Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Tragedy Tomorrow

March 22, 2010

Deborah Strang as Bessie in Awake and Sing!
Photo: Craig Schwartz/A Noise Within 2010

It’s unusual for me to have a weekend where I see more than one local theater production here in L.A. and have them both turn out to be really good. But it does happen, and I’d be remiss not to mention these two particular offerings since both are definitely worth seeing. First was a comedy that, believe it or not, actually produced some genuine laughter. I’ve always thought Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was sort of a passé sex comedy with great songs. Like a Benny Hill episode scored by Benjamin Britten perhaps. But I must admit that the current revival being offered by Reprise on the UCLA campus is bright and bawdy even if it is the kind of thing that you could envision yourself enjoying as much at age 12 as you do now. It’s a modest production and director David Lee has cast the show with an eye to performers who don’t so much play the parts as play the actors who originally made the parts famous. Foremost among these are an excellent Lee Wilkof as Pseudolous and Michael Kostroff as Marcus Lycus. But as odd as this may sound, it works quite well. Perhaps a lot of this is due to the strength of Sondheim’s music and lyrics. Still, not even this score is indestructible and there are a few numbers that could use some more punch such as “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.” But for the most part, the musical performances were well done and a comedy that actually delivers on the promise of laughter is sadly rarer than it should be. Funny Thing will continue through the end of next weekend.

Erich Bergen as Hero and Lee Wilkof as Pseudolus
Photo: John Ganun/Reprise 2010

However, if you’re not in the market for comedy tonight, you might want to consider the surprisingly fresh and tight production of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! that just opened up at A Noise Within in Glendale. Odets 1935 melodrama trades in the political and social concerns of the period with a Bronx family struggling to get by in tough times. It might seem like Odets’ story of class struggle would be woefully dull and out of date, but the cast at ANW under the direction of Andrew Traister manage to keep the interpersonal intensity so high that the play flies by. Of course, at the center of this great production is Deborah Strang, one of ANW’s most valuable players. It is not unusual for entire productions to hang off her shoulders. What is unusual is that Awake and Sing! is one show in which even the players new to the company have no trouble keeping up with her. Adam Silver ‘s frustrated son Ralph was as real and heartbreaking as Molly Leland’s performance as his sister Hennie. And, although he's not new to ANW, Len Lesser's Jacob was notable for creating real attachment with the audience in a part with the lion's share of the political content. The show has no difficulty finding the human and dramatic elements among the sociopolitical sparring, making the play feel urgent and very contemporary. It’s a super show that runs through May 23 in Glendale. Oh, and congratulations to the company in reaching their $10-million fundraising goal to break ground on their new much swanker space in Pasadena. They deserve a bigger, brighter, and more functional home.

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