“Red” at SCR, “Bonnie & Clyde” at the Curtis Theatre, The Hot Sardines at SCFTA

John Logan’s “Red” (at South Coast Repertory through Feb. 21) does what great theatre should do—it engages people to think. The Tony Award-winning play, ostensibly about abstract painter Mark Rothko, can pretty much be summed up by its opening line: “What do you see?”

Ultimately, this compact two-character drama is about what goes inside an artist’s head, what they think, what they feel, what they see; it’s a must-see for artists of every stripe and students, not only of art but of philosophy as well—indeed, all the humanities. It’s not a play for everyone though—some people will be happier in front of their TV, being told what to think and what to see.

Mark Harelik offers an outstanding characterization as Rothko, painting a vivid portrait of an angry man who rails at the modern world as he works on a commissioned project. Paul David Story does an admirable job in the more difficult role as Ken, the young apprentice Rothko challenges to think—essentially a blank canvas he imbues with his ideas and views. SCR co-founder David Emmes’ incisive direction is matched by Ralph Funicello’s scenic design, a recreation of Rothko’s New York studio as it looked in the late 1950s.

It’s a pleasure to see a musical that hasn’t been done to death, like most playing Orange County—though death itself brought fame to the real-life legends who inspired “Bonnie & Clyde” (at Brea’s Curtis Theatre through Feb. 20). The story of a young lady who idolizes silent movie “It Girl” Clara Bow and a boy who wants to follow in the footsteps of Billy the Kid and Al Capone is made highly credible by the casting of Courtney Daniels and Trevor Shor, who have genuine chemistry on stage, evidently a carryover from their real-life relationship.

The book, by Ivan Menchell, doesn’t romanticize the notorious outlaws the way the Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway film did; while some of the songs (music by Frank Wildhorn, lyrics by Don Black) are superfluous the score enhances the show rather than overwhelms it, as with so many musicals. Not many have a live seven-piece band either, a definite asset.

Producer-director Jonathan Infante has wisely backed Daniels and Shor with not only talented singers but solid actors who can pull off the dramatic elements—notably Joshua Lee Evans and Dayna Sauble as Buck and Blanche, Clyde’s brother and sister-in-law; Alicia Derrick as Bonnie’s mother; and Ryan Coon as a preacher. The result is a socko show with few flaws.

Did somebody say live music from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s? A frontwoman who sings in both English and French and plays washboard, a bandleader who plays stride-piano in the mode of Fats Waller, and a tap dancer named “Fast Eddy”? I’ve never heard of The Hot Sardines, but I’ll be there when they perform at Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ intimate Samueli Theater Feb. 11-14.

Louis Armstrong, Django Reinhardt, Billie Holiday and the Andrews Sisters are among those who have influenced this New York jazz band’s style. “We don’t treat this music with kid gloves, or place it on a pedestal to preserve and adore…we just play it…as if these songs were written this morning, for today’s generation,” says bandleader Evan “Bibs” Palazzo. Sounds like my kind of band.