Friday, March 30, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "ROCK OF AGES" at Broadway San Diego

"Rock of Ages" Can't Stop the Best

Broadway SD will rock your socks off with a pulse-pounding, electrifying homage to the 80’s

By Donnie Matsuda

By modern day musical standards, Rock of Ages doesn’t do anything right.

The tribute to the 80’s musical boasts a paper-thin plot, features one-dimensional low-brow characters who are much more rockstar casual than musical theatre refined, and tops it all off with a score that evokes nostalgia with its recognizable radio tunes that do little to further its plot. But in spite of itself, the jagged pieces of the Rock of Ages puzzle somehow come together brilliantly to create a hilarious and highly entertaining jukebox musical that raises the rafters with its soaring guitar licks, heart-pounding drumming, and layers upon layers of blazing, ball-busting pop infused rock. So, if you're a big fan of vintage rock and don’t want to miss this totally rad musical trip down memory lane, get yourself down to the San Diego Civic Theatre, where the Rock of Ages national tour is currently rocking the house for a short time, now until April 1st.

Dominique Scott as Drew. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The barely-there book by Chris D’Arienzo and the spine-tingling score (which borrows some of the greatest songs of the 80’s by iconic rockers Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Pat Benatar, and Whitesnake) should totally work against the success of the show. However, it is because of these elements that Rock of Ages works so well as its brazenly self-aware characters and hokey script are more than endearing enough to fuel the tuneful, sing-along-with-your-favorite-hits score. And at the end of the day, that’s really why we’re all there: to soak in the rock concert vibe, raise our hands in the air, and bounce to the beat of one chart-topping tune after the next.

And who doesn’t love a predictable 80’s romance? This one is between big-city dreamer and wannabe rockstar Drew Boley and small-town girl turned aspiring actress Sherrie Christian (and yes, both Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie” and Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” feature prominently in the show’s playlist of iconic 80’s hits). These two bright-eyed youngsters fortuitously meet in L.A.’s most legendary rock club, The Bourbon Room, and suddenly, they want to know what love is. Sure, there are some minor complications thrown in for good measure (and to provide more excuses to insert more hit songs), but do we really think that a sleazy fling with Arsenal superstar Stacee Jaxx or the threat of gentrification by a German father-and-son development team will halt this made-up-for-the-musical romance? Don’t stop believing, people.

Dominique Scott as Drew (center) surrounded by the tour company of "Rock of Ages." Photo by Scott Suchman.

As rocker Drew, Dominique Scott brings a fresh face and some powerful pipes to the “innocent boy makes good” role. He is blessed with a soaring tenor that cuts through both his beautiful ballads and his angst-ridden anthems with an equal amount of fire and ice. Not only does he dazzle with his vocal pyrotechnics (which include some impressive solo riffs and soaring sustained notes), but he also adds some much needed-nuance to an otherwise bland and boring character. As his love interest Sherrie, Shannon Mullen delights with a perfect rocker-chic look and makes her transition from bright eyed ingénue to sassy stripper to wholesome leading lady as convincing as she possibly can. She’s also got one heck of a voice that imbues her bluesy ballads with a vibrant tone, and she fearlessly goes full force in her powerhouse duets with Drew, matching her man in both power and pizzazz.

In supporting roles, Justin Colombo is a hoot as the all-knowing show narrator Lonnie (he reads a book titled “Musicals for Dummies” and schools us on the appropriate use of “jazz hands”) while Matt Ban puts his droll deadpan to good use as club owner Dennis. When these two men can’t fight their feelings anymore and indulge in a full-fledged on-stage bromance over a fog machine, the show’s silly shenanigans reach an all-time high (or is it low?). And not to be upstaged in the camp department, Stephen Michael Kane really hams it up as the hair-tossing, lithe leaping, not-gay-but-just-German Franz, while Katie Postotnik nails the role of hippie protestor Regina (pronounced Reg-eye-na).

Shannon Mullen as Sherrie. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Director Adam John Hunter (who adapts Kristin Hanggi’s original direction for this tour) doesn’t miss a beat in his brisk staging and he keeps the energy high and the volume turned up so that his high-octane show has plenty of juice for its action-packed two and a half hours. And choreographer Marcos Santana (who recreates Kelly Devine’s original work here) amps up the energy with some incredibly erotic moves delivered with pulse-pounding panache by a talented ensemble of strippers, rockers, and free-spirited protestors.

In the design department, wig master Tom Watson keeps the hair as high as the sky while costumer Gregory Gale keeps everyone looking, like, totally 80’s in their outrageously colorful and outlandishly retro fashion fads. And set designer Beowulf Boritt captures the grungy look of The Bourbon Room and the surrounding streets of the Sunset Strip with his serviceable single set design that is greatly aided by some splashy projections created by Zak Borovay. Last but not least, lighting designer Jason Lyons blasts the stage with an impressive lighting grid filled with bold, eye blinding colors and special effects that enhance the show’s rock concert vibe, while sound designer Craig Cassidy tries to keep the dialogue heard above the roar of the show’s rock band (which doesn’t always happen).

The Company of "Rock of Ages." Photo by Scott Suchman.

But all these technical elements take a back seat to what truly powers this exhilarating musical revival: the over two–dozen legendary rock hits from the 80’s that are as timeless as they are tuneful. Here, these 31 songs are given truncated versions, but music director Darren Ledbetter and his totally radical five piece band (with mad props to guitar soloist Chris Cicchino) render the well-orchestrated and explosive score with all the power and passion it demands.

So, even if you’re only a moderate fan of 80’s rock or if (like me) you are too young to remember what the era was all about, you’re still guaranteed to have a rocking good time. That’s probably because Rock of Ages is a musical that knows exactly what it is and is so sure of itself, it unabashedly takes all the bad elements of a modern musical and does a bang up job of turning them into one highly entertaining night of theatre. The final product is, in the words of legendary rocker Poison, “Nothin’ But A Good Time.”

Things to know before you go: Rock of Ages presented by Broadway San Diego plays at The San Diego Civic Theatre at 3rd and B Street through April 1, 2012. Running time is 2 hours and 35 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. Ticket prices vary. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit, call (888) 937-8995, or visit

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Tortilla Curtain" at San Diego REP

"Curtain"s and Walls

San Diego REP’s world premiere play pits the privileged against the immigrant poor in a lightweight look at illegal immigration

By Donnie Matsuda

There’s a wall that features prominently in the second half of Tortilla Curtain, the world premiere play by Matthew Spangler currently being staged as the sixth and final production of San Diego REP’s 36th season. It’s a wall that the affluent hilltop communities of Topanga Canyon, which includes nature writer and staunch environmentalist Delaney Mossbacher and his real estate mogul wife, want erected around their glorious mansions to keep their lives protected from “the outsiders” – whether they be vicious dog-eating coyotes or rabble-rousing illegal immigrants from Mexico.

And it’s an interesting metaphor, that wall, in that it speaks to our natural human instinct to build up barriers around us in an attempt to more clearly define an “us” vs. “them.” In fact, the title of Spangler’s play refers to one of the most hotly debated and politically charged walls that exist in our country today: the U.S./Mexico border. But, while this polished and peculiar play, a recipient of an Edgerton Foundation New American Plays award, attempts to tackle some heavy-hitting and socially relevant themes, it ends up taking a mostly lightweight and shallow stab at this potentially impactful issue.

Kinan Valdez and Vivia Font. Photo by Daren Scott.

The play’s premise starts out interestingly enough, with Delaney’s world colliding head on with that of undocumented immigrant Cándido Rincón on the narrow, windy roads of Topanga Canyon. As Delaney’s white Lexus plows into Cándido himself and leaves him badly injured (but unable to seek medical attention for fear of being deported), the two men’s lives are forever altered as we watch the fallout from this fateful accident unfold in two very different households: the upper-middle class mansion of Delaney and his breadwinner wife Kyra at Arroyo Blanco (a gated community where all the houses have immaculate orange tile roofs and are painted in different shades of white) and the dark ravine at the bottom of the canyon where Cándido and his wife América have set up a makeshift abode while they desperately search for work scrubbing statues and laying bricks. It’s a stark contrast as we shift back and forth between the day-to-day lives of these two distinct couples, but beyond the interesting comparison of two distinctly different American ways of life, it’s hard to figure out exactly what playwright Spangler (who adapted his play from the best-selling novel by T.C. Boyle) is trying to say with this oddly playful piece of work.

Perhaps part of the problem here is that the play doesn’t really know when to take itself seriously and when to tastefully slip into satire. Instead, it ends up being a mash-up of a number of things both humorous and heartbreaking, as the playwright has thrown in just about everything (including the kitchen sink). From waxing poetic about chasing the ever-elusive American Dream, to a fully choreographed music video dance number a la Jennifer Lopez, to highly stylized rape and fight sequences, to a Thanksgiving dinner that causes the entire canyon to go up in flames, this play unabashedly takes the meaning of “randomness” to a whole new level. And just like the fantastical and far-fetched American dream that Cándido chases, Tortilla Curtain hovers about without a clear direction, teasing and taunting with its glimmers of hope and flashes of brilliance.

Mike Sears. Photo by Daren Scott.

Despite lacking a cohesive core, San Diego REP’s production boasts some incredibly fine performances from its first-rate cast. Mike Sears is ideal as the clean-cut, tree-hugging intellectual Delaney and Kinan Valdez is every bit his equal as the tireless and passionate Mexican immigrant Cándido. These two men bring their own idiosyncrasies to their roles and manage to carve out some finely nuanced characters that are both captivating and compelling. Vivia Font is truly a vision as beautiful América and she acts with an earnestness that is at times breathtaking and at times exhilarating. And in the supporting role of Kyra, Lisel Gorell-Getz is appropriately curt and clueless as the successful real estate broker with nothing but money on her mind.

The ensemble cast is also strong and they tackle their many cameo roles with gravitas and gusto. They include Miles Gaston Villanueva as José Navidad, David Meyers as Jack Jardine Sr., and Jeremy Kahn as Jack Jardine Jr.

Chandra Athenill, Vivia Font, and Lisel Gorell-Getz. Photo by Daren Scott.

San Diego REP’s artistic director Sam Woodhouse gives his spry staging a playful feel that works well with the haphazard nature of the piece. It’s definitely a tall order, but Woodhouse works wonders wrangling all the disparate elements of this quirky play into a cohesive and presentable whole. And his sprawling vision goes hand in hand with Ericka Moore’s blazing choreography and James Newcomb’s feisty fight sequences. Together, their efforts are greatly aided by a stellar design team, which includes an earthy and textured canyon-side set by Ian Wallace, some 1990’s era-appropriate costumes by Valerie Henderson, and some contemporary musical interludes composed by Bruno Louchouarn.

Overall, if the goal of Tortilla Curtain is to serve as an earth-shattering, though-provoking piece of theatre, it falls short of the mark. However, if its goal is to serve as a stylized period piece that seeks to bring the issue of illegal immigration to the forefront of our collective consciousness as Americans, then it definitely does that.

And, perhaps by doing so, we can all examine the walls we’ve built up around ourselves and see if one day we can finally learn enough to break free.

Things to know before you go: Tortilla Curtain presented by San Diego REP plays on the Lyceum Stage at Lyceum Theatre through April 8, 2012. Running time is 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm; performances are also scheduled on selected Saturdays at 2pm and selected Sundays, Tuesday, and Wednesdays at 7pm. Ticket prices are $32-$51 with discounts available for groups, seniors, and military. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 544-1000 or visit

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Almost, Maine" at Scripps Ranch Theatre

A "Maine" Winter Night's Dream

The schmaltziness builds along with the snow in Scripps Ranch Theatre’s sweet and sentimental revival

By Donnie Matsuda

Chances are you’ve never heard of the rural Northeastern town of Almost, Maine.

The lonely locale at the heart of John Cariani’s charming play is not your typical setting for a contemporary romantic comedy. It’s actually a fictional town dreamed up by the playwright’s idealized imagination and populated with a handful of homespun characters who are so innocent and saccharine sweet – there’s no way that they or their snow-blasted, not-yet-organized “almost” town are in any way grounded in reality. Yet, there is something special (and not just overly-sentimental) that emerges as we are introduced to the 19 hopefully romantic characters who interact via two-character vignettes over the nine fanciful scenes of Cariani’s well-organized, smarmily written two act play. We learn that while Almost is about as remote a place as you can live in this country, the people there are as smitten and scorched by that evasive thing called love, just like everyone else.

Benjamin Cole and Samantha Ginn. Photo by Daren Scott.

But unlike the rest of us, the folks who inhabit this blistering and mostly barren town atop the Eastern Seaboard embrace some rather unrealistic and highly romanticized notions of what it means to fall in and out of love. Take, for instance, the case of Glory, a woman who carries the pieces of her broken heart around with her (literally) in a sac that she clutches to her chest as she desperately tries to bid farewell to her late husband’s spirit. And then there are Chad and Randy, two beer-guzzling lumberjacks who decide to take their bromance to the next level as they (again, literally) start to fall for each other. And finally, there is Gayle who storms into her fiancée’s apartment demanding back all the love she’s given him. She, by the way, has all the love he has given her in the back of her SUV.

If this all sounds a little preposterous and rather silly, it is. But the reason that Cariani’s play works so well is that it is smart enough not to take itself too seriously. Instead of preaching to us with relationship advice or trying to impress us with beautiful ballads about love and loss, he manages to covey all the quirky and wondrous elements of romance by presenting real interactions between real couples who are indulging in their own vivid pursuits of love. And these honest pursuits magically come to life in the careful and loving hands of the always professional Scripps Ranch Theatre, who is presenting the San Diego premiere of this piece, now through April 22. With their heartfelt staging, Almost, Maine not only sparkles with wit and charm, but it also manages to delight with some compelling and utterly earnest performances.

These performances are delivered by four incredibly talented actors (fashionably clad in warm winter parkas, ski caps and mittens thanks to costumer Jessica John Gercke) who seamlessly and believably portray the 19 different characters – and nine different couples - throughout the course of the chilly two hour play. All are incredibly strong actors and they effortlessly exude warmth and wackiness as they inhabit their oddball and eccentric personalities almost a little too well. Benjamin Cole really nails the more sweetly subdued male roles of Pete, a guy with the patience of God who waits forever for his love to return, and Steve, a man plagued with “congenital analgesia” who can’t feel pain no matter how many times he’s wacked over the head with an ironing board, while Joshua Jones does a bang up job with the more rough-and-tumble male roles of beer-guzzling womanizer Jimmy and frustrated, say-it-like-you-mean-it Phil. As their female counterparts, DeNae Steele is simply sublime as heartbroken Glory and as hardened Rhonda while Samantha Ginn shines in a series of joyful and spirited roles that inspire hope despite heartbreak.

Joshua Jones and DeNae Steele. Photo by Daren Scott.

Director Robert May brings out the best in his fearless cast as he mines Cariani’s cheeky charm for all that its worth. Not only does he manage to keep things flowing smoothly from scene to scene (the use of screens that project scene titles is pure genius) but he also approaches each scenario with a clean slate and allows his characters to fill in the vivid details with their colorful interactions. His slightly surreal vision is aided by a magical snowscape set designed by Amy Gilbert Reams and some starry, evocative lighting by Chad Oakley.

Of course, as you can imagine, this fanciful play is not for the cynical, hard-hearted among us. However, if you consider yourself a free-spirited hopeless romantic, then you should most definitely don your warm winter woolies and brave the winds of Almost, Maine.

It is sure to warm your heart and tickle every romantic bone in your body.

Things to know before you go: Almost, Maine presented by Scripps Ranch Theatre plays at The Legler Benbough Theatre at Alliant International University through April 22, 2012. Running time is 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Ticket prices are $25 with discounts available for students, seniors, and active military. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 578-7728 or visit

Monday, March 26, 2012


And last but certainly not least is La Jolla Playhouse’s 2012/2013 Season, which includes two world premiere musicals, a West Coast premiere, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a Page to Stage musical by the creators of “Spring Awakening.” The announcement of this new season has come in spits and spurts, but most (if not all) of the shows that comprise their full season have been confirmed. Here are the six plays, with show synopses and logos provided by the good folks at La Jolla Playhouse.


Book by Doug Wright

Lyrics by Amanda Green

Music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green

April 27-June 17, 2012

When an auto dealership in Longview, TX launches an endurance contest, ten economically-strapped strangers embark on a journey that puts their hearts, minds and bodies to the test. The contestant that keeps at least one hand on a brand-new hardbody truck the longest gets to drive it off the lot. Featuring a brilliant rock, folk and country score from Amanda Green (Bring It On: The Musical) and Trey Anastasio (leader of the improvisational jam band Phish), extraordinary dance numbers from Benjamin Millepied (Black Swan) and a masterful story from Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife, Grey Gardens), this world premiere musical is bound to become an American classic.


By J. T. Rogers

June 12 – July 8, 2012

Blood and Gifts tells the story of the secret spy war behind the official Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s. Spanning a decade and playing out in Washington DC, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the play offers up a slice of historical fiction laced with dark humor, as it follows the character of CIA operative Jim Warnock and his struggles to stop the Soviet Army's destruction of Afghanistan. The ground constantly shifts for Jim and his British, Russian and Pakistani counterparts as the political and personal alliances between the men keep changing. In this thrilling, high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse, Blood and Gifts depicts the unknown men who shaped one of the greatest historical events in recent history, the repercussions of which continue to shape our world.


Book and lyrics by Steven Sater

Music by Duncan Sheik

July 10 – August 5, 2012

A compelling contemporary musical based on Hans Christian Andersen's classic tale, The Nightingale tells the story of a young emperor in ancient China, whose luxurious but constricted life inside the walls of the Forbidden City is upended by the song of an extraordinary bird that lives beyond his reach. With music of Grammy- and Tony Award-winning pop composer/musician Duncan Sheik, book and lyrics by Tony and Grammy Award winner Steven Sater, and direction by Tony Award nominee and Playhouse favorite Moisés Kaufman, The Nightingale will captivate audiences with its poetic pop sensibility, while engaging them in the process of creating a brand new work.


By Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson

Based on Homer’s “The Iliad,” translated by Robert Fagles

August 11 – September 9, 2012

On a bare stage, a storyteller emerges from the back of the theatre to re-tell The Iliad, one of the oldest stories in Western civilization. The elements are familiar -- the 10-year siege of Troy, the Greeks and Trojans locked in a brutal combat, the heroic and final battle between Achilles and Hector. But this storyteller points at something more in the epic text. In this eye-opening version, we are on the front lines of every major war in history, reliving a futile struggle that has replayed itself over thousands of years. An Iliad transports us through time to feel the glory and honor of war -- as well as the loneliness and pain it leaves in its wake.


By David Mamet

September 18 – October 21, 2012

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, Glengarry Glen Ross is David Mamet’s scorching play about a group of desperate salesmen in a Chicago real estate office. When a contest pits the men against each other, they resort to manipulation, bribery and even theft to keep their jobs. The Darwinian struggle that ensues is a stinging indictment of a culture that rewards the strong, punishes the weak and values success above all else. One of the most influential plays of the 20th century, Glengarry Glen Ross shows Mamet at the height of his literary and dramatic powers. Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley directs this modern masterpiece with a keen eye for the remarkable dialogue and personal defeat at the heart of this story.


Story by Wayne Coyne and Des McAnuff

Music and lyrics by The Flaming Lips

November/December 2012

Yoshimi is a young Japanese artist facing the battle of her life: the battle for her life. Adrift from her family and lover, Yoshimi journeys alone into a fantastical robot-world where she wages a war with fate. Will her will to survive be powerful enough to master the evil forces that threaten to destroy her? Inspired by the whimsical and psychedelic music of Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips, this world premiere musical integrates music from several albums (“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” “The Soft Bulletin,” “At War with the Mystics”) with Coyne and multiple Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff’s poignant, humanistic story about the triumph of love and optimism over the mystery of our own mortality. The result is a dazzling, multi-media experience that offers an allegory of our modern battle for progressive thought and individuality in the face of blind acceptance and conformity.

For information about La Jolla Playhouse, visit