"Next to Normal" gets the Oceanside Theatre Company Touch

with Live Music and Solid Portrayals 

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti 

Daniel Filippi, Danny Holmes, and Melissa Fernandes. Photo Ken Jacques

There are iconic shows that set a mark, a before, and an after. Next to Normal is one of those productions. A show that covers so much, wrapped up in a beautiful soundtrack with amazing music by Tom Kitt and powerful lyrics full of truth written by Brian Yorkey. Next to Normal won three Tony Awards in 2009, including Best Musical Score, and a Pulitzer Prize in 2010. When we are not dealing with a premiere, for my mental frame and context to the outside world, I clarify for reference if I have or have not seen a previous production of the piece being reviewed. The Broadway touring production with Alice Ripley in the leading role of Diana came to San Diego in 2010. San Diego Musical Theatre did a production of it, I believe, in 2014. 

A story that takes place with a family of four that is crumbling. Diana (Melissa Fernandes) has been struggling with her mental health for over a decade and although her husband Dan (Berto Fernández) is fully aware, he is struggling with some demons of his own that are being neglected and brushed under the rug. Natalie (Salima Gangani), the youngest of the two children is picking up all the pieces and trying to grasp it all at the tender age of 16; her boyfriend Henry (Marlon James Magtibay) is supportive but a distraction Natalie is unsure of handling. Diana is under psychiatric treatment with Dr. Madden (Daniel Filippi) and in their sessions, they discuss the dynamic with each of the family members including her oldest son Gabe (Danny Holmes). As she strives to get better, episodes will take place, reaching conclusions and triggering truths. 

Melissa Fernandes, Berto Fernández, and Salima Gangani. Photo Ken Jacques

I will continue to say that it is fabulous when local theatres take the leap to produce these works expanding their life and giving more people the opportunity to have the experience. Oceanside Theatre Company gave it its own touch and look which I applaud. Starting with the famous Next to Normal set design that consisted of two stories made of steel where the characters would go up and down with the stomps echoing and creating a bigger impact, scenic designer Reiko Huffman took the iconic reference and used a wooden design with relief that gave the effect of the stories and the movement along with the stomps. Here, I consider that an added value was the cracking of the wood. all painted in white with the live band in the back and the signature Next to Normal lilac as a backdrop that played with OTC Artistic Director Kevin “Blax” Burroughs's lighting of the show that went all in with shadows, fade-outs, and contours that captured and uplifted each scene. The actors also carry ring lights or rings that have lights, that they turn on and off and make good, visual, sense. Another element used with the set and light design where long, lightsaber-type tubes that had multiple uses and also worked. I do not know who is to credit for this, if it was Reiko or Mckenna Foote with props design but some of Diana's pills are illustrated with glitter and that is fantastic. Something odd was having microphone cords tangled all throughout the set. I could see Huffman aiming to clue in the family and Diana's chaos but it did not sync in until Alyssa “Ajay” Junious's choreography took place making sense and having an original OTC take on the famous production. Zoë Trauttman's costume design gave variety from Dan's pajamas to work clothes and Diana's loungewear to jeans and everyday outfits to Natalie's school style both for class and the school dance that was fun and cute.

And, doing justice to the beautiful music of this piece, OTC took the live route under the musical direction of Dr. Randi Rudolph who definitely stood out in the background with a lively conduction and piano playing that was visibly being enjoyed thoroughly. Leading Nikko Nobleza on guitar, Jared Pasimio on bass, Mike Dooley on drums, and Abigail Allwein on the violin. This went in parallel with Andre Buck Jr's sound design and mixing that did not miss a byte and had the actor's voices go through crisply along with the music. 

A fun fact is that the entire cast is making their Oceanside debut with this production. Frankie Errington's direction is paced and punctual guiding the actors to really sync in the role, truly articulate each dialogue, and have it set in. Every production of Next to Normal I have seen, including the Broadway production, feels fast and chaotic. This is not in a bad way, it's just the essence of the story but Errington gave it air and I appreciated that. 
Danny Holmes, Melissa Fernandes and Berto Fernández. Photo by Ken Jacques

It is always great to see new and upcoming faces on the stage like Salima Gangani who did a great job with Natalie as the notes for that character are high, long, and complex to sing. The renditions of Hey #1 and #2 with Marlon James Magtibay as Henry, are on-point, harmonized, and tingle-provoking. Magtibay's intention is straightforward and well-delivered. Daniel Filippi is on point as Dr. Madden hitting the mark on the medical personality, the stoicism, and the intention to really help Diana along with great vocals and interpretation with songs like Seconds and Years, as well as Make Up Your Mind.... Danny Holmes as Gabe flows around that set like no one's business having a strong stage dynamic with Melissa Fernandes who is impressive as Diana both histrionically and vocally. The reprise of It's Gonna Be Good, sung with Dan, is a tongue-twister of a rollercoaster that Fernandes and Fernández delivered flawlessly. Not an easy task. I also appreciated Melissa's hair journey through the performance, from a high bun to a low ponytail, to a side braid, to hair down. 

Berto Fernández continues to amaze with the variety and range he has as a performer. From Don in Kinky Boots to Dan in this production, uf!. The signature and beautiful I Am the One, -sigh- there is no bad song in this production. This musical as a whole, is no easy task and not just anybody can portray these roles. Each and every one of the actors is in their zone with a sturdy focus. In the performance I saw, there were no cracks, no missed notes, and no mic fails. -Bliss-

Next to Normal is on its last weekend of performances closing on May 26. Gift yourself the time to enjoy this production as well as a good, solid cry.

For more information on performance times and ticket prices, please click HERE

The Band - Next to Normal Photo by Ken Jacques

The Old Globe's Commissioned World-Premiere "Stir"

Authentically Stimulates the Senses with Love and Sazón

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti 

Melinda Lopez as Mariana in Stir, 2024. Photo by Rich Soublet II.
In my experience, rarely is a commissioned play really ready. Usually, there are gaps, loose ends, or plain things that do not make sense being shoehorned in. That was not the case with the Old Globe's latest commission and world premiere play Stir. This work is rounded, makes sense, and hits the marks. In these times of frequent forced diversity, Stir is relatable. Truly.

Written by Melinda Lopez who performed the one-woman show Mala two years ago and Joel Perez, Stir is an eighty-minute piece with no intermission (a dynamic that I am getting pretty fond of) that takes place around the second year of the pandemic (that sounds so bizarre) with a Zoom call between siblings Mariana (Melinda Lopez) and Henry (Joel Perez). Mariana, the older sister is married with two girls and lives in Buffalo. Henry was in New York but moved with his dad, papi (Al Rodrigo) to his retirement community in Florida because of the pandemic. Henry wants to recreate his mom's refried beans recipe that he fondly remembers from when he was little, and when the family went on camping trips.

Joel Perez as Henry and Melinda Lopez as Mariana in Stir, 2024. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

Performed in the round, Diggle's scenic design consists of two kitchen stations that the actors rotate adding momentum and marking the times of the Zoom call. Only one of the kitchens has a stove. A working electric stove that moonlights as two stoves, one in each household. During the call, while the siblings are catching up and comparing memories, they start cooking the beans. Mari and Enrique have a modern, charming iBook that matches the kitchen setting. Diggle thought this through and made a functional kitchen design that evokes feeling. From the placement of the spices to where the trashcan is. Director Marcela Lorca, Artistic Director of Ten Thousand Things, directs with feeling too. Having each dialogue within the computer screen marinate, to set in the audience, get a reaction, and then move on. There are moments when characters and the audience react in unison, making for a raw, moving experience. Music has an effect on the soul, and Fabian Obispo's original music and sound design frame that experience punctually. 

Papi, who has an active social life, says hello to his daughter and notices she looks different and not in a good way. It is then when Mari confesses an upsetting update to her brother and everything goes CAPICÚ as Henry also confesses the plans he has for their mother's ashes. Melinda and Joel are naturals with fantastic charm and real delivery. Al Rodrigo comes in and out but his participations are also hefty, wrapped up in his deep, velvet voice. 

Melinda Lopez, Al Rodrigo, and Joel Perez in Stir, 2024. Photo by Rich Soublet II.
Cha See's lighting design starts bright and clear to later dim with blues and purples, adding to the continued momentum as the confessions come out. Creatively, Stir, stimulates the senses, as the set design is mobile and with its own personality lit by See's design that makes it pop, and serenaded by Obispo's sound and music. The sense of smell is also serenaded by that cooking and stirring! You can totally smell the beans and all the wonderful ingredients in there. I even took some notes for my own bean cooking. 

Authenticity shines through in this production made with heart and true sazón. 

Currently playing until May 26 at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre.

Post Show Forum are scheduled for: Tuesday, May 14; Tuesday, May 21; and Wednesday, May 22 (evening performance) and an Open-Caption Performance for Saturday, May 25 at 2:00 p.m.

More information on ticket prices and performances HERE.

‘ME, MYSELF & BARBRA: The Music That Made Barbara, Barbra’ comes to New Village Arts in Carlsbad, CA

Jenna Pastuszek and Joshua Zecher-Ross are thrilled to make their Carlsbad debuts by bringing ME, MYSELF & BARBRA: The Music that Made Barbara Barbra, to New Village Arts May 17-18, 2024.

Press Release Ever wonder what might happen if you stop waiting for permission and start believing in yourself? Just ask Barbra Streisand. At 21, Babs spent her evenings singing in NYC’s hottest cabaret clubs dressed up in funky thrift store finds. At 21, acclaimed performer Jenna Pastuszek spent hers serving mini kosher hot dogs at bar mitzvahs sporting a patterned bow tie. Until she met Barbra, and everything changed. Learn how Barbra’s self-confidence, power, and unique panache inspired a young performer to get out of her own way and embrace her kooky self, weird last name and all.

Join creator/star Jenna Pastuszek and music director, Broadway’s Joshua Zecher-Ross, in this intimate tribute to a trailblazing young Barbra. With “lavishly clever arrangements”, and “witty, endearing personal stories”, the evening features music sung between 1959-1965 that turned her into the icon we know and love today.

After a wildly successful solo show debut tour of GET HAPPY!: An Evening Celebrating the World’s Greatest Entertainer, Judy Garland, in 2020 & 2021, including a stop at CCAE Theatrical’s Cabaret in the Courtyard series for which Pastuszek was nominated for a BroadwayWorld San Diego Best Cabaret Award, Pastuszek, and Zecher-Ross teamed up again in 2022 to create another tribute, this time to Barbra Streisand, now part of a series they’re calling “The Original American Idols”. They debuted the show as part of Paper Mill Playhouse’s Brookside Cabaret series and then brought a lavish and exciting 6-piece band version of the concert to Manhattan’s Green Room 42 in December 2022.

As an undergraduate history major at The University of Virginia, putting together both ME, MYSELF & BARBRA and GET HAPPY! have felt like full-circle moments for Pastuszek.

“Whenever I sit down to research a performer I admire, I learn so much about myself. I may be singing songs and telling stories of women moving through the world sixty years ago, but somuch of what they were facing then is, unfortunately, still present today. What a gift to be able to explore my own history with such a beautiful score behind me.”

As a recent LA transplant, Pastuszek is thrilled to bring this show back home for Barbra. Despite growing up in Brooklyn, Streisand maintains a full-time residence in Malibu. “Like Barbra, I spent the beginning of my career pounding the pavement in NYC. Now, I’m happy to call California home. It’s common folklore that Barbra is still on the search for a good eggroll in LA. Me? I’m still searching for a good bagel (if you have any recs please send).”

Barbra’s long-anticipated memoir, My Name is Barbra, was released in November 2023. This will be Pastuszek’s first time performing the show since reading the book. “For Barbra fans and people brand new to Barbra, this show will introduce you to facts (and songs!) about the beloved singer that you may not have previously known.”

Broadwayworld called the show “a divine musical evening” and quotes Jenna as having “the musical chops to sing the songs in the way that they were meant to be sung.” Mark S. Hoebee, Artistic Director of Paper Mill Playhouse and the Brookside Cabaret series, said, “Jenna is an incredible singer with a facile voice perfectly suited to Me, Myself and Barbra.” He thought “the combination of some of Barbra Streisand’s greatest hits with some hidden gems from her early years was so satisfying” and was “impressed with the research that Jenna brought forth to weave a lovely and very funny narrative through the songs.” Chris Alleman, Artistic Director of Theatre SilCo, said the show featured “a cleverly curated playlist with definite crowd pleasers but some lesser known songs with really lovely arrangements.” He said Jenna “enraptured the audience with her sincerity while delivering laughter, fun facts, and intricately woven personal anecdotes that really grounded her performance.” Matt Silva, Artistic Director of Delaware Theatre Company, called Jenna “a ray of sunshine” with “a powerhouse voice”.

Additional recent performances of ME, MYSELF & BARBRA include The Overture Center, 54 Below at Vitello’s, and the Willow Theatre. Upcoming performances include Swallow Hill Summer Concerts, the Opera House, , and Little Theatre of Manchester in Connecticut.

Who: Jenna Pastuszek and Joshua Zecher-Ross
Where: New Village Arts (2787 State Street | Carlsbad, CA 92008)
When: May 17 at 7pm, May 18 at 2pm. Head here for tickets

OMG you guys! Elle Woods is in San Diego!

San Diego Musical Theatre Brings the Bubbly-Choreography Charged Legally Blonde to the Stage 

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti 

Johnisa Breault and part of the Legally Blonde cast. Photo by Jason Sullivan

Legally Blonde The Musical
debuted on Broadway in 2007 and the touring production came to the San Diego Civic Theatre in 2010. This is the first time I have seen a regional production and I can say SDMT set the bar up and gifted audiences with a fun, high-paced production that also gave the essence and messaging of the story.

Based on the 2001 film starring Reese Witherspoon, Elle Woods, head of her sorority and popular girl in California, is enchanted by her boyfriend Warner. On their upcoming date, she gets ready for a highly anticipated marriage proposal to then have the surprising news. Warner is going to Harvard Law School and breaking up with Elle because she is "more of a Marilyn than a Jackie". Devastated, Elle aims to get him back and works her way into Harvard Law to start her plan.  

As with all formats, transitioning a book into a play, musical, or movie is tricky. After reading the book and seeing the musical, I am seriously afraid of what will happen with the upcoming Wicked film version. But, I digress... 'Blonde, also based on a novel, is way more than just a blonde woman, apparently not that smart, trotting around campuses to get her love back. The musical, with a Book by Heather Hach, Music, and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe & Nell Benjamin, directed and choreographed in San Diego by Xavier J. Bush, kept the essence of the original as mentioned above, and modernized it to current times adding the SDMT flare. The ensemble made up of Kaia Bugler, Diego Castro, Brice Cloke, Cole Fletcher, Giancarlo Lugo, Gabrielle Ocampo, Linsey Schreck, Joe Stein, Alyssa Lucero Vingerelli, Emma Woolley, Jackson Wright, and Kylie Young is bubbly and fresh performing fast-paced choreographies that totally set the effervescent mood guided by Michelle Miles's lighting design contouring the moves and giving space for the scene changes.

Legally Blonde.Photo by Jason Sullivan

Matthew Herman's set design pink, pink, pink is loft-like all across the stage with folding corners that come out to host different scenes dressed by Jennifer Jones Glor's props that worked well for the actors and embellished the visual. 

Johnisa Breault debuts with her first professional leading role as Elle Woods, belting out tuned-held notes enhanced with charisma and wit as well as a couple of winks and nods to the audience that rounded out her performance. Johnisa also performed mighty dance moves and high kicks showing her dance credentials. The note I would have is for her to enunciate louder as sometimes her volume would go down and you could not make out her dialogues. Eli Wood as the runaway boyfriend Warner Huntington III, is definitely more charming than his film counterpart, delivering good notes in the songs as bytes in the musical, guided by Lyndon Pugeda's musical direction that had everybody in tune along with Jordan Gray and Cole Atencio's sound design that flowed with the voices, the music, and the choreography.

Joy Newbegin and part of the cast of Legally Blonde. Photo Jason Sullivan
The musical is close to the movie replicating famous scenes like Elle's admission essay to Harvard that in 2024, is read through iPads versus printed files to the tune of What You Want. Fans of the famous "Bend and Snap" will have a hoot with the performance of the song that carries the same title showing a good time with Elle's Greek chorus with the also famous Delta Nu sorority girls Serena (Sophia LaRosh), Margot (Audrey Deubig), and Pilar (Megan Chua) along with Elle's beauty salon ride or die, Paulette Buonofuonte brought to the stage with an on-point interpretation by Bethany Slomka who also gifted the audience with a hilarious rendition of Ireland. 

Drew Bradford as well as his character, lawyer, and sidekick extraordinaire, Emmett Forrest, is very charming. Vivian Romero as the disoriented and uninformed Vivienne Kensington gives a new flare to the character people have associated in the past, as Romero grants a level of maturity to the role that aims more at questioning Elle than bullying her. Cara Tafolla as Enid Hoopes with a small but funny participation that gives game to the cast and the plot. Joy Newbegin as the butt-shaping master Brooke Wyndham delivers a mean choreography in Whipped into Shape jumping rope and doing tricks while singing to then deliver her lines practically unwinded. Robert J. Townsend has performed many roles throughout his career and it is refreshing to see the acting ability and history on the stages reflected in his impressive portrayal of Professor Callahan, from the intention to the tone giving true, real histrionic seniority.

The Greek chorus ladies need a show of their own as LaRosh, Deubig, and Chua are enchanting while interpreting the songs and doing the choreography. They also flaunt Chong Mi Land's costume design choosing colorful, stylish pieces. My top picks in the wardrobe design were absolutely everything that Kaia Bugler wore, -everything- from the ripped jeans to the high heels to the yellow top and the wardrobe reveal with Elle Woods's name. The court suit Elle wears for her Delta Nu sister's trial was not my favorite. I get the statement aimed at using the color blue versus the famous pink but with all the pieces shown before, a more popping ensemble statement would have been better. The hair/makeup design by Monique Hanson used natural tones that enhanced the facial features looking good and working with each character. The long blonde wig Johnisa Breault uses for Elle suits the character and makes an impact, the rest of the wigs need better shaping and tightness.

Xavier J. Bush's direction with assistant director & Choreographer Melissa Glasgow, put each piece into place using SDMT's choreography power and powering it into full gear with good interpretations.

The production is balanced and well-cast and while keeping the essence of the story, it also aims to deliver the important topics in Legally Blonde like how misleading stereotypes can be, standing up against sexual harassment in school and work, not staying quiet and most importantly, knowing one's self-worth and the ability to succeed.

Currently playing until June 2 in the Convoy Area. For more information on performance times and ticket prices, please click here

The Latino Theatre Company based in Los Angeles Opens Season with the World Premiere of the Comissioned Play "Ghost Waltz"

Honoring the story of Mexican-Otomí Composer Juventino Rosas 

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti 

Quetzal Guerrero, Nathalie Peña-Comas, and Ric’key Pageot. Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography

I cannot say enough times how amazing it is to learn about history through theatre. Especially when it is an eye-opening fact like a world-wide famous musical composition attributed to the wrong composer. That is the subject matter of Ghost Waltz, a play by Oliver Mayer that came as a commission from the Los Angeles-based Latino Theatre Company and developed in the company’s Circle of Imaginistas, a commission-oriented writing circle aimed at producing new, relevant plays from both established and early/mid-career Latin American voices that address important issues of the times.

In this world premiere, the plot circles around Juventino Rosas, an Otomí-Mexican composer/violinist responsible for writing the waltz Sobre las Olas (Over the Waves), a waltz often incorrectly attributed to Austrian composer Johann Strauss. In the play we see Juventino (Quetzal Guerrero) playing the violin with his dad Don Jesus, portrayed by actor and composer Eduardo Robledo. They joke around about white people and racism towards Mexicans, especially indigenous Mexicans with darker skin. 

Monte Escalante. Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography

Mayer mixes real-life facts into fictional and sometimes with realismo mágico and Día de Muertos as things seem to happen chronologically but not, at the same time, and when there is a death, the characters shift to a white-painted face with dark circles around the eyes like a Catrina. Juventino trains at the Mexican conservatory with Jewish-Austrian immigrant and music teacher, Professor Zeiss (played by Cástulo Guerra) who secretly has Juventino come into the conservatory through the back door due to not being allowed because of his origin. At the conservatory, Juventino meets the "Mexican Nightingale", Ángela Peralta, who immediately rejects him alluding too to his origin and stature -in her eyes of course-. The playwright, in this mixture of facts and fiction, also points out the inner racism in the Mexican culture, something that is very real, unfortunately. As he continues his journey, Rosas comes across Creole clairvoyant, Marie Leveau (Monte Escalante) who is between planes and advices Juventino who enlists in the military and lands in New Orleans, meeting the "King of Ragtime" Scott Joplin (Ric’key Pageot). They then embark on a work-music venture along with Joplin's partner Bethena (Ariel Brown). At this point, both Don Jesus and Professor Zeiss are dead and watching over the violinist's current journey that aside from beautiful music and profitable compositions, is being surrounded by alcohol and betrayal.

Juventino Rosas died in real life in Cuba. In the play, he lands there and sees Ángela again while now deceased. Peralta has a confession delivered tenderly by Nathalie-Peña Comas, that is as resonating as fitting to the plot unlike some of the events shown. The stage setting is framed well under the set, lights, costumes, and projections designed by Cameron Jaye Mock and Emily Anne McDonald using a semi-imperial stairway that to me, reflected both opera houses and Mexican pyramids. Interpretation is part of the beauty of theatre... there is a big rose up in the frame of the stage with the inscriptions Ars Longa Vita Brevis which's literal translation is "art is long, life is short". Another fitting hit to the story as Juventino died at the tender age of 26. The costume design also combines well with the process, having the live musicians located on stage left, along with Juventino and Don Jesus wearing huaraches, guayaberas, and embroidered shirts that made both the impression and the statement. Nathan Davis's sound design also makes an impression while illustrating the musical beats that go along the stages of the story accompanied by Alberto López's musical direction.

Bass player Juan Perez and music director Alberto López. Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography
The cast directed by Alberto Barbosa makes a good ensemble that mostly hits all the bytes. There are many pieces to juggle in this play and Barbosa's direction aims to harmonize it all. Quetzal Guerrero, having a strong stage presence and good interpretation with solid intention, is a beautiful violinist too as he plays with a moving feeling. (going up and down those long stairways while playing, was impressive too). Another beautiful initiative included a song composed by Guerrero called "Poema Otomí" and "Viva Otomí" with words and music by Eduardo Robledo who is endearing and funny as Don Jesus. His role would definitely benefit from being more immersed in the story. Same for Cástulo Guerra as Professor Zeiss who communicates the love for music and the struggle to be accepted. Ric’key Pageot has a hefty music and composition history that balanced his histrionic debut with this play. Ariel Brown as Bethena moves with grace throughout the stage showing her dancer background. Even though the character of the Creole clairvoyant, Marie Leveau is shoehorned in the story, Monte Escalante does a good job portraying the intention and the presence. 

It is understandable and commendable what Oliver Mayer is trying to do with this play. I saw it during previews and the common thread needs more cohesion as things happen because the follow-through is brittle. It was mentioned that an intermission was being considered. The show premieres today and an intermission would be a good idea while considering cohesion and justification for the characters. Still, this is a good story that needs to live on to be told more and more contributing to justice and awareness of Juventino's story. There is a film with Mexican cinema star Pedro Infante who plays Juventino. It might be a good pre-game before seeing this show that is currently playing at The Los Angeles Theatre Center until June 2. For more information on show days and ticket prices please click here