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PRO THEATRE: SONDHEIM UNSCRIPTED

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Unlike countless Improv shows that ask for audience suggestions, take too many and seem to avoid the challenging suggestions, the group asked for two suggestions and ran with them. The category- a family Heirloom and why it was important. A woman suggested the mystifying pressed glasses, which appeared as a throwaway joke later in the show. I suggested a Lucite Ukulele, the only one of it's kind, and we took to sea, in a musical set on a Cruise Ship.

 Guest Musical director, brilliant pianist Matthew Loren Cohen galloped through Sondheim's signature musical tricks: the rapid swings from dissonant to consonant sounds, the competing time signatures, that work like lap dissolves or filmic cross cutting. Brilliant.  The cast appeared on the stage. Moving across an upstage ramp, dancing and striking poses in silhouette, they found their characters: assorted couples, a lonely woman of a certain age and crew members thrown together on a West Coast cruise 

 I had seen an impressive performance of the Jane Austin show with cast members that included Paul Rogan, Brian Jones and Kelly Holden Bashir, and was eager to she the company again.  Co-director Michelle Spears, channeling mid-career Liza Minnelli, played the perpetual cruiser (a sort of Flying Dutchwoman), a lonely single woman, who'd rather stay at sea than ever land anywhere. She's looking for sex without strings. Crossing the stage with a Fosse foot drag, her character belted out her acerbic lyrics. Hilarious throughout, she barrel-housed her way through a series of songs both comic and moving.

 An opening remark,"What'ya mean, we’re still in the harbor", which she sneered before christening their ship "The Hopeless", set the play in motion and cued a theme developed throughout; crew members and the captain later referred to the ship as “The Fulfillment", the answer to the cruisers' dreams of change.

David Blinkoff, (Ensemble Guest Artist) played Bradley the seductive master of the Lucite Ukulele. In the Talkback after the show, Blinkoff explained that when he entered the stage, he planned to play a stowaway, but a remark from the horny single woman about the famed Lucite Uke transformed him into Bruno, a virtuoso of the instrument, so transparently Lucite, it was rendered invisible. His opening song, a reverie of air-uke fingering, performed at time on his knees, was a sensual, melancholy love song to the gal looking for a Zipless F+ck, not a relationship. Rich and nuanced, it was one of the most fully realized songs and a highlight of the show, though as the show went on, he used his Latin accent intermittently.  Bradley knows she yearns for love, though her cynical public pose denies it.

Driven mad by his insinuating rhythms, she lures him back to her cabin. "Listen little boy, meet me later at the Bonjolie Suite and bring your little instrument.”

 A scene at the rails, between the sophisticated tycoon George and the drunken podiatrist Tom, establishes the cruise in a marvelous Sondeheimesque duet.

 Brit actor Paul Rogan played George the richer than Croesus tycoon, so rich he could buy the shipping line and fire the crew. He's in love with his hard-drinking wife Mary, but is sick of her scornful insults.  Kelly Holden Bashir played Mary, the bitter wife and retired CEO. Endlessly commenting on the action and sewing it up, Bashir has mastered the Sondheim run-on songs, with their questing lists and staccato quick rhymes.

The blasé pair, who lubricates their conversation with liquor, are already bored with the cruise. "Where are we going?" George drawls sipping his drink. "The Cabos", snaps his wife, Mary. "You mean there's more than one?" he wonders, fatigued by the very thought. I don't even know why I'm here", laments hubby George,  "That's what we do. On the odd years we take a West Coast Cruise, on the even years we take an East Coast Cruise, and every five years we sail International waters", Mary reminds him.

 Paul Rogan, as George, the urbane tycoon, submerged his English accent while lobbing witty, terse non-sequiturs, as he did in the Austin show I caught at the Broad.  A duet, "Sea Change", developed the theme, “ a sea change can change your life."  It's clear everybody on this ship of fools wants a change of partner, or work or life.

 In a duet about their failing marriage, beginning with '"Do you remember when we met?" "Of course I remember", and riddled with Stock Market terms, we discover that Mary and George based their marriage on Fiscal contact, They merged their huge companies, she retired, and has been making his life miserable ever since. But underneath it all, love remains  Floyd VanBuskirk played Tom the retired podiatrist, a man with a perpetual backache from bending over to look at other people's feet. "It would be so much better if people walked around on their hands. That's a podiatrist's joke", he explains to his confidante George.  With enough money to finally retire, Tom is living his dream come true, a romantic cruise with his beautiful younger wife.

 Patty Wortheim (Ensemble Guest Artist) played Tina, the younger trophy wife, who is the life of the Cruise.  Spurred on by Rauul, the Activity director's suggestions, the couples temporarily change partners, leading to another flurry of amusing Sondeheim--lich maneuvering and contrapuntal duets.  As George's wife Mary spins in Tom's arms she muses, '"Someone else's arms, Someone else's eyes, someone else's touch", while possessive Tom searches the crowd to see "Who's dancing with my wife?" and Mary gushes, "I found someone newwww."

 Kari Coleman played the eager, bubbly Social Director. Ryan Smith played the lurking, swish activities Director Rauuuul. Alex Caan was the lighting Improviser.  Silly running jokes flashed throughout; Fisticuffs became Kissedticuffs etc., etc. but never at the expense of the character arcs and feelings.

 Eventually the couples make their various loves known; Tom discovers that his trophy wife prefers him to everyone else, and Gorge and Mary peel back their verbal acrimony to honeymoon level. The last act took a mystical turn, shades of " The Flying Dutchman" and "Between Two Worlds."  During Brandon's command performance, a chord seems to change everything. The ship became becalmed on a flat unmoving sea, as glassy as a mirror. As the frightened passengers wonder what will happen next. the Captain emerges, also played by VanBuskirk. Peering over the frozen sea, as "smooth as a dance floor" he dubs it a Lucite Sea, and the engine of his deliverance.  Yearning for life ashore, the Captain cannot quit the ship until he's left her in good hands. He picks the Endlessly Sailing woman. She accepts and, in a Coup de theatre that calls up the audience's imagination, he steps off the stage and exits through the audience. What a poetic idea to end the piece 

 The gifted cast excelled in Sondheim clichés: the recurring themes transposed into different pitches from minor to major, as different characters weigh in: The staccato list songs, the beautiful overlapping duets with ironic lyric counterpoints; the Ravel and Arlen inspired minor chords bouncing off triumphant Broadway Major chords. What fun.  As Co-director Michele Spears explained in the Thursday night Talk Back with the Actors; "Sondheim bounced dark ideas over bright upbeat music and vice versa." The company was founded by actors from Theatresports, who had studied with Keith Johnstone.  Brit/ Canadian Johnstone's book "Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre" was the first alternative to Viola Spolin's "Improvisation For The Theatre". Spolin's system of theatre "games' were held sacrosanct by The Second City and decades of improv teachers.

As their journey from competitive team improv to genre plays evolved, they outgrew the golden rule of 'Yes, and", a dictum to NEVER contradict another player's creation. Spears explained, “Sometimes you have to say NO to another player's premise, in order to say YES to the Play” you're group building.  Tired of long-form team improv sports, they wanted to create theatre that could make the audience feel something, take something away, not just laughs that dematerialized like soap bubbles seconds later.

 The company began deconstructing and reconstructing Shakepeare, studying the patterns, themes and stylistic flourishes. They continued researching various genres and they developed a series of show styles. Other genre shows regularly mounted are LA.Noir, Jane Austin, Chekhov, Dickens, Tennessee Williams, Twilight Zone and The Western, all unscripted.

CLOSING WEEK

Wed September 23 8pm,,

Thurs Sept 24 8pm,

Fri Sept 25 8pm,

Sat Sept 26 8pm, 

Sunday Sept 27 4pm

 Ticketholders attending Thursday night performances are welcome to participate in an informal Q&A discussion with the cast in the theatre!   To buy tickets go to

http://falcontheatre.com/sondheim_unscripted.html

 Falcon Theatre

4252 W Riverside Dr, Burbank, CA 91505

(818) 955-8101 Free parking available

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