Luring millennials to 'Carrie' and 'Vietgone'

carrie-1-jason-niedle.jpgGarrett Marshall and Valerie Rose Curiel in "Carrie" at the Los Angeles Theatre. Photo: Jason Niedle.

How to attract young-adult audiences to LA's professional theaters? Plenty of pondering about this subject occurs at theater conferences and in theater journals. I won't address the logistics of marketing to millennials here. But I'm welcoming two new productions that seemingly target them yet also offer lively experiences to those of us who are definitely not active members of that demographic group.

The producers of the musical "Carrie" have opened in a neighborhood where relatively well-employed millennials often congregate, downtown LA. For "Carrie," a new 499-seat theatrical space has been created in the heart of the 2,000-seat Los Angeles Theatre -- the lavish former movie palace that opened in 1931 on Broadway, just south of 6th Street.

Preservationists, don't call the cops. "Carrie" does not appear to have altered the underlying integrity of the original space. But "underlying" is the operative adjective here, because the "Carrie" production uses the original auditorium as the foundation for a temporary thrust stage, which has been designed to suggest the high school gym where the climactic scenes of "Carrie" take place.

So the audience now sits on bleachers instead of the more comfortable seats in the movie palace - but more important, most of the audience is much closer to the action than it would be if the production had tried to use the building's original proscenium stage and its 2,000 seats.

Indeed, the audience members who pay to be "seniors" - as in high school seniors, not Medicare recipients - are almost part of the action. They're seated in the front banks of bleachers, which are in sections that are pushed around the stage by cast members in order to reconfigure the playing spaces, providing additional perspectives and focus on key moments. It's probably no coincidence that this activity also offers the "seniors" with a mild sensation of what they might conceivably feel if they were suddenly affected by someone else's telekinesis, just as the characters of "Carrie" are.

Yes, telekinesis. In case you're unaware of Stephen King's first published novel and its previous screen and stage versions. Carrie is an utterly hapless high school student. Her abusive mother, a religious zealot, dominates at home, and Carrie's classmates mercilessly mock her at school. But her discovery that she possesses telekinetic powers provides her with a weapon of revenge.

Skeptics of telekinesis should temporarily suspend disbelief - which of course is an activity with which anyone who enjoys fiction in any format should be familiar. Concentrate on the empathy or at least the sympathy that most adults feel for bullied teenagers, and try to ignore the fact that telekinesis is not a reliable option for most of these human targets.

As a theatrical exclamation point, the staged telekinesis in this new version of "Carrie" creates jaw-dropping effects. And for those of us who also saw the warm-up version of Brady Schwind's staging at La Mirada Theatre earlier this year, the effects are not exactly identical. The fate of Carrie's chief tormentor is much more spectacular in the downtown version, which features flight choreography by Paul Rubin. (On the other hand, the opening-up of the space for the prom in the second act gave me more goosebumps in La Mirada, although perhaps my own reaction was colored by the fact that I saw the La Mirada version first, when I had fewer expectations.)

The showmanship of this "Carrie" isn't found only in the special effects, but also in the fiery performances of the Michael Gore/Dean Pitchford score (primarily from Emily Lopez as Carrie, Misty Cotton as her mom and Kayla Parker as her one sympathetic peer) and in Lee Martino's dynamic teen-spirit choreography.

Carrie-LosAngelesTheater.jpgWhy should this all of this appeal to millennials in particular? Because, let's face it, the closer most people are to their high school angst, the more they think about it - especially when they can reassure themselves that it's a part of their past. And if some millennials have money to spend on live concerts and clubs, as they attempt to broaden their experiences beyond cyberspace, then why wouldn't they extend that impulse to "Carrie" or similarly aimed theatrical events, especially during the Halloween season? The "Carrie" characters have been updated to the extent that they too carry their electronic devices, so what millennial wouldn't feel right at home in their company?

Of course, non-millennials also might get a kick out of "Carrie", and everyone who cares about LA theater or the vigor of the downtown after-hours scene should fervently hope for its success.

The downtown movie palaces have been preserved but largely dormant for years, but "Carrie" is using the Los Angeles Theatre for a relatively extended run of a musical - the first in the venue's history, according to the show's website. With 499 seats, the show's size is more Off-Broadway than Broadway, to use a New York comparison (although of course it is literally located on LA's Broadway). But its size is even farther from the 99-seat level, to use an LA comparison. With the end of Actors' Equity's traditional 99-seat Plan scheduled for next June, it's essential for LA producers to try to create more opportunities such as the one that "Carrie" has undertaken.

"Carrie" is seen as so significant for the health of downtown LA that the Downtown News ran an encouraging editorial about it last week, citing it as a "a theatrical canary in the coalmine. If Carrie succeeds, it will demonstrate to producers of plays, musicals and other events that large, consistent crowds will come to Broadway for the right evening entertainment. If Carrie tanks, then it may be years before someone again sinks big money into a theatrical endeavor on the street."

LA observers, your prom tickets await.

Bringing the war back home

I'm not suggesting that millennials would be interested only in "Carrie"-like amusement-park theater that reflects on their own recent rites of passage. At South Coast Repertory, Qui Nguyen's "Vietgone" uses up-to-the-minute millennial culture to tell a fictionalized version of his own parents' meeting as newly arrived refugees from the Vietnam War in an Arkansas relocation camp in 1975.

That might sound like an aesthetic stretch, but it's an extremely invigorating stretch.

vietgone-pro2.jpg<Raymond Lee, Jon Hoche and Maureen Sebastian "Vietgone" at South Coast Repertory. Photo: Debora Robinson/SCR.

Nguyen wants to obliterate the "otherness" of his parents' tale in the minds of his own contemporaries. So these non-English-speaking characters don't speak broken English or even 1975-style American English. They speak in the cadences and with the vocabulary of 2015-style American millennials. And when they hear non-Vietnamese Americans speaking to them, they hear only nonsensical strings of American words and phrases.

The innovation of "Vietgone" goes far beyond the language into the narrative elements and the design of May Adrales' staging. Nguyen's plays have usually employed comic-book, video-game and hiphop techniques. East West Players presented one of those earlier plays, "Krunk Fu Battle Battle," in 2011. Its theme was much closer to "Carrie" - learning to overcome teenage bullying - than it was to that of "Vietgone." Its combination of topic and style struck me as formulaic four years ago.

In "Vietgone," however, Nguyen connects some of these same contemporary forms to a story that I never would have thought would be amenable to such a match. And he succeeds masterfully, defiantly crafting a touching immigrant story, even if it's hardly your great-grandfather's "huddled masses" saga.

Flying in the face of decades of stereotyping of Asian American characters in American media, Nguyen turns his central lovers (Raymond Lee, Maureen Sebastian) into vital, sexy, sly individuals. Their occasional moments of rap impart meaning and poignancy far more successfully than many of the rapped moments in recent American plays about native English speakers.

Nguyen also breaks up the play's chronological structure, so that we are introduced to a framing character called "the playwright" (Paco Tolson). And we concurrently track what happens at Fort Chaffey, Arkansas and what happens on a road trip that Lee's character takes in a futile attempt to return to his family in Vietnam. While this narrative structure might sound complicated, I found it relatively easy to follow inside the theater.

In terms of substance, Nguyen also allows the fullest expression that I've heard in a theater of a sentiment among some Vietnamese refugees that the American involvement in the war was, for them, not a wasted effort.

The design lifts the production into a colorful land of enchantment, which reflects what's going through the characters' minds more than it reflects their actual physical surroundings. Jared Mezocchi's projections would please any Comic Con devotee as much as they pleased me.

With much of "Vietgone" set in Arkansas, I was struck by how much more it accomplishes than the current Mark Taper Forum production that's set entirely in Arkansas, "Appropriate," by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Arriving as only the second Taper production since "Immediate Family," "Appropriate" is yet another family-reunion play that uses a stubbornly realistic and (in this case, more than in "Immediate Family") long-winded style. It looks painfully dated when compared to what Nguyen is doing in "Vietgone."

Unlike "Vietgone," "Appropriate" is not a premiere - it was produced earlier in Louisville, Chicago and New York. So it's probably too late to request an extensive rewrite, but that's exactly what would be appropriate for "Appropriate."

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