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THEATER BEAT

'Urban' poses complex questions

July 18, 2003|Philip Brandes; David C. Nichols; F. Kathleen Foley

The dream of upward mobility is a strong motivator to play by society's ethical and legal rules. But in times of economic hardship, that dream -- and the values it nurtures -- can prove all too precarious, as a struggling middle-class black family discovers in "Urban Transition: Loose Blossoms" at Leimert Park's 4305 Village Theatre.

Ron Milner's thoughtful drama traces the crisis confronting Earl Carter (stage veteran Dick Anthony Williams), who's paid his dues and more to pull his family out of the slums. Comfortably resettled in a Midwestern city during the early 1990s, with one daughter in college and a son with a bright academic outlook, the future seems bright for Earl. But as the play opens, a back injury renders him unable to work, threatening the Carters' hard-won financial independence.

While Earl's patient, gutsy wife Cheryl (Jackee Harry) struggles to pay the "bills piling up like snow," their 17-year-old son E.J. (Cory Curtis) spots an easy fast-cash opportunity in the "soft stuff" at the periphery of the narcotics trade. Naturally, it's not long before E.J. graduates from pickups, packaging and deliveries to full-fledged drug dealing.

Though sketched in the broad strokes of a morality play, with its dramatic extremes of temptation and redemption, Milner's script employs some unexpected twists and insightful (though sometimes rambling) monologues to pose complex, troubling questions. Most disturbing is the ease with which E.J.'s new occupation is accepted.

Cheryl allows her outrage to be bought off with material wealth, but the charismatic Harry makes her lapse so understandably human that it's impossible to simply write her off. Eldest daughter Gail (Amber Kain) turns to Machiavelli to intellectually rationalize the situation.

Slow to recognize the painful truth, Earl's response is so full of hand-wringing and waffling it undermines the moral authority he tries to assert. That task falls to Uncle Bert (Art Evans), a tough but good-hearted cop.

Director Woodie King Jr. draws some powerful performances, especially from the conflicted Curtis and a smoldering Eddie W. Lewis III as E.J.'s best friend, who falls for the false trappings of the drug world. The chains may be gold, but they're still chains.

-- Philip Brandes

"Urban Transition: Loose Blossoms," 4305 Village Theatre, 4305 Degnan Blvd., Leimert Park. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Aug. 31. $25. (323) 939-2438. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

*

A 'New World' worth discovering

Admirable expertise marks "Songs for a New World" in its local premiere by Playwrights Arena at Los Angeles Theatre Center. Jason Robert Brown's abstract 1995 revue about life's turning points receives a highly accomplished production.

Though "New World" had a limited run of 28 performances at Manhattan's WPA Theatre, it conclusively established composer-lyricist Brown as a major talent, leading to 1999's "Parade," a Tony Award and a fervent fan base.

They surely will cheer this staging. Director Jon Lawrence Rivera and co-set-designer Justin Huen concoct a vivid environmental coffeehouse, swimming in mismatched furnishings and original art.

The concept permits Rivera's sleek quartet of performers, initially planted around the audience, to attack Brown's lustrous, emotionally specific songs with breathtaking intimacy.

Jennifer Paz is, as ever, angelic of voice and person, piercing the heart with her pregnant co-ed's "Christmas Lullaby." Rick Cornette's love-burned jock is matinee-idol handsome, with a soaring tenor and an uncanny ability to withstand audience eye contact. Steven Janji, although nobody's hoopster, invests his streetwise server with unswerving fervor. Casey Jones' disillusioned trophy wife, whose haunting "Stars and the Moon" may be "New World's" best song, counters her slender instrument with valiant commitment.

Kay Cole's choreography is precise, Brent Crayon's musical direction is colorful, Elle Hamm's costumes are convincing and Gerry Gregory Linsangan's lighting plot is astounding.

Less so is Rivera's revised text, setting the action before and after Sept. 11. This well-intended notion is better left to subtext, the tragic overlay demanding a weight beyond Brown's series of virtual one-acts. These nevertheless retain their celebrated potency, which recommends this keenly executed miniature.

-- David C. Nichols

"Songs for a New World," Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., L.A. Thursdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 and 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 9. $30-$25. (310) 578-2378. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

*

'Crazy' about the Gershwin music

"Crazy for You," winner of the 1992 Tony Award for best musical, artfully recycles George and Ira Gershwin's memorable songs into a cheerful Depression-era musical about a wealthy hoofer who falls in love with a Nevada lass and helps save her sagebrush theater.

Ken Ludwig's serviceable book has no pretensions about what it is -- a spiritual descendant of the old Andy Hardy "Let's put on a show!" tradition.

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