Stumbling Their Way Through JonBenet

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Dana Shaw as Patsy Ramsey in "JonBenet Ramsey: The Musical"

On Christmas day, 1996, the bludgeoned and strangled body of six-year-old pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey was found in a basement room of her parents’ home in Boulder, Colorado. As horrific as this tragedy was at the time, now slightly less than three decades later, the fate of JonBenét has morphed into comedic tuner parody, conceived, scripted and helmed by Austen Fletcher, utilizing the melodies of such musical theater heavyweights as Andrew Lloyd Webber, John Cameron, Richard Rodgers and John Kander, punctuated by the satirical lyrics of Fletcher and Hannah Hartley. The resulting stage fare resembles an improv exercise in which a group of actors are asked to instantaneously create a musical, based on an absurdly inappropriate suggestion.

Over the course of 45 slipshod minutes, a ten-member ensemble stumbles its way through the Ramsey family’s adventures in bungled law enforcement and judicial ineptness. JonBenét Ramsey: The Musical proudly puts the blame for the girl’s demise on mom, Patsy Ramsey (Dana Shaw), who relishes every moment of her jaundiced celebrity status, in the same spirit as 1920s Chicago murderess Beaulah Annon (fictionalized as Roxie Hart in the musical, Chicago). The erratic on-stage machinations of the cast are made marginally viable by Shaw’s thoroughly committed portrayal of Patsy.

Vocally adroit Shaw takes over the production when Patsy Ramsey offers a musical survey of her life, effortlessly blasting through a medley of anthems—“Memory” (Cats), “I Dreamed a Dream” (Les Miserables) and “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” (Evita)—thematically repurposed by Fletcher and Hartley. Throughout the show, Shaw’s Patsy twinkles with manic glee at every turn in the proceedings that brings the attention back to her. Another highlight is provided by Andrew Diego, chewing up the stage as lunatic John Mark Karr who, in 2006, falsely confessed to the murder.

The rest of the ensemble actually look like they are uncomfortable, at times appearing as if they are painfully pulling dialogue out of the air. Brendon Derk and Michael Brian not only give new meaning to the concept of “inadequate counsel” as Patsy’s defense attorneys, they have to mouth obtuse dialogue that makes them appear to be anti-Semitic as well. As the crime scene cops, Mark Pietruszka, Lindsay Zana and Mary Rachel Gardner have the look of three lost souls who would rather be any place but on stage. This can also be said of Travis Dixon who portrays Patsy’s much put upon husband, John Ramsey. Where the ensemble, including Susan Huckle, does excel is in the zesty full-cast rendering of a parodied, “Master of the House” (Les Miserables).

This exercise in musical theater also features a brief appearance by well-known actor Chuy Bravo (Chelsea Handler’s sidekick on TV’s Chelsea Lately), portraying JonBenét. It is embarrassing for Chuy and unnecessary to the dubious dramatic arc of the show. Why do it? By the way, Cory “Reff” Rivera deserves kudos for his thoroughly professional turn as music director and keyboard accompanist.

JonBenét Ramsey: The Musical plays Friday, June 24 (10:30pm); Saturday, June 25 (4:30pm); and Sunday, June 26 (5:30pm); in Asylum @ McCadden Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. Tickets available at: hollywoodfringe.org/projects/3765?tab=tickets


Magical performance from memories of Magic

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Daniel Llewelyn-Williams’ taut terrific one man show, A Regular Little Houdini is filled with history. Of his home town in Wales, of Magic, of a world lost, and of a tragedy remembered.

Set in Newport, South Wales, Llewelyn-Williams’ love for its history is the foundation and spine of this coming of age show of a little boy enamored with Houdini and magic during the Edwardian era. Llewelyn-Williams weaves a superb narrative drawing on actual events and places from the history of Newport – an appearance of the great escape artist Harry Houdini where he proposed to leap chained and straitjacketed from the Newport Bridge, the Newport Transporter Bridge which was one of the wonders of the age, the great tragedy that occurred there and the fabled story of a brave lad who risked his life for others on that day.

All this serves as the ample background for the endearing story of a working class family struggling against the harsh realities of the day and of a young boy who dreams of greater things.

Joshua Richards’s direction is sharp, swift and sure handed and serves the story brilliantly. Meg Cox provides some lovely music.

And here’s a first for me – what a program! Full of historical notes and information of the personages and events that the show covers, this is one program you should put on your book shelf among the history tomes.

But the real joy of this show is in watching the performance of Llewelyn-Williams. He takes to the stage like a whirlwind, lifts up the audience and doesn’t let it go until he’s ready to send us home completely entertained by his tale and completely overwhelmed by his talent.

I’ve seen 44 shows at the Hollywood Fringe this year, and Llewelyn-Williams’ performance of a little boy who learns that the world is always magical as long as we keep believing in magic, is at the very top of my list.

And c’mon, is there any nationality that has a more melodic accent than the Welsh?

Not for my money.

A REGULAR LITTLE HOUDINI
Various venues and times see here
for tickets visit Hollywood Fringe

Running Time: 55 minutes


BUMPERSTICKER: THE MUSICAL, a Toe Tapping Song Fest

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Gary Stockdale and Spencer Green display great originality in their choices for topic to frame their musicals around. Bukowsical was their last effort, a toe tapping song fest about Charles Bukowski America’s ugliest poet. When they received a “cease and desist” letter from the lawyers representing Bukowski’s estate that threatened legal action, in a move that warmed the hearts of gadflies across this great nation of ours, they turned that correspondence into the show’s opening number.

With Bumpersticker the Musical, they again turn to a unique inspiration, the bumper stickers on display during a traffic jam on the 405 Freeway.

Part Haiku, part battle cry the bumper sticker has been around since the turn of the century. It began as a mini-mobile billboard for products back then. Paper and string contraptions known as “bumper signs” were attached to cars stopping at certain destinations like “Merrimac Caves” or “Mysterious Forest”.

With the 1952 presidential campaign between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, however, bumper stickers first became politicized and assumed the characteristics we know today.

Bumper stickers are like the flags, the “colors” that regiments once carried into battle with them, they were used to help the troops maintain cohesion, to aid them in identifying those who were fighting on their side.

This similarity between regimental colors and bumper stickers continues today, you have the armies of “I’m pro-choice and I vote”, and the brigades of “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold dead fingers.” And while they won’t venture forth onto battlefields today, they will brave Friday rush hour on the 10, which is no picnic.

The venue where Bumpersticker – The Musical is being presented during the Fringe is one of the rougher houses, which serves by mere contrast to polish the sleek, professional shine of this production to a near blinding glimmer.

Producer Michael Blaha, director and choreographer Michele Spears and musical director David O have staged the show with consummate skill, achieving a production look which could be transported to any London or New York stage without raising one eyebrow.

Now just like its fun to go to a musical where all the songs are familiar standards, here there’s no confusion as to the lyrics, because we all know the inspirations for the Stockdale\Green tunes.

“My Other Car is a Porsche”
“Well Behaved Women Don’t Make History”
“Honk if you Love Jesus.”
And my personal favorite, "I ♥______________”, you can fill in the blank

All the tunes are killer tunes, and the only problem song for me being was the ballad of Trucker Bill (Eliot Hochberg), and that isn’t because it’s a poorly written song.

The song, “Gas, Grass or Ass, Nobody Rides for Free” is turned into a modern folk tale of a trucker’s duel with a leggy hitchhiker (Lauren Rubin) whose victory is immortalized by her silhouette being placed on those tire flaps you see on most big wheelers.

The number is fun, but feels a tad derivative of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, the mega hit of the Charlie Daniels’ Band. It’s a silly quibble, but in a show that otherwise glows with originality it pops out more than it should.

The framing device is the assorted radio stations of the assorted drivers all played with great zest by Zachary Ford who puts forth the spectrum from KCRW to the “Eye in the Sky Guy.”

Lamont Dozier, Jr. wows the house with "I ♥______________”, and Jennifer Leigh Warren almost makes believers out of us all with her soulful rendering of the “Honk if you love Jesus” bumper sticker, with a dashboard Jesus as her backup.

All the cast, those mentioned, as well as Anne Yatco, Jahmaul Bakare and Nadia Ahern are top of the line performers.

Hannah Beavers’ video design is the icing on a very, very tasty cake.

What is the foremost achievement here, as Emily Dickenson would describe it, is a truth told on a slant.

The range of opinions and attitudes expressed on the bumper stickers are a celebration of our diversity and a reminder of our strength as a nation.

Perhaps theirs is a unique perspective that comes from being LAers and spending so many hours on our freeway system.

There are yearly about 80,000 accidents on our freeways.

But look at the usage:

The 10: 363,000

The 405: 325,000

The 5: 299,000

That car volume daily!

That’s only three of our dozen plus freeways that cover 527 miles.

Notice sometime else about the above section?

The definite article.

Only in LA do we honor our system as “the 10”, “the 405”.

We know perhaps in our sun soaked souls that the freeway is the perfect metaphor for this nation. As long as we all play by the rules dictated by the system set in place to facilitate our travels, as long as we show the courtesy we expect others to show us, then we all can and will get to our chosen destinations.

Ending with the “Coexist” sticker we often sees stuck, Bumpersticker the Musical pokes fun at our tendency to view the world’s issues in black and white expressions capable of being fixed to our car’s rear, and in that sense it is also a paean for feeling optimistic about our country and humanity.

And a toe tapping paean at that.

BUMPERSTICKER: THE MUSICAL
June 23, 2016 @ 7:30pm
for tickets ($15), visit Hollywood Fringe

Running Time: 90 minutes
Asylum @ The Dragonfly (Main Stage) 6510 Santa Monica Blvd


"Amy Snowden's Casting Confessions" Needs Much Tightening

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Amy Snowden grew up in rural Louisiana where squirrel was often hunted for dinner and a visit to the Wal-Mart something to phone neighbors about.

But she always knew she was meant for bigger things.

The voice in her head told her she was, and beckoned her to depart for L.A. where she would find stardom.

In later years she would be convinced that voice was part of the sinister illuminati and got kick backs every time she shelled out for new head shots or agent auditions.

In “Casting Confessions from La to LA” Snowden tells the tale of a small town girl’s rise to the heights of “America’s Got Talent” and her fall to toe whore at the beck and call of those whose deviant desires are met through footnight.com.

It is a rocky, raunchy, ribald, rollicking ride recounting abusers, users, casting couches, and missed opportunities as her memories share the stage with a cardboard alligator, cardboard cow and inflatable male masturbation dummy.

Snowden, a veteran of the L.A. comedy circuit has not given her audience a one woman show, but a stand up routine that feels like a blatant shot at convincing the Comedy Network of her worthiness for a special.

Snowden is funny in a rough kinda “down home” fashion, in the same vein as Larry the Cable Guy only much easier to look at.

Joe Salazar is credited with directing but hasn’t done much it seems towards either tidying up or tightening Snowden’s performance, which is definitely in need of.

Snowden is often guilty of undercutting the impact of her stories, which are for the most part deliciously debauched by her lack of clarity in delivery.

Red Foxx, the master of “blue” humor before opting to build a nest egg on the sit-com “Sanford and Son” once told me the secret to telling an off-humor joke was, “Sticking it in all smooth and lickety-split before they see it coming. Then when they do that nervous laughter shit, twist it hard and pump it up into a proper guffaw.”

Playing on her sweet little country gal façade, Snowden could then sucker punch an audience silly with her risqué chronicle.

I also think she needs to decide if she’s doing stand up or a solo show, she can’t have it both

And it must be noted that the audience I saw it with, was eating up her act like a heaping serving of crawfish étouffée with banana pudding on the side.

 

AMY SNOWDEN’S CASTING CONFESSIONS FROM LA TO LA
June 16-26, 2016 
for tickets ($10), visit Hollywood Fringe

Running Time: 60 minutes
The Actors Company, 916 A North Formosa Ave, West Hollywood, 90046

tagged under Ernest Kearney · Amy Snowden · bli · review

ABSURDISM AND REALITY CLASH IN "MOUNT VERNON"

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As if we needed more evidence, the recent shootings in Orlando substantiate how America’s relationship with gun ownership, gun usage, and the Constitutional right to bear arms remains a contentious issue that sorely needs to be publicly dialogued—and what better place than the theater? Straight out of the school of Albee, Rena Brannan has written a two-character puzzle-box of a play which means to highlight these themes, but even with some knockout performances, the show gets lost under the weight of its own density.

In a Reagan National Airport boarding gate area (the realistic seats are by designer Charlotte Malmlof), the successful young friendless video-game designer of “Hungry Cherries”, Porter James (Brandon Ruiter), awaits a flight delayed by a storm. Hester (Sophie Ward), a hippie-esque woman about six years his senior, enters with a knowing look and quickly invades Porter’s space as he tap-tap-taps away on his laptop. The pushy busybody has just returned barefooted from a visit to Mount Vernon, and goads Porter into a conversation. It’s superficial at first, but soon enough there’s absurdism afoot: the less fortunate Hester is desperate for a bathroom to wash the “presidential dirt” off her face, but doesn’t go to one; she pulls out a ukulele and tries to entertain Porter; and she mimes smoking.

What’s going on here? Their situation feels almost unbelievable, and the airport is devoid of people. She’s quirkier than he is, but they’re both educated, swapping theories about Newtonian law and reciting Eugene Field’s “The Duel” (the poem with the gingham dog and the calico cat), and soon—as in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano—the layers are peeled back as he begins to realize they are related. What unravels is a story of a childhood tragedy involving anger, a gun, and one irreversible moment that seems to dictate a life’s trajectory forever.

In an Edward Albee play, nothing is ever quite what it seems. The same applies here. What begins as ostensible realism swiftly corkscrews into the jurisdictions of the absurd. And as with Albee’s similarly structured Zoo Story, Ms. Brannan creates an otherworldly tapestry by weaving an absurdist weft through a realist warp. When the young man puts on his headphones, an announcement comes over the loudspeakers: “Will Porter James go to the nearest ticket agent?” In the tradition of Theater of the Absurd and burlesque, the voiceover occurs repeatedly, but only when his headphones are on. The biggest laugh (actually, one of the only laughs) of the show occurred later in the 60-minute one-act when the voiceover occurred almost simultaneously with him donning headphones again. (I’m still trying to figure out why the voiceover of the airline employee (Lorelei King) is listed as “Tannoy” in the program; is that short for technological annoyance or something?)

Realism and absurdism have yet to find a mating at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. I’m not convinced that was Brannan’s aspiration, anyway. The frustration here arose trying to figure out just what her play was about. I get the story, and I get that she wishes to tell it in a scholarly, poetic way, but I couldn’t find a way into this play. The lack of humor may speak to the concretion of Brannan’s writing, but it definitely needed wit. Albee is blisteringly funny not just for his droll commentary but because we believe his characters in their unbelievable situation.

I’m not saying this was intentional on the part of the playwright, but my biggest issue with the script is that it feels more like an author showing off how erudite and clever she is rather than painting an accurate portrait of two siblings with a tragic past involving a gun. Was it an accident that both Reagan and Lincoln were shot and our two characters are in the Ronald Reagan airport on the way to Springfield? (I assume Springfield, Illinois, unless James is on his way to visit the Simpsons.) Is the plane being delayed by serious weather a figuration for the sister’s inability to move on until she has dealt with the past? Was there something more to his having a pet albino cobra? While serious analyzers might have fun trying to put all of these clues together, I found myself at a distance because I wasn’t emotionally connected with these siblings. (I’m still trying to figure out what Hester meant when she alluded to a second eruption of Mt. Saint Helens closing LAX. Huh?)

The aftereffects of familial violence by a child with a gun was far more effective in Marja-Lewis Ryan’s superb One in the Chamber, which focused on the harrowing aspects of a family trying to regain a sense of normalcy after a fratricide. In Mount Vernon, the writer’s cleverness takes center stage over the storytelling, so the dialogue feels too thick, too smart, and too humorless to flow well. I love the situation, the subject matter, and the unraveling, intellectual dialogue, but boy was it tough to get on board. It would have helped had Peter Marc Jacobson directed his truly exceptional actors to locate the reality of the situation and relate to each other with more authenticity, but the subtext went missing.

(As a side note, Jacobson is the creator/writer/producer of TV’s The Nanny with ex-wife Fran Drescher, whom he divorced after 18 years when he came out as gay. This has no bearing on my review. I divulge this because it was all in his bio in the program, along with info on money he’s made and lost, and even real estate holdings: “a sweet loft,” “a really nice place by the beach,” “a house that was so beautiful it was used for a season of Bobby Flay’s Food Channel Show.” Was this meant to be funny? Talk about absurd realism. Shameless.)

MOUNT VERNON
The Vindicate Company Ltd
June 11-20, 2016 
for tickets ($12), visit Hollywood Fringe

Running Time: 60 minutes
Hudson Guild, 6539 Santa Monica Bl in Hollywood