Discover more from Angeles Stage
Misbehaving men: 'Six,' ' A Little Night Music,' 'King and I"
Plus 'Under the Skin,' 'Coleman '72,' A New Brain,' '44,' where is 'Whittier'?
Before a jury held Donald Trump liable for sexually abusing and defaming E. Jean Carroll and awarded her $5 million, Trump claimed in a deposition that male “stars” have grabbed and groped women for “millions of years” — “unfortunately or fortunately.”
Leaving that unfortunate “fortunately” aside, the musicals that currently occupy three of LA County’s larger stages suggest that there is a smidgen of truth in Trump’s observation that his predatory assaults on women unite him with many other heterosexual men through the centuries (if not for “millions of years”).
Thanks for reading Angeles Stage! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
In the LA premiere of “Six” at the Pantages Theatre, we hear sung testimonials from 21st-century apparitions of Henry VIII’s six wives about his “toxic masculinity” in the 16th century, when two of his wives were beheaded.
In the Pasadena Playhouse revival of “A Little Night Music,” at Pasadena Playhouse, the arrogant philanderer Count Carl-Magnus Malcom surely would qualify as a Trump role model from around 1900.
In “The King and I,” at La Mirada Theatre, the titular monarch of 1860s Siam owns a harem of women — something that Trump would probably consider, if he could pull it off without Melania demanding $5 million in hush money.
Let’s start with “Six,” written by the young Brits Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss. In essence, Henry’s six wives vent about their mostly unhappy dealings with Henry in the first half of the 1500s — using music, dance, fantasy fashions and attitude from the first decades of the 2000s.
“Six” is more of a themed pop revue than a musical drama, complete with encouragement by the cast for audience members to whoop and applaud during songs, thereby obscuring some of the lyrics. Don’t expect “Six” to provide a cogent account of the history. At least it’s compact — 90 minutes, no intermission.
Program notes about the real wives reveal that five of the six were interested in “religious faith, obedience,” “collecting evangelical works” and similar indications of devout faith. Not so with their 2023 counterparts. These contemporary “Real Housewives of Hampton Court” believe primarily in the power of female solidarity to overcome male bullies.
Henry never appears on stage in “Six,” nor does any other man. The cast and also the onstage band are all-female.
But “A Little Night Music” (score by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler) features three prominent male characters — including the aforementioned Count Carl-Magnus Malcom, whose big solo “In Praise of Women” is actually a catalog of condescension toward them.
The count’s wife Charlotte and his glamorous mistress Desirée — a star of Swedish theater — are fully aware of each other. Charlotte declares, in Sondheim’s “Every Day a Little Death,” that “Men are stupid, men are vain, love’s disgusting, love’s insane.” Sarah Uriarte Berry and Ryan Silverman are terrific as Charlotte and the count in David Lee’s lustrous staging of “Night Music.” However, they’re not the stars, to borrow from Trump’s lingo.
The central couple consists of Desirée (the magnetic Merle Dandridge, last seen at the playhouse as the title character in “Kiss Me, Kate”) and her previous lover, the middle-aged lawyer Fredrik (Michael Hayden), who is currently unable to persuade his 18-year-old bride (Kalee Ann Voorhees) to consummate their marriage.
Fredrik is no Trump — in the lyrics of “Now,” he explicitly rejects “the adoption of physical force” and settles instead for a nap. But when he hears that Desirée is back in town, he seeks her out, hoping their reunion will lead them into a bedroom for more than a nap.
Complications ensue when all of the above, plus Fredrik’s young-adult son Henrik (Chase del Rey) and Desirée’s adolescent daughter Fredrika (Makara Gamble) gather at the country home of Desirée’s mother Madame Armfeldt (Jodi Long).
The story is quite similar to its source material, Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film “Smiles of a Summer Night.” But while it might sound like a sex farce, it’s on a much more sophisticated plane than the antiquated theatrical farces in which Desirée tours.
In “Night Music,” Sondheim’s score (written almost entirely in 3/4 time) transports the narrative into a meditation — partly risible, partly rueful — about the longings and the limitations of human beings. And, even more than in Bergman’s film, we grasp the significance of its setting in Sweden near the summer solstice, when the “night” features seemingly unending twilight.
This is a metaphor for human uncertainty and ambivalence, Sondheim’s favorite source of drama, and his lyrics point this out. Could this have been a factor in the playhouse’s decision to schedule this “Night Music” to conclude near the end of May — as we edge closer to the June 21 solstice?
Regardless, the one song that keeps reverberating in my head, after seeing the Pasadena production, isn’t the usual “Send in the Clowns” but rather the post-intermission “Night Waltz” with its three descending notes and its lyrics such as “perpetual sunset is rather an unsettling thing.”
Sondheim’s primary musical mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, wrote the book and lyrics for “The King and I,” which opened in 1951, with music by Richard Rodgers. Listening to the score again in Glenn Casale’s sumptuous revival at La Mirada Theatre, soon after seeing “Night Music,” it’s obvious that some of Hammerstein’s lyrics are as conflicted as anything that Sondheim would later write — check out “A Puzzlement” or “Something Wonderful”.
The 46-person cast in La Mirada begins to suggest the size of the king’s harem (although the actual king had even a larger retinue —32 wives and children and 82 children). This component of the show might shock modern feminists.
Yet most of the dramatic tension in the show comes from the arguments between the imported British tutor Anna (Anastasia Barzee), a strong and confident woman, and the king (Paul Nakauchi). This tension does not magically dissolve into an actual romance, which lesser writers might have imagined as more commercially viable.
Also, as LA-based theater critic Laurie Winer points out in her new biography “Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical,” for Hammerstein “the key to the musical was a minor detail in the [non-fictional] Anna Leonowens’s story — a royal concubine’s obsession with Harriet Beecher Stowe and her antislavery novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’.” In the second act’s “The Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet,” a Thai re-enactment of this story allows the narrating concubine Tuptim (Paulina Yeung) to “protest against her own predicament…in the presence of her oppressor.” Surely modern feminists should consider this, too.
“The King and I” closes Sunday.
Domineering tactics by men need not have a sexual element. Look at the West Coast premiere of Michael Hollinger’s “Under the Skin,” directed by caryn desai at International City Theatre in Long Beach, with a setting in contemporary Pennsylvania.
The older man here is an exasperating father (Tony Abatemarco) who wants his adult daughter (Allison Blaize) to give him one of her kidneys, even though they seldom meet and he can barely remember his grandchild’s name. His appeal isn’t a Trumpian demand, but his daughter compiles a list of reasons to resist the request.
I won’t discuss any of the other details, because some of the turns the story takes would be potential spoilers. Suffice to say that the play is much less predictable than it might seem from the summary outlined above, and most of the audience at the performance I saw audibly enjoyed the narrative twists as much as I did.
Meanwhile, in Charlie Oh’s “Coleman ‘72” at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, three adult siblings in 2010 recall the summer when their Korean-immigrant father (Paul Juhn) suddenly took his family on a summer road trip from Milwaukee to Los Angeles — without revealing his ulterior motive for the trip.
I probably shouldn’t reveal that motive (again, feel the surprise), but it adds a distinctive and substantive dimension to the immigration-play genre, turning “Coleman ‘72” into one of the most powerfully moving plays about immigrants that I’ve seen. Oh also adeptly demonstrates how memories of events from decades ago can vary among siblings.
Director Chay Yew assembled a superb supporting cast (Jully Lee, Jessica Ko, Tess Lina, Ryun Yu) and Stephan Mazurek’s intentionally hazy projection design reinforces Oh’s point about differing memories.
South Coast is currently producing another immigrant-related script, “avaaz,” in its larger theater. In this solo, Michael Shayan plays his own Jewish-Iranian mother, who landed in the section of West LA informally known as “Tehrangeles.” But he speaks her words with such a thick Farsi accent that I couldn’t understand many of them.
Both “Under the Skin” and “Coleman ‘72” close this coming Sunday.
Wrap your brain around “Brain’
The 2001 LA premiere of William Finn’s “A New Brain” musical probably didn’t receive enough attention. In his LA Times review, Michael Phillips liked the West Coast Ensemble production, but his review appeared on — September 12, 2001.
I saw that production, but many potential theatergoers might have been so obsessed with the attack on the World Trade Center that a new musical about a medical attack on one man’s brain (also in New York) couldn’t compete. The one man in question was composer Finn himself, who suffered such an attack in 1992 but lived to write this musical, which focuses on that experience.
Finn still lives today, and now he and his co-book-writer James Lapine have granted their approval of a newer “A New Brain,” in which the leading role of Gordon Schwinn (rhymes with Finn) is played by Amanda Kruger (they/them). Gordon’s lover Roger is now played by Yassi Noubahar (she/her). Although the character names haven’t changed, the pronouns that other characters use to refer to Gordon are now they/them.
In directing this Celebration Theatre production, Khanisha Foster used just about every square inch of the black-box space at the LGBT Center in Hollywood. The 50 seats for the audience surround a small arena, but the actors also frequently take over the steps of the risers that hold those seats. We feel as if we are in the trenches alongside Gordon, their friends, family and even their often-annoying boss Mr. Bungee (an aggressively he/him performance by the remarkable Richardson Cisneros-Jones), the host of a children’s TV show.
Choreographer Alli Miller-Fisher works wonders within this small chamber, and her program bio connects her contributions to the theme of the plot with such illuminating words as these: “Your brain is your choreographer just making stuff up on the fly.”
Almost every word is sung. Gregory Nabours’ invisible three-man band as well as M. Glenn Schuster’s sound design help make the wisecracks within Finn’s lyrics crystal-clear. But beyond the wit, Finn’s score, bookended by numbers titled “Heart and Music” and “Time and Music,” is a stirring tribute to the emotional power of song.
Time-traveling in ‘44’ and ‘Whittier’
And now a few words about two less successful productions, both of which seem to employ somewhat arbitrary time frames — one goes backward from now, the other goes forward.
“44 — the unOfficial unSanctioned Obama Musical,” at the 200-plus-seat Bourbon Room nightclub in Hollywood, appears to have mixed motivations. On the one hand, it’s a loving portrait of Barack and Michelle and the somewhat younger Joe Biden, as we might expect from a conventional bio-musical. On the other hand, it’s a wacky satire of a few of their Republican opponents, including such relatively obscure figures as the late Herman Cain and Sarah Palin — even though Obama’s presidential-campaign opponents, the late John McCain and Mitt Romney, are spared any direct impersonation by actors.
Whatever it’s supposed to be, Eli Bauman’s show lasted just short of three hours (including intermission) at the performance I saw last week. That’s much too long for a satire of events that happened a decade ago. In these ridicule-rich times, it’s smart for satirists to focus on what happened much more recently — and to cut to the chase.
So I would guess that “44” is primarily intended as a musical portrait of the Obamas, but in that case it would help if the leading actors (here they’re T.J. Wilkins and Shanice) looked a lot more like the Obamas. Chad Doreck’s Biden probably fares best in balancing affectionate mockery with a degree of verisimilitude. As at “Six,” above, audience members are encouraged to make enough noise to drown out some of the lines. At “44,” they’re also encouraged to use their phones to record what’s happening, which of course can interfere with sight lines of other spectators.
Instead of going backwards, "Latino Theater Company’s “Whittier Boulevard” moves forward to 2042. By then, according to the script, unmarried Americans who reach the age of 75, plus gay people, are hauled off to “Whittier Boulevard” — which is an undefined place where they’ll die sooner rather than later, instead of the real street that has existed for decades. The only representation of the actual street is in a few spoken memories, accompanied by video of the street’s legendary cruising.
The premise might sound darkly dystopian, but that mood is diluted by the fact that most of “Whittier” resembles a prolonged comedy sketch about an aging movie star Veronica (Evelina Fernández) who is turning 75 without a husband. The title and the character are probably take-offs on “Sunset Boulevard” and its aging former matinee idol Norma Desmond.
Other characters include Veronica’s caretaker who has a secret avocation, the gay cop who comes to check birth certificates for residents, and a neighbor who is a poet as well as a potential husband of the movie star. Five of the company’s co-founders co-wrote the script, and four of them perform in the production, with José Luis Valenzuela directing.
As in “44,” mixed intentions seem to get in the way — but “Whittier” isn’t nearly as overextended as “44.” And the design components at Los Angeles Theatre Center’s downstairs venue are so overwhelming that they might make you forget how unsatisfying the script is.
Thanks for reading Angeles Stage! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.