“Hey there—You there…Hello Again!” You don’t need to imagine a place (or a face) now that the folks at “The Chromolume Theatre” at “The Attic” in Los Angeles California have pulled-off another feat of brilliant and intriguing musical theater with the second offering in their vibrant 2017 season: Michael John LaChiusa’s “Hello Again”. Featuring a Book, Music & Lyrics by LaChiusa, this new staging is directed by Richard Van Slyke with choreography by Bretten M. Popiel (who also co-stars) and Musical Direction by Brenda Varda, who also serves as the on-stage piano accompanist. Based on Austrian Playwright Arthur Schnitzler’s controversial-for-the-time 1897 play “La Ronde” (literally translated as “Round Dance”,) this 1993 Off-Broadway stunner focuses on a series of love-affairs and carnal-encounters among ten characters taking place across the ten decades that comprised the 20th century, with the action unfolding through a series of ten brief, two-character vignettes. While there’s nothing blatant or really ‘overt” here, the subject matter remains fairly provocative—and definitely suggestive enough that this is primarily suited more to adults with more sophisticated theatrical palates. In fact, on opening night it was expressed that this was very different dramaturgical fare for “The Chromolume Theatre”, but still very exciting—and very exciting things most assuredly arise there before the footlights!
Performed sans intermission, aside from one or two “adaptations” for more modern tastes, LaChiusa’s book follows the structure of Schnitzler’s material closely, often replicating fragments of his dialogue, while detailing a daisy-chain of loving or lusty rendezvous—loosely connected by one character from the previous ‘liaison’ proceeding into the next, and so on. Unlike the original however, each tableau is set in a different decade of the 20th Century and takes place in non-chronological order, emblematically transporting the audience back and forth through time. Yet in playing with these various times, LaChiusa has been allowed a more abundant variety of musical styles, widely ranging from “Grand Opera” to 1940’s “Swing” to snippets of 1970’s “Disco” or “New Wave” from the 1980’s. In addition, while the score frequently evokes thoughts of the very best melodies by “Theater Giant”, Stephen Sondheim, the lyrics maintain a persistent ethereal quality, such as were our dreams to have “lyrics” these are what they’d sound like. What’s more, in that the songs contain much of the dialogue which propels the plot forward, many depend more upon ‘interpretation’ than overt ‘vocalization’ (much like the ‘recitative’ in an Opera.) Indeed, over and above the distinct costumes and dance-styles inherent to each, the changing times are astutely indicated by the style of music, often introduced by a singer or small group at the start of the new “chapter”.
Undoubtedly, this is an exceptional sort of musical, and dramatically, there’s quite a lot of very clever elements; Van Slyke’s fast-moving and fluidly-paced direction is infused with discerning little nods to the differing decades each romantic intrigue transpires in. He also inserts—sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly (now-and-then even bitingly so) plenty of insights regarding the nature of relationships—most notably when the heart and mind are over-ridden by the libido. Take for example, the interval involving the “Husband” and his “Young Wife”, during which he employs a shrewd “mirror” effect, that has the younger woman, feeling stifled and marginalized in her marriage, looking into a full-length dressing mirror, while an older actress on the opposite side serves as her reflection—sadly staring back. By the same token, Popiel’s choreography is itself siphoned out more in short but effective portions, helping to set and invigorate the divergent “periods” depicted. Interjected suddenly and often in the most unpredictable places, a good number of these moves are pretty stunning in their own right–like exhilarating little flickers of terpsichorean “Bullet Points” within the larger stage-picture.
Starring a steadfastly talented and attractive cast, the first outing involves “The Soldier” and “The Whore”, set circa 1917 with him being a “World War One” era “Doughboy” and she, a winsome street-walker who predominantly ‘plies her trade” by the river: “Hey there—where you goin’ Soldier? Don’t you know my face? Come and tell your sweetheart where you been?” she beckons. When he tries to brush her off by admitting he hasn’t got the money she retorts smoothly, “Who mentioned money? Who mentioned pay? Guys I like don’t have to pay—guys like you, they get it free; here by the river, everything’s free.” As “The Whore”, Michelle Holmes imbues her character with a sultry vocal delivery, and a unique likeability—excelling with the show’s title number “Hello, Again”. Her take on the character is also decidedly sympathetic as well. She’s not there to corrupt anybody, but rather is someone involved in admittedly more severe circumstances who tries to give everybody a little understanding—which she’s looking for herself, but it isn’t always reciprocated. Thus begins our first ‘encounter’, commencing as a polite waltz before hastily disintegrating into something far more salacious. Before they’re ‘done’ he slyly ‘confiscates’ her shiny diamond brooch (an object that will re-emerge throughout the various occurrences we’re treated to here.) Then, he takes off—without delay! “We may never be saying ‘Hello Again’…” she sighs forlornly, but he is gone—to his next ‘engagement’. Next stop—a 1940’s U.S.O. hall, as an “Andrew Sisters”—like trio (only with a “Brother” thrown in) establish this new milieu with a jivey “Hep-Cat” sound fitting for the new decade. The soldier from the previous —now dressed in the uniform of a World War Two G.I.–enters with a young (and much less ‘worldly’) nurse, played with wide-eyed sincerity and enthusiasm by Allison Lind. “I’m shipping out tomorrow,” he croons to her “Don’t you want to give a lonely soldier something to remember you by?” Her idealistic pensive handling of her part in their musicalized ‘dialogue, “Kiss Me” is poignant and authentically personal: “You’re gonna write me from Paris aren’t ya?” she asks him before dolefully entreating, “Couldn’t you at least say you liked me?” Also striking all the right chords as “The Soldier”—in both periods—is Cesar Cipriano. With a strong commanding undertone to his voice (not to mention just as strong a ‘thrust’ amidst his earlier ‘tete-a-tete’!) He dazzles with “I Got A Little Time” which he capably conveys this swift-paced “scat” song so popular back in those days renowned for zoot-suits, ration-books, “Rosie The Riveter” and “Fibber McGee”. Shortly after, both Cipriano and Lind ‘cut an outstanding rug” Jitter-bug style, as Cipriano deftly demonstrates that he’s packing some markedly debonair dance-steps to boot, while they’re serenaded “40’s style” by a quintet of “dudes” and ‘dolls” a ’la such “Big-Band” groups like “The Modernaires”.
Jump forward to the 1960’s—Vietnam is the war on everybody’s mind we’re told, and there we find the nurse, a little less naïve, attending to a “College Boy”, portrayed by Bretten M. Popiel who hilariously paints him as both a first-class whiner and an all-around weasel—particularly when it comes to women. The spoiled scion of a wealthy family who needn’t worry about nasty things like the National Draft (he has his student deferment after all) he also has this cute, flirtatious nurse to “look after” his various ‘needs’. “This sprained ankle is just awful!” he moans “I’ll never play tennis again!” Yet, now it’s HIS turn to show how unversed he is relative to the opposite sex, first trying to discuss the works of Stendhal with her before asking coyly “Do you think I look like Bobby Kennedy?” This is when we discover that the nurse—who was pursued in the previous episode, is now the hot-blooded pursuer: “They don’t teach THIS in nursing school” she exhorts mid (pantomimed) coitus (after a few ‘failed and flaccid’ attempts’ on his part.) Thereupon, his mind blown and his world obviously rocked, he clumsily pants “Love is terribly confusing…isn’t it?!” Then, it’s a flashback to the depression-era of the 1930’s in the back-row of a local picture-show. The boy (properly clad in drab depression-era attire) is working on setting up an assignation with a young married woman. In one of the production’s funniest and most outrageous installments, Sarah Randall Hunt shines as “The Young Wife”—garnering big laughs over the course of her session with Popiel, and sympathy when subsequently interacting with Corey Rieger as her more ‘mature’ “Husband”. “I’m morally bankrupt!” she trills nervously “—and I hate Ginger Rogers! I think I’m dying!” This, before she leans down behind the tactful concealment of some well-placed theatre-seats, right beside her eager young suitor! It’s a boisterous and bawdy scene—and one rife with humongous laughs, especially after she sits up again with her comically smudged lipstick and reproachfully disheveled hair.
We then follow her to the 1950’s wherein we also make the acquaintance of her stern “Husband” (earlier described as “A bore—and he’s stuffy, and he’s old!”) as the couple prepare for a night out at the opera, even if she’d rather stay home and watch “Uncle Milty” on their new ‘television’ set. As “The Husband”, Corey Rieger is also a powerful stage-presence boasting a large, commanding voice. His character is comparably one of the very best developed in the entire show. (Picture him as something like a slightly younger “Mr. Mooney” from the classic “Lucy Show” sitcom–with all the tepid sensuality that might conjure!) Reminding her that he has a long business trip to London scheduled, their conversation turns to his considerable ‘worldliness”–specifically, his experiences with women before the two were married. Asked why she wants to know, she evasively admits that one of her ‘friends” is having an affair with a college boy. Instantly scornful, he demands she distance herself from “That kind of woman”, waxing philosophical about the “evils of the world” and how marriage should be the one institution that ‘protects us’ from such temptations. “If I hadn’t met you, God knows where I’d be!” he declares (rather portentously.) Afterward, clad in a rumpled slip and house-slippers (–and of course, every 50’s housewives obligatory string of pearls,) her desolate solo is an irrefutable highlight of the show, also illustrating the depth of LaChiusa’s lyrics: “What’s better is what would have been; what’s sweeter is what would have been,” she ponders “…the greatest of adventures of my life. I can’t remember my husband’s name. I can’t remember my lover’s name–but I can remember what would have been.”
In the wake of this, we return to the early part of the century—1912 to be exact. In a state-room of an infamous luxury-liner, we learn that the husband, having finished his business in London is now heading back to New York. In the meantime though, he’s turned his attention to a different kind of ‘business’—one involving a handsome young male “third-class’ passenger from steerage, referred to as “The Young Thing”. “What’s the rush?” the lad queries’ his eager host as they execute a playful pre-dinner Tango; “Let’s not go overboard! Don’t forget you’re a Gentlemen–and I’m a Catholic!” Once word comes of an emergency on ship, it’s apparent that “Hubby” is still more eager for a little play time with his new friend before the entire ship ‘goes down” (leaving neither of them able to!) Nonetheless, the next time we see this “Young Thing” he’s in New York City once more, in the Bicentennial year of 1976 at a mod, uber-fashionable Disco not unlike “Studio 54”. While the ensemble is doin’ the Hustle and generally “Boogie-ing Down” with all the good vibrations, there he meets “The Writer” (played by Joe Hernandez-Kolski,) who has the odd habit of seeing the world as a giant screenplay (that he, himself has written, naturally!) “Don’t we all need something? Anything that will quench our thirst for Beauty and end our search for Happiness?” the elder man asks him; “A beer’s fine” he answers dryly. Quickly claiming this good-looking kid is his “Angel” and newfound “muse”, Cut to: Later, home…futon, candles, incense and reefer…” they lose no time “getting down (and getting off) with their baddest selves”. As the euphemistically monikered “Young Thing”, Kevin Corsini is a fittingly fresh-faced, handsome and genial manifestation on stage. His melodic “Somewhere Safe” is terrifically sung and given a lush, soulful interpretation, which easily earns his character our admiration and sympathy. His one-night stand with the writer culminates in a beautiful duet, “The One I Love” spotlighting some equally lavish harmonizing making for a substantial triumph for both men. Then, its “Lights Down” and ‘Fade Out” on our time in “The Me Decade”.
The 1920’s are then represented in one of the production’s most innovative sequences. Likewise, more than with his previous “Illicit meeting”, this time around, Hernandez-Kolski expertly demonstrates some laudable comedic skills too, as his character is revealed to be a pan-sexual Lothario (in his own mind at least!) Orchestrated as an elaborate living “Silent Movie”—complete with the title-cards flashed up on a small film-screen at the side of the stage, “The Writer” completely “stages” and directs his desired (and perhaps completely imagined) tryst with “The Actress”—a stunningly dressed screen “siren” who mouths his dialogue while he narrates both her ‘lines’ and actions along with his. Although shorter than most of the prior acts, this is certainly among the most unforgettable! As “The Actress”, Tal Fox does a luminous job–initially functioning as more of a statuesque fantasy-figure, but immediately following, she proves that her capabilities extend way beyond just a fine-figure and gorgeous (if mute) expression. Her rapid-fire number in the ensuing interlude—set in the 1980’s, titled “Mistress Of The Senator” is nothing short of awesome as she dreams of a much more significant “part” she hopes to soon play: “I look good in Red or White or Blue—I’ll be friendly to Republicans too!” Later, she further gushes over the thought of someday even becoming “First Lady” herself: “I’ll play ‘Jackie’ better than ‘Jackie’ did—and not need the hat!” As that “Senator”, Emmy Award Winning Actor, Michael Corbett bestows on us a more world-weary than overtly ambitious “Man of the People”, but one who’s genial, evincing an empathetic kind of charisma, that’s accentuated by boyish, middle-American looks and a thoroughly top-notch voice! (Moreover, be sure to note his white dress-shirt and red-necktie: remind you of anybody?!)
The final scenario injects an element of surreality–seeming to reach across time from the present (or at least 1993) to the past, as “The Senator” awakens from a drunken-haze after leaving “The Actress” behind, only to find himself in the rooms of that same “Lady Of The Evening” whom we first met in the show’s inaugural segment.
Although it strangely looks as if he’s still in the 1990’s with contemporary clothes and a cell phone, on just the other side of the room a scant few feet away, we get the impression that she continues to be very much entrenched in her earlier time-period. Naturally, he’s left even more confused by this anachronistic and phantastic perception, but it’s here that Corbett sums up all we, as the audience, have been through with his elegant rendition of the meditative descant, “The Bed Was Not My Own”: “Sleep Angel, don’t wake up—I am in your dream; Sleep Lover, don’t wake up…or else our dream is done.” Attempting to be understanding and to calm him, she gently reprises the title tune, which (at last) gives her some sense of dignity lacking her first appearance, making for an unexpectedly “Feel-Good” conclusion where all has truly been brought full-circle.
Lauren J. Peters imaginative but pragmatic Set Design consists of a series of “Art Deco” flats speckled with multi-colored geometric designs, which serve as the backdrop for each of the goings-on, which enable appropriate set-pieces (a bed here, a table there—even some movie-theater seats at one point) to roll on and off as required. Richard Fong’s lighting design is just as efficient while occasionally leaving room for a few genuinely adroit surprises like projections (as in the old-fashioned “Silent Movie” section.) Both of these are complimented by Ovation Award Winner, Michael Mullen’s sassy and chic costumes which go a long way in affirming the times and places. Among the items he uses to formidable effect are such snazzy garb as 1920’s “Great Gatsby-esque” pastel flapper dresses with matching “Cloche Hats”, or stately Edwardian inspired evening wear which so typified the “Belle Epoch” of the Turn-Of-The Century”; onto 1940’s era vintage G.I. Dress Uniforms, then onto more ‘current’ wear like 1970’s Polyester shirts and “Bell-Bottom” trousers or classic 80’s vinyl jackets in jolting red and black.
So “Zei Gezent”: be well and happy”—and catch “Hello Again” at “The Chromolume Theatre” at “The Attic”, located at 5429 W. Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. Having opened on Friday, May 5th, “Hello Again” is slated to play through Sunday, May 28th 2017. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Sunday performances at 7:00 PM. Tickets may be purchase online at http://www.crtheatre.com , or by calling (323) 205-1617.
Production Stills By James Esposito, Courtesy of Ken Werther At “Ken Werther Publicity” (www.Kenwerther.com) And “The Chromolume Theatre”; Special Thanks To James Esposito, Ken Werther, Lauren J. Peters, Richard Van Slyke, Brenda Varda, Bretten M. Popiel, And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Chromolume Theatre’s” 2017 Production Of Michael John LaChiusa’s “Hello Again” For Making This Story Possible.