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YEAR IN REVIEW / 1996

On Stage, It Just Keeps Rollin' Along

Before the footlights in 1996, there were some things old, some things new, some things borrowed and something . . . about male nudity. And then 'Show Boat' rolled into town.

December 29, 1996|Laurie Winer | Laurie Winer is The Times' theater critic

The year had something old ("Show Boat"), something new ("Sisterella"), something borrowed (Stephen Wadsworth and Julie Taymor both made hip new works out of the commedia dell'arte) and something blue (male nudity galore, from the closing of "Party" to the opening of "Love! Valour! Compassion!"). Finally, the year ended on a drumroll from Toronto concerning next year: the announcement of a major U.S. debut for L.A. theater. Read on and find out.

1. At the Mark Taper Forum, Edward Albee's "THREE TALL WOMEN" was important not only as the examination of a woman's life, but also as the resurrection of a playwright who seemed to have been sunk in his own bitterness. Albee demonstrated qualities he was not formerly noted for: forgiveness and an understanding of human frailty (most notably of his mother's), and it made the play moving both for the story within and the implied story without.

2. Impassioned detractors thought it looked like an insistent music video, but Larry Hart's "SISTERELLA" bowled over most everybody at the Pasadena Playhouse. It turned out that composer-lyricist-bookwriter-actor Hart had control issues and had also surreptitiously directed the musical, though the program listed another director, whose credits were all suspiciously Australian. Regardless, "Sisterella" was a liberating hodgepodge of music and dance and irreverent cultural references, with songs designed to showcase the performers. Especially terrific was Yvette Cason, as the wicked stepmother, who sang an exuberant "I Got the Money," just after keening excessively at her husband's funeral.

3. Justin Tanner can make fun of something and at the same time honor and understand it. This he does in "HEARTBREAK HELP," still running at the Cast Theatre, a paean to four women in a hotel room and to the absurdities and community building of the crystal-wearing, New Age set. His muse Laurel Green is almost perfect in a role written for her, as an anal-compulsive whose nerves are so tightly wrapped she almost explodes when she suspects someone might have used her toothbrush. When she loses it and screams that she's just trying to accomplish "inner peace! " she hits a perfect note of hysteria, and you may feel you know everything you need to about sensitivity seminars.

4. After living through a Job-like series of traumas, Julia Sweeney mulled it all over at the Groundlings Theatre and at LunaPark, perfected her monologue in San Francisco, and brought it into the Coronet Theatre, where Los Angeles welcomed her with open arms. "GOD SAID, 'HA!' " was the funny, moving, perfectly modulated story of her brother's fatal cancer, of her parents moving in with her and nearly driving her crazy, and of her own bout with cancer. Her show gave vivid proof of how telling stories, and preparing to tell stories, gets us through our roughest times.

5/6. July brought the battle of the commedias: Julie Taymor's "THE GREEN BIRD" at the La Jolla Playhouse and "CHANGES OF HEART," Stephen Wadsworth's adaptation of Marivaux's "Double Inconstancy," at the Taper. Using her genius for masks and puppets, Taymor gave us the updated spirit of Carlo Gozzi's 1765 fable of magical transformations. She also gave us a taste of what her "Lion King" magic might be like (she will be directing the stage version of the Disney musical next year). Wadsworth showed a real talent for "revisals," that is, what happens when a director puts a personal, distinct and contemporary stamp on a classic, making it live anew, and infuriating purists.

7. Speaking of revisals, the Old Globe wedded two kinds of brilliance to come up with "PLAY ON!," its version of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," set to the music of Duke Ellington. These two worlds melded surprisingly well, with Viola now an aspiring female songwriter who must dress like a man in order to have an audience with Duke, the reigning musical genius in Harlem in the 1940s. Expect to see this snappy, happy Ellington-soaked musical on Broadway next year.

8/9. September brought two of the year's best performances from actresses, one as an heiress and the other as a dog. In "THE HEIRESS" at the Ahmanson, Cherry Jones was so good as the awkward, love-struck Catherine Sloper that she was almost eerie; it seemed as if her soul was transparent. On the other end of the scale, Kellie Waymire was one tough puppy as SYLVIA, the stray mutt that charms her way into the life and upsets the marriage of a new owner she picks up in a park. Waymire had a field day in the A.R. Gurney play at the Old Globe; she gave what stands out as the most comically endearing performance of the year.

10. Everyone please sing "Oh, Canada!" After opening a glorious "Show Boat" at the Ahmanson and a problematic but still glorious "Ragtime" in Toronto, producer Garth Drabinsky announced he will bring a new "RAGTIME" company to Los Angeles in June, months before the Toronto company heads for Broadway. L.A., Drabinsky said, is a city "able to get excited about a show whether or not it's had a Broadway opening." Damn straight. We only hope the show's not set in stone yet, and that a better "Ragtime" with a cast every bit as good as the one in Toronto will be coming to L.A. That much we do require.

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