The re-awakening of LA theater resumes, in the wake of Omicron
How Omicron affected LA productions -- or not, in one case. Let's talk about 'Jamie,' 'Singing Revolution' and 'The How and the Why.'
Plenty of theater companies in Greater LA had big plans for January and early February. But most of those productions were postponed by the Omicron surge.
Here is a sure sign of the recent absence of big-time theater — Charles McNulty, the Times theater critic, wrote a long essay about the drama among the characters in professional tennis, not professional theater. He wrote it for Calendar, not the sports section.
The most notable exception to the wave of delays within LA theater in January was the American premiere of the British-bred musical “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” from Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, part of the LA County-owned Music Center.
Befitting a government-operated facility, the efforts to combat the virus were intensive at the Music Center. The venues received a renovation of the HVAC system that regulates the air quality inside the buildings, and last year the Music Center became the first performing arts facility to receive the UL Verified Healthy Buildings Mark.
At the opening of “Jamie” on January 21, every ticket holder was required not only to prove vaccinations, in conjunction with a matching ID card, but also to wear a wrist band during the show, indicating that the spectator had passed the vaccine check. Mandatory masks, kept over the nose and the mouth, were the most prominent fashion statement of the evening.
Beginning this month, spectators at “Jamie” and other CTG productions are required to present evidence of the booster as well as the two earlier COVID shots (a few exceptions are spelled out here). Although the Pasadena Playhouse converted its production of “Teenage Dick” from live to digital, it too is requiring its subsequent in-person visitors to be boosted, as of yesterday.
Meanwhile, an updated page on the website of Geffen Playhouse, where previews for “Power of Sail” begin next week, specifies acceptable masks: “Only these types of masks may be worn: medical/surgical masks, N95, KN95, or KF94. Unacceptable masks include: cloth, neck gaiters, bandanas, and masks with vents. Medical/surgical masks will be provided to patrons if needed.”
A trickle of re-openings at smaller venues began last weekend. Of the four shows I saw, three of them required the usual vaccine-card checks — although not the booster or a wrist band — in addition to mask wearing. In one of these, the new musical “Singing Revolution,” two of the chorus members wore masks as an extra precaution, as they sang and danced.
On the other hand, there were no vaccine checks or mask requirements when I saw “The How and the Why,” produced by Crimson Square Theatre Company at the 80-seat Beverly Hills Playhouse. Looking at the other theatergoers in my row, I counted only four who were masked, out of 11. The masked proportion of the entire audience was easily less than 50 per cent.
At intermission, I was further puzzled when I noticed a printed copy of the county’s earlier COVID-fighting regulations in “Music, Television and Film Production” venues (as revised on July 17, 2020), posted on a wall in the hall just outside the theater entrance. Two paragraphs were highlighted in yellow — the first of which began this way:
“All visitors, are instructed that they must wear cloth face coverings over their nose and mouth at all times in the facility unless they are alone in a closed office.” We theatergoers had not received such instructions — and apparently it wasn’t because the 95s have replaced cloth as the preferred model of the masking moment.
Later I Googled this July 2020 document and learned from a county website that it had been “retired” and is “not in effect,” apparently because of the subsequent introduction of effective vaccines. But masking is still required for public, indoor events in the county, according to this document or this from last month. Among the county’s cities, vaccination proof is required in the city of Los Angeles, but it’s only “strongly recommended” in most other cities, such as Beverly Hills.
This particular Beverly Hills production is housed in an acting school, which might explain why the average age of the audience was younger than in most professional theaters — which in turn might be cited as a reason to support the relaxed masking policy. But no one was preventing people from more vulnerable generations, such as mine, from entering. Not that I felt personally vulnerable; I was wearing a N95.
These days, before you buy a ticket, try to understand the masking and vaccination policies. I couldn’t find much specific visitor guidance about these matters on the Crimson Square or the Beverly Hills Playhouse websites. Perhaps “the how and the why” at this theater is that someone forgot to take down that copy of the July 2020 rules but later decided that it didn’t matter, as no masking rules would be enforced anyway.
The ‘Jamie’ chronicles
Is everybody talking about “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” the stage musical, billed in the marketing as “the hit musical for today”?
Not really. The original documentary that inspired “Jamie” was released more than 10 years ago but is still available on Amazon Prime. At the Ahmanson, the musical feels just a little stale, especially for those who have seen the relatively recent musicals “Kinky Boots” and/or “The Prom” and/or the movie version of “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” itself.
“Jamie” shares with “Kinky Boots” a setting in an industrial area north of London and an emphasis on drag-queen footwear. It shares with “The Prom” the idea of teenagers trying to break down the rules that favor rigorously heterosexual appearances at high-school proms. Jamie, a boy who lives with his mother while his father builds a second family elsewhere, is devoted to a career performing in drag, so it’s no surprise that he wants to wear a dress to the prom.
In Los Angeles, “Kinky Boots” played the Pantages twice. “The Prom” won’t appear on an LA stage until next August, at the Ahmanson, but presumably many Angelenos have already seen the streaming film version of “The Prom,” on Netflix.
For that matter, many Angelenos who like musicals might also have seen “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” on Amazon Prime. The movie was made after the musical opened in England, but the film reached the US before the stage version of the same show.
I normally wouldn’t write much about the movie, but in this case I can’t avoid the fact that the advance release of a movie version before the stage version seems like a surefire way to depress the US box office for the stage production.
Back in my primary role as a critic, I also have to acknowledge that the streaming “Jamie” is better than the stage “Jamie.” I sense that Jonathan Butterell, who directed both versions, might agree, because he supervised several significant changes for the movie, one of which deepens the material considerably. This particular revision was already the subject of an LA Times article by Ashley Lee, as the movie was appearing last September.
There is one other big advantage in watching the movie at home — you can turn on English subtitles. If your first language is English, as mine is, this might seem unnecessary for a scenario that’s set in England. But the story is set in the South Yorkshire city of Sheffield, a long way from the parts of England where the accents might be more familiar to most Yankees (the original events that inspired the show took place even farther north).
For approximately the first 10 minutes of watching the show at the Ahmanson, I felt as if I were stranded in Sheffield without an interpreter (or at least I’ll assume that the speech I heard was a somewhat accurate representation of “deedah” — the Sheffield dialect). I recovered well enough to follow the arc of the story. Fortunately some of the characters, such as Jamie’s mum (Melissa Jacques, the musical star of the show) were easier to understand than the teenaged characters.
During the intermission I noticed that on the bottom of a page in the printed program, which primarily lists the musical numbers, is a QR code that would lead to “a glossary of UK-specific terms used in this production”). But it seemed a little late for me to start learning deedah at that moment.
Of the other shows I saw that dared to open on the last weekend in January, the most ambitious is the premiere of “Singing Revolution,” from Dreamtone Productions at the Broadwater in Hollywood. This is the show where two chorus members performed while wearing masks (see above) — although this is no “Phantom of the Opera” sequel.
Instead, it’s a musical that’s set almost entirely in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. When Estonians liberated their nation from Soviet hegemony in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, mass musical demonstrations received much of the credit. “The Singing Revolution” was the title of a largely acclaimed American documentary about this phenomenon in 2006. But the musical isn’t based on the film.
As a sub-99-seat venue in Hollywood, the Broadwater hardly sounds like the best place to see a musical about thousands of people gathering in musical protests, peacefully liberating themselves from foreign domination.
Composer and director Tony Spinosa and his writing partner James Bearhart took the obvious path of focusing mostly on a blighted romance — between a young Estonian patriot (James Everts) and the daughter (Bella Hicks) of a severe Soviet apparatchik (Michael Scott Harris) who’s an enforcer, keeping the Estonians in line.
They also extended the story back to when these two lovebirds met in 1952 and married in 1968. The chronology shifts backwards or forwards several times, but the actors remain the same throughout, with hardly any dramatic costume or cosmetic changes. The actor (James Everts) who looks young enough to play a 17-year-old in 1952 looks entirely too young to play a 53-year-old in 1988. At least Harris, as the dastardly apparatchik, gets to carry a cane when he’s supposed to have reached old age.
Actually a majority of the cast looks younger than 30, and many of them seem to be there primarily to execute seemingly endless moments of cliched and irrelevant choreography that suggest an LA dance-studio showcase, not an Estonian revolution. Even more cliched are the Spinosa/Bearhart lyrics (almost entirely in English). This show might have a chance if its creators ruthlessly eliminated half of the more pointless choreography — and hired a more seasoned lyricist.
A few older actors are there primarily as would-be comic relief. Two of them (Anthony Marciona and Adam Wylie) play the ghosts of Lenin and Stalin, who are puzzled by the behavior of their successor Gorbachev (Peter Van Norden). While these interludes are hardly hilarious, they at least try to deal with something substantial. Just don’t expect anything that refers even obliquely to the current red-hot situation between Russia and Ukraine.
Hardly anything in this production feels distinctively Estonian. Spinosa has said that he heard about the Singing Revolution when a cruise he was taking was diverted to Estonia instead of St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, his musical looks like a souvenir that was made in Hollywood, not in Tallinn.
Two plays, two women each, in Beverly Hills
Speaking of productions that are based on real-life events, “Death, With Benefits” at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, was inspired by a real-life 21st-century story closer to home — the case of Helen Golay and Olga Rutterschmidt, women in their 70s who were convicted in 2008 of murdering two male vagrants in LA in order to capitalize on insurance policies the women had bought for them. John Strysik’s script, with its nod to “Arsenic and Old Lace,” isn’t likely to repeat that title’s success. If his play has any future at all, it definitely needs a new ending.
Also in Beverly Hills, two very different women compose the entire list of characters in Sarah Treem’s “The How and the Why,” the previously mentioned play at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. As opposed to “Singing Revolution,” this is a play that fits perfectly into an intimate space. It consists of two conversations between evolutionary biologists — one who is 56 (Andrea Nittoli Kelly), another who is 28 (Faye Viviana).
Fairly soon, we realize that they have a previously unexplored personal connection, which puts some strain on their professional connection. But it also sheds more light on their conversations about their research in menopause and menstruation and academic politics. It’s a lively exchange, directed by Allen Barton.
The premiere of the play was in 2011, and apparently it isn’t entirely new to the LA area, but I had never seen it. It reminds us that Treem was a promising playwright before she became a successful TV producer (“House of Cards,” “The Affair”). I only wish that I might have concentrated entirely on the how and the why of the characters instead of being distracted by the how and the why of the unmasked spectators.