Move over, New York! Watch out, Chicago! There's more afoot in LaLaLand than movies, movies, movies. The hills, the valley, downtown, Beverly Hills, Burbank, Pasadena, Santa Monica and especially NoHo are alive with the sound of cachinging at the boxoffice. Live theater is alive, well and thriving in Los Angeles.
There are the big shows at the lovely, warm and intimate Ahmanson (and could there be a nicer theatre staff at any other venue?), currently running the tour of 42nd Street, with Phantom of the Opera returning for two months in October and for next January La Boheme. Then Kaufman and Ferber's Royal Family hits the boards in March, with Thoroughly Modern Millie to follow.
The Mark Taper has imported August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean from Chicago's Goodman. Just off the new Hollywood and Vine [just blocks from the Kodak/Academy Awards Theatre and mall], at the Pantages, Jason Alexander and Martin Short are wowing ëem in The Producers.
The Pasadena Playhouse just closed their popular area premiere of Jerry Herman's Showtune, which was most recently at New York's York. The very first class Reprise! series has three ambitious concerts lined up: Rodgers & Hart's Babes in Arms (September), Wright & Forest's Kismet (January) and the already much anticipated Sondheim Company (May).
There's no shortage of good plays and musicals at the midsize and intimate theatres, which would be the equivalent of New York's Off and Off Off Broadway. Several New York-based companies (or is it vice versa), such as Vampire Cowboys, have sister companies here performing the same play that's ongoing in New York. Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson's outrageous Jewtopia, at West Hollywood's intimate Coast, has been set to close several times, yet audiences keep coming and the producers have decided to keep it running.
The award-winning 86-seat Fountain is packing audiences for the Southern California premiere of Mart Crowley's sequel to his landmark The Boys in the Band, The Men from the Boys. Reviews have been mixed to glowing, but there've been enough important money ones to have management putting chairs in every available space. Will a move to a larger house be far behind? After what Crowley described as several "relaxing and dull years," his life is hectic again with non-stop calls and faxes and phone conservations with his New York agent.
But what to do? Crowley, like the producers of the just-ended return limited engagement of Sam Harris's concert tour de force SAM. , which packed them in this time at West Hollywood's Coronet, and those behind Lorna Luft's SRO Songs My Mother Taught Me at the Beverly Hills' Canon (after a start in the Roosevelt Hotel's Cinegrill), are eyeing possible New York runs. Dampening their enthusiasm is New York's soft theatrical economy; and, in Crowley's case, a bit of worry at how badly recent, even well-reviewed, gay-themed theater has and is faring.
In Laguna Beach, the revival of Harvey was so panned, the tour and planned New York run have been canceled.
None of this seems to be bothering the acclaimed Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, which has just posted that following last weekend's finale, they're New York bound.
A walk through NoHo, the North Hollywood area of dozens of intimate and subintimate theatres (in storefronts and on second and third floors) where anyone who wants to put on a show can and does, reminds one of the type of theatrical synergy that once thrived Off Off Broadway.
Two of the biggest L.A. hits have been concerts. SAM., starring Tony Award-nominee Harris (The Life), received the type of accolades Judy Garland recevied at the Palace or Carnegie Hall. As evidenced by his towel dabbing throughout at profusions of perspiration, Harris is not a stand-at-the-mike-and-sing sort of performer. He was errupting onstage like a race car speeding around hairpin curves and a volcano spreading blistering lava all over the place. His vocal pyrotechnics [a combination of Jennifer Holliday's torch theatrics and Roy Orbison's tenor belt] may not be everyone's cup of tea, but you'd never know that by the screaming, feet stomping thunderous standing ovation he received. Oh, and that was at the end of Act One.
Bayview Records president and C.E.O. Peter Pinne (who releases the Town Hall Broadway By the Year concerts) was spotted during the interval in the lobby and overheard saying how he would love to record Harris. When asked about this, Pinne said, "Sam Harris is the best performer I've seen in years. I'm so impressed, I'm coming back tomorrow." And that was before Harris stopped the show eight more times (especially with Allan Shamblin and Mike Reid's "I Can Make You Love Me") in the second half.
On renditions of Arlen/Harburg/Mercer's "Satan's Li'l Lamb" from 1932's Americana (which Harris adapted into "Satan's Li'l Sam"), Randy Newman's "Political Science," "Time After Time," "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and ballads from his "suicide genre," this tiny dynamo proved he's anything but. And if he ever loses his vocal finesse, he's got a career as a standup. His stories about Cy Coleman's ego and the Greatest Wedding On Earth, Liza with a Z and David's, had everyone rolling on the floor. Harris said he hopes his epitaph will not read: Star Search Grand Champion. Not to worry, Sam!
Harris didn't shy away from his famous and spectacular rendition of "Over the Rainbow," while Lorna Luft in the tribute to Mom and the songs she taught her does. It's the one part of the Garland legacy that Luft, interestingly in a show about conquering ghosts, leaves to Garland. As it is, with Garland singing her signature tune and Luft performing another song in counterpoint, it is a breathtaking and poignant moment.
Luft explained she was emboldened to take this career step after the success of her best-seller Me and My Shadows and the multi Emmy-winning TV mini-series (which she co-produced). Using Garland's arrangements, music directed by Colin Freeman (who happens to be Luft's husband) and rendered by a 10-piece orchestra, Luft covers familiar territory without an iota of embarrassment.
The gal's got stamina and quite a belt. Garland, Luft tells us, claimed her daughter liked the "loud" numbers, and Luft's at her best in such brassy moments as "When You're Smiling," "Just In Time" and her own biographical "Born in a Trunk" medley of life with her superstar Mom.
After a couple of beautifully-produced duets with Garland, via 21st Century technology, when Luft settled down and got intimate with Arlen's "The Man That Got Away" from A Star Is Born she revealed the artistry that she inherited. By that point, you are regretting that this artist, with such a wonderful and powerful instrument and magical stage chemistry, is only now getting serious about music.
Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org