Who says there’s no great theater in LA and Santa Barbara? Answer: people who haven’t lived or spent time in either place in the last dozen or so years. But this is a special weekend, particularly in Santa Barbara (and not due to that incomprehensibly popular parade which clogs State Street and downtown) because a large scale musical with big names is playing two nights at the elegant Granada Theater, reminiscent of a 19th-C European opera house.
With the opening of the New Vic last December, Santa Barbara has a better theater scene than it has since I arrived in 1996. And now that summer is officially here, PCPA Theaterfest in Solvang and Circle Bar B are up and running with shows ranging from farce (Noises Off! and Forever Plaid at PCPA) to a comedy/mystery with a Noel Coward feel and a British comedy of manners (Murder by the Book and Enchanted April at Circle Bar B).
I am particularly excited about the positively reviewed Murder by the Book because my favorite shows at Circle Bar B feature its long married directors, Susie and David Couch. I’ll buy a ticket today for next weekend. (I was unimpressed by the golf farce last summer but really enjoyed three plays in the previous season.)
I can’t afford Broadway–at least not without sacrificing restaurants–but I attend four or five cabarets every trip to New York. And I catch the phenomenal modern dance troupe ChristinaNoel and the Creature whenever I’m in town. So after a month in LA and Santa Barbara, I start to jones for musical theater. Neither of my Southern California hubs have venues like the Laurie Beechman, 54 Below, the Metropolitan Room or the Duplex, much less piano bars like the casual Marie’s Crisis in the Village, Brandy’s on the Upper East Side, or the much more upscale Bemelman’s at the Carlyle Hotel. Due to the old-school elegance and caliber of musicians regularly featured at Bemelman’s, it’s the only place I can pay $21 pre-tip for an admittedly large and stiff martini and feel I’ve gotten my money’s worth.
A New York server at Cafe Montana, whose father is in the Broadway world, said you can find occasional cabaret in Los Angeles, but only at the price point of Feinstein’s, the legendary cabaret at what used to be the Regency Hotel on 60th and Park but has for some time been known simply as the Loews. I’m two blocks from Dad’s old business hotel so walk by it a lot. Feinstein’s was closed during much of the renovation which seemed to go on forever, but now open.
54 Below is pricey ($75-$95) when a legend like Patti Lupone or four-time Tony nominee Laura Benanti performs, but many shows are in the $35-45 range, including Jarrod Spector, six years as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys and co-star of the current Broadway sensation, Beautiful: The Carole King Story). Beyond the $25 food or booze minimum, I paid nothing to see Spector’s extraordinary show, about which Stephen Holden raved in the New York Times, because I pay $100/year to be a VIP Ruby member.
54 Below’s membership program gets me into some shows for free (particularly the 11PM shows with well-known artists or earlier ones with lesser-known talents), offers me preferred seating and first dibs on new shows, and earns me points on dinner and drink purchases. Sadly, nothing like 54 Below exists in LA. And of course in Santa Barbara, neither name would ring a bell to anyone under 55 or 60 unless a transplant from New York or someone with an interest or background in musical theater.
The last large musical production in Santa Barbara was My Fair Lady in Concert. As I blogged, the show suffered from technical problems and lack of chemistry between Higgins (played by the marvelous Jonathan Pryce) and Eliza (Laura Michelle Kelly). Kelly isn’t Sierra Boggess, a trained opera singer before Broadway, but she sings beautifully. Alas, her voice didn’t save her acting (or cartoonish Cockney accent), so the show fell flat.
The Santa Barbara symphony remains one of the best of its size in America, and I adored the music, costumes and sets. But aside from Broadway veteran Gregory Jbara’s hilarious rendering of Alfred Doolittle (Eliza’s father) and Cloris Leachman’s scene-stealing turn as Higgins’ mother, it was a B- at best. This beloved musical just doesn’t fly when you don’t care about Eliza or understand why Henry–or anyone–would.
A less illustrious production of my favorite musical than the star-studded Kennedy Center one in 2013 starring Pryce, Jbara, and York, came to Santa Barbara the year before. I took my boyfriend, a complete theater (and musical theater) void whose cultured Brooklyn and Queens-raised Jewish parents never took him to the Lerner and Loewe show, to rectify this unacceptable state of affairs. (I frequently foist show tunes on the dear soul because you can’t date me for just under four years and not know who Ben Vereen or Stephen Schwartz are. Of course I can’t sing, but this doesn’t stop me from trying. A perennially good sport, he tolerates my efforts to educate him about the American Songbook).
While the music, set, and costumes were spectacular, the Eliza-Henry dynamic in 2012 was even worse than in 2013. But I’m not complaining. Well, maybe a little. (It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures, as I have explained, contra the New Age–and unwittingly anti-semitic–aversion to kvetching so popular in inspirational or motivational memes which clutter my newsfeed and trigger my inner Denis Leary, or worse, Jay Mohr or Bobby Slayton.) Still, if the Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts wants to keep trying to get a single classical musical right, it should be My Fair Lady; because even if the acting falls flat, there is still the unsurpassed music.
Marcia Milgram Dodge, the director of last year’s attempt, returns to the Granada with Camelot in Concert. Barry Bostwick, perhaps most famous for his six-year run as the lovable but hapless New York City mayor on Gary Goldberg’s Spin City, plays Merlin. In an interview with Casa Magazine, he said, “It’s quite a deep text for a musical. The themes are very challenging. Merlin’s tragedy is that he wasn’t able to tell Arthur about everything he will have to endure before he loses his magic. The ‘word’ has been ‘think.’ And Arthur ends up thinking too much.'”
Sean Patrick Leonard, who like Neil Patrick Harris, has successfully balanced theater, TV and film, plays Arthur. Brandi Burkhardt, Josh Grisetti, and Michael Campayno round out the cast of a musical I’ve never seen performed. I barely remember the movie, but all my life have heard the story of my parents taking my brother and sister, now 53 and 60, early in their marriage. (I have always considered them full siblings, but they’re Dad’s kids from his first marriage, not my mother’s children).
When Vanessa Redgrave appears in the white fur, my sister, then 13, audibly gasped at Guinevere’s radiance. Take that, Second Wave feminists! Little girls like beautiful grown-up girls in fancy clothes and shiny baubles. You can write all you like about the irrelevance of physical appearance or the myth of biology, but (most) boys like to blow things up or shoot things (even if the weapon is made of toast), and most girls at some point in their childhoods want to be the princess in a pretty dress who gets her prince.
Leonard called Camelot in Concert “a fun and sexy story with an amazing group of singers”: “Forget about the fates!” A reference, of course, to the musical’s deeper themes about fate, innocence, despair and hope. I haven’t read Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur in many years, but as a Victorianist, I love all things Tennyson. I’m inspired to dig out my Norton Critical Edition and reread one of the two greatest poets of the Victorian age. My reading of Browning and Tennyson at UCLA in 12th grade drew me to the Victorians long before I declared it my specialty in graduate school.
So that’s my Saturday night after my swim, color, and mani/pedi. Tomorrow I head to LA to see David Suchet, best-known as Hercule Poirot, in The Last Confession. It has been described as a Catholic House of Cards, and since I’m missing that show so profoundly, I’m looking forward to what I imagine is a brilliant rendering of villainy. I find diabolical displays of power far more appealing when aestheticized. Real-world evil is rarely elegant or even smart–much less sexy–like Spacey’s Frank Underwood. Only Spacey could make a murderer of two likable characters at once appealing and beddable.
Papal intrigue was a favorite topic of Browning’s (Bishop Blougram’s Apology), and no Brit did the Italians better than the powerhouse poet who was George Eliot’s favorite of the Victorians, though she and George Henry Lewes socialized with Tennyson and his wife. Eliot was no slouch herself on the topic of Renaissance Italy. In her own time, she was known simply as the “author of Romola,” creating a complex villain in Tito Melema. Before Daniel Deronda’s Grandcourt, which influenced Henry James in his creation of Gilbert Osmond, the monster of Portrait of a Lady, there was Tito.
My parents enjoy Poirot and I read 30 Agatha Christie novels by the end of elementary school. But I know Suchet through one of my favorite films of the last fifteen years, HBO’s Live From Baghad, based on Robert Wiener’s book about the Gulf War. I encourage anyone who loves great writing and acting to rent the film starring Michael Keaton, Helena Bonham Carter, Lili Taylor and a host of familiar character actors. Suchet plays the Iraqi Minister of Information, Naji Al-Hadithi, who became Iraq’s Foreign Minister. The score is haunting and aside from the suspenseful narrative (a feat, given that you know how it turns out), Live From Baghdad is the best platonic love story I’ve seen as an adult.
Happy Solstice Weekend! (Though, as I said, I find it a great nuisance, not being a fan of parades in general, and particularly not one with such a hippie-dippy vibe. I’m the #grinchwhohatesSolstice.)
P.S. Last Saturday, our friend threw himself a spectacular 50th birthday bash at a large loft on Cesar Chavez. I forgot to write a Yelp review, but if you ever need a space which can accommodate 250 people with cozy industrial chic decor–not exactly ubiquitous in Santa Barbara–this is the place to rent. In lieu of gifts, he asked for donations to The Fund for Santa Barbara. J and I had a great time and got what I think is one of our best pictures together.