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Moving tribute to social strife

August 17, 2007|Philip Brandes, David C. Nichols

"To be a man is to suffer for others," declares Cesar Chavez at the start of a hunger strike that segues into a fierce ensemble number set to Don Henley's "I Will Not Go Quietly" -- one of several cultural juxtapositions that prove surprisingly effective in "Cesar & Ruben" at the NoHo Arts Center.

Expanded and reworked from its 2003 debut, writer-director-ctor Ed Begley Jr.'s musical tribute to the late farmworkers' union organizer is something of a departure from the environmental causes with which Begley is more commonly associated. Nevertheless, the passionate heart of a fellow activist beats strong and steady here, along with obvious personal loyalty (Begley knew Chavez and was a pallbearer at his funeral).

Sporting a large cast of talented Latino and Anglo performers, Begley's play presents a retrospective of the life of Chavez (Danny Bolero), framed in a surreal afterlife encounter with murdered L.A. Times columnist Ruben Salazar (Mauricio Mendoza). Scenes inventively combine dialogue with thematically related songs -- some in supertitled Spanish, others in English -- in an eclectic score that includes compositions by Enrique Iglesias, Peter Gabriel, Ruben Blades and others. All are capably sung by the performers and accompanied by Ron Snyder's versatile live five-piece band.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, August 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page News Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
'Cesar and Ruben': A theater review in Friday's Calendar section of "Cesar and Ruben" at the NoHo Arts Center said Ruben Salazar was murdered after being shot with a tear-gas canister by Los Angeles police. In fact, he was killed by a sheriff's deputy's tear-gas projectile, and his death was ruled accidental.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, September 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
'Cesar & Ruben': A photograph that ran with an Aug. 17 review of "Cesar & Ruben" in Calendar's Theater Beat column was credited to choreographer Frankie Anne. The photograph of the cast was taken by Andrea Rogatini.

The inclusion of Salazar, who was shot with a tear-gas canister at point-blank range by Los Angeles police during a National Chicano Moratorium march in 1970, adds another dimension of outrage to the oppression chronicled in the piece, culminating in the no-nonsense production number set to Santana's "No One to Depend On" that closes the first act and the Phil Collins-David Crosby ballad "Hero," which opens the second. Tight choreography by Frankie Anne adds visceral impact.

Embracing epic scope and a broad spectrum of social issues, this iconic portrait sacrifices some psychological depth. Yet its timely celebratory spirit comes amid the low ebb of complacency in labor relations that Chavez once warned about. Begley's recurring use of the spiraling Tehachapi Loop railroad tracks near Chavez's birthplace is an inspired metaphor for the cyclical history of social progress, where "time bends back around on itself" and the way forward is through revisiting the past.

-- Philip Brandes

"Cesar & Ruben," NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 9. $35. (818) 508-7101 or Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Patients' 'Cry' is loud and clear

"I am a woman

I am an artist

But I sing no victim's song

I am a woman

I am an artist

And I know where my

voice belongs."

This refrain opens "Sometimes I Cry" with an incantatory wail that transfixes the Hayworth Theatre. Writer-performer Sheryl Lee Ralph's solo show about women battling HIV and AIDS is as resolute as it is frequently galvanic.

In a prologue laying the historical groundwork, Ralph begins at the 1981 Broadway opening of "Dreamgirls," which segues into her growing awareness of "gay men dropping dead. . . . Sick today, dead tomorrow." Yet "Sometimes I Cry" is more than a heartfelt elegy -- it's a call to arms.

After 17 years of raising money and awareness through her Diva Foundation, Ralph understands that the threat of HIV/AIDS, particularly for women and people of color, passed critical mass long ago. "Sometimes I Cry" forms an urgent jeremiad, its narrative framed by spine-tingling spirituals and punctuated by sobering statistics.

Ralph, whose star presence and vocal oomph have sometimes overshadowed her dramatic gifts, shares three representative stories from the many that she has heard as an advocate. Thus, a successful fashionista, abused foster child and widowed grandmother become correlated pieces of a devastating puzzle. Ralph lands each character and the potent message contained in their experiences with nuance, humor and arresting conviction.

Theatrically speaking, it's a tad spare -- a music stand, a stool, minimal lighting and sound cues. The proceedings might benefit from a director to tweak spatial focus and tighten some presentational aspects. That is a quibble. Overall, "Sometimes I Cry" is as determined and incisive as the remarkable actress-activist who delivers it.

-- David C. Nichols

"Sometimes I Cry," Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. 3 p.m. Sundays. $20. (800) 838-3006 or www.thehayworth .com. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Sexual perversity in London

Choosing the understated title "Eccentric" was probably the only act of restraint exercised by Las Vegas-based playwright Ernest Hemmings in scripting his black comedy about a sexually adventurous American couple's disastrous London vacation.

Not for the prudish, David L. Stewart's live-wire staging for Riprap Entertainment gleefully honors Hemmings' flair for the outrageous and the risque, overcoming limited production resources with skillful, committed performances.

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