LA 2011 Bob

Finally I Can Talk About….

by Bob Verini

As an LADCC member, I see many more shows during the year than I could possibly review in Variety. In 2011 I caught 120 attractions in the LA area alone, not counting productions in San Diego, San Francisco, NY, Chicago and London. I don’t want any more of 2012 to go by without my giving a shout-out to some of the artists and attractions I wasn’t able to salute in print last year – though happily I was able to give many of them some love during the LADCC awards process.

LA is always chockful of revivals, and not just because of the ephemeral nature of theater that requires revisiting works whether originally well done or not. An adventurous company can take a property you hoped you’d never have to see again, and breathe the kiss of life into it. Who ever thought a director could dust away the familiar moralizing of “The Crucible” and make it sing with dramatic power? Sean Branney and his team at Theatre Banshee did just that. Reprise’s “Cabaret,” for the first time in my memory, demonstrated less than 20/20 hindsight that the Nazis were sure to take power and start massacring its Jews. In other words, Marcia Milgrim Dodge’s take on the piece was immediate and real. I would love to see both productions again.

“Falsettos” was unevenly cast but Richard Israel’s staging and Gregory Nabours’musical direction were pretty much unimprovable, and a refreshing lack of camp was a highlight of Musical Theater Guild’s “One Touch of Venus” in Glendale. The Blankmanaged to find the human core beyond the ideology of “The Cradle Will Rock,” though I wish someone would revisit this material and stage it as originally intended, not with the bare-bones-and-piano the circumstances of its premiere required it to fall back on.

And “I Never Sang for My Father” is a play I’ve loved ever since my first encounter with it, the matinee of the day following Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, when everyone held their breath in grief and this work, which is partly about the relationship of the dead to the living, seemed strangely apropos. Under the aegis of the New American TheatreAnne Gee Byrd, John Sloan, Dee Ann Newkirk and the brilliant Philip Baker Hall made for a seamless family unit as well as theatrical ensemble, and Cameron Watson’s production was one of those about which you just had to shake your head and say, “You shoulda been there.”

One of my favorite imports was a revival, as well. I will travel anywhere and everywhere to see a Martin McDonagh, and “The Cripple of Inishmaan” at the Kirk Douglas is one of the reasons – what a daaarlin’ evening, warm and fuzzy yet scabrously bleak.

Most of the notable new plays I saw I was fortunate to have a chance to write about, but I didn’t get to review “Margo Veil” (Odyssey) or “Loving Repeating” (ICT) and I’m not sure I know what I would’ve known what to say about them had I had the forum. Certainly I remember very little about the story of either, though there are dozens of images that come back as I think about both evenings. Anyway, I admired the work of the helmers, casts and designers no end. When you left “Margo” or “Loving” you knew you’d seen something and were never bored. The same was true of Rogue Machine’s “Blackbird,” with Sam Anderson so terrifying yet so human.

During last year’s Fringe I had to be away on business so I could not partake as liberally as I would’ve liked. But I still haven’t forgotten Damaso Rodriguez’s production of William Nedved’s “Fact & Fiction,” incisively performed by Nedved and Adam Silver (who also impressed in “Nerve” a few months later). Great twists, artfully delivered.

Some productions, which might not have been the finest in every respect, offered fine showcases. Casey Kramer’s randy Ma in “Dolly West’s Kitchen” (Theatre Banshee) took the cliché of the raunchy Irish old lady to a new, sensitive plateau, and I was much impressed with Brett Mack in the exceedingly difficult role of the closeted brother. Kelly Schulmann’s philosophical yet spunky best friend in “What’s Wrong With Angry?” moved me greatly with its freshness and vivacity; I had previously admired her at the Celebrationin 2007’s “Beautiful Thing” and I hope I don’t have to go four more years before enjoying her again. John Fleck dazzled me from beginning to end in his encounter with “Mad Women” (Katselas) – bravura solo work, simply wonderful. Reprise’s “Kiss Me, Kate”struck me as about 45 minutes too long, but if Lesli Margherita had been onstage for all of those 45 minutes I don’t think I would’ve minded one bit. What a trouper she is, how skillful at finding new life in lines, business and lyrics that have been around for two generations.

Above all, 2011 stands out for Tom Dugan’s arresting turn (no pun intended) in “Nazi Hunter – Simon Wiesenthal,” which I had no intention of taking in until my colleague Dany Margolies – one of the tougher to please pundits of my acquaintance – let me know in no uncertain terms how special it was. That Sunday afternoon taught me things about a historical figure and event I thought I was already completely familiar with, and touched me in a way I hadn’t thought possible. To this day I get a little chill up the spine when I recall the final heartbreaking gesture as Dugan retired from the stage.

Now that’s what Theater, with a capital T, can do at its best.