"Harmony" at the CTG/Ahmanson Theatre. Below, Shayne Kennon and Leigh Ann Larkin. Photos by Craig Schwartz.
Center Theatre Group has been obsessed with young guys' bands in recent years. Just since 2013 began, CTG offered the forgettable new musicals "Backbeat" (about the early Beatles) and "The Black Suits" (about a Long Island garage band.) The 2011-12 season at CTG's Ahmanson Theatre included post-Broadway runs of the dramatically threadbare "American Idiot" (with a Green Day score) and "Fela!" (about the Afro-pop star.)
Finally, however, "Harmony" is redeeming CTG's stubborn faith in this subject matter. "Harmony" is by far the best of the lot.
It's about the rise and fall of the Comedian Harmonists, a popular German sextet that rose during the Depression and fell to the Third Reich.
Part of the tremendous power of this show is attributable to its remarkable real-life story about young men whose lives and careers were wrecked by the 20th century's most famous villains. Also, as many critics have acknowledged, Barry Manilow has created a wonderful original score, sung to perfection at the Ahmanson (move over, "Jersey Boys"), where the heavenly harmonies are in stark contrast to the brutal narrative.
Where some of the critics are drawing an unnecessary and hyper-critical line is all over Bruce Sussman's book.
Yes, it's a challenge to write in-depth roles for so many characters -- six men and two of the women in their lives. But Sussman's script provides focus by framing the story around the reminiscences of the Harmonist who survived the longest -- "Rabbi" Josef Roman Cykowski, whose last job was as a cantor in Palm Springs, not far from where Manilow lived when he became interested in Cykowski's story.
Shayne Kennon delivers a potentially star-making performance as "Rabbi." He not only delivers the goods during the heart-on-sleeve highlights that Manilow has written for Rabbi as a vital young man, but he also captures an acute sense of survivor's guilt in Rabbi's later glances backward, including scenes in which he expresses his regrets in otherworldly cantorial (but English-language) recitatives.
The other Harmonists aren't written with the same depth, but they are written with vivid individuality. Indeed, one of the themes of the story is that these men create glimmering harmony despite a variety of backgrounds that go beyond Jewish and gentile and despite a variety of vocal registers and body types. Their many variations are part of the reason we're fascinated to watch them in action, and JoAnn M. Hunter's choreography makes sure we notice the diversity among the moves.
Also, in case potential women theatergoers are tired of CTG's obsession with men's groups, be aware that the two wives (Hannah Corneau, Leigh Ann Larkin) here are hardly doormats; they too have moments of musical magic - and dramatically different fates in the narrative.
Tony Speciale directs here, as he did at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta last fall. I don't know the next stop for this production, but I know that LA is lucky to have it with us through April 13.
TWICE MORE UNTO THE BREACH
Seldom do LA audiences have their choice of two concurrent versions of the same Shakespearean history play, but that's our option right now, with "Henry V" up at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice and also in a Porters of Hellsgate production at the Whitmore in NoHo.
I saw both of them last weekend, separated by about 43 hours. They're strikingly similar in their first images. As audiences enter tiny black-box theaters, we see the casts in contemporary casual dress, mingling and socializing on the stage and also backstage, as if they're about to begin a reading of the play. We even get occasional glimpses out the back doors of both black boxes.
The idea behind this set-up is to acknowledge, as the opening speech by the one-man Chorus notes, that we are indeed in a tiny theater - Shakespeare described it as a "cockpit" - but that we are to imagine that we're in "the vasty fields of France." The main difference between the two pre-shows is that some of the actors sit behind a table in Venice, while some of those in NoHo sit in a semi-circular arrangement facing the audience.
But when the play itself begins, more substantial differences begin to emerge. The NoHo cast is larger than the Venice cast - 17 to 11. The more plentiful NoHo actors usually linger on the stage even when they're not participating in the action, while the Venice actors usually exit from our view when they're not in a scene. So the NoHo stage looks more crowded and retains more of a rehearsal ambience, as opposed to the more immersive look of the Venice.production.
Also, in the programs you'll learn that the 11 actors in Venice play a total of 22 characters, while the 17 in NoHo play a total of 34. The running time in NoHo is slightly longer. By the way, both directors are also on stage as actors. The Porters director in NoHo, Charles Pasternak, also plays the title role. In the Pacific production in Venice, director Guillermo Cienfuegos - using his actor's name Alex Fernandez - plays the Chorus.
The texts, although based on the same "Henry V," are quite different. No adapter is listed in the program of the NoHo production. In Venice, however, director Cienfuegos and Joe McGovern, who plays the title role, get an adaptation credit. They have incorporated a few excerpts from other history plays in order to better establish the previous relationship between the father-and-son Henrys and to bring Falstaff (Dennis Madden) on stage. Cienfuegos also uses lighting and scenic design (Norman Scott ) and fight choreography (Jonathan Rider) in a way that emphasizes the brutally sculptural, non-verbal aspects of combat in a graphic way that's barely suggested in NoHo.
Purists who want a relatively uncut "Henry V" may prefer the Porters version, in NoHo. But it's less sharply focused. I left the Porters production thinking that the company performed admirably in an overly episodic, perhaps overrated play. I left the Pacific production in Venice with the feeling that I had just seen a rich and complex tale unfold before my eyes.
AS THE 17TH CENTURY TURNS
Move forward a few years from when "Henry V" was written and you find "Macbeth," about a different war. The Scottish play is impossible to overrate, for it is indeed one of the best plays ever written.
A Noise Within's new version, directed by Larry Carpenter in Pasadena, is almost as male-oriented as "Henry V." Men (Amin El-Gamal, Thom Rivera and Jeremy Rabb) play the witches, assisted by picturesque puppets designed by Sean T. Cawelti; the same three men also play a number of smaller roles. Only two women are in the cast - Jules Willcox as Lady Macbeth and Katie Pelensky as Lady Macduff and Donalbain.
The costumes, designed by Jenny Foldenauer, feature a distracting detail that I've never seen in "Macbeth." The men are frequently bare-chested (although they usually wear other garments over their shoulders), and their torsos are especially exposed when they're in combat -- when you would expect them to be especially cautious about wearing ample protection. It's not as if this is supposed to be occurring in some warmer country than Scotland -- a large map of which sometimes appears as a backdrop. So why the romance-novel-model look? I couldn't figure it out.
Elijah Alexander as Macbeth and Willcox do suggest a lot of sexual passion in their early scenes, but at least at the performance I saw, Alexander's vocal delivery sounded lighter than expected, almost as if he were undecided about how far to pursue Macbeth's indecision. Carpenter visually emphasizes that the Macbeths apparently lost their one and only child, which was also a focal point of Jessica Kubzansky's staging for Antaeus Company two years ago.
Still, the recent LA "Macbeth" that most clearly stands out in my mind is Independent Shakespeare's and David Melville's ultra-visceral version with Luis Galindo, presented last summer in Griffith Park.
Written a few years after "Macbeth," but set in a considerably warmer setting - Spain - Lope de Vega's "La Dama Boba" is receiving a rare revival from the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts in Lincoln Heights, spoken in Spanish with English titles. Lope wrote 1,800 plays, and this one usually isn't listed among his best - it's a formulaic comedy about two marriageable sisters of starkly different personalities, and their suitors. But the BFA's wide stage is handsomely deployed in Margarita Galban's staging.
Bottom photo: Lady Macbeth encourages Macbeth. Craig Schwartz