'Urban' poses complex questions

The dream of upward mobility is a strong motivator to play by society's ethical and legal rules. But in times of economic hardship, that dream -- and the values it nurtures -- can prove all too precarious, as a struggling middle-class black family discovers in "Urban Transition: Loose Blossoms" at Leimert Park's 4305 Village Theatre.

Ron Milner's thoughtful drama traces the crisis confronting Earl Carter (stage veteran Dick Anthony Williams), who's paid his dues and more to pull his family out of the slums. Comfortably resettled in a Midwestern city during the early 1990s, with one daughter in college and a son with a bright academic outlook, the future seems bright for Earl. But as the play opens, a back injury renders him unable to work, threatening the Carters' hard-won financial independence.

While Earl's patient, gutsy wife Cheryl (Jackee Harry) struggles to pay the "bills piling up like snow," their 17-year-old son E.J. (Cory Curtis) spots an easy fast-cash opportunity in the "soft stuff" at the periphery of the narcotics trade. Naturally, it's not long before E.J. graduates from pickups, packaging and deliveries to full-fledged drug dealing.

Though sketched in the broad strokes of a morality play, with its dramatic extremes of temptation and redemption, Milner's script employs some unexpected twists and insightful (though sometimes rambling) monologues to pose complex, troubling questions. Most disturbing is the ease with which E.J.'s new occupation is accepted.

Cheryl allows her outrage to be bought off with material wealth, but the charismatic Harry makes her lapse so understandably human that it's impossible to simply write her off. Eldest daughter Gail (Amber Kain) turns to Machiavelli to intellectually rationalize the situation.

Slow to recognize the painful truth, Earl's response is so full of hand-wringing and waffling it undermines the moral authority he tries to assert. That task falls to Uncle Bert (Art Evans), a tough but good-hearted cop.

Director Woodie King Jr. draws some powerful performances, especially from the conflicted Curtis and a smoldering Eddie W. Lewis III as E.J.'s best friend, who falls for the false trappings of the drug world. The chains may be gold, but they're still chains.

-- Philip Brandes

"Urban Transition: Loose Blossoms," 4305 Village Theatre, 4305 Degnan Blvd., Leimert Park. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Aug. 31. $25. (323) 939-2438. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

*

A 'New World' worth discovering

Admirable expertise marks "Songs for a New World" in its local premiere by Playwrights Arena at Los Angeles Theatre Center. Jason Robert Brown's abstract 1995 revue about life's turning points receives a highly accomplished production.

Though "New World" had a limited run of 28 performances at Manhattan's WPA Theatre, it conclusively established composer-lyricist Brown as a major talent, leading to 1999's "Parade," a Tony Award and a fervent fan base.

They surely will cheer this staging. Director Jon Lawrence Rivera and co-set-designer Justin Huen concoct a vivid environmental coffeehouse, swimming in mismatched furnishings and original art.

The concept permits Rivera's sleek quartet of performers, initially planted around the audience, to attack Brown's lustrous, emotionally specific songs with breathtaking intimacy.

Jennifer Paz is, as ever, angelic of voice and person, piercing the heart with her pregnant co-ed's "Christmas Lullaby." Rick Cornette's love-burned jock is matinee-idol handsome, with a soaring tenor and an uncanny ability to withstand audience eye contact. Steven Janji, although nobody's hoopster, invests his streetwise server with unswerving fervor. Casey Jones' disillusioned trophy wife, whose haunting "Stars and the Moon" may be "New World's" best song, counters her slender instrument with valiant commitment.

Kay Cole's choreography is precise, Brent Crayon's musical direction is colorful, Elle Hamm's costumes are convincing and Gerry Gregory Linsangan's lighting plot is astounding.

Less so is Rivera's revised text, setting the action before and after Sept. 11. This well-intended notion is better left to subtext, the tragic overlay demanding a weight beyond Brown's series of virtual one-acts. These nevertheless retain their celebrated potency, which recommends this keenly executed miniature.

-- David C. Nichols

"Songs for a New World," Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., L.A. Thursdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 and 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 9. $30-$25. (310) 578-2378. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

*

'Crazy' about the Gershwin music

"Crazy for You," winner of the 1992 Tony Award for best musical, artfully recycles George and Ira Gershwin's memorable songs into a cheerful Depression-era musical about a wealthy hoofer who falls in love with a Nevada lass and helps save her sagebrush theater.

Ken Ludwig's serviceable book has no pretensions about what it is -- a spiritual descendant of the old Andy Hardy "Let's put on a show!" tradition.

The framework may seem flimsy, but the real point here is the music -- timeless Gershwin classics such as "I Got Rhythm" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me," as well as lesser known novelty tunes such as "The Real American Folksong."

Presented by Musical Theatre West at the Carpenter Center, the show features versatile David Engel as Bobby Child, the rich Manhattanite who's gotta dance, but so far hasn't gotten a break. A terrific dancer-singer, and a funny drunk, to boot, Engel won an Ovation Award for the same role in a recent production by the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities. Engel knows this role, and he's got it down cold -- sometimes too cold. Engel can be smooth to a fault -- so smooth that some of Bobby's puppy-like magnetism is lost. That's a quibble, however. Engel has a lively chemistry with Tami Tappan Damiano, Bobby's love interest, a powerhouse singer whose solos soar under the acute musical direction of Todd Helm. If Damiano isn't exactly Ginger to Engel's Fred, they are a close enough approximation, and their dance numbers are particularly charming.

Although his choreography is memorable, Jamie Rocco's direction is occasionally faulty. Some performers skim the surface of their stereotypes, without that ineffable sparkle so crucial to the mix.

If this is an entertainment machine -- and it is, indubitably -- we are all too aware of its grinding cogs and wheels.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

"Crazy for You," Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St. (campus of Cal State), Long Beach. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. This Sunday only, 7 p.m. Ends July 27. $20-$45. (562) 856-1999. Running time: 3 hours.

*

Life lessons in father-son drama

A pedantic young man tries to teach his illiterate father to read. During the course of their "lecture," the resentments of their lifelong alienation come to the fore.

That's the crux of Raymond J. Barry's impressionistic drama, "Because I Said So," a world premiere at the Odyssey Theatre. Barry, who plays the Father in his two-character play opposite the assured Russell Milton as the Son, uses an elementary discussion about English grammatical structure to explore larger issues of human interaction and masculine intimacy.

The dialogue is rambling, discursive and highly stylized -- sometimes a strength of the play but often its weakness. Discussions range from the pithy to the annoyingly tautological.

The characters start off as broad stereotypes -- the Son's overbearing pedagogue contrasting sharply with the Father's strong, simple-minded naif. But, much like their circular discussions, the two characters tend to blur, and not always to a point. The Son makes ponderous comments such as "How dare you criticize my well-intentioned verbiage?" Yet his "stupid" father also speaks with a stilted volubility that seems uncharacteristic, especially given his educational limitations.

At times, Barry's style seems deliberately off-putting. The Son speaks with a tony British accent, the Father with a distinctly American one -- a baffling blend that only is belatedly explained. That uneven quality extends to John Ferraro's staging, which is sometimes unwieldy but more often finely calibrated. Frequent shouting matches try our eardrums, but for all its imperfections, the play has its richly saving graces. The performances are nicely nuanced, and passages of genuine humor and emotional heft hold our interest all the way to the affecting denouement.

-- F.K.F.

"Because I Said So," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; July 27 and Aug. 17 only, 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 31. $22.50-$25.00. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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