than musicians, composers and poets.

This is not the stuff of revolution. And for all its messaging about the injustices, they are soft-pedaled. We are meant to empathize more with Huey's poverty than those who could not even shop, let alone be employed, at the store where he works. There is also some blindness about the realities of discriminated people engaging in candy-coated versions of the real deal. Ella Fitzgerald is knocked for being (even though she was a jazz singer who achieved artistry few other artists and virtually no white ones achieved) for catering to white audiences. It seems somewhat hypocritical for a piece that - even with its heart in the right place for denouncing racism and injustice - is a sanitized version of that for mainstream audiences.


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MEMPHIS

book and lyrics by JOE DiPIETRO
music and lyrics by DAVID BRYAN
choreography by SERGIO TRUJILLO
> directed by CHRISTOPHER ASHLEY

LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE

August 19-September 28
(Opened 8/26; Press 9/3; rev'd 9/6m)

CAST Brad Bass, Tracee Beazer, Josh Breckenridge, J. Bernard Calloway, Lorene Chesley, Kevin Covert, Dionne D. Figgins, Allen Fitzpatrick, Montego Glover, Steve Gunderson, James Monroe Iglehart, Lauren Lim Jackson, Chad Kimball, Cashae Monya, Cass Morgan, Jill Morrison, Irungu Mutu, Jiehae Park, John Eric Parker, Jermaine R. Rembert, Pearl Rhein, Melanie Vaughan, Michael Benjamin Washington, Daniel J. Watts, Charlie Williams, Megan Yelaney
strong>MUSICIANS Kenny Seymour, cnductor/keyboard1; Kevin Toney, keyboard 2; Steve Steinberg, reeds/flute; John Rekevics, tenor, baritone, bass clarinet; Steve Dillard, trumpet; Paul Nowell, trombone; Jacques Lesure, guitar; Hilliard Wilson, bass; Richard Sellers, drums

PRODUCTION David Gallo, set; Paul Tazewell, costumes; Howell Binkley, lights; Ken Travis/Shawn Sagady, sound; Shawn Sagady/David Gallo, projections; Charles G. LaPointe, wigs; Frank Hartenstein/Kelly A. Martindale/Hannah Wichmann, stage management ï Daryl Waters, orchestrations; August Eriksmoen, dance arranger

HISTORY World Premiere


Montego Glover (singing), top; inset Glover and Chad Kimball
JT Macmillan
Eric Hoffman and Katie MacNichol in 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' at The Old Globe. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Dressing makes the meal

Peter Mullins and Costume Designer Denitsa Bliznakova have moved Shakespeare's Merry Wives west from England's Windsor for the Old Globe Theatre's 2008 Summer Festival (rep'ing with Romeo and Juliet and All's Well That Ends Well through September 27). The updated dress and Old West address fit this version of the Falstaff Follies remarkably well.

Fitness, however, is not a word that comes to mind when sizing up the fat Falstaff. Eric Hoffman makes a visual feast of the deluded skirt-chaser, a 19th Century "Before" photo for a diet that doesn't work. Whether he is trussed in back-laced boots and elaborate fringe suede, or simply soaking his bare feet dressed in red flannels he looks like what might have happened to Wild Bill Hickock if he'd done a Brando and plumped up on a Tahitian beach. Hoffman, while he fills a fine Falstaff, is not an historic embodiment. The upside of that is, like Deborah Taylor's role-fitting Quickly, the characters blend in to the diorama rather than standing out.

There are stand-outs, however. The zing in this company of transplanted Windsorians comes from Katie MacNichol as Mistress Ford, Bruce Turk, her on-and-off-stage husband, and Wynn Harmon as the French dandy Dr. Caius.

Like everyone on stage, MacNichol looks great, but she (again, with a nod to the show's wig design) has also captured the flavor of early film stars (particularly those damsels in melodramatic Westerns). An occasionally rippled vocal delivery, brushing up against Billie Burke territory, adds to the package. Turk gives his two-faced Ford -- who masquerades as Brooke to win Falstaff's trust and derail his plans -- broad range. Whether he's climbing upon furniture to remain visible as his trap platform descends, or futzing with a flapping fake moustache, he's delightfully committed and comic. Harmon (last seen in the delightful Constant Wife here) is a walking window display of Franco-fun-poking. Not as wacky as Monty Python's rampart-walking, fortress-keeping, cow-tapulting Frenchies in Holy Grail, he's within range. This is important if he's going to nail the Act I button, and it's hard to imagine it being done better.

Mullins must be credited with keeping the now-familiar transposition of moving Shakespeare to the American West seem fresh. It's neither over-worked nor under-used, but feels appropriate enough. And with Blitznakova's designs and the Globe costume shop's execution, it's a treat for the eyes. A bevy of saloon girls, while so much window dressing, pour drinks, hang on counter or customer, and engage in a brief dance number that seems oddly detached. Perhaps a couple of lustful wranglers watching and clapping appreciatively would have helped. There is a full-cast dance scene that does accomplish its goal, thanks to choreographer Wesley Fata.

But the day goes to Mullins, Bliznakova, and of course the brilliant Ralph Funicello, whose versatile sign-festooned set, lit by York Kennedy, is a pleasant working environment for the cast and viewing area for the audience. Thanks to this design team, we're again reassured that you can dress these wives up and taken them pretty much anywhere.


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THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
directed by PETER MULLINS

OLD GLOBE THEATRE

June 21-September 27, 2008
((Opened 7/6, rev'd 9/6)

CAST Eric Hoffman, Katie MacNichol, Bruce Turk, Celeste Ciulla, Jonathan McMurtry, Charles Janasz, Wynn Harmon, Deborah Taylor, Owiso Odera, Heather Wood, and Michael Kirby, John Keabler, Sam Henderson, Nat McIntyre, Carolyn Ratteray, Sloan Grenz, Brian Lee Huynh, Anthony von Halle, Barbra Wengerd, Joy Farmer-Clary, Ashey Clements, Vivia Font

PRODUCTION Ralph Funicello, set; Denitsa Bliznakova, costumes; York Kennedy, lights; Christopher R. Walker, music/sound; Steve Rankin, fights; Wesley Fata, Choreography; Mary K. Klinger/Moira Gleason/Tracy Skoczelas/Annette Ye, stage management


Eric Hoffman and Katie MacNichol
Craig Schwartz