Cesar and Rubin

Cesar and Ruben, The Cesar Chavez Story
a kate west review
written and directed by Ed Begley, Jr.
El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood
call (818) 508-0281
Running March 14 through May 11, 2003

I recently had the distinct pleasure of attending Ed Begley Jr.'s directorial debut at the El Portal in trendy "No-Ho"( a delightfully artsy section of North Hollywood Ca) called, "CESAR AND RUBEN. This involiving musical is the story of Cesar Chavez, celebrated champion and founder of the United Farm Workers of America and Ruben Salazar, the legendary Los Angeles Times reporter, who chronicled Chavez’ fabled activism .Ed Begley states in the program notes that he knew Chavez personally and was even a pall bearer at his funeral so in my book he’s an excellent choice to execute this magical vision of Chavez’ life. And this production is no mere historical retelling of famous events - it is a musical inspired by Chavez himself, who dearly loved all kinds of music. Although I think original music may have helped to further along the plot even more, the existing score worked well in the context of the play. Begley chose appropriates pieces such as Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” Sting’s “Fragile” and Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero,” among others, to challenge his actors’ vocal abilities and to connect the audience of the present with the visionaries of the past.

We begin with Cesar (Roberto Alcaraz) and Ruben (Tony D’Arc) meeting in “heaven” in the form of a coffee-shop juke box-joint. Ruben is there to guide Cesar through his past, cleverly activating key moments by playing juke box numbers. By the way, the juke box thing only happens a few times in the beginning and then you really don’t see it anymore. It’s funny and it works but I could see growing tired of the joke. So with the help of Ruben and fascinating real-life images from Chavez’ life projected on the back wall (Special Effects by Stephan Szpak-Fleet), Cesar watches his life unfold: as a child migrating to the states, experiencing racial hatred early on, being hired as a laborer, meeting his wife and then after meeting Fred Ross (Charles Dennis), the organizer for the Community Service Organization, finally resolving to take matters in his own hands and officially becoming a union activist. In the course of aiding Cesar, Ruben finds himself reconciled to painful memories as well. The events are in turn, charming, entertaining and poignant, such as one humorous scene where Chavez’ numerous children are baptized. There are many gorgeous elaborate musical numbers set to a variety of American and Mexican “pop music” pieces. Kudos to Choreographer Roman Vasquez!

The actors are, for the most part, quite wonderful and, for those familiar with the real-life persons, many of them bear an amazing resemblance to the characters they portray. Shannon Stoeke, especially, does a wonderful, life-like impersonation of Bobby Kennedy. Roberto Alcaraz is a fresh, spirited, impassionate Cesar Chavez and Tony D’Arc is a personable, effective and doomed Ruben Salazar. Danielle Barbosa paints a vivid and passionate portrait of Dolores Huerta, Chavez’ longtime co-champion. The other women, Marta Dubois as Helen Chavez and Jeanine Pacheco as his young mother, are also strong. A special delight is Edward Laurence Albert (actor Eddie Albert’s son) as Naylor, the wickedly deceptive Ranch Boss, who torments Chavez throughout the play, singing and dancing his way into classic villain history.

CESAR AND RUBEN was overall a delight - a very involving, entertaining and a fairly accurate outline of the life of Cesar Chavez. I believe that this production is on its way to becoming a profound homage to a great man who changed the lives of the forgotten migrant workers. It only lacks a well-defined ending scene (and maybe some original music). Nonetheless, Ed Begley, Jr., with his political beliefs and passion about the environment is the perfect spokesperson, (please note that that all programs are printed on 100% recycled paper). Thank you, Ed. And yes, Si, se puede!

The Words of Cesar Chavez Read more!

Sunday in the Park with George

Sunday in the Park with George
a kate west review
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine
Director: Calvin Remsberg, Musical Director: Allen Everman II, Artistic Director: Les Hanson
West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles (323) 525-0022
March 14 through May 4, 2003

Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical masterpiece, “Sunday in the Park with George” comes to vibrant life in the West Coast Ensemble’s delightful new production. Having seen their spectacular production of “Cabaret” a few years ago I was anticipating wonderful things. Most of my expectations were met from the clever set design (a blank white canvas eventually turned into a gorgeous work of art) and lovely costumes to the well-defined ensemble cast and outstanding directing by Calvin Remsberg.

The George in the title refers to French painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891), whose most famous piece, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” is literally the set piece for this musical. Stef Tovar is a wonderfully sensitive and haunted George, depicting Seurat’s artistic obsession (in the brilliantly written songs “Color and Light” and “Finishing the Hat”) as the necessary element to achieve greatness, but causing him to fail at human relationships. He is at least partially redeemed in the second half, when his descendent and modern counterpart, also named George, becomes frustrated with the art world (“Putting It Together”) and with the help of his grandmother Marie (Dana Reynolds), realizes that it is family that holds people together.

Less strong is Dana Reynolds’ weary lover, Dot, who cannot hold on to Seurat, as she finally realizes in the songs “We Do Not Belong Together” and “Move On.” The rest of the cast performs well, most of them portraying characters from the painting in the first act as well as modern art aficionados in Act Two. Some standouts include Steven Connor’s Jules, a rival of Seurat and Jan Sheldrick as Seurat’s mother.

The two best moments in the musical occur when we see the fruition of Seurat’s hard work come to life as the actors actually become the famous painting and then start complaining about being stuck there (“Sunday” and “It’s Hot Up Here”). The other is the finale when the same characters return to serenade the modern George with another rendition of “Sunday,” defining the moment where family history and the nature of art come together. There are many such enchanting moments which completely absorb the audience into a magical musical Sondheim world. James Lapine’s story also superbly conveys the complexities of life vs. art.

This is not to say the production was completely flawless, however. Musical Director Allen Everman II needs to have a stern word with his brass section as they were often tentative and even slightly off-key. Aside from that, this production is as poignant, charming, sincere and well-executed as the original Broadway version. And as musicals are finally coming back into vogue, I recommend treating yourself to a good Sondheim musical.

Sunday in the Park with George (1984 Original Broadway Cast) Read more!

The Producers

The Producers, the new Mel Brooks Musical
a kate west review
at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles
Mel Brooks (Book, Composer, Lyricist, Producer), Thomas Meehan (Book),
Susan Stroman (Director, Choreographer)
Opens May 2, 2003
contact Los Angeles (213) 628-2772, Ticket Master (213) 365-3500

“The Producers,” now playing at the Pantages, is a Tony-award-winning, fun romp in the tradition of old-fashioned musical theater. As in the beloved movie version (also Mel Brooks), two desperate producers, Jason Alexander (of “Seinfeld” fame) as Max Bialystock and Martin Short (from “Saturday Night Live”) as Leo Bloom, connive old lady theater patrons into investing in a sure-fire bomb. The plan is to collect two million dollars, close the show in one day, keep the money and evade the IRS. What could go wrong? Plenty, it seems, as is fabulously depicted in this Broadway version of an old con.

Broadway veteran Jason Alexander is wonderfully adept as the crass, smooth-talking Max, who convinces his accountant Leo (the very silly Martin Short) to be more creative with the financial books and to help him mount a flop. They find a terrible playwright, an old German nazi-afficiando Franz Liebkind, played by the marvelously talented Fred Applegate and a truly awful director, Roger De Bris, (the outrageous Gary Beach) and together with some terrible music and actors they mount “Springtime for Hitler,” a musical showing Adolf Hitler’s “fun side,” guaranteed to offend anyone and everyone. However, everything soon goes horribly wrong or in this case right (“Where Did We Go Right?”), beginning with the musical becoming a smash hit and ending with the two hapless producers facing a long jail sentence and no way out. Along the way, they have many run-ins with over-the-top stereotypical characters such as neo-nazis, flamboyant theater people (“Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop,” “Keep It Gay”) and even little old ladies who tap-dance with walkers in an impressively mobile number.

There are a lot of big, beautiful Broadway spectacular numbers (“I Wanna Be A Producer,” “Springtime for Hitler”); there are a few inside jokes (Jason Alexander addresses the audience at one point, comparing himself to Nathan Lane in the New York production) and plenty of mindless dialogue to keep the audience laughing and enjoying themselves. Director/Choreographer Susan Stroman keeps the production fast-paced and trimmed and the costumes (William Ivey Long) and set design (Robin Wagner) are delicious. A slight, desperate, frantic air prevails throughout the production, which seems to be typical of Mel Brooks, however for the most part it’s harmless fun and a great idea for an adaptation. Those familiar with the movie version should especially relish it. For the rest of the world, the best way to enjoy this production is to fully embrace the one-dimensional characters and not look for the deeper meaning of life. Plus, it’s running for several months at the gorgeous Pantages Theater which always adds to the magic of a production.

The Producers (Movie-Only Edition) Read more!