This was a big opening weekend for Long Beach theater, with both “Something Rotten (a very new musical)” from Musical Theatre West and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” from International City Theatre.
Live theater fans should be ready to ride the rollercoaster of emotion. A bold choice by International City Theatre, “Lady Day...” is a piece that must be driven by an actress who can channel Billie Holiday at her most vulnerable. It is here that they triumph.
Karole Foreman as the mythically iconic Lady Day is captivating. Supported by the incredibly talented Stephan Terry on piano, the play/concert/time travel event is set in the last days of the performer’s life. While performing her standards, for an audience at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in Philadelphia, she bares her soul in a stream of consciousness telling of her life and loves.
The play itself has been around for awhile, performed regionally and eventually made its way to Broadway, where it became the vehicle for Audra McDonald to win her sixth Tony award. It is solidly crafted and, with a performer the likes of Karole Foreman, transports you to a moment that holds you captive. I should say Foreman holds you captive.
From the first syllables of the first song, she draws you into the essence of Lady Day. Sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter and very broken, she is always alluring. Some performers approach the spirit of Billie Holiday with a ferocity that makes you aware that you are a hostage. Foreman is like smoke exhaled slowly. She enfolds the audience seductively, hypnotically until they are willing participants in this emotional heist. Bottom line — she will steal your heart.
Then across town, MTW's ironically named “Something Rotten” smashes its way onto the Carpenter Center stage, leaving the audience's cheeks sore from smiling for hours. With catchy tunes, a frothy plot and a million and one musical theatre references, the cast of this bawdy musical dazzles.
MTW sometimes rents its sets and costumes. Often, the national touring company versions or other sets developed for rental, but not this time. The sets, costumes and props for the show were all created specifically for the MTW production. This is quite a feat these days — 25 years ago there were any number of scenic shops and costume shops you could hire to work with your designers. Heck, some companies even had their own shops. Not so much these days. So the beautiful, wonderfully crafted work onstage in this production is a delight to witness. Kudos to Scenic and Lighting Designer Paul Black, Prop Designer Dylan Powell and Costume Designer Robin L. McGee. I hope they can rest now, though I’m sure they are on to the next design already.
Then there is the show itself, a very bawdy romp led by an enthusiastic cast and crew. Lots of dance, lots of dance with set pieces moving while actors dance on them and lots and lots of perfectly timed scenic shifts. It is a whirlwind of buffoonery and brilliance.
Leading the charge with the opening number is Roland Rusinek, who plays numerous roles throughout with flair and spunk. Eric Peterson (Nick Bottom) and Beau Brians (Nigel Bottom) are the adorably earnest brothers who desperately want a hit as big as their rival Shakespeare. Lovable is the word that best describes their performances; you will find yourself rooting for their cause because they are just so darned, well, lovable.
Rounding out the male part leads in the show are Davis Gaines (Nostradamus) and Grasan Kingsberry (Shakespeare). In as much as Gaines marvelously embodies the daffy soothsayer, Kinsberry cuts a handsome figure as the impossibly sexy Bard.
Dedrick Bonner (Brother Jeremiah) is the foil for all the shenanigans. A puritan with a mission to cleanse the city of the evils of theatre, Bonner has a blast bringing a bombastic barrage of double entendre to life.
This brings me to the only criticism I have for this show and it is only of the playwrights. There are two, count em’ — only two, female leads. What year is this, 1920? I mean even the musicals back then brought us characters like "the great aunt who ran the boarding house" or "the maid who flirts with everyone!"
Here we only get the wonderful Chelle Denton (Bea Bottom) Nick’s dedicated and ridiculously dutiful wife with a big wonderful voice and a knack for comedic timing; and delightful Madison Claire Parks (Portia) the overprotected daughter of the aforementioned preacher. Parks's sweetness pours through her comedically sincere portrait of a girl yearning to be out from under her father's thumb.
So, while other critics may have had a hard time with how over the top “Something Rotten” is, I’m simply upset that there wasn’t more for some more seasoned female actors to do. Look, I get it, as the show itself says, “Critics are fakakta!” I should know, I am one.
But trust me this one time. This is a great month to go to the theatre in Long Beach.
"Lady Day" at the Beverly O'Neill Theater continues through Nov. 3 with an added matinee on Nov. 2. Tickets start at $47 are available at ictlongbeach.org.
"Something Rotten" at the Carpenter Center continues through Nov. 3. Tickets start at $20 and are available at nusical.org.