Spring theater preview: 'Waiting for Godot,' 'Hands on a Hardbody'
Trucks have never really been my thing, but of the upcoming new musicals this season, I’m most curious about “Hands on a Hardbody,” the Doug Wright-Trey Anastasio-Amanda Green collaboration at La Jolla Playhouse. As for drama (or tragicomedy, to be more precise) I am champing at the bit for “Waiting for Godot,” with Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern sure to put on a Beckettian master class at the Mark Taper Forum.
Here’s a shortlist of the spring season's most promising theatrical offerings.
'Waiting for Godot'
Samuel Beckett’s play is more than just an ingenious work of theater — it’s a modern myth. Two tramps pass their time together while waiting for the appearance of a gentleman who will supposedly redeem their patience and relieve their confounded suffering. A tragicomic mix of vaudeville antics and philosophical badminton, this genre-busting work was magnificently characterized by playwright Jean Anouilh as “the music-hall sketch of Pascal’s 'Pensées' as played by Fratellini clowns.” Two highly regarded Beckett interpreters, Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern, take on the roles of Estragon and Vladimir in a production directed by Michael Arabian and featuring James Cromwell as Pozzo that will have an extraordinary wealth of experience to draw on in reanimating this modern classic.
Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles Music Center. March 21 – April 22. Tickets start at $20. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
Anton Chekhov's “Ivanov” may not be considered in the same league as “The Three Sisters” or “The Cherry Orchard,” but it's the play in which he made his breakthrough as a dramatist. The protagonist, a 35-year-old provincial landowner suffering from an acute sense of purposelessness, is a classic example of the Russian literary figure known as “the superfluous man.” But is this melancholy guy as big a scoundrel as those around him proclaim him to be? Director Bart DeLorenzo reopens the investigation into Ivanov's nature in an Odyssey Theatre-Evidence Room co-production that is sure to give this late 19th century play an invigorating 21st century theatrical update.
Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. April 7-May 27. $25-$30.
Class may be the one taboo subject left in American life now that race, sex and religion are no longer off-limits. David Lindsay-Abaire, who has never shied from challenging material (“Rabbit Hole,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, explored the heavy silence of parental grief), tackles the socioeconomic divide that separates reunited high school sweethearts, one who has escaped the old rough-and-tumble Boston neighborhood and become a doctor, the other who never left and is out of a job. Jane Kaczmarek leads a cast, directed by Black Dahlia Theatre chief Matt Shakman, in a work that teases out the difference between goodness and the good life.
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. April 11 - May 13. $47-$77. www.geffenplayhouse.com
Adam Gwon’s chamber musical “Ordinary Days,” produced at South Coast Repertory in 2010, was one of those shows that have the word “promising” written all over them. What was more striking about Gwon’s then still-green talent was his ability to musicalize everyday moments of emotional turmoil. It’s nice to see him back at SCR working on a new musical drama about love and family secrets with playwright Octavio Solis, whose drama “Lydia,” which was presented at the Mark Taper Forum in 2009, was replete with domestic skeletons. Don’t expect peppy, sentimental uplift. This collaboration will no doubt bear dark fruit.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. April 20 – May 6. $20-$68. www.scr.org.
'Hands on a Hardbody'
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”) is no stranger to musicals, having won critical acclaim for his book for the Broadway musical “Grey Gardens.” In this latest venture, he’s collaborating with Trey Anastasio, the lead singer of the band Phish, and lyricist Amanda Green (“Bring It On: The Musical”) -- a curious but compelling combination of talents. Based on the documentary film, “Hands on a Hardbody” melds rock, folk and country to tell the story of an auto dealership in Longview, Texas, that launched a contest that has 10 down-and-out strangers competing for a brand-new hard-body truck by seeing who can keep a hand on the vehicle the longest. A contemporary fable about the American dream, this new musical sounds as if it could resonate with our own hard times.
La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive. April 27 (when previews begin) - June 17. Tickets start at $48. www.lajollaplayhouse.org
'The Scottsboro Boys'
This daring musial by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the team responsible for such landmark works as “Chicago” and “Cabaret,” was completed after the death of Ebb in 2004. It had only a short run on Broadway but definitely deserves a longer life in the American theatrical repertoire. With a book by David Thompson, the show unfolds in a highly adventurous Brechtian fashion employing both minstrelsy and Punch-and-Judy-style farce to offer an account of the infamous case of nine African American teens who, riding a boxcar to Memphis to look for work at the start of the Depression, were unfairly accused of a crime and held for years in a series of unforgivable miscarriages of justice. You might think such a tale would be told with a furrowed brow. But under the intrepid guidance of director-choreographer Susan Stroman, the musical couldn’t have been livelier or more impeccably pulled off when I saw it in New York. The jangly mix of comedy and tragedy is meant to unsettle audiences, and it has succeeded mightily in doing just that. Kudos to the Old Globe for bringing this brave theatrical production (featuring a few members of the Broadway cast) to Southern California.
The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego. May 5 – June 10. Tickets start at $39. www.theoldglobe.org
-- Charles McNulty
Photo: "The Scottsboro Boys" on Broadway, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. Credit: Paul Kolnik.