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Connie Chats on Opening Night: Totem

by Connie Danese | January 24, 2014
Connie Danese

Connie Danese

Cirque du Soleil’s Totem, written and directed by Robert Lepage, is open under the Cirque’s famous blue-and-yellow big top at the Santa Monica Pier. On this opening night in January, Cirque apparently enlisted the Weather God as co-producer in charge of atmosphere, because it felt as if we were celebrating by an ocean in the tropics.

Soleil is French for sun or sunlight. Like the English equivalents, it can be used to indicate people who bring light to others by brightening their everyday life. Maybe that’s why the universe conspired to ensure our traditionally cold winter weather would cooperate with Cirque’s delightful mission. Given the current situation on the East Coast, opening night on a pier at the Hudson River would not compare. The dry, warm nighttime air was an odd but welcome perk as celebrities arrived without boots, umbrellas or windbreakers.

Kristin Bauer (HBO’s True Blood) is a staunch animal activist who also works to promote programs that do not test cosmetics on animals. “As a big animal lover, I’m so happy this is a non-animal circus; everyone performing volunteered to perform. I see all the Cirque shows. I think they’re amazing. You can’t imagine what they’ll do next, so I always expect the unexpected.”

Kristin Bauer

Kristin Bauer

Another Cirque fan, Dot Jones (Glee) mentioned her affinity with animals. “What I love about Cirque is that it’s all people, no animals.” Jones recently celebrated her birthday by going to Vegas and seeing her favorite Cirque production again. “I went two weeks ago, and it was my fifth time seeing O. I’d see all of them every day if I could.

“When you think of the quality of athleticism these kids have…and I say kids cause I’m old; I’m 50.” She laughs, “There are a lot of Olympians in the company and not just from the US but all over the world. They’re beautiful and elegant and breathtaking. O is one of my favorites. I love the water and the diving. If you haven’t seen it, you must. My favorite part is watching the acrobats. I admire their strength because I grew up in theater and was a power-lifter so it takes me back — makes me wish I were still in that kind of shape. They’re inspiring.”

I interviewed Neil Patrick Harris at two earlier Cirque shows, Ovo and Iris. This time Harris and his fiancé David Burtka each carried one of their beautiful twins Harper and Gideon onto the Red Carpet.

Neil Patrick Harris, David Burtka and twins Harper and Gideon.

Neil Patrick Harris, David Burtka and twins Harper and Gideon.

The proud dads posed for photos with the children, but Harris understandably wasn’t stopping to “chat”. He is a big fan of Cirque but also a dad who dashed up the aisle during Act One carrying one of the children who apparently needed to “go”; they quietly returned at an opportune moment and seemed to be enjoying their family night.

The Harris/Burtka clan was seated directly in front of me and behind Ray Liotta (The Place Beyond the Pines), who also posed on the carpet but didn’t “chat”. I’ve  seen him play so many scary-bad-guy roles, but I was nevertheless surprised that he projects a commanding, stern image in person — even at a circus — or maybe that’s just a good way to avoid a microphone. Liotta was dressed all in black and stopped for photos, but his eyes seemed to project “don’t ask” to nearby reporters, and we didn’t.

Mario Lopez (Extra) was apparently on a child-free “date night” with his lovely wife, Courtney Mazza. Lopez, who is also a dancer, said, “Unfortunately, I’ve never done gymnastics, but one of our kids will soon be taking classes and my wife has done it, so we love the acrobats.”  What does he like best about Cirque? “ We love the music and storytelling. It’s just magical and takes you away, right? I come back to all of them and always look forward to seeing the newest. We have no idea what this one is about, but it’s always a heck of a show.”

Beautiful actress Jaimie Alexander (Thor) arrived with boyfriend Peter Facinelli (Nurse Jackie) who brought his two daughters (with ex-wife Jennie Garth) to see the show. Alexander wasn’t “chatting” but Facinelli introduced his youngest daughter, Fiona. “It’s her first time at Cirque and we’re all very excited to be here.”

Carrie Ann with "Totem" performers

Carrie Ann Inaba with “Totem” performers

Carrie Ann Inaba (Dancing With The Stars) smiled for cameras then completely surprised everyone when she suddenly dropped down into a split while posing with Cirque cast members. “I love Cirque. I toured with Madonna in ’93 and did one of those pole things at the top of the show. Cirque called me for an audition at one point and I remember being really, really flattered. It’s a high point in any performer’s career to be called by them. It was to do the pole stuff — not acrobatics or gymnastics.” Inaba slyly grinned, “I learned from a stripper, so it was a really interesting act I did for Madonna’s tour called The Girlie Show.”

Inaba is consistently fascinated by Cirque. “There’s this mystique and always a storyline that allows you to add your own interpretation. I love it because it’s different each time and there’s so much space in the story that you can add your own ideas. Anyone who has a creative inkling will find this a fun, exciting and never boring experience.”

When judging Dancing With the Stars, Inaba is often brought to tears by the beauty of certain dances. She laughs, “Always.” Does Cirque ever affect her that way? “Oh yes. Mystere moved me to tears every time I saw it. When that stage opens up and you see the creature kind of walking through with the four legs, I cry every single time; it’s magic. Every time I see something at Cirque du Soleil it’s always a magical night.”

Allison Janney

Allison Janney

Allison Janney (CBS, Mom) gets more beautiful with the years. Her newer look with long straight hair is fantastic. She dressed in tight pants, ankle boots, and sweater, with a perfectly tied soft scarf draped around her neck. “I’m always excited to see something at Cirque du Soleil,” she said. “It’s always a perfectly magical night.” During the show, while performing an impossibly difficult segment of a routine, one of five synchronized cyclists missed catching a bowl on her head — more than once. They were nevertheless awesome, and at the end Janney showed her deep appreciation of the performers by being first to leap to her feet and applaud those incredible ladies.

Cavorting on the red carpet with magnificent Cirque acrobats, Jason Alexander (Tony winner, Seinfeld, the last artistic director of Reprise) seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself. “These shows are all so different. You can’t believe human beings can execute those moves. And, they execute on every level, not just the performers but the machinery and technology and design is extraordinary. It’s one of the most imaginative companies. You keep thinking wow…wow.”

Alexander returns often, because “It makes you feel like a kid again. I couldn’t do that on my best day”, he laughs, “nor would I try. This is a circus that can always bring me way back in time and make me remember how I felt when I was about seven or eight years old. I’m excited to see this new one. I have no idea what it’s about.” I explained that it depicts mankind going from the amphibian state to men with cellphones. “Ah, somewhere in there I must fit in, I’m sure. I’ve got to be somewhere in that hierarchy.”

Get in touch with your inner child and experience the very special magic of Totem at the Grand Chapiteau on the Santa Monica Pier through March 16.

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**All photos by Matt Beard.

CHAT CITE: “Children see magic because they look for it. ” Christopher Moore

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LA Stage Times

Connie Chats on Opening Night: The Steward of Christendom

by Connie Danese | December 11, 2013
Connie Danese

Connie Danese

Fifth in a cycle of plays about playwright Sebastian Barry’s Irish family, The Steward of Christendom stars Brian Dennehy in a tour-de-force role as Thomas Dunne, last chief superintendent of Dublin’s Metropolitan Police. At 75 years old, the two-time Tony winner is not resting on his laurels. Dennehy tackles a role where he is on stage for two and a half hours, stripped naked in the first five minutes, struggles with dementia and delivers 10 long monologues.

Before the play began, I chatted with actor Dorian Harewood, whose jaw dropped when told about the monologues. “Oh…really?”, he said, then added with a big smile, “I hope they’re not too long.” Harewood came to see his young nephew Grant Palmer who alternates with Daniel Weinstein in the role of Willie Dunn. “I don’t know anything about the play, but I’m a big fan of Brian. I started in the theater and love it. Live theater is what keeps actors going — having to dive out there with no safety net.”

Harewood acknowledged the difficulty of doing monologues. “I had several monologues in a Broadway play years ago called The Mighty Gents with a couple of unknown actors [big smile] named Morgan Freeman and Howard Rollins, Jr. The more you know about your character, the easier it is to make it work, because the audience doesn’t know what you’re supposed to say.”

Beautiful actress Taraji P. Henson who, in November, was shockingly killed off in her hit series Person of Interest, is happy to segue into a new play, Above The Fold at the Pasadena Playhouse (opening Jan 28). “I grew up in theater, so I love going back to the drawing board and sharpening my instrument. Television and film can make you a little lazy because you have the luxury of saying ‘oh I made a mistake, take two.’ I came tonight because I’m about to begin rehearsing with the director (Steven Robman) and wanted to see his work.”

Told about Dennehy’s monologues, Henson said, “I’ve never had to do anything that difficult — God bless him. But, when you love the craft you thirst for material like that and should be able to hold your own for two hours. For me, theater is a chance for actors to be rock stars because there’s instant gratification every night and you can feel the energy in the room,” she smiles, “or not. You have your off days, but you don’t have to wait for editing and a premiere. The actor gets to live the life of the character — beginning, middle and end — every night. I’m an artist. I’ll probably drop dead on the stage — but no time soon.”

Taraji P. Henson

Taraji P. Henson

Bill Irwin, whose career spans from Tony-winning actor (Virginia Woolf) to American circus clown of renown, also loves the theater. “This play means a lot to my family, because we’re from Northern Ireland. I’m familiar with the story and I’m here to see Mr. Dennehy do the role I associate with a famous Irish actor named Donal McCann.”

I read an interview with Dennehy, who said he was asked to do the role many years ago but refused because he saw McCann’s performance and wouldn’t touch it. “Really?” Irwin was delighted to hear of Dennehy’s respect for McCann. “My heart is with Brian Dennehy. I’m so thrilled to see him take this on. Here’s my two-bit theory about memorizing roles like this. As you get older, memory gets harder partly because it’s just more difficult to put those words in there, but also because you know the difference between really knowing your words and only kind of knowing them. When you’re young you know the next word is coming, but when you get older you want to have it so steeped inside your head that there is no effort to retrieve it — and that takes work.”

Dancers and athletes worry about their knees going, but for an actor, it’s the mind.  Do you ever think about that? Irwin’s eyes lit up with laughter. “Yes. Yes. Yes.” Irwin, who lives in New York, explained, “I come to the Taper whenever I can. I’m here to shoot a big movie with [film director] Christopher Nolan called Interstellar so tomorrow morning at 7 am, I’ll be on a set.”

After the show, cast and friends were ready for drinks and a wonderful buffet at Kendall’s on Grand. Dennehy arrived and smiled for photos, then retreated to a booth where he was quickly surrounded by close friends and family. Although I would have loved to chat with him, I understood that additional speaking for an interview would not be high on his agenda tonight.

Hearing that Dennehy’s understudy, Adrian Sparks, had gone on during previews, I quickly located him. “I’ve been on six times with two shows on a Sunday.” Can you tell me about the first time? Sparks smiled broadly, “Ah, yes. I had 45 minutes notice. The first time I ever heard my voice in the Mark Taper Forum was during that first performance. I said the first line and thought well, that’s what it sounds like in here.”

How much rehearsal did he have? “None. I just worked by myself. They called me at about 5:30 and said Brian’s ill; we’re taking him to the ER and can you go on? I don’t have to, because according to Equity rules if I don’t have a rehearsal I don’t have to do it — but I did and it worked out okay.”

Del Hunter-White and Bill Irwin

Del Hunter-White and Bill Irwin

You were ready? “Yeah.” You knew all the lines? “Yeah.” You didn’t wear an earpiece? “No. No. I called for lines maybe five times. Steve (director Robman) went into the house and explained we had an emergency and the understudy has had no rehearsal, so [Robman] told him it was okay to ask for a line if he needs it. The five times I asked, it wasn’t because I didn’t know a line — it was, what scene am I in now? The play is completely non-linear and always changing. The lights came up and I was thinking, wait, what am I saying now, because if I say the wrong thing we’re at the end of Act Two.  The gal on script was amazing; she just gave me a few words and we were off and running again.”

Sparks spent nearly 30 years doing Shakespeare (including the role of King Lear), so he is familiar with learning difficult text. “This is impossible to memorize by rote. You must have a logical sequence in your brain. When I’m talking about Dolly’s shoes, I know I have to get to throwing him in prison — in my brain I figure Dolly’s shoes make me think of being a policeman, policeman means throwing him in jail — then the words come out.” He gets to emotional places by dissecting the script and again cited his work with Shakespeare. “Shakespeare has no stage directions. It’s simple. Enters. Exits. And dies! Those are the three stage directions right? You have to look at the words and be a detective. Why does he say this to her at this point?”

Actors often have someone feeding them lines to check memorization while they’re learning the script, but Sparks did not. “I hike every morning. I learned that when you oxygenate your brain, things stick really good. Every morning I’d take two pages of text with me and go for an hour hike. By the end of the hour I memorized two pages.”

He also did not follow understudy rehearsal protocol — spending all day watching and writing down blocking. “I told the stage manager 90% of this job is memorizing the words. If I spend my time watching them figure out the blocking, I’m not memorizing my words. Better I should go away and memorize. Thankfully it paid off. Instead of waiting to be rehearsed, I was ready to go.”

Adrian Sparks

Adrian Sparks

I was curious about how he got the role. Sparks’ sense of humor is always at the forefront. “They needed somebody who (a) had a good Irish accent and (b) was good with text.” He added, “This was quite heavily contested because it was such a major role.” Why does he think he was chosen? “Odd you should ask, because tonight I ran into the woman who was the reader and she told me she’d never seen anything like this. ‘You came in and just told us a story and it wasn’t until you were done that I realized you were acting.’ So, basically when you’re in an audition situation, you’re in a small room. If I start doing a big performance instead of just talking to the people I’m reading with, they can’t see the truth of what I’m saying — just that he can perform big. What people want is truth — true emotions. The words don’t create the emotions, they come from the emotions.”

When cast as the understudy, did he think he’d ever get on stage and do the role? Sparks sparkled with laughter. “I’m an actor. I always think I’m gonna get on.”

Director Robman relaxed with his wife, actress Kathy Baker, at the party. What was he proudest about tonight? He smiled. “Well, that Dennehy made it through standing up at the end. The actor who originally did this role was the great Donal McCann who was 51. Brian is 75. I saw the Lincoln Center archive tape. For a man at the actual character’s age of 75 to do this and still be standing at the end of it, not to mention after a long weekend of shows, well — Brian is a powerful guy, and he’s the one to try it.”

The play touches on many things: Irish history, dementia, revolution — what would the director like audiences to take away from it? “There are two places where the main character talks about salvation lying in how you treat your family, and that’s what the story is about. It’s what can touch everyone, whether you know or care about Irish history. It’s about an old man looking back on his life and trying to redeem himself by acknowledging the mistakes he made with his family and that there is some redemption in cleansing your conscience.

“At the end he says the mercy of fathers shows through. In the last monologue, he thinks about the parental dynamic between parents and their children as something that must be cherished and of such great value that it can outweigh their mistakes.”

The Steward of Christendom continues at the Taper through January 5.

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CHAT CITE:

“…we are never old to ourselves. That is because at the close of the day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body.” Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture.

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LA Stage Times

Connie Chats on Opening Night: Peter and the Starcatcher

by Connie Danese | December 6, 2013
Connie Danese

Connie Danese

Winner of five Tony Awards, Rick Elice’s prequel to Peter Pan has opened at the Ahmanson. Based on a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, with a character originally created by James M. Barrie, Peter and the Starcatcher is primarily a play with music describing how Peter remained the eternal “boy”, Captain Hook lost his hand, and Tinker Bell was born.

The tale unfolds utilizing simple techniques reminiscent of story theater and pantomime with a touch of commedia dell’arte.

Waiting on the red carpet to interview celebrities, two women standing behind me asked if I could snap a cell phone pic of them. I did, and the excited Julie Margi said, “I’ve never seen this show, but I’m a big Peter Pan fan, so I go to anything about Peter. I even have a tattoo of him.” Hoping it wasn’t in a secret spot, I asked where. She turned around and needed to be unzipped assuring me I wouldn’t have to go too far.

Zip. A flying Peter! “Keep going.” Zip. Zip. Wendy mid-air. Zip, zip, zip — Tinker Bell and a small motif. Below it in script font I read: To love would be an awfully big adventure. “I’ve had this tattoo about two years now. It’s my first one and it was very painful.” Margi explained she’s an aesthetician who specializes in facials, waxing  and makeup. “I’ve watched movies, cartoons and anything I could see that’s like a spin-off. I’ve seen Peter Pan threesixty° [a version in a video-saturated tent, which played Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa in 2010], and I’m really excited about this because I don’t know what to expect, but I hear it tells what happened before and how he became Peter.”

A picture is worth a thousand words. I grabbed photographer Ryan Miller who shoots our celeb pix and watched his eyes widen as I unzipped Margi again, assuring him this would not be an R-rated shot.

Julie Margi

Julie Margi

Marion Ross was the first celeb I interviewed. Afterwards, Margi asked, “Who was that actress?” I explained she was probably too young to remember TV’s Happy Days. “Oh, yes, yes! She was the mother. I saw the reruns.” Another surprise from The Girl With The Peter Tattoo — move over, Rooney Mara, with your Dragon.

Ross was here to see her friend Nathan Hosner who plays Lord Aster. “I worked with him in Kansas City last Christmas when he was Sherlock Holmes and I played his mother.” Asked to comment about the story of a boy who never grows up, Ross observed, “Well, you’re talking to a Peter Pan because as an actor, that’s what we are. We are children who are allowed to play and make believe and that’s our whole life.”

Alan Mandell waved hello and Ross beckoned him to join us. Mandell explained, “We did Grey’s Anatomy together as married people whose spouses died and we became lovers.”

He left to pick up tickets, and Ross smiled warmly. “As actors we have so many friends because when we work together we bond. Right now I’m doing Two and a Half Men [CBS] with Ashton Kutcher.”

Asked to describe her role, Ross demurred, “Well, they told me not to tell. I shoot tomorrow so you’ll see it soon. You know how the show is very risqué?” Are you his new girlfriend? Big laugh as she gave her best cat-with-the-canary grin. “Maybe. Maybe. You’ll see.”

Barrett Foa

Barrett Foa

Barrett Foa, a series regular on NCIS: Los Angeles arrived and said he was one of the show’s investors. I told him he was way too young and cute to fit the prototype. “Thank you, thank you. I was a huge fan when I saw it in La Jolla before they moved to New York. My really good friend from college Celia Keenan-Bolger was the original Molly. I invested in the Off-Broadway, Broadway and now the touring production — I believed in it that much. It speaks to the magic of theater. They make an entire world out of ropes and crates. It’s amazing.”

Most actors limit theater investments to shows they perform in or direct. Has he done this before? “Ahhh, wellllll, yes. He smiled broadly. “I have a few in my back pocket. When I believe in a show and I really want to flush that money down the toilet, I just throw it at some theater and say, I don’t need this money anymore, so I’m gonna put it in this show.” Cute and charmingly funny!

Was that your experience with Peter? “No. No.” He laughs. “Actually this has been one of my best investment returns. But, that’s not the point for theater. If I believe in it, then I don’t mind watching that money go or come back to me.”

Foa’s personal take on the “boy who won’t grow up”? He pauses. “I like to think I’m growing up but not growing old. I believe this story is universal. I like that a company of actors tells the tale in a really inventive way. There’s something special about that.”

Later that evening, the cast party was held at Kendall’s Brasserie and Bar, where we celebrated with wine and selected delicacies. British actor/director Roger Rees, who co-directed with Alex Timbers, joined me in a booth, where I asked why the story of Peter Pan — more than 100 years old — continues to fascinate audiences. “Well, don’t you wish you were as innocent as you used to be? I think we all do. In the original Barrie book and play, Peter is looking through a window at a family. He will never have one, he will never make love to anyone, and he will never have children. So, always being a child means you make a big sacrifice. You don’t enter the responsibilities of adulthood and this play challenges that. It says, maybe what you should be doing is to be an adult and be responsible.”

Joey deBettencourt, Megan Stern and John Sanders

Joey deBettencourt, Megan Stern and John Sanders

Rees was unconcerned about going to Broadway with a show, which, by today’s standards, has a relatively bare-bones stage. “We ask the audience to use their imagination, and I think they like that and are flattered by it. We don’t have wires for Peter to fly. That is a very phony experience. In this production you see Peter fly when he jumps off a ladder and is caught by other people. So the human body is actually flying through the air…It is not a children’s play. This is a deep adult play with a lot of panache.”

John Sanders plays the role of Black Stache, which garnered Christian Borle a Tony award. “I was a cover for Stache and a couple of others. I played it on Broadway and then when it ended I left to do the original company of Matilda (the Musical). Last summer Rick Elice emailed me to ask if I’d like to play Stache on the tour and it has all been very exciting.”

The tour opened in Denver and played eight cities before arriving in Los Angeles. “As we take it around the country, we find what comes back at us is different from city to city. We’ve only been in LA two nights but I can see it’s a really sophisticated audience here. They love the writing, cultural touchstones and so many anachronisms — little things that seem like they don’t belong. This LA audience is really tuned into it all.”

The highlight of the second act is a show-stopping, hysterical aria of a monologue where we discover how Stache lost his hand and became Captain Hook. “To be quite honest, it changes drastically from night to night. There are new things that come up in almost every performance. There’s a bit in the beginning and at the end which is always the same, but the vast majority of it is a conversation with the audience.” Sanders revealed this evening’s nuance. “Lately, I’ve been experimenting with this thing where I set the table for myself, and tonight was terrific for that bit. There were rolling waves of laughter; riding them, letting them go away. then getting them back was great, because this was a very willing audience and such fun to play with.”

Director Roger Rees, actress Marion Ross and Sylvie Drake

Director Roger Rees, actress Marion Ross and Sylvie Drake

Careers have their ups and downs, and often actors experience a defining moment resulting in that successful trajectory. “You know I was just talking to my friend about exactly that. I had come off a big success and then had a year when almost nothing happened. After a number of months not working, I was asked to do a play by a director I’d worked with many times. He and I really butted heads on this project, and overcoming those difficulties shook a lot of stuff loose for me. That hard time allowed me to come out a bit raw and hungry.”

He smiled and added, “It also helped that a few New York casting directors saw me at the right time when I was working in Chicago.”

Explain what you meant by “shook things loose”. Sanders took a moment. “The idea that there is a right way of doing things. I always thought if I could only figure out what that is — the secret other people know about acting, how to do it well, how to do it right. If I could figure out what all these other people seem to know, then maybe I’d get into the club.”

The self-discovery he experienced was timely since Sanders was about to re-create a role he had  understudied to the actor who won the Tony. “I learned the right way to do things is your way, because that’s what people are paying to see. For me, that was the secret. In some ways it’s a necessary lesson before doing something like this, so you’re not trying to figure out what his secrets are. You can see the truths and ideas behind what he’s doing; behind the stagecraft, and employ those ideas in your own way. Instead of trying to be somebody, be you.”

You can see Peter and The Starcatcher at the Ahmanson thru January 12.

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CHAT CITE:

“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”…J.M.Barrie, Peter Pan

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LA Stage Times

Connie Chats On Opening Night: A Parallelogram

by Connie Danese | July 23, 2013
Connie Danese

Connie Danese

The title of Bruce Norris’ new A Parallelogram,  at the Taper, is defined in Webster’s as a quadrilateral with opposite sides parallel and equal (namely a rectangle, square or rhombus). At the final curtain, this humorous, provocative piece might best be defined as a conundrum–an unanswered riddle. The playwright asks questions about life and dares his audience to find its own answers. We eventually discover that the answer is simply this: there are no answers. A conundrum is, after all, a problem with no right answers or solutions. How clever of Norris to camouflage the answer at the outset by using a more ambiguous word in the title.

Before the show I spoke to Marg Helgenberger (CSI). “Bruce Norris and I are old friends; we went to college together. He was an actor and has been focusing on writing the last several years. He’s very smart and writes great satire.” Did you ever work on stage together? Her eyes lit up with laughter. “Ah yes. The most memorable was Taming of the Shrew when we were at Northwestern. He played Petruchio and I was Kate.”

Norris’ plays have such a dark side, is he a pessimist? This elicited a huge guffaw. Through her laughter, the delightful Helgenberger said, “He’s just quirky. I don’t think he’s really…well… I think he just gives that off a lot of the time. He’s actually very sweet, really. He doesn’t necessarily let a whole lot of people know it because he’s shy and cynical, but actually, very sweet.”

In the play, Norris poses the question that if fate exists — if your life was predetermined and could not be changed — would you want to live it? “I guess it would depend on where I was at that moment.” Do you believe in fate? “I think we control our destiny to a degree, but there are certain things out of our control and the more you understand what you’re in control of, the easier life will be.”

Marg Helgenberger

Marg Helgenberger

Did fate have an effect on your success?  She reflects and appears surprised to recall, “Yes, I think it did. In the play I did with Bruce at Northwestern, a casting agent happened to be in the audience one night and that led to an interview, which led to a screen test for a soap opera. I never thought I’d do that. My intention was to stay in Chicago, do theater and eventually get to New York. Fate actually played a part in my life a few times so, yes, yes, now that I think about it. Wow! I didn’t know anything about the play before and now I’m really eager to see this.”

Jeff Goldblum stopped by to give Helgenberger a hug and we chatted as she proceeded into the theater. “I’m working with Bruce on his new play, Domesticated. We start rehearsals in September and premiere at Lincoln Center in November. Laurie Metcalf is in it and we’re happy to be directed by Anna Shapiro [who helms Parallelogram]. It’s about relationships, long term marriage and a politician who was formerly a gynecologist caught in a sex scandal.” Goldblum became involved when he was sent a script to read. “Actually, I met Bruce a long time ago. I did Law and Order: Criminal Intent and he was an actor on it.”

I spotted three cast members from Lifetime’s Devious Maids: Judy Reyes, Ana Ortiz and Rebecca Wisocky. Wisocky explained, “I’m a fan and adorer of Tom Irwin who plays my husband on Devious Maids. He’s wonderful in the show and I also know him to be a terrific stage actor, so I’m pleased to see his work tonight. I’m also a huge fan of Bruce Norris. I saw [Norris' biggest hit] Clybourne Park twice; here [at the Taper] and in New York.”

I posed the same “fate” question to Wisocky about life being predetermined. “I don’t know if I would ever accept that statement. I guess I would consider it to be a challenge.” Do you believe in fate? “Oh, boy.” She laughed. “ I think I need a cocktail to answer that one. I have to say yes on occasion and on occasion, I do not. When it suits me, I do.”

Did fate have a hand in your success as an actress? “That’s an interesting question, because you always like to believe you worked very hard and there is something about your profession that is based on meritocracy. But then there are other things: inequities in the world and in your profession that prove meritocracy is not the case. So, a little bit of luck, a little bit of fate and a whole lot of hard work.” You just merited your cocktail. “Ha. Speaking of luck, I feel very lucky and overjoyed to be working on Devious Maids with such a wonderful group of people.”

Tony Goldwyn

Tony Goldwyn

Tony Goldwyn. who plays U.S. President Fitzgerald Grant on ABC’s Scandal, arrived. I asked his response to the “fate” question posed by Norris: if you knew the future would you want to go on with life? Goldwyn laughed. “Yeah, ‘cause what’s the alternative? But it would be a lot less fun.” Do you believe in fate? “I kind of do, yeah. But I don’t want to know about it. I don’t want the answers.” Do you think fate explains your success? “Yes, I think so — combined with hard work. Sometimes you feel things happen in a seemingly predetermined way and it’s the mystery of life.”

Goldwyn’s role in Scandal deals with politics, albeit in a highly fictionalized fashion, so I asked if he believes “fate” applies to what happens in the country, the world and politics. He paused to ponder an answer, then took a deep breath. “I don’t know. That’s waaay above my pay grade. It’s a seemingly orderly universe, which is sometimes just totally random. Politics and Washington are so chaotic. I can’t answer that one.”

After the show, cast and friends mingled at a spectacular opening night party at Le Ka, a gorgeous bi-level restaurant on 6th and Flower. Seated near the entrance I spotted Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick in deep conversation with Marin Ireland, who starred as Bee. Ireland recently worked with Bacon in his hit Fox series, The Following, where she played a delicious role as the murderous follower of Bacon’s nemesis. Could they have been discussing her reoccurrence or will she be doing A Parallelogram on Broadway instead?

Jimmy Smits arrived with Wanda DeJesus and said, “It’s still ruminating in my head. Whose reality is reality? The performances were so natural and incredible. Humorous and touching at the same time.” Smits’ thoughts on fate were simple and to the point. “If that’s true and it’s all about a parallelogram, then as you’re going through the ride, you should go through it with some kind of joy, right? If it’s all about fate anyway, at least be there for the ride.” Is that what you do? “I try. I try. I don’t know the answers. I just feel blessed. I feel very blessed.”

Director Anna D. Shapiro received a Tony for her direction of August: Osage County, which along with A Parallelogram, premiered at Steppenwolf in Chicago. She paused to explain some changes that Norris made since their original production. “The rewrites accordingly dictated some shifts in performances.” Asked to elaborate on the adjustments, she said, “There were some things left a little too open in the Chicago production, because what’s happening in the play can be elusive. Certainly that’s part of the experience, but we didn’t want it to be quite that elusive. It was more about controlling the ambiguity.”

Bobby Cannavale, Anna D. Shapiro and Carlo Albán

Bobby Cannavale, Anna D. Shapiro and Carlo Albán

How much of Norris’ questions about fate did you need to embrace in order to direct his play? “Well, I have to understand what Bruce thinks he’s doing, yes.” And what do you think he’s doing? “I think he writes plays about ideas, and ideas are so complex and strong and deep that they are actually also about our essential emotional life. I don’t think he would cop to writing about our emotional lives.”

Shapiro and Norris have worked together on plays for over 12 years. Choice? Fate? “Choice. Choice. I don’t believe in fate. I don’t. I think we can change and I think we can have an impact. I don’t think that means anything about how we begin and how we end. But, the middle — for those of us who are lucky — the middle is up to us.”

The theater community is basically a small, loyal world of actors who continually re-connect. Bobby Cannavale posed with Carlo Albán, who plays JJ in Parallelogram. The actors worked together in LABrynth, an Off-Broadway theater company formed in the 90’s. Actor Jeff Perry warmly greeted his friend Tom Irwin. Perry proudly reminisced, “Anna Shapiro, Tom and I are part of the 42-member ensemble of Steppenwolf Theatre. Tonight was great. I love the Taper. I love theater.”

Has fate played a part in your life and career? “If you’re asking what are we fated to do, I’d say we’re fated to get in our own way and make the same mistakes a lot.” He paused, then added, “Fate suggests predetermination and I don’t know that I believe in that. I think certain people come along… For instance, if I had not met a particular high school drama teacher, neither Gary Sinise nor I — we’re two of the co-founders of Steppenwolf — would have started a theater. My reality is that human beings have helped steer my life.

Scandal is a wonderful chapter in my life [Perry plays White House Chief of Staff], but there again the connection is between people. Shonda Rhimes [Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy writer/creator] used to see me at Steppenwolf. She grew up south of Chicago and had an interest in me as an actor. That’s how I was cast as Thatcher Grey in Grey’s Anatomy and how I was cast in Scandal. My wife [casting director Linda Lowy] was musing about it as we walked out of the theater and said this play reminded her of something the character Barbara says in August: Osage County: ‘Thank God, we can’t foresee the future. We’d never get out of bed.’ ”

 

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CHAT CITE: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference”…Robert Frost, 1920

**All photos by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.

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LA Stage Times

Connie Chats on Opening Night: Sleepless in Seattle

by Connie Danese | June 4, 2013
The cast of Sleepless in Seattle

The cast of “Sleepless in Seattle.” Photo by Earl Gibson.

Inspired by the film An Affair To Remember, Sleepless In Seattleboth the film and musical theater versions — portrays love and relationships prior to Match.com, eHarmony and speed dating.  Pasadena’s premiere of movie magic as a musical brought romance to the stage, and I venture to guess, historical fascination to the younger crowd. On opening night the curtain rose on a giant map of the United States and we watched two lonely people on opposite ends of the country connect via a car radio without SiriusXM and non-stop music.

Connie Danese

Connie Danese

The beautiful courtyard of the Pasadena Playhouse was packed with people milling about, anticipating seeing one of their favorite films live onstage. We would soon be reminded what it was like when a widower was matched by a real friend visiting him at home — not a Facebook friend connecting on the RSS feed. We’d meet his adorable son who knows how to write a letter using paper vs. typing an email on his computer and who probably spells “you” with three letters instead of one.

On the red carpet I chatted about it with Melora Hardin (The Office) who has known her husband Gildart Jackson (currently hosting ABC’s new series Whodunnit) for 25 years. “We haven’t been married that long but it’s almost 16 years, so no, we didn’t meet in cyberspace. Actually we experienced one of those movie moments where we stood across the room at a wrap party of a movie I starred in; we gazed at each other and realized we would fall in love. He asked me to marry him on our first date as a joke, but said he sort of knew. ”

In the film, the character Annie says, “Destiny is something we invented because we can’t stand the fact that everything that happens is accidental.” What do you think, destiny or serendipity? Hardin smiled. “I do believe in destiny and that there is more going on than just the obvious. I think we have a trajectory, but what we do affects what comes and it can change all the time based on choices we make. I think we’re humans on earth doing earthly things while moving through the world in an earthly way, but I also believe there are energies at play, angels working, things like that.”

Hardin is also a singer and songwriter. “The composer, Ben Toth, is my musical director. We’ve been working together for six years. Also, I’m a good friend of Sheldon Epps, so I’m excited for both of them. I came to the workshop production and thought it was wonderful.”

Composer Ben Toth with Melora Hardin and Kenny Ortega

Composer Ben Toth with Melora Hardin and Kenny Ortega

Producer, director, choreographer Kenny Ortega was positively effusive when asked what brought him to Pasadena tonight. “I am so excited to see the first work of my dear friend Ben Toth, who is a brilliant composer, teacher and mentor. He’s been instrumental in many projects I’ve done and so helpful to many people. I’m here to support him in this new and wonderful venture.”

It has been said that people who love once are likely to love again. True? “Hmm. I’d say yes, because I believe once you feel it and know what it is you will always thirst for that feeling to live inside you again.” Does that mean you believe we have more than one soulmate? Ortega paused a few seconds, so I asked if this was getting too heavy. His infectious smile grew even wider. “Oh no, I just had to think for a minute. I love so many people and things and music and dance and traveling….” He trails off then adds, “Love for me is a big word and it has a big ceiling. In terms of soulmate, I have to say yes, I think you can meet more than one.” He laughs. “And, I want to believe that because I’m still looking.”

I couldn’t let Ortega go without asking whether it was true he may be doing a remake of the film Dirty Dancing. “It was on the boards last year, but Lionsgate decided to pull away from it. We were into the casting process and saw many amazing men and women.  There is so much talent out there — bigger and greater than ever. We were talking about going further into a musical direction with the film by bringing in more singing. One day we’ll return to it.”

If you watch Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance, you’ll recognize Emmy-nominated choreographer Spencer Liff who choreographed Sleepless, his first original musical — quite a coup for this young man. Liff looked handsome and chic in a purple shirt and black jacket with thin black satin down the lapels. “I’ve done revivals, but this is a whole different beast. It can be anything that comes out of the director’s and your own imagination. It involved an unbelievable amount of creativity and I’ve enjoyed that.”

Spencer Liff and Nia Vardolas

Spencer Liff and Nia Vardolas

What is the biggest difference between this and all the dances you’ve choreographed on SYTYCD? “You’re telling a story for two hours as opposed to 90 seconds and you get to have a real choreographic arc in a show by finding moments that pop along with some very simple things. Also, this is a cast of incredible singers and actors but none of them would call themselves primarily dancers. Everyone is dancing more than ever before in a show and they love it. My assistant and I found interesting movement derived from pedestrian qualities that anyone is capable of doing.  You build on that and find the story in it. I don’t believe in doing movement unless it drives the plot forward.”

Musical theater fans who watched NBC’s recently canceled series Smash saw Liff dance almost weekly throughout Season One. “Yes, I officially moved out to LA during their second season, so I didn’t get to do that one. I was sad to see it go, but very proud of what it did to represent our community. It was a joyous place to work and a cool thing for New York to have a show like that.”

How did this young dancer transition so quickly into the role of choreographer? “I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to choreograph. My first job was with Tommy Tune when I was six years old and in the first national tour of Will Rogers Follies. I watched him work and knew that was my goal. I was on Broadway when I was 10 years old and started to align myself with choreographers I wanted to learn from.

“I began to assist at a very young age. Rob Ashford [Tony-winning choreographer for Thoroughly Modern Millie] was my mentor and I worked on three Broadway shows with him. What really catapulted it for me was when I got SYTYCD. At the time, I was the youngest choreographer who didn’t begin as a dancer on the show. I had six days notice and that was five seasons ago.”

Sleepless had a 5 pm early curtain, so when guests gathered in the courtyard for the opening night party, we were blessed by a perfect California evening lit from above just before the sun was setting. Booths with food and drink represented cities in the play. I wasn’t aware that Seattle was known for a Brandy Alexander-type coffee drink but it was perfect — yummy. The Chicago booth had chicken or sausage dogs covered in peppers and onions, New York offered bowls of hot Manhattan clam chowder and my favorite city was Baltimore with its crispy crab cakes.

Chandra Lee Schwartz, Joe West and Tim Martin Gleason

Chandra Lee Schwartz, Joe West and Tim Martin Gleason

I put down my drink long enough to chat briefly with Nia Vardolas (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). “I absolutely loved the show. I’m here because I’m a friend of Ben Toth.” Does she believe in the “magic” storyline and existence of a soulmate? “Oh yes, my husband said he knew immediately and we’ve been married 20 years. Although we didn’t meet on the internet, I think if that’s the way it happens, it’s okay; that’s just the way the magic is operating. I strongly believe there are people who are meant to be together.”

Adorable young actor Joe West plays Jonah, the young letter writer who eventually gets his Dad to the top of the Empire State Building. West was bubbling over. “I auditioned a long time ago with a Michael Jackson song and I guess they liked it because they asked me to do the workshop.” As for goals and believing in dreams, West’s smile goes directly up to his big blue eyes, “I’m 13 years old and yes, I believe that dreams come true. This is one of mine. And, it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

As I wandered back to the Seattle booth for another dreamy Brandy Alexander I ran into Charlene Tilton (Dallas). “I love the Pasadena Playhouse. I love Sheldon Epps. I loved this amazing show. Even at my age, I’m not cynical; I believe in magic and meeting your soulmate. I also believe in love at first sight. I’m not seeing anyone at the moment,” Tilton says, laughing, “But, if someone wants to meet me at the Empire State Building, I’ll be there.”

CHAT CITE:

“If you love two people at the same time, choose the second one, because if you really loved the first one you wouldn’t have fallen for the second.”….Johnny Depp

**All opening night photos by Earl Gibson.

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LA Stage Times

Connie Chats on Opening Night: End of the Rainbow

by Connie Danese | March 22, 2013
Connie Danese

Connie Danese

The legendary Judy Garland has arrived at the Ahmanson Theatre. Not wishing to miss an opening night, she apparently morphed into the body of Tony-nominated Tracie Bennett and reminded the audience why (although she left the planet more than 40 years ago), Garland continues to evoke a visceral response both from older fans who saw her “live” and youngsters who consider Rent an old musical classic.

LA audiences eagerly anticipated Peter Quilter’s bio-drama End Of The Rainbow, directed by Terry Johnson, and the opening night crowd was not disappointed. Red carpet arrivals included Lainie Kazan and married couples Loretta Devine (of the original Broadway Dreamgirls) with husband Glenn Marshall and English actors Juliet Mills with Maxwell Caulfield. A gaggle of women surrounded tall, young and handsome Grant Gustin (Glee), taking photos and getting autographs.

After his fans were satisfied with their last “Kodak” moment, we chatted. Are you here to see Judy, Tracie or the play? “I came to see Judy. Yes, I’m very young and she was gone before I was born, but I grew up doing theater and was a huge musical theater buff. She did many of those great movie musicals, so I was a big fan as a kid. That was the extent of my being in Judy’s life; those movies are all I know, but they are unforgettable.”

Grant Gustin

Grant Gustin

As Gustin turned to enter the lobby, the women previously surrounding him rushed over to ask me “Who is he? Is he a TV star? Is he in movies?” I politely refrained from asking why on earth they would ask for autographs and take photos of someone without a clue who he is. When I told them he is one of the leads on Glee, they looked at me blankly. By the way, they were not teenagers. Maybe that’s why the wonderful Betty White smiled graciously, “I’m so sorry,” but didn’t stop for autographs. I do hope, in her case, they asked because they know and love her.

Sid Krofft, who with his brother Marty has produced hit TV series and specials dating back to the ’60s, remembers Judy. “I was the opening act for Judy Garland at the Flamingo Hotel in Vegas, then toured with her for over a year. I did a puppet act.” Here to see Judy or Tracie? “I’m actually here to see both.”

Asked to explain Garland’s ceaseless emotional effect on people, Krofft said, “Well, you’ve got to remember the greatest movie ever made was The Wizard of Oz; it will live forever. When she went out and did personal appearances,” he pauses and smiles, “We would be in Dallas for six or seven days in a 6,000-seat theater and we could have been there for five months — we were always sold out.”

Sid Krofft

Sid Krofft

Krofft has worked with so many big stars. Is there a difference between singers then and now? His eyes widen as he gives me his best “are you kidding” look. What separates them? “Well Judy came from a family that worked in vaudeville. They grew up performing. Have you heard of the Gumm Sisters? When the producers were casting Oz they were looking at the Andrews Sisters and wanted one of them for Dorothy. The Andrews Sisters were working at the Oriental Theater in Chicago and Judy was at the Chicago Theater. They didn’t want to break up and told the producers to go see the Gumm Sisters because there was a little girl in that act they should meet. The Andrews sisters told me that story. The rest is history.”

In her spellbinding performance, Bennett  brought a piece of that history to life. Backstage after the show, she posed for photos with the cast against a wall of red silk roses — designed as a special tribute to Garland. Bennett then retreated to her dressing room to get ready for the cast party, but I was invited to speak to her gracious and talented co-star, Michael Cumpsty, nominated for a Tony when he played the role in New York.

He is a veteran of 10 Broadway plays and musicals co-starring with major leading ladies including Lynn Redgrave, Claire Bloom, Elizabeth Ashley and Kate Burton (wife of CTG’s Michael Ritchie). Burton and actress Peri Gilpin (Frasier), who is also a close friend of Cumpsty, were backstage waiting to congratulate him. Burton stopped for a moment to say, “It’s an incredible evening. I’d heard a lot about it and that Tracie was so fantastic, which she was. Then to see my beloved Michael Cumpsty who I did The Constant Wife with on Broadway be so stupendous — I have to say I’m very proud of him.”

Peri Gilpin and Kate Burton.

Peri Gilpin and Kate Burton.

Cumpsty ushered me into his dressing room where we could chat quietly. “Judging audiences between New York and LA is difficult because this theater is so much bigger and the acoustics are very different, so you don’t actually hear the response as clearly even though you can see it happening. It took us a couple of performances to get used to the difference in acoustic balance but in some cases the audiences here seem to be sharper and faster. It’s such a different dynamic because the Belasco [in New York] is an intimate, warm place and this is big and presentational. I would say we are getting a similar response — just more people.”

Were there any changes as a result of two new actors joining the cast (Erik Heger and Miles Anderson)? “Well, their rhythms and dynamics are very different, so they’ve changed considerably the way Tracie and I play with those characters. There are lots of differences and not just because of the new guys but also things Terry [the director] suggested. I think I’m playing my role differently than I did in N.Y. He’s stronger and more self-determining than before. I used to play him more adoring and devoted, but now there is more of an edge.”

Having worked with so many noted leading ladies is there a common thread or bit of advice he would give to a young actor in his position? “What all these women have in common is they are really smart, but beyond that they’re all really funny people — even when they’re not playing comedy. Kate (Burton) is one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, and in order to engage with those great women you have to be prepared to find rhythms that are like comedy — sharp, precise and quick — because that’s the way all those ladies think and it’s the way they deliver lines. They don’t hang around. They don’t indulge. They are insightful and sharp and you have to keep up.”

Terry Johnson and Michael Cumpsty.

Terry Johnson and Michael Cumpsty.

The show and Bennett’s performance is one I will always remember. Many years from now, I asked Cumpsty, when you look back at what is surely a very exciting time in your life, what do you think will stand out for you?

“As you said, I’ve worked with some incredible women. What Tracie is doing physically in terms of sheer focus and commitment — being present and bringing everything to it — I must say, I’ve never, never seen anyone do what she does. It has a level of consistency and absolute investment that goes beyond what people in shows usually do. She takes herself right out on the edge each time she plays it. She doesn’t consider herself a singer — and she is astonishing.”

Be astonished, be transported, and be at the Ahmanson where the production continues through April 21.

CHAT CITE: “I’ve always taken The Wizard of Oz very seriously, you know. I believe in the idea of the rainbow. And I’ve spent my entire life trying to get over it.” – Judy Garland

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**All photos by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.

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LA Stage Times

Connie Chats on Opening Night: Justin Love

by Connie Danese | September 25, 2012

Connie Danese

“Stars that used to twinkle in the skies are twinkling in my eyes, I wonder why” – Irving Berlin’s lyric from “You’re Just in Love” will resonate perfectly with theatergoers and movie “stars” who have “been there once or twice” and recognize the pun in the title of Justin Love, the new musical at the Celebration Theatre.

The musical takes a timely look at hypocrisy as it exists in the upper echelons of Hollywood, where actors are often not who they appear to be and publicists struggle to maintain those images. Reflecting its mission to shed a spotlight on provocative issues, it was a perfect choice for the inaugural production of Celebration’s 30th anniversary. The story is by David Elzer and Bret Calder, the book by Elzer and Patricia Cotter, and the score by Lori Scarlett and David Manning.

I was told American Idol’s Adam Lambert attended the press opening the night prior but didn’t want photos taken saying, “this is family night for me,” and his request was honored. Lambert was there to see Terrance Spencer, who had traveled all over the world dancing in his touring show.  But who needs a photo when you can get a rave Lambert tweet — “@LoveMrSpencer and cast were so fab in “Justin Love” at the Celebration Theatre in LA tonight. We laughed hard!”

Cast members Adam Bucci, Sabrina Miller and Adam Huss

After the show we walked down Santa Monica Boulevard for opening night festivities at the iconic Formosa Café, where I spoke to gorgeous Adam Huss, who plays a sexually conflicted married movie star hiding behind his glamorous image. He was understudying a role in Women of Lockerbie at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, and he was about to go on, for the first and last time, “when I got a phone call from Michael Kric (Kricfalusi, Celebration’s executive director). I had tried out for [Celebration's] Altar Boyz a couple of years ago. They loved my voice but I couldn’t move.” He laughs. “I mean I couldn’t learn the dance moves quick enough.” Anyway, Kricfalusi was now telling Huss that “they were having last-minute auditions [for Justin Love] because they lost their lead.”

What happened to the other guy? “I don’t know if I’m supposed to say, but he booked a TV pilot and left. I went to a callback the next day and they asked me to hang around a bit.  An hour later they said, “˜Can you rehearse tonight?’ I felt in my heart that I needed to do this. I told myself, whatever nerves you have, get rid of them and go for it.”

Huss explained his feelings about show biz “marriages”. “I read about it in the tabloids and think, nah, nah. But with so much evidence to the contrary, you wonder. I don’t know how they do it unless they are best friends and love each other and [they're] doing each other a favor. Again, I’m not in that situation, so I don’t know if at that level I’d be thinking, ‘screw everything, I want to keep this forever, and I’ll do what it takes.’ I just don’t know.

“Here’s the deal. In New York and LA people are open-minded. But in Middle America where these movies sell, they’re not. People bag on celebrities for hiding who they may be, but the whole world isn’t as forward-thinking as those who live in bigger cities. If you’re a lawyer, sexuality doesn’t matter. But if you’re a movie star, everyone wants to sleep with you or be you and if you’re gay, maybe they don’t.

“It’s changing but I don’t know if it will ever change for people at the level of Tom Cruise. People bring up Matt Bomer (White Collar) and Neil Patrick Harris and I’m happy for them but they’re not movie stars, they’re TV stars. For instance, I think someone like Bruce Willis, if he were gay, would have a problem. It’s tough. I respect everyone’s journey. There are people who say, if you’re gay, just say it. But, I respect people’s choices.”

The very dapper John Michael Beck – matching silk tie and pocket handkerchief are not often seen at theaters on Santa Monica Boulevard — took over as artistic director last July.  “At this point, I happily feel the weight of 30 years, and it has been a humbling experience because I really want to live up to what my predecessors have done.”

Derek Charles Livingston, Michael Matthews, Executive Director Michael Kricfalusi, Michael Shepperd and currend Artistic Director John Michael Beck

He credits production values as an essential element of their success. “If you examine shows from the past 30 years, you don’t see representational sets or lighting or props like two chairs and a black box. It elevates the acting, directing and choreography when you give people an environment they can actually live in rather than just a space “˜I’m acting’ in.”

The economy had a negative impact on theaters all over the country, yet the Celebration has survived for 30 years. What are they doing besides vying for grants and hoping to sell tickets? “As a nonprofit we have the benefit of finding donors willing to give and receive a tax deduction, but it does dry up; 2008 was a hard year. We are slowly recovering. We go back to the Pasadena Playhouse. That was an eye-opener and a wake-up call for every theater and every artistic director. You have to look at saving pennies.

“We examine our budgets almost a year in advance, and before a show is announced we ask ourselves if it can be done effectively without compromising artistic vision. That’s our primary focus. Some sets and costumes cost more than others, so it’s about identifying what we really need to spend money on and where we can spend less.”

With that in mind, what happened to the Celebration’s announced plans to present Design For Living? “That was my heartbreak. Basically we lost funding. It happened literally a week and a half before our first preview. We needed either really great advance sales or really great donations and we got neither. It was the perfect storm.  It’s my goal to bring it back.”

Beck is very proud of Justin Love. “David Elzer has been our publicist for 10 years. Talk about inheriting riches. One day he asked that I read a script he had been working on. Well, it seemed like the perfect fit. I don’t think this is a musical we could have done in our first year. No one would have bought it. This show takes place in Hollywood, and we’re mirroring what’s happening in tinseltown right now. That’s what we’re about at Celebration. We put a mirror up to society and say look at this.”

Any concerns about provoking controversy? “We all know it happens. Isn’t it about time, in the 21st century that you step up? I like to think the Celebration is ahead of the curve, and it is for us to call it out. Maybe some good comes out of this. We’ve been very successful with The Color Purple and last season with Leslie Jordan (Fruit Fly). A lot more influential people from the studios come to see our shows. People listen to what we say. We’re not just doing gay plays to be gay. We’re doing them to be socially relevant and give voice to people who don’t have one or who are intimidated from having that voice.”

Alet Taylor with producer/co-writer David Elzer

Alet Taylor plays Hollywood bitch babe publicist Buck Ralston and nearly steals the show. At the party I told Taylor that my escort Jimmy Cuomo, production designer for the new syndicated sitcom First Family, saw her name in the program, remembered she had just taped an episode and said, “She’s terrific and very funny”. He was right. Taylor beams, “Oh thank you. Yes, in the scene I’m eating cookies that my mother used to make and I say, “˜it tastes like I have my dead mother in my mouth’.  Such a great line.”

Elzer produced a show she was in (Having It All at the Noho Arts Center) and eventually asked her to do his workshop. “I don’t ever get to play a bitch. I’m usually the quirky, neurotic, innocent sidekick. Well, maybe not so much anymore at my age.” She laughs. “The role is based on a combination of people. You have to be careful because if you just play mean, she’s a caricature. Every mean person I’ve ever met has some kind of fragile part to them, some kind of fear. It’s fascinating to play a hot mess. Those angry people are really so tender.”

Her two young daughters were recently talking about how a boy could marry a boy. “I think it won’t be much of an issue in the future. I explained to them how at one time African Americans couldn’t marry Caucasians and Jewish/Christian marriages were controversial. We don’t even think about that anymore. At some point this too will be laughable and that would make the PR position of Buck in these matters obsolete, but I think that’s still far in the future.”

Taylor explained how getting older in this business was a positive. “I don’t need to be kissed anymore on stage.” Another bonus of aging came at auditions. “I don’t walk into a room wide-eyed anymore. I’m like ““ what do you need? This song or that song because I gotta go pick up my kids. I no longer worry about whether my hair is perfect, I think about the character. When I was younger everything had to be perfect — my hair, my dress, my makeup. Now the parts are so messy, I just put my hair in a bun and it makes me a better actress not to worry about those things. You concentrate on the storytelling.

“I worry but there’s really nothing I can do about it. I like getting older. I cry less; things are less confusing ““ even though my face and body are falling down. I swear to God; I was putting on my pantyhose and I kept trying to lift them up then I realized it was my skin I was pulling at. But seriously, everybody gets older; either I’m going to fight it or age gracefully. What I did was get married and have kids. I knew in the long arc of my career there would be employment. My family is everything to me, and that keeps me grounded.”

Director Michael Matthews helmed The Color Purple, which received 13 Ovation nominations for the Celebration including one for best director. “This is the third musical I’ve ever done and my first world premiere. Being able to workshop and help mold the show into what it is now makes me proud. At the end of the day, my job is to illuminate the script and tell a good story really well with my cast who are all collaborators.”

Cast member Adam Bucci, Musical Director Gregory Nabours, cast member Terrance Spencer, director Michael Matthews and cast member Adam Huss

Matthews believes in directing these characters by “embracing their faults. When we ask why would my character do this, we realize it’s because the character is not perfect and wants something so badly, he will go to the ends of the earth to get what he wants.”

It was important for Matthews to cast actors who could bring his vision to the stage. “We were looking for the right chemistry with the material. The choices some actors made showed me they were people I could work with in a new musical that was moving forward at a rapid pace. I wanted actors who were passionate about it. Even my designers, when they bring passion and that spark you know you’ve got something.”

The show deals with big movie stars who need to keep “secrets” and be perceived as straight. Do you see that changing in our lifetime? Matthews takes a long thoughtful pause, “In this show Chris sings the lyrics, “˜Someone goes first. Someone has to go first. Someone always goes first and if you can go first, you should go’. I think we’re all waiting for someone to go first. When that happens we will be set. When my actors or someone in my crew is unhappy in the middle of the process and having a bad day, I tell them ‘you are in charge of your own experience’  and somehow I feel that it correlates with what is going on in Hollywood with these stars.

“If they want their experience to be shared with everyone else, they are in charge and it’s their own business. However, at the same time I want someone to have the courage. I want someone to go first, and I want someone to be a role model for all those kids who need someone so badly. You know we say it gets better but sometimes it just doesn’t.”

The question appears to touch Matthews in a very personal place. “It does. I did a show [also at the Celebration] last fall called What’s Wrong With Angry? that I was super proud of. It touched on “˜it gets better,’ dealing with gay bullying and gay suicide. I feel like more people could be doing something about it if they had the courage that some of these 14-year-old kids have to stand up for themselves. We look at Hollywood and they can’t. I find that interesting. It’s their own business and I understand that. but we need role models. I should say, we have role models but we need more.”

As Irving Berlin wrote, “There is nothing you can take to relieve that pleasant ache. You’re not sick. You’re just in love.”  Justin Love continues at the Celebration through November 18.

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LA Stage Times

Connie Chats on Opening Night: Follies

by Connie Danese | May 14, 2012

Connie Danese

Center Theatre Group has delivered a remarkable jewel to Los Angeles. Watching the profound effect this production of Follies had on the opening night audience at Ahmanson Theatre, it was worth noting that the music and lyrics””favorites among Sondheim aficionados””and the complex, intelligent and moving book by James Goldman were written more than 40 years ago. The Broadway version of this revival recently received eight Tony nominations””the only surprise is that it didn’t receive more.

The red-carpet celebrities I interviewed mostly fell into the categories of major fans or newbies who had never seen it. But Annie Potts (most recently of ABC’s GCB) is a different yet equally fierce devotee. “I’ve never seen Follies but I know every word of every song by heart, so I’m very excited. Boy, would I love to do a musical!” Aware of the song that poignantly raises questions about “The Road You Didn’t Take,” Potts reflected on her own choices.

Actress Annie Potts

“I wonder about every one of them. If it wasn’t a smashing ‘wow!’ I say, ‘Oh, I know why I did that and why it was necessary.’ There are also the few embarrassments, but in this profession you don’t always have the ability to make choices, especially when the choice is whether or not you can pay the rent. I have three children and tuition and mortgages to pay, so I’ve done what I had to do. And for some I held my nose, but most of them I jumped into with glee.”

Potts enjoys a successful television career but still appears in small Los Angeles theaters (last year in AfterMath at the Odyssey and the Matrix). “My children are grown now, so I’m free to do that. Theater was always my first love, and it’s such a pleasure to have tucked away a little money so I’m able to do it.”

The excitement heard to my right was provoked by the appearance of Matthew Morrison, the handsome star of Glee, who posed for photos with his stunning date, model Renee Puente.

Actors Ricky Jay and Robert Wuhl

Actor-writer-comic Robert Wuhl (Arli$$) arrived and said, “I never saw the show but came tonight because I like musicals and most of all because my friend Danny Burstein is in it [in the role of Buddy], and we just found out he was nominated for a Tony. I’m very excited for him.” Asked a question about “roads taken,” Wuhl replied “Every road affects you and the decisions you make depend on so many things”¦the material”¦your financial situation. I’ve been fortunate to work on some very good projects with some very good people. I think, ‘good luck’ are the words I’d use.”

I mentioned that I had been talking to Floyd Mutrux (Million Dollar Quartet, Baby It’s You) when Wuhl’s name came up. “Oh, God. How do you know Floyd?” I’m in a workshop of his new musical, The Boy From N.Y.C. “That’s great. Please, give Floyd my best. He is one of those people who gave me a break””my first job ever, The Hollywood Knights (with Michelle Pfeiffer and Tony Danza). That was his movie, and so I always try to thank Floyd.” Well, if he reads this column, you just did.

I heard a distinctive laugh and knew it could only be Jo Anne Worley, whom I’d met at a recent dinner party given by director-producer John Bowab. She saw the original Follies in New York on Broadway and several productions since then, she told me, and she also performed it “back in New York.” Which role? Worley smiled and belted out, “”˜Who’s that woman? I know her well.’ I did that part.” After naming Follies as her favorite Sondheim show, she backtracked and added, with a laugh, “To be fair each one is different, but usually my favorite show is any one I can do.” Any regrets? Worley smiled ruefully. “You know, I was asked to understudy in Sweeney Todd years ago, but I took a road company of something else instead. I wish I had stayed and done it. That’s one of those things I regret.”

Actor Kevin Chamberlin

Tony winner Kevin Chamberlin said he’s a major fan of Follies. “I’ve seen Follies many, many times, and every single time I understand it more. Both Danny [Burstein] and Jan Maxwell [who plays Phyllis] are good buddies of mine””also Jayne Houdyshell””so I’m here to support them but I also think I’m a cult member of the show. I saw the Kathleen Marshall [-choreographed] production when I was about 10 years into my career, and now I’m 25 years into my career, and you know that metaphor of the crumbling theater? Well, we start to feel the same as the body falls apart. You look back at your past, look at the things you’ve done wrong and done right. The show has so many themes it’s like a Rorschach test””an inkblot that lets you see what you want to see in it.” Chamberlin added that his current TV series, Jessie, is “number one on the Disney Channel, so I’m looking forward to about four years of good TV work. And, next week I’m doing Opus, a play at LA Theatre Works.”

After the show received mini-standing ovations and bravos throughout for many electric performances, the final curtain was greeted with cheers, and we were ready to party at McCormick & Schmick’s downtown restaurant””which I’m beginning to think of as our Los Angeles Sardi’s. It has a beautiful long bar and lots of buzz at surrounding tables, along with private little seating areas and booths. Oh, and did I mention the superb food and yummy deserts?

Director Eric Schaeffer and CTG Artistic Director Michael Ritchie

CTG’s artistic director Michael Ritchie glowed. “I saw the show in New York on the night I found out Funny Girl wasn’t going to happen for us. It never dawned on me that Follies could be a replacement because the timing wouldn’t work out. I was seeing it because I needed to see a great show and it worked. I was so drawn into that story, I forgot I still had a big problem I had to deal with when I got outside the theater.” After a laugh, he continued, “When it was over I remembered my problem, but this couldn’t be the solution, because we were scheduled to start rehearsals in three weeks for Funny Girl, and Follies was running in New York for another two months. Eventually we were able to shift things around by moving Fela! into the Funny Girl schedule and holding their slot for Follies.” Ritchie took a deep breath and explained how, when the switch was official, he felt, “Pure relief”¦and maybe a touch of joy”¦maybe, a touch.” Grinning happily, Ritchie added, “Tonight was magical.”

A huge reason for enchantment was the work of director Eric Schaeffer. We found a quiet corner to chat as Schaeffer described his approach to helming this iconic show, originally directed by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett. “When we started, I said I wanted it to be haunting and real. It’s easy in a big show like this to go for the splash, and I just wanted to go for the heart and emotion of it. When you look at the script, there is hardly any written stage direction. For me, that was freeing because I could say, well, why don’t we try this?

Set Designer Derek McLane, Music Director James Moore, Director Eric Schaeffer and Choreographer Warren Carlyle

“I knew I wanted the ghosts to be a big presence in the show and connect with their older selves as they entered the theater. Some ghosts who didn’t have anyone were just searching and wondering, is mine going to show up? There are almost three shows going on at once. You have the old reunion, the ghosts doing another show and then the young kids doing a third show. Layering all those elements is what was exciting to me.” Schaeffer has a warm personality and laughed with delight as he recalled, “In the rehearsal room it was interesting to be there with 41 people. I put all the ghosts in pink t-shirts so I could tell who was who because in the beginning, as you’re pulling it together, you suddenly look up and think who is everybody?”

Many of the “everybodies” mentioned are somebodies who starred on Broadway in big hit productions. Was Schaeffer part psychologist? “They were all great. You know we did the best thing on the very first day of rehearsal. I had the women tapping for two hours. (His leading ladies all tap dance in “Who’s That Woman”). All of a sudden the playing field was level. We were in this boat together and never had egos in the room. It was so refreshing.”

What about his work tonight makes Schaeffer particularly proud? Again accompanied by a laugh,  “I think, just that we got it up and mounted. The show is never done like this because you need major resources to really mount a complete production. I’m thrilled with the entire company from the design team to the cast. It’s great when you work on a show and everyone is “˜doing’ the same show. That doesn’t always happen, but from day one we were all so passionate about it. It invigorates you.”

Cast members Ron Raines, Jan Maxwell, Victoria Clark and Danny Burstein

Schaeffer also directed the completely different Broadway rock and roll musical, Million Dollar Quartet. He often travels to check on the current tour and will return to Los Angeles in June when it opens at the Pantages.

I was told Deborah Scott Studebaker, the daughter of Dorothy Collins, who originated the role of Sally in Follies in 1971, was at the party. I had been in a show (On A Clear Day) with her mother, so we met and reminisced. “Yes, she toured a lot back then. I was 17 when I saw Follies from Boston to NY to LA. I think I saw it 26 times. When you’re 17 you think you “˜get it’ but 40 years later you see it differently. I didn’t remember the ending or how it got resolved so I was really struck by the first act. I felt Ben did love her. Then to watch her unravel in the second act, I got a whole different perspective.

“The way Jan Maxwell played Phyllis was different compared to Alexis [Smith, in the original production]. Alexis was brittle and cold and divine but in this performance you could see how Sally and Phyllis would have been friends and roommates. I never really got that in the original. My mother and Alexis had such different personas. Also, Victoria [Clark] had a very different take on what my mother did and I loved it. I’ve seen a lot of versions of ‘Losing My Mind’ over the years. Her whole performance was rich and real. I loved watching her.”

Cast members Danny Burstein and Ron Raines

I stopped Ron Raines as he was leaving the buffet table. He graciously followed me to a corner where I spoke my praises and asked about a Follies I heard he did in 1988 at the St. Louis Muni Opera with Juliet Prowse and Nancy Dussault. “Yes, yes. Oh, I really wasn’t old enough to play Ben. I think I was about 37 and I’m 62 now. I fell somewhere between Younger and Older Ben”¦really in the middle. My Carlotta was Edie Adams. Isn’t that amazing?”

Has the show changed over the years or do we just see it differently as we get older? “A lot of people, grownups, who saw the original and are still with us said it was incredible — costumes, scenery moving around — but the story got lost in the production. This one is not about sets but about the people. Plus, when you’re older it resonates differently. We’ve lived our lives. We’ve seen other people’s journeys, similar or not.

“The role and the show stayed with me. It hits everyone differently, even young people. The 70-80 year-olds get another point of view because they are looking back. Those in the middle are maybe married to a Ben or a Phyllis. That’s why this is great theater. When it’s over you discuss it.”

And how does he feel about “the road” in the lyrics of the song he sings? “The song mentions the road you didn’t take. I don’t have many “˜what ifs’ but I know people who do”¦ a lot of type A guys like Ben who are driven that way and for all the wrong reasons.” How did you avoid that? “I made some bad choices along the way, but they weren’t life choices that took me down a whole other path.” What was your best life choice? Raines smiled warmly. “Marrying my wife Dona when I was 36. You know when you get that in life, when you get your priorities set, then better choices are made. I was lucky. We are going to make a lot of mistakes, but you just hope they aren’t major ones that negatively change the path of your life.”

Cast members Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Victoria Clark, Ron Raines and Elaine Paige

Raines did the show on Broadway with Bernadette Peters as his Sally and now Victoria Clark is playing the role. Could he be specific about the differences between the two ladies? “Well, they are totally different and that brings out different responses to me. They’re both terrific. You know Victoria has only done a few performances, but Bernadette and I did over 200 shows together. I told Victoria “˜you’re brilliant, you got it’. The biggest difference is Bernadette is much shorter, so the kissing thing”¦” He chuckled and indicated, “Bernadette comes up to here”¦now that’s pretty specific!”

Do not miss this memorable and very special evening — at the Ahmanson through June 9.

CHAT CITE: “History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” Edward Gibbon

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LA Stage Times

CONNIE CHATS ON OPENING NIGHT: Billy Elliot

by Connie Danese | April 16, 2012

Connie Danese

The eagerly anticipated musical Billy Elliot, which danced away with 10 Tony awards in 2009, has finally arrived in Los Angeles at the Pantages Theatre. It depicts the travails of British mineworkers on strike, but the main reason everyone wants to see the show is to witness the struggle of an 11-year old boy as he attempts to break away from the dismal destiny of a life in the coal mines and, struggling against all odds, become a ballet dancer.

On opening night there was a high degree of excitement as celebs hit the red carpet. Many brought children who weren’t even born when the film version debuted in 2000. I spoke to Michael Gross (Family Ties), accompanied by a smartly dressed young man. Is this your son? “Oh no, this is my grandson, Nicholas.” The poised young man smiled politely while I chatted with his charming grandfather, who really did look as if he could be the boy’s father.

Michael Gross with his grandson, Nicholas

“I’ve never seen the show or the movie,” Gross said, “but I know what it’s about. I was that kid in my old neighborhood carrying an acoustic guitar case down the street instead of playing baseball. I was going to music and choral lessons so, yes, I was the odd kid. I’ll very much relate to this.”

Gross explained what it means to follow a dream. “I think kids are often perfectly able to do that because they are not yet aware of the obstacles. Adults can find a bunch of reasons not to do things, but kids just barrel ahead. We can all learn from children in that way. I followed my dream. I knew what I wanted to do and I did it.”

Asked whether it took courage, Gross thought for a moment. “It took love. I just loved something so much. I don’t know that I was ever courageous, but I had enough love and passion. Actually, I’m still a coward but I always had the passion.”

We heard cries of “Chelsie, Carrie Ann, Bruno” as the Dancing With The Stars entourage hit the carpet and signaled a renewed clamor from photographers. Chelsie Hightower (dancer) and Carrie Ann Inaba (judge) posed. Inaba wore a stretchy, body-hugging black mini-dress and red high heels; Hightower was poured into a sparkly white mini with matching white bows on her dress and pumps. Fellow judge Bruno Tonioli was dressed in “dancer black,” and after a quick pose for the cameras ran ahead to embrace Cloris Leachman (a celeb dancer on DWTS in 2008). As paparazzi caught the moment, Tonioli declared to cameras, “She’s a legend. Truly, everyone, this lady is a legend.” Leachman smiled with delight.

Anna Trebunskaya

Lights dimmed, alerting patrons to enter the theater, as beautiful DWTS dancer Anna Trebunskaya stopped for a brief chat. I had interviewed Trebunskaya with her husband and dance partner, Jonathan Roberts, when they appeared at El Portal in Ballroom With A Twist last year. “Hi. Yes, I remember but is there time to talk? I’m so excited to see the show I don’t want to miss a minute.” I promised they wouldn’t start without her.

Trebunskaya explained how competition affects people, even non-performers. “I think everybody can relate to persevering and overcoming something. Some are more competitive than others, but we all understand working hard and getting rewarded, or not ““ when you’ve done everything you can but there is still somebody who’s better than you. It’s a very human thing. I absolutely followed my dream. My mom gave me the

courage to do it. She said if you want to do it, do it.” And, with both of us wanting to get to our seats (latecomers are not admitted until an appropriate time) we “did it” and raced into the theater.

The “Angry Dance” by Billy and the Men’s Ensemble was one of many moments in the show where dance (in this case, tap dance) spoke volumes. As we left for intermission, I spotted Bruce Vilanch (six-time Emmy winner who played Edna at the Pantages in 2004 and later on Broadway) in the lobby. “I’m fascinated that it’s a musical about bullying; it’s so relevant right now. Here’s a kid who has a talent; he’s made fun of and is smacked around but will triumph in the end. I think it’s fascinating that here is this great big show and it’s essentially about this hot-button issue.”

Bruce Vilanch

Vilanch commented about how dance reveals emotion. “As they say in the show, it’s something you either learn by rote or it’s an expression of who you are deep inside ““ a very personal identification.” Did Vilanch experience similar problems and challenges? “No. I was lucky to be raised by enlightened people interested in show business and the arts. But then, I don’t come from coal miners in Birmingham. I grew up in a different tradition, but I wasn’t Liza Minnelli.” He laughs, “That’s another story. But I was encouraged by my parents to follow my passion. I think they just wanted me to earn a living; you know, practical Jewish people from New Jersey. Make a living but have something to fall back on; take up law.”

Asked what affected him the most in Act 1, Vilanch smiles. “I loved the ballet teacher. I had many teachers like that and I think it’s so important when you have someone who’s sympathetic to you. There’s a great moment in the first act where she stands back, watches him do a few pirouettes and realizes, oh, this kid has really got it. You can see it on her face when she realizes, I’m viewing the real thing.”

The excitement continued in Act 2. When it was over, the entire audience spontaneously stood and cheered loudly. We then walked across the street for the cast party at Delphine.

Zach Manske, Kylend Hetherington, Kuril Kulish, J.P. Viernes and Ty Forhan

The touring production has four young men covering the role of Billy. Angelic-looking Ty Forhan from Ontario, Canada performed the role this evening. I asked him whether tonight’s response was normal. Forhan’s eyes widened and he uttered an emphatic “Nooo. This audience was incredible. They were with it; loud, laughing, crying and cheering; everything was great. It was so much fun; amazing audience and such a great theater.”

Forhan’s journey to playing Billy Elliot began when he responded to a newspaper ad. “They were having open auditions, so and I went and didn’t get it the first time. When they came back to Toronto for more auditions, the casting director called and asked if I’d come in again. I did and got the callback to a four-day audition in New York.” He smiles broadly, “A few months later they called and asked me to play Billy.

“I’m on tour with my Nana because I have three little brothers so my mom has to stay home. I miss my family.” Forhan has not experienced the same problems as Billy. “My family is very supportive.” Because boys can grow quickly, I wondered if he knew how long they are able to play the role. “Well, Billys usually last about a year and a half, maybe two years if we push it. I’ll be on tour through the summer, then I’m going home. I’ll go to school, train and practice my craft. But, when I grow up, I want to move to New York and audition for more shows.”

Cloris Lechman

I spotted Cloris Leachman and asked if we could chat for a moment. “Yes, yes, but first come this way.” She walked me through swinging doors and we were in the kitchen. I thought she was looking for a quiet place to chat but, no, she was looking for food and explained to one of the kitchen staff members as he approached to usher us back out, “There’s just meat out there. I don’t eat meat.”

As they led us back through the doors, I told her there were chicken tacos floating around. I spotted one of the wait staff with them, and she graciously told Leachman they had fish, chicken and cheese and would make her a special plate. Thinking I’d have a few chat minutes before she returned with the food, I turned on my tape recorder as another gentleman approached and explained to Leachman that the little ballerinas were dying to meet her.

Her face lit up. She smiled graciously and disappeared, surrounded by a sea of adoring, chattering young girls. I decided my encounter with, as Tonioli expressed it, “the legend” was far more interesting than our chat would have been. So, I wandered away to find the chicken taco lady before I succumbed to the franks-in-a-blanket guy.

Patti Perkins, who plays the delightfully wacko, crusty Grandma, was pointed out to me (I would never have recognized her without the “Granny” wig), and I walked over to offer congratulations. “I’ve been with the show almost two years and it’s wonderful because I love all the boys. They are awesome.” Perkins was also thrilled with the audience reaction. “Each town is different, but this was exceptional. I guess because it’s

Anne Jeffreys and Ruta Lee

Los Angeles and there were a lot of industry people here. But, the show appeals to everyone. At this point, it becomes a routine to do, but when we got so much back tonight it was really fantastic.”

After two years, Perkins finds little ways to keep her performance fresh. “I try to stay in the moment and find different things that catch my eye. It could be as simple as a hair out of place or a sparkle on someone’s face that I didn’t see the night before.” Since she’s obviously younger than her character, I wondered if she’s played this age before, “Oh, yes.” She laughs. “Look closely and you’ll see some gray in there. I played

Jeanette (the rehearsal piano player) in The Full Monty on Broadway.” Then you must know Kathleen Freeman who originated it? “Oh, yes, yes, I loved her.” Me too. She played my Mama Brice when I did Funny Girl in Vegas.

Perkins smiles warmly, “Then you know exactly how wonderful she was. In fact, I understudied and went on for Kathleen the night she died. I had gone on many times, but that night was the hardest performance I’d ever done. I looked around the stage as I was doing her song and saw the boys in the show. Their eyes were twinkling and they had tears streaming down their faces. She was such a lesson, and it was such an honor to have worked with and covered her. She was fantastic.”

After taking a moment to share personal stories, I asked Perkins what she considers the most difficult aspect of touring. Her response was immediate. “Getting food and not gaining a gazillion pounds. They have to find lodging for us, but a lot of the younger people like the Internet hunt of finding their own places. I just want somebody to do it for me, so I go into whatever the company finds. On this leg of the tour, most of the hotels don’t have refrigerators or microwaves, so we’re always eating subway sandwiches. That’s the hardest thing.”

Behind the beautiful on-stage glitter, we sometimes forget how difficult it is for touring actors to be without their family for a year as they constantly pack up and move, find new and affordable lodging with a bed, a refrigerator and something to cook on. Yet, they all love the opportunity to perform and be part of a show that obviously brings joy to so many. Billy Elliot continues at the Pantages through May 13, and it is an evening you won’t want to miss.

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CHAT CITE: “Dance is the hidden language of the soul” ““ Martha Graham

***All photos by Chelsea Lauren

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LA Stage Times

Connie Chats on Opening Night: American Night

by Connie Danese | March 13, 2012

Connie Danese

It was opening night for American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, on Sunday evening at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.  Richard Montoya’s play, developed by Culture Clash and director Jo Bonney, was finally reaching Culture Clash’s home turf after a premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010 and a La Jolla Playhouse run last month.

Herbert Siguenza, one of the three founding members of Culture Clash, plays various roles, and he was in the lobby after the show to celebrate along with his family (and adorable baby). I mentioned the reports from other cities that a few audience members left in the middle of the show. “Well, people might leave now too, if they have trouble with the politics and some of the truths we are saying,” Siguenza said.

The play deals with immigration and “the American Dream.” Siguenza explained how his personal dream changed over the years. “It comes and goes. Just when you thought we were getting somewhere, like with the election of Obama when there was a lot of hope, we watched our nation react strongly against him. He was elected but the other party, as they always do, jammed him on every policy. The country is divided again. Just when you thought we were unifying, we got divided. There is still a way to go.”

(L-R) Cast member Herbert Siguenza, CTG Artistic Director Michael Ritchie and playwright/cast member Richard Montoya

Siguenza is one third of the Chicano/Latino performance troupe, which includes partners Montoya and Ric Salinas. They have utilized comedy and satire to express political views since 1984. “I got into the arts because of activism. I wanted to say something, and I thought theater was a lot more fun than hitting the streets with a sign.” Is he preaching to the choir? “Not necessarily. That’s why people have walked out on our shows, and that’s when I know we’re doing our job.”

The play covers many issues, but I didn’t detect solutions. Siguenza responded, “I’m not sure I have any. It’s a complicated human rights issue. We have to look at immigrants as people first and not statistics or problems. I just present it. What do you do? Amnesty? I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

Some lines in the play sound improvised. Siguenza explained, “We might add something that is in the news, but it’s talked over first and there are no surprises. We acknowledged Kirk Douglas tonight because he was in the audience and we put in a line about Rush Limbaugh this week because he said such an idiotic thing. As long as they keep opening their mouths, it just feeds us material.”

Kirk Douglas had quietly slipped into his seat (first row, stage left) when the lights dimmed so he could quickly slip out again when it was over. A Center Theatre Group publicist confirmed that not only was Douglas present, but he attends most productions at his namesake theater. Next time you’re there, scan the front row carefully.

Josh Cooke

In the lobby after the show, we were surrounded by happy chatter as the entire audience joined the cast to celebrate with champagne, wine and Italian food — not a tortilla in sight. I spotted Josh Cooke (who plays the intern in Season 6 of Dexter). “I was blown away,” he remarked. “The energy is incredible — especially the Town Hall sequence. The writing is superior — so whip-smart it crackles. And the humor is laid out in a clever, revealing and interesting way.” What was the most moving moment for Cooke? “There are a few places where the insanity and absurdity get sucked up into one quiet moment; for instance, when the lead character holds his grandfather as a child in his arms. You’re able to get outside all the noise going on around the show and focus.” Do you think those moments and the show in general can make a difference in current immigration issues? Cooke paused and smiled, “Well, it could if the right audience comes. Shows like this are very clever, but I think there is a certain kind of audience that attends. The audience that needs to see it, may not. I just hope they do.”

We couldn’t talk about American dreams without speaking to dreamy leading man René Millán, who had been a company member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for seven seasons when cast in the title role of Juan José. “I grew up in an all-Latino neighborhood in San Diego and never heard the words “˜American Dream’,” he said. “We were too poor to dream; we needed to work to survive. My parents came from Mexico and I’m a first-generation American. When I found acting, in many ways it saved my life. It was like getting knocked off a horse by a bolt of lightning. Otherwise, I was going to join the Marines.”

Cast members Rene Millan (L) and Daisuke Tsuji (R)

Millán experienced discrimination in the ’80s when he was in high school. “I distinctly remember being on the city bus in San Diego riding to school when it was stopped by the Border Patrol. The brown people were taken off the bus and had their IDs checked.” Did the experience make him bitter? “You grow up, mature, stop blaming people and just try to continue doing your work. The Jackie Robinson character in the play says something that really resonates with me, “˜they’re not all like that’, meaning racist or unaccepting.  From my point of view, when immigrants came through Ellis Island, the process to become a citizen was not as difficult. Now it’s a long and arduous journey, can take decades and has a lot of roadblocks. For many people the process stops at a certain point and they can’t move forward. I think laws must be eased to avoid people entering illegally.”

Millán took a moment, then continued, “Trust me, if I were in the situation many people face in Latin America, how they live in third world conditions, what they must endure, I would be leaving to find a better opportunity for my family too. I’m a married man. I have a beautiful wife and two beautiful kids and I’d do anything for them. Anyone who tells you they wouldn’t is a big liar. And, remember, there is an incentive to come here. People are hiring them and they are getting paid. Go after the companies. Don’t go after these people who are just trying to survive and bring food to their families. So is there underlying racism? Yes.” Will this play make a difference? “I hope so. We are either preaching to the choir or making people think.”

Richard Montoya (L) and cast member Kimberly Scott (R)

Writer, actor and Culture Clash partner Richard Montoya expressed similar feelings concerning assimilation. “For European immigrants, it’s a little easier because there is not this element of pigmentation. When there’s an entirely different language and people look different than what we think of as Americans, the rate of assimilation takes longer. It frustrates me because that’s part of the problem. When I walk into densely populated areas, I need to see people are making the effort to learn English, not that I’m an English-only advocate. I know some people work very hard to assimilate, but there are others who don’t need to speak English in the course of a day and that complicates the issue.

“I believe American Night is a very patriotic play. The GOP debate in Florida was very interesting to me because each candidate — Santorum, Romney and Gingrich, in Latino-heavy Florida — suddenly sounded very humanitarian:  “˜we’re not going to deport Grandma, we’re not going to knock down your door’. Then, they go to Arizona and they sound like they’ve got storm trooper boots on. I hope the play makes a bit of a difference.”

The story in Montoya’s play does not reflect his personal experience. “I’m an eighth-generation American. I have no family in Mexico, but as an American and as an American of Mexican descent I’m concerned about how people are treated. I’ll tell you how my American dream was helped. After my father went into the U.S. Navy, he came out with the GI bill and went to art school. That GI bill for my dad affected my family and I’m still a part of its result. It’s hard to explain that to immigrants. It’s a part of the American dream that helps people. If you want to work hard, it lifts you up and rewards you. Yes, as a writer/performer and with my sixth show under the Center Theatre Group umbrella, I feel my dream is working and coming true.”

Lovely Stephanie Beatriz is another cast member with a story. “My parents immigrated here when I was three and moved to Texas. I was probably about 10 or 11 when I first saw Culture Clash on PBS Great Performances in Bowl of Beings and my mind was blown. I’d never seen a live theater performance and after watching I thought I want to do that. It’s so funny you asked about my personal American dream because today I posted on my Facebook page “˜Opening Night, Kirk Douglas Theatre, with Culture Clash. This is it, the American Dream, you guys. The American Dream –  it really happens.”

Beatriz moved to New York after college, auditioned for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, got the job and went west. “I was lucky enough to get a 2nd season and play Maggie the Cat, then all the roles I do in American Night.”

(L-R) Cast members Terri McMahon, Stephanie Beatriz and Kimberly Scott

The experience of being a foreigner in America resonated with Beatriz when she lived in Texas with her parents. “My mom is Bolivian and Brazilian and my Dad is Colombian and German. In Texas, immigration and discrimination is all around you. It’s not overt but I guess you could call it a silent separation of classes. That’s what’s great about this play. These guys are pointing the finger and saying, “˜everybody come, sit in a dark room and look at these stories. Experience what it might be like from different sides vs. not talking about it’, which is what a lot of us do because it makes us uncomfortable.

“I think all human beings want to be seen and heard for who they really are and when we marginalize people for whatever reason, it’s painful for those people.” Beatriz’ solution embraces a spiritual concept. “Socially we are saying if you have, then I don’t have, which isn’t true. There’s abundance for everyone. There is enough for everyone, but that feeling is what has shifted. When, as a nation, we can say “˜I have and you can have too’, we won’t be so scared to lose something intangible that we may not even have. I know my parents faced prejudice, not on a daily basis, but faced it on how they look and sound, which is not who they truly are. They are full, rich, incredible people and it’s a shame that we write others off. It’s hard to reach out to other human beings, but if we try, I think all our lives can be richer.”

And the delightful Beatriz’ life is about to become “richer”. She recently signed her first contract for an ABC TV pilot starring Portia del Rossi, Malin Akerman and Jean Smart, titled The Smart One. Although not referring to Beatriz, the title suits her. “I play a hairdresser to the newly elected mayor. We begin shooting in April when this show closes.” How perfect. She would have to leave the show if it shot any sooner. “Oh no, I could never leave Culture Clash. The universe conspired to have it happen at the perfect time. Isn’t that amazing?”

CHAT CITE: “El más terrible de todos los sentimientos es el sentimiento de tener la esperanza muerta.””¨ The most terrible of all feelings is the feeling that hope has died.”¨ Federico García Lorca

Party Photos by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

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Connie Chats on Opening Night: Clybourne Park

by Connie Danese | January 27, 2012

Connie Danese

The Pulitzer- and Olivier-winning Clybourne Park opened Wednesday at the Mark Taper Forum, and provocative playwright Bruce Norris gave the audience an evening to remember. His use of sometimes stereotypical but hilarious characters to voice the controversial subject matter in his beautifully orchestrated tapestry of political incorrectness encouraged passionate conversation.

Discussion began outside the theater when I spotted beautiful, sexy Erika Alexander (Living Single, two NAACP Awards). “I read about the play, but I’m also here because my friend Damon Gupton is in it. We did a play in New York at the Public Theater about five years ago, and when he told me about this I said, “˜I’m there’. In fact, Phylicia Rashad was in the same production with us. I saw her do Raisin In The Sun on Broadway” — and  Rashad also directed the current Raisin in the Sun at the Kirk Douglas.

Act 1 of Clybourne Park picks up on Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin from the point of view of the white family whose house is being bought by Raisin‘s African American family.

Actress Erika Alexander

Does Alexander believe that racial profiling and housing discrimination still exist for African Americans? A great big wide-eyed, “Yes! It happened to my brother in Santa Monica. He came here from New Jersey with his long-term girlfriend who is white, and wherever they went it became clear they wouldn’t get an apartment if he came along so eventually she went alone.” This is illegal. Was it reported? “It was so demeaning. My brother is pretty sensitive and an artist. I don’t think he did much about it.” Apparently close to tears, she paused to regain control. “Actually just talking about it makes me sad. It happens all the time and especially for young black men. They would pass the credit check and still not get the apartment. I think it has to do with the tone of color too. He’s a very dark-skinned man. If you don’t look like Obama, they wonder if you are going to run out on the rent. And, maybe that is a real concern for landlords, but it’s against the law.”

Alexander believes the best solution is education and awareness. “Just like there is gender discrimination for women and ageism exists in Hollywood, this is another example where ignorant people do something and very few report it, because they feel — why go through the process? You probably don’t want to move there anyway once you experience that. People who made this great country the way it is are still fighting the good fight but all that energy from the ’60s and ’70s went underground in the ’80s and ’90s when everyone was saying, let’s just get on with this. It doesn’t matter whether Obama is President or not.” What a great introduction to the play I was about to attend.

Actresses Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kate Burton, Danielle Thorpe and Jane Kaczmarek

I looked up and saw Julia Louis-Dreyfus wearing a dark gray suit and huge black-framed eyeglasses. She waved off two autograph seekers, did not want to “chat”, stopped briefly for a photo and made a beeline for the entrance. What a shame! I wanted to ask whether it was true she recently spoke to Al Gore in preparation for her role in the new HBO series, VEEP, airing in April. After the show she was seen backstage congratulating cast members and posing with actresses Kate Burton and Jane Kaczmarek (Good People at the Geffen in April) for another photo.

The men gathering outside before the performance were more accessible. Tall, handsome British actor Paul Blackthorne was talking to someone as I introduced myself and asked if I could interrupt. The woman smiled broadly and said, “Yes, yes, of course. No problem.” It turned out she was his publicist. Blackthorne, who stars in NBC’s new series The River (scheduled to air Feb 7), explained, “I’m here because I’m interested in seeing anything that is potentially good. I come to the theater often but more so when I’m in New York or London. The last play I saw here was God Of Carnage, which was excellent, and I also went to see a friend of mine in Leap of Faith.”

Actor Tim Griffin and wife Alicia Griffin

Tim Griffin, often described as “the actor who is in everything”, arrived with his lovely wife Alicia. “I’m here to support Damon Gupton who is my Prime Suspect cast-mate and a wonderful man.” Was the series (starring Maria Bello) dropped? “Well, we’re officially on hiatus and don’t know if we just shot the season or series finale.” Griffin laughed, “Never say never. Our exec producer is pretty hard to kill; he’s like a cockroach.”

So how did the young ex-Chicagoan, whose IMDB credits list over 60 major projects, get to be so successful in this town? “Well I’ve been here almost 20 years. I was lucky enough to have the wind at my back when I first landed in LA at 17 and had the good fortune to work with John Wells and John Singleton right off the bat. I did a few films with George Clooney and was happy to break into that circle.” I couldn’t let that go by without asking how he got into the Clooney clique. “I don’t know if it was because he’s best friends with Matt Damon and I’m one of the stars in Bourne Supremacy. I actually asked him and he said, “˜I followed you. I heard you’re a great guy and I don’t work with people I don’t know.’”

The unassuming, sweet Griffin looked down and whispered, “You may have to clean this up but he said he has a “˜no asshole policy’ and he holds to it. The nice thing is, John Singleton, who gave me my first job in Higher Learning, just cast me in Abduction so the circle is complete.”Â  Griffin added, “That’s why it always pays to be a good professional. Show up on time and say your lines because this is a small town.”

After a thunderous and well-deserved ovation for a uniformly terrific cast, we drove to the Border Grill for the opening night cast party. Glasses of mojitos, margaritas and sangria were ready and waiting at the bar as waiters brought trays of scrumptious appetizers. The atmosphere could only be described as both yummy and fun.

Actor Aidan Quinn

I spotted handsome, blue-eyed actor Aidan Quinn with his brother having a great time as they congratulated Gupton on his performance. Quinn flashed a big smile, “I came to see my friend, the wonderful, incredible Damon. We did a series together called Prime Suspect. This play was fantastic. I’m from Chicago [where the play is set]. It was a phenomenal cast and especially this guy.”

The play’s locale held memories for Quinn. “What’s funny is I lived not far from the neighborhood where it takes place. My brother and me lived in all these places that were once out of favor and have now been gentrified. We know exactly what he’s (Norris) talking about and know the actual streets he mentions because we lived in adjacent neighborhoods. I think the writing is wonderful and the actors flesh out the performance, but you also see what’s going on underneath the surface.”

Gupton explained, “We started doing this play years ago at Playwrights Horizons in NY. It was a limited run and we never thought we’d get the opportunity to do it again but the Brits picked it up and the show did exceptionally well in London.” Was tonight’s LA audience different? “Yes, I think every city has its own flavor. New York is New York and LA is LA. You can’t beat that difference but people generally latch onto everything and in that sense there’s a similarity between all audiences. We find people in every city that reflect either the previous generation or the more modern situation we have in the second act.”

Actor Tim Griffin, cast member Damon Gupton, actor Aidan Quinn and actor Brian F. O'Byrne

Although not specifically about our country’s situation vis-à-vis 1% vs. 99%, Gupton agreed  the play’s territorial, cultural, financial and racial themes bring the current problem to mind. “After the State of the Union address, there has been a lot of debate and discussion about that. I think the fact that people are more willing to talk about it now is encouraging. We have a long way to go, even with an African American president, but hopefully with baby steps we get better and better. Each audience member is different, and I hope when people see this play they will walk away and discuss some things they may not have talked about before.”

Christina Kirk, as the ’50s mom in Act 1 and a successful attorney in most of Act 2, perfectly represented the changing role of women in the play’s 50-year time span. I asked her to comment on the clear acting choices she had made. “First of all the writing is so rich and complex.” She pauses and grins. “In the first act, so much of the character is in my wig and dress. It’s all about being the perfect hostess and handling all those appearance-related demands”¦” Kirk trails off, then looks at me, stares, smiles and continues, “The kind of pressure”¦very much focused on how other people see you”¦”

Suddenly she is reeling over with gales of laughter. Why are you laughing? The adorable Kirk gets herself together and between giggles explains, “Because I have a baby — a 13-week old baby, and (pointing to her drink) this is the first drink I’ve had and I’m a little out of my mind.”

Cast member Brendan Griffin, Playwright Bruce Norris and cast members Christina Kirk and Annie Parisse

I point to my own drink and tell her not to worry, this is my second mojito, I understand completely ““ and I don’t have a “baby” excuse. A relieved Kirk continues, “In the second act, Kathy is a very take-charge woman. I get my hair blown out, and I can compete and argue with the men.” I assure her it’s perfectly understandable to me that with a good blowout, a woman can do anything.

Kirk’s take on the racism aspect is simple. “I don’t think about that. This may sound corny, but for me it’s about psychological integration, being in touch with yourself and understanding when you don’t do that, you are projecting things onto other people. Uhhhhh”¦”

I sensed another giggle coming on and thought it was time for a lighter subject. Let’s “chat” about your new baby. Kirk’s eyes lit up instantly as she smiled. “Her name is Stella” was followed by a long, happy laugh, then complete seriousness and stream of consciousness. “I think a child’s world is created by the parents and you have a responsibility to be the best person you can be. Of course, you feel that way before you have a kid, but once you have one it becomes a whole different ballgame. Because you know whatever is going on that is not healthy is going to affect this other person and shape the way she sees the world, so it brings a whole different responsibility.”

Kirk is not likely to let her daughter grow up with attitudes like those expressed by the characters in Clybourne Park. She sounds as if she is almost as hopeful as her character Bev, who says, near the end of the play, “Things are about to change for the better. I firmly believe that.”

But then the play ends with Pat Boone singing these words:

CHAT CITE:
“If it’s so, it’s too soon, way too soon to know.”

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Connie Chats

by Connie Danese | June 29, 2011

Connie Danese

OPENING NIGHT AT TWIST: The title character of Twist ““ An American Musical, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, is played at most performances by an 11-year old with the grand name of Alaman Diadhiou. Possessed of a natural ease, charismatic smile and centered presence, clearly this young actor is a talent to be admired. But wouldn’t stage fright be a problem for someone so young?

Speaking after the show on opening night at the Pasadena Playhouse, Diadhiou flashes a melting grin, and you soon realize that “stage fright” are two words that do not resonate with him.  “I’ve gotten pretty used to it since we did the show in Atlanta.” Credit for his calm demeanor is earnestly explained. “I get it from my Dad and his whole family, because I come from a very spiritual tribe in Africa””the Jola tribe in Senegal””but I was born in Santa Monica.”

Alaman Diadhiou

Diadhiou started dance training with Twist director and choreographer Debbie Allen at the age of six but began singing only one year ago. “I practice for the show with my vocal coach and she helped me a lot.” But he’s obviously most grateful to Allen. “She knows so much about this and pushes us to do great things.” The most important thing he learned from Allen? “Don’t be yourself but be the role you are encompassing. Do not anticipate what happens and live the role.” It appears Diadhiou can anticipate living the role of a future star. (Coco Monroe plays Twist at certain performances).

Another particularly sparkling face among the talented cast of dancers belongs to 11-year old Dempsey Tonks. “I’m from Miss Allen’s dance school and I’ve done a whole bunch of recital shows with her, but this is my second big show. I was in the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker. When I auditioned for Twist we had to sing, dance and act. I sang “I Haven’t Met You Yet” — a Michael Bublé song.” Asked about the most fun part of performing in Twist, Tonks is quick to respond with a huge smile, “Oh, to be on stage and have that big rush.”Â  And what does she mean by “rush”? “Having all those amazing people clapping for you. It gives you so much joy and motivation.”

Dempsey Tonks

Tonks has future plans. “I would like to be on Broadway”.  Has she seen a Broadway show? “Um.” There is a momentary pause as she realizes, “No I haven’t, but I heard so many great things about it, so”¦.” Tonks trails off then brightens up again when asked what makes her happy offstage. “My parents, my sister, my little brother and dancing. I’ve been dancing for three years.” Her contagious energy will surely propel Tonks to many more.

When Allen’s dancers hit the stage for a rousing opening number, the entire theater pulsates with pizzazz, but Matthew Johnson, tap-dancing with various cast members, is a standout ““ and that’s before we realize he plays a major role in the production. “Oh my God,” he says when this is mentioned to him. “Thank you. I can’t believe you’re saying that. I never tapped before being cast in this show. Miss Allen saw something in me that I didn’t even know I had in myself. I took ballet, modern and hip-hop, but I’m really more of a singer and never put on a pair of tap shoes before. Cathie Nicholas, granddaughter [and grandniece] of the famous Nicholas Brothers, taught me how to tap for the show. I worked with her for about two weeks before we began the actual rehearsal period.”

Matthew Johnson with Alaman Diadhiout

Johnson’s road from hometown Atlanta to Pasadena and the leading role of Boston (based on a combination of Dickens’ Bill Sikes and Fagin) is magical. “I never took acting classes because I just wanted to record and sing.” He laughingly admits, “This is the first time I ever had to speak so much. When I was about 17 I worked with Miss Allen in a musical show called Soul Possessed at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. Then 10 years later I was at the Alliance in Rejoice directed by Kenny Leon when Phylicia Rashad came to see it, because she was working with him on A Raisin in the Sun. She called Debbie and said “˜I saw this guy who I think would be great to work with you’. So Debbie called me and asked, “˜are you the same Matthew Johnson I worked with in Soul Possessed’?” Johnson’s face retains a sense of awe as he recalls, “It all came full circle 10 years later. I feel like I’m living a dream.”

The child of a pastor in Atlanta, Johnson grew up singing in the church. “I didn’t do much professionally outside the church, and now I took a step to follow my heart and pursue my dream. I’m thankful to my parents for guiding and grounding me. They helped me develop character and I love them deeply.”

The thing Johnson will remember most about being in this company is, “Watching kids like Alaman, who never sang before, do what they love and see how much they’ve grown. I wish I had started at that age. But this show has given me hope and the knowledge that there is no limit to what I can accomplish.”

Twist, with a book by William F. Brown and Tina Tippit and a score by Tena Clark and Gary Prim, continues its joyful message at the Pasadena Playhouse through July 17.

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Connie Chats

by Connie Danese | April 14, 2011

Connie Danese

OPENING NIGHT CHAT CHOICE: If you select but one show to see this season, get thee to the Ahmanson to witness an incredible cast at the top of its game in God of Carnage, the Tony-winning play by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton. All four original Tony-nominated actors are back together on stage and “in the zone”–Marcia Gay Harden (Best Actress Tony), Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and James Gandolfini are united with their Tony-winning director Matthew Warchus.

The opening on Wednesday, April 13 was star-studded and attracted Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who avoided the crowds and paparazzi by entering the theater from a side door; nonetheless someone seated nearby was observed snapping pix of the couple with a cell phone. After a tremendous standing ovation, cast and friends met at Chaya Downtown, where the room was buzzing with excitement. The Asian/Japanese cuisine served by the staff included chicken skewers, panini, tuna and veggie rolls, shrimp and a selection of sushi.

Janet Shaw (L) and actress Camryn Manheim (R) pose during the arrivals for the opening night performance of "God of Carnage" (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

Stacy Keach gave a big hug to Gandolfini. Angelica Huston sat in a corner booth with friends while Gina Gershon and Sandra Oh were seen congratulating Harden. Actress Camryn Manheim was perfectly clear when asked how she enjoyed the show, “I was totally f…king jealous that I wasn’t in the play, and I think Marcia Gay Harden is one of the best actresses of our generation. I mean that from the bottom of my heart.” Hmm! Has Manheim discovered a new role she’d like to tackle? “I’d have to kill her first, then yes, I want that role. I loved it! Having a 10-year-old son, I also found it interesting and poignant to watch the politics and diplomacy that goes along with parents navigating through relationships and schools. The play shows what truths are uncovered in 90 minutes — if we can stay on topic that long.”

Jeff Daniels smiled as he explained how similar the LA audience is to the one in New York with one definitive exception. “We wondered what the California vibe would be like and whether it would be a little mellower than that gritty, hard-edged New Yorker vibe. Well, it was no different until we got to one part of the play where we talk about doing something to a hamster and we heard an audible “˜awww.’ We didn’t get that in New York. Other than that, the laughs and involvement with the audience is the same. It’s like a rock and roll event.”

Perfectly described. Rock out with this remarkable cast at the Ahmanson, where the show is extended to May 29.

THE BOOK NOOK: The Library of America, “dedicated to publishing and keeping in print authoritative editions of America’s best and most significant writing,” celebrates Tennessee Williams’ centennial with the release of a magnificent, two-volume boxed collection of this prolific author’s plays, edited by Mel Gussow and Kenneth Holditch. The Collected Plays of Tennessee Williams incorporates 32 plays preceded by Williams’ introductions, notes, interesting stories of opening nights and thoughts.

Alan Arkin

This poignant and personal excerpt precedes Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: “There is too much to say and not enough time to say it. Nor is there power enough. I am not a good writer. Sometimes I am a very bad writer indeed”¦ I have never for one moment doubted that there are people ““millions!””to say things to. We come to each other, gradually, but with love. It is the short reach of my arms that hinders, not the length and multiplicity of theirs.” To partially quote a line from The Glass Menagerie “”“for nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles –and so good-bye.” The must-have edition is a fitting tribute to one of our greatest playwrights”¦Alan Arkin’s new book is an insightful glimpse into how the improvisational prowess of this Oscar-winning actor has given him a deeper understanding of life. The title, an improvised life: a memoir (all in lower case) may be somewhat misleading. If readers are expecting the typical autobiography, this is not that. In exploring his love of improvisation, Arkin reveals it is more than the way he grew as an actor; improvisation also defines how he lives life — embracing the unexpected and creating something more from whatever is at hand. In his workshops, which are often attended by non-actors, Arkin encourages participants to live in the moment and says, “I believe this fervently, both in life and in a workshop — that if this present moment is lived whole-heartedly and meticulously, the future will take care of itself.”

Published by Da Capo Press, an improvised life presents Arkin’s philosophies and acting techniques, discovered as though by accident while living.

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CONNIE CHATS

by Connie Danese | April 5, 2011

Connie Danese

OPENING NIGHT CHAT: Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, directed by Nicholas Martin, opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, the site of its premiere in 1987, followed by a Broadway run. Seen chatting together in the lobby on opening night were Martin Short and Victor Garber (looking suave and elegant in a perfectly tailored black suit). Both actors later greeted their former cast-mate from various productions, Brooks Ashmanskas, who plays Larry. In the case of Garber, he and Ashmanskas appeared in Present Laughter on Broadway this past January, which was also directed by Martin.

Cast and friends celebrated at Casa, a Mexican restaurant located in the Two California Plaza building. Tucked away in a corner, surrounded by skyscrapers and twinkling lights, Casa has an intimate modern feel. Guests selected warm tacos and filled them with pollo asado (scrumptious grilled chicken), carnitas (roasted pork), grilled veggies and toppings of guacamole and shredded cheese. Waitresses brought trays of melt-in-your-mouth flautas de pollo (chicken mixed with queso and jalapeno crèma in a crispy flour tortilla).

Adam Rothenberg, playing the role created by John Malkovich, is a thoughtful and charismatic actor who explodes onto the stage in his first entrance like a modern-day Stanley Kowalski. How does he get to that peak so quickly? “Uhh,” he grins sheepishly, “Jump rope.” He pauses to add, “And a little Tai Chi. Then, well, you just throw yourself into the language and get your heart rate up.”

Adam Rothenberg, Ken Barnett, Zabryna Guevara and Brooks Ashmanskas pose during the party for the opening night performance of Burn This at Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper photo by Ryan MillerCapture Imaging

When asked about his training, Rothenberg is both charming and generous. “I have a wonderful teacher I would love to mention by the name of Alan Savage. I never went to acting school. I learned in the trenches working in black box theaters in New York. But this teacher has helped me a great deal. He stresses working with the text, understanding why you’ re saying something based on what the other person just said. I don’t know how to explain it. A lot of actors feel they need to be doing so many things, when at the end of the day if the writer has done his work you just show up, trust you’re enough and throw yourself into it.”

In the second act Rothenberg’s character shows a surprising sensitivity. “To me that section was just about dropping the rage and going with the language, which is so brilliant and beautiful. I felt the more I thought about what I was saying, the sensitivity just took care of itself.”

Burn This continues at the Taper through May 1.

CHAT CHOICE at KING KING: The nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard is a packed happening space, where Terry Beeman’s Mental Head Circus takes his sold-out audience on a thrilling ride down through a demented dancer’s burlesque world and up to an aerialist’s defiance of time and space. Beeman, whose choreography is best described as movable art, creates the awesome production. “I wanted to bring vaudeville and artistic dance together into one show. Halfway through it, we take off the make-up and show the human beings behind the paint. We take everyone on this journey with us and hopefully they will see life more clearly through their own eyes and hearts.”

He literally takes dance to new levels as we watch the human spirit soar. After transporting us to his light and dark side of the universe, Beeman reminds us that life is laughter as his dancers don clown regalia and send the audience off with a joyful twist. Where do you get your inspiration? Beam me up Terry! “We call it Mental Head Circus because, though we have so much to do in our lives, we are all aching to become more. The show brings out that yearning. Sometimes life can leave us depressed and if I didn’t have my depression, I couldn’t create. Our journey is filled in so many ways with joy, sadness and love.”

Terry Beeman

Beeman is an artist who dances and paints vivid portraits with flexible humans utilizing massive upper body strength, emotional commitment and a wicked sense of humor. “I’m 45 and it hurts to dance now, but I don’t mind that at all. I just take a little longer to warm up, practice yoga and try to sleep. The show represents the fight for love and the ache for life. It changes slightly each time. We are at King King once a month but I would love to tour and take it to Broadway.”

Romp with Beeman and company in his twisted cabaret of life at Mental Head Circus when it returns to King King on May 22. Tickets are available at www.kingkinghollywood.com.

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Connie Chats

by Connie Danese | February 25, 2011

Connie Danese

OPENING NITE CHAT CHOICE: The Ahmanson Theatre lobby and outdoor plaza were infused with excitement and paparazzi as a star-studded audience arrived to witness the Tony-nominated performance of Jane Fonda in 33 Variations, written and directed by Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project). After receiving a well-deserved standing ovation, the cast gathered at the Border Grill to celebrate. Co-owned by chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, the downtown LA restaurant serves a modern Mexican cuisine. Waiters wandered about the room with trays of mojitos, sangria or spicy margaritas. The evening fare included roasted plantain empanadas, bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with bleu cheese, beef brisket taquitos with avocado crème dip and the most delectable Baja ceviche served on tostaditas. Yum!

Tall and beautiful Anjelica Huston, dressed in shimmering white and silver, partied with a group of friends at the bar. Cher, seated in a booth near the entrance, was dressed head to toe in simple black, looking understated and sensational. She later joined Fonda, who was escorted by boyfriend and music producer Richard Perry celebrating with her brother Peter Fonda and son Troy Garity.

At the next booth Samantha Mathis, repeating her Broadway turn as Fonda’s daughter Clara, said, “I feel so blessed to work with Miss Fonda and this strong company every night.” Referring to changes in the play, Mathis explained, “I’m really proud of the work we’ve done since playing New York. I love that my character has this arc and a lot of it is in the subtext. I get to go through a big journey. It’s juicy and exciting. There are several things that stand out to me. I love when Jane talks at the end of the play and says Beethoven was teaching us about life and its minutiae; how life in its haste robs us of the little moments. It’s a daily reminder to me that we get so immersed in the technology of texting and e-mailing and basically doing everything at the same time that we neglect to cherish the little moments in life.”

Cast member Don Amendolia (L) and Playwright/Director Moises Kaufman (R) Photo by Ryan Miller/Getty Images

Don Amendolia, who created the part of Anton Diabelli and played it on Broadway and now in LA, is one of those character actors who immerse themselves so completely in roles you often don’t recognize them. This was no exception. Although his career began in New York, Amendolia left at a young age and moved to Minneapolis, where he worked at the Guthrie and other local theaters. “I knew I was a character actor and needed to put years on before I’d have a career. I also needed to work out so I moved where I could do that. I ended up returning to New York to do Cloud Nine (Off-B’way 1981). I always try to be challenged by my work and I go where the work challenges me.”

“Italian-born and raised in Vienna, at one point Diabelli was in the priesthood,” said Amendolia. “I read William Kinderman’s book [a renowned musicologist who mentored author Kaufman] but tended not to agree with what I pulled from it. I think Kinderman believes Beethoven was making fun of Diabelli. I don’t think he would have done that because they were friends and worked together. You don’t spend three years of your dying days to make fun of someone. Another book came out by Maynard Solomon and he felt much like I did.”

Amendolia believes the most interesting part of developing a role is the detective work of navigating through information and research. “The process. I just keep looking. You’re informed by so many things. This was put together in workshops so you find what works and what is honest for your character. I think if you have a feeling for the part, you follow your instincts, and the director is there to guide those instincts. I don’t parse my process at all. I do my research and then use instinct.”

While on the road as the Wizard in the musical Wicked, Amendolia was asked to re-join 33 Variations. He smiles happily, “They were very kind to let me out with a leave of absence to do this production. When we close I rejoin the Wicked cast in Costa Mesa and give back the time, but it was generous of the producers to agree to let me do this. I am very, very lucky.”

The not-to-be-missed production ends March 6.

Linda Eder

MUSIC, MUSIC, MUSIC: Masterworks Broadway (a label of Sony Masterworks) has released three rare albums: Originals-Musical Comedy 1909-1935, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Inner City. Collectors will want to explore the website, www.masterworksbroadway.com where digital releases of out-of-print Broadway and Off-Broadway recordings are available as downloads through major digital service providers. Later this year they will add the 1946 revival of Showboat, which commemorates its 65th anniversary, and Tommy Tune’s album Slow Dancin’”¦ Broadway star Linda Eder (Jekyll & Hyde) has reunited with Broadway and pop composer Frank Wildhorn for her newest album, Now, from Sony Masterworks. Before American Idol there was Star Search (1987) where Eder began her career and developed a huge fan base after winning 12 consecutive weeks. Twenty years later the voice is still a rich and perfect match for Wildhorn’s soaring music. Now includes songs from Cyrano de Bergerac, Camille Claudel, Victor/Victoria and Wildhorn’s anticipated new musical Wonderland. Eder is currently on a concert tour and will appear at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert on Mar. 30 and Northridge Performing Arts Center Oct. 30.

THE BIZ REPORT: Alan Ayckbourn’s Emmy-nominated trilogy The Norman Conquests is now available on DVD. It was originally broadcast in the late ’70s as part of PBS’ Great Performance series. The three-disc set may be of interest to fanciers of Ayckbourn and British humor. A very young Tom Conti is delightful as Norman. This Acorn Media DVD includes a Bonus Feature biography of the author and background information about the trilogy.

CHIT CHAT: Peter Schneider directs a two-week rehearsal/workshop of Pal Joey followed by four performances scheduled sometime during the last week of March at the Theatre @ Boston Court. Marketing Manager Brian Polak reports this incarnation is a staged concert of the musical re-conceived by Patrick Pacheco (journalist/documentary writer) and Schneider. The Roundabout Theatre revival of the musical in 2008 featured a new book by Tony winner Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out) based on the original book by John O’Hara. As a side note, Jane Krakowski’s recent album The Laziest Gal in Town recorded during a concert at Feinstein’s in New York includes her rendition of Pal Joey’s “Zip” transformed to “Tweet” (a bow to Twitter) with Lorenz Hart’s lyrics updated to recent satire”¦ To honor the 50th anniversary of MGM’s 1961 classic film musical West Side Story, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will play Leonard Bernstein’s glorious score live while the newly re-mastered film is shown in high definition on the Hollywood Bowl’s big screen with original vocals and dialogue intact, July 8 and 9.

CHAT CITE: Music is what feelings sound like.  ~Author Unknown

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Connie Chats with Connie Danese

by Connie Danese | February 1, 2011

Connie Danese

OPENING NITE CHAT: Walking from my car to the theater, the surrounding streets were abuzz with people — a vivid reminder that El Portal Theatre is part of the exciting and eclectic artistic community known as the NoHo Arts District. On opening night of Ballroom with a Twist the red carpet was out for celebrities arriving for this evening of song and dance conceived and choreographed by Louis Van Amstel (Dancing with the Stars). We spotted Freda Payne, Lorenzo Lamas and later recognized the lady in a big floppy hat, seated on the aisle at the back of the orchestra, as none other than Julie Newmar.

After the show a cast party was held across the street at The Federal restaurant. The minimalist large space has a fabulous bar (perfect Cosmos), and roving waitresses carried trays of after-theater fare including crab cakes, mac’ and cheese balls, mini cheeseburgers and grilled chicken on skewers.

Jonathan Roberts, Anna Trebunskaya, Gev Manoukian, Edyta Sliwinskaand Alec Mazo at a party at The Federal

Van Amstel’ s large and talented cast included American Idol finalists Gina Glocksen and David Hernandez plus two gorgeous DWTS couples. Edyta Sliwinska, the body beautiful veteran of 10 seasons, and first trophy winner Alec Mazo arrived together. Sliwinska responded to why so many ballroom dancers in the show are from Russia. “Russian dancers have more opportunities in America. They come here with a high work ethic and passion for dancing. The combination makes them very successful. Alec and I competed together as ballroom dancers before DWTS, which gave us many new opportunities to participate in television and stage productions. I never imagined this would happen, particularly since ballroom was not popular in America for a very long time.”

Mazo adds, “We approach our dancing as actors. Every moment on stage is different and we try to play off each other without thinking about the steps. Most of our performances are taped live, so we’ re used to having an audience but each time is different. In this production we were mostly concerned about the floor. It’ s a bit difficult to get used to.”

Vivacious redhead Anna Trebunskaya and Jonathan Roberts have been married for seven years but dancing together since 2000. Although Trebunskaya is Russian, Roberts was born in California and explains, “ Before DWTS we were competitive dancers trying to win championships. The best part of being married is getting to travel and be together all the time to share the highs and lows. My advice to dancers is make sure you really want it. Sometimes you get a gig and sometimes you don’ t, but you have to be persistent and train all the time. So unless you find joy in the movement, you should find a different job.”

Louis Van Amstel and Niecy Nash at the Federal party

Director Van Amstel arrived looking happy and sensational. “I’ m 38 and when I was 16 my teacher said, “˜ You have five years, and if you don’ t do it by then, life goes downhill for a dancer.’ I said ‘I’ m going to prove you wrong because you are not done dancing until you decide you’ re done.’ I do Pilates for flexibility and strength. I go to the gym to work on muscle toning and at the moment I’ m eating a lot of calories because we’ re going back to DWTS and I do so much cardio. I push myself each time I choreograph and that keeps me young.”

With the exception of young Kelly Osbourne, Van Amstel has danced with older celebrities on DWTS who declare they adore him and appreciate how he has changed their lives. “I realize dancing is all about empowering the woman. When I see a partner, I think who is she and who is the real person she is covering up? I try to take that mask away. I want to see their true spirit rise. My wish is to transform people and make the world a better place. No amount of money can make you happier than to see that happen before you.”

I was surprised Van Amstel had a mere eight days to put the show together. “People know I can work fast so they give me less and less time, but I want more. I’ m hoping the producer can bring us to Broadway but first I’ d like to take it on a solid six-week tour with the same dancers the entire time. I keep getting two or three days to work new dancers in, and we’ re always surviving with last minute tweaking. I know most of these dancers since they were babies. I have pushed and hugged them. To see them grow as performers is the best reward.” The show closes at El Portal on Feb. 13.

Carol Channing as "Dolly"

HAPPY BIRTHDAY DOLLY: The incredible Carol Channing celebrates her 90th birthday with a grand party at the Pantages Theatre lobby on Feb. 21 as part of Musical Mondays, co-produced by Martin Wiviott and John Bowab, for the benefit of the Actors Fund. Hosted by Bruce Vilanch, the performers include: JoAnne Worley, Davis Gaines, Carol Cooke and the fabulous Gay Men’ s Chorus of Los Angeles. Director Bowab reports, “Carol will be performing wearing her original Hello Dolly red dress.”

Tickets include cocktails, performance and a dessert reception with performers.

Harry Connick Jr.

HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD: THE BOWL: The proud tradition of presenting extraordinary musical evenings under the stars at prices everyone can afford continues at the iconic Hollywood Bowl. You may choose to experience the evening dining al fresco in box seats with dinner from the Patina restaurant or sit up closer to heaven and marvel at the sound and excitement to be had for less than the price of a movie ticket. Having sat in both places, (admittedly the “heaven” seat was when I first arrived in LA and toted tuna sandwiches to the top row), I can honestly say the experience was always wonderful, although at this point I’m partial to box seats and a catered picnic basket. Opening Night at the Bowl on June 17 celebrates Harry Connick, Jr. as the newest inductee (among others to be announced) into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame. The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel highlights the classical portion of the season and on July 22 Dolly Parton makes her Hollywood Bowl debut. Musical theater fans can look forward to seeing Hairspray on Aug. 5-7 with a cast to be announced.

CHIT CHAT: Fans of Roger Bean’ s Life Could be a Dream and The Marvelous Wonderettes await the premiere of his newest musical Summer of Love Apr. 1-17 at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center.

Lee Martino

Bean directs and 2010 Ovation Award winner Lee Martino (Carousel at Reprise) choreographs”¦Martino returns to Reprise and choreographs Kiss Me Kate running May 11-22 directed by Michael Michetti. Casting for this production begins Feb 22″¦Paul Kreppel directs and Murphy Cross choreographs the Colony Theatre production of The All Night Strut! with an opening set for Apr 2. The show consists of four singer/dancers who celebrate music and dance from the ’30s and ’40s.

CHAT CITE: “When you dance, your purpose is not to get to a certain place on the floor. It’s to enjoy each step along the way” —  Wayne Dyer.

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Connie Chats

by Connie Danese | January 5, 2011

Connie Danese

THE BIZ REPORT: California Musical Theatre’s summer stock theater (aka the Music Circus) has been producing Broadway musicals since 1951 when it presented shows under a traditional circus tent big-top. In 2003 a new facility was designed to emulate the “circus-like” tradition with an enclosed permanent facility covered by insulated fabric.

Wells Fargo Pavilion (Music Circus)

For our East Coast readers who remember a place called St. John Terrell’ s Music Circus in Lambertville, NJ, you may find it interesting to note Lambertville preceded Sacramento with this original theatre of its kind when it opened in 1949. Terrell ran it until 1970. His idea to mix musical theatre and a circus tent was eventually copied all along the East Coast.

In California, producers Russell Lewis and Howard Young opened their first season with productions of Show Boat, Brigadoon and Annie Get Your Gun. The 2011 season in Sacramento has been announced with Lewis continuing as Executive Producer. Glenn Casale is Artistic Director. Their summer schedule runs July-August and includes The Producers, Oliver!, Anything Goes, Camelot, Annie Get Your Gun, I Do! I Do! and Miss Saigon. Casting in NY and LA begins in Feb. Each production rehearses one and one-half weeks and is performed for one week in a space currently known as the Wells Fargo Pavilion. A far cry from its original hot circus tent, it is a state-of-the-art air-conditioned, 2200 seat arena.

WHEN HARRY MET DANNY: Playwright/Cellist Harry Clark and Producer/Director Dan Guerrero are working on their second project in a series developed by Clark in which he combines classical music with the spoken word. Clark, who has been artistic director of Chamber Music PLUS for 30 years, says, “I realized our audiences weren’t getting any younger. I’ve always thought the music is not the problem; the staid, formal presentation is.

Harry Clark

Harry Clark

“I had beginners luck when I wrote my first theatrical portrait about the Mendelssohn family and sent it to Theo Bikel. I thought it might interest him and a few days later he called and said, “˜When do we do it?’ Forty works later, I’ve had the great fortune to attract some of the very best actors in America. We normally use existing music but two of the theater pieces, including Raisin’ Cane have original scores and I’d like to do more work with composers.”

Guerrero directed Raisin’ Cane starring Jasmine Guy and they took it from Tucson to NY where it was done at the Apollo with a live jazz trio. He is set to direct Clark’s newest piece Still Life for a staged reading in Tucson on Jan 23 and a workshop at Los Angeles Theatre Center April 29-May 7. It tells a fictional story of Georgia O’ Keeffe (Beth Grant) and Frida Kahlo (Zilah Mendoza). Clark explains, “Although the women met a few times, the play is based on a careful study of diaries, recollections and biographies. It takes place over 20 years and Dan explains it as a kind of dance. Two artists slowly reveal things about themselves and their lives to each other. The two musicians are a guitarist and cellist who represent the souls of Kahlo and O’ Keeffe.”

CHIT CHAT: Director Steve Glaudini reports he will once again helm The Producers when it opens April 8 for 10 performances at the Cabrillo Theatre in Thousand Oaks. If you loved his 2009 Musical Theatre West production of the show in Long Beach, you’ ll be happy to know three of his star performers repeat their roles: Michael Kostroff (Max Bialystock), Larry Raben (Leo Blum) and David Engel (Roger De Bris). He is currently casting replacements for Ulla, Carmen Ghia and Franz Liebkind”¦La Mirada will present Little Shop of Horrors directed by Brian Kite on April 15. Casting director Julia Flores is seeking to fill all roles including Seymour and Audrey. Dana Solimando choreographs the production.

THE BOOK NOOK: Jane Fonda’s biography My Life So Far is a fascinating look inside the mind and life of this Renaissance woman. Still incredibly beautiful at 72, Fonda refers to this time in life as her third and Final Act. “You don’ t have to be an actor to know that third acts are important; the pay-off that can pull everything from the first two acts all together and hopefully make sense of it all.” In an effort to do that she began writing at 59 and examined candid recollections about her marriages, activism (Viet Nam) and early years as the daughter of Henry Fonda while painting a vivid portrait of her life against the backdrop of the world at that time. The book includes a video “conversation” on CD. Published by Random House”¦..Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat examines collected lyrics from 1954-81. The subtitled explanation: with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes says it all. Semi-autobiographical, it is also a bible of sorts in the art of song writing taught by a man to whom the term “brilliant” is often attributed and decidedly earned. Musical theatre aficionados will recognize the title from his 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Sunday in the Park with George. The artist Seurat completes a painting while losing his love to another yet he focuses on his work: “Finishing a hat”¦Look I made a hat”¦Where there never was a hat” “¦and despite the loss, he experiences artistic joy and fulfillment. The book includes behind the scenes photographs, personal notes on the pages of his lyrics and insightful criticism of his own as well as the lyrics of others, sparing no one. It is an entertaining “must-have” for admirers and a master class in musical theatre writing for composers/lyricists. Published by Knopf.

Darcie Roberts, Julie Dixon Jackson, Misty Cotton and Bets Malone. Photo by Michael Lamont

MUSIC, MUSIC, MUSIC: The original cast recording of Winter Wonderettes on the LML Music label is a terrific album to have whether or not you have seen these talented ladies live on stage. The ’60s girl-group sound lends itself perfectly to all your Christmas favorites. The singers are Misty Cotton, Julie Dixon Jackson, Bets Malone and Darcie Roberts. Their signature four-part harmonies are delightful. Savvy producers will hopefully continue to create new genres and more albums for this fun great-sounding group.

CHAT CITE: “It’s never too late. Never too late to start over, never too late to be happy.” Jane Fonda.

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Connie Visits Uptown in Pasadena, Angels
and Normal at the Music Center

by Connie Danese | December 2, 2010

Connie Danese

CONNIE CHATS by Connie Danese

OPENING NITE CHAT in Pasadena: Theatre in Los Angeles is alive and thriving with many terrific shows which opened in November and are on hand during the holiday season. Gala celebrations began when we re-visited the Pasadena Playhouse for the LA premiere of Tony and Emmy Award-winner Leslie Uggams’ one-woman show Uptown Downtown. When Pasadena gives a party, they do it big.  A pre-show celebration was hosted by the Wells Fargo Diversity Project  honoring Lena L. Kennedy. Before the show we drank champagne and delved into boxes of sesame noodles with shitake mushrooms and various Asian delicacies in the tented courtyard. After the final curtain the party continued with Elements, Bonnie’s Smokin’ Barbecue, Charlie’s Trio and Spring Garden catering a huge spread featuring an unusual gourmet mac and cheese, chicken and ribs, assorted gourmet pizzas and more of the bubbly.

Leslie Uggams in "Uptown Downtown". Photo Corkery/News.

If you’re expecting to be wowed by Uggams’ vocal prowess and love to hear the sound of an eight-piece band that truly knows how to play, swing and “feel” the music, you won’t be disappointed. Don Rebic looks like an accountant who wandered onto the stage and happened to sit at the piano but when the man plays and conducts he is a sexy, swinging, fabulous partner for Uggams as she takes us through her musical life. The highlights include a special rendition of “Up on the Roof” accompanied by the wonderful Andrew Synowiec on guitar. Uggams occasionally drops her perfect façade while delving into lyrics but except for a few delicious moments, one wishes we left the theatre knowing more about the beautiful lady behind the sequins. It is however, a terrific cabaret performance and continues through Dec. 12.

OPENING NITE TAPER “CHAT CHOICE”: Rabid Randy Newman fans or people who simply know and love his monster hits “Short People” and “I Love LA” are in for a surprise with Harps and Angels at the Taper. His eclectic song catalogue and music consistently provide the perfect framework for Newman’s political and satirical revelations. Cast and friends partied after the show at Chaya Downtown where we had the most mouth-watering beef on skewers dipped in a divine sauce, mounds of sushi, tiny meatballs and of course champagne.

Adriane Lenox in "Harps and Angels". Photo by Craig Schwartz

I spoke to actress Adriane Lenox (Doubt on Broadway) who practically steals the show as she establishes a clear persona from the outset and uses her amazing vocal chops to bring Newman’s stories into focus. “Since there was no book I made some specific choices and decided I was predominantly the New Orleans woman. Never having been to that city, I researched and found New Orleans idioms to throw into a few places. I also listened closely to Randy’s accent because he lived there [as a child].” Given her enormous vocal talent, it’s surprising to learn Lenox doesn’t study voice on a regular basis. “It’s a gift really. I’ve been singing since I was a little child. I sang in church and I’m in a gospel choir in NY called Broadway Inspirational Voices but I haven’t done much studying. As a matter of fact, when I knew I’d be doing the show I went to a lady in NY for three lessons. She’s always very busy but said she’d squeeze me in. For my audition they had me sing “Louisiana 1927″ and “Lonely at the Top” which I later asked them to cut from the show.” There are not too many actresses requesting their songs be cut, au contraire! “Well, I told the director (Jerry Zaks), I didn’t see how it fit. He said, “˜Hmm, you know you might be right’ and agreed it slowed the momentum in the first act.” She smiles, “I figured I had enough to do.” Smart lady.

Michael McKean along with sexy rock singer Storm Large does a memorable rendition of “Shame.” He explains, “I wouldn’t say I represent Randy although I’m the one almost as old as he is. I’ve been a fan ever since his first album came out 41 years ago. When I heard it I thought this is the kind of songwriter I want to be someday. I never was. I’m a pretty good songwriter but”¦”.  McKean and wife Annette O’Toole received a 2004 Grammy for their mocumentary title song for A Mighty Wind.

Newman’s songs continue to be relevant, ironic, iconic and intelligent which left me wishing the connective tissue of this musical revue were stronger. The brilliance of his musical composition and lyrics covers such a vast canvas; it’s no wonder a definitive production of Newman’s work remains illusive. Yet, the evening is wonderfully entertaining and a must-see through Dec. 22.

Alice Ripley in "Next to Normal". Photo by Craig Schwartz

CHAT CHOICE: Musical Theatre aficionados will not want to miss Next to Normal at the Ahmanson. It’s easy to see why Alice Ripley received a Tony for her performance as the bi-polar mom on the “verge of a nervous breakdown.” Ripley’s huge, odd singing voice seems to echo all the pain and confusion she feels inside but first and foremost she is a wonderful actress with a deep understanding of this woman. Although, the musical (particularly in the second act) is mesmerizing, it is also one I would not want to see over and over again. This is not The Sound of Music but rather the scream of an unsound family attempting to regain a modicum of normalcy while dealing with the severity of an event that has virtually crippled each of them. Tom Kitt partners Brian Yorkey’s passion-filled book and lyrics with a rock opera score, which helps give the story a modern-day feel. The play however is timeless and would be interesting to experience minus some of the over- powering music and occasionally distracting set. Nevertheless, Next to Normal draws the audience into the psychological world of a family not often portrayed in American musical theatre. A fascinating, gripping evening; it is at the Ahmanson through Jan. 2.

CHAT CITE: When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.  ~Mark Twain