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THEATER BEAT

With a song in his heart: the Lara saga

October 24, 2003|Daryl H. Miller; Rob Kendt;David C. Nichols

Throbbing with romance, the music of popular Mexican composer Agustin Lara is as vital and insistent as a beating heart.

When encountering work of such deep emotion, the public is naturally curious about how much of it resulted from the creator's life experiences. Such conjecture lies at the heart of "Solamente una vez / You Belong to My Heart," a revue of Lara's music that borrows the original Spanish title and English-language renaming of one of his most famous songs. Gorgeously staged and thrillingly sung, this Bilingual Foundation of the Arts presentation is playing to packed, enthusiastic houses.

Variously known as Mexico's Irving Berlin (for his extraordinary output, some 600 songs) or Cole Porter (for his lush wordplay), Lara fused Mexican folk genres with other Western styles. The best-known include "Granada," "Aquel Amor," "Mujer" and "Maria Bonita" (the last written about his tempestuous marriage to film star Maria Felix).

Though it picks up on themes from Lara's life (1897-1970), the show by Margarita Galban and Lina Montalvo states upfront that it is fictional. The action unfolds in a bordello (rendered in rich red and pure white by designer Estela Scarlata), where Lara was known to perform in his early years. Here, the much-married songwriter-singer is surrounded by the women who inspired songs that sometimes soared with rapture, sometimes plunged into melancholy.

Thin, sad-eyed and charismatic, Lara has been described as a cross between Valentino and Humphrey Bogart -- qualities well-embodied in Cesar Oliva-Bernal.

Sung to prerecorded accompaniment, the music pulses with life on the several occasions that it is delivered by the dusky-voiced Rosella Arvizu. Also exciting are the long-held notes and explosive pitches of soprano Gabriela Crowe and the smooth, bittersweet interpretations of Angela Estrada.

Even at the alternating English-language performances, the numbers are sung in their original Spanish. But these songs transcend words, and in Galban's artful staging -- which facilitates an incredible parade of vintage fashions by Carlos Brown -- there is always something to delight the eye.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"Solamente una vez / You Belong to My Heart," Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, 421 N. Ave. 19, Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. In Spanish this weekend and Nov. 6-9 and 13-16; in English Oct. 30-Nov. 2. Ends Nov. 16. Closing weekend, added 4 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday performances. $25-$27. (323) 225-4044. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

*

Neophyte authors have their day

Youth may be overrated in the arts, where received tradition and institutional memory are too often shortchanged in the quest for the Next Big (twentysomething) Thing. But at best we look to young artists for a fresh take, a new twist on old forms, an original voice.

The Blank Theatre Company's Young Playwrights Festival, which sifts through hundreds of nationwide submissions from under-20-year-old scribes, has a good track record of finding and showcasing such original voices with impeccable professional productions, from Joseph Alan Drymala's uncannily mature musical "Sky's End" (1996) to Victor Kaufold's anguished teen-violence meditation "The Why" (2000).

The cream of this year's crop isn't in that class. Slight to a fault, the two one-acts under the title "funny ..." demonstrate forgivable but less appealing traits of youth: confused ambition and slavish imitation.

In Jason Connors' "Someone's Living in the House That Jack Built," a lonely guy who talks to mannequins (Gregory Jbara) befriends a diffident alternative-Bible salesman (Tom Lenk). Richard Kline's subdued direction gives full weight to some of Connors' bathetic monologues at the expense of zany momentum.

Ginger Healy's "Mousy Brown" traces a predictable teen rite of passage with admirable if unremarkable wit and economy, and it's made effortlessly engaging thanks to a playfully sincere lead performance by adorable, raspy-voiced tomboy Constance Zimmer. Also helping it pass pleasantly is the spirited direction of Austin Winsberg -- himself an alumnus of the Blank's Young Playwrights Fest, now a successful sitcom writer. On the evidence of these two new plays, he needn't fear the competition.

-- Rob Kendt

"funny ...," Blank Theatre Company at the 2nd Stage, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Nov. 2. $25. (323) 661-9827. 1 hour, 35 minutes.

*

Just call it a Kinsey retort

In the late 1930s, Alfred Charles Kinsey, a zoologist who had voluminously cataloged the gall wasp, turned his exacting research methods to another under-explored subject: human sexuality. His resulting volumes on male and female sexual behavior -- published, respectively, in 1948 and 1953 -- were highly praised and widely read. But they also were condemned as a threat to morality.

Kinsey had shaken a wasps' nest.

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