Apr 16, 2017

Next!

Orville Mendoza at Stephen Sondheim's piano.
I first saw Orville Mendoza in the lead role of Sweeney Todd at East West Players in 1994; I later had the distinct joy of reviewing him in the lead role of Kayama in a definitive-for-me production of Pacific Overtures, also at East West Players (though in a different space; more about that below). Apart from Aladdin at Disney Adventure (a production, directed by Francesca Zambello and scheduled to close soon after 13 years to make way for a Frozen stage show, that is not to be confused with the Broadway version), I think the only other show I've seen Mendoza in was Road Show at the Public.

Which means that Orville Mendoza has been one of the central Sondheim performers of my theatregoing life. Needless to say I'm excited to see him in Classic Stage Company's new staging of Pacific Overtures, directed by CSC artistic director John Doyle. Mendoza plays Manjiro, essentially Kayama's opposite number, in the new production.

To celebrate, I dug up my reviews for Back Stage West of both Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd. Though my memory of each of these shows remains vivid, rereading my impressions of them is like a ritual reimmersion. No bird exploring in the sky explores as well as I the corners my life, or at least the corners of my own back catalog.

Back Stage WestMarch 26, 1998

PACIFIC OVERTURES
at the David Henry Hwang Theatre
Reviewed by Rob Kendt

East West Players' current revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Pacific Overtures is a triumph on so many levels that it feels churlish to point out its shortcomings. Yes, in its move to a new mid-sized theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, this scrappy Asian/Pacific American theatre company bit off a lot more than an Equity rehearsal schedule could chew--a wide load of technical and political hurdles that had more to do with putting up a new theatre facility than putting up a show. And the resulting production not only evinces the expected signs of under-rehearsed performances, it also has moments in which the staging ideas, not just their execution, seem under-developed.

But giving a frame and purpose to this inspired imperfection is a project of such passion, grace, and intelligence that it often takes the breath away--not only Sondheim's bold, lapidarian score or Weidman's witty, serious, absorbing book but director Tim Dang's gorgeously imagined and movingly played production. Employing floating and sliding Japanese screens on Lisa Hashimoto's beautiful modular set, lit evocatively by G. Shizuko Herrera, the show moves like a dream--a haunting, outsized dream outfitted with the stunningly signifying costumes of Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez and the letter-perfect hair and make-up of Newton Kazuo Koshi, and choreographed mostly winningly by Betsy Chang and Kabuki consultant David Furumoto.

In telling the unlikely story of feudal Japan's reluctant opening to the West, Weidman and Sondheim's 1976 show adapts a roughly recognizable revue format to Asian theatre practices--or vice versa--and comes up with as many pristinely lyrical moments as it does fiercely pointed passages. Kayama (Orville Mendoza) is a low-level samurai thrust by the ruling Shogun into dealings with the West--of which his first is meant to be a deal-breaker, since the Japanese from the 17th through the 19th century were militantly xenophobic, strictly forbidding any foreigner to even touch their soil. To help Kayama negotiate with the Americans, whose Admiral Perry has come with four warships to open East-West trade relations or else, the Shogun releases a prisoner, Manjiro (Michael K. Lee), who has lived in the U.S.

These two bond in the playful modal duet "Poems," which is staged beguilingly by Dang and performed sunnily by Mendoza and Lee, and which typifies the score's brilliance. As in the serenely moving "There Is No Other Way," the ploddingly prickly "A Bowler Hat," and the soaring "Someone in a Tree," Sondheim somehow makes the knottiest harmonic material and the trickiest intervals sound as natural as folk tunes, and this production's crowning success--adequate rehearsal time or no--is in perfectly realizing this difficult simplicity. Music director Scott Nagatani has done his job exceedingly well, and continues to do so, directing a small but precise arsenal of drums, winds, and keyboards from across raised platforms.

There are too many high points in the cast to mention them all: Mendoza is an embracing, generous presence, with a husky, pliant baritone and a jack-o-lantern face that registers emotion tellingly; David Furumoto is funny and menacing as Lord Abe, and about equally so in a pair of drag roles; Alvin Ing, who was in the original Broadway cast, has a beatific peace about him (which is wrong for a few of the roles he's assigned) and a searing, feminine voice; Tedd Szeto and Hisato Masuyama score big laughs as Russian and French admirals, respectively; Reggie Lee flawlessly executes a pair of expressive dances; Sabrina Lu has a striking turn as a ventriloquist priest, and Paul Wong and Deborah Nishimura each especially bolster the vocal department in a variety of roles. And as the Reciter, who narrates, comments on, and occasionally steps into the action, Keone Young runs through a kaleidoscope of facets and faces, from warm to proud to distrustful to sardonic, and finally to heartbroken (and he plucks a mean shamisen).

The show ends with the brash, buoyant "Next," in which the Japan that has embraced American-style modernity struts its stuff, both tacky and impressive, while Young collapses in tears at the memory of lost traditions. Needless to say, the resonance of this stirring production seems to multiply endlessly as one walks out of the new theatre into bustling Little Tokyo. It's been a long time since I was this proud to live in Los Angeles.

"Pacific Overtures," presented by East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theatre, Union Center for the Arts, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo. Mar. 18-Apr. 5. (800) 233-3123.



Back Stage West
Sept. 15, 1994

SWEENEY TODD 
at East West Players
Reviewed by Rob Kendt

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's gruesome operetta Sweeney Todd is full of unlikely pleasures: an overachieving score of equal parts bile and grace, an absurdly intricate pot-boiler plot, and an overlay of lipsmackingly draconian social satire. This tale of a murderous, revenge-starved barber and his grasping capitalist handmaiden piles gleeful Gothic mayhem upon stark, Dickensian squalor. It's musical comedy with a body count.

In an ambitious current revival at East West Players, most of the show's felicities remain robustly intact, starting with the first: Under Scott Nagatani's flawless musical direction, both the operatic scope and the prickly particulars of Sondheim's score are in perfect proportion and focus. The hair-raising chorales and peripatetic solos are in solid vocal hands, and a busy pit band of three keyboards and drums gives unerring support. Under director Tim Dang, the show's non-musical virtues are strongly realized as well. For one, Dang has worked wonders in East West's small space, with a fluid, modular set by Chris Tashima and amazingly varied staging and lighting (by G. Shizuko Herrera) that parallels the dynamics of the music. He's also mostly achieved the text's grim penny-dreadful tone, with a rabble dressed down in Naomi Yoshida Rodriquez's raggedy costumes and Christina Souza's blowsy make-up and hair giving us the declamatory stare-down demanded by the opening line, "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd..."

In the lead, Orville Mendoza has a leering jack-o'-lantern face and a wracked, righteous baritone, though we can't help feeling, as spunky Mrs. Lovett (a fine, comically ruthless Freda Foh Shen) complains, that he's "always brooding on your wrongs." Also worth mentioning are Deborah Nishimura, whose Beggar Woman has a demonic authority, and Radmar Agana Jao, who makes a perfectly childlike, clarion-voiced Toby. If the villains of the piece hardly threaten, if the small space is at times constraining or overwarm—these are minor quibbles. It is a forceful rendition of a contemporary classic.

"Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street," presented by and at East West Players, 4424 Santa Monica Blvd, Silverlake. Sept. 9-Oct 30. (213) 660-0366.

Apr 6, 2017

Big Sister's Clothes

Patrick Wilson and Amanda Peet in Barefoot in the Park. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
Amanda Peet recently contributed this funny, lightly harrowing essay about the weird contortions she put herself through to not read Ben Brantley's slam of her performance in the 2006 Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park. It drove me back to check my review of same. For the record: I thought she was all right.

I've republished it below.

Barefoot in the Park
at the Cort Theatre
Reviewed by Rob Kendt
Feb. 17, 2006
Broadway.com

Here's something you don't see every day: a film actress making her Broadway debut with nary a trace of gratuitous glamour or hammy, I-have-arrived overstatement. As Corie, the erratic young newlywed in a perky if pointless new revival of Barefoot in the Park, Amanda Peet doesn't get a single star's entrance; instead she opens three out of the show's four scenes already onstage and haplessly engaged in some solitary housewifely duty, from wallpapering to butchering a batch of martinis.

And though she's dressed in loving retro designs by Isaac Mizrahi, Peet has a knock-kneed, perpetually disheveled look about her, like a tomboy dressed up in her big sister's clothes. Or her mom's: As Corie's wry, widowed mother, Jill Clayburgh gets sleeker outfits and better lines. These, and her budding romance with a rakish eccentric, Victor Velasco (Tony Roberts), make an excellent case that youth is overrated. This was not quite the point of Neil Simon's 1963 hit, which seems to share some of Corie's dizzy screwball romanticism about her brand new marriage to Paul (Patrick Wilson), an ambitious young lawyer. But by taking a tone of affectionate, knowing hindsight, both for the '60s and for just-married puppy love, director Scott Elliott's production gives off an attractive patina of worldly wisdom, even if it's short on revelations.

Like most of Simon's best work, Barefoot is a kvetchy valentine to New York City, though the new production has relocated its young couple's underfurnished fifth-floor fixer-upper from the East 40s to the more iconic Greenwich Village. Certainly Mr. Velasco's beret, and his matter-of-fact question to Corie, "Are you a folk singer?" fit the new neighborhood, but one suspects that this downtown-ization owes more than a little to our contemporary sense of where New York's youthful heart is. Like the nearby Broadway revival of The Odd Couple, the first act of Barefoot dramatizes an applause-getting apartment makeover (set by Derek McLane), and its second builds to a near-breakup of this fragile, transient domestic arrangement.

At least this roommate saga has better chemistry than that odd Couple. While it's very hard to imagine this marriage proceeding very smoothly past the final curtain, Peet and Wilson do come off as exactly the sort of pair that would end up—or at least start out, and maybe keep coming back—together.

Wilson's strapping, babyfaced Paul has enough cocky virility to explain his attraction to and for a volatile wildcat like Corie, even as he's edging into a recognizably cranky, baiting exasperation that will only make her wobble and worry all the more. And both performers have the crucial capacity to seem both genuinely riled and amused by the other—what Corie's mother must mean when she tells her uncertain daughter, "I've never seen two people more in love."

There's a whole other play, a delicious side dish, simmering between Roberts and Clayburgh. Both actors have gracious, unpushy comic timing, which makes them seem positively courtly, and in their own way much sexier than the randy youngsters. When Corie starts to rave to her mother about the joys of carnal love, and recommends that Mom give it a try, Clayburgh turns her character's studious avoidance of the subject into a witty generation reversal—a turnaround of the well-known discomfort of young people with the topic of their parents' sex lives. "Don't you even want to discuss it?" asks Peet's Corie, guilelessly. "Not with you in the room," replies her mother. In Clayburgh's hands it's clearly not prudery that makes the subject out of bounds, but a thoroughly earned, and lightly worn, sense of superior knowledge. She knows what Corie will have to learn on her own: that a companion for life's journey will have to be good for more than a roll in the sack, or even a walk in the park.

Mar 9, 2017

TBT: 'Sweeney' Stripped Naked

Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone, Manoel Felciano, and Donna Lynne Champlin in "Sweeney Todd" (photo by Paul Kolnik)

It's hardly controversial that Sweeney Todd is Sondheim's masterpiece (and, as I got him to reveal to me, possibly his most personal show). Not that it's production-proof, but I don't think I've ever seen a bad staging, come to think of it, or a pair of leads that were like any other pair: From Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel to Orville Mendoza and Deb Nishimura, from Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski to the stars of the smashing new New York revival, Jeremy Secomb and Siobhan McCarthy. (The film is a whole nother ball of wax.) In honor of the show's current revival, whose reviews except for Ben Brantley's have largely been ecstatic (a perfect argument for the value of a site like StageGrade or Show-Score), I look back on my Broadway.com review of the last big New York revival. Attend the tale.

Nov. 4, 2005
Broadway.com

As sharp and glistening as a straight-edge razor, director John Doyle's stripped-down concert/theater rendition of Sweeney Todd gives the kind of buzz you don't expect, and certainly almost never get, from a Broadway show. It is the distinct hum of musical and theatrical intelligence; it is the glow of sheer brilliance as an entertainment value in itself.

There has surely never been a grimmer or bloodier musical written for the Broadway stage than this 1979 masterpiece from composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler. And Doyle's abstract, poor-theater staging only italicizes the show's unforgiving gallows humor. But somehow the artistry of this Sweeney lifts the spirits.

Actually, I think I can guess how: By having the 10-member cast play the score while they act and sing the show, Doyle's production makes the show's craftsmanship lovingly, nakedly transparent (the deft new orchestrations are by Sarah Travis). What this production lacks in definitive acting turns, vocal virtuosity, and realistic staging--and it does have some deficits in all these departments--it gains in intimacy and intention.

There's a matter-of-fact seamlessness to the concept that saves it from gimmickry. When Judge Turpin (Marc Jacoby) sits to converse with the Beadle (Alexander Gemignani) about his disturbing plans for Johanna (Lauren Molina), both are holding trumpets, at the ready for the next number. Are they in character or out? When Mrs. Lovett (Patti LuPone) emerges with a tuba, sassily tooting some bass notes and waggling her derriere in time, are we watching LuPone or Lovett? Actress, character, musician, or all of the above? These three identities bleed together throughout the cast, and the result brings both the score and the show to tactile, surprising life--or at least to the kind of life we've never seen before.

Certainly, we do miss the sweep of Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations--the crushing timpani and high Bernard Herrmann strings that gave the show's penny-dreadful contours near-Wagnerian fury. And the symbolic staging of the show's murders is pretty wan indeed: tipped buckets of red paint, red lights, that blood-curdling factory whistle, all played in front of a tall backdrop of wooden slats and junk-shop shelves. (Don't ask about the baby coffin.)

And it must be noted that in the title role, Michael Cerveris is slightly off the mark. Looking like a mod Nosferatu in his thin black tie, leather jacket, and trademark shorn pate, Cerveris is appropriately chilling and pathetic, and he does bring a few unique assets to the role. Sweeney is supposed to have been so altered by 15 years of wrongful imprisonment that no one in his old neighborhood quite recognizes him on his return; I've never exactly bought that before, but Cerveris powerfully embodies that alienation. And hey, a bald barber--that's pretty unsettling by itself.

But Cerveris is too much of a bloodless vampire--and he's probably too young--to convey the damaged virility of a Sweeney like Len Cariou, who originated the role. There's a human touch missing from this revenge-addled monster.

Not so LuPone's tarty, lovable Mrs. Lovett. In a black Louise Brooks wig and seedy baby-doll dress and stockings, LuPone relaxes into this witchily sympathetic role with supreme confidence. She doesn't push or prod a single moment, nor does she oversell either Mrs. Lovett's craven, amoral practicality or her sweeter, dafter romantic side. Whether she's cleaning the tools of her dismembering trade or draining spit from her tuba, LuPone gives us a wonderfully undespairing anti-heroine.

Her evident joy brings out the best in Cerveris, in the delicious "A Little Priest," surely the funniest song ever linking cannibalism to capitalism. Consider the tools of the trade here: Mimed without props and sung without a single pop wail, "A Little Priest" brings down the house on the strength of its lyrics, delivered with lip-smacking relish by the leads. Forget the sight of LuPone playing the tuba for a second: How often do we see sheer wit stop the show on Broadway?

Jacoby captures the bourgeois banality of Judge Turpin's villainy, while Gemignani plays the Beadle so drily I thought he'd snap; he gets more laughs from this absurd flunky, and in more unexpected places, than would seem possible. So do Molina and Benjamin Magnuson, as the show's slightly befuddled young lovers, Anthony and Johanna; we know these two make a good match because they share a love of playing the cello and warbling ardent operetta. Donna Lynne Champlin plays the grandstanding Pirelli as a weird wind-up doll. Manoel Felciano's Tobias is another performance in which the sweetness of the playing (the violin, in the case) blurs nicely with the singing and acting. And I've never seen Beggar Woman as winningly pitiful as Diana DiMarzio's shuffling, clarinet-playing specimen.

Soon enough we don't notice the things we might have missed at first, not only because of the cast's conviction but because, as a show like Shockheaded Peter proved, a judicious use of light and shadow, and a properly placed accordion, can be infinitely creepier than any literal bloodbath or screeching string section.

I'm no box-office prophet; I have no idea whether this Sweeney will be a hit beyond the Sondheim cult. It certainly deserves to catch on with the sort of New Yorkers who feel too cool to go to Broadway shows. But the tourists and tired businessmen? They may not get the entertainment they're looking for here, but what they do get--essentially, the best bleak, funny Gothic chamber musical ever--they're never going to forget.

Sweeney Todd
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by John Doyle
Eugene O'Neill Theatre