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The Happiest Songs May Not Be Last

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With The Happiest Songs Play Last now onstage at the LATC, Quiara Alegria Hudes’ trilogy comes to an end.  But its hopeful ending may be the spark that continues the complicated story of two cousins growing up in North Philadelphia, a place where hidden waters run deep….and here, I am referring to the series of under-ground streams just now being excavated in Philadelphia’s urban core.

Eliot, our protagonist, is interpreted in Happiest Songs by Peter Pasco. Unlike his Spoonful persona, in this play, Eliot has made a transition to working actor, now starring as an action character in Jordan (As they relate, “Just two countries away” from exploding Egypt). His co-star and eventual wife, Shar (Vaneh Assadourian), shows little interest in the unfolding revolution, but as a side-issue, the couple makes the trek to Tahrir Square on a weekend off, and there cements their relationship.

Through the magic of Skype, Eliot stays in touch with his cousin, Yaz (Elisa Bocanegra), who has moved back to the old neighborhood to tend less fortunate neighbors, including Lefty (a bold John Seda-Pitre).  Her blossoming romance with Augustin (al Rodrigo), a musician twice her age, forms the basis of the “happy songs” of the title. The Puerto Rican cuartros (the recorded music from Nelson Gonzalez) that become background to the play bring nostalgic thoughts of home, even to a generation that has never been to the island. Threaded throughout, the deeper notion of a soldier trying to divest himself of guilt for shooting a civilian during his tour of duty resonates. His guilt may be the accumulated guilt of a nation that none face directly, although the war is waged in our name “to keep us safe.”

The original director, Edward Torres (the play originally opened at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago), returns to develop this version for LATC. Se Hyun Oh’s vertical design makes good use of a double stage, alternating desert landscapes with a slice of kitchen, the runway for Philadelphia scenes. Less successful is the Skyping aspect of the play, so realistic that it is never in synch. Hudes’ adventurous use of new technology shows that, for me, it will never replace the stage picture before my eyes.

Of all the performers, John Sede-Pitre’s performance as Lefty is a triumph, bringing the city into the domestic space, while, on the other side of the world, Kamal Marayati as the driver, Ali, provides the glue that unites Eliot’s adventures in Jordan and Cairo.

Although we are presented with the same people, I am puzzled by Hudes’ characterization of Yaz seen through the lens of two different actresses over two plays. In Happy Songs she is presented as an earth mother tending her brood, while in Spoonful she seems to be a ‘fixer’; more an exasperated relative drawn back to the barrio by the needs of her extended family. It’s conceivable, of course, the one person can be both those things, but in the hands of these actresses, the contrast is most stark.

Just as the streams tell stories long buried, Hudes’ conclusive third play about the veteran, Elliot, and his family unearth more layers of her Puerto Rican heritage, growing, like a weed and fed by Philadelphia’s deeply running streams. At LATC, this labyrinthian final portion of Hudes’ “Elliot Plays” seems weighted down with so many of those themes. But what may conclude a simple set of love stories intertwined in the lives and deaths of our loved ones, serves as only a resting place until the next generation emerges.

The Happiest Songs Play Last continues Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm; Sundays at 3:00 pm; and Monday at 7:30 pm through March 19th,  2018, at The Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 Spring Street Los Angeles 90013. Tickets range from $24.00 to $52.00.  Purchase by phone at  (866) 811-4111 or online at http://thelatc.org.


 

 

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.