Non-Registered Critics: Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes a column about LA theater for LA Observed. Don covered theater for 16 years as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Times. He also has been the theater critic of LA CityBeat and a columnist and an editor for LA Stage Times. Before his LA career, he was on the staff of The Washington Post for six years. He is a member of Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and American Theatre Critics Association.
Oct

Skintight

"Skintight" has often been promoted as a star vehicle for Idina Menzel, but the roles of three other actors - Harry Groener, Will Brittain and Eli Gelb -- are just as important as Menzel's. All are superb, as is LA's celebrated musical chameleon Jeff Skowron in a relatively minor non-musical role.

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Oct

Handjob

Although I'm tempted to be more specific about what happens, the surprises are integral to this theatrical adventure, as we watch the characters try to navigate through contemporary cultural currents, creating plenty of rich, ironic comedy in the process. Chris Fields directs a fine-tuned cast (including the understudy I saw in one of the major roles).

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Aug

DANA H.

Directed by James Bundy (originally for Yale Repertory Theatre, where he is artistic director), with Michael Rudko playing Winnie's mostly silent mate, this production yields plenty of ironic laughter.

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Aug

INDECENT

"Indecent," at the Ahmanson, is the most exciting of the CTG productions...

The chameleonic ensemble features the musicians as well as the actors. It's all staged by Rebecca Taichman on a stage that shifts with seeming effortlessness between locations and years, up through the aftermath of World War II.

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Aug

Twelfth Night

Director David Melville uses a lot of live music that's evocative of earlier pop eras, going back nearly a century. It's often accompanied by jaunty choreography - Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Xavi Moreno) appears to have taken some Latin dance lessons. As always, Melville takes some of the action into the heart of his often-vast audiences. Bukola Ogunmola is a charismatic Viola.

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Aug

APOLLO 11 - The Immersive Live Show

In flashbacks, actors play the younger aerospace engineer and his wife, complete with plenty of visual and aural reminders of other news and cultural developments during that tempestuous period of the late '60s. Many of the actors have LA stage credits.

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Aug

Ragtime

As usual at "Ragtime," you'll laugh, you'll cry.

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Aug

Son of Semele presents MEN ON BOATS

I quickly adjusted to the idea of seeing women and non-binary people fighting the rapids, just as easily as I got used to the idea of seeing the boats represented by scaffolds and other set pieces that realistically don't look much like boats - or as easily as I became accustomed to hearing speech that sometimes sounds more contemporary than it would have in 1869. We don't go to theater primarily for representational art; we go to exercise our imaginations. Not that Backhaus' script itself strays far into fantasy, but she has provided a succinct method for us to think about more than just the expedition down the rivers.

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Aug

The Skin of Our Teeth

Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth," currently revived by Ellen Geer outdoors, at the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, is the most philosophically ambitious of these tales, as well as the funniest.

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Sep

Gloria

As Echo's work creates more and more echoes in the LA theater, its artistic director Chris Fields stages "Gloria" flawlessly.

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Sep

The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona

Meanwhile, over at the Geffen, I don't recommend Rivera's new "Nikki Corona," about an incoherent journey into the afterlife. Charles McNulty's review in the LA Times reflected my own thoughts about the script so well that I see no reason to pile on, other than to express the hope that the decision to produce it reflects new artistic director Matt Shakman's willingness to take risks on new plays more than it demonstrates his standards for quality control.

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Sep

Native Gardens

"Native Gardens," a satirical comedy briskly directed by Jason Alexander, is by far the best of the three productions mentioned above. Zacarías neatly focuses on the irony that some Americans who are welcoming of human immigrants - or even are immigrants -- can become virtual nativists about the plants in their gardens. The flip side? Some old-timers who are a bit wary of human beings from elsewhere are nevertheless eager to welcome imported flora into their yards.

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Sep

American Hero

Unfortunately, narrative improbabilities are a lot more obvious in "American Hero" than they are in "Native Gardens.

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Jun

Forever Bound

...director Ann Hearn Tobolowsky and Apostolina engender eye-opening suspense as well as laughs, with the help of a sensational cast -- French Stewart, Emily Goss and Rob Nagle as well as Apostolina himself.

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May

Bad Jews

For those who haven't seen it, it's about two millennial Jewish cousins treating each other badly, in a dispute over who gets to inherit a token from their late grandfather's tragic history. The two of them articulate contrasting views on a cultural and religious spectrum that could easily resonate with non-Jews from many other cultures. Two other characters -a mostly passive observer and a blonde non-Jew who more or less represents "the other" here - also contribute to pivotal moments in the conversation. Director Dana Resnick keeps Harmon's pot boiling.

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Sep

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

As staged by Marianne Elliott, it's a revelatory journey.

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Sep

Trouble in Mind

The luminous performances of Earnestine Phillips and Gerald Rivers, as black actors in a white liberal's would-be anti-racism play, help raise the emotional and political stakes.

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Sep

Hamilton

The sound quality inside the Pantages is presumably state-of-the-art, but (as I predicted in my column a month ago) the live experience also brings aural distractions in the form of audience reactions, especially when there are 2,700 people in the room. Listening to the score in advance  is still the best way to hear and appreciate all of the sometimes fast-moving lyrics and to understand in greater depth what's happening, scene by scene. However, there were certainly moments at the Pantages that I had not yet appreciated by only listening to the score. One of them was the profound silence of those 2,700 people during the pauses as Eliza Hamilton (Solea Pfeiffer) sings "Burn." Another was a cheeky lighting effect in one of the appearances of King George (Rory O'Malley) and his deployment for a few moments outside his own solos.

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Dec

MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG

Although it pops with Sondheim's usual lyrical wit and intelligence, it's also one of the most durably poignant productions in the entire canon of musicals. Until now, "Merrily" had never received a Broadway-caliber production in Los Angeles County. I've seen five versions here, but none of these came close to the depth and delicacy of the Wallis production, staged by Michael Arden.

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Dec

ICEBERGS

"Icebergs" isn't especially challenging or memorable. The scope and urgency of confronting climate change, especially in the wake of the Trump victory, loom over this little play.

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