Sunday, August 26, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Anything Goes" at Moonlight Stage Productions

“Anything Goes” is light, fluffy fun:
Its high jinks on the high seas in Moonlight’s sleek, well-staged revival

By Donnie Matsuda

“Times have changed…” sings former evangelist turned slinky nightclub singer Reno Sweeney at the top of the musical’s oh-so-famous title number.  

And while truer words have never been spoken - or in this case, sung - there is one thing that will never change: the Cole Porter confection known as Anything Goes will continue to entertain and delight audiences no matter what circumstances surround its revival (and this popular musical has been revived *a lot* since it premiered on Broadway in 1934, including its most recent revival on the Great White Way in 2011 with Sutton Foster and its upcoming 2012 U.S. national tour starring Rachel York).  In fact, Anything Goes was tied with “Guys and Dolls” as the tenth most frequently produced musical in U.S. high schools in 2007 and it truly is a show that America gets a kick out of time and time again.

Jeffrey Scott Parsons and Courtney Fero in Moonlight's "Anything Goes."  Photo by Ken Jacques.
The musical’s everlasting appeal has a lot to do with it’s de-licious, de-lectable, and oh so de-lovely score which bounces through such bright, toe-tapping tunes as “You’re the Top,” “Friendship,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and the show-stopping title number, “Anything Goes.”  And while its mostly plot-less book and ridiculous cast of roustabout characters add absolutely nothing to its charm, in fact they serve more as leaden anchors that weigh down an otherwise forward-moving boatload of Cole Porter standards, there is something to be admired about a musical that gets audiences smiling and humming its tunes at the mere mention of the show’s title.

The Company of "Anything Goes."  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Moonlight’s current revival, which follows the 1987 revival libretto to a tee, is buoyed by some sparkling performances and some truly lovely singing.  At the helm of it all is a dazzling and delightful Tracy Lore as Reno Sweeney.  Lore has the bold and brassy voice that is required for the role (her voice is a sweeter, softer version of the late, great Ethel Merman) and she’s also pretty hot stuff – or is it “hot pants”? – in the steps department, too, frequently kicking up her heels and leading the tap-tastic ensemble cast in many of the show’s splashy musical numbers.  As her young love interest, Wall Street banker Billy Crocker, Jeffrey Scott Parsons simply shines.  He’s got the dashing good looks, soaring tenor voice, and a smooth soft shoe that make him Moonlight’s “go-to” guy whenever they need a leading man for their large and lavish tap-dance musicals (he was recently seen here as Bobby Child in “Crazy for You” and as Billy Lawlor in “42nd Street”).  And as his love interest, the prim Hope Harcourt, Courtney Fero is a satisfying study in proper manners and understated charm.

Tracy Lore and Company.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
The large supporting cast of inane characters provides plenty of fodder for ace comic acting.  In particular, Barry Pearl is “tops” when it comes to the silly shenanigans of Moonface Martin, the second-rate gangster posing as a minister, and Hannah Balagot is deliciously droll as his partner in crime, the nasal-voiced, sailor-and-scene-stealing moll, Erma.  Also amusing are Dagmar Krause Fields as stuffy and staunch socialite Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt, Nick Tubbs as the bumbling Brit who can’t quite get the hang of American idioms, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, and Joel W. Gossett as proud Yale man and Wall Street tycoon Elisha J. Whitney.

Hannah Balagot and Company.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Director and choreographer Jon Engstrom knows how to stage these big and bold tap-heavy musicals (he recently helmed Moonlight’s splashy staging of “42nd Street”) so that they dazzle the eye and energize the spirit of everyone watching.  While his smart direction and snappy choreography take a long time to gel with the choppy writing and the campy character of the piece, once all the moving parts kick into gear by the showy Act 1 finale, it is full steam ahead with a tight and breezy Act 2.  And here, he’s working with a top-notch creative team, including expert musical director Justin Gray, veteran conductor Ken Gammie, and master set designer N. Dixon Fish (whose three-tiered, custom-designed ocean liner set is truly a glorious sight to behold).

The Company of "Anything Goes."  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Without a doubt, the time is right for Moonlight to bring back a much revered relic of the musical theatre cannon.  And while among the elite class of show-stopping tap-dancing musicals, Anything Goes may not be “the top,” it certainly is a show that audiences of all ages will appreciate as a de-lovely showcase of Cole Porter’s most memorable and tuneful hits.           
Things to know before you go: Anything Goes plays at Moonlight Stage Production’s Amphitheatre through September 8, 2012.  Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8pm.  Tickets are $15-$50.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (760) 724-2110 or visit

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "See How They Run" at Lamb's Players Theatre

“They Run” Quite Well
Strong acting elevates Philip King’s old-fashioned, humorous tour-de-farce

By Donnie Matsuda

When See How They Run opened in London’s West End in 1945, life was quite different than it is today. 

World War II had terrorized Europe for years and London was a drab and exhausted city, largely defeated but ready to begin the long and arduous process of rebuilding from the ground up.  It is perhaps no surprise that many Londoners escaped to the theatre to lift their spirits and those who attended the premiere of See How They Run got a special surprise.  During the opening night performance, several flying bombs exploded just outside the theatre.  But despite the chaos around them, not one of the audience members left the play, as they were transfixed by the hilarity and high jinks onstage.  While such a thing could probably not happen today, Lamb's Players current revival of this charming, chuckle-inducing play does what it can to inject a few laughs into a mostly delightful evening of theatre.

Brendan Farley, Cynthia Gerber, and Jim Chovick in Lamb's Players "See How They Run."  Photo by Ken Jacques.
The play, written by Philip King and directed by Lamb’s Players Producing Artistic Director Robert Smyth, is set in an English vicarage circa 1944 (here majestically recreated by Mike Buckley’s spacious living room set sprawled out in front of a giant British flag).  As the story goes, Penelope Toop (a bubbly and warm Cynthia Gerber) has given up her exciting life as a famed actress and is now living a more *ahem* “respectable” life as the devoted wife of Reverend Lionel Toop (a calm and collected Jason Heil who soon sheds his sanity along with his clothes and spends most of the play in his boxers and wielding a golf club).  Unfortunately, many of the townsfolk don’t approve of Penelope’s wild ways, and it all comes to a head when the meddlesome town gossip Miss Skillon (a prim Myra McWethy) comes banging on the vicarage door to inquire about why she wasn’t allowed to decorate the church pulpit, as she has done in years past.  Somehow, she ends up unconscious, drugged into a stupor by an overdose of cooking sherry, and crammed into a coat closet with the Reverend himself…and that’s all before intermission!

Myra McWethy and Jason Heil.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Meanwhile, Penelope has her own madcap misadventures as her old acting partner Cliff (a dashing Brendan Farley) shows up unannounced and quickly piques the interest of Ida (a flirty Kerry Meads), the vicarage’s saucy Cockney maid.  As farce would have it, Cliff must disguise his military persona if he is to go out into civilian life, so he dons one of the vicar’s suits and goes out for a night on the town with Penelope.  And since mistaken identity is so crucial to plays of this sort, King makes sure there are plenty of opportunities for that to occur.  As if two vicars wasn’t enough, he adds to the mix another legit vicar, the Reverend Arthur Humphrey (an appropriately demure Paul Maley), a visiting bishop who arrives for his stay a day early (a befuddled Jim Chovick), and a Russian intruder (an eerie Jeffery Jones) who disguises himself as – you guessed it – a vicar.        

This might seem like a few too many vicars for the play’s own good, but it all comes together quite nicely under Robert Smyth’s crisp direction.  What is so delightful about Smyth’s staging is that he nimbly approaches his cast as though they are normal people who get trapped in outrageous situations.  That’s exactly what you need if an old-fashioned farce filled with silly scenarios is to come across as credible, engaging, and ultimately, entertaining.  And Smyth’s veteran ensemble cast succeeds in taking the preposterous and making it plausible, all the while featuring some incredibly fine performances, a handful of brilliantly staged comedic sequences, and a number of truly hysterical moments. 

Kerry Meads, Paul Maley and Myra McWethy.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
All in all, See How They Run is an extremely amusing play and while there may not be flying bombs being dropped outside the theatre doors, the audiences for this Lamb's Players production will no doubt stay and be treated to an enjoyable, laugh-out-loud evening of hilarious high jinks and madcap merriment.

Things to know before you go: See How They Run plays at Lambs Players Theatre through September 23rd, 2012.  Running time is Three Acts in 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm.  Ticket prices are $26-$64.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 437-6000 or visit

Friday, August 10, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "La Cage aux Folles" at Broadway San Diego

“La Cage” is fun, fabulous, and (a little bit) frazzled:
Broadway veteran Christopher Sieber steals the show as the dazzling crown jewel of Broadway SD’s toned-down touring production

By Donnie Matsuda

Bedazzled in sparkly jewels, a gorgeous gown, and heels as high as Heaven, a fierce and fabulous club chanteuse Zaza tells us about the concept behind the bawdy San Tropez nightclub of the musical’s title.

“Here at ‘La Cage aux Folles,’” the drag queen formerly known as Albin bemusedly quips, “we live life…oh, how shall I put it...on an angle.” 

The Cagelles in "La Cage aux Folles."  Photo by Paul Kolnik.
That’s not just a fitting description of the nightclub itself (whose riff-raff patrons and cross-dressing chorus were perhaps more shocking in the 1970’s than today), but it is also a pretty good way to describe the most recent touring production of the tuneful and timeless musical, currently ruffling San Diego’s feathers through August 12 at the SD Civic Theatre.

The production – which features a dazzling star turn by Christopher Sieber as Zaza/Albin and a not-so-dazzling star turn by George Hamilton as Georges – definitely takes to heart the musical’s main message: that we should be proud of who we are and that we should not be ashamed of our faults and imperfections, no matter how blatantly obvious they are.  In many ways, this national tour dares to be different and makes no apologies for living a stage life that’s a little askew, a lot off-kilter, and totally “on an angle”.  From a scaled down chorus of Cagelles who work hard to stand out by putting their own personal spin on Lynne Page’s high kicking choreography (which itself is edgier, more macabre, and more masculine than previous revivals) to the technical elements of Tim Shortall’s hodge-podge set and Nick Richings less-than-glamorous lighting, to the toned down nature of Terry Johnson’s more intimate directorial vision, this is definitely a version of “La Cage” in which different is deemed better.

Christopher Sieber as Zaza and George Hamilton as Georges.  Photo by Paul Kolnik.
The success and staying power of “La Cage” is evident in its impressive history on the Great White Way. The original 1983 Broadway production ran for four years and won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book.  And the glitz and glamour continued to sparkle in a West End production in 1986.  But, what is most intriguing (and impressive) about “La Cage” is its popularity and accolades on the revival circuit.  The 2004 Broadway revival won the Tony Award for Best Revival, the 2008 London revival garnered the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival, and the most recent 2010 Broadway revival (on which this current national tour is based) was nominated for eleven Tony Awards and won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.    

Overall, this newest touring production succeeds in keeping Harvey Fierstein’s masterful book and Jerry Herman’s sublime score bouncing along for nearly three hours without too many rough patches.  Most of the credit is due to Sieber’s tour-de-force performance (one of the best Zaza’s this reviewer has ever seen) in which he mines every gesture, maintains every expression, and delves deeply into every emotion of his multi-faceted character.  Not only does he nail the many comedic and heartfelt nuances of the role, but he also boasts some incredibly powerful, pitch-perfect pipes that simply soar in his amazing anthem “I Am What I Am” and delight in his rousing and inspiring “The Best of Times (Is Now),” the latter being the best number in the entire show.  It is perhaps unfair to pair Sieber’s monumental talent with that of Hamilton, a film and television actor who has little to no credits in the realm of musical theatre.  But, despite his talky-singing with little to no sustained notes and his attempts to dance on an injured ankle, the 73-year old Hamilton does pull out the stops in the charm department and manages to delight his audience with his dashing good looks and slick showmanship.

Christopher Sieber as Zaza.  Photo by Paul Kolnik.
The rest of the cast is solid and each turns in some genuinely fetching performances.  Most interesting is Jeigh Madjus as the small but mighty butler…er, “maid,” Jacob.  While he is rather unconventional for the role in both looks and attitude, he still manages to extract plenty of laughs from his fierce and fabulous one-liners.  As Jean-Michel, Michael Lowney boasts a lovely tenor and is nicely paired with a delightful Allison Blair McDowell as a sweet-voiced Anne.  Gay Marshall adds plenty of zest and “joie de vivre” to the role of restaurant owner Jacqueline, while Bernard Burak Sheredy as M. Renaud/M. Dindon and Cathy Newman as Mme. Renaud/Mme. Dindon provide plenty of comedy in their foppish roles.  And let’s not forget the terrific ensemble cast of Cagelles: Matt Anctil as Angelique, Logan Keslar as Bitelle, Donald C. Shorter, Jr. as Chantal, Mark Roland as Hanna, Terry Lavell as Mercedes, and Trevor Downey as Phaedra.  They deserve special mention here for their eye-popping high kicks, jump splits, and acrobatic flips (all executed in heels, no less!).     

So, even with this smaller, more eclectic staging, “La Cage” still manages to pack quite a musical punch…even “on an angle.”  It is a show with a lot of heart and soul and it is truly wonderful to see it is still kicking up its bedazzled heels and flaunting its feather boas for generations to come.

George Hamilton and Christopher Sieber (center) with the company of "La Cage aux Folles."  Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Things to know before you go: La Cage aux Folles presented by Broadway San Diego plays at The San Diego Civic Theatre at 3rd and B Street through August 12, 2012.  Running time is 3 hours with a 20 minute intermission.  Ticket prices vary.  For more information and to purchase tickets, visit, call (888) 937-8995, or visit