Anthony Newley Hits Venice

Anthony Newley Hits Venice

By Suzy Williams

Run, don’t walk to The Pacific Resident Theatre on Venice between Shell and Oakwood, to see one of the most charming, heart-warming musical evenings you’ve experienced. This compact, brilliant little revue with no intermission has 26 fantastic songs that flow together with a wee plot that ties it tidily. For even though Anthony Newley is no longer with us physically, his music lives. (I had the pleasure of attending Pure Imagination last week with Venice’s own songbird extraordinaire, Kathy Leonardo, who worked with Newley on tour in the seventies and had tales to tell of his on-the-road shenanigans).

First, designer Norman Scott’s setting: a classic and cozy, black and shiny nightclub, circa 1963 with risers, all kinds of subtle lighting, long silvery-black mellomar curtains and a baby grand piano. Where else can you find such an evocative atmosphere today?

A pianistic fanfare, and out step our colorfully “Mad Men”- dressed cast, taking their places all about the stage, and launching into a series of familiar melodies and moves we remember from watching all those variety shows on television way back when. But who knew so many were written by Anthony Newley (and his partner Leslie Bricusse)? Yes, we may know that Newley was responsible for “What Kind of Fool am I?” and “Who Can I Turn To?,” but how about “On a Wonderful Day Like Today,” “The Candyman,” and…”Goldfinger”??

The lovable cast has a knock-out, fixate-able blonde, Jane Noseworthy, who, in “Typically English” does a great character study of an Englishwoman, a German, a Russian and an American girl, all in one breath, it seemed. Sami Staitman is 13 and has a robust voice and a joie de vivre that makes one optimistic for youth and all mankind. Tap dancer and tenor Shaun Baker, brings all his New York finesse to the show, and Robert Jacobs, tall and striking, plays the seductive bad boy to the hilt. Dana Dewes is the heart and soul of the production, with her mane of dark tresses and the glamourest of dresses. This evening of Newley music, newly appreciated, is feel-good entertainment. Why not step out to the PRT and feel good? Yes!

StageSceneLA Review



Imagine what might happen if you crossed a screwball comedy clan like the one George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart created in You Can’t Take It With You with the Greekly tragic family Arthur Miller wrote about in Death Of A Salesman. What you’d end up with would doubtless be something quite like Jennifer W. Rowland’s highly original and thoroughly entertaining tragicomedy The Indians Are Coming To Dinner, now getting its World Premiere at Venice’s Pacific Resident Theatre.

We first meet family patriarch Harold Blackburn (Michael Rothhaar) in full Maharajah regalia as he proudly announces to us the imminent arrival chez the Blackburns of his Indian friend Anil Desai (Kevin Vavasseur) and accompanying family members for the (guess who’s coming to) dinner we’ve come to enjoy. The year is 1984, and after thirty-four years of running a business he doesn’t particularly care for, Harold has learned that recently reelected President Reagan will soon be needing a new ambassador to India, a country still reeling from the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Our host is hoping that a tasty vegetarian curry dinner will curry sufficient favor with the influential Anil for the overseas post Harold has long dreamed of to become a reality. All Harold needs now is some cooperation from his family—a feat that’s easier hoped for than realized.

Wife Lynn (Sara Newman) is the ditzy sort—the kind played by Billie Burke in Topper and Father Of The Bride—who insists on letting the phone keep ringing because this newfangled contraption called the Answering Machine will pick up for her if she just waits long enough. As further evidence of her ditz, Lynn cares not a whit that the chick peas needed for tonight’s main course must be soaked a full forty-eight hours. After all, what’s the difference between two days in water and a quick rinse? As for appetizers, well there’s certainly nothing wrong with sushi, since everyone knows that Indian vegetarians eat raw fish, right?

Conveniently for Harold, his eighteen-year-old college student daughter Alexandra (Thea Rubley) has shown up unexpectedly on the family doorstep, a visit her father assumes is to help him make a good impression on his Indian guests, though in reality it is because tonight is the final round of Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition and Alexandra is one of ten gifted finalists.

At least fourteen-year-old Christopher (Justin Preston) doesn’t have other plans for the evening, though the frisky teen would probably rather spend it smoking pot in his upstairs bedroom than entertaining Indians.

Completing the Blackburn household is Chinese houseboy Woo (Peter Chen), whose comic butchering of the English language is thrown in for laughs, though not perhaps of the most culturally sensitive sort.

We soon learn that despite a whole lot of talking going on in the Rowland household, there’s not a whole lot of communication between family members, as for example when Sara plows blithely ahead with her dinner preparations regardless of admonitions about chick peas and sushi to hilarious effect. At other times, as when Harold’s hopes and dreams blind him to just how important tonight’s once-in-a-lifetime competition is to Alexandra, the results have considerable dramatic payoff.

That playwright Rowland somehow manages to juggle two very different genres and make The Indians Are Coming To Dinner’s gradual darkening seem an entirely logical outcome of its initial lightheartedness is a tribute to her writing, to Julia Fletcher’s intelligent direction, and to an all-around splendid cast.

Newman is delightfully droll as madcap matriarch Lynn, beneath whose seemingly bird-sized brain lies considerable heart and emotional smarts. Preston, whose work as a 16-year-old English schoolboy in PRT’s The Browning Version won him an Outstanding Featured Actor Scenie, demonstrates versatility and spunk in a role which gives him his very own “Biff moment” opposite stage vet Rothhaar, with whom the talented young performer more than holds his own. Recent USC grad Rubley’s luminous performance as Alexandra reveals a talent to be reckoned with (and a soprano that comes out of left field and dazzles). Vavasseur and Rikin Vasani do subtly nuanced work as Anil and his son Deepok, while Chen gives Woo dignity despite the indignity of having to play a racial/linguistic stereotype for laughs.

Finally, topping them all with a performance of fire and depth is the absolutely sensational Rothhaar, who starts out a more educated, successful version of Ralph Kramden and ends up first cousin to Willy Loman. Even if The Indians Are Coming To Dinner weren’t the intelligent, amusing, crowd-pleaser it is, it would be worth seeing simply to watch Rothhaar originate a role that every patriarchal character actor across the country will be dying to play.

Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz manages miraculously to squeeze the two-story Blackburn home (living room, dining room, study, and three upstairs bedrooms) onto the relatively small PRT stage. Leigh Allen lights Buderwitz’s detailed work with her accustomed finesse. Audrey Eisner’s costumes are an all-around splendid bunch, from Harold’s Maharajah garb to Lynn’s shoulder-padded ‘80s wear to Alexandra’s black-sequined opera recital gown. Keith Stevenson’s imaginatively varied sound design features Peter Erskine’s lively original compositions, bits of Rigoletto, and assorted effects.

The Indians Are Coming To Dinner is produced by Sara Newman-Martins and Greg Paul. Vitor Martins and John Dittrick are associate producers and Marilyn Fox executive producers. Angela Fong is stage manager.

A string of positive reviews and the support of loyal season ticket holders are likely to guarantee The Indians Are Coming To Dinner a lengthy, successful Westside run. With a few tweaks, Rowland’s highly original look at one American family’s life in the ‘80s ought to have a long regional theater life, though future productions will have a hard time topping the one now onstage at Pacific Resident Theatre.

Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd, Venice, Through March 25. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 3:00. Reservations: 310 822-8392.

–Steven Stanley
March 4, 2012

Penny Safranek LA Stage Insider

Here’s a great feature on PRT’s Penny Safranek in Julio Martinez’s STAGE WATCH in the LA Stage Times blog!

THE THING IS…“I am from Spokane, Washington. I started performing at a very early age, I think since seeing the film, Singin’ in the Rain. I decided right then I wanted to sing that song. I began taking drama lessons quite early. I actually went to University of Washingon in poli sci with the idea of going into law but instead went to grad school in drama. I decided I could become a lawyer any time, but I better try to be an actor first. I have been a member of this [Pacific Resident Theatre] company since Orpheus Descending [2003]. I first became involved with the J.M. Barrie play a couple of years ago in [artistic director] Marilyn Fox’s acting class because she loved the play and was looking to explore the possibility of producing it. I worked on it with Joe (McGovern) in class. I play a char woman during the time of World War I. It wasn’t too much of a stretch. We still have char women today, people who clean apartments, mop floors and things like that. I lived in New York for many years and that’s what I did. I cleaned apartments. But back in Barrie’s time, it was difficult to move beyond your station in life, especially in wartime. So, as in this play, it would be natural for char women to form their own social groups. And within her group, she is so intimidated by the other char women talking so much about their sons who are serving in the British military, she pretends to have a son, whose name she copies from a newspaper. Of course, the drama begins when the real soldier confronts her.” — Penny Safranek is featured in the title role of The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, opposite Joe McGovern, one of two short plays by J.M. Barrie that make up Barrie: Back to Back, running at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice.

Marilyn Fox in LA Stage Times

Here is a great piece on Marilyn Fox and the PRT. Enjoy!

Marilyn Fox Leads 25th Season at Pacific Resident Theatre

by Gary Ballard | June 29, 2011

“I try to pick plays [that] I’d want somebody I love – to watch,” declares Marilyn Fox, artistic director of Pacific Resident Theatre, addressing her method of selecting material to present on her stage. Barrie: Back to Back is currently running on PRT’s main stage.

Fox is on the move, with all the attention and overlapping of tasks that her responsibilities running a theater company regularly entail. When she murmurs in an aside, “Do you have a straw?” she then hastens to explain in this phone interview, “I’m driving as we speak. I’ve just picked up my sister Marcy whose car broke down, and she bought me an iced coffee.”

Questioned about her sister’s involvement in theater, she replies, “No, Marcy majored in psychology at UCLA so she didn’t catch the [theatrical] bug from me. In fact I probably caught it from her because she got me interested in Shakespeare and writing as a girl.”

That interest defines, labels and guides Fox to this day, motivating her in a constant search for illuminating drama and rewarding her with a sense of accomplishments. She says, “I’m proud PRT is celebrating our 25th anniversary season this year. Being an actual theatrical company of [close to] 100 members is a gift proclaiming both our longevity and our growth. We have a rare situation because we have two venues – our main stage for our season and our co-op space for our developmental works, where we cannot say no to an actor who wants to get in there and work on bringing a script to fruition. Actors hear that ‘no’ far too often in their careers. With that space in our company they won’t hear it. Once they book the space, they’re free to explore the story and format they want. And they can work a long period of time tinkering with it to get it to their specifications.

“That’s how Julia came about. Vince Melocchi is a 20-year company member who wrote a hit for us a few years ago called Lions. He developed Julia from the freedom of experimenting with it in our second space. It too became a hit.”

A bit of an understatement there. Julia traveled to New York from PRT by request. Fox tells how: “Elysabeth Kleinhans owns the 59E59 Theaters in New York as part of her Kleinhans Theatrical Foundation where she has three stages to fill. She actually came out here to see our production of Becky’s New Car for a possible transfer to her facilities. She liked it okay but became more intrigued with Julia and felt it would play well for her audiences. She invited us to bring the show there as part of [59E59’s] Americas Off Broadway Theater Festival. It turned out to be a comparable space to ours. Our stage is a bit deeper but not as wide. Theirs is wider but not as deep. The audience size is almost the same. As a result I think the show worked a little better in their space, because their audience had the intimacy to conjure the illusion of sitting inside the coffee shop where the story takes place. I think that made them more invested in the story. I saw the performances deepen and the play itself grow to new levels. All in all it was beneficial to our members, because they treated us with the utmost respect and it was financially equitable.”

When questioned about the oft-repeated East Coast/West Coast rivalry or jealousy, Fox answers, “It didn’t happen. I think it’s either been widely exaggerated in the past or it’s now a true part of the past and not the present. We have so much theater in LA that it’s undeniable. The biggest difference between us, I think, is in New York, theater is an industry. Here it’s not. Here it’s much closer to pure passion. But Elysabeth’s team treated us so well I’m looking forward to establishing a further relationship with them and hope we can take more of our productions there.”

No stranger to extended runs and the transfer of plays from one venue to another or across state lines, Fox praises one particular production as the premiere platform propelling her to pursue the performing arts with passion. “In 1993 we worked on [Clifford] Odets’ Awake and Sing! in our workshop space. I played Bessie Berger, the mother, even though I was only in my 30s. At that time Odets was not being done-any of his plays-that often. I think we helped change that. Also at that time we couldn’t open the play on our main stage, but I was madly in love with it, so the director Elina de Santos and I convinced Ron Sossi to let us stage it at the Odyssey. It ran for a year. It went Equity. [Fox won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle lead performance award] We spent four years taking it around the country. It was eventually done at Lincoln Center without us, but I consider Elina and myself as producers in effect, if not in fact, because we brought it to their attention. Now who knows? Maybe it was just happenstance. Still I like to believe our production woke them to the play’s merits.”

Any conversation with Fox inevitably leads to a lively-and loving-discussion of Gar Campbell, who taught a Monday night acting class at PRT with Fox for 20 years and who died at 64 in 2007. Campbell was one of the founders of the legendary LA avant-garde troupe, the Company Theater, in 1967, but according to Fox, “Gar hadn’t planned on a theater career at all. He studied math and science and graduated with the intention of becoming an engineer with no desire or interest in pursuing anything theatrical. That changed when a pretty girl wanted him to audition for the part of John, the Witch Boy, in Dark of the Moon. He got the part. The rest of us got a fantastic theater guy who had a totally scientific left brain approach to solving problems which came in quite handy for the stage. He could flay a script like a sushi chef. I was lucky enough to spend 27 years with him. He was one of the greatest theater men there ever was and was totally an LA theater man. He had the opportunity more than once to relocate his talents to another city for greater [monetary] compensation but never did. To this day I think we honor his memory by trying to cook up a scrumptious stage feast and telling our audience ‘come look at this’.”

Along her journey through the PRT ranks, Fox not only rose to become artistic director of the company but also gained renown for her hands-on directorial chores as well. She was nominated by the LADCC for directing both Golden Boy and Playboy of the Western World and won the group’s directing award for Ondine in 1993 and last year’s The Browning Version, in addition to picking up another performance award from the Circle for her lead role of Lady Torrance in Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending. She also won the LA Weekly Career Achievement Award in 2004.

So which brings her the greatest satisfaction, acting or directing? “Both are quite special,” she maintains. “As a director it’s an honor to guide a group of actors through a field sowed with the seeds of a great playwright’s mind. But the difference for me is I have such a love of acting it becomes an even greater honor to be the person to vibrate the words of a notable soul, to become the conduit through which his ideas can flow. It’s more than an honor when I pull it off successfully. It’s a miracle I can feel circulating through my very being.”

Right now Fox is guiding rather than vibrating as she shares directorial duties with Dana Dewes on Barrie: Back to Back, a bill of two one-acts by J. M. Barrie, including The Old Lady Shows Her Medals and Rosalind, which serves as the second show of PRT’s 25th season. This production came about because, as Fox explains, “I’ve wanted to do an evening of Barrie for a very long time. I always find myself shocked by the honesty in his writing. His work comes to us like a present in a pretty package, almost like a child would get at a birthday party, but when you open the present, you find it has a secret hidden inside and then another secret inside that one and on and on like Chinese boxes nested inside one another. These two plays mirror each other with a core of similarities where something is denied and another character has to get past that denial. I’m deliberately speaking in generalizations, because I don’t want to give away the secrets Barrie worked to create.”

Sir James Matthew Barrie stood tall in the literary world despite topping the scales at only 5’1″ or 5’3½”, according to different sources. As a novelist he shared a contemporary readership with Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll. He had personal friendships with George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. He enjoyed a long correspondence with Robert Louis Stevenson although the two never met in person. He and Arthur Conan Doyle co-authored an opera entitled Jane Annie, or The Good Conduct Prize. He was knighted during the reign of King George V. He recited stories to the Duke of York’s young daughters,who became Princess Margaret and the present Queen Elizabeth II. But after all the name-dropping has faded into the yellowing pages of history, J. M. Barrie is remembered today as the creator of the character Peter Pan and the play that bears the same name.

Fox, who has done her homework, shares her thoughts on what made the writer tick. “All the great authors in history are incomparable. You can’t begin to compare any of them with each other because each one brings a unique way of looking at the world to his craft of writing. Barrie, for example, talks about things other people don’t talk about. He was one of 10 children. When his older brother David died in an accident when Barrie was only six years old, Barrie’s mother became inconsolable over the loss. He started to dress in David’s clothing and copy his mannerisms and speech. His plays were later filled with the theme of the child who never grows up. They expressed the love and longing for a mother, the fear of aging, the ecstasy of being in spiritual flight, the allure of staying forever young. They were witty, intelligent and funny, but at their core each play carried a little nugget from the soul. They affect me in the profoundest way in that I don’t consider myself a woman. I think I’m really an old girl.

Kevin Railsback and Lesley Fera in “Rosalind”
“He wrote his play Rosalind as a tribute to his wife, the actress Mary Ansell, who retired from the stage after they married in 1894. Barrie later divorced her on the grounds of infidelity in 1909. H. G. Wells tried to encourage the couple to stay together.”

Dewes, the other director of Barrie: Back to Back, began her acting/singing career at age five in Atlantic City variety shows. After Dewes directed The Valiant for PRT’s co-op space, she served as assistant director of Fata Morgana and worked as associate director on last year’s The Browning Version, so this marks her third collaboration with Fox, who says, “I can’t take credit for Dana. She was a long-time student of Gar’s. Her success comes on a direct line from Gar’s teaching through all her hard work for PRT.”

Concerning the process of determining what steps she will engage to take a play from page to stage, Fox elaborates, “We pick material that’s calling to be done. We deliver to an audience what needs to be delivered. The main thing that needs to strike me is its authenticity. I read a lot of wonderfully intelligent scripts with a beginning, a middle and an end, but they’re not imprinted with the playwright in them. I don’t feel he was impelled to write it. I don’t care whether it was just written yesterday or 100 years ago. I don’t want just a clever idea. I want it to come out of the entrails of the writer with a human element or a deep intelligence that has to fight its way out of that person’s life. If not, it feels hollow to me. When I’m reading something or watching something, I want to remember that we’re human. I want that element to touch me that makes me remember it.”

Beckoning with Barrie: Back to Back, Marilyn Fox is betting baguettes to bulldozers that Pacific Resident Theatre will win bravos once again.
nt Theatre will win bravos once again.