“Elf The Musical” in Costa Mesa

Sam Hartley in "Elf The Musical.” Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
Sam Hartley in “Elf The Musical.” Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

By April Braswell, guest blogger

Much like a modern day “White Christmas,” “Elf The Musical” (now at Segerstrom Center for the Arts through Sunday, January 1, 2017) seems destined to become an annual holiday family delight. The performances, the songs, the dancing and choreography, and the moving sets which enable the scene transitions all combine to produce a wonderfully entertaining evening. (The audience is invited to enhance the experience by donning “Buddy” sweaters and other Elf-wear, as many did on opening night).

Sam Hartley and Marie Lemon entertain deliciously as the show’s Buddy and Emily without imitating the 2003 movie version of “Elf.” Lemon is so petite, who could have predicted she has such an awesome voice? Hartley is smart enough not to attempt Will Ferrell’s hysterical “It’s Santa!” moments; he just allows the material to be funny and not attempt mimicry, which likely would not have worked well. His own sunny disposition shines through and permits the stage Buddy to be a bit different and just entertain us with acting, song, and dance.

So, do not go to “Elf The Musical” expecting it to be the movie with added soundtrack selections. The moments specific to Will Ferrell and Bob Newhart, which were so very hysterical on the screen, are not here. The musical instead gives us amazing song and dance numbers with fabulous sets which make the transitions flow. Ryan Gregory Thurman, who stands out as the Store Manager early in the show, later nestles into the Ensemble as one of the Fake Santas and kicks it in a superb rendition of “Nobody Cares About Santa.”


Klezmatics, Burns and Allen celebrate Chanukah, Marga Gomez returns to OC

The Klezmatics.
The Klezmatics. Courtesy of SCFTA.

Klezmer music has been described variously as Jewish party music, Jewish soul music, Jewish roots music and Jewish jazz. I’m in tune with any and all of these definitions. I’m not sure I’d agree with Time Out New York that The Klezmatics are “the best band in the klezmer vanguard” or “among the greatest bands on the planet.” The hip, East Village-based group may well be the edgiest klez band out there, as witness the title of their third album, “Jews With Horns.” That was two decades ago; they’ve continued to push the envelope ever since.

The Klezmatics Hanukkah Concert (tonight at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa) brings the Grammy-winning band to SCFTA for the first time, with music from their new, 30th anniversary album, “Apikorsim/Heretics.” The group chose the title for many reasons: “political, philosophical and philological,” says trumpeter Frank London. “Apikorsim—heretics, rebels, questioners—are people who do not conform to established attitudes and challenge orthodox opinions. And The Klezmatics are decidedly unorthodox.” Woody Guthrie’s Hanukkah songs, previously recorded by the group, are expected as part of the program as well.

I grew up watching George Burns and Gracie Allen reruns on television, in an era when Jews in the entertainment field were very much in the closet. Burns was the first person in show biz to encourage me as a writer when I was 18, before I had ever sold a word—so now I’ve returned the favor with The Burns and Allen Chanukah Special (yes, there are many spellings of the holiday). George didn’t do Jewish material of course and his wife, Gracie, was a gentile; my ebook imagines what might’ve happened if they’d considered leaving their comfort zone.

January brings the Segerstrom Center’s wonderfully eclectic Off Center Festival back for another go-round, with its decidedly offbeat bill of fare. Marga Gomez, who made her OC debut at SCFTA with her play “Lovebirds” in 2015, is back with her autobiographical “Latin Standards”(Jan. 19-21)—direct from its world premiere in New York at The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. Her latest one-woman show recounts what happens when the daughter of a Cuban entertainer produces a hipster comedy night at a Latino drag queen club during San Francisco’s gentrification crisis.

The edgy solo performer describes her show as a “true story of perseverance and creative addiction passed down from immigrant father to lesbian daughter,” depicting unforgettable characters from her past in 1960s Manhattan and present day San Francisco. She also incorporates “dance tunes that reveled in jealousy and obsession,” written by her late father, comedian/entrepreneur Willy Chevalier. Never heard of Gomez or Chevalier? Don’t identify as neither Latino or gay? Having seen the lady in action, I can only tell you her show is a must-see.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos in Costa Mesa, Chaplin vs. the Nazis in Beverly Hills


Can’t make it to New York City this week? Lucky for us, the Philharmonic Society is bringing The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to Orange County. And Wednesday evening’s (Dec. 14) offering at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa is no ordinary holiday gift; the ensemble is performing Bach’s complete Brandenburg Concertos.

Tickets will cost you a bit more than the composer himself earned for these beloved orchestral compositions; in fact he was never paid or thanked for the works he presented to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721. Bach wrote the six lively concertos for chamber orchestra—considered among the best of the Baroque era—during one of the most productive periods of his life.

At the time, the composer was music director for the small town of Coethen, about 90 miles north of Berlin, where the first performances of the works were given. The Brandenburg Concertos, which Bach compiled and reworked from short instrumental sinfonias and concerto movements of his, were named not by the composer but his biographer Philipp Spitta, 150 years after he fact.

“The Consul, The Tramp and America’s Sweetheart” may well be the best play ever written for Hollywood history buffs and unquestionably for fans of Charles Chaplin, for whom it’s a must-see. It’s also a clumsy title that portends some awkward dramatic moments. As it stands, John Morogiello’s 90-minute one-act about the backstory of “The Great Dictator” (at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills through Dec. 18) is a problematic seriocomedy with some sparkling moments.

Familiarity with Chaplin is not a prerequisite. If you’ve never seen one of his films you’re missing some of the greatest movies ever made, but you’ll still enjoy this play—assuming you have the slightest interest in American history, World War II, or the freedom of speech. It’s a timely drama about a famous comedian who dares to make a mockery of a much abhorred world leader at a crucial moment. And it’s based on a true story—the Nazis really did have a point man in Hollywood who dictated what could be depicted on screen.

The best thing about this production is Brian Stanton’s portrayal of Chaplin—a stunning evocation of the funnyman, the filmmaker and the social conscience, acted with sublime physicality. Charlie’s friend and business partner, former silent movie darling Mary Pickford, fares less well as played by Melanie Chartoff; she’s more than credible but looks about 20 years older than the actress would have been in 1939. Shawn Savage and Laura Lee Walsh offer fine support, respectively, as the Nazi consul and Pickford’s secretary.

The major flaw in Morogiello’s drama is an excess of background information in the secretary’s asides to the audience—TMI, as they say. It’s the kind of stuff you’re taught to excise in Playwrighting 101; if not, you end up with a lecture instead of a play. Jules Aaron’s otherwise highly effective direction makes these pedantic moments even more ostentatious, unfortunately, and there are too many of them to ignore.

Much ado about Samuel Beckett in books, lost noir “Private Property” on DVD

Warren Oates and Corey Allen in “Private Property” (1960)
Warren Oates and Corey Allen in “Private Property” (1960)

It’s easy to see how a film like “Private Property” (1960) fell through the cracks, going almost unnoticed on its original release and promptly disappearing. After all, few people had heard of writer-director Leslie Stevens (creator of TV’s “The Outer Limits”) or his stars—Kate Manx (who happened to be his wife), Corey Allen and Warren Oates. The indie movement was nowheresville, and who wanted to see Neo Hitchcock the year “Psycho” came out?

Happily, this forgotten gem has been rediscovered, restored and issued in a Blu-ray/DVD combo (available from Cinelicious Pics). Allen (James Dean’s rival in “Rebel Without a Cause”) and Oates (who of course went on to make a name or himself in films like “The Wild Bunch”) are two lowlife creeps who slither into Manx’s picture-perfect but lonely and bored existence, in this tightly-wound film noir that doesn’t waste a second of its 79-minute running time. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination; let’s just say it anticipates the early work of Polanski (who was still in film school at the time) in a startling way.

Polanski is not mentioned in “Beckett in Popular Culture: Essays on a Postmodern Icon” (available in paperback from McFarland & Co.) as well he should. But the playwright who gave us “Waiting for Godot” has had much greater influence on our culture than most people suspect, according to this intriguing volume of essays edited by P.J. Murphy and Nick Pawliuk. Filmmakers Christopher Guest (“Waiting for Gutman”) and David Cronenberg, pop musician Bono, science fiction writers Philip K. Dick and Dean Koontz, novelist Paul Auster, the TV drama “China Beach” and of course that sitcom about nothing, “Seinfeld,” are among the many examples cited.

The volume fails to mention the world’s greatest comedy team, but my ebook “Laurel & Hardy Meet Samuel Beckett: The Roots of Waiting for Godot” (available on Amazon) picks up where it leaves off. Renowned Beckett interpreter Barry McGovern of Dublin’s Gate Theatre has endorsed it as “an excellent piece of work.”

Auster supplies the preface for Barney Rosset’s “Dear Mr. Beckett: Letters from the Publisher” (to be published in January, in paperback from Opus) in which he pays due tribute to Rosset—“the one-in-a-million” director of Grove Press who became Beckett’s American publisher after establishing himself with the likes of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.”

This 480-page tome not only gives us facsimiles of communiqués between these two men of letters but much more, including correspondence from Susan Sontag about producing “Godot” in Sarajevo, and an interview with Beckett’s French publisher in which the latter recalls informing him he had won the Nobel Prize: “…it was as though I told him about somebody’s death…I said to him, ‘Excuse me, I am going to give you some very bad news…’ ”