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Let's see Sondheim's shows in LA as regularly as Shakespeare's...or "A Christmas Carol"
A Sondheim theater company? My favorite of three dueling 'Christmas Carol's. Troubies' 'Santa Claus is Comin' to Motown.' 'Love Actually Live.' 'The Band's Visit.'
Sondheim was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. Old Sondheim was as dead as a doornail.
Yes, those words were inspired by the opening lines of “A Christmas Carol,” but no, I’m not suggesting that Stephen Sondheim was like Scrooge’s ex-partner Jacob Marley — other than the fact that both Sondheim and “Marley” are now…dead.
It’s just that I couldn’t help noticing that the demise of America’s greatest theater creator was almost immediately followed by a torrent of productions of “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens’ most immortal creation. In fact, on opening night of the splashy “Christmas Carol” at the Ahmanson Theatre, Bradley Whitford — who had just finished his turn as Scrooge — connected the dots between the two events. He dedicated an encore, which consisted of the cast playing handbells and the orchestra joining in on “Silent Night,” to the memory of Sondheim.
Readers of Angeles Stage probably saw a few of the more literary tributes to Sondheim since he died on November 26. Among my favorites are Adam Gopnik’s remarkably swift yet thoughtful and moving farewell in the New Yorker and Charles McNulty’s analysis of the master’s storytelling accomplishments in the LA Times.
It was sweet to see this tweet, from the man whom many saw as Sondheim’s chief rival, Andrew Lloyd Webber: “Farewell Steve, the musical theatre giant of our times, an inspiration not just to two but to three generations. Your contribution to theatre will never be equalled.”
Steven Spielberg, whose new movie version of “West Side Story” opened Friday, noted that Sondheim’s lyrics for the original “West Side Story” “first put him on the map, and launched a career that would completely redraw that map, reinvent the musical and theater, and create a body of work that, beyond any doubt, is as immortal as anything made by a mortal can be.” (By the way, will any of the fascinating script renovations that Tony Kushner wrote for Spielberg’s dynamic new film eventually filter into subsequent stage productions of “West Side Story”?)
Anyway, I’ll add only a few words about Sondheim’s presence on LA-area stages. A majority of my own journeys into Sondheim’s musicals occurred in Los Angeles, including many different versions of the better-known titles, but also some of the lesser-known productions — such as “Frogs” at the Odyssey Theatre in 1983 and “Saturday Night” and “Road Show” in concert versions by the Musical Theatre Guild.
My many LA memories of “Into the Woods” are especially personal. I mentioned why in a 1991 LA Times review of a production that I attended with my daughter: “While it’s true that my 6-year-old was enraptured by it all, bear in mind that she has [also] seen the video version, which appeared on PBS, at least a dozen times, so she has a head start on untangling the dozens of plot strands.”
“On another level,” I continued in that review, “Into the Woods” “could hardly be more adult. Its fundamental theme is the conflict between security and adventure--and the prices that must be paid to achieve them both. These, of course, are lessons that people learn until they die.”
By the way, that particular “Into the Woods” was from Whittier-La Mirada Civic Light Opera — a now-deceased parent of today’s Musical Theatre West (which, by the way, unfortunately announced a 2022 season with nothing by Sondheim), now in Long Beach. I wrote that the experience of Whittier-La Mirada’s “Into the Woods” was more enjoyable than the national touring version of the show, at the larger Ahmanson Theatre two years earlier.
So why doesn’t LA help make Sondheim’s works as immortal as “A Christmas Carol” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by formalizing our relationship with the Sondheim oeuvre?
Besides annual “Christmas Carol”s, LA has professional theater companies called Independent Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare Center LA, focused on keeping alive the monumental heritage of a Brit who died more than 400 years ago. A Noise Within is opening a relatively obscure Shakespearean comedy, “All’s Well That Ends Well,” in February.
In the wake of Sondheim’s death, isn’t this a ripe time to consider whether LA could support at least one professional company devoted primarily to the works of Sondheim? Or should we wait a few centuries?
Of course producing a musical is much more expensive than producing a Shakespeare play. Reprise, the last LA city-based professional company that specialized in more-or-less fully-locally-staged productions of musical revivals, is long gone. But perhaps a group that more specifically focused on the works of the lauded Sondheim could attract enough donors to carve out a more sustainable niche.
In the meantime, let’s hope that East West Players’ production of Sondheim’s “Assassins,” scheduled to open in February after a COVID delay from 2020, packs an especially powerful punch. It will be East West’s 12th Sondheim production.
‘Christmas Carol’s in three towns. ‘Claus’ comes to Motown
And now on to “A Christmas Carol.” Within five days in early December, I saw three different stagings of the Dickens classic at three of the area’s most prominent theaters — the Ahmanson in downtown LA, South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, and A Noise Within in Pasadena.
The latter two companies regularly stage “Carol” (at least in recent pre-COVID years), but I hadn’t seen South Coast’s in a long time, and I don’t recall previously seeing A Noise Within’s. The Ahmanson’s “Carol” is an import from London by way of Broadway, where it won five design and music Tony awards.
To cut to the chase, my favorite of the three “Carol”s is A Noise Within’s. It’s the only one of the three that lacks an intermission, so it allows the drama to develop without interruption — yet it also feels more streamlined because of its shorter running time.
Perhaps more important, it’s in the smallest of the three venues, with a seating capacity of 324. No seat is more than eight rows away from the deeply-thrust stage, and two platforms that appear in the center aisles are used resourcefully to expand the stage space to areas even closer to the audience.
The smaller size hasn’t affected the quality of the spectacle, which includes two stunning entrances for the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Deborah Strang) and Christmas Present (Alan Blumenfeld), for which credit is partially due to Angela Balogh Calin’s costume design. The professionalism is obvious. The cast includes 10 actors on Equity contracts, including Geoff Elliott as Scrooge. Elliott also adapted the text and co-directed with Julia Rodriguez-Elliott.
By contrast, the productions at South Coast’s 507-seat shallow-thrust Segerstrom Stage and in the roughly 2000-seat Ahmanson don’t feel nearly as intimate or as thoroughly enveloping, and their scripts are somewhat more cluttered with unnecessary details.
Hisa Takakuwa’s staging of this year’s edition of South Coast’s “Carol” (adapted by Jerry Patch, updated by Talia Krispel in 2018) is most notable for featuring veteran company member Richard Doyle as Scrooge instead of Hal Landon Jr., who performed the role from 1980 through 2019. After 40 years, Landon finally retired his Scrooge just before the arrival of COVID, which prevented a 2020 rendition. (Full disclosure — for the first time in decades of South Coast theatergoing, I arrived a few minutes late and, with other latecomers, had to watch the first two scenes from a technically terrible live feed in the lobby bar).
Doyle and A Noise Within’s Elliott, for that matter, embody Scrooge’s unlikable qualities to an extent that’s much more convincing than Whitford’s performance as Scrooge in Thomas Caruso’s direction of Jack Thorne’s adaptation of the tale at the Ahmanson. Of course many of us are used to seeing Whitford in sympathetic screen roles, including the small role of Sondheim himself in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s current film version of Jonathan Larson’s “tick, tick…Boom!” on Netflix.
Then again, the Ahmanson production doesn’t take “Carol” quite as seriously as the others. During the final moments of the narrative, before the handbell tribute to Sondheim, the announcements of donations from the transformed Scrooge refer to LA places and brand names in a way that creates extra laughs of recognition for local audiences. But the jokes undercut the more authentic joys of the other versions’ endings. I appreciate localized laugh lines in, for example, Troubies (aka Troubadour Theater) satires. But should a full-length “Christmas Carol” develop a satirical edge in its final moments?
Speaking of Troubies satires, a new version of Troubadour’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Motown” has returned to the troupe’s longtime home at the 130-seat Garry Marshall Theatre (formerly the Falcon) in Burbank. As usual, it combines Motown classics with the story of how Kris Kringle became Santa Claus, as originally revealed in the 1970 stop-motion animated TV special “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”
The Winter Warlock, introduced in the TV show, has become a Troubie holiday tradition, played by Beth Kennedy in an extravagant costume and on stilts — even in the Troubies’ other holiday shows, which have little to do with Santa or Motown. Yes, she’s back.
But this is one Troubie gig (unlike the recent, much more ambitious “Lizastrata” at Getty Villa) where you really don’t need to know anything about the original source material or the script’s previous renditions. You can just sit back and enjoy the laughs — many of them local and current — plus the song and dance.
The theater’s producer, Joseph Leo Bwarie, has many Troubie credits as a performer. After a feigned hesitation during the introduction of the show, he re-unites with the current Troubie crew, led as always by Matt Walker, and helps spread the ho-ho hilarity. By the way, if you haven’t seen the Garry Marshall Theatre since COVID, you’ll find that a pleasant patio has been carved out of the parking lot.
Another pre-COVID holiday show, “Love Actually Live,” has returned to the Wallis after a year’s absence. It continues to baffle me. As I’ve written earlier, large images of the famous actors in scenes from the mostly-London-set holiday-season movie “Love Actually” (from 2003) are screened at the rear and top of the stage. This film imagery tends to overshadow the live actors, closer to the audience, who are singing and dancing in ways that supposedly suggest the scenes in the movie looming over them.
It’s a repetitive mishmash that isn’t nearly as satisfying as it would be to watch an entirely staged version of the same story — or the entire movie itself. With the theater’s first artistic director Paul Crewes exiting after this production and returning to his British roots, I’m hoping that his replacement (can we hope for someone with more LA experience?) will come up with something better as a holiday attraction a year from now.
This ‘Band’ visited the wrong theater
The one major production in LA right now that isn’t at all holiday-themed is the touring production — and the Los Angeles premiere — of “The Band’s Visit,” the Tony-winning musical based on Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin’s 2007 film. It’s about an Egyptian military band that travels into Israel for a concert but ends up in the wrong town, in a bleak desert. A few citizens open their doors to the stranded musicians for an overnight stay.
Unfortunately, the production feels about as stranded inside its Hollywood home, the Dolby Theatre, as its characters are in their fictional nowheres-ville. The Dolby seats as many as 3,400. It was created primarily as a cinema instead of a place for live theater. It’s simply too big for such a relatively small musical.
Of course, in such a large theater, the importance of the theater’s size often depends entirely on where you’re sitting.
I can only guess that Times critic Charles McNulty had a premium seat in the orchestra section. That would seem to be the only reason why he was able to praise the Dolby’s “intimacy” in his review.
For those of us who were farther back, in the “parterre” section — and I know that I wasn’t the only parterre-dweller who felt this way — “The Band’s Visit” seemed very remote. We couldn’t see many of the actors’ facial expressions. Some of the lyrics and other lines weren’t clear. Unlike the “Christmas Carol” at the much smaller A Noise Within, nothing brought the show deeper into the audience.
After feeling that I hadn’t really appreciated my visit to “The Band’s Visit,” I went home and watched the movie, then listened to the score of the musical while reading the lyrics. Only then did I understand why it received such acclaim.
It’s a melancholy “Chekhovian” story — to use one of McNulty’s words. Especially in the movie, many emotions remain restrained — but some of these are released in the stage version’s musical numbers. However, the movie’s visual impression of being stuck in endless sand might be difficult to match in a theater of any size.
In New York the musical opened in a 199-seat theater and then moved into a 1,058-seat Broadway venue, where it won its Tonys. It shouldn’t be introduced to LA in a theater that is more than three times times bigger than its Broadway home.
David Yazbek’s Arab-inflected score and his supple lyrics provide a touch of solace in the wake of Sondheim’s death — all is not lost. Itamar Moses’ book was meant for smaller and better venues.
When the commercial tour is finally completed and rights are released, I’ll look forward to seeing the first homegrown production of “The Band’s Visit,” in an appropriately sized home.