The 99-Seat Beat: MLK, ‘Miss America’s Ugly Daughter’ and the Lizzie Borden musical
William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” — which rings particularly true in the theater, where plays remind us of lost joy, exorcise pesky ghosts, heal wounds, solve cold cases or play out fantasies of what might have been.
Local theaters offer some therapeutic time-travel adventures this weekend, including “The Mountaintop,” Katori Hall’s fictional account of Martin Luther King on the even of his assassination; “Miss America’s Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson & Me,” Barra Grant’s bittersweet reminiscences of her relationship with her beauty-queen mother; “The Servant of Two Masters,” Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 farce; and “Lizzie, the Musical,” a punk-rock opera about everyone’s favorite parricide suspect, Lizzie Borden.
‘The Mountaintop’ at Garry Marshall
The essentials: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. One day earlier, in his “Mountaintop” sermon — the last he would deliver — King had uncannily touched on the possibility of his own death. “I’ve seen the promised land,” he told his audience. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” What was he thinking and feeling after speaking those words on his last night on Earth? Playwright Katori Hall suggests one possible version in her 2009 play, “The Mountaintop.”
Why this? Hall has said she wanted to portray King as a real person, “warts and all,” rather than as a saint. The encounter she dreamed up between him and a mysterious hotel maid includes flirting, joking and discussions of smelly socks, along with more profound concerns. The drama won an Olivier Award (England’s version of the Tony) for best play in 2010, and its Broadway premiere starred Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. This revival boasts L.A. stage and TV favorites Gilbert Glenn Brown and Carolyn Ratteray and is directed by the prolific and fearless Gregg T. Daniel.
Details: Garry Marshall Theatre, 4252 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends March 10. $25-$65. (818) 955-8101, www.garrymarshalltheatre.org
‘Miss America’s Ugly Daughter’ at Greenway Court
The essentials: So many women struggle to step out of their mother’s shadow. It’s a harrowing, heartbreaking, hilarious lifelong journey for writer and performer Barra Grant, the daughter in a very tall shadow cast by Bess Myerson. The first Jewish Miss America, Myerson evolved into a television personality and then a successful New York politician until she fell from grace in the 1980s in a bribery scandal that the tabloids dubbed “the Bess Mess” (though she was acquitted of all charges). As Grant convincingly and hilariously observes in this one-woman show (with offstage dialogue provided by Monica Piper), Myerson was a tough act to follow.
Why this? Grant’s show, which had a sold-out run last summer at the Broad Stage, spins her childhood traumas into occasionally painful, ultimately uplifting comic gold.
Details: Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. Opens 8 p.m. Friday. Regular performances 8 p.m. Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays; ends March 24. $25-$40. (323) 285-2078, MissAmericasUglyDaughter.com.
‘The Servant of Two Masters’ at Parson’s Nose
The essentials: We don’t get a lot of commedia dell’arte in L.A. these days, but the stock characters and zany predicaments in Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters” (1746) will seem familiar to anybody who’s seen a sitcom. According to Lance Davis, cofounder with wife Mary Chalon of Pasadena’s 49-seat Parson’s Nose Theatre, “It’s the classic foundation for every madcap farce from ‘Bringing Up Baby’ to ’Seinfeld.’ ” It’s also the inspiration for the National Theater of Great Britain’s “One Man, Two Guvnors,” which won a Tony in 2012.
Why this? Parson’s Nose has been performing the comedies of Shakespeare, Moliere and other classic playwrights for contemporary audiences since 2000. Davis updates the scripts and condenses the running time to 90 minutes or less, a nod to how much busier we are than those old Italians who evidently had nothing but time to while away on improv and pantomime.
Details: Parson’s Nose Theater, 95 N. Marengo Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends March 10. $35. (626) 403-7667, parsonsnose.org
‘Lizzie, the Musical’ at Chance Theater
The essentials: Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Lizzie Borden was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother in 1892. Many of us are pretty sure she chopped them up with an ax. Maybe it’s the jump-rope rhyme (“Lizzie Borden took an ax, gave her mother 40 whacks”). Maybe it’s the enduring mystery: The case was never solved. “Lizzie, the Musical,” the rock opera getting its area premiere at Chance Theater, recasts four Victorian spinsters at the center of the sensational murder — Lizzie, her sister, her best friend and her housekeeper — as 1970s glam-punk power divas.
Why this? Some say the Victorians’ narrow gender roles got Lizzie off the hook: The jury just couldn’t see a petite, churchgoing old maid as an ax murderer. Nowadays we know better, and we also suspect that if Lizzie did kill Andrew and Abby Borden — well, maybe she had a reason. “Lizzie, the Musical” fills in the gaps in the story with a girl-power origin story, transforming the accused into a rock goddess in the mold of Cher or Joan Jett and the murders as a feminist declaration. The loud, banging score is pretty irresistible. Monika Pena, who starred in Chance’s “Violet” last season, lends Lizzie her powerful voice.
Details: Chance Theater @ Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center, 5222 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim. Opens 8 p.m. Saturday. Regular performances 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends March 3. $35-$49. (888) 455-4212, www.ChanceTheater.com
The 99-Seat Beat appears every Friday. Our reviewers shortlist offerings with an emphasis on smaller venues. Some recommendations are shows we’ve seen; others are based on the track record of the company, playwright, director or cast.
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