Monday, December 15, 2014

CABARET review - Laura Dickinson

On Monday, December 15 exciting singer Laura Dickinson brought her CD release party One For My Baby to Upstairs at Vitello's. It was a packed house and Dickinson, needless to say, blew the roof off the joint with her dynamic delivery, oozing charm and warmth from every pore. Not only is she beautiful, but oh so terribly engaging as she grabs hold of you and won't let go. Her special guest Mel Collins, who opened the show, called her 'masterful'; I'll go a step further and add 'captivating and spellbinding'. She's a singer to be reckoned with!

The evening was actually divided into two parts. Act I was a round of Christmas music, then a break, followed by Act II, where Dickinson sang most of the album, live. Two shows for the price of one! Backed by a 10-piece orchestra of expert musicians led by musical director Randy Kerber, Dickinson rocked for over two hours, exuding joy and holiday cheer.
Highlights on tap in the Holiday section included: "Happy Holidays", "The Man with the Bag", "Marshmallow World", The Christmas Song", "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm", "Let It Snow", "This Christmas", a medley from White Christmas and "O Holy Night". Before the second set, Collins, who has a really powerful voice, essayed, backed by three fine singers "Jingle Bells" and "The Little Drummer Boy". In the second set, Dickinson sang "When You Wish Upon a Star", "Shining Star", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and nine of the 15 songs from her album including: "Come Fly with Me", "Tender Trap", "The Best Is Yet to Come", "I'm Gonna Live 'Til I Die" and the title song "One for My Baby". This album is a tribute to the music of Frank Sinatra, whom Dickinson adores. In fact, she released the album on Sinatra's birthday December 12. Keeping traditional music alive and trying to put a fresh spin on it, as you bring it on into the 21st century is not an easy task, but by means of her beautiful arrangements and sensational voice, Dickinson has indeed succeeded and should have one great big hit on her hands.

Dickinson's musicians were all stellar and included: Ray Brinker, Trey Henry, Randy Kerber, Andrew Synowiec, Brian Scanlon, Kye Palmer, Vince Trombetta, Dan Fornero, Terry Landry and Jim McMillen. 

To buy the album, go to iTunes or There is also a single of "Happy Holidays" available for $.99; this was newly recorded and from her second forthcoming Christmas album (to be released in 2015).

Friday, December 12, 2014

review - Blithe Spirit

Blithe Spirit
by Noel Coward
directed by Michael Blakemore
Ahmanson Theatre
through January 18

Noel Coward wrote in a song, "If love were all, I should be lonely", declaring the impossibility of romantic love. He continued this theme onstage in Private Lives, and on screen in Brief Encounter and once again in his most produced play internationally Blithe Spirit, now onstage in a sterling production at the Ahmanson through January 18, and starring the one and only Angela Lansbury.

Assuredly an ageless actress of great dimension, Lansbury has portrayed loony grand dames through the years better than the Madwoman of Chaillot in the musical Dear World, crazy Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, a crazed egomaniacal actress in the film Death on the Nile and also the mad mother from hell in The Manchurian Candidate. Is it any wonder that she can portray convincingly the bizarre eccentric Madame Arcati in Coward's Blithe Spirit? At this stage of her career, she owns the role.

As to the plotline, there is speculation at the Condomine house about Arcati's background and just how authentic a medium she may be. Writer Charles Condomine (Charles Edwards) is developing a project on the seance and invites her to perform one so that he may observe every detail. His wife Ruth (Charlotte Parry) is somewhat supportive but friends Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Simon Jones and Sandra Shipley) are curious skeptics; Arcati sees right through them at the onset, providing some delicious moments of comical put-down. Yes, Arcati believes in the afterlife and enjoys her work, taking it very seriously. As to her effectiveness?

Well, during the course of the seance, a spirit does materialize, that of Elvira (Jemima Rooper), Charles' first wife. It seems that Elvira died young and whether it is Charles who has conjured her up out of longing or it is she who wills passing over to be with him, her sudden appearance causes chaos, upsetting Ruth to no end. Only Charles can see Elvira and must convince Ruth that she is there by having her move a vase to the mantel. The whole comedic scenario with the ghostly presence creating upheaval and mistrust in an effort to break up the marriage is great fun. Elvira is pretty, overtly sexy and devilishly incorrigible, as opposed to straight-laced, more matronly Ruth, so one can understand Charles' attraction to her. It's Amanda and Elyot from Private Lives all over again, as Elyot begins anew with second wife Sybil, and Amanda comes between them. What does it all prove? In Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, romantic love fades fast. There is no guarantee that a marital or love relationship will last.

The entire ensemble shine under Michael Blakemore's superb direction. Lansbury is magnificently energetic, quick and dotty... focused at every split second. It would behoove young actresses to take a look to see how it is done. She gives a master class in comedic character acting. Edwards is sensational as Condomine, especially in his moments of befuddlement and exasperation. Parry is appropriately put upon, and Rooper is sheer delight as Elvira, pulling out all the stops and having a deviously good time. Susan Louis O'Connor is another standout as dim-witted maid Edith, who creates catastrophe just carrying a tray. What a scream! Coward has always had great fun creating servants.

Simon Higlett provides a lovely set design of the elegant Condoimine country house, and Martin Pakledinaz has designed some quite stunning outfits for Miss Lansbury.

Music intervals of Noel Coward songs are blessed with Christine Ebersole's wonderful voice from her album Christine Ebersole Sings Noel Coward. Irving Berlin's "Always" is heard more than once - ironically conveying the opposite view of loving.

Overall, this is a more than savory representation of Coward's Blithe Spirit. When one thinks of Coward, wit automatically comes to mind, but under the comedic layers there is a message about love and relationships that comes across strong and clear in this production. Don't miss it through January 18!

5 out of 5 stars

review - The Snow QUEEN

The Snow QUEEN
based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson/music by Queen
The Troubadour Theatre Company
directed by Matt Walker
Falcon Theatre
through January 18

The Troubies' annual Christmas show is a surefire sellout and the most anticipated Falcon show of the season. This year Matt Walker and his merry band have chosen a lesser known story The Snow QUEEN by Hans Christian Anderson and mixed it with the music of - who else? - QUEEN. It's a slick, tightly staged romp with lots of star spots for Walker himself as narrator and also on stilts, Beth Kennedy - in two very distinct and funny character roles, Rick Batalla, chewing up the scenery as always, also in two roles and Lisa Valenzuela singing her heart out in more than one role. Ever resourceful actress/singer Misty Cotton joins the group this year as Gerda, and she's a perfect fit. If her improv skills are not as perfect as those of the Troubies, you'd never know it for she sails along and enjoys the ride at each and every twist and turn, also singing the bejesus out of every number.

Anderson's The Snow Queen emphasized more evil than the Troubies do, showing the Snow Queen (John Quale) as a campy and stylish drag queen, which is great for laughs and does not take anything away from Gerda's sweet rescue of her friend Kai (Joseph Keane). But the 'distorted' view of everything is in full focus from the beginning like the narrator's facetious appraisal of what really exists between them - are they just playmates? - again bringing a smile to our face and not letting us take anything too seriously. And there are plenty of sick jokes to keep us happy, like the one about Bill Cosby's supposed sexual antics or the chaos of Peter Pan Live! or  Kennedy' s muff jokes as the Old Woman. I especially enjoyed one from her about her wig. "OK, I'm into the woods to give Meryl Streep back her wig." Batalla's Raven is a real hoot particularly when he takes it right on into the audience and puts someone's head in the creature's mouth. Yes, the Troubies do go all the way for their art; well...pretty far; it may border on crass but is never out and out obscene.
All the great songs of Queen are presented including: "She's a Chiller", "Somebody to Love" in full gospel style, "Ooo, He Makes Me Live", "This Thing Called Love", "Don't Go Crazy", "Another One Bites the Dust". "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions", to name but a few. It's great to see the band onstage with musical director Eric Heinly, actually incorporating them into the plot in a couple of scenes. Great singing from the entire cast with standouts the aforementioned Cotton and John Quale in the delicious interp of the title role. Love that ice blue lipstick!

Once again, the show is sheer delight with kudos to the entire company and creative team. Go, go, go to The Snow Queen until January 18 at the Falcon!

5 out of 5 stars

review - Sleeping Beauty and her Winter Knight

Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight
written by Kris Lythgoe
directed by Bonnie Lythgoe
Pasadena Playhouse
through January 4, 2015

For the last few years the uber talented Lythgoe family have been entertaining us at Christmastime, first at the El Portal in NoHo and now at the Pasadena Playhouse with a British style pantoA panto is an interactive entertainment that starts with a very contemporary retelling of a fairy tale such as Snow White, Cinderella, or in this case Sleeping Beauty and turns it into a fun imaginative show with music that will appeal to both children and their parents. There's usually an actor in drag (outrageous David Engel as Nanny Tickle, Aurora's nanny), a villain or villainess (Lucy Lawless as Carabosse))... and audience are encouraged to root for the heroes and HISS loudly at the villains. Lawless tries to sway and seize control over the audience by singing  "One Way or Another", after which kids and adults boo and boo some more. At an appropriate time they raise up glow torches to help light the way for our favorite heros right on through the palace walls to rescue the Prince. It's all in amusement, of course, and this year's Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight is enormous fun with a dynamite cast and some spectacular dancing and singing... and, first and foremost, an overall enjoyably good script by Kris Lythgoe that flows along without a flaw.

With a lovely set design by Ian Wilson and beautiful costumes by Albermarle Productions, the PP stage sparkles with wintry beauty. Director Bonnie Lythgoe guides her entire ensemble of adults and children with grace and love and choreographer Spencer Liff has them dancing their tushes off. The cast is a glorious team. Olivia Holt is an adorable Aurora, Princess of Pasadena; Garrett Clayton is her handsome Prince of Alhambra. Both sing, dance and romance divinely in spite of the odds thrown at them mainly by  the wicked Carabosse. Lawless is not only a lovely creature but proves herself an expert comic actress with just the right amount of dishy sarcasm and also sings the hell out of her perilous "One Way or Another". Patrick Cassidy makes a sturdy King of Pasadena. David Engel is a deliciously charming and caring Nanny Tickle - he's a natural in a dress, and Ben Giroux gives us plenty to laugh about as clownish Silly Billy. Tamyra Gray is a kind and sweet Good Fairy, and all the dancers and Kids (Silver and Blue Teams; the Blue Team performed on the 11th, opening night) are sensational.

There are some great rock 'n roll hit tunes afloat like "Footloose", "Eye of the Tiger", "Happy Together"and of course, "One Way or Another" to delight you, especially with the amazing Michael Orland conducting the orchestra, so run to get tix, as most of these shows will sell out fast. Bring the kids of all ages, and in the courtyard there's Santa, and some games and painting activities to enthrall them before curtain time....and snow...yep, inside and out, after the show! Sleeping Beauty is a really delectable Christmas confection.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, December 8, 2014

CABARET review - Kritzerland Kristmas 2014

On Sunday December 7, Kritzerland presented its 52nd show Kritzerland Christmas III at Sterling's Upstairs at the Federal to a packed audience enthusiastic for a dose of  Christmas cheer.

The cast of fantastic singers included Kim Huber, Robert Yacko, Madison Claire Parks, Roger Befeler, special guest Jason Graae, and young singers Sami and Sarah Staitman, Brennley Brown, Paige Befeler and 10 year-old Hadley Belle Miller.  Virtuoso pianist James Lent served as musical director for the 75-minute event headed up by host Bruce Kimmel, who was in especially good form about to celebrate a birthday on December 8.

As in all shows there are some tunes less familiar, but in this particular show most were resounding hits like "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas", sung by wonderful tenor Robert Yacko, "Let It Snow" done justice by Sarah Staitman, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" sung nicely by Kimmel himself substituting for Guy Haines, a distinctive "O Holy Night" sung memorably by young up and comer Brennley Brown, Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" beautifully delivered by the exquisite Kim Huber, "Count Your Blessings" from White Christmas delivered with loving care by fine tenor Roger Befeler, a rousing combo of "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" performed by 14 year-old Paige Befeler, daughter of Kim Huber and Roger Befeler, and a colorful closing combo of "Happy Holidays" and "White Christmas" sung ever so gorgeously by Maddy Parks.
the Befelers; husband/father Roger, daughter Paige and wife/mother Kim Huber

Of the lesser known variety there was a delicious "My Simple Christmas Wish" sung with overabundant spunk by Sami Staitman, and "That Man Over There is Santa Claus" from Here's Love sung adorably by 10 year- old Hadley Belle Miller, who has just been cast in the new Peanuts movie as the voice of Lucy.

Consummate comic singer Jason Graae bought lots of laughs in a slow ballad version of "Turkey Lurkey Time", usually delivered in fast, fast tempo from Promises, Promises, coupled with "My All-Purpose Christmas Carol" paying tribute to every December holiday on the planet. Fun turn as always!

In the finale, as well as audience participation with "Jingle Bells", James Lent played a jazzy, souped-up version of "Happy Birthday" for Kimmel, with the entire cast singing, wearing hats and blowing horns. It was an exceedingly entertaining evening and clearly a great time was had by all.

Be sure to join Kritzerland for their first show of 2015 this time on a Monday January 12, featuring all young performers. Reservations are a must: 818-754-8700:

Sunday, December 7, 2014

CD review - Songs for a Winter's Night

Few singers have the expertly unique phrasing or deeply felt emotional delivery of Ellen Greene. She is a one.of.a.kind first class gem and after 10 long years, has finally released a second CD entitled Songs for a Winter's Night with her terrific musical partner Christian Klikovits at the piano. Fans of Greene will remember that in 2004 they collaborated on her first solo album the evocative In His Eyes.

Unlike the first recording, Songs for a Winter's Night is by and large a Christmas album with delicious renditions of holiday favorites like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and some lesser known tunes like the title "Song for a Winter's Night". Greene did a Christmas concert with the GMCLA of Washington a couple of years back, and the concept for the album arose from that appearance. Is there a similarity between the two albums? If so, it would have to be the use of singularly beautiful arrangements and the bold unexpected choice of certain pieces, which deserve to be heard during this or any other exciting season of the year.

Highlights of Songs include; Greene's delightfully kittenish interp of "Santa Baby", the childlike "Christmas Time Is Here" from You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, "Silent Night" with a lovely German translation "Stille Nacht" and a very unusual combo of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" with "Let It Be Me". Leave it to Greene to come up with a different way of singing the traditional tune and the latter flows into the other just perfectly. On the hymn side of the coin, there's also a lilting "Angels We Have Heard On High" and on the less familiar side, the gorgeous "Wintersong", a haunting "Universal Child" by Annie Lennox and the aforementioned title "Song for a Winter's Night", a mood piece by Gordon Lightfoot. Also on tap is the terribly pretty "Chanson D' Alsace" from Suite Francaise, op 114 for orchestra and... Greene somehow slips in the evocative"Morning Has Broken", Christmas or not. And it does work sublimely, just like the comfort of morning that follows a cold, dark winter's night.

As both actress and singer Greene has no limits. She is known for her daring choices and bold interpretations, and that is what makes her so very special, a singer's singer. Don't stick to what everyone else does, strike out on your own and create something fresh and alive. Brava once more, Ellen Greene! This is a must in every holiday collection.

go to itunes or cdbaby to purchase your copy today!

The digital download of the CD has two wonderful bonus tracks: Peter Allen's "The Lives of Me" and Sondheim's "Marry Me a Little", sung like you've never heard them before.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

review - Striking 12

Striking 12
book, music & lyrics by Brendan Milburn, Rachel Sheinkin and Valerie Vigoda
directed by Janet Roston
Laguna Playhouse
through December 28

Loud repetitious music usually is a turnoff to me, in spite of the fact that the rock and roll of the 60s and 70s constitutes a large part of my musical background. I grew up listening to it and like much of it, but in later years have narrowed my preferences to pop standards, jazz and Broadway fare, which always make me happy. Although Irish, I have learned to love Celtic music more recently; since Once, I have become increasingly enamored of that sound especially at Christmas. When you add violin to keyboard, drums and guitar, as do the creators of Striking 12, now in its Orange County premiere at the Laguna Playhouse through December 28, you get that joyful sound loud and clear, and that plus the brilliance of the four musicians/actors (Brent Schindele, Marisa Duchowny, Amberly Rosen and Matt Wolpe) are enough to send one over the moon for an all too brief 90 minutes.

This is not your typical musical fare. The stage is set up in concert style for the musicians with keyboard and percussion clearly visible as you take your seats. There is a pretty white background with snowflakes that will serve as a screen for several projections and a small staircase on one side of the stage and ramp on the other allowing the musicians to come quickly downstage to the center spotlight, a sort of playing area for much of the action of the story. But at first glance, you think concert. Then in an introduction the producers of the Playhouse announce that what you are about to see is a very contemporary re-envisioning, a fresh perspective on the musical form, with a nonlinear story line. Expect the unexpected! Somehow within the first five minutes as the four actors took their places (Schindele at the keyboards, Wolpe on drums, Rosen on violin and Duchowny centerstage as the leading player) and pre-curtain announcements were made musically, I knew I was in for a rare treat, something novel, unlike anything I had ever seen before. How riveted I became to every second of the music and the storytelling!

The basic story is Hans Christian Anderson's Little Match Girl, a sweet simplistic story set in 1840s Denmark about an impoverished little girl selling matches in the snow and having no luck with sales or with keeping warm. She ends up seeing an image of her dead grandmother who spiritually leads her to the warmth of heaven. In realistic terms, she dies; it's a fairy tale with an unhappy ending.

The four actors keep their own first names as the characters they play. Brent reads aloud Anderson's story on New Year's Eve. He is reminded of the little match girl after he meets a gal who has come to his door selling light bulbs. Brent is burned out by his corporate job and Marisa, as well as the little match girl, plays this gal who symbolizes a sort of guide to self-help. The bulbs, she claims, possess a miraculous power to light up one's path with hope. Matt Wolpe plays various characters, a friend of Brent who is throwing a New Year's Eve party and also, with the two gals, several voices on Brent's answering machine as well as characters on TV programs and commercial actors. Amberly pretty much sticks to the violin but the magnificent music she makes with it is more dramatic and evocative than ten characters put together. So, we have the contemporary story that pairs Brent with Marisa and Anderson's fairy tale that serves as the heartwarming background. Matt supplies most of the humor and is hysterical in every role he plays, especially the little drummer boy. The actors do break character from time to time and move around the space, away from their musical instruments to play out scenes, but director Janet Roston avoids choppiness, maintaining a steady flow throughout.

It is also interesting to note that there are some delicious references to Hans Christian Anderson as a screwed-up that takes sad, ugly characters caught up in turmoil and turns it all into great art.

Yes, indeed there's difficulty in describing all the details of what you are going to see onstage. But, under Roston's meticulous direction, the four actors take you on a fun-filled odyssey that is bound to move each of you in different ways. Don't let the sad story of the little match girl fool you: there is plenty of enjoyment here as well as some great melodic songs composed by creators Brendan Milburn, Rachel Sheinkin and Valerie Vigoda. Don't miss Striking 12 through December 28 only!

5 out of 5 stars
(photo credit: Ed Krieger)