Like a box of chocolates, here's a rich and varied collection of L.A. theatrical, comedy, magic, and variety shows, readings, and classic films to enjoy for your Valentine's, Galentine's, or Palentine's Weekend--and beyond--currently registered on Better Lemons' Calendar.
Actor/singer Bill A. Jones has a varied background as an entertainer and has established himself as quite a sensational crooner of pop songs over the past few years. As he prepares to perform at Feinstein's Upstairs at Vitello's this Valentine's weekend, he chats in detail about his career thus far.
Tell our readers about your love of singing and how your career got started.
BJ: I grew up in an extended musical family outside of Nashville, and the music we performed was country. As a 6 year old, in talent shows and on local radio stations, I sang songs like, "Okie From Muskokee" and "Folsom Prison Blues." Yes, I sang lyrics like, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" as a 6 year old! (laughs) So I grew up singing in church and at square dances, and hearing rock and roll on the radio, until I discovered the great standards sometime in my early teens. One of my earliest influences came from the Bing Crosby Christmas album, and from there I gradually worked up to Sinatra and all those other iconic artists that sang what we now call Classic Pop Standards.
About the same time, I started doing musicals in high school, and started working in radio when I was 16. For a stretch during my college years, I'd be rehearsing a play during the week, on Saturday Nights play Bass and sing in a square dance band, and on Sundays knock out a shift at a Nashville radio station. While I eventually stopped playing country music - about the time I got cast in a production of a wonderful little musical called Tintypes - I stayed with the radio, and continued acting and singing. Eventually I moved to LA to scratch the acting itch, and promptly stopped singing for about 15 years!
Why did you stop singing?
BJ: Well, when I got out here, the Musical Theatre scene was very different from what I was used to. For one thing, they expected you to dance! And while I'd started tentatively singing with a Big Band in Nashville, I had no idea of how to connect with that community in LA. So for about 15 years I concentrated on my acting career, worked as a radio personality, and met my wife and started a family.
Fast forward to me singing "But Not for Me" on a passenger talent night on an Alaskan Cruise about 17 years ago. That got my singing 'itch' going big time. I returned to LA, discovered a Big Band that needed a singer, and one 'coincidence' after another since then led me to where I am today. And interestingly enough, when I started singing again, my acting career picked up. I remember, I was thinking about an arrangement of some song or another as I was waiting to audition for Glee, for instance. And ironically, I got cast on that show not for my Singing ability.
Tell us about your time on Glee.
BJ: I had the pleasure of recurring for 6 seasons as "Rod Remington." If you've never seen the show, Rod was sort of a later day version of Ted Baxter from the old Mary Tyler Moore Show - a local TV newscaster who was a legend in his own mind.
First time I worked, I did a little ad lib that broke up everyone, and I was doing a little schtick making eyes at Jane Lynch - who was playing back - and I guess someone took notice and the role got bigger than originally intended. I had a ball every time I was on set, and I'll forever be grateful to Ryan Murphy for taking my career up several notches.
Apart from your family background did anyone serve as a mentor to you? Who was this mentor and how did this person help you to go forward?
BJ: I know I'll leave someone out, but here it goes: my Nashville vocal coach, Lucille David is one. my High School drama teacher, Joyce Mayo. Steve and Eydie's musical director for 27 years, Jack Feierman, who taught me a lot. A couple of Big Band leaders, John Vana and Harry Selvin. Arrangers Bill McKeag and Diz Mullins. Composer and arranger Van Alexander. Pianist Bill Marles. And when I first started singing again, a gentleman named Frank Perry. He was perhaps one of the last staff pianists at one of the hotels here in LA, and had rubbed elbows with dozens of greats. Frank saw me singing early on with a Big Band, and during the break said, "Hey, come over here," as if he could no longer hold back his frustration, and had to steer me in a better direction. That started a conversation that lasted for several years on how to approach lyrics. Invaluable. All of them.
Talk about your daughter and her contests and advancement in the field. She is taking after you and you sang together in the past. Will you get an opportunity to sing together again soon?
BJ: I tell people she's the real talent in the family. She just starred in her school's musical production of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. When I did my show in New York at the Triad a few months ago, the next night she sang with her high school choir at Carnegie Hall. We've only sung together a few times, like at a recent Actor's Fund benefit, but it's always a joy, and the response has been tremendous. And she's only a junior in high school. She'll be my special musical guest Valentine's weekend at Feinstein's at Vitello's.
You've sung a lot with Big Bands, as well as with smaller groups. Which do you prefer?
BJ: When I worked on radio, I used to crank up the monitor whenever a great Sinatra record would come on with a classic arrangement by Nelson Riddle and the like. I gained a huge appreciation for orchestration. To have the power of 17 musicians displaying that artistry while backing you is amazing - especially considering I have several of those classic charts in my book. But I also love working with a small group, or just a piano. You gain a flexibility and an intimacy that's hard to duplicate with a large group. The communication with your audience is more immediate, as sometimes you can hear subtle nuances like the inhale of a breath or a sigh. At the show at Feinstein's I'll be straddling those worlds with 6 musicians - a trio plus 3 horns, which lets me have a little bit of both. So, to circle back to your question - I love them both. Don't make me decide!
How do you feel about contemporary music? Hip Hop and Rap? Are you comfortable with it? Do you think the American Songbook will survive?
BJ: I think the Songbook is going to survive as long as there is an appreciation for great melodies and lyrics that touch us in a meaningful way. Which will hopefully be forever. As far as contemporary music, I find some of Ed Sheerran's writing quite good, for instance. But there's also a lot of dreck out there, too! (laughs) I used to be totally dismissive of Rap, but I saw a performance by Common a while back, and I gained a greater understanding. I now see how it (Rap) can be a legitimate means of artistic expression. But to repeat, there's a lot of dreck out there!
Who is your favorite composer?
BJ: That's a tough one! I don't know if I can narrow it down to just one. Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, Frank Loesser, all tick the boxes for me. Irving Berlin would be another.
What is your favorite musical show of all time?
BJ: Again, a tough one! I used to say My Fair Lady without hesitation, as I played Higgins back in school, and have had a deep affection for it ever since. But there've been so many great shows since then, it'd be hard to say. But My Fair Lady is a great one.
Tell us a bit more about your daughter. Does she want to be a professional musical theatre actress? What are her plans?
BJ: As of now, she wants to pursue Musical Theatre, and is looking at various university level programs. Time will tell. She's a junior in high school, so things could change.
This gig at Vitello's is a big one. Will this show be different than shows in the past?
BJ: Feinstein's at Vitello's in Studio City, Saturday February 15th. Yeah, I've done my "Great Gentlemen of Song" show a lot, and I'll be repeating some of that material. But this time I'll be focusing on romance. The Theme is 'Love Songs and More," in recognition of Valentine's Day. Last time I played at Vitello's a few years ago, we sold out the place a day in advance - so I'm telling people to get tickets early. I'll be bringing in 6 musicians this time - I call them my 'A Players' - and I plan to have a great time. And hopefully the audience will too! (laughs) Seriously, this is a very different experience than when I appear as a guest with a big band. I take a great deal of pride in my nightclub and cabaret shows, as I feel it lets me do what I do best. Not just sing, but tell stories, and share something of myself in a hopefully entertaining way.
Do you want to add anything?
BJ: People sometimes ask me what I prefer: Acting or singing.
Well, when you work in a scene with someone like Jane Lynch, who elevates your game because of their artistry - that's pretty special, and something I'd be very reluctant to give up.
But when you do a show like the one coming up this Valentine's weekend - the energy, or love that you put out as a performer, gets returned to you manifold by the audience. Which further feeds and elevates what you send in return to the audience.
It's a beautiful thing.
For information about the show and to get your tickets go to FeinsteinsAtVitellos.ticketfly.com
Yes, this week it's all about music and in particular three musical icons who created music and who will always be remembered.
First up is BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL playing at the Fred Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks.
Long before she was Carole King, this chart topping music legend was Carole Klein, a girl from Brooklyn New York with a passion and lots of chutzpah.
She fought her way into the record business as a teenager and by the time she reached her twenties, had the husband of her dreams and a flourishing career writing hits for the biggest acts in rock 'n' roll. It wasn't until her personal life began to crack that she finally managed to find her real voice.
BEAUTIFUL is the inspiring true story of Carole King's remarkable rise to stardom from being part of a hit songwriting team with her husband Gerry Goffin to her relationship with fellow writers and best friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann ultimately becoming one of the most successful solo acts in popular music history.
The show continues to dazzle in New York and to packed houses world wide with its wit, charm and soul featuring a stunning array of beloved songs including 'I Feel The Earth Move,' 'One Fine Day,' 'You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman,' 'You've Got A Friend' and of course the title song.
I've seen the show in New York and I can't wait to see it again this weekend. Performances are February 13th at 7:30, February 14 at 8pm, February 15th at 2pm and 8pm, and February 16th at 1pm and 6:30pm.
The Fred Kavli Theatre is located at The Thousand Oaks Bank Of America Performing Arts Center, 2100 East Thousand Oaks Blvd in Thousand Oaks, 91362.
For tickets and more information go to bapacthousandoaks.com. or call (800) 745-3000.
Now for a musical about one of the biggest musical icons. The show is called JUST IMAGINE: A TRIBUTE TO JOHN LENNON.
The premise is simple. Imagine John Lennon returns for one last concert and you are there. 'Just Imagine' transports you to another place and time putting you 'one on one' with the musical legend who shook the world.
You will experience Lennon's timeless musical genius through Tim Piper who takes us through John's life from his tumultuous childhood to becoming a worldwide music superstar as well as a groundbreaking social icon that influenced generations.
The show promises to tell us the stories behind the songs and will reveal insights about the birth of the Beatles, the pressures of super stardom, and John's relationships with his lovers and fellow Beatles.
Backed by the rock band WORKING CLASS HERO Piper channels Lennon in this critically acclaimed tribute.
The show is playing at Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, located at 3050 Los Angeles Avenue in Simi Valley, 93065. For tickets go to Unsigned-Records.com or call the box office at (805) 583-7900.
The third musical on my 'must see' list this week has us traveling further back into the past. LADY DAY at EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL is a play with music recounting several events in the life of the one and only Billie Holiday.
The play premiered in 1986 in Atlanta Georgia and soon played off -Broadway and then it made its Broadway debut in 2014.
You can now see this wonderful and important production at the Ebony Repertory Theatre in Los Angeles.
The drama with music examines and explores the life of the legendary Billie Holiday during one of her final performances in Philadelphia in March 1959 four months shy of her death age the age of 44. Billie Holiday used everything that happened in her life to inform her art.
According to director Wren T. Brown, sixty years after her death, at a time in America when race, gender, and the opioid crisis are being discussed loudly on a daily basis, Miss Holiday's life and career are a great example of what it means to not just survive but triumph in the face of lifelong abuse and struggle.
The limited engagement began February 6th and plays through March 1st. I'm a big fan of Miss Holiday and I guarantee, after you see this show, you will be one too.
For tickets and more information go to EbonyRep.org. The Ebony Repertory Theatre is located at 4718 West Washington Blvd, Los Angeles 90018.
Lastly I recommend a show that explores one of my personal favorites - the Tango. In particular the Argentine Tango. No dance is more sensual nor expresses the man-woman relationship than this one. It's also known as the Authentic Tango.
The show is called ONCE UPON A TANGO and it is is the perfect way to spend Valentine's Day.
On February 16th at 6pm, Once Upon a Tango - Valentines Day Show will be playing at The Colony Theatre at 555 North 3rd Street in Burbank 91503.
After making their debut in Santa Barbara and San Diego in their #onceuponatangotour, GD Tango presents an all new version of the show that will be full of surprises. Not to mention their latest addition - master tango dancers brought to you from Argentina.
Guillermo Salvat and Miriam Lea brings romance and passion to each of their performances. Their dances are based on real people and events that the audience can enjoy and relate to. Through their movements thay tell an enchanting original tale that you will remember long after the curtain falls.
I've seen the show and I promise you will absolutely love it.
For tickets and more information go to GDTango.com.
Whatever you do this weekend people, make it a fun one. Oh and a romantic one.
As part of Valentine's weekend at the Montalban, magician Blaise Serra will perform on Friday February 14 and Saturday February 15. This young man really knows who he is and what he can do, as you will learn when you read our detailed interview below.
Blaise, I love magic as it can be very theatrical and transport one to new levels of joy. What do you feel sets you apart from other magicians?
BS: I feel that what sets me apart as a magician is my background as an entertainer and artist prior to becoming a magician. I became infatuated with performing first as a musician rather than as a magician, and I think my approach to creating magic is heavily influenced by music and theatre. It started when I was quite young and began playing guitar. I continued for years and had my first experiences on stage in talent shows and in a band. It’s because of that upbringing that I approach art and creativity based more on the thought process of the musician. In music, there are no secrets- rather there is an emphasis on originality and writing something new that can touch the hearts of listeners. Although I appreciate the classics of magic and the effects that have amazed audiences for centuries, I don’t have them in my show as I am much more interested in sharing my own voice and perspective. I try to constantly create and improve upon what I’ve done before so that anyone who goes to my show, whether a magician or not, will witness magic routines that they have never seen before. Through that approach to this art form I hope my audiences can experience a magic show that is unlike any other.
What is your specialty act? Is it card tricks? Mental telepathy via the audience? Can you be specific?
BS: I believe friends of mine in the magic community would consider my specialty to be card magic, as I have developed new sleight of hand techniques that were published as instructional tutorials to sell to other magicians. And although I love sleight of hand, my show is not centered on being a sleight of hand artist. Rather, the reason my show is called Through A Magician’s Eyes (TAME for short) is because I think my real specialty is giving members of the audience the feeling of really being involved in the magic taking place. Rather than making the show just about me, I enjoy creating a story that every member of the audience feels heavily involved in. By focusing on a connection between all of us, I like to bring everyone on a journey where they read each other’s minds or visualize things that become a reality in their own hands. Every member of the audience becomes an integral member of the ensemble of the show, where they truly feel that they can do magic too, even if they can’t explain how.
Who or what inspired you to do magic as a profession? Have you been involved since childhood? Is there a specific event that happened in your life that catapulted you to success in the realm of magic?
BS: I can remember the moment that I knew I needed to pursue magic as a hobby, as well as the moment I realized it could be my career path. When I was in school, I was heavily focused on academics. I thought I was going to go to a university and study computer science or biomedical engineering. I think now looking back, I just enjoyed problem solving and found that aspect of those careers interesting. Leading up to high school I was passionate about music and theater whenever I was outside of class, but I remember the day my interest in magic was sparked. We were on a field trip during my freshman year and someone on the bus had brought a deck of cards to play games on the way. I had learned a couple card tricks when I was really young but had forgotten about them, yet when I saw the deck I asked if I could play with it and suddenly bits and pieces of those simple tricks I’d learned came flooding back to me. I didn’t recall them from beginning to end, but I began making up tricks on the spot and performing for some of my friends on the bus. The fact that they were reacting so strongly to something I just made up was a feeling I began to chase from that moment on and I was hooked.
I looked up clips of the show Penn and Teller: Fool Us on youtube and loved the idea of freaking out my friends at school with tricks I had come up with. I already was in love with performing, but found so much satisfaction in the creative problem solving that goes into magic that starts with trying to think of an impossible problem no one has thought of before that you set out to solve it by any means. Once when I was at the beach I brought a deck and started performing for people all around just for fun to see if people I didn’t know would be just as entertained as my friends. And one of those people asked me for a business card, which I didn’t have, so I wrote down my phone number on a playing card and a few months later was asked to perform for a holiday party with hundreds of guests. I had business cards made and I began getting calls to perform at various other events in Connecticut and other parts of New England. Suddenly I found myself pretty busy getting paid for the thing I loved to do for free, and I realized at some point I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.
Do you perform mostly in the US or abroad? Is the Magic Castle a favorite venue to perform? If so, why?
BS: So far I’ve performed all over the US but I’d love to venture out and hope to get booked abroad soon. I learn so much about people every time I step in front of an audience, and would love to be able to better understand other cultures and create routines that are relatable to and touch the heart strings of people all over the world. I have an act in my show based around that concept and how magic is a universal language much like music that is able to connect us with people from any background. So I’d love any opportunity to test my ability to entertain audiences from different cultures and continue to grow as a performer.
As for the Magic Castle, I feel incredibly privileged every time I get the chance to perform there, since that is kind of a Mecca for magicians and a legendary place I hoped I’d get the chance to visit, let alone perform at, back when I was living in Connecticut. Audiences there are so much fun because they’ve all come to see magic (unlike many of the restaurant gigs I did when I first started out) and are really excited to be a part of the show. But my shows at the Montalbán are certainly the ones I am most excited about, as I get to be involved in every aspect of the production including the layout of the space, lighting, sound, etc. to fully customize the experience for my show.
Why is Valentine's weekend at the Montalbán so special? What do you feel you will bring through magic to the weekend of love?
BS: My show is all about forming a connection between myself and my audience, and showing them what life is like Through A Magician’s Eyes. The goal is that when audience members leave the Montalbán that evening, they’ll notice the magic in things that usually go under the radar or are taken for granted. Love is the ultimate connection, and without being an illusion or trick, it is one of the most magical things that we are lucky enough to experience in life. I don’t feel that by just doing some sleight of hand I’d be adding to that magic. Rather I’d like to put a spotlight on the connections we already have to one another, amplify them, and bring to life something beautifully tangible to behold from a concept as intangible as love.
Who is your favorite magician of all time? Why this choice?
BS: Recently through getting the chance to consult and work with him frequently, my favorite magician is Shin Lim. I first began working with him while he was on season 13 of America’s Got Talent which he won, and I don’t think I’ve ever met someone more deserving of winning that competition. He is the most creative magician I know, and he is constantly innovating in the field of magic and pushing himself to improve upon what he has done before. Aside from that, he is a great human being and hasn’t become any less of a genuinely good person with the sudden influx of fame. While I was starting out in magic I wasn’t influenced much by magicians but rather by musicians and other entertainers with skill sets that allowed them to create art that could not be replicated such as Joe Satriani or Gene Kelly. However, a magician that I’ve always found incredible is Asi Wind. It’s funny that he also is both a performer and consultant (for David Blaine), and he is notorious for going to any means necessary to make an effect he has visualized possible, no matter how difficult it might be. Which is certainly a trait I admire.
Is there anything you would like to add for our readers?
BS: I hope that the readers enjoyed this little peek into my thought process behind my show, and I cannot wait to share with them the magic I’ve created for this Valentine’s Day weekend. Also, when I found out that there is an art gallery in the Mezzanine of the Montalbán I reached out to my friend Marwan Shahin from Egypt who is the most incredible artist I’ve met to organize an exhibition. So on Valentine’s Day the same night as my show TAME, his gallery APEX Mirage will be opening upstairs. I urge people to either come early before my show or stay late after it ends to check out his artwork - you will not be disappointed.
More information and tickets to my show are available at TheMontalban.com/TAME, and if anyone has any questions for me they can find me at @blaiseserra on all platforms. I’m so excited to perform for everyone, and I hope they can make it out to see Through A Magician’s Eyes.
(photo credit: Lionel Garcia)
Visit Blaise at BlaiseSerra.com
To reserve tickets, go to TheMontalban.com/tame