Laughter on the 23rd Floor reaches new heights with Diablo Actor's Ensemble's Walnut Creek production!

This week I am going to encourage you to return to Walnut Creek, to the little Diablo Actors Ensemble Theatre at 1345 Locust Street, to partake of Neil Simon’s incredibly funny comedy, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”. After that review, I am also going to remind you about the wonderful musical experiences awaiting you at the San Francisco Symphony as it performs in Davies Hall in the near future. At the same time I want to tell you about the outstanding return engagement of classical music creator Nubuo Uematsu, who is the primary force behind the grand music that provides the background music the long running, multi-award winning “Final Fantasy” animated game world series.

I believe I have seen “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at least 4 times and look forward to seeing it each and every time another company produces this highly entertaining story. Neil Simon takes a page out of his own personal experiences as a member of the writing team that produced the long running comedy/variety show featuring Sid Caeser and Imogine Cunningham, the 90 minute NBC production of “Your Show of Shows” in the early 50’s. Simon has created a play that is an example of what it was like to be part of the day to day madness of a comedy writer’s team. The competition, the egos of the writers, the outside interference of corporate management and money managers all played havoc with the artistic minds that brought us the diverse talent of comedians, hosts and guest performing entertainers. In about 90 minutes, Diablo Actor’s Ensemble delivers a very funny and informative inside look at these creative minds at work. I have always considered Neil Simon as one of the great playwrights of Comedy Theater and probably appreciate this work in this play as much or more than “The Odd Couple”, which has to be my second favorite of all time.

Simon brings to us show host Max Prince, a delightful mix of Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason, who is fighting daily with an avalanche of memos from corporate penny pinchers who want to see less money spent on everything from costumes and sets, to bagels and buns, and yet provide their audiences with a better product that draws a bigger ratings. In one of those “I win, you lose” scenarios, Max is fighting the corporate machine to keep his 90 minute show, when NBC wants to cut him back to 60 minutes. In this production, the NBC bosses are telling Prince that he needs to “dumb down” his show, that it is simply too “sophisticated” for “middle America”, to whom NBC feels they are trying to appeal. Of course, the show’s artistic genius, Prince, is near the breaking point as his frustrations spill over into the writer’s arena.

The writers who actually provided the wealth of material and ideas that kept the show running were and are yet, some of the greatest comedy writing minds this country has ever seen, and for one short space of time, they brought their collective madness to focus in the Sis Caesar show. The actual writers such as Neil Simon, himself, are each given pseudo identities in the play. Simon becomes a neophyte addition to the writing team, Lucas Brickman (played by Andrew Talbot), Larry Gelbart becomes Kenny Franks (Michael Scott Wells), Mel Tolkin becomes Val Slotsky (Randy Anger), Michael Stewart becomes Irishman Brian Doyle (Henry Perkins), Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks are melded into the character of Milt Fields (Danny Webber), Woody Allen becomes Ira Stone (Paul Plain) and the only woman on the team, Selma Diamond, becomes Carol Wyman (Melissa Vargas). Sid Caesar becomes the nearly “mad” Max Prince and is played brilliantly by Jerry Motta.

Under the direction by Dennis Markham, this play becomes a stellar example of Simon’s captivating style. The one-liner jokes flow from this group of characters like bullets from an automatic weapon. I have always marveled at the incredible talent and super-fast thinking ability of standup comedians, but for the likes of these brilliant writers, to have been able to work together daily on the same show, must have been an experience of a lifetime. It might have even been a bit frustrating as even normal conversations between the writers (what could be considered normal with this bunch?) was a constant dance of one-upmanship, someone constantly waiting for a line someone else could take to comedic task. Examples extracted from the ongoing dialogue in the script are as follows:

[Re: Max's health]
Val: God forgive me for saying this word: Nervous breakdown!
Milt: That's two words. God will never forgive you

Later as Milt spars with Val over his Russian accent - -
[With a thick Russian accent]
Val: Go feck yourself.
Milt: There's no such word as feck. A person cannot go feck themselves. You cannot be an American citizen until you learn to say "Go fuck yourself."
[again with his thick Russian accent]
Val: Kiss my Naturalization papers!

[Later as Carol spars with Brian]
Carol: I'm trying to get pregnant.
Brian: Ask your husband. Why should we do everything?

[In the second act]
Carol: I'm pregnant!
Kenny: Mazel-thov!
Carol: Thank you, Kenny.
Kenny: No, I was suggesting a name.

And so, as you can see, this show is one-liner heaven, probably reminiscent of the dreams comedians must endure to be so great.

The acting is superlative, everyone contributes marvelously but some actually bring fleeting memories of these characters as I seem to remember them in shows gone by! Paul Plain is delightful as he squeezes some real Woody Allen out of his lines and especially his portrayal of the gas induced heart attack scene! Randy Anger is a riot as the Russian writer, Val. Henry Perkins is terrific as the Irish writing rogue who always had “just sold his script to Hollywood”, but never quite “made it” there. Every member of this cast is thoroughly delightful and Jerry Motta delivers a performance as Max, that excels anything I have ever seen him do before. Simply a terrific, funny, outstanding, outrageous production and one I am sure you will long remember.

“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” will continue Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays now through August 7th , with performances at 8 p.m., except on Sundays were the matinees at 2 p.m. in the Diablo Actor’s Ensemble Theatre, which is located at 1345 Locust Street in Walnut Creek, next door to Peet’s Coffee. Call (866) 811-4111 for tickets and reservations or order on line at . Tickets range between $22 (seniors and students) and $25 (general admission), with tickets only $10 on Thursday evenings. There is a public parking garage across the street that stays open until 3 a.m. on the weekends.

"Distant World, Music from Final Fantasy" once again brings San Francisco audiences to their feet for standing ovation after standing ovation at Davies Symphony Hall!

Approximately a year ago, I took my daughter to see the San Francisco Symphony perform an evening of “Distant Worlds, music from Final Fantasy”, a symphony that was directed by world renowned conductor Arnie Roth. The powerful music that was written to accompany the Final Fantasy Video Games was created in large part by Japanese author and musician, Nobuo Uematsu. The soundtracks of video games have become an increasingly popular specialty market, an offshoot from the game world itself, and is spawning concerts all over the world to satisfy this new world of classical music enthusiasts.

Last year’s production was completely sold out and demand for the tickets for this year’s much anticipated production were so much in demand that the show was scheduled for two evening performances. These tickets are not inexpensive at $105 each for the best orchestra seats, so you must realize that to fill the seats two nights in a row, this must be a pretty outstanding show, and it delivered everything that was expected.

Well, I couldn’t resist this experience, so my wife and I took our daughter and her friend along with us to attend the most current production, updated with some music from newly released games. This time, we were able to enjoy the superlative voice of Susan Calloway as she sang music that she delivered in various productions of Final Fantasy over the years. Ms Calloway has a voice like an angel, and I am going out to look for albums featuring her exquisite voice. Wow, what a thrilling sound, what a luxurious voice, what a richly rewarding experience.

Do you remember the opening to the movie Star Wars, the first time you saw it, the spectacular screen graphics showing opening dialogue fading off into the star-studded distance making you feel as if you were on a space craft flying into outer space, accompanied by the incredible, heart-pounding music of John Williams?

That musical experience is very much like the experience you will encounter when you attend a “Distant Worlds” production in Davies Hall, complete with a huge screen that provides stunning and at the same time comical images taken from the animate world of Final Fantasy games themselves. There are many Final Fantasy Games that go back to early animated imagery populated by funny little characters moving across one dimensional landscapes, villages and worlds. The more recent animated worlds of Final Fantasy is enriched with graphics that are as stunning and realistic as anything you will find in the movie world of today, as beautiful as the floating island world of Avatar.

If you enjoy the Symphony, I will try to keep you abreast of upcoming shows several weeks ahead of time, so that you may purchase tickets and enjoy the great productions available to audiences here in the Bay Area.