One is a modern updating of a classic comedy; the other is a classic bit of Americana, and, having each opened over Valentine’s Day weekend, you can bet there’s romance, songs, and music aplenty throughout Southern California! The West Coast Premiere of “Lysistrata Jones” marks the inaugural production of the Chance Theater’s impressive new 150 seat theater, while Musical Theater West at Long Beach’s Carpenter Center For The Performing Arts welcomed in a new production of Meredith Willson’s Tony Award-winning, “The Music Man”! Both are two enchanting shows worthy of completely losing yourself in.
Loosely inspired by Aristophanes’ classic play, “Lysistrata Jones” kicks off The Chance’s 16th triumphant season. Set in and around a large basketball court appropriately decked with Greco-Roman designs (The team is called “The Spartans” after all,) the entire concept is as unique as it is clever—think “High School Musical” with a decidedly ‘adult’ twist. Magnificently realized, the hilarious dialogue and upbeat score from Tony nominated playwright Douglas Carter Beane and Lewis Flinn has been described as “an electric combination of “Mean Girls”, “Glee” and “Pitch Perfect”. Rest assured, just because the action is all set at college—this one is anything but sophomoric!)
When the action begins we learn that Athens University has a problem…its basketball team is in the midst of a thirty-year losing streak, so new transfer student Lysistrata (aka “Lyssie J.) decides to form cheerleading squad comprised of the girlfriends of the team’s players; (“Losing every single time? That’s no way to live!” she tells Mick, the team Captain and her main squeeze; “you’ve got to shine—you’ve got to live up to your potential…the time has come to finally win!”) Yet, when that does little to affect the outcome of their games, much like her famous namesake, our Lysistrata launches “a sex-jihad” and she’s even read the “Spark Notes on the original play (unabridged yet!) convincing her girl-power posse to cease “giving it up” to their basketball-playing boyfriends until they win a game.
Soon the guys are ‘harder that long division” and a comedic battle of the sexes has begun. The opening salvo is titled “Right Now” which introduces the cast and effectively sets up this basic plot; “Lay Low”, the boys’ counterpoint to the girls’ embargo on ‘doin’ the deed’ is equally as catchy. Act Two presents the cast in all their various dilemmas—couples broken up, with new ones yet to form, so the boys turn to visit the Madame at the local brothel. She in turn sets them up with their girlfriends—in disguise. When push comes to shove the guys realize that they crave something deeper than just momentary carnal gratification, and by the final curtain, not only have the broken their losing streak, the boys have all matured into to respectful men, sensitive to the needs of their ladies, (or in the case of two of the guys, each other–) and our Heroine not only saves the day, she’s also gained a new stronger perspective on herself and relationships in general.
In the title role, Devon Hadsell is sweet-voiced and radiates a wholesome kind of All-American exuberance that has us rooting for her right from the very start—we know right from the get-go she’s going to achieve her goals one way or another “No matter how hard, no matter how long!” (–yeah, the script is loaded with plenty of such ‘piquant’ double entendres like that.) Her Act One final soliloquy, “Where Am I Now” is excellent, really showing Ms. Hadsell ability to deliver a song that’s both heartfelt, intimate and powerful at the same time! Camryn Zelinger is Hettaira, the omnipresent narrator who both comments on, and guides the action kind of like a latter-day ‘Nike’–the Greek spirit of Victory; that is until she is called upon to actual participate in the story as “Madame Hettaira”—the proprietress of the local brothel who ‘advises’ the girls how to up their game and ultimately win their men. Her number, “I don’t think so”, an ode to ‘teasing with no intention of pleasing’ is her shining moment in a series of shining moments.
The Athens “Spartans” are Uardo (Michael Dashefsky), Tyllis (Darian Archie), Cinesias (Jackson Tobiska), and Harold (Ricky Wagner). Led by J.D. Driskill as Mick, the Captain of the Basketball team and initially Lysistrata’s main squeeze, Driskill’s great moment occurs in the second act with his impressive solo turn, “When She Smiles” which at last allows J.D. to let loose with some pretty impressive vocal power himself. Likewise, the names of Lyssie’s cheerleaders all cleverly reference Aristophanes’ own original characters (but again with a 21st Century twist.) They are Klarissa Mesee as Lampito, Danielle Rosario as Cleonice and Chelsea Baldree as Myrrine. Lyssie also persuades a poetry loving librarian-work study student turned activist named Robin and a left-leaning blogger named Xander to join her “just say no crusade” as well. As Robin, Ashley Arlene Nelson also has an A-Plus voice, which she amply reveals in her duet with Ms. Hadsell, titled “Just Once”. As Xander, the sensitive intellectual, who reluctantly becomes the team’s new mascot, (and ultimately, Lyssie’s surprise soul-mate,) Robert Wallace also does a fine job standing out in what could be a too easily overlooked role. “You’re onto something great—something mighty” he assures our heroine. Their shared anthem to perseverance, “Hold-On” is a bona-fide showstopper, and his clever, rapid-fire delivery as the start of the “Right Now Operetta (It’s A Little Like)” demonstrates he’s got some pretty dexterous vocal chops too!
Kari Hayter marks her first time directing at “The Chance” and it’s a pretty impressive debut. She makes terrific use of the entire space and keeps the action going at a firm pace, but not so fast that the more intimate moments don’t receive their full due. Choreographed by Chance Theater Resident Artist, Kelly Todd, her choreography is athletic, utilizing a lot of movement in unison and modern dance steps and gyrations, adding a surprising element of grace to all the goings on. Even the all toga-clad curtain call rocks! When is the last time that there’s been a smart, snappy sex-farce in local theater? Happily thanks to the right-on fast-moving treatment this little treasure of show has gotten from the Chance Theater, that time is “right now”!
Likewise, Musical Theatre West presents the second production of their own incredible 61st season: Davis Gaines (Los Angeles’ longest-running ‘Phantom’ in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of The Opera”) starring as Professor Harold Hill along with Gail Bennett as Librarian, Marian Paroo in Meredith Willson’s joyous classic, “The Music Man”. The applause comes fast, furious and frequent here, and for good cause–few shows are as downright likeable as this one is, and this is one thoroughly likeable production! With book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson, the story is based on one by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey.
Set in the year 1912, it all starts on a train. After making an unexpected stop-over in River-city Iowa, Con-man Harold Hill promises to create a boys’ band in order to “keep the young ones moral afterschool” once a pool table has popped up at the local Billiard Parlour. Hill, you see is the purveyor of “the Think System” of music instruction which requires no actual practice or need for learning to read music, and his persuasive patter in selling his scheme (along with the instruments and uniforms) fools everyone except the town librarian. With this show, Writer-Composer Willson managed to find and capitalize on the music found in the rhythms of everyday life which he spotlights in many of the Musical numbers that absolutely invigorate his ground-breaking score (“Rock Island” and the immortal “Trouble In River City” may just be the very first rap-songs ever heard on Broadway!) Included are the standards “Goodnight, My Someone,” “Seventy-Six Trombones,”, “Pick-a-little, Talk-a-little” and “Till There Was You.” In fact, few shows can boast a score in which every song is memorable, and many of these ditties will be merrily playing in your head long after the final curtain has been wrung.
Gaines does a remarkable job as that “spellbinding cymbal salesman” Professor Harold Hill, and Bennett matches him step-for-step, note-for-note as “Marian The Librarian”. Gaines is a familiar face to MTW’s audiences having assayed roles as disparate as King Arthur in the company’s “Spamalot” to Don Quixote in “Man Of La Mancha” and silent movie pioneer, Mack Sennett in last year’s concert production of “Mack And Mabel”. As expected, he excels in “Trouble” providing the needed fireworks there and throughout, but his performance overall is natural and nuanced making Hill likeable and more importantly—believable, regardless of the yarns he’s spinning. So too, Bennett’s ‘Marian’ doesn’t just shine-she incandesces—and oh, what a voice! Her duet with young Maggie Balleweg as ‘Amaryllis’, is spot-on providing a glimpse of the numerous vocal delights she’ll be providing later on. Fortunately one doesn’t have to wait too long as her solo, “My White Knight” is positively mesmerizing. To top it off, Gaines and Bennett make for a lovely and tuneful on-stage pairing and together, their “Til There Was You” (the song that practically defines a great “eleven o’clock number,) is definitely worth waiting for!
Upon the curtain’s rise, one is immediately taken with the vibrant colors employed in the sets and costumes, and how the younger members of the cast are well utilized–particularly in the big “Seventy-Six Trombones” number which here, rates a standing ovation all its own. Seasoned actor Joey D’Auria as Mayor Shinn provides a powder-keg of bluster which explodes into some big laughs, and there is nothing ‘rrrrrr-reticent” about Rebecca Spencer’s portrayal of his wife Eulalie; she’s a larger than life handful of hilarity, offering a slightly more sympathetic take on “River-city’s First Lady”. Christian Villanueva as Tommy Djilas and Ashley Anderson as Zaneeta Shinn also adeptly make their characters refreshingly original and completely their own (–and both have the expert terpsichorean moves to match!) Moreover, Kevin Ciardelli as Marian’s shy little brother, Winthrop Paroo, similarly makes him more believable than the caricature he’s often seen as. He too, can effectively ‘sell’ a song as well as the older members of the cast and he does so laudably with “Gary, Indiana”.
John Todd’s effervescent choreography is pretty near awe-inspiring, frequently incorporating acrobatic moves in with traditional ballet or Irish folk dances with a few good old-fashioned vaudeville flourishes to boot! All of the dances are vigorous but graceful–even at times, lyrical–filled with plenty of “Did-you-just-see-that” moves, making what could be run-of-the-mill production numbers rise to the level of magic one goes to theater for. Standouts include The “Marian The Librarian” number, as well as the Act II rouser, “Shipoopi”. Jeff Maynard’s direction is fast-paced and flowing packing an evening’s worth of entertainment into what seems like a scant two hours. Then again, what he’s created here is a crisper, cleaner production than what may have been seen in recent times. His innovative staging breathes fresh new life into this old favorite, and he fore-goes the overly splashy, dream-like conclusion of the film for one that’s subtler and more genuine but every bit as fulfilling. On opening night however, audiences were treated to an additional thrill, when at the show’s close, members of the Tetzlaff Trojan Band and Color Guard emerged from the wings to serenade those in attendance with a rousing reprise of “Seventy-Six Trombones” as only a large brass band can, making for one of the most stirring finale’s in MTW history.
Having opened Saturday, February 15th the show runs through Sunday, March 9th with performances Friday evenings at 8:00 PM, Saturdays at 3:00PM and 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. The Chance Theater is located at its new home at: 5522 E. La Palma Avenue, Anaheim, CA. Tickets may be obtained by calling the box office at (714) 777-3033 or on-line at www.ChanceTheater.com ; In addition, after previewing on Friday, February 14th , “The Music Man” also opened on Saturday, February 15th where it will perform for three weeks through Sunday, March 2nd at The Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, located at 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach on the campus of California State University, Long Beach. Show-times are: Thursday and Friday evenings at 8:00pm; Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm. There will be an additional Sunday evening performance on February 23 at 7:00 PM, and all tickets are available by calling the Box Office at 562-856-1999 – Ext. 4; in person at the MTW Box Office located at 4350 E 7th Street, Long Beach, or online at www.musical.org.. Box Office hours are 12:00 PM – 6:00 PM Tuesday through Saturday (Group Discounts are available for parties of 12 or more can be had by calling the Group Sales Department at 562-856-1999 ex 222.)
“Lysistrata Jones” Photos by Thamer Bajjali, “True Image Studio”, Courtesy of “The Chance Theater”; “The Music Man” Photos by “Caught In The Moment” Photography, Courtesy of David Elzer at Demand PR (www.DemandPR.com) Special Thanks To Casey Long at “The Chance Theater”, David Elzer and Doug Clayton at Demand PR, Dayna Perotin, and to the casts and crews of “Lysistrata Jones” at “The Chance Theater” and Musical Theater West’s “The Music Man” For making this story possible.