Which LA theater company has the highest profile right now on Broadway?
Would you believe it’s the Pasadena Playhouse — the company that has recently had a lower profile here in LA than just about any of the other large or midsized LA companies?
Yes, it’s the same company that declared bankruptcy last year and spent most of 2010 healing its bottom line before producing a couple of insignificant celebrity-oriented shows at year’s end (and then a more ambitious but not exactly memorable new musical in February).
Last week, in a brief visit to New York, I saw two Broadway musicals that had received their professional premieres at the pre-bankruptcy Pasadena Playhouse — Sister Act and Baby, It’s You!. They opened within a few weeks of each other. I can’t remember the last time an LA company sent two shows to Broadway that opened at about the same time.
Sister Act is better than it was in Pasadena. In fact, it generated such a rapturous reaction at the performance I saw that it appeared to have the potential to transcend mixed reviews and become a whopping word-of-mouth hit, in the recent tradition of Wicked and Mamma Mia.
Baby It’s You! also drew a (mostly) standing ovation, but the clapping felt a lot more dutiful — along the lines of “after all the money we paid for these tickets, we’d better pretend we like it more than we really do.” OK, maybe that merely reflects my own opinion that it’s a poor excuse for a jukebox musical.
Unfortunately, the playhouse’s artistic director Sheldon Epps co-directed (with Floyd Mutrux) Baby It’s You!, the less inspired of the Pasadena progeny. Meanwhile, the original Pasadena and London director of Sister Act, Peter Schneider, was replaced after London by Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks. So the glow generated by Sister Act in New York won’t necessarily expand to include the playhouse, at least not for long..
The stars of the Pasadena versions of both shows were replaced before the productions reached Broadway. Not surprisingly, in the case of Baby It’s You!, Meeghan Holaway was replaced by Beth Leavel, who has a bigger Broadway name and a Tony award, in the role of Florence Greenberg, the New Jersey woman who started a recording label around her daughter’s “discovery” of the Shirelles. Leavel tries hard but can’t breathe much life into a show that’s still saddled with most of the same narrative problems that plagued it in Pasadena.
More surprisingly, Sister Act’s Pasadena star Dawnn Lewis was replaced by her then-less famous Pasadena understudy Patina Miller — who is certainly no Tony winner yet, although she might become one for this, her Broadway debut. Miller opened the show in London before her Broadway opening, and she contributes a sizzling performance with genuine star quality.
Sister Act was pretty good in Pasadena, although it’s about as nun-centric as the Nunsense shows, which I’ve never liked. I saw the Broadway Sister Act on the same day that I flew into New York on a seven-hour flight, after only fitful napping along the way. Yet Alan Menken’s driving disco- and r-and b-influenced score, Glenn Slater’s witty lyrics and Douglas Carter Beane’s jokes, which were added to the solid structure of the original book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, kept me wide awake.
Menken and Slater also wrote the score for Leap of Faith at the Ahmanson Theatre last year, and Sister Act shares some story elements with that show. Both productions depict impostors lurking within religious institutions, albeit for very different reasons. Both protagonists awaken to a few of the more genuine elements of spiritual bonding by show’s end. But while Sister Act won’t win any awards for originality, its execution is about 100% more effective than that of Leap of Faith.
The same highly precise measurement also applies to the superiority of Sister Act over Baby It’s You!. One of the reasons is that the former is an original musical, with songs written for the occasion, instead of a jukebox musical, with songs written for the charts and then chosen for this occasion years later. Some of the Menken/Slater songs sound as if they might have been written for the charts in the ’70s — the era in which the story is set — but Slater’s lyrics are cleverly crafted to fit the needs of this particular story and positioned to fit the needs of musical theater epiphanies.
I look forward to seeing Sister Act yet again, when it returns to LA.
As for Baby It’s You!, I look forward more to the idea of hearing how it fares in a lawsuit that was filed against it on the eve of opening night, as opposed to again seeing the show itself. Lawyers for a surviving Shirelle and the estates of two of the other Shirelles, as well as Dionne Warwick and Chuck Jackson, claim these artists’ names, likenesses and stories are being used without their consent.
I don’t know the facts, but you might be amused by the response to the lawsuit by a commenter named “Freddie” on the New York Times web site. Freddie wrote new lyrics to be sung to the melody of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?,” under the title “Will We Settle Tomorrow?” Here goes:
Sister Act, Broadway Theatre, 1680 Broadway, New York. http://www.sisteractthemusical.com
Baby, It’s You! Broadhurst Theatre, 233 W. 44th St, New York. http://babyitsyouonbroadway.com
One other LA-originated show is currently on Broadway, Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. With two previous productions by Center Theatre Group in LA, at the Kirk Douglas and the Mark Taper, this play hardly needs more commentary by me (see here for my comparison of texts of the two LA productions). The Broadway script doesn’t sound all that different from the scripts of the LA versions.
The main difference, as amply reported elsewhere, is that Robin Williams was imported to the otherwise LA-experienced cast in order to play the title character. He does a fine job, but it’s difficult for him to meet some of the playgoers’ expectations that naturally arise from his celebrity. His character, the tiger, isn’t the star of the show as much as he’s the Greek chorus. If any of the characters have a “starring” role, I’d say it’s Musa, the interpreter for the American forces who had previously been a gardener at Saddam Hussein’s palace. Yet when the Tony nominations were announced, Arian Moayed, who plays Musa, was nominated in the “featured” category, while there was much comment about the absence of Williams from the nominees in the “starring” category. It all amounts to one more reason why we shouldn’t pay too much attention to the Tony Awards.
AND BACK TO LA: Because of my recent travels, I didn’t see Lynn Manning’s The Unrequited, directed by Shishir Kurup, until its closing performance Sunday. It’s a fascinating adaptation of The Dybbuk, the Yiddish classic, to South Central LA in 1933. A Latina American bride is possessed by the spirit of her former soulmate, a “colored” man whose dead mother dabbled in New Orleans voodoo.
Manning’s attempts to mesh the supernatural story with the political context of the Depression, and then with the current 2011 economic climate, with a pivotal role for the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, don’t click smoothly into place. But the production kept me tuned in throughout. And it represented a return to Watts for the Cornerstone Theater, in collaboration with the Watts Village Theater that Cornerstone helped create in 1995. The same community partnership that created Watts Village culminated in The Central Avenue Chalk Circle, one of the seminal productions in Cornerstone’s history.
Given that Cornerstone is one of LA’s most nationally famous companies as well as one of its few companies that regularly pays attention to local communities and issues, I was surprised to hear that The Unrequited received no coverage by the LA Times. I can’t remember that the Times ever ignored a previous Cornerstone production — and to ignore a Cornerstone production in Watts, which isn’t exactly the most theater-intensive part of town, seems especially derelict.
Was the Times unaware that Cricket Myers, the sound designer for The Unrequited, is a current Tony nominee (for Bengal Tiger)? Sorry to say, but that’s the kind of information that might have attracted Times coverage, even if Cornerstone’s illustrious history and the reputations of Manning and Kurup and the Watts locations weren’t enough.
Sister Act photo by Joan Marcus.
Baby It’s You! photo by Ari Mintz.Print