Female version of Odd Couple superbly clever and smart, while "Evita" trys something bold and new, but falls somewhat short!

Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette provides a tantilizing taste of Neil Simon with their production of "The Odd Couple" (female version), but a fire sprinkler malfunction shuts the theatre down, temporarily!

I uploaded this article this morning, only to receive a phone call from Artistic Director Clive Worsley late today, that an overnight disaster struck the historic Town Hall Theatre last night! Apparently a fire sprinkler head malfunctioned overnight and flooded the theatre, causing major water damage to the lower floors and some minor damage to the upper floor. The company has yet to assess the full extent of water damages on the first floor, to the offices, green room (beverage and gathering center), and meeting room, the regular ticket office is closed at this time. The theatre is now back up and operating this weekend. The upstairs theatre area actually sustained very little damage and is perfectly comfortable for patrons to see the show. At this time there is no access to the elevator, so you will have to enter the theatre by way of the staircase on the School Street side of the building. This is the same staircase that is most often used to exit the theatre after a show. You may purchase tickets on line at http://www.townhalltheatre.com/or at the door. A temporary ticket booth will be set up on the School Street side of the building.Call the theatre box office at (925) 283-1557 if I have left any questions unanswered. The telephone service is rather rudimentary at this time, so it may take a little time for someone to get back to you. Again, their offices are temporarly closed.

This is one of the more entertaining shows in the area and I strongly recommend you support Town Hall, especially in light of this terrible disruption. Read my article and if it sounds appealing, check it out as soon as possible.

How many times have you read about Neal Simon’s productions in my columns! Again and again, I have enjoyed his many comedies and proclaimed that he is probably one of the most widely produced playwrights in America. With over 20 screenplays and 29 plays, his accolades are grand and many.

This past weekend I was indeed fortunate to attend the Town Hall Theatre Company’s brilliant production of “The Odd Couple (female version)”, directed by Clive Worsley. I don’t remember how many times I have seen this revamped version of Simon’s classic male version of “The Odd Couple”, but I am always anxious to get another dose of Simon, at any opportunity. The 1965 original male version of this comedy has stood the test of time on Broadway, and went on to capture huge new audiences as a television sitcom (1970 – 1975), an animated cartoon series (1975 – 1977), and even made it to the Silver Screen as a movie (1968). The female version was penned in 1981 and was produced on Broadway in 1985, starring Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers.

Worsley’s Town Hall female version stands out as a superbly smart and clever battle of wits and will between two best friends, whose simple act of becoming mismatched housemates has sent them on a perilous journey, crashing madly downstream on churning rapids of rivalry on a rubber raft of divergent values. In one sense, this solitary act of friendship (one gal friend taking another gal friend in), was certain to become as disastrous and as irrevocable as Julius Cesar’s act of “crossing the Rubicon” had been in 49 BC, an act that became an instant declaration of war against the Roman State!

Olive Madison (Sally Clawson) is a divorced radio sports commentator who hosts a trivial pursuits gathering with five of her best friends on a regular basis. When the play begins, the gals are playing a warm up game while becoming more and more concerned about their friend Florence Unger (Eleanor Mason Reinholdt) who is seriously tardy. Four of the gals, Sylvie (Monique Gonsalves), Renee (Ava Jackson), Mickey (Linnea George) and Vera (Emily McGowan) are all chatting small talk while alternating between frustration and fear for their fastidious friend, Florence (Eleanor Mason Reinholdt), who is never ever late. After receiving a phone call from Sidney, Florence’s husband, they find out that Flo has left her home and is apparently wandering the streets, after Sidney asked her for a divorce. Yes, she threatened suicide, but it becomes more likely to them that this is just a ploy to seek sympathy.

When Florence does show up, she is unusually introspective, evasive and non-communicative, almost aloof, until the ladies finally drag the truth about her marital problems out of her. Florence is the poster-girl for Good Housekeeping’s perfect homemaker award while Olive is the epitome of grunge, with a capital “G”!

After the other gal friends leave the gathering that evening, Olive (concerned for the welfare of her friend, Flo) does something very foolish, she asks Flo to move in with her. This plot concept hardly sounds like a prelude to murder, but as disagreements escalate, it almost is. Within days, the two women who dwell at the opposite ends of the cleanliness equator are within dueling distance, preparing for the final countdown.
Hoping to secure a break in the escalating battle, Olive suggests that they direct their frustrations and needs toward natural rivalry, something masculine. Olive reveals to Flo that there are two really good looking Spanish brothers, Jesus (Andrew Shaw) and Manolo (David Stein), who live on another floor in the same apartment building, and suggests that they invite them down for dinner and a drink (or four). Flo, however, is still hung up on her 5’3”, balding, cowboy boots-wearing husband, Sidney, and has difficulty in thinking this will be a good idea. Florence introduces herself as Mrs. Unger to the two handsome Spanish gentlemen (from Barr-thaa-lona Spain) when they enter the apartment the following evening. Florence definitely sets up a barrier between herself and any possible romantic involvement with either of the guests. Olive on the other hand is hoping, no, planning, for a romantic encounter!

While all of the acting is excellent, these two Spanish characters are owned by their actors and they practically steal the show. Some of the funniest moments come from Mr. Simon's best character revision -- the English Pigeon Sisters (from the male version) are now the Costazuela Brothers, Jesus and Manolo Their arrival as dinner guests at Olive and Florence's apartment with flowers and a box of candy and definitely shaky English, is the production’s high point.

I have to share a sample of Simon’s verbal candy:
Jesus: I hope you like the candies. They are no good.Olive: They're no good?Jesus: Si. The candy is no goodManolo: Si. Is very chewy.Olive: Oh, You mean nougat?

After a bit of embarrassed laughter between everyone as the misinterpretation is realized, the candy matter is now cleared up. Olive, in an effort to change the subject, says she'll put the flowers in water. Manolo declares "Jus’ the flowers. Candy in water is no good" to which Jesus adds in questioning fashion, "I thought it was nou-gat?"

When Olive, in an effort to change the subject, she graciously says "Well, - - the flowers are certainly beautiful! I feel like Miss America - - " and Jesus mistakenly agrees "I feel the same, I miss Spain sometimes."

The rocky linguistic rollercoaster between the Barthalona Boys and the gals rocks and rolls erratically along, until Florence falls apart while dwelling on her relationship and recent separation from Sidney, sending the chicken dinner and the entire evening careening into a non-romantic abyss.

In some ways, I enjoy the female version of “The Odd Couple” even more than the male version. My sense is that the characters are more fully developed in this version and the conflicts are very believable. I LOVE THIS PRODUCTION!

Sally Clawson is an attractive dynamo, with full lip-lash in motion, as Olive. Eleanor Mason Reinholdt (as Florence) is equally attractive, on the surface calm and collected, while underneath the facade, a paranoid neat-freak. These women are absolutely terrific. Emily McGowan is absolutely excellent playing the not-too-bright gal friend, Vera. And again, I have to repeat, the entire cast is superb, fully professional in every respect.

The set designed by Drew Kaufman works very well, and fits perfectly. The costumes by Bessie Delucchi are well matched to the actors and the character of the play!

“The Odd Couple (female version)” plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with a Sunday matinee on April 5th at 2 p.m., and with a Sunday evening performance at 7 p.m. and closing on April 25th. The Town Hall Theatre is located at 3535 School Street at Moraga Road in Lafayette.

Ticket prices range between $25 and $32 with special “Student Rush” pricing 15 minutes before any curtain($12 in cash with student ID). Call (925) 283-1557 or visit their website at http://www.townhalltheatre.com/ for more detailed information. Take a friend, this show should not be missed!

Evita plays to packed house at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek!

This current production by the Contra Costa Musical Company, which just opened at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, will not linger as one of my more memorable theatrical musical moments. While Karen and I both extolled the virtues of the principal performers, Mindy Lym (as Eva Peron), Alex Rodriguez (as Che Guavera) and John Hetzler (as Juan Peron), who were truly excellent, some missed opportunities and an overpowering staircase left us asking ourselves what might have been done better. The music and lyrics and story will always be high on our list of outstanding musicals, regardless of how any one production fares.

Unfortunately, for me, the show’s opening was confusing and lackluster, not yielding anywhere near the power the show’s creators had envisioned, nor the excitement that I had expected. I was also very disappointed in several other aspects of the production, on which I will elucidate in a few moments.

“Evita” is an amazing story based on the rise of a very poor young lady born out of wedlock, Eva María Ibarguren (later to be known by her real father’s family name, Duarte) to riches and international fame, before she died of cancer at age 33. Eva was a precocious girl, participating in school plays, musical concerts, lived for the cinema and dreamt of becoming a famous actress. At the young age of 15, she had made her way from a life of absolute poverty in the suburbs of Junin to Buenos Aires, where she found minor roles on stage. In 1935, she got her first big break as a professional actress in the play "The Perezes Misses", at the Comedias Theater. In 1942, she graduated to the radio medium and by 1943, she became a co-owner of the radio station, at the same time earning over 6000 pesos a year making her one of the highest paid actresses in the country. Then in 1944, at a fund raising affair for earthquake victims, she met Colonel Juan Peron. They married a year later. It was a very difficult journey to overturn the stigma of an illegitimate childhood and rise from the poor province of Junin, Argentina to eventually hold court in the Casa Rosada, the official government house of Argentina. Eva became one of the more powerful women in the world, and one of the most avid spokespersons for women’s right to vote and an avid campaigner for the working class and unions.

Through her political prowess, she manipulated the press, the radio, the theatre, the politicians and the military machine while grooming her colonel husband, Juan Peron, into a general, and then promoting him, through her appeal with the common people, to the office of the President. Eva “Evita” (little Eva) Peron became one of the most beloved female heads of state by the masses. At the same time she was despised by the upper class, the elitists, the military cliques and the opposing political rivals.

Juan Peron was arrested in 1945 by his political opponents and in large part due to Evita’s radio presence and pleas and appeal to the masses, a crowd of 250,000 to 350,000 gathered in front of the Casa Rosada, the official government house of Argentina, demanding Peron’s release. He was released, and at 11 p.m., he came to the balcony and spoke to the masses. This became a very powerful moment in Argentinean history. The following year he was elected El Presidente and the Peronistas were firmly in power and would remain so for many years.

Eva Peron had her eye set on becoming the vice president and campaigned quietly toward that end. The political opposition was fierce, but Eva was ill and becoming weaker as the campaign progressed.
On August 22, 1951, the unions held a mass rally of two million people called "Cabildo Abierto". The Peróns addressed the crowd from the balcony of a huge scaffolding set up on the Avenida Nueve de Julio, several blocks away from the Casa Rosada,. Overhead were two large portraits of Eva and Juan Perón. It has been claimed that "Cabildo Abierto" was the largest public display of support in Argentine history for any female political figure. The crowd bid her to declare that she would run for that office, but she was so ill, that she could not stand on that stage without her husband holding her tiny body up.

Despite surgeries and all available treatment, Evita became emaciated, weighing about 79 lbs. She died at the age of 33, at 8:25 p.m. on 26 July 1952. The news was immediately broadcast throughout the country, and Argentina went into mourning: all activity in Argentina stopped: movies stopped playing, restaurants were closed and patrons were shown to the door. A radio broadcast interrupted the broadcasting schedule, with the announcer reading, "It is my sad duty to inform you that today at 8:25 p.m. Eva Perón, “Spiritual Leader of the Nation”, entered immortality". Eva Perón was granted an official state funeral. This was one remarkable woman!

This production of “Evita” started off with a wimper instead of a wham! In most productions, the play opens with an audience on stage actually watching a 1940’s vintage black and white movie, when the screen suddenly goes blank. The audience begins to murmur and protest the interruption when a voice or a theatre person comes out and tells the audience that “Little Eva” is dead. The patrons are in shock, struck dumb by the news that their “spiritual leader” is dead! My understanding is that Kevin Morales wanted to give the show a different feel and he introduces a pre-show, where it appears that the Argintinian people are going about their normal business, and seeing the movie, never actually happens. For me, this production absolutely does not capture the power of that moment!

In fact, several people I overheard seemed puzzled by the opening scene (apparently having never seen the production before) and what it was all about.

While there are many very good and highly entertaining aspects of this production, it misses the mark on several key movements, and I do mean "movements". My gut feeling tells me that the professional productions choreographed the "movements" of the people, the upper class and the military groupings very tightly because it declared a sense of “unity”, the unity of the people in their grief, the unity of the "Snobish" class, the unity of the mourners, the unity of the political opposition and even the opposition of the military officers. The tight grouping of each class element contributes to the feeling of that particular group’s impenetrability, its immovability, and its opposition to the Perons. Again, to me, this production’s groupings were not perceived as a barrier to be overcome.

There is a magnificent grand staircase in this production that overpowered the entire show, taking up so much floor space that it invaded and inhibited movement in almost every scene. For the most part the staircase seemed to add very little to the power of the story, in fact, it was hardly even used! By creating openings in side of the staircase, the company tried to broaden its use into the other scenes, but in my opinion, the staircase was more an obstacle rather than a benefit.

Under the catagory of missed opportunities, the bedroom scenes where Evita first entertains a series of lovers and where she finally evicts Peron's mistress, are totally underwhelming (if I can create a word) in this production. These two scenes are potentially very funny high points, where Evita demonstrates her more rudimentary feminine powers. When the men she uses and abuses to climb to the top of her game, are welcomed into her bedroom one moment, then are unceremoniously ushered out through another door (in other productions), it seems more realistic. Not funny here, just matter of fact! She came, she conquered, - - ho hum!

There are some very positive aspects of this production. The dancing and choreography by Suzanne Brandt was excellent, as was lighting design by Ellen Shireman. The costumes by Marianna Ford did contribute significantly to the production. Musical Director Karl Pister did an excellent job delivering the marvelous music associated with this musical. For the most part, the vocal talent was very positive, very good. I did have problems with Evita's (Mindy Lim) voice at times when it seemed to come across as very high pitched and screechy. Derrick Silva played Magaldi very well. Director Kevin Morales made a bold attempt to create a whole new feeling and direction, but, to me this "Evita" seemed less powerful than the old "industrial" version.

“Evita” continues Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., now through April 26th in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts (Hofmann Theatre) located at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. Tickets range between $37 to $41 and can be purchased in the Arts Ticket Office at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek, or may be purchased on line by going to http://www.lesherartscenter.org/. You may call (925) 943-SHOW (7469) for additional information.