The heat is on in La Mirada, where “Miss Saigon” blows into the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and transports the audience skyward. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s phenomenally successful Vietnam War-era gloss on “Madama Butterfly” receives a sleekly staged, wonderfully performed revival that heightens this critic-proof popera’s strengths and obscures its frailties, to impressive effect.
Joseph Anthony Foronda conveys spontaneous wit and sardonic grit as the pimping, visa-obsessed Engineer. This character, the evening’s emcee and narrative engine, could descend into leering hamminess, but Foronda expertly balances sleaze, pragmatism and realism, from the opening “The Heat is On in Saigon” onward.
That milieu-setting number, where gyrating hookers vie for the highest bidder, introduces virginal 17-year-old heroine Kim, played here by the luminous Jacqueline Nguyen. Reportedly the first Vietnamese actress to star in a major “Saigon” production, Nguyen’s emotional acuity and water-clear soprano convinces throughout, especially in tandem with golden-voiced Kevin Odekirk as American G.I. Chris, their duets soaring and potent.
So is the whole ensemble, committed to Dana Solimando’s adroit choreography, gorgeously harmonizing under musical director John Glaudini’s baton. Lawrence Cummings as Chris’ buddy, Aidan Park as Kim’s betrothed and April Malina as the winner of the titular contest have such vocal and dramatic intensity you wish their parts were larger. Preternaturally poised Ken Shim as the 3-year-old plot pivot steals every heart, and Cassandra Murphy gives the thankless role of Chris’ American wife a full-throated conviction that wouldn’t shame Idina Menzel.
"Water by the Spoonful," a recent play by Quiara Alegría Hudes about a war veteran and four disparate lives that come together in an online chatroom, won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama, it was announced on Monday. The play was performed at Hartford Stage Co. in Connecticut last fall.
Hudes was a Pulitzer finalist in 2007 for "Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue." She was nominated for a Tony in 2008 for writing the book for the Broadway musical "In the Heights."
"Water by the Spoonful" beat out two finalists: "Other Desert Cities" by Jon Robin Baitz and "Sons of the Prophet" by Stephen Karam. Last year's drama winner was "Clybourne Park" by Bruce Norris, which recently ran at the Mark Taper Forum and opens this week on Broadway.
"Water by the Spoonful" is the second play in a planned trilogy by Hudes, with "Elliot" serving as the first installment. "Water" follows an Iraq war veteran who is struggling with civilan life. His story runs in parallel with those of four individuals who connect on an online chatroom dedicated to recovering drug addicts.
"Matilda the Musical," based on the popular book by Roald Dahl, was the big winner at the Olivier Awards on Sunday, scooping up the prize for best new musical plus six other awards. The Oliviers are Britain's highest theater honor, the London equivalent of Broadway's Tony Awards.
The seven wins for "Matilda" was an Olivier record. The musical was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Co. and is playing at the Cambridge Theatre on London's West End. The production also won prizes for direction, by Matthew Warchus; lead actor, for Bertie Carvel; and lead actress, which was shared by the four young actresses who rotate in the musical's title role.
"Collaborators," by screenwriter John Hodge, won the Olivier for best new play. The drama, at the Cottesloe Theatre, tells the story of a writer who is commissioned to write a play about Josef Stalin.
In this era of easily accessed online opinions, it's hard to settle into a theater seat with any confidence. There are those voices in our heads and on our smartphones: “Some critics called the score unmemorable and the stagecraft over the top. What if I don’t enjoy myself?”
Careworn, highly informed theatergoer: If you go to see “Billy Elliot the Musical,” which has arrived at last in Los Angeles, at the Pantages Theatre, you will enjoy yourself.
It’s true that among the raves “Billy” has provoked some complaints in London, then on Broadway, and then across the U.S.: about Elton John’s score (“It’s a mediocre score, and that’s putting in kindly,” a man beside me sniffed), about Lee Hall’s arty book and Peter Darling’s adventurous choreography; about the thick, growly Northern England accent, in which hunger is pronounced “hooon-gah” and ballet “bally.”
But if 10 Tony Awards, including best musical of 2009, don’t assuage your fears, then let me, because I went through a lot of anxiety for nothing. This irresistible show is an expertly crafted, well-oiled pleasure machine designed to make you feel exactly the way you want to feel at a musical: awed, tearful, warm of heart, slightly sheepish about loving it so much and grateful that everybody around you is cheering just as hard.
The season also will feature the world premiere of what the theater is calling the Broadway-bound comedy "Under My Skin" on Sept. 11, and a yet-to-be named "surprise production" set to open in March.
The musical based on the 1993 romantic comedy film "Sleepless in Seattle" was set to open June 12, but officials said the the project needed more time. The show -- which features a book by Jeff Arch, who wrote the original story and co-wrote the screenplay -- will open in June 2013.
Other works to be offered in the upcoming season are Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage’s "Intimate Apparel" (Nov. 6), the family-friendly "A Snow White Christmas" (Dec. 13) and Noël Coward’s comedy "Fallen Angels" (Jan. 29).
The historic playhouse closed for eight months in 2010 as it went in and out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Thanks to “Snow White,” in partnership with A Lythgoe Family Production, the new season marks the first expansion in two years. “We are hopeful this partnership … continues in future years with different shows every year," managing director Charles Dillingham said Friday.
“This is the second full subscription season since the bankruptcy, the first season was mostly pickup shows,” Dillingham said, adding that the Playhouse has increased subscribers by 10% since 2010. “We're in good financial health,” he said.
Subscriptions for the 2012-2013 season are available for purchase Friday; the five-show series ranges from $99 to $290.
-- Jamie Wetherbe
Above: Meg Ryan in the movie "Sleepless in Seattle." Credit: Bruce McBroom
A satanic figure slithers up onto the water tower of a mythical Mississippi town called Lake Belle Reve, takes in the family feud down below and utters a self-satisfied literary pronouncement that seems to sum up the dramatic intentions of this show’s famous authors.
“It’s Tennessee Williams in hell,” says this tattooed ring-meister character called the Shape. “I love it.”
It’s true. The Spanish moss fairly drips over “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” the new musical by Stephen King (book) and John Mellencamp (music and lyrics) that opened Wednesday night at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. These first-time musical theater writers are infatuated with the idea of the Southern Gothic.
There may be some gothic elements to the production itself. King and Mellencamp have been working on it for 12 years, having been paired by a mutual agent. The show was originally scheduled to premiere at the Alliance in 2009 but Mellencamp had disagreements with the director, so a new one, Susan V. Booth (who runs the Alliance), was brought aboard.
The story ricochets between 1967 and 2007. As a boy, central character Joe McCandless (Shuler Hensley) secretly witnessed his two brothers — and the girl they were fighting over — die. Forty years later, he fears his two warring sons may be headed for a similar fate. King's conceit is to have the ghosts of the past mingling with the real-time story. (And, in an instance of art imitating the life of its authors, one of the McCandless sons (Justin Guarini) wants to be a rock star, while the other (Lucas Kavner) has just sold his first novel for half a million dollars.)
The Shape (Jake La Botz) lives in a shadow world somewhere between a “True Blood” vampire king and the MC in “Cabaret.” The show's premise may be thin but he is slithering, salacious, manipulative, delightful.
New and recent plays by Lynn Nottage, Donald Margulies and Joanna Murray-Smith will be among the highlights of the Geffen Playhouse's 2012-13 season, which the company will announce on Friday. It will be the Geffen's first complete season since the death late last year of Gil Cates, the company's founder and producing director.
Leaders at the Geffen said that Cates had a lot of input into the new lineup -- he saw a production of Nottage's "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" in New York and invited the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright to present the West Coast premiere at the Geffen.
"Stark," a period comedy about an African American woman trying to make it in Hollywood as an actress, will kick off the Geffen's season, with an official opening set for Sept. 26 and running through Oct. 28. Nottage's play "Ruined" opened at the Geffen in 2010.
Nottage said in an interview that she thinks "Vera Stark" "has tremendous resonance for African American actresses who are still finding themselves excluded from a lot of the industry." She said the play is "about discovering how difficult it is to get into the film industry, and that one often makes compromised decisions."
HBO has bowed out of "Ruined," the planned screen adaptation of the acclaimed play by Lynn Nottage. The drama, set in a brothel in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, had been a joint project of HBO Films and Harpo Films, Oprah Winfrey's production company.
A spokeswoman at HBO said that it has passed on the project and that it is no longer in development there.
"Ruined" won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2009. The play follows the interactions between the workers of a brothel and male visitors who stop by to drink, talk and more. The drama has received productions at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
A spokesman for Harpo declined to comment when asked if the company is still actively working on the project. Nottage had been working on an adaptation of her play for the screen.
HBO has a track record of adapting award-winning plays for television, including Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," Margaret Edson's "Wit" and Donald Margulies' "Dinner with Friends."
-- David Ng
Photo: A scene from "Ruined," at the Geffen Playhouse in 2010. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times
Written by husband-and-wife team Lynn and Helen Root, “Man With the Pointed Toes” first saw light as a 1958 television production before premiering as a stage play at Glendale Centre Theatre in the mid-1960s. Now the play returns to the scene of its theatrical debut.
Historically speaking, that’s certainly heartwarming. Dramatically, it’s another story. Perhaps “Toes” was a rip-roarer back in its day, but it’s now a dusty velvet painting of a comedy with a paint-by-numbers plot that holds few surprises.
The story, in a chestnut shell, concerns Texas rancher Tom Coterel (Tommy Kearney), a new oil billionaire smitten by the purposefully seductive Pamela (Kelley Hurley). Out of his depth with Pamela, Tom hires bookwormish tutor Florence (Megan Blakeley) to smooth off his rough edges. Of course, as Florence successfully transforms Tom from a rube to a slicker, she falls in love with him. Will Tom realize just what a gem Florence is, or will he marry Pamela, a cubic zirconia in a gold-digger setting?
Elizabeth Sarnoff, a former writer and producer for “Lost” and “Deadwood” and a co-creator and former executive producer of “Alcatraz,” has written and directed a play, “Slow Dance in Midtown,” premiering at the Whitefire Theatre.
Once you get to know L.A.’s small-theater family, it’s easy to tell when the TV-land cousins are visiting: celebrities at the openings, complimentary cheeses, expensive sets! Here Tom Buderwitz and Andy Hammer’s lavishly detailed sports bar is a miracle of small-stage design, like a trompe l'oeil painting in 3-D, in its realism and illusion of depth. Sound designer Bruce Greenspan has situated the nameless dive firmly in Midtown Manhattan by playing a little snippet of city street noise each time the (unseen) door opens.
Yet it’s not clear whether the rich production quality grounds or distracts from Sarnoff’s strongly written, cerebral play — or really, plays: two one-acts whose connection becomes clear only at the end.