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Transforming 'Transparent' into a stage musical. 'Dreamcoat' delivers. It's Durang, dude.
Plus 'Soldier's Play,' 'On This Side of the World,' 'Gandersheim,' Gunderson, Inge
“A Transparent Musical” isn’t totally transparent. After seeing its premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, I didn’t understand parts of it until I later read the script.
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I enjoyed the original “Transparent” streaming series (2014-2019) on Amazon Prime. Recently I re-watched some of its episodes, refreshing my memories of this vibrant depiction of contemporary LA’s transgender and unOrthodox-Jewish-family subcultures. So you might assume that I would at least understand “A Transparent Musical” more than those who didn’t watch its streamed predecessor.
That might be true, but it’s also possible that many of us who watched the series will like the musical less. A lot of elements of the original are missing from the musical.
Obviously Joey Soloway, who created “Transparent” while still using the first name Jill, needed to trim a lot of its components in order to condense its story from its previous four-season, 41-episode (each about a half-hour) structure into less than three hours of stage time. MJ Kaufman receives co-credit with Soloway on the book of the musical, and Soloway’s sibling Faith Soloway — who was a writer and composer on the original — is the creator of the musical’s score and vocal arrangements. Tina Landau directed.
Yet in addition to making cuts, the Soloways probably also felt that they had to add more musical numbers, to hire a more trans-specific cast — and also to find a few narrative elements that might fit better on a stage than on a TV screen and that would be new even for fervent fans, instead of a simple rehash.
The decision to anchor the musical’s setting at a JCC (Jewish Community Center) is sensible. JCCs are more secular than the synagogue that occasionally appeared in the mostly secular original, and of course they’re also more Jewish than Los Angeles LGBT Center, which was the site of the streamed show’s LGBTQ support group meetings. The JCC is a plausible middle ground that eliminates the need to establish two different institutional settings.
Using one central set also reduces the number of scenes that occur in the various LA homes of the central characters — which are only barely suggested, often via lighting instead of sets. But we shouldn’t expect a stage production to provide the many varied and location-shot glimpses of LA that the series offered.
As the audience enters the Taper, we’re immediately immersed in the daily hubbub of the JCC. Throughout most of the performance, the fourth wall is often broken by actors entering not only the nearby aisles but also the upper reaches of the Taper.
The musical shifts the central emphasis away somewhat from Maura — the woman who used to be Mort, the Pfefferman father and husband (Maura’s character arc was inspired by the Soloways’ father’s transition from Harry to Carrie).
At the Taper the final curtain call is instead reserved for Adina Verson, who plays the youngest of the family’s siblings. As in the series, this character changes their name from Ali to Ari (Hebrew for “lion”) as they become less certain of their gender identity. But while Amazon Prime’s Ali/Ari worked primarily as an academic, the musical’s counterpart is employed in a rather low-level position at the JCC.
Ali’s unusual choices in ordering the bagels for a JCC event lead to the opening number, “Standing Order.” Its title is a metaphor for old, established customs, not unlike the opening number (“Tradition”) of perhaps the most famous Jewish-oriented musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The book of the musical compresses the revelations by Maura (Daya Curley) of her transition to her children by informing all of them simultaneously. The depictions of the two older siblings are similar to those in the series, although they’re hardly as detailed.
But then the more substantive and confusing changes begin. Maura’s trans friend Davina in the series has, well, transitioned into the director of diversity at the JCC. Davina (Peppermint) discovers a connection to a lower-level JCC employee in a subplot that seems almost entirely contrived for some purpose that isn’t obvious.
Back in the main plot, Maura finally emerges in all of her womanly splendor to her ex-wife Shelly (showstopping Liz Larsen) and a lot of their acquaintances — just before a performance of a JCC Purim play that’s directed by Ali/Ari. We don’t see the performers or hear the Purim-oriented dialogue. Instead we see the Pfeffermans, in the audience, sniping and shouting at each other — until the performance collapses in chaos.
This familial meltdown, we later learn, causes some unseen but aggravated members of the audience to question the intrusion of the Pfeffermans’ trans-triggered tsuris into the life of the JCC.
Meanwhile, the musical’s Ali/Ari — spurred by a book they find in the JCC library — takes a deep dive into the story of Maura’s long-dead uncle, who was part of a gay/trans group that existed in 1933 Berlin. The musical spends more time on this subject than the snippets of the Berlin scene that we saw in the series. At one point, Ari even drags an initially reluctant Maura into this time-travel fantasy. Yet these scenes are interrupted by 21st-century scenes.
As I read the script after seeing the musical, I realized that Soloway appears to be drawing at least a faint line between brownshirts in 1933 and the offstage JCC members who are reportedly complaining about the LGBT presence at the Purim play, and perhaps at the JCC in general. Really? Soloway evidently doesn’t accept the common belief that comparing contemporary events to Holocaust-era events is usually a bad idea. After all, the “musicale” finale of the “Transparent” series ended with a defiantly hopeful but controversial musical number titled “Joyocaust”.
However, if Soloway wants to alert us to the specter of present-day brownshirts attacking LGBTQ events in our own country, why not just show us some of the recent real-life video clips of young men displaying swastikas and shouting “Sieg Heil” to protest drag-queen story hours?
Was ‘Joseph’ more ‘Amazing’ than Jesus?
Throughout much of the fourth season of the streamed “Transparent,” as the Pfeffermans visit Israel, we hear a few excerpts of songs from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” You see, Jesus was another Jew who wandered around the same turf.
Yet as I watched the earlier Lloyd Webber/Rice musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” for the first time in decades, at La Mirada Theatre, I initially wondered if the Pfeffermans sometimes hummed its tunes as well. Many Jews probably think of Joseph as more of a superstar than Jesus.
But then I realized that the Pfeffermans didn’t, after all, visit Egypt, which is where Joseph acquired his “superstar” status — which enabled him to forgive his brothers who had tried to kill him. In terms of sibling rivalry, the squabbling Pfeffermans can’t hold a candle to the sons of Jacob in “Joseph.”
Anyway, I had forgotten how breezily satirical the '“Joseph…Dreamcoat” musical can be with the right director, which certainly applies to La Mirada’s Gerry McIntyre. This production is funnier than “A Transparent Musical” and not nearly as long. The brothers’ performance of the faux-French “Those Canaan Days” brings down the house.
From Bunker Hill to ‘This Side’ in downtown LA
Let’s go back to Bunker Hill briefly for “A Soldier’s Play,” in a touring production at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, adjacent to “A Transparent Musical.”
Reviewing the 1982 LA premiere of Charles Fuller’s ‘Play’ at the Taper, LA Times critic Dan Sullivan began with references to it as “absorbing and slightly aloof.” Now that it’s at the much larger Ahmanson next door to the Taper, in a revival directed by Kenny Leon, I’ll describe it instead as “aloof and only slightly absorbing.”
Non-musicals, including this one, often don’t fare well at the Ahmanson, especially when they have elaborate whodunit plots that are difficult to follow. Fuller’s play offers reflections about still-segregated Black soldiers, at a Louisiana base in 1944, but this context — while indeed “absorbing” — doesn’t spring to life as much as it might if the murder-mystery plotting were less complicated.
Eight blocks southeast of the Music Center, at East West Players’ home in Little Tokyo, “On This Side of the World” is the company’s final production under the artistic leadership of Snehal Desai, who will be the next artistic director of Center Theatre Group, on top of Bunker Hill.
Paulo K Tiról’s new musical, co-created and directed by Noam Shapiro, is about Filipinos who immigrate to the US. It’s more of a revue than a book musical, with a mixed bag of excellent and mediocre songs. The songs are mostly connected only by the Filipino-American theme, not by the supposed characters. The attempted narrative connections are flimsy. FYI, these immigrants are all flying to NYC, not to LA. This seems a little misplaced in a theater in LA, which has twice as many immigrants from the Philippines as NYC. But Tiról is from the New York area.
“On This Side of the World” is scheduled to close on Saturday.
PRT turns on Durang’s Chekhovian ‘blender’
While “A Soldier’s Play” was better suited for the smaller Taper than the larger Ahmanson, Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is better suited for the much smaller Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice than it was for the larger Taper, where its LA premiere occurred in 2014. I was a dissenter about the play then, but I changed my mind about it after seeing it at PRT.
The play is set in only one room, requiring an intimacy that’s difficult to pull off at the Taper. Durang accurately described his script as a blender full of Chekhovian elements. Add a more up-to-date Americanized seasoning, and the recipe comes together very well in Victoria Pearlman’s staging.
As in “Transparent,” “Vanya…etc” gives us three adult siblings — two women and one man. But in Durang’s play, the adopted youngest sibling Sonia (Tania Getty) and her aging gay brother Vanya (Brad Greenquist) stayed home to take care of their late parents, while the other sister Masha (Martha Hackett) became a wealthy and famous actress who supports all of them financially. Masha has brought her newest fling, the much younger would-be actor Spike (Taubert Nadalini), to the family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The family’s winsome neighbor Nina (Miranda Wynne) and the housekeeoer (Cindy Fujikawa) also appear periodically.
I still wish that Durang hadn’t placed the housekeeper on a different level of suspended disbelief from the other characters. But that objection seems trivial after witnessing the final explosive showdown between Greenquist’s Vanya and Nadalini’s Spike, who summarizes the play’s theme with this concise phrase — “Time marches on, dude”.
The league of women protagonists
It’s hard to think of a play that covers more centuries and places — in only 90 minutes — than Elizabeth Dement’s “No Place Like Gandersheim,” at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz. It’s set, respectively, in the 10th-century Gandersheim Abbey in Germany, in contemporary Hollywood, and in a future metaverse. The status of women creators, including one of the first women playwrights, is the primary topic. Randee Trabitz’s strong cast features four women, including the always reliable Shannon Holt and Jamey Hood. The middle scene in LA is livelier than the others, but perhaps that’s partially because it’s about what’s happening right now, around the corner. If rewrites are contemplated, perhaps the cumbersome title would be the place to begin.
Four women also are featured in “The Revolutionists” at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, by the prolific Lauren Gunderson (whose “The Book of Will” recently closed at A Noise Within in Pasadena). Set during the height of the Reign of Terror in Paris, the play unites three characters based on real-life personages — pioneering playwright Olympe de Gouges, Marie Antoinette and Charlotte Corday — who will soon be executed on the guillotine. The fourth woman is a composite fictional character who is active in the revolution in Saint-Domingue (which will soon become Haiti). But unlike “Gandersheim,” where there might be too much going on, “Revolutionists” is a little too static. The women hang out at the De Gouges home for some female bonding while waiting to be arrested, then killed. Four men play the executioners at the back of the stage, with only a few spoken lines, but the violence isn’t particularly graphic.
When the musical “Starmites" was developing in New York in the ‘80s, its cast featured none other than Liz Larsen, who is currently wowing us in “A Transparent Musical” (above). She played a teenaged comic-book fan whose fantasies gradually come to life and eventually engulf the musical itself. But “Starmites” doesn’t strike me as a shining star in Open Fist Theatre’s current revival in Atwater. It might have worked better if the show’s creators Barry Keating and Stuart Ross had paid just a little more attention to what’s going on in the real life of the protagonist (Talia Gloster), as opposed to her fantasy life. The drama that might have been apparent in that contrast dissolves into rather monotonous fluff.
If William Inge were alive today…
In the new “Back Porch,” a Bluestem production at the Victory Theatre in Burbank, playwright Eric Anderson implicitly suggests how William Inge might have written his hit play “Picnic” (1953) or his subsequent variation on it, “Summer Brave” (1973, just before Inge committed suicide in Hollywood), in an era when he would not have felt compelled to stay in the closet.
The scruffy but charismatic guy (Jordan Morgan) who passes through a small town in Kansas in the ‘50s excites a young man (Isaac W. Jay), not a young woman, in Anderson’s play. And this charmer shows up in this town for a different reason — he’s doing stunts for William Holden during the Kansas location filming of Hollywood’s version of “Picnic.”
It’s a fascinating play, with an all-male cast, though perhaps it’s just a bit too 21st-century in a few aspects. But it might especially interest those who saw the recent “Picnic” at the Odyssey Theatre in West LA. That staging of Inge’s play by John Farmanesh-Bocca featured a Black cast in an otherwise colorblind and conventionally-gendered revival.
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