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Wed09182019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

We’re confused—not because we’re Lost in Yonkers, but because of all the questions that are raised by this production of this show.

Have we come to expect too much from Desert Theatreworks? Has the quality of its other productions led us to anticipate an impossible-to-achieve consistency? With all the projects DTW has going, has the company spread itself too thin to give sufficient time and effort to this show? While there are laughs aplenty in this play, they’re due to Neil Simon’s deft scriptwriting—not because of what we see happening on the stage of the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre.

The most egregious problems suggest a lack of steady leadership. Somebody took their eyes off the road here. Example: It’s hard for actors, affecting an accent, to hear themselves clearly, especially if they’re simultaneously worrying about lines/timing/blocking/orientation. They need somebody else’s keen ears to catch them if they wander off. The actors here were all over the place with their mishmash of accents, and the results fluctuated from no dialect at all to downright mispronunciations.

Another example: There were several blocking mistakes, which placed some actors downstage close to the audience—completely masking the action happening upstage. This is not the kind of error we would expect at this theater.

Want me to go on? How about the grandmother’s wig, which was so obviously false and misfit and wrong that it actually distracted us from her acting? Or what about Gert’s breathing problems? They were funny the first couple of times, but then she changed the effect and totally overdid it—causing the audience to stop laughing. How about the father, Eddie, reading his own letters aloud, while he holds the paper up so high that you can barely see his forehead? Why is Louis’ jacket bunched all funny in the front when it’s buttoned—did they just hope we wouldn’t notice? Should I mention doors that stick nearly every time—except for one that slowly swung open by itself during someone’s speech? How could this happen?

It makes me feel terrible to point these things out, as I have consistently lauded the work at this theater for its originality and solid old-school creativity. But something has gone wrong here—not that you won’t enjoy the wit and wisdom of Neil Simon’s play, and revel in his magnificently crafted humor. Setup! Punch line! Roar with laughter!

Lost in Yonkers takes place during World War II. The widowed father of two young boys (supposedly 13 and 15, but neither looks it … we might have believed 9 and 11) drops them off at his mother’s home above her confectionary store in Yonkers, so he can take advantage of a wartime work opportunity involving many months of travel. The grandmother is a German refugee and mother of six. The boys’ observations and comments about their new situation are wonderful, with their “out of the mouths of babes” insight.

The grandmother, a hard case played by June August, has the most fabulous face, tragically overshadowed by the already mentioned weird silver wig. Her remaining children—the kids’ aunts and uncle—who were raised under her rigid and severe hand, lead lives that show their reactions to her steely and uncompromising discipline. Aunt Bella, a difficult role performed by Daniela Ryan, is a multilayered young lady full of secrets who displays serious problems with reality. Aunt Gert, played by Adina Lawson—wearing yet another ghastly copper-colored hairpiece mistake—has developed breathing problems due to the stress. Uncle Louis, played by Stephen Blackwell, has defected to a freewheeling lifestyle in a world of gangsters, breezily choosing to ignore his former life—until he requires a handy hideout from his nefarious companions. Eddie, the boys’ father, portrayed by Gregg Aratin, comes off as a broken man, overwhelmed by his responsibilities and terrified of his mother, yet determined to set things right and get out of debt. Alas, his performance was robotic.

Of course, it’s the kids who get the very best lines, and Cameron Keys, as Jay—or Yakob, as their grandmother insists on calling him—the older brother, is a pleasant surprise. Because he doesn’t wear makeup, we watch his fine-skinned face go bright-red under the influence of anger or indignation or protest, an astonishing experience. His kid brother, the big-eyed Angus Feath as Arty or Arthur, shows a poise and composure far beyond his years, and indicates a tremendous promise for the future. This young man has a gift for comedy and is definitely one to watch.

So what happened here? Perhaps the play just simply wasn’t ready. When the actors all spoke their lines, they seemed to miss the deep conviction of a finished product, and lacked the thoughtfulness of a stage-ready performance. Every actor has to remember the words, the blocking, the plots, but it’s entirely another experience to bring to the play the convincing portrayal, the passion, the commitment, the sincerity of a performance that will move the audience not just to laughter, but a whole range of emotions. They call it “polishing,” and this show simply lacked polish.

If we are not honest about the things that are wrong in our fantastic local theater community, then our praise will mean nothing, either. And that leaves us not just Lost in Yonkers … but really confused.

Lost in Yonkers, a production of Desert Theatreworks, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 25, at the Arthur Newman Theatre at the Joslyn Center, located at 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $23 to $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Yes, Palm Canyon Theatre’s production of Avenue Q is a musical with puppets—but this is definitely not a show geared toward children. Instead, it’s a show with substance (and, it should be noted, decidedly adult themes).

The show, conceived by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (who also wrote the music and lyrics), with a book by Jeff Whitty, was originally meant to be a television series. In 2002, it was developed as a stage production at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center for the National Musical Theatre Conference. It hit Broadway in 2003—and went on to win three Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Avenue Q addresses the issues we all face while becoming adults. Its characters (some of whom are puppets animated and voiced by unconcealed actors onstage) hit bumps in the road as they try to make their way in the world. The show opens as recent college graduate Princeton (Nicholas Sloan) is looking for his purpose in life. He has just moved to Avenue Q, a fictional street in New York, where he meets his neighbors: kindergarten teaching assistant Kate Monster (the fabulous Sarah Noe); uptight banker Rod (Hanz Enyeart) and his roommate, Nicky (Kelly Peak, who also directs); and Brian, an aspiring comedian (the always-dependable Cliff Plummer) and his Japanese fiancée, Christmas Eve (Carissa Dizon), a therapist with no clients. Rounding out the cast are Nicole Tillman as Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman), the building superintendent; and Stephen Blackwell and Jennifer Stowe as the Bad Idea Bears.

Debate begins over who has things the toughest with the song “It Sucks to Be Me.” Tough subjects including racism, porn, angst over one’s sexual orientation, homelessness and infidelity are all touched on in the musical numbers, with understanding and great humor. The biggest laughs come during “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love),” as Kate Monster and Princeton have raunchy puppet sex.

Trials and tribulations ensue, but eventually, most of the characters make progress in their life’s journeys. In the closing number, “For Now,” the cast reminds that it’s OK that some people never find their life’s purpose—since everything is only temporary, anyway.

The Palm Canyon’s production is well-paced; J.W. Layne’s set is spot-on; and the lighting and sound are great (other than a common Palm Canyon Theatre problem: body-mic feedback when the actors/puppets have physical contact).

The cast is strong overall, but special kudos go to Noe, double-cast as Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, who closes Act 1 with Kate singing the superb “There’s a Fine, Fine Line”; and Dizon, who shines in the duet “The More Yu Ruv Someone.”

But the highlight of Avenue Q is the masterful puppeteering. The cast manages to make the audience forget about the humans behind the foam-rubber heads with the painted-on faces; in the end, the audience sees only each puppet’s individual character—which is no small feat.

Yes, this puppet play requires more suspension of disbelief than usual—but Palm Canyon’s production succeeds beautifully.

Avenue Q, presented by Palm Canyon Theatre, is performed at 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 17. The theater is located at 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $32. The show runs about two hours, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123 or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.com.

Published in Theater and Dance