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LA’s home for queer performing arts, Highways celebrates 35 years

From the AIDS crisis to today’s trans moral panic, Highways has stood at the vanguard of daring queer expression

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LA’s home for queer performing arts, Highways celebrates 35 years. (Photo courtesy of Highways Performance Space)

By Rob Salerno | SANTA MONICA, Calif. – For 35 years, Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica has been home to some of America’s most daring and experimental queer performing arts works.

Formed during the peak of the AIDS crisis, Highways was established as a venue where queer work, often ignored, ridiculed, or censored by mainstream arts institutions, could thrive. Given a safe space to experiment and present work that challenged social, political, and cultural norms, generations of queer artists came up through highways and have gone on to become some of the most important names in performing arts.  

For Highways’ executive director Leo Garcia, that commitment to producing works that challenge the mainstream has been key to the institution’s long-term success.

“What excites me is our interest in the constant development of new works by artists who work with political, social, psychological, and personal narratives, and the hard work that we bring to make certain that the doors are open to provide access to the artists who are developing these new works and who bring their communities to our space,” Garcia says.

Highways was founded in 1989, amid intersecting crises in the LGBTQ community and the artistic communities in Los Angeles. 

“The AIDS pandemic had really surfaced, and… most of the performance places closed and much of the city’s infrastructure had collapsed back then, and that had to do with real estate crunches and bureaucratic red tape and people being able to afford space so work,” Garcia says.

“There was just this recognition that we were in a crucial time politically, and at a sort of a cultural intersection where the performance art that we were creating was suited to the social-psychological-cultural climate.” 

Despite the progress the LGBTQ community has made since Highways’ early days, Garcia says the organization is still presenting deeply political works that uplift the community and challenge the status quo. 

As an example, he cites trans choreographer Sean Dorsey, whose dance company will headline Highways’ 35th Anniversary Party June 7-8, with a new performance called The Lost Art of Dreaming.

“The reason we’ve brought on Sean Dorsey is I feel that it’s the trans community that is really under attack in this country, and we’re just going to celebrate the beauty of a trans choreographer and their beautiful new work,” he says. “We’re also going to be honoring the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who have been a part of Highways for at least two decades.”

Highways Artistic Director Patrick Kennelly (Photo courtesy of Highways Performance Space)

Artistic Director Patrick Kennelly says part of Highways’ success is that it’s constantly seeking out new generations of artists who keep the work fresh.

“So, there’s these different cycles, and it’s interesting now being older to see this fresher group dealing with the similar kinds of stuff that I was when I was starting out in this field 20 years ago,” he says.

Garcia became involved with Highways in 1992, just a few years after it was founded by writer Linda Frye Burnham and performance artist Tim Miller. Garcia says he had just moved to Santa Monica from New York and was just wandering around his new neighborhood when he came upon the theatre.

“There was no one at the door, and I walked in and peeked in the curtain. There were like seven people in the audience, and Annie Sprinkle was doing her show. She was inserting something into her vagina and you could go in and look inside of it. That’s the kind of work they were doing here,” Garcia recalls. 

Highways’ executive director Leo Garcia. (Photo courtesy of Highways Performance Space)

He says he started seeing shows and getting involved with the theatre, until eventually he was asked to come on board as the fiscal manager. He eventually took over as artistic director in 2003, leading the company until he handing artistic duties over to current director Patrick Kennelly. 

Kennelly, who’s in his twentieth year working with Highways, first got involved as an intern while studying at CalArts. By that time, Highways had already developed a reputation for discovering and fostering important new artists.

“It was around the same time that there was a big article in the LA Times about the 15th anniversary, and there were names involved that I was familiar with from what I had been studying,” Kennelly says.  

Garcia and Kennelly estimate that they’ve helped foster hundreds of artists and shows during their time at Highways – regularly hosting a new show every week, fifty weeks per year.

Over the years, Highways has also expanded its programming to include works by and for other minority and marginalized communities, while still foregrounding work by and for the LGBTQ community.

Among the many artists who’ve come through Highways are Black Lives Matter founder Patrisse Cullors, Pulitzer Prize nominee Kristina Wong, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Luis Alfaro, and international performance artist Ron Athey. Some artists and collectives from Highways’ earliest days are still presenting works at the venue to this day, including Guillermo Gomez-Pena and the Los Angeles Poverty Department.

“What’s been exciting to me is to discover and or present early works by artists who grow into huge big entities, whether it’s touring the world with their work or getting them huge mainstream platforming,” Garcia says.

As for the future, Garcia and Kennelley say that they see Highways continuing to advance its reputation for experimenting with bold new art forms and developing important, unheard voices.

“I hope that the space can survive another 35 years and continue to support these emerging artists who are experimenting and discovering their process and maybe don’t have the accessibility at that point in their careers for larger shows,” Kennelley says. 

“We want to continue to work with the communities that we’re serving and it needs to be a place of alliances and collaborations for all these different cultures and genders and disciplines,” Garcia says.


Highways’ 35th Birthday! will take place June 7-8 at 8:30pm at Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St, Santa Monica, CA, 90404. Tickets: highwaysperformance.org  

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Theater

Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle announces 2023 award recipients

The 54th Annual ceremony took place on Monday, April 8, 14 different productions were honored, celebrating a wide range of LA theater

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The audience at the THANK YOU FIVE event held at The Matrix Theatre Company stage in October 2023 sponsored by Rogue Machine Theatre, Joshua Bitton and Isidora Goreshter in support of IATSE members affected by the 2023 SAG strike. (Photo Credit: Rogue Machine Theatre/Facebook)

LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle has announced their award recipients for 2023. Kill Shelter (Theatre of NOTE) received the prestigious Production award, with additional honorees named in 17 other categories. In total, 14 different productions were honored, celebrating a wide range of Los Angeles theater.

Theatre of NOTE’s Kill Shelter and Pasadena Playhouse’s A Little Night Music received the most awards for a single production. Both productions were also factored into Special Awards, with Kill Shelter author Ashley Rose Wellman winning The TED SCHMITT AWARD for the World Premiere of an Outstanding New Play and A Little Night Music being a significant part of The JOEL HIRSCHHORN AWARD for Outstanding Achievement in Musical Theatre winner Pasadena Playhouse’s The Sondheim Celebration.

The 54th Annual ceremony took place on Monday, April 8th at 8 pm PST. For the first time in LADCC history, a presentation was live stream simulcast on both Instagram and Facebook @LADramaCritics. The live replay can still be viewed on the LADCC’s YouTube channel at @ladramacriticscircle3508 or at https://ladramacriticscircle.com/2023-awards/.

As previously announced, the LADCC has named the following Special Award Honorees:The POLLY WARFIELD AWARD for Best Season by a Small to Midsized Theater is given to Rogue Machine: John Perrin Flynn (Producing Artistic Director), Guillermo Cienfuegos (Artistic Director), Elina de Santos (Co-Artistic Director), and Justin Okin (Producing Director).                                                                                                                               

The GORDON DAVIDSON AWARD for Distinguished Contributions to the Los Angeles Theatrical Community is presented to Joseph Stern.

The JOEL HIRSCHHORN AWARD for Outstanding Achievement in Musical Theatre is presented to Pasadena Playhouse for The Sondheim Celebration.

The MILTON KATSELAS AWARD for Career or Special Achievement in Direction is presented to Michael Michetti.

The KINETIC LIGHTING AWARD for distinguished achievement in theatrical design goes to Pablo Santiago who will receive a cash prize from Kinetic Lighting (https://kineticlighting.com/).

The TED SCHMITT AWARD for the World Premiere of an Outstanding New Play is awarded to Ashley Rose Wellman for Kill Shelter (Theatre of Note). Ms. Wellman will also receive a cash prize from our Schmitt Award sponsor, The Black List  (https://blcklst.com/).

The MARGARET HARFORD AWARD for Excellence in Theatre is given to Echo Theater Company, Chris Fields, Founding Artistic Director.

The complete list of award recipients for 2023 is as follows:

PRODUCTION

Kill Shelter; Theatre of NOTE

MCCULLOH AWARD FOR BEST REVIVAL

A Little Night Music; Pasadena Playhouse

DIRECTION

Shaina Rosenthal; Kill Shelter; Theatre of NOTE

WRITING-ORIGINAL Bernardo Cubría; Crabs in a Bucket; Echo Theater Company
Rosie Narasaki; Unrivaled; Playwrights’ Arena and Boston Court Pasadena.                       

WRITING-ADAPTATION

Aaron Posner; Life Sucks; Interact Theatre Company

MUSIC DIRECTION

Alby Potts; A Little Night Music; Pasadena Playhouse

CHOREOGRAPHY 

Joyce Guy; Much Ado About Nothing; A Noise Within

Casey Nicholaw; Mean Girls; Hollywood Pantages Theatre

MUSIC & LYRICS

Michael Shaw Fisher; Exorcistic: The Rock Musical; Orgasmico Theatre Company

LEAD PERFORMANCE

Merle Dandridge; A Little Night Music; Pasadena Playhouse

Edwin Lee Gibson; Fetch Clay, Make Man; Center Theatre Group/Kirk Douglas Theatre

Ashley Romans; Kill Shelter; Theatre of NOTE

FEATURED PERFORMANCE 

Tasha Ames; Do You Feel Anger?; Circle X Theatre Co.

Casey Smith; Do You Feel Anger?; Circle X Theatre Co.

ENSEMBLE

Life Sucks; Interact Theatre Company 

SCENIC DESIGNAlexander Dodge; The Engagement Party; Geffen Playhouse

LIGHTING DESIGN

Dan Weingarten; The Tempest: An Immersive Experience; The Shakespeare Center LA and After Hours Theatre Company

COSTUME DESIGN

Kate Bergh; A Little Night Music; Pasadena Playhouse

Lou Cranch; Crabs in a Bucket; Echo Theater Company

SOUND DESIGN

Alyssa Ishii; Unrivaled; Playwrights’ Arena and Boston Court Pasadena.

SOLO PERFORMANCE

Daniel K. Isaac; Every Brilliant Thing; Geffen Playhouse

PROJECTION / ANIMATION DESIGN (was missing a comma)

Yee Eun Nam; Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992Center Theatre Group / Mark Taper Forum

PUPPET DESIGN

Emory Royston; Kill Shelter; Theatre of NOTE

Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle (LADCC) Info: The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle current officers consist of President Jonas Schwartz-Owen (TheaterMania, BroadwayWorld/LA), Vice President Dana Martin (Stage Raw), Treasurer Hoyt Hilsman (Cultural Daily), Co-Secretaries Martίn Hernández (Stage Raw) and Philip Brandes (Stage Raw, LA Times, Santa Barbara Independent), Website/Social Media Co-Chairs Socks Whitmore (Stage Raw) and Patrick Chavis (LA Theatre Bites, The Orange Curtain Review) and Awards Chair Tracey Paleo (Gia On The Move, BroadwayWorld/LA).

The current 2024 membership of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle (in alphabetical order): Lara J. Altunian (Stage Raw, L.A. Dance Chronicle), Philip Brandes (Stage Raw, LA Times, Santa Barbara Independent), Katie Buenneke (Stage Raw, TheaterDigest.substack.com), Patrick Chavis (LA Theatre Bites, The Orange Curtain Review), F. Kathleen Foley (Stage Raw),  Anita W. Harris (LATheatrix.com), Martίn Hernández (Stage Raw), Hoyt Hilsman (Cultural Daily), Travis Michael Holder (TicketHoldersLA.com), Deborah Klugman (Stage Raw), 

Harker Jones (BroadwayWorld/LA), Dana Martin (Stage Raw), Myron Meisel (Stage Raw),                                                                                                                                               Terry Morgan (Stage Raw, ArtsBeatLA.com), Honorary Member Steven Leigh Morris (Stage Raw), Tracey Paleo (GiaOnTheMove.com/ BroadwayWorld/LA), Melinda Schupmann (ShowMag.com, ArtsInLA.com), Jonas Schwartz-Owen (TheaterMania, BroadwayWorld/LA), Don Shirley (Angeles Stage on Substack), and Socks Whitmore (Stage Raw).

Citation Totals by Production

A Little Night Music; Pasadena Playhouse; 4 wins

Kill Shelter; Theatre of NOTE; 4 wins

Life Sucks; Interact Theatre Company; 2 wins

Crabs in a Bucket; Echo Theater Company; 2 wins

Do You Feel Anger?; Circle X Theatre Co.; 2 wins

Unrivaled; Playwrights’ Arena and Boston Court; 2 wins

The Tempest: An Immersive Experience; The Shakespeare Center LA and After Hours Theatre Company; 1 win

Mean Girls; Hollywood Pantages Theatre; 1 win

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992; Center Theatre Group / Mark Taper Forum; 1 win

Every Brilliant Thing; Geffen Playhouse; 1 win

Exorcistic: The Rock Musical; Orgasmico Theatre Company; 1 win

Fetch Clay, Make Man; Center Theatre Group/Kirk Douglas Theatre; 1 win

The Engagement Party; Geffen Playhouse; 1 win

Much Ado About Nothing; A Noise Within; 1 win

Citation Totals by Company

Pasadena Playhouse; 4 winsTheatre of NOTE; 4 wins

Center Theatre Group; 2 wins

Interact Theatre Company; 2 wins

Echo Theater Company; 2 wins

Playwrights’ Arena and Boston Court Pasadena.; 2 wins

Circle X Theatre Co.; 2 wins

Geffen Playhouse; 2 wins

The Shakespeare Center LA and After Hours Theatre Company; 1 win

Hollywood Pantages Theatre; 1 win

Orgasmico Theatre Company; 1 win

A Noise Within; 1 win

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Theater

Monsters of the American Cinema

Monsters of the American Cinema, Rogue Machine Theatre’s latest show, brings queer family horror to the LA stage

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Logan Leonardo Arditty & Kevin Daniels (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

By Rob Salerno | WEST HOLLYWOOD – Boundaries between blood, race, and sexuality are tested to their limits in Rogue Machine Theatre’s newest production, Christian St Croix’s Monsters of the American Cinema, opening April 6 in West Hollywood.

In Monsters, Remy Washington, a gay Black man whose husband has recently died, finds himself navigating single parenthood to his husband’s white teenage son, Pup, while managing solo ownership of a drive-in cinema. While Remy and Pup bond over their love of classic horror movies, their relationship comes under strain when Remy learns that Pup has been bullying a gay kid at school. 

Kevin Daniels and Logan Leonardo (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

San Diego-based playwright St. Croix says he was inspired to write the play by the diverse family types he sees in his everyday life.

“We’re beginning to tell more and more stories about LGBTQ parents the new monsters of some of those relationships,” he says. “I wanted to share the spotlight on the gay parent who isn’t the biological parent of the child and oftentimes doesn’t share blood or even skin.”

Setting the play around a drive-in theatre and using classic horror movies as a motif allows St. Croix to challenge American cultural norms using major symbols of Americana.

“I wanted to create more stories centered around these symbols of Americana and how those of us who are outside the idea of what these things were created for – gay people, Black people – interact with them,” he says.

He says he was inspired to write the play after a sleepless night led him to catch the classic 1954 horror film Creature from the Black Lagoon on late-night TV.  

“The effects are so cheesy in that movie. It’s so old it’s so corny, but at the time when it was released, I imagine it terrified people. And it got me to thinking about things that once terrified audiences, and the stories that can be created from that.”

Logan Leonardo Arditty and Kevin Daniels (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

One of the interesting choices in Monsters is telling a story about homophobic bullying where the bully is centered. St. Croix says he wanted to present a take on bullying that isn’t often seen or discussed.

“You know how they say that oftentimes bullies are coming from a bad home life themselves? Or, if they’re anti-gay, they must be gay themselves? I wanted to explore that idea because I found with my experience with a being bullied…I found that none of those things turned out to be true,” he says. “A lot of the time, their home life is okay, you know? They’re not reenacting something that they’re experiencing at home. Something else is going on.”

Christian St Croix (Photo by Jay Henslee)

The play has won plaudits for its deft blending of comedy, drama, and magical realism, as well as its handling of racial and sexual taboos in productions across the country since premiering in Seattle in 2022. It also won the 2021 Carlo Annoni Prize, one of the largest international honors for queer playwrighting.

For the Los Angeles premiere, St. Croix has mostly stayed out of the production process, but he says he’s excited to see what the cast and director John Perrin Flynn have created. He says he’s long been a fan of Kevin Daniels, who plays the grieving husband Remy.

“I met him the first time in the callbacks and I told him I’m a fan of your work, and I think he thought I was just being nice, and it’s like, ‘No, bro. I’ve seen you on Frasier, Why Women Kill, Council of Dads,’” he says. “We’re social media buds now and we he sends me pictures of the rehearsals. We share music ideas. We actually teamed up together to do a mix tape to kind of accompany the show.”

“Logan Leonardo, our Pup, is a phenomenal young actor. He absolutely killed it in his call backs,” he says.

Kevin Daniels and Logan Leonardo Arditty (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

St. Croix says he wants people who see his play to take away the message that they have to confront the monsters in their lives and themselves.

“They surround us. We can’t escape them. But there are Pockets where  you have to connect with the other, you know be the co-workers or, in the case of Monsters, family.”

Monsters of the American Cinema produced by Rogue Machine Theatre, plays at the Matrix, 7657 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, from Apr 6 to May 19, Fri-Mon only.

Tickets at https://www.roguemachinetheatre.org/

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Rob Salerno is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada.

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Theater

Fat Ham, a Queer Black spin on a Shakespeare classic

In this reimagined Hamlet, the Danish prince’s sexuality is central to his struggle to live up to his father’s legacy

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L-R: Matthew Elijah Webb, Billy Eugene Jones and Benja Kay Thomas in Fat Ham at Geffen Playhouse. Directed by Sideeq Heard. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

By Rob Salerno | LOS ANGELES – On a hot summer afternoon, a young queer Black man, Juicy, is planning a barbecue party to celebrate his recently widowed mother’s wedding to his uncle, when he’s visited by his father’s ghost, who demands that he avenge his death.

That’s the set-up for Fat Ham, James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play that took Broadway by storm last year and is set to make its West Coast debut at the Geffen Playhouse April 5.

And if that sounds a little bit familiar, you’re not wrong. Fat Ham is a conscious adaptation of the classic Shakespeare tragedy Hamlet, framed through a queer Black lens, and given a patina of comedy and joy. 

For Sideeq Heard, who’s directing the LA production after assistant directing the Broadway production, locating the story in the Black community in the present is a way of uncovering new truths.

“There’s something so beautifully complex about the story that Shakespeare wrote where the brother ends up becoming his father, which is so absurd but also so compelling,” he says. “The genius of Shakespeare is you take the beautiful plot structure and context that he developed and set it anywhere and suddenly it becomes fresh and new over and over again.”

And why not a barbecue party? Disney put Hamlet in the Pride Lands and made The Lion King one of the highest-grossing animated franchises of all time – and one of Broadway’s longest-running musicals. 

But Fat Ham doesn’t just update the play for laughs. Ijames’ script uncovers the queer subtext that was always lurking underneath the tale of familial disappointment and resentment.

“[Hamlet]’s definitely queer because look how look how his family is treating him. Look how his friends are treating him. Look how his friends are being treated by their family,” Heard says. “It takes having queer focus in power and leading these stories for us to highlight elements in stories that have traditionally been told through heteronormative eyes.”

Heard says that way the Danish prince’s family constantly tells him to suppress his true feelings resonates with the Black queer experience.

“There’s something about our families in the Black community never wanting to speak about being queer ever. Don’t utter a word, and even if you are queer, it’s like, okay well, just do that on your own time in your own private home, but don’t bring it up at family dinners. If you bring your partner to the cookout just say they’re your best friend. We’ll believe that because you don’t want to believe that this is your like romantic lover.”

It’s still basically Hamlet, with all that entails – murder, betrayal, family strife, suicidal ideation – but Fat Ham leans into the comedy of the situation by playing up its absurdity. 

“We make those circumstances real. It’s a bit more actionable than Shakespeare’s take on it because the whole play for us is about Juicy trying to figure out, so how do you kill people?” Heard says.

Fat Ham also leans into the Shakespearean tropes of soliloquies and asides, which the hero Juicy uses to build a rapport with the audience through a slippery fourth wall. Heard says elements of the show will be slightly different every night depending on how the characters interact with the audience. 

Nearly the entire Broadway cast is reprising their roles in the Geffen Production, which Heard describes as a rare opportunity to bring new depths and facets of the show.

“We have been together for three years now and so every April for the past three years we have done this play,” he says. “We are all family because we’ve just been so fortunate to be connected together for so long. As I watched the company get to know each other over the years, they’re even more playful and spontaneous with each other partially because now they know each other.”

Fat Ham runs April 5-28 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles. Previews begin March 27. Tickets available at geffenplayhouse.org.

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Rob Salerno is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada.

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Gay playwright- “Marilyn, Mom, & Me” is his most personal play yet

Marilyn, Mom, and Me, a buzzy new show written & directed by Luke Yankee, playing Feb 16 to Mar 3 at the International City Theatre

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Marilyn, Mom, and Me at the International City Theatre in Long Beach stars Laura Gardner stars Brian Rohan, Alisha Soper & Laura Gardner. (Photo by Paul Kennedy)

By Rob Salerno | LONG BEACH, Calif. – The year is 1956. The biggest star in the world has defied the Hollywood studios and critics who dismissed her as a dumb blonde to spend a year studying acting with the greatest teachers of the era and has returned to launch her own production company with a film adaptation of a kooky Broadway play.

Along the way to making a classic film, Bus Stop, Marilyn Monroe begins a fraught and intense relationship with costar Eileen Heckart, one of the era’s most celebrated actresses. 

That rocky friendship forms the basis for Marilyn, Mom, and Me, a buzzy new show written and directed by Heckart’s son Luke Yankee, playing Feb 16 to Mar 3 at the International City Theatre in Long Beach, CA.

Yankee says the play stems from his attempts to come to terms with his own rocky relationship with his mother by understanding the deep connection she had with Marilyn Monroe.

“To the day my mother died, she could never talk about Marilyn without bursting into tears,” Yankee says. “I knew there was something very personal there and something very deep and that Marilyn had touched her in a way that no one else ever had.”

Marilyn, Mom, and Me stars Laura Gardner stars as Heckart, alongside Alisha Soper as Marilyn. Soper has previously played Marilyn on three different TV shows, including Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan and American Horror Story.

I’m not just saying this, but many people feel [Sopel] is the best Maryland they have ever seen. I mean, she captures the voice, the walk, the intent,” Yankee says. “[Gardner] has probably seen everything my mother has done at this point and she so captures my mother. I mean, it’s uncanny.”

The fact that Soper has played Marilyn in so many different projects points to the incredible staying power Monroe has had in the public imagination. But despite decades worth of books, movies, plays, televisions shows, television shows about plays, and even an upcoming play based on a television show about a play based on Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn, Mom, and Me still finds a relatively unexplored are of the icon’s life to bring to the stage.

“People have said to me, ‘what could you possibly tell us about Marilyn Monroe that we don’t already know?’ But almost everything is about her relationships with men – JFK and Arthur Miller and all of that,” Yankee says. “I don’t know that there’s really anything else about another woman who was a contemporary of hers and who was really on equal footing.” 

“One of the ironic things is that this was at the time that Marilyn was the biggest star in the world and she wanted what my mother had. She wanted to be taken seriously as a legitimate actress.”

At the time, Marilyn had just spent a year studying with Lee Strasberg, and she had become the poster child for his “method” style of acting, which required actors to feel authentic emotions in their performances. As Marilyn and Heckart were playing best friends in Bus Stop, Marilyn was determined to become close friends with her in real life to enhance her performance. 

“At first my mother was like, ‘okay, who’s this starlet who’s glomming on to me and making me feel very uncomfortable?’ But the two of them really bonded through their wounds. For as much as they both achieved, because they were both adopted, neither of them ever truly felt that they deserved a place at the table,” Yankee says.

But the heart of the show is in Yankee’s difficult relationship with his demanding mother. Heckart, an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony-winning actress, prepared Yankee for a life in the theatre from a young age by being highly critical and expecting excellence in everything he did. 

“From the time I was eleven years old doing children’s theater in the basement of the YMCA, she would critique my performances like I was Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic. She’d sort of take a drag on her cigarette and say, ‘What the fuck were you doing on that stage?’” Yankee says. “Over time I realized that the good intention behind that was to make me a better actor and to toughen me up for the business but at age 11, I just wanted to supportive mom to tell me good job kid.” 

Their relationship grew strained when Yankee came out to his mother. Even though Heckart knew many gay men from her work on stage and screen, she found it difficult to accept her own son being gay at first.

“For a woman of that era there were no positive role models. I mean gay people were all either alcoholic or suicidal or promiscuous or all three,” Yankee says.

But despite the hard times, Marilyn, Mom, and Me is a tribute to Yankee’s mother. While the play reveals heretofore unseen sides of Marilyn Monroe, the stories it tells also help contextualize the difficulties in Heckart’s own life, and how they shaped both her incredible career and her relationship with her son.

Marilyn, Mom, and Me plays Feb 16 to Mar 3 at the International City Theatre in Long Beach, CA.

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Rob Salerno is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada.

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Theater

New play Arrowhead: a minefield of queerness, feminism, & identity

Catya McMullen’s new farce follows what happens when a committed lesbian finds herself accidentally pregnant

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Amielynn Abellera, Stefanie Black, Kacie Rogers, Adrián González and Nate Smith (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

By Rob Salerno | LOS ANGELES – Playwright Catya McMullen knows she’s navigating across landmines with her new play Arrowhead, a farcical drama about a lesbian in a committed relationship who finds herself accidentally pregnant and throws an abortion party with her straight friends at a cabin in the woods – which becomes even more complicated when her queer friends and her girlfriend find out.

Produced by IAMA Theatre Company at the Atwater Village Theatre and opening Feb 8, Arrowhead probes volatile subjects like identity, feminism, and who belongs in the queer community with a comic touch that McMullen says she hopes will help audiences probe their own beliefs.

“I’m a comedy writer through and through. I try to find the profound in the stupid and the stupid in the profound. My artistic mission is to use humor to access vulnerability, and that runs a very large gamut,” McMullen says. “I always want to want to laugh my way into personal truths. I get to the heart of my own whatever existential despair actually through comedy and that’s definitely a huge part of the tone of everything that I write.”

McMullen says the play was inspired by her own experience discovering she is bisexual after having identified as a lesbian her whole life.

“My experience has been that there’s a bit of a holy trinity of of what I want sexually, my identity, and community, and this play is very much about what happens when what you want conflicts with those three and also your feminism,” she says.

Talking with McMullen, it’s clear she’s aware that she’s steering through treacherous territory – not just because the subject matter includes hot-button issues like abortion and feminism, but because she’s also, essentially, crafting a coming out story for a bisexual woman.

“That’s part of why I wanted to write this play, because it’s not ‘look at how alienated bisexuals can be.’ It’s like, look at the complicated politics and matrix and the fabric of all that,” she says.

The twist in Arrowhead’s approach, that the protagonist Gen is navigating a new identity within the queer community, still feels like relatively underexplored territory in queer storytelling.

“I think a lot of us, especially in our mid-30s, can suddenly have a moment where it’s like, who I thought I was is not totally true. And I think that there’s a kind of bravery of stepping into it,” she says.

“I’ve experienced a lot of biphobia in finding my place in the queer community, especially when I started out. There was something that happened with the lot of the queer women in my life, especially the lesbians, where, in certain ways, because I was in a relationship with a man, I became less safe, and simultaneously, I deeply understood why.”

And McMullen says Arrowhead is careful to consider points of view that complicate the ‘coming out’ narrative and the drive for acceptance on inclusion. 

“I really wanted to make sure that perspective, life experience of what is so precious about some of these hard lines and the community that you find when you’re when you’re gay,” she says. “Arrowhead is sort of like my love letter to queerness.”


Arrowhead plays at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave, Los Angeles, Feb 9-Mar 3. Tickets available here.

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Rob Salerno is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada.

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Theater

Kayden Alexander Koshelev, a triple threat on stage & screen

Koshelev is currently feature in A Christmas Story: The Musical, on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles until December 31

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Courtesy of Kayden Alexander Koshelev

By Rob Salerno | LOS ANGELES – At just fourteen years old, up-and-coming actor Kayden Alexander Koshelev has already built up an impressive resume, with appearances in Zachary Snyder’s sci-fi Netflix blockbuster Rebel Moon, the HBO comedy Search Party, as well as How I Met Your Father and 9-1-1: Lonestar.

A true triple threat, Koshelev is currently feature in A Christmas Story: The Musical, on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles until December 31. 

The Los Angeles Blade caught up with Koshelev after a matinee performance of A Christmas Story to talk about the stage, space opera, superheroes, and where he sees his career going.

What’s it like performing in a show that’s based on a classic film? Are you a fan of the movie? 

Oh, it’s absolutely amazing. Everyone’s super great. I love this show so much. I have seen the movie a bunch of times, like it’s a Christmas tradition.

I started doing theatre when I was pretty little. I did Shrek, High School Musical and I did Oliver a couple times. I did A Christmas Carol three times. 

You recently were in the cast of Drag: The Musical [based on the concept album by Alaska Thunderf*ck]. What was it like to be part of that world?

It was a new show, and it won best new show of the year [at the Queerties], which I was absolutely amazed by because it was it was really, really fun to work on. We did it at The Bourbon Room, and I think I can say I think it’s come it’s coming back to the Bourbon Room [next March 15-31, 2024]. 

How is the process different when you’re creating a new show versus stepping into a classic story?

Creating something like brand new like that, there’s definitely a lot more pressure. It’s like you set the tone not only for this character but for this show. So it’s a lot bigger. 

How do you how did you feel about that?

I was still super excited because I’m so happy to be like, not technically the original, but the first one to do this show. They had someone else do the soundtrack, which came out before the first show run. 

You’ve been doing like a lot of film and television as well. What’s the difference for you, doing television versus doing a stage show?

I feel like doing television is a lot more stimulating because it’s very much like, you’re here, you’re doing this. You have to learn your lines. Boom. Well theater is more of a process. So I feel like they’re very different but I love them both a lot. That’s it. 

Do you have like a favorite project that you’ve worked on?

I love pretty much everything I do for different reasons. I would say that I probably prefer TV stuff a little bit more. Actually, I don’t know there’s both so fun. I think everything I do is something I love doing. 

You were just in Rebel Moon, which is probably the biggest project you’ve been involved in so far. What was that like? 

There was a huge Premiere. Actually, it was crazy. I was like sweating and like it was ginormous. 

What’s it like working on a movie like that?

It was actually crazy. You had no idea. I was on a different planet. There were these horses and they had the green screen on their faces to make them look like other animals.

Was the whole set green creen?

Yeah, but a lot of it was real. A lot of the things that you see… had little green screen things, but the thing itself was real.

Obviously it’s very different to do a space opera film versus a show like this where it’s very grounded in the real world. Do you find that more challenging? 

I love doing all the different types of things in a way because then I could be like check, check, and each experience is something entirely different. That’s whether I’m on Earth or Veldt. 

How do you find balancing all of those different things that you do? 

Balancing is actually probably the biggest challenge for me because I have my social life. I have school. I have acting, TV shows, musicals. It can be a lot. I can get really stressed out sometimes, but I just feel grateful.

Rather than stressed out. I try to feel grateful rather than stressed out because I know that a lot of people would love to be doing what I’m doing. 

Courtesy of Kayden Alexander Koshelev

What are like, what are your like Ambitions as an actor or performer? Like what are things that you dream of doing?

I kind of just ride the wave pretty much. I just want to keep acting and pretty much until I can’t because that is what I know. I love to do it, and I know that it’s what I will hopefully always be doing so my goal is just to feed me and see how far I can go. 

Do you have a dream role?

I would love to be either regular or lead in a Sci-Fi film, because I love I love sci-fi worlds. Oh, actually actually I’d love to be like a recurring superhero. That’s everything that I like to watch. 

Do you have a favorite character?

Yes, Scarlet Witch. Yeah. I love Scarlet Witch because she’s just the strongest. I’m really sad that they gave her a villain Arc, which it was coming, but I think she’s still alive.

Do you also see yourself continuing to do musicals?

For sure. I love musical theater, so it’s gonna be a part of my life for sure.

Do you have a favorite show?

Ah, asking a theater kid what their favorite show is? Oh, I don’t know.

I do really like Beetlejuice. I love the show that I am doing right now. I love Hamilton, but who doesn’t?

What’s something you’d like our readers to know about you?

A lot more goes into things than meets the eye with a lot of work like this. A lot of things can be like four or five seconds, but a lot of work could go into that specific moment.

I love the color pink. I like to wear pink a lot. I’m in more of like a pink and blue phase right now on my looks. 

I love playing video games, like really normal video games. I love to call my friends and text them stuff like that.

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Rob Salerno is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada.

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Oscar-winner Tarell McCraney, new Geffen Artistic Director

The Moonlight co-screenwriter says he wants the theatre to be artist-centered, while attracting top-name talent

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L-R: Artistic Director Tarell Alvin McCraney, Executive Director / CEO Gil Cates, Jr. and Board Chair Adi Greenberg. (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

By Rob Salerno | LOS ANGELES – Tarell Alvin McCraney has lofty plans for the Geffen Playhouse, which announced him as its new Artistic Director last week. 

The openly queer playwright who won an Oscar for co-writing the 2016 film Moonlight based on his own earlier play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, says he wants the theatre to be a place that centers artists’ voices while building on the theatre’s location in Los Angeles to attract big name talent. But he also wants the theatre to draw in more young audiences from neighboring UCLA and he promises to continue commissioning work by LGBTQ creators. 

With a career that has included being a member of Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre, playwright-in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company, serving as Chair of playwrighting at the Yale School of Drama, and a Tony Award nomination for his Broadway debut Choir Boy (which was produced at the Geffen in 2014), the 43-year-old playwright has the deep connections across the national theatre scene as well as in Hollywood that just might help him pull this vision off.

The Los Angeles Blade sat down with McCraney to talk about how he sees the Geffen Playhouse fitting into the LA art scene, and why live performance remains so relevant to today’s audiences.

Blade: Why are you making the transition from playwrighting to artistic directing? What made you want to run a theatre?

McCraney: That kind of vision-setting is something that I’ve always done. I certainly will admit that doing it at a major theatre was not on my bucket list. But then something started to happen. A lot of the ways that we were creating theatre began to be corporatized and we started to think in corporate ways and business models. For art making, that can get convoluted. The moment we get into very strict rules about theatre and how it should get created, we get into trouble. We leave no room for expression. And that has been happening in part because leadership hasn’t been by artists. 

And now I have a whole heap of friends and colleagues who are artists running theatres, saying we need to work in collaboration with each other, in order to make sure that the artists of the future are nourished and told that their voice is necessary. All of our companies, even in TV and film, are run by the imagination of the artists, and to put that at the center is really investing in our future.

What is your vision for the Geffen? 

The Geffen already does something pretty amazing. It is that fulcrum in the entertainment industry. There are a lot of film and tv folks who make up our audience and the artists who are on our stage. That feels like we have a role to play in the ecosystem of the great many theatre artists who come out to LA to pursue film and television and also still deeply want the roots of live performance to be honored, and the skills that come with that to be sharpened.

We also have about 30-40,000 audience members across the street who may not have been inside of our playhouse or experienced their first live performance, and we’d love to make sure that that is part of their education. I’m talking about UCLA. We want to make sure that we invite them in to experience what it is to have a live performance affect you and change you and make you think and anger you and call you into action. We also know that a good percentage of those folks are the artists of tomorrow. We want to make sure that they know that they have a space.

How is Los Angeles different from the places where you’ve made theatre in the past?

It’s the center of the TV and film industry in our country specifically. And yes, there are certainly theatre actors who work in film and television in New York and Chicago. 

In LA the majority of folks who are in our audience and on our stages work in the film and television industry in some way, shape or form. What that gives us as a playhouse is a place where we can say, hey, theatre is important to you. It’s the first thing you did in your life. It’s the first experience you had in dramatic storytelling. It’s the bad theatre games that led you to this moment playing this role on Wandavision. Now you want to get back on stage and you want to remind yourself what it means to be in Hamlet and why that story is important, in film and television, but also in live performance. What does that do? What part of your humanity is invigorated by doing it in front of people night to night?

Because we have so many people in our community who come from that tradition and background, it makes no sense to me to bifurcate that but to integrate it. 

You obviously bring a certain star power to the theatre. Do you think that’s important for Los Angeles audiences? 

Name recognition is important for sure. Someone could take that negatively. I hear, “Oh, I like the way that person tells a story. I’ve followed them for a long time.” 

I’d love to make sure that there are a cadre of artists that folks can say, “Oh yeah, they’re at the Geffen pretty often. I love to see them there,” or, “I saw their first play there, and it’s really interesting to see what they do next. I’m coming back for that.” I think it’s important to audiences everywhere. We like to train up with people. You’ve seen that actor before that you’re like “he was in that thing!” You like to watch that versatility. 

Samuel L. [Jackson] was in The Piano Lesson. One, I love The Piano Lesson. Two, I love Samuel L. And I was like, I have to see this, because this is one of my favorite people telling stories and in a way that I rarely get to see him do it. 

I understand the guilt, because people can feel consumerist, but it really is an age-old tradition. You want  to see that person tell the stories. It is exciting to say I’ve seen that actor on so many things, but I’d love to see them live.

Does the Geffen need to find new audiences?

So does every industry. Even in streaming, we know we gotta grow their audiences. What I don’t think we should be doing is chasing after the audiences who’ve said they’re not going to sit in the theatre anymore. I think there are people who’ve gone through a very rough time the last three years, who’ve said, “Y’know what? One of my biggest things is going to be being outside, or travelling, or moving to that place that I didn’t think I could.”

What we have to do is reinvest in the 60% of audiences that have come back and said, even during that limited capacity, “The thing I wanted to get to most was this engagement here in the live theatre. It’s important to me, it’s a part of the tapestry of my life, so I’m here.” 

Why is theatre relevant in 2023? 

It’s the difference between [being there and] hearing, “Oh, you had to be there…”

I tell this story all the time about Peter Brook’s Hamlet in Chicago [in 2001] with Adrian Lester. It’s the first Shakespeare production I’ve seen at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. I’m seeing this fly zipping around, and Adrian Lester, who is delivering the most eloquent Shakespeare I’ve ever seen, at some point in the middle of it, I think he’s doing one of his great speeches, he [catches the fly in his hands, shows it to the audience and wipes it off], and continues going on as if nothing happened. I think it was during “To be or not to be.” Talk about timing. You just had to be there. 

I remember my best friend Glenn Davis, the artistic director of Steppenwolf, and my friend André Holland who was in Moonlight, we all saw that production, that performance, and we’re all still saying, “You had to be there,” this performance 20 years ago, to see this fly driving Adrian Lester wild. I know that’s still relevant to folks. 

We have a show right now at the Geffen called Every Brilliant Thing, and it’s really interesting to see folks who are jostled by how interactive it is, and how much the audience talks to the performer. And those who really lean into it, who are like, “Yeah, this is why I come. I can’t just lean back and eat Cheetos, while you divorce someone or run for president. I have to be here right with you as you work out this very complicated thing in your life.”

What can queer audiences expect from the Geffen under your tenure? 

Thankfully, the artistic leadership before did a pretty good job of forging ahead with queer stories in our space. I can speak to Choir Boy when we did it all those years ago. But since then, there’s been multiple plays and paradigm-breaking ways in which we engage our queer stories particularly. I’m speaking of The Inheritance, when we had that block party with community partners.

One of the things I’m challenging us to do is to make sure that when we do invite audiences – queer, black, brown, Asian – into our space, that they do know that we keep something on hand for them. That it’s not just that in June we have this ‘out’ play, but that we have something year-round that… may not be specifically about a topic, but it’ll have enough that it’ll encourage, delight and engage everyone. 

We can’t have a play in February for Black History Month and then be like, “Oh, we got our Black audience in, but now what?” We have to make sure that audiences feel like we program with you in mind. The play may not be about your particular home, but it is engaging the world you live in and wanna live in. 

Do you think we’ll see more commissioned queer works, or productions of queer-themed plays? 

For sure, on our roster of people to commission there are same-sex loving folks, there are people who are transgender. We are absolutely leaning into that. 

Are we going to see new Tarell Alvin McCraney plays at the Geffen? 

That’s an easy Yes. Selfishly, that’s why I took the job. Directors always take these jobs and go, “I’m gonna direct the thing I never got to direct.” There’s a bunch of things I want to write for the theatre and I just need the time and space to do it. Maybe I’ve hoodwinked the Geffen into letting me do that. I’m very excited about it.

What are you excited to write about?

I definitely want to write about marriage and my weird feelings around it. If you just look at the things I’ve been writing about for twenty years, they’re all the same: queer people, finding love, finding a voice. That’s not going to change. Just different avenues. 

I’m excited to see that as a 43-year-old man who keeps going, “Should I get married? Is marriage for me? Isn’t the point of being queer not to get married? Aren’t we revolutionary? Is it a tool of the state or whatever, or is it really a romantic thing that I’m missing out on?” I want to grapple with those things. and I think the intimacy of our spaces is the place to do it. 

As soon as I can get the time to write it. 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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Rob Salerno is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada.

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The spirit of Sondheim enchants sparkling ‘Into the Woods’

For those who love that kind of thing there is no joy quite like watching or for that matter, merely listening to a Sondheim musical

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Gavin Creel and Katy Geraghty in 'Into the Woods,' now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre throuh July 30 - photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Though the late Stephen Sondheim is now regarded as part of the highest pantheon of Broadway Musical icons, he had a surprisingly small number of hits. His longest running show was his first as both lyricist and composer, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which closed in 1964 after 964 performances, and even his most successful shows across the next five decades had comparatively short runs.

The reason, of course, is that Sondheim simply isn’t for everyone; his musicals were edgy, challenging, looking to push the boundaries of storytelling in musical theatre; his songs were as dense with layers of meaning as they were with his precocious wit, and not a word or note was wasted. For those who love that kind of thing, there is no joy quite like that to be found watching – or for that matter, merely listening to – a Sondheim musical; for those who don’t, it can feel a little too much like doing homework instead of spending an evening at the theatre.

Even if that sounds like you, “Into the Woods” – the late composer’s classic musical now playing in a revival production at the Ahmanson – might stand a chance of winning you over. The show itself, which originated in a 1986 production showcasing Bernadette Peters, reimagines a handful of (mostly) well-known fairy tales to explore what happens “after the happily ever after”; it also features some of Sondheim’s most “audience friendly” music, framing the cleverness and insight of his lyrics with the kind of “hummable melodies” he was often accused of omitting from his work, and that, coupled with the easy familiarity of the subject matter, makes it arguably the most accessible show in his canon.

The aesthetically stripped-down staging now at the Ahmanson was  first mounted as part of the New York City Center’s “Encores” series before transferring for a Broadway run in June of 2022 – where it earned not only enthusiastic critical acclaim but six Tony nominations, to boot. Judging from what we saw at the Ahmanson, it’s easy to understand why.

Forsaking an elaborate scenic design in favor of a highly stylized, fairy-tale-suggestive setting in which the orchestra occupies most of the upstage area, songs and scenes are played out with almost as much left to the imagination as if the show were one of the “staged concert” renderings of Broadway musicals that have become popular within the last decade or so; yet in spite (or perhaps, because) of its emphasis on what is to be gained from the material rather than on the Grimm-Brothers-gone-camp trappings of story’s deceptively cute, gimmicky concept, it manages to deliver all the stealthy resonance of Sondheim’s words and music while still preserving the tongue-in-cheek charm of its reimagined fairy tales with crystal clarity.

We won’t spoil the fun for those unfamiliar with the show (and who haven’t seen the lukewarm movie version); suffice to say that it merges together some tales you know – Cinderella (Diane Phelan), Little Red Ridinghood (Katy Geraghty), Jack (Cole Thompson) and the Beanstalk, and others – and intertwines them with one you don’t, in which a childless baker (Sebastian Arcelus) and his wife (Stephanie J. Block) make a deal with the witch next door (Montego Glover) to gather ingredients for a mysterious potion in exchange for her granting their wish for a baby.  In James Lapine’s astute, sharply honed script, these old tales are infused with adult perspective, diving deeper than their simplistic cautionary messages to explore a few of the more nuanced and subtle dangers that await us “in the woods,” even as these somewhat fractured fables wind their way toward the happy endings we expect.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Act Two picks up where things left off, as the consequences of all the characters’ choices come back not only to disrupt their newfound happiness, but to turn their whole magic kingdom into a disaster zone. It’s here where Sondheim and Lapine hit us closest to the heart, sweeping aside the generational “wisdom” of the original tales to reveal a moral more suited to a modern age, in which the traditional bonds of kinship are often forged with the families we choose rather than the ones we were born with – and in which the stories we tell, to our children and to ourselves, may well matter more than they ever have.

Along the way, there is lots of comedy – of course, how can one resist poking fun at the conventions of fairy tales? – and even more music, including now-classic songs like “Children Will Listen” and “No One Is Alone”, the latter of which became an anthem of hope and comfort during the AIDS era that was in full bloom when the show originally debuted.

Thanks to concise staging and guidance from director Lear deBessonet, a uniformly superb cast (many of whom are continuing in their Broadway roles), and a perfectly balanced sound mix that brings out all the detail of the scoring while keeping every word spoken or sung onstage completely audible, it provides the “brainy” fun we associate with Sondheim – but it’s also gleefully entertaining. It captures all the cheeky humor of the show’s absurdist conceit, even enhancing it with surreal design touches – most notably the use of onstage puppeteers to bestow life upon (among other things) a flock of friendly birds and “Milky White,” the decrepit cow who becomes an audience favorite from her first appearance – yet remains grounded enough to ensure that the emotional punch of the second half feels not only sincere, but earned.

Standout moments are plentiful, but some of the high points include “I Know Things Now,” as sung by Geraghty, whose steamroller interpretation of Little Red overall garners plenty of audience chuckles; “Giants in the Sky,” delivered by Thompson’s endearingly daft Jack; “It Takes Two,” which warms the mood though the easy chemistry of real-life-married-couple Arcelus and Block; “Last Midnight,” in which Glover gives the Witch she’s made completely her own a showstopping final exit from the stage. Mention must inevitably made of Gavin Creel, whose double turn as both the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince gives him a scene-stealing chance to show off his multiple talents, as well as Phelan’s down-to-earth Cinderella, whose every-girl approach brings a refreshingly contemporary perspective into the forefront. A final nod should go to veteran actor David Patrick Kelly, a delight as the narrator with more of a connection to the story than it seems.

These are just the most prominent players among a cast with no weak links; the complete ensemble as a whole is more than enough reason to recommend “Into the Woods,” on the strength of combined talent alone.

There’s so much more to be appreciated, though – there aren’t many musicals that can deliver giddy hilarity, heartbreaking tragedy, and unexpected epiphanies that jolt us into recognition, all without losing their warm and friendly charm – so don’t miss your chance to see this one while it’s still here.

Even if you’re not a Sondheim fan, it will be one of the highlights of your summer.

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‘A Transparent Musical,’ pioneering queer series for the stage

The show, now performing its world premiere run at LA’s Mark Taper Forum through June 25, is a retelling of the story of the Pfefferman clan

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The cast of A Transparent Musical in the world premiere of 'A Transparent Musical' at Center Theatre Group, Mark Taper Forum May 23 through June 25, 2023. (Photo credit: Craig)


LOS ANGELES – It might seem a little out of the ordinary to begin a review of a theatrical production by discussing a TV series – but in the case of “A Transparent Musical,” it’s the logical place to start.

The show, now performing its world premiere run at LA’s Mark Taper Forum through June 25, is a retelling of the story of the Pfefferman clan, the secret-laden, deeply dysfunctional and very Jewish LA family at the center of “Transparent,” a now-iconic, pioneering Amazon series that premiered in 2014 and ran for 4 critically-acclaimed seasons before ending with a special feature-length “Musicale Finale” in lieu of a fifth.

In its original form, the saga began with the coming out of Maura Pfefferman to her children as a trans woman – a bombshell revelation that that sends the privileged, self-absorbed family reeling. From there, it charted Maura’s transition into the proud trans matriarch she always knew was inside her, as well as the struggles of her former spouse (Shelly) and their children (Josh, Sarah, and Ali) to navigate life – both as a family and as individuals – in the aftermath.

In later seasons, the focus shifted more to youngest child Ali and the search she undertakes for her own identity, and after the controversial departure of series star Jeffrey Tambor, the tale finally culminated with Ali’s creation of a musical about her family’s history.

While the final episode won its share of critical praise and accolades and gave fans of the series some form of closure, many viewers couldn’t help but feel a sense of anti-climax; for them, the circumstances around Maura’s departure from the narrative (which we won’t go into here, you can look it up if you don’t remember) left something of a bitter taste in the air, and while the renewed sense of hope and healing it delivered for Ali, her siblings and her mom were appreciated, the fact that Maura wasn’t allowed to get there with them felt, well, unfair.

While the actor who played her may no longer have been suitable to continue the journey, the character deserved a much better fate, and the audience who had rooted for her over the course of four seasons deserved her to have it, too.

With that in mind, one might go into “A Transparent Musical” – co-written by series creator Joey Soloway and MJ Kaufman, with music and lyrics by Soloway’s sibling Faith – with reserved expectations. Indeed, what would a musical adaptation of this sprawling narrative, with its complex social and cultural themes and its extended cast of intertwined characters, even look like? Could it even be possible for them to fit 41 episodes of television storytelling into a two-and-a-half-hour stage version?

As it turns out, they didn’t even have to try. Instead, “A Transparent Musical” reimagines the entire story of the Pfeffermans into a streamlined, standalone experience that can be enjoyed and appreciated without any knowledge of the series whatsoever. Instead of placing Maura (played here by Daya Curley) at the center of the story, it’s young Ali (Adina Verson) who becomes our point of entry; tasked with helping to mount a play for her Jewish Community Center’s Purim carnival, she finds herself drawn into a voyage of self-discovery, recalling key moments in her family’s past and drawing connections between their story and the multi-faceted cultural and ethnic heritage that sprawls out behind them.

Gone are most of the side trips taken by the series, along with many of the non-Pfefferman characters, and what’s left is a scaled-down retelling that manages to feel just as complete – if not more so, given that Maura is now allowed to be included in the ending – as the series that fans grew to love.

Of course, trimming things down to that extent inevitably means sacrificing a lot of nuance, and that has an impossible-to-ignore impact on the show’s first act, which is lengthy to begin with but feels even lengthier because of it.

One of the challenges of “Transparent” was that its protagonists were all messy, self-centered, unreasonable, compartmentalized, dishonest, stubborn, spiteful, even sometimes deliberately cruel to each other – in short, all of them, including Maura (sometimes especially her), were often difficult to like.

The saving grace was the show’s ability to let us see into the deepest corners of each of their lives, where we could recognize and relate to the wounded humanity hiding behind all those walls of defense; here, without the luxury of such detailed exploration, their unpleasantness sometimes makes it tough to care whether they work things out for themselves or not.

But of course, one doesn’t have to like or even care about characters to find aspects of oneself reflected in them, and their relatability goes a long way toward keeping us invested enough to stick around after intermission – and that’s fortunate, because it’s in the second act that “A Transparent Musical” blossoms into the fully realized manifestation of Soloway’s story we never knew it needed to become.

Without giving spoilers, the second half employs flights of fancy – devised and expanded from elements included in the series – to bring together all the Pfeffermans’ struggles and crystallize all the story’s themes into one cathartic bundle.

By the time it’s over, the acceptance, forgiveness, and yes, transcendence that has happened on stage leaves us to ponder questions of our own identity, and how being seen for who we really are makes a big difference in our ability to see others that way, too.

As directed by Tina Landau, the production bursts with colorful, exciting imagery and inventive staging that helps us easily follow the jumps in time and place that occur within the show’s immersive setting – which, designed with tongue-in-cheek authenticity by Alan Rigg, puts the audience in the middle of a JCC auditorium.

Faith Soloway’s songs may not linger melodically in your brain in the way typically expected of showtunes, but their lyrics are clever, insightful, funny, and successfully transmit complicated threads of language and ideas without letting us lose track of any of them; coupled with James Alsop’s crisp, high-energy choreography, it’s a combination that delivers a welcome injection of high-spirited musical theatre fun.

As for the cast, a diverse and talented ensemble that seems to be having the time of their lives, they are uniformly excellent. Verson deserves special mention for carrying the show’s narrative responsibilities without distancing themself in the process, as does Curley for inhabiting Maura so completely that we easily forget any previous incarnation of her.

Liz Larsen has multiple show-stopping moments as “what about me?” mom Shelly, as does Peppermint (in the dual role of Davina and Darlene), whose powerful vocal prowess brings down the house more than once – a feat also accomplished by Kasper as Ezra. Standout moments aside, however, the entire company should truly be considered joint stars of the show.

It could go without saying, perhaps, that a show like “A Transparent Musical” is highly important to be seen in a time like ours, as vicious backlash from extremist bigots grows ever more alarming and politicians pander to homophobia with regressive and harmful legislation.

There are moments in the show that address this growing volatility, an element which brings a fresh sense of urgency to its message of acceptance – something it makes much easier to swallow by showing us that feeling comfortable in your own skin is an essential human need extending far beyond the importance of gender, sexuality, race, or any of the other external factors we use to divide ourselves from others.

Even so, and despite multiple themes that are bound to be uncomfortable – even potentially triggering – for many audiences, “A Transparent Musical” is not a bleak show, nor does it dwell on the political terrors of the larger world, even if it acknowledges that they are there. It goes without saying that many of our readers will consider it a must-see piece of theatre, simply by virtue of its messaging and the need to be visible; rest assured that even if you’re going because you feel like you have to, you’re probably still going to enjoy it, too.

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A queer Hollywood homage takes the stage for Pride month in ‘Back Porch’

If you are a fan of theatre, & you also happen to be a fan of classic movies, & you also happen to be queer, then Pride Month in LA holds a special treat for you

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Jordan Morgan and Isaac W Jay in BACK PORCH at the Victory Theatre in Burbank - Photo by Keira Wight

BURBANK, Calif. – If you are a fan of theatre, and you also happen to be a fan of classic movies, and you also happen to be queer, then Pride Month in LA holds a special treat for you.

From June 2 – July 9, Burbank’s Victory Theatre Center will be the venue for the world premiere of “Back Porch,” a new play by Eric Anderson that uses an imaginary scenario within a real-life slice of moviemaking history to tell a very queer story – one that pays delightful homage to a beloved Hollywood classic as well as the playwright behind the work that inspired it.

The setting is a small Kansas town and the year 1955, when a Hollywood movie crew descends upon the community to shoot scenes for the classic film, “Picnic.” 

According to the synopsis:

Barney Opat (Karl Maschek) is the widowed father of two boys: 18-year-old Gary (Isaac W. Jay), who yearns to escape small-town Kansas life for a more glamorous existence, and energetic 13-year-old Del Wayne (Cody Lemmon). The family’s life is upended when a handsome stranger working as William Holden’s stunt double (Jordan Morgan) blows into town alongside the all-star cast. Other characters include the Opats’ bachelor boarder, singing teacher Myron Uhrig (Eric Zak), and their neighbor, Millard Goff (Jonathan Fishman).

Needless to say, sparks start flying (in more ways than one) almost immediately.

Playwright Anderson – who was himself born and bred in Kansas – says he remembers being 4 years old when portions of “Picnic” were filmed near his home.

“My family drove to the location one evening to take part in the ‘Neewollah’ scene on the river. I’ve been crazy about movies — and theater — ever since. With “Back Porch,” I wanted to pay tribute to a significant American playwright who was also significantly closeted. I hoped to write the kind of play that he himself might have written had he lived in another time and place.”

Jordan Morgan and Isaac W. Jay in Bluestem Productions ‘Back Porch’ at Victory Theatre Center in Burbank – Photo by Keira Wight


The play is directed by Kelie McIver, another Kansas native, who goes as far as to call it a “love letter to William Inge.” She also calls it “a terrific ensemble piece in which each character has an interesting and beautiful arc. I love them all and want to hang out with them.”

“Back Porch” is presented by Bluestem Productions. In addition to Anderson and McIver, the creative team includes set designer Kenny Klimak, lighting designer Carol Doehring, sound designer Cinthia Nava, costume designer Molly Martin, stunt/fight choreographer Brett Elliott and intimacy director Amanda Rose Villarreal. The stage manager is Margaret MagulaDavid Willis and Kelie McIver produce for Bluestem.

For information and to purchase tickets, call (818) 533-1611 or go to the production’s website.

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