Kirk Douglas Theatre

'Spamilton': Musical spoof lands its punches softly, and with a smile

--Los Angeles Times  November 13, 2017

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If you can't beat 'em, parody 'em.

Gerard Alessandrini, the man behind the popular “Forbidden Broadway” series, has made his theatrical career spoofing his musical theater betters. He’s turned theatrical lampooning into an art form, sending up the excesses of bloated shows and caricaturing the mannerism of divas.

Alessandrini has had much to mock over the span of 25 “Forbidden Broadways,” from the fervid pop operas of Andrew Lloyd Webber to the empty-headed jukebox musicals that, until recently, had a commercial stranglehold on the American musical theater.

The success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” has inaugurated a new and more promising era. The show, too much a game-changer to be crowded into a skewering revue, is the target of Alessandrini’s “Spamilton,” which opened last weekend at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

The show (created, written and directed by Alessandrini) tweaks the familiar logo of “Hamilton” to leave no doubt about the teasing intentions. A pianist (music director James Lent) pounds away discreetly at the keys on a mostly bare stage. The ensemble is surprisingly populous, but the production still has the feeling of a small-scale cabaret.

“Spamilton” substitutes the story of Miranda, a Broadway revolutionary, for the story of Alexander Hamilton, the original American revolutionary. The rhymes of “Alexander Hamilton,” the opening number from “Hamilton,” are rejiggered to introduce Broadway’s reigning king, whose Tony-winning show has become one of the hottest tickets in the land.

How does a whipper snapper
Student of rap
And a Latin
Trapped in the middle of a
Manhattan flat
With Broadway accolades
While other writers kiss
The corporate dollar
Grow up to be a hip-hop op’ra
Scholar?

These words are sung by Wilkie Ferguson III, who plays Leslie Odom Jr., the “Hamilton” cast member who won a Tony for playing Aaron Burr. Hamilton’s rival is still bitterly competitive, though in “Spamilton” the two characters argue about artistic integrity, not politics.

Everyone knows that Lin-Manuel (William Cooper Howell) is destined to “build a better Broadway,” but it’s not going to be an easy road. Audiences like to stick to the familiar, and the commercial temptations and traps have grown only more extreme.

But this hot young talent means business. In “His Shot,” Lin-Manuel roars, “I am not gonna let Broadway rot” — and both the swagger and nobility of his ambition come through.

The structure of the show seems jury-rigged. The story readily gives way to gag numbers. Impersonations of Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand are de rigueur. The spirit of “Spamilton” is mostly adulatory, but Alessandrini, a shrewd observer of musicals, takes a few gentle shots at Miranda.

“Be terser in your verse, sir/You’re no Johnny Mercer,” critiques Odom in a rhyme that demonstrates Alessandrini’s own rap prowess. After “Hamilton” becomes a blockbuster, Lin-Manuel comes on and self-deprecatingly introduces himself: “I’m slightly obnoxious/Too broad, too pained/My voice is strained/and thin/I’m Lin-Manuel!”

The “Spamilton” cast infuses the show with nonstop energy. Zakiya Young summons Renée Elise Goldsberry as effectively as she conjures Audra McDonald and J-Lo. John Devereaux simulates the cool, lanky, big-haired eccentricity of Daveed Diggs.

Glenn Bassett, who plays crazy King George, camps it up in “Straight Is Back,” a “Penny Lane”-like ditty (converted, if you will, from “You’ll Be Back”) bemoaning the way “Hamilton” has made Broadway conspicuously less gay.

Some of the raillery, while funny, feels like overkill. The mash-up of shows, combinations that are like Frankenstein’s monster (“The Lion King and I”), might be more amusing in a nightclub serving drinks.

Alessandrini is on steadier ground when bringing in Stephen Sondheim. “Spamilton” pokes fun at Miranda’s hero worship. (Is there a note of Eve Harrington in Lin-Manuel’s earnest praise?) “Sweeney Todd” is invoked in a running gag in which a beggar woman cacophonously pleads not for alms but for “Hamilton” tickets.

Yet Alessandrini detects more lyrical kinship between these composers than might be obvious to a civilian theatergoer. Sondheim’s deft wordplay seems like a precursor to Miranda’s rap style by the end of a section in which Renée repeatedly sings, “And another hundred syllables/Came out of his brain.”

“Spamilton” infuses original insights into a show that without these kernels might seem tiresomely broad. The musical unfolds as a sort of dream of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, who made “Hamilton” the “Camelot” of their administration. The production can get surreally silly at points, but Alessandrini treats Miranda’s masterpiece with the rambunctious love this watershed musical deserves.

‘Spamilton’

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions); ends Jan. 7

Price: $55-$99 (subject to change)

Info: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes (no intermission)

Q&A 'Spamilton' creator on loving Lin-Manuel Miranda and spoofing his musical at the same time

--Los Angeles Times  November 2, 2017

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When Gerard Alessandrini sees a musical he likes — or loathes — he just can’t stop himself from substituting a few of his own lyrics. The writer and director has done it professionally since 1982, the year of his first “Forbidden Broadway” revue, parodying some of the best — and worst — tunes for generations of theater-goers.

When “Hamilton” mania swept the country, Alessandrini, 63, decided that a spoof of a song or two wasn’t enough this time. So, working quickly, he turned out “Spamilton,” a mash-up of “Hamilton” parodies and new takes on some of his “Forbidden Broadway” favorites. Actors playing “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and his “Hamilton” colleagues reappear as Stephen Sondheim, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand and, yes, some very, very desperate ticket-seekers.

Plying what the soft-spoken, unassuming Alessandrini has called “mischievous inspiration,” “Spamilton: An American Parody” emulates “Hamilton: An American Musical” through costumes, music, smart lyrics and vocal arrangements, multicultural casting, hand gestures and more. Even their logos are similar (except that Alessandrini’s Founding Father is thumbing his nose).

After starting on New York’s Upper West Side more than a year ago, “Spamilton” has moved closer to its inspiration, landing just a block away from the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where “Hamilton” is playing. A second incarnation ran in Chicago for seven months, and now comes the Los Angeles production, opening at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City on Nov. 12.

You refer to “Spamilton” as a realization of your “wildest musical-comedy dreams.” How did it happen?

Here comes this show, “Hamilton,” that’s the biggest hit I have seen since I’ve been in New York, and I’ve been here more than 30 years. It’s a serious drama about American history, and it had current-day political implications. It was also the big new serious show on Broadway and cast Broadway in a different light. There was a lot to spoof there.

“Hamilton” also brought back the idea that musical theater can be fresh and tell you a story in a new way. It shined a new light on Broadway and made everything else look different. You don’t have to be a jukebox musical. You don’t have to be a revival.

How did you get from Alexander Hamilton as the central figure to Lin-Manuel Miranda as your central character?

I wanted to not tell the story of “Hamilton,” because they tell it very well. I would tell a fantasy story about Lin-Manuel trying to invent something that would freshen up Broadway. I knew from the beginning that if I was going to spoof “Hamilton,” I had to have a through-line. When you’re searching, you’re constantly going forward. So I thought, let’s have Lin-Manuel search for a better Broadway.

“Forbidden Broadway” and “Spamilton” highlight your love of Broadway and worry for its future.

I don’t always love Broadway. I love Broadway at its best. I don’t like Broadway when it’s mediocre. Sometimes I see a show and I get very discouraged because I think who gave these people $10 million to put this show up onstage? But then there are the great shows that are inspirational, the ones that transcend their era.

That leads us to your parody of “My Shot,” the “Hamilton” anthem that has Alexander Hamilton singing, “I am not throwing away my shot!”

I struggled with that parody. It’s the big home run at the beginning of “Hamilton” — the “I am” song. I wanted it to be a parody, but I wanted to use that rhythm, and it was hard to come up with something that was exact and funny. At one point, we were joking and came up with, “I am not throwing away my pot.” We did use it, but it’s not the thrust of the song. I went with “I am not gonna let Broadway rot.” That’s something I would believe in, and it fit.

The “I want” I gave Lin-Manual is actually myself superimposed on his psyche. I know Lin-Manuel, and I’m sure he does love musicals, but I don’t know him well enough to know his complete motivations for writing “Hamilton.” It’s sort of a fantasy of what he might be thinking.

It appears you did a lot of research that went beyond seeing “Hamilton.”

Well, Miranda’s book, “Hamilton: The Revolution” helped a lot. His sidebars were fun to use and exaggerate. I had the CD and tons of hours of footage online. I also had to go online and listen to rap artists he was referencing. I taught myself to do some rap, though I’m certainly not a rap expert.

I really felt Lin-Manuel was not just using rap but he was accessing all of musical theater. You could see he knew “Man of La Mancha,” “Camelot” and other historic shows. I could hear that he had a good handle on classical music. “Hamilton” was mostly famous for rap, but there are all sorts of musical forms in there. Tunes like “The Room Where it Happens” are as catchy as anything in a Jerry Herman show.

You graduated from the Boston Conservatory. When did you start doing show parodies?

I started at a young age. I’ve been doing them since grammar school, then in summer stock. I wanted to have fun and make people laugh. Then, around 1981, it came to me that it might be a good idea to do a revue of parodies. I had a folder full of them, which I called “Forbidden Broadway.” We put that together, it hit and I was launched on a career as a parodist. Over the years, I must have parodied every Broadway standard at some time or other. I can look at something and see how to turn it inside out.

But nothing is going to be funny if they aren’t in on the joke with you. What was really wonderful about parodying “Hamilton” is that most people seem to know the score already. So when I change the lyrics, people laugh because they know what the real lyric is. You’re harking back to the days when every household knew the songs from “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music.”

You really moved fast, capitalizing on the peak popularity of “Hamilton.”

The thing about writing any parody is that it’s time-sensitive. It’s topical. “Hamilton” was so hot; it had just won all the awards. So it was the time to do it and to do it fast. I didn’t have years to do it. I started throwing in something from “Gypsy,” then I began adding things from other shows. I just didn’t have the time to thoroughly parody what took Miranda years to write.

How did Miranda react to the show?

He came twice to see it. He wrote two tweets — one was “I laughed my brains out” — and I was really thrilled. He was so nice to the cast. He gave the actors all tickets to “Hamilton.” Those kids couldn’t afford to see it, and it helped them focus “Spamilton” more.

You’re now thinking of a spoof of “La La Land” called “Blah Blah Land”?

Yes, I started writing it, but I put my poison pen aside for a while to direct a revue of Maury Yeston’s music and lyrics called “Anything Can Happen in the Theater.” Now the heat of “La La Land” has worn off, but all these movie musicals will be coming out — “Mary Poppins Returns,” “A Star Is Born” with Lady Gaga. “La La Land” is the jump-off point, and like “Spamilton,” “Blah Blah Land” will be a mash-up of many movie musicals. And there’s always a new “Forbidden Broadway” pending.

‘Spamilton’

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: Begins previews Nov. 5, opens Nov. 12, ends Jan. 7

Tickets: $30-$80 (subject to change)

Info: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org

Paul Rudnick on 'Big Night,' Hollywood and his See's Candies L.A. diet

--Los Angeles Times  September 27, 2017

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Paul Rudnick’s latest play, “Big Night,” is having its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre with a cast that includes Wendie Malick (“Hot in Cleveland”), Luke MacFarlane (“Brothers and Sisters”) and stage veterans Kecia Lewis and Brian Hutchison. You might think Rudnick would be used to starry openings, but to chat with him in the Douglas’ prop-cluttered lobby during rehearsals is to discover that a “lunge for any shred of happiness,” to quote a character from Rudnick’s 1992 play “Jeffrey,” is more than a line. It’s at the heart of his approach to life.

Rudnick, 59, seems cheerfully determined not only to find the silver lining in every cloud but also to convey the essential absurdity and wonder that coexist in those clouds. A conversation is a string of quips like, “The only upside of Trump is that he’s given us back Alec Baldwin.”

Through a career writing plays, screenplays, novels, essays, New Yorker “Shouts & Murmurs” columns and a Twitter feed bristling with exuberance, Rudnick hasn’t lost his faith in the value of a good joke. “People throughout history always say, ‘How can you write comedy anymore? Reality has so outdistanced satire!’” he says. “You think, ‘Nah — it’s still good stuff.’”

“Big Night” is a showbiz comedy, set on Oscar night, as a hardworking, undersung actor prepares for his life to change. Rudnick loves writing about actors, he says, not just because they tend to be dramatic but because show business is a universal language. “The farmers in Omaha and the factory workers in Minnesota know what the grosses were for the No. 1 film that weekend,” he says. “The world has become a gossip column. Who has not advised Brad and Angelina from their laptop?”

Rudnick is happiest in the theater, which he describes as “a very particular addiction.” But that doesn’t mean he can’t find those shreds of happiness elsewhere — including Culver City, as he effuses in this edited conversation.

What inspired you to write “Big Night”?

I had been working on another play that was actually set on Oscar night, but I put it aside because it still felt a little lightweight, and I always think that the best comedies come from the highest possible stakes.

And then the 2016 Tony Awards occurred on the same night as the shootings in Orlando. And there were discussions of canceling the awards. Did it somehow seem like an insult, was it obscene to celebrate in the face of that scale of tragedy? The decision was made to forge ahead, but with an awareness of the larger world. They took the rifles out of the “Hamilton” number, and William Ivey Long, the brilliant costume designer who is also designing the costumes for “Big Night,” made the decision to provide silver ribbons for everybody who appeared.

And it’s a gesture. Maybe it’s never enough. But you think, “OK, people needed to show some awareness, some sense of, ‘No, this is no longer just a party.’” And when I thought about tragedy at that level, with people who spend their lives entertaining audiences — how do you cope with the existence of true horror in the world, when you’re at a moment of peak happiness? Can your sense of humor survive, can your love for the people around you survive, when suddenly the world makes absolutely no sense? On Oscar night! I’m limiting the summary to avoid spoilers, but that’s the teaser.

You write in so many genres. How do you decide, when you wake up in the morning, whether you’re going to write a play or a movie or a novel?

One of the very few things I have learned in life is to let the material dictate the form. When I have an idea, I think, “What does it want to be?” There are some subjects where you think, “This is worth a column, but not two hours of an audience’s time.” When an idea that seemed genuinely theatrical presented itself, it was a thrill because that hadn’t happened in a while.

You’re a New Yorker, but you stayed in L.A. for rehearsals. How has that been?

I’ve never stayed in Culver City before, and I love it. The neighborhood is beautiful, and we’ve been exploring all the restaurants. There’s a level of enchantment that you rarely get working in the theater. In New York, I’m on the subway. Here, I stroll over. And the Douglas — when I walk in, it feels like a theater in a movie, which always feels far too glamorous and far too deluxe, but that’s what this theater is actually like. I feel a little Disney about the whole thing. I love having Los Angeles as a character in the play, and Culver City has just been a joy, so I’m recommending it to everyone. And all the natives keep telling me, “You know, it didn’t used to be that way.” They keep saying, “This is recent.” And I appreciate that. That they prepared it for my arrival.

You’re known for eating mostly junk food. How has your diet been received out here?

We have some cast members that are still trying to convince me to eat fruits and vegetables and gluten-free whatever. I am their ultimate obstacle, and I will win. I like to tempt them right back and bring them cookies. If you put a cookie a few inches away from the most strict vegan, they will eat it. No one has that kind of willpower. And I always feel like the very finest drug dealer, where it’s like, “Here, have a Snickers.” And they go, “No, no, no! Do you know what’s in that?” And I say, “Yes. Happiness. Pleasure.” I love being able to provide forbidden pleasures to audiences, or actors. But I always caution them that you can’t mix foods. You have to eat pure, refined sugar all day long. The minute you add a grain, or a meat product, you’re dead.

Have you found any temptations unique to Los Angeles?

Well, everything is so universal now. You can go to your Le Pain Quotidien, your Coldstone Creamery, and I’m very grateful for that. … See’s! Of course! What am I saying? I discovered See’s very early in my trips to Los Angeles, and it was ground zero. It has that hand-dipped quality that reminds me of one of my great childhood fantasies. You know at the Hostess Cupcake factory, the white squiggle on the cupcake? I always dreamed that I could put my mouth under that squiggle machine, and it would probably kill me. But with a smile.

Did you revise the “Big Night” script during rehearsals?

Oh, constantly. I live to rewrite. Especially when I’m working with a world-class director like Walter Bobbie, who can guide me and who can be also brutally honest. You should never regard your work as precious and golden and untouchable. That’s the worst mistake a writer can make — especially if you’re writing comedy, where the audience is your partner, and if it’s not funny, you can’t just yell at them. You can’t take out a gun and say, “You’d better laugh” — much as I’ve considered that.

The actors are a constant inspiration, because they’re so gifted that if they have a problem with a line or a scene, it’s my fault. They can make anything work, but they shouldn’t have to. So when I see them struggling, I think, “OK, that’s what I need to fix.” And when they do something wonderful, I think, “I’m going to give them more of that.”

My greatest nightmare is that I will have an early draft of something and I’ll be hit and killed by a bus, and someone will find that draft and imagine I thought it was good.

That’s why rehearsal and revision are so important. It’s a process, and everyone who works on new plays has to enjoy doing that. I once wrote a play and I came in with rewrites and told an actress, “Your character is now a hunchback.” And she looked at me like, “I’m going to kill you.” And she ended up being magnificent, and she got to have a lot of hunchback humor.

You need actors of this caliber who can show you where this play wants to go. Wendie Malick is not only one of the funniest actresses on the planet, she can also turn on a dime and be gut-wrenchingly moving. You want to keep her onstage forever because she’s such gold. And in this play, she’s also staggeringly beautiful. She wears a floor-length William Ivey Long sequined gown, and no one has ever worn a gown this beautifully before. And then she turns around and you see the back. When Wendie and Kecia Lewis stand next to each other in their gowns, you think, “OK, the world is the most beautiful place.” I like taking credit for things, like, “I wrote that. I wrote those stunning, gifted actresses in those William Ivey Long gowns. Yeah.”

Is there a point where the cast says, “No more changes”?

Where they rip it out of your cold, dead hands? There is a point where you have to stop, where revision can become a little less productive. That’s why someone like Walter Bobbie is so valuable, because he’ll just say, “Paul, stop.” And sometimes I’ll say, “Oh, can’t I just write three more jokes here?” And he’ll say, “No, you can’t.” Sometimes literally slapping the pen out of my hand. And I think, “Thank you for that.” It becomes like an intervention.

Paul Rudnick's 'Big Night': Comedy and crisis in the awards machine of Hollywood

--Los Angeles Times  September 17, 2017

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In a posh Beverly Hills hotel suite overflowing with gift baskets, Michael, the central character of Paul Rudnick’s tentative new comedy, “Big Night,” is anxiously primping for what may be the most important evening of his life.

A dedicated gay actor whose career has balanced Shakespeare in the provinces with “Law & Order” guest spots, Michael (played with amiable earnestness by Brian Hutchison) is up for an Oscar for supporting actor. Heading off to the ceremony that will decide his Hollywood future, he wonders what expression he should feign if he loses to Matt Damon. But he’s informed by his young and excitable new agent, Cary (Max Jenkins), that he has a good shot at winning. Somehow this only makes him more nervous.

The play, which opened Saturday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre under the direction of Walter Bobbie, recalls in its bantering setup one of the playlets in Neil Simon’s “California Suite,” the one that looks in on a visiting couple from London as they prepare for the wife’s own big night and then cope with the bitter marital aftermath after returning from the Academy Awards empty-handed.

But Rudnick, the author of the plays “I Hate Hamlet,” “Jeffrey” and “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” the screenplay “In & Out” and countless New Yorker humor columns, populates his five-star suite more densely. This ostentatious room with an entrancing L.A. view becomes an LGBTQ microcosm as visitors arrive full of congratulations, special requests and dizzying surprises.

The first to show up is Michael’s transgender nephew, Eddie (Tom Phelan), who’s majoring in queer studies at UCLA with “a thesis concentration in non-binary gender expression.” He wants Michael to use his platform to make a statement about Hollywood’s lack of diversity and “historic abuse” of “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally and pansexual” people.

Cary, who’s out and proud himself, respects Eddie’s alphabet of political commitments but advises Michael not to shoot himself in the foot just as his career is about to take off. He’s working on a lucrative multi-movie deal. The producers of “Star Wars” want to cast Michael, who, turns out, has a thing for light sabers. This is no time for criticizing the academy.

By this point, Michael’s mother, Esther (Wendie Malick), has shown up dressed to the nines with breaking news of her own. I don’t want to give too much away, but Esther is traveling with a new friend, Eleanor (Kecia Lewis), an African American Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who brings some intersectionality to the political debate Michael would rather not be having.

Eleanor inquires what pronouns Eddie prefers. (“I’m fine with he, they, hir, zir, or zee,” he answers.) Eddie asks Eleanor whether she prefers “black, African American or person of color.” (“Dealer’s choice” is her freewheeling reply). Rudnick could probably have spun an entire play lovingly satirizing this kind of politically correct social etiquette, but he recognizes that homophobia and hate crimes are more pressing concerns.

“Big Night” takes a serious turn when Michael discovers the reason his lover, Austin (Luke Macfarlane), is unaccountably late. The situation Rudnick constructs is all too plausible in an age when mass violence and displays of intolerance are regularly in the news, but the change in dramatic register isn’t smoothly pulled off.

The characters react to information that shocks and upsets but doesn’t have the power to upend them. Scenarios remain theatrical hypotheticals. The mood grows somber, but the comedy doesn’t allow the consequences of what occurs to sink in. Unreality reigns.

“Big Night” plays like a speculative humor essay on urgent themes. The interplay of perspectives is lively, but the characterizations are “types” led more by laugh lines than by psychology. The playwriting makes it hard to believe in the world inside this hotel suite, which (as designed by John Lee Beatty) seems more Las Vegas than Beverly Hills.

Comedy, as practiced by Molière, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, provides a forum for the bandying of difficult and dangerous ideas. Realism needn’t be the priority, but Bobbie’s production plays against genre, keeping the zaniness on an unnecessarily low flame.

“Big Night” doesn’t accelerate like a farce. There are curious lulls in which the actors appear stranded, waiting for rescue from Rudnick’s inexhaustible wit after something more dramatically meaningful fails to show up.

On the plus side, there’s Malick in a gorgeous evening dress (the magic of costume designer William Ivey Long) looking impossibly young and doing her best to turn the stereotype of the Jewish mother into something contemporary and original. Yes, she foists food at her loved ones in moments of crisis. And no, she never stops worrying about careers, grades, designer discounts and awards. But she plays Esther first and foremost as a woman with her own desires, needs and convictions.

If the play forces upon the character sentimental speeches that say nothing, the fault lies with the playwright, who doesn’t know how to resolve a situation that even his own characters have lost faith in.

Rudnick ought to write to his own strengths. More camp from Jenkins’ Cary wouldn’t be amiss.

Cary, who grew up in Beverly Hills wanting to be an agent, recalls his bar mitzvah at the Hotel Bel-Air “with calla lilies, a vegan buffet and twin Soviet gymnasts from Cirque du Soleil.” The theme? “The films of Jennifer Aniston,” he answers, defensively clarifying in the next beat, “The early films!”

“Big Night” may be earnest in patches, not entirely convincing and a bit thin, but Rudnick hasn’t lost his talent to amuse. The play is funny even when it stumbles and stalls.

‘Big Night’

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Oct 8 (call for exceptions)

Tickets: $25 to $70 (subject to change)

Info: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes (no intermission).

Star-Studded Cast Set for Paul Rudnick's BIG NIGHT at the Douglas

--Broadway World August 2, 2017

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Center Theatre Group has announced the casting for the world premiere of Paul Rudnick's new play "Big Night."

Directed by Tony winner Walter Bobbie ("Chicago" and "Bright Star"), "Big Night" begins previews September 10, opens September 16 and continues through October 8, 2017, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

The cast includes, in alphabetical order, Brian Hutchison ("Smokefall" Off-Broadway), Max Jenkins (NBC's "The Mysteries of Laura"), Luke MacFarlane (ABC's "Brothers & Sisters"), Wendie Malick (NBC's "Just Shoot Me!") and Tom Phelan (ABC Family's "The Fosters"). One more cast member will be announced at a later date.

The creative team includes set design by John Lee Beatty, costume design by William Ivey Long and lighting design by Ken Billington. Casting is by James Calleri, CSA and Paul Davis, CSA and Brooke Baldwin is the production stage manager. The sound designer will be announced at a later date.

It is the night of the Oscars and a working actor turned Oscar nominee knows that his life is about to change - he just doesn't know how profoundly. His transgender nephew has plans for his speech, his young agent has plans for his future, his unstoppable mother has plans for the catering and his partner is nowhere to be found. Master satirist Paul Rudnick blends a deep humanity with a honed sense of hilarity in this powerful and funny play about family and fame, the personal and the political, and the drive to stand up and speak out.

Paul Rudnick is a playwright, novelist, essayist and screenwriter, whom The New York Times has called "one of our pre-eminent humorists." His plays have been produced both on and Off-Broadway and include "I Hate Hamlet," "Jeffrey," "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told," "Regrets Only" and "The New Century." He's won an Obie Award, two Outer Critics Circle Awards and the John Gassner Playwriting Award. Rudnick's novels include "Social Disease" and "I'll Take It," both from Knopf. He's a regular contributor to The New Yorker and his articles and essays have appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, Vogue and The New York Times. HarperCollins published his "Collected Plays" and a book of essays entitled "I Shudder." He's rumored to be quite close to Premiere magazine's film critic, Libby Gelman-Waxner, whose collected columns were published under the title "If You Ask Me." His screenplays include "Addams Family Values," the screen adaptation of "Jeffrey" and "In & Out."

Center Theatre Group, one of the nation's preeminent arts and cultural organizations, is Los Angeles' leading nonprofit theatre company, programming seasons at the 736-seat Mark Taper Forum and 1600 to 2000-seat Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles, and the 317-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. In addition to presenting and producing the broadest range of theatrical entertainment in the country, Center Theatre Group is one of the nation's leading producers of ambitious new works through commissions and world premiere productions and a leader in interactive community engagement and education programs that reach across generations, demographics and circumstance to serve Los Angeles.

Tickets for "Big Night" are available by calling (213) 628-2772, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, at the Center Theatre Group Box Office at the Ahmanson Theatre or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre Box Office two hours prior to performance. Tickets range from $25 - $70 (ticket prices are subject to change). The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA 90232. Ample free parking and restaurants are adjacent.

'King of the Yees': Questions of identity, family and Shrimp Boy brought to surreal life onstage

--Los Angeles Times  July 31, 2017

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Lauren Yee’s play starts out straightforwardly enough: An actress playing Yee (Stephenie Soohyun Park) is rehearsing the play with an actor portraying the playwright’s father, Larry Yee (Francis Jue). Suddenly, the “real” Larry Yee arrives at the theater, full of enthusiasm and unwelcome suggestions. The “real” playwright Lauren Yee can barely contain her irritation at the interruption.

This kind of dizzying funhouse ride into an alternate reality and then back again is “King of the Yees,” presented in association with the Goodman Theatre of Chicago at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

Although the play can be maddeningly random, it is a delightfully disorderly entertainment, as sprawling and silly as it is unexpectedly moving.

In the play — and in real life — Larry is a proud member of the Yee Fung Toy Family Assn., a Chinese American men’s club formed 150 years ago. As a public-minded booster with a strong attachment to his proud Yee lineage, Larry refuses to acknowledge that his club is on the rocks — as is the financially beleaguered Chinatown of San Francisco, where the Yees had prospered for generations.

In the play and in life, Lauren uses “King of the Yees” to explore Chinese American identity as filtered through the microcosm of Chinatown — a community she views as socially backward and derelict. Purposefully clueless about Chinese culture, she has married a non-Asian and is moving for her husband’s job to Germany — as far from her ethnic roots as she can get.

We soon realize Lauren’s meta-theatrical take on her family history is just a jumping-off point down the rabbit hole. After Larry receives the crushing news that Leland Yee, the politician he has slavishly supported for years, has been arrested on corruption charges (as happened in real life), he disappears into the unknown and Lauren must make a fairy-tale-like journey to find him. Along the way she meets quirky characters, many of a supernatural nature, who ultimately reconnect her with not only her father but with her heritage.

The cast is rounded out by three actors — Rammel Chan, Daniel Smith and Angela Lin — who all play a variety of roles. Oddity is the order of this production, with director Joshua Kahan Brody eliciting deliciously over-the-top performances from his cast.

Brody’s funny, zingy staging is very much in keeping with the tone of the play, which sometimes ventures too far in the pursuit of whimsy. Cases in point: when Lauren’s two performers, waiting backstage for rehearsal to resume, are inexplicably sucked into a kind of limbo, or when the gangland character of Shrimp Boy drops into the action with a loud bang. The character, a real-life part of the Yee corruption case, may be a great excuse for a riotous slow-motion shootout, but dramatically, he’s a non sequitur.

The show’s design elements — Williams Boles’ set, Heather Gilbert’s lighting, Mikhail Fiksel’s sound and Mike Tutaj’s projection design — help to lend focus to the haphazardness. Izumi Inaba’s costumes, which range from the everyday to the comically lavish, are a standout.

A cheeky playwright with a highly developed sense of the improbable, Lauren Yee brings her fable full circle with a touching coda about family heritage that may provoke unanticipated tears. Although sometimes undisciplined, she boldly wields her distinctively offbeat humor to connect us to our better selves.

‘King of the Yees’

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Fridays; 8:30 p.m. Thursdays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday; ends Sunday

Tickets: $25-$70

Info: (213) 628-2772, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

 

 

'King Of The Yees' Is A Funny And Intimate Study Of Chinese-American Identity

--laist July 25, 2017

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When we caught playwright Lauren Yee's sharp-edged comedy Ching Chong Chinaman at a small venue in Hollywood several years ago, we thought its sardonic take on Chinese-American stereotypes and ethnic assimilation was pretty hilarious. Now, Yee's work is back in Los Angeles, and it's slated to reach a wider audience—her new play King of the Yees is running at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City.

Although the humor is a little more broad this time around, with less overt shock value or mockery of its characters, King of the Yees is warmer and more mature. It's still often very funny and provides a different perspective on Chinese cultural identities in America.

The two lead characters in this autobiographical play are the playwright Lauren Yee (Stephenie Soohyun Park) and her father, Larry Yee (Francis Jue). In San Francisco's Chinatown the American-born Larry still clings to membership in the almost-defunct Yee Fung Toy association, a private club for Chinese Americans named Yee. His other avocation is serving as "hatchet man" for (not yet disgraced) California State Senator Leland Yee, which really just means he hangs up campaign posters for the politician all over town. His daughter, who now lives with her Jewish husband in New York (though they're planning to move to Berlin for his work), is back home for the celebration of Larry's 60th birthday, but she has no use for his passionate attachment to the family name and its associated legend and traditions.

Lauren declares to us early on that her play is about a "dying Chinatown, how things fall apart, and how to say goodbye." And indeed most of the first act of King of the Yees depicts a generation gap between the ancestral culture-bound Larry and the Yale-educated Lauren, who believes it's not worth maintaining ties to her family legacy from the distance she has established. After Larry mysteriously disappears, however, Lauren is compelled in her search for him to discover the living secrets of the old neighborhood she's left behind and ultimately to recognize and to reestablish some identification with the world she thought she was no longer a part of.

Interspersed between the main scenes in which the Yees' family drama plays out, a pair of actors who thought they were supposed to play Lauren and Larry in this play wait in the wings for their turn to assume their roles. Like Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, these two players (Angela Lin and Daniel Smith) engage in idle, but highly charged, discussion of the world passing around them. These moments include an over-the-top joint training session in extreme Asian accents and a hard discussion of the difficult lot of Asian actors in Los Angeles. Along with a third performer, Rammel Chan, they also take on multiple roles throughout the play.

The entire ensemble ably transitions between the naturalism of the play's first act and the sudden surrealism that takes hold after intermission, when Lauren is compelled to discover a Chinatown previously unknown to her. Some of these second-half scenes are perfectly hysterical, including Lauren's encounter with a trio of elders reluctant to share information unless she promises to help their grandchildren get into a UC school (other than Merced), but not an Ivy thousands of miles away. Other scenes, like an encounter with Leland Yee's organized crime accomplice Shrimp Boy, get a bit too schtick-y.

William Boles's deceptively simple set—enhanced by Izumi Inaba's costumes and, especially, Mike Tutaj's projections—transports us into both the familiar and the unfamiliar territories where Lauren treads in her quest to find her father (and perhaps, accidentally, herself as well). Director Joshua Kahan Brody delivers two very different acts, each with its own enveloping atmosphere. By the time fortune cookies are falling out of the sky onto the audience, we're hardly even surprised

King of the Yees plays eight shows a week through August 6. Full-price tickets $27.50 - $77 online ($25-$70 at the box office); some half-price tickets available on Goldstar.

Center Theatre Group Receives Submissions from 53 Companies for 2nd Annual BLOCK PARTY

--Broadway World Los Angeles July 18, 2014

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Center Theatre Group received submissions from 53 local theatre companies for the second annual Block Party: Celebrating Los Angeles Theatre at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Block Party will continue to highlight some of the remarkable work being done on stages throughout Los Angeles by fully producing three previously staged productions. The three visiting companies invited to join Block Party will be announced later this year.

The selected productions will be presented at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, March 29 through May 20, 2018. Each production will have a two-week run with 12 performances (including two previews) at the Douglas. All three theatre companies will be part of a collaboration with Center Theatre Group and will receive the full support of Center Theatre Group and its staff in order to fund, stage and market each production.

Center Theatre Group accepted submissions for Block Party from intimate theatre companies in the greater Los Angeles area. Each company was able to submit one of its productions that opened between January 1, 2016, and May 30, 2017.

This year, the round one application was significantly simplified, streamlining the application process for the companies that applied. From this pool of applicants, a select number of companies will be invited to the round two application where more in-depth design information will be requested and considered.

Center Theatre Group's 2016-2017 inaugural Block Party featured the Coeurage Theatre Company production of "Failure: A Love Story," which ran April 14 through 23, followed by The Fountain Theatre production of "Citizen: An American Lyric," which ran April 28 through May 7 and finished with The Echo Theater Company production of "Dry Land," which ran May 12 through May 21, 2017.

With Block Party, Center Theatre Group hopes to strengthen relationships within the Los Angeles community, create additional avenues for Center Theatre Group to become familiar with local playwrights, actors, directors and designers, and foster relationships between Center Theatre Group staff and the staff at theatre companies throughout Los Angeles.

Block Party receives major support from Aliza Karney Guren and Marc Guren with generous funding also provided by Joni and Miles Benickes.

Center Theatre Group has a long history of pairing with local theatre companies of all sizes including the Deaf West production of "Big River," which was produced at the Mark Taper Forum in 2002 and went on to Broadway before returning to the Ahmanson Theatre in 2005 as part of a national tour. More recently, Center Theatre Group partnered with 24th STreet Theatre's "Walking the Tightrope" (which played at the Douglas) and other productions around the city such as "The Behavior of Broadus" (with Burglars of Hamm and SacRed Fools Theater Company), "Birder" (with The Road Theatre Company) and, most recently, "The Hotel Play" (with Playwrights' Arena).

Center Theatre Group, one of the nation's preeminent arts and cultural organizations, is Los Angeles' leading nonprofit theatre company, programming seasons at the 736-seat Mark Taper Forum and 1600 to 2000-seat Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles, and the 317-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. In addition to presenting and producing the broadest range of theatrical entertainment in the country, Center Theatre Group is one of the nation's leading producers of ambitious new works through commissions and world premiere productions and a leader in interactive community engagement and education programs that reach across generations, demographics and circumstance to serve Los Angeles

Tickets for Block Party are currently available on season subscription only. For tickets and information, visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org/Douglas or call the Exclusive Season Ticket Hotline at (213) 972-4444. The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA 90232. Ample free parking and restaurants are adjacent.

 

 

Jewish roots, Chinese heritage merge in ‘King of the Yees’

--Jewish Journal   July 5, 2017

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Combine a director’s Jewish roots with a playwright’s Chinese heritage and the result is a quirky comic play that shows the two cultures have more in common than you might imagine.

That’s the case with Joshua Kahan Brody directing Lauren Yee’s “King of the Yees,” opening July 16 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. It is set in a San Francisco Chinatown universe well beyond Brody’s Eastern European Jewish background, but reflects abundant parallels with his family’s history of immigration and assimilation.

“I feel the same way that the play does, which is that it’s important to honor our heritage and to not forget who we are,” Brody, 32, said during an interview backstage at the Douglas. While he said he understood how previous generations might feel the need to be protective of their ethnicity and to immerse themselves in exclusively Jewish enclaves, he added, “I don’t really feel that need myself.”

In “King of the Yees,” the playwright’s assimilated alter ego, also named Lauren Yee, struggles to understand her father’s commitment to Chinatown and his dwindling civic group, the Yee Fung Toy Family Association.

Like her character, Yee grew up in San Francisco, but not in Chinatown, she said in a telephone interview. As a child, she did not speak Chinese and was less than enthused with having to attend the Yee Fung Toy banquets. She is married to a secular Jewish attorney, as is the fictional Lauren Yee.

In the play her father, Larry Yee, goes missing and her character sets out on a magical quest to find him, traversing Chinatown’s mysterious customs and politics. Ultimately, the character’s odyssey connects her with her father and centuries of ancestors in a way she never could have foreseen. In the process, the fictional Lauren enlists the help of a Chinese gangster who expresses — in a politically incorrect way — his admiration for Jews. He says he loves the tribe because they are “just like us. The hard work, the good food … the cheapskate, the mom so loud always control the son, the dad bad at sport cannot throw the ball. … The Jew know you gotta stick together, make sure they don’t erase you from your story.”

The scene is a tricky bit of social satire, but Brody insisted the references are not racist. “Lauren isn’t making fun of Jews,” he said. “Instead, she gets away with it because these things are both self-deprecating about Chinese stereotypes and sort of teasing about Jewish ones. Frankly, there’s no malice in the play, no bad intent. And I’m pretty good at getting a group of people on the same stage and making something with warmth and a great deal of love.”

Yee, for her part, said she chose Brody to direct “because he understands my sense of humor and what I find funny. He also can walk into a play called ‘King of the Yees,’ which is about Yees — which he is not — and then about Asian-American identity in the 21st century, which is something that is not in his everyday life. He approaches it with a wonderful sense of openness and curiosity and respect that allows him to support this world.

“Then there’s also the fact that he has a Jewish background. He brings to the play a related but slightly different perspective in terms of cultural identity.”

Brody spent his early years in New Jersey before moving to London with his family after his father, an investment banker, transferred there for work.

Both sets of his grandparents were Bundists but “very culturally Jewish,” he said.

Brody’s maternal grandfather hailed from Vilnius, Lithuania, and survived Bergen-Belsen and other concentration camps

during the Holocaust. Brody’s maternal grandmother escaped the Warsaw Ghetto with a bullet injury, then helped smuggle Jewish children to safety as part of the Polish resistance movement.

“My mother’s first language was Yiddish, and when the extended older relatives were around it was all Yiddish,” he said. “I regret that I never learned my family’s language, which is similar to what Lauren’s character feels in the play.”

Brody said his family’s Judaism fell away somewhat after they moved to England. “Lauren’s parents grew up in Chinatown, but she didn’t grow up there,” he said. “She experienced the lack of day-to-day interaction with those people, and the same thing happened to me.”

Even so, Brody on his own decided to continue his Jewish education for two years after he became bar mitzvah at a large Reform congregation in London. “It was because I had a real intellectual curiosity about Judaism, and also it was a bit of an identity thing for me,” he said. “I still identify so much as Jewish. Yet, I’m not religious today. So my question is, what does it mean to have an ethnic identity that is tied to a religion, but is not actually religious?”

Brody first met Yee, also 32, when both were undergraduates at Yale University. Later, they attended the theater master’s degree program at UC San Diego. There, Brody directed one of Yee’s student plays the same year he also tackled a version of S. Ansky’s Jewish ghost story “The Dybbuk.”

“To me, the subject of that play is also fundamentally about identity:  What is the soul of a person? If a person dies and the soul inhabits another body, who is that person?” he said.

At the La Jolla Playhouse last year, Brody directed Jeff Augustin’s “The Last Tiger in Haiti,” which revolves in part around the cultural havoc that followed Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010. “That play also deals with questions of assimilation, and specifically the virtue of authenticity and who gets to tell one’s story,” he said.

To understand Yee’s family history, Brody immersed himself in research, including listening to the hours of interviews the playwright recorded with her father, as well as visiting Yee Fung Toy associations throughout the United States, which were established to maintain contacts among and work for the benefit of members of the Yee clan. He also spent time with Larry Yee, who turned out to be just as exuberant and iconoclastic as his character in the play.

When Brody first read “King of the Yees,” he thought the Larry character was over the top. “And then you meet Larry, and you realize it isn’t,” he said. “This literally happened when Francis Jue, who plays Larry, said, ‘Am I doing too much?’ And we were like, ‘No, keep going. We feel like Larry is in the room with us.’ ”

“King of the Yees” opens July 16 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. For more information about “King of the Yees,” visit centertheatregroup.org.

 

 

DRY LAND Celebrates Opening Night as Part of 'Block Party' the Douglas

--Broadway World Los Angeles  May 15, 2017

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Center Theatre Group's Block Party continues with the opening of The Echo Theater Company production of "Dry Land" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Written by Ruby Rae Spiegel and directed by Alana Dietze, "Dry Land" opened on May 14 and runs through May 21, 2017. BroadwayWorld has photos from the opening festivities below!

Block Party highlights some of the remarkable work being done in other, more intimate theatres throughout Los Angeles by fully producing three previously staged productions. The three visiting companies received the full support of Center Theatre Group and its staff in order to fund, stage and market each production.

"Dry Land" is a haunting play about female friendship and an abortion that takes place in the locker room of a central Florida high school. Written when Spiegel was just 21 years old and still an undergraduate at Yale, the play is a deeply truthful portrait of the fears, hopes and bonds of teenage girls - as gut-wrenching as it is funny.

The cast of "Dry Land" includes Daniel Hagen, Ben Horwitz, Connor Kelly-Eiding, Teagan Rose and Jenny Soo. The cast also includes Jacqueline Besson and Alexandra Freeman as well as USC School of Dramatic Arts students Francesca O'Hern, Bukola Ogunmola, Sidne Phillips and Tessa Hope Slovis. Scenic design is by Amanda Knehans, costume design is by Elena Flores, lighting design is by Justin Huen and sound design is by Jeff Gardner. Anna Engelsman is the production stage manager.