Last week Santa Barbara audiences sat transfixed by the odd blend of dance and theater that was Adam Barruch’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at the Lobero Theatre. In the audience watching the performance was Ensemble Theatre’s Jonathan Fox, who just that day was rehearsing his own version of Stephen Sondheim’s bloody and dark musical, set to open this coming Thursday. It was one of those weird coincidences in Santa Barbara theater than happens now and then – like two productions of “Other Desert Cities” in 2015, one at the Rubicon, one at PCPA – despite every company trying for a unique season.
“It’s kind of a funny story,” says Mr. Fox, just before rolling into a story of schedules, contracts, dropping a previous plan, and thinking of returning to the world of Stephen Sondheim. “A Little Night Music” was the first performance at The New Vic. Rick Mokler, some 20 years ago, had put on a production of “Sweeney Todd” at SBCC, but it had never returned to our city.
When Brent Anderson was at UCSB he sang in the ensemble known as Schubertians, singing classical lieder. And while his career path took him into insurance and finance, he still yearned for the power of song, something at the same time more challenging than 18th century classical vocal works and less rarified.
His answer would be barbershop quartet.
“To be a solo singer is one thing, but to blend and harmonize with three other people is another, very complex, thing,” he says. “When I first discovered barbershop I thought it was fun. But then I discovered it was as challenging as anything I’d ever sung.” He quotes rock musician Ben Folds, who called barbershop the “black belt of vocal jazz.”
Ensemble Theatre finishes this season with “Venus in Fur,” the David Ives-penned hothouse of a play that joyously blurs the line between actor and role playing, befitting a story that takes as its inspiration the 1870 novel of the same name (minus the plural letter s) by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. (Yes, that’s where we get the word Masochism.)
After the large cast and inventive sets of “Woyzeck,” Ensemble is seeing out the season with that most modern of set-ups: two people in a room, and a relationship that changes completely over the course of its runtime.
Dancers grow and leave the stage. They become choreographers, some of them, and those who do often pass down their history and heritage to their star pupils. When the American Dance & Music company hits the stage today (and tomorrow) at the New Vic, they are bringing a piece that has been handed down twice, and that gives its name to this collection of four works.
“Turkish by Matisse” was originally created by Mari Sandoval in 1976, then passed down to AD&M founder Carrie Diamond, who was at that time Ms. Sandoval’s student at Santa Monica High School. Now Ms. Diamond is passing it on herself to AD&M’s Nikki Pfeiffer, who dances it this evening.
When writer Georg Büchner died at 23 in 1837, he left behind the fragments of a play that had no ending and no official structure. Yet out of all his works, the “working-class tragedy” of “Woyzeck,” about a soldier gone murderously mad with jealousy, is the most read, most performed, and most interpreted. There have been operas, movies, a ballet and many stage adaptations. It is extremely open to interpretation.
Ensemble Theatre’s Jonathan Fox has taken on one of the most popular recent adaptations of the play — a musical by Tom Waits and his wife/collaborator Kathleen Brennan — and brought it to the New Vic, opening tonight. And even that is an interpretation: Mr. Fox has ditched the other third of that 2002 production: Robert Wilson’s direction and production design.
Jane Austen wrote six major novels in her life, but created such a particular world that the Impro Theatre can work within it and figure out some new stories to tell. Like Impro’s co-founder Dan O’Connor did to the world of Shakespeare, Chekhov and Sondheim, “Jane Austen Unscripted” takes improv theater to a new level. Those who come to the New Vic tonight or Saturday night will leave having seen hilarious Austen romantic comedy made up on the spot, with no two shows or characters the same. These are parodies of existing novels, or slash fiction with Mr. Darcy returning as a zombie. “This is something the author would recognize,” Mr. O’Connor says.
Impro Theater started as Los Angeles Theatersports in 1988, and some members of the company have been there from the beginning. It’s a specialized set of skills that extends beyond the skits and jokes of usual improv events.
As Duke Ellington once opined some eight decades ago, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” And that holds true with this evening of jumping jive coming to The New Vic. Produced by Dauri Kennedy and directed by Miriam Dance-Leavy, “Swing!” — the 1999 Tony-nominated musical — features singing, dancing and live music straight from the music era that couldn’t keep still.
The 90-minute show features the music of the Duke as well as Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, played by a full swing band led by SBCC’s Chuck “Dr. Jazz” Wood, who was director of bands and jazz studies at the college for 15 years and Music Chair for three.
Ensemble Theatre Company’s season may be over for now, but it has one more surprise up its sleeve. “Tell Me On a Sunday,” which opens Thursday, is a light summer aperitif of music and song from Misty Cotton. She is performing a lesser known musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, best known for Broadway juggernauts like “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.”
It’s a tale of a young English woman who comes to New York City to try to make it big.
That’s the first line of John Logan’s intense two-person play “Red” that just opened at The New Vic as part of Ensemble Theatre’s current season. The man asking the question is abstract painter Mark Rothko, and although he’s asking it of the man who has turned up to be his new assistant as they stand in front of one of his paintings, he’s asking it of himself. And, no surprise, he’s asking us, too, in a play that dives energetically into questions of art, history, integrity, money, and creativity. In real life, Rothko was very secretive, with very little footage or interviews available. This biographical play brings the prickly painter to life.
Director Brian Schnipper is telling us about abstract artist Mark Rothko, the subject of his upcoming play at Ensemble Theatre, “Red.”
“With Rothko’s murals, there’s so many layers and he used very thin paint. You can see the top layer and the second layer and maybe the third, but beyond that— and Rothko said he sometime painted 26 layers. Even art historians say you can’t tell where certain paints start. They can’t understand his techniques. Sometimes he’d burn the canvas with turpentine, they know that, but as to the layers, they don’t know how.”