The Most Bizarre Chicago Cast Ever?

Photo Credit: Ed Krieger

Originally published on Public Spectacle, LA Weekly’s arts blog. For original, please refer to: The Most Bizarre Chicago Cast Ever? – Public Spectacle.

It’s the fifth day of rehearsals for Chicago, and the director is presenting two numbers to the press, “All That Jazz” and “We Both Reached for the Gun.” She’s noticeably nervous as she gets things started, apologizing for any potential lack of preparedness. The cast just got these numbers yesterday and this morning, she explains. Plus, it’s her directorial debut.

Brooke Shields’ production is the latest in the Hollywood Bowl‘s series of summer musicals, which has, over time, drawn bigger and glitzier celebrities to the stage. But this year’s cast is particularly star-studded — and surprising. Headlining are Samantha Barks, the standout from Les Miserables the movie, playing Velma Kelly and, as Roxie, Ashlee Simpson. Yes,the Ashlee Simpson, best known for her music career and for getting caught lip-syncing onSaturday Night Live.

Also thrown into the mix are True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer as Billy, The Price Is Right host Drew Carey as Amos (yes, Carey and Simpson play a couple) and Xena: Warrior Princess Lucy Lawless as Mama Morton. But there’s a method to the casting madness, as this group is hardly green onstage.

“She’s just been a revelation to me,” Lawless says of Simpson. “It’s really good casting. Ashlee and Sam are so different. They’re like yin and yang. And it goes together just beautifully and seamlessly with such professionalism.”

Casting Simpson and Barks is indeed a twist on the expected, especially because Barks is six years younger than her co-star. While some productions have featured an older Roxie than Velma — notably the Oscar-winning film version, which featured 33-year-old Renee Zellweger opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones, 32 — Velma’s role as the has-been singer-murderer, contrasted with Roxie as the hot new celebrity, lends itself to an older actress.

Barks, however, thinks the age switch provides a new twist on the tale. “Why’s this young girl wound up in this position so early in her life? She’s so driven and so fame-hungry,” she explains. “You can’t help but make a slight different judgment of the character.”
It’s a different take on the legendary musical — currently in its 17th year as a Broadway revival, making it the third-longest-running Broadway show in history — but after living in the show, Shields thinks she has a unique vision.

“When you’re doing a show, you talk about it all the time,” she says of her time starring in the show both on Broadway and the West End. “You talk about every scene. Every night you talk about that show. Because it’s all you do — it’s all-consuming. It’s not about changing what works. It’s about revealing it again to a bigger — much, much bigger — audience.”

That bigness excites Shields, but it’s intimidating for Moyer, whom Lawless describes as a secret “amazing English song-and-dance man.” Though he’s been to the Bowl as a patron, he’s never stepped on the stage.

“I’m scared, terrified,” Moyer says, adding, “I’m starting to believe there might be some excitement in there.”

Despite being Hollywood stars, the main cast members all have some experience onstage, be it Carey’s role as Wilbur in the Bowl’s Hairspray, Lawless’ work as Rizzo in the mid-’90s Broadway revival of Grease or Simpson’s previous outings as Roxie on the West End and Broadway.

Beyond Simpson and Shields, however, the cast’s prior experience with Chicago is limited.

“I used to do it in my bedroom as a one-woman version when I was younger,” Barks jokes. “It’s an absolute dream.”

“I didn’t know it as well as some people do,” Moyer says. His last experience onstage was 18 years ago, at the age of 25, as Romeo in Romeo & Juliet. “When I was growing up, doing musicals, this was not a show that, obviously, because of the content, was an amateur show that 12-year-olds did.”

Despite some unfamiliarity with the show, the limited rehearsal time (they only started last week) and the eclectic mix of people, the cast is gelling.

“Each of them has a different amount of stage experience in their past, and they’ve all risen to it,” conductor Rob Fisher says. “No one is slacking.”

@SummerBreak: Inside the Social Media Reality Series Starring L.A. High School Students

Photo Credit: Maddie Cordoba

Originally published in LA Weekly. For original, please refer to: @SummerBreak: Inside the Social Media Reality Series Starring L.A. High School Students – LA Weekly.

Trevis is sweating. It’s in the 90s at Brooklyn Projects, a skate shop on Melrose with a half pipe behind the store. Though Trevis isn’t much of a skater, he’s suffering the heat to watch his two friends, Zaq and Connor, as his best friend Ray shops inside for a new shirt.

As his friends skate, Trevis tweets a photo of the two on the pipe. The photo goes out to Trevis’ almost 2,000 followers. He’s a popular Santa Monica High School graduate who was point guard of his high school basketball team and president of his student body, so it’s not unusual that he’d have a lot of followers. What is unusual is that his tweet has to get approved before it ever sees the light of day.

Connor and Zaq, drenched in sweat, get off the half pipe and prepare to leave. They sit and chat with Trevis for a bit. He tells them he tweeted a photo of them, and they eagerly go to check it out on their own phones.

They don’t go back inside to meet up with Ray yet, though. They can’t. The film crew’s not ready to shoot their exit.

Trevis, Ray, Zaq and Connor are not just regular L.A. teenagers. They are four of the principal cast members on @SummerBreak, a new summer reality TV show, though that’s technically inaccurate. There’s no TV channel airing @SummerBreak.

@SummerBreak is the first major series to unfold on a combination of online video and social media. Designed with the mobile experience in mind, the series is a collaboration between the Chernin Group — the production company run by Peter Chernin, the former No. 2 at Newscorp — and AT&T.

Executive producer Billy Parks first came up with the idea of having viewers take part in a full social experience — which made it perfect for teenagers.

“Obviously, with Millenials, this is the way they’re talking,” Parks says. “It felt really organic to who they are.” Though the production team flirted with the idea of doing a scripted series, reality felt fresher, and cast the show with high school students who just graduated or are on the cusp of graduating.

On this particular day of shooting, Trevis and Connor had gone to breakfast before joining Ray and Zaq for shopping and skating. While the guys ate and talked, an on-site production team member transcribed every word, conferring with producers after the guys moved on — and the cameras moved on with them. That morning’s conversation, apparently about the guys’ ex-girlfriend troubles, wasn’t as good as the previous night’s conversation between Connor and Zaq. After a brief discussion, producers decide that night’s episode will be of last night’s conversation, which dealt with Connor’s romantic past, present and future.

The cast members themselves are clueless as to what will appear in each day’s episode — and how much they’ll appear. Though the producers choose snippets of the kids’ lives to shoot, not every segment makes it in, and if they do, it won’t necessarily be in chronological order. That morning’s breakfast — and all the footage of the guys shopping — has yet to be used in an episode of @SummerBreak, and might never see the light of day.

Originally, episodes were set to be approximately one minute long and posted six days a week, with no episode on Saturday. The rest of the show would play out on Twitter and Instagram, where each member of the cast regularly posts updates on their lives and interacts with viewers. However, viewers clamored for more in the form of longer episodes — and they got it. Now, daily episodes are three to four minutes each Monday through Thursday, with Sunday episodes being longer anchor episodes that tell more story.

The social media aspect is still huge, though. Cast members use programs like HootSuite to post to their social media accounts, and a team hired by the producers works 20 hours a day to approve these messages. Not all the cast members are super engaged, but some — especially Ray, the son of former champion boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, and Clara, a female cast member headed to culinary school — take the time to respond to fans constantly. It’s all part of a greater theme of engagement — a word Parks and the cast use constantly.

So far, the cast has proven pretty engaging. The core cast is made up of eight L.A. kids — six who just graduated high school, two headed into their senior year. Three girls, five guys. Four Santa Monica High School students, four Pacific Palisades Charter School students. Zaq, Ray, Trevis and Kostas are from the Samohi half, while Clara, Lena, Alex and Connor are Pali kids. Nia, the original ninth cast member, is also a Pali girl, but she’s not with the show anymore.

The show follows the kids through their daily lives during a summer that is (for most) their last before moving on to college and other opportunities. In many ways, @SummerBreak is a throwback to Laguna Beach, the 2004 series that chronicled the lives of Orange County high school kids that pioneered the use of serial narrative in reality shows versus a documentary-style format.

Laguna Beach (and its successor series, The Hills) were known for manipulation behind the scenes, something Parks says the production team is eager to stay away from, pushing for an authentic feel. That’s been a detriment to the show in some ways, as the narrative wasn’t easily frameable early on. Worse even, when the first six episodes went live on June 16, the cast “lost their minds,” according to Parks.

“We had a little viewing party,” Trevis explains. “I walked in [late], and you could feel the tension. Everybody was being so real on the camera.”

That realness transformed into awkwardness off-screen. In a particularly tense example, the three parts of the love triangle from those first episodes — Zaq, Clara and Connor — were all sitting right next to each other as they watched.

Connor had a particularly bad reaction to his romantic entanglements being aired on the show. “I just wasn’t used to having my personal life being broadcast,” he says. “It was just different.”

Connor and the barely-featured Nia didn’t appear again in any major capacity until the cast’s trip to Catalina Island. That trip was an effort on producers’ part to get the kids together, both bonding them and creating more potential storylines in the face of a rapidly growing audience but a lack of substantive plot. (Typical YouTube comment on the first 12 episodes: “This show’s kinda boring.”)

After they got back from Catalina, producers laid down the law with the cast about opening up.

“If you don’t like what you see, change it,” Parks says the producers told them. “You have a luxury that no other reality cast member has ever had. The show is in your hands. But with that responsibility, doesn’t mean if you don’t like what you see, you can go sneak off camera. That’s bullshit. You have to now open yourself up more.”

The lecture affected each cast member differently. While Nia stopped being filmed (in what creators described as a “creative decision”), others like Lena and Connor opened up in new ways, the former even letting her dad’s battle with throat cancer be chronicled. Since then, the show has gained new narrative life, with Lena and Clara getting into the series’ first out-and-out fight and Alex and Kostas’ uneasy flirtation being disturbed by L.A. transplant Raina’s introduction as another love interest for Kostas. The new plotlines have sparked major interest among fans — and the kids have become much more natural, saying they forget the cameras but also, according to Parks, remaining acutely aware of being on a reality show.

One big aspect of that awareness are cast attempts to change the storylines. Lena openly voiced frustration on Twitter about her lack of screentime in Catalina, while at one point during shooting Zaq even questions a production team member about why the guys are being filmed shopping when there’s not much going on. (Since this is the same shopping trip that never made it to air, he might’ve had a point.)

This desire to control their appearance on-screen gives the show a meta level, and presents the production team with what Parks calls “Season 2 problems,” though they’re merely weeks into Season 1.

After finishing their shopping trip, Zaq, Trevis, Ray and Connor sit down to lunch at Baby Blues BBQ in Venice. The cameras are gone, and the production staff is buying, so the guys become more relaxed. After almost immediately hopping on their phones, they begin to chat about topics ranging from the early days of the show to the previous night’s episode, featuring Alex and best friend Karli driving and gossiping about guys, which Zaq bluntly dismisses as having “sucked.”

“I got frustrated. I was like, ‘Yo, what the fuck is this episode? Where am I? Where are my boys?'” Zaq complains. “There’s so much other shit they could have shown.”

“They want to see drama,” Ray says, acknowledging producers’ desire for meatier plotlines. “But that’s just the two of them in the car.”

The guys were clearly frustrated with the drama. Yet stats don’t lie: Each member of the cast has well over a thousand followers on Twitter now, as opposed to far lower numbers before the Catalina trip. The more emotionally open cast has created opportunities for more dramatically fulfilling stories.

Later, while driving back to where shooting began, not half an hour after expressing frustration with the drama, Zaq created some of his own. He gave Ray a gift — a T-shirt with his father’s name and likeness on it.

Ray clearly appreciated the thought, but quickly explained to Zaq that his family gets his dad’s merchandise for free all the time. Zaq, clearly insulted, proceeded to sulk for the rest of the ride. Ray apologized for sounding unappreciative. Zaq refused to respond as the van fell into an awkward silence. Ray looked around in stunned disbelief.

Parks was recording the interaction from the very start.

The Spirit of Whitney Houston Leads a Tour Down Wilshire Blvd.

Photo Credit: Tanja M. Laden

Originally published on Public Spectacle, LA Weekly’s arts blog. For original, please refer to: The Spirit of Whitney Houston Leads a Tour Down Wilshire Blvd. – Public Spectacle.

Good news: Whitney Houston is back from the dead. Bad news: she’s lost in MacArthur Park, presumably melting in the dark, and we’ll never have that recipe again, as the songgoes.

That is, at least, the impression left by the ending of It’s Not Right, But It’s OK, a performance art piece by Cliff Hengst put on by Machine Project for the Getty‘s initiative Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. The program was a bus tour from the Beverly Hilton, where the late diva supreme was found dead in Feb. 2012, down Wilshire Boulevard, as led by Hengst, “possessed” by Houston’s spirit. Yet Hengst, perhaps showing how committed he is to performance art, concluded the tour by running out into MacArthur Park to the strains of Houston’s hit song “Run to You.” Hengst/Houston never returned — instead, without a word from anyone in charge, the bus simply returned to the Beverly Hilton.

The conclusion was in the same spirit as the rest of the tour: mostly confusing, at times brilliant, and every so often in poor taste.

Hengst started out as himself — a veteran of one-person exhibitions — giving a tour of Wilshire Boulevard’s architecture and history. But then, in an impromptu performance of Weezer’s “Beverly Hills,” Hengst began riffing and ad-libbing, much like Houston might in a cover of the song. He claimed he has no idea what came over him.

Soon enough, the transformation became more permanent. To the strains of Houston’s cover of the National Anthem, Hengst threw on a gold lamé sheet (the term “dress” would be generous) and a truly pitiful wig to become Whitney Houston herself. It’s worth noting that Hengst has fairly prominent facial hair. Clearly, convincing drag was not the point.

The bus tour continued, with Hengst/Houston speaking and singing about her return to the world — and, bizarrely, delivering more history about Wilshire Boulevard. In some cases, this made sense: During a spiritual moment, Hengst/Houston lip-synched the religious “I Look to You,” and launched into the intro of “I Will Always Love You” from The Bodyguardwhen gazing at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

At other times, however, the music seemed incredibly disconnected from everything else: Zooash’s mashup of “How Will I Know” with Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” was played at a moment where Houston was supposed to be reflecting on a memory of her first tour, making a remix an odd choice.

When the music stopped, things got dicey. A running gag about how many Subway locations are on Wilshire had some fun payoffs (choice sung line: “Subway, where salted meats go to die”), but otherwise, Hengst mostly read facts about buildings, only occasionally tying in relevance to Houston.

More than anything else, that was what kept It’s Not Right, But It’s OK from being the campy blast it so thoroughly wanted to be. Perhaps because of the program’s tie-in with the Machine Project’s event series “Field Guide to L.A. Architecture,” Hengst had to shoehorn in references to buildings that Houston just wouldn’t care about, often at the sacrifice of some great performance bits — a crazy, drug-fueled monologue/performance of “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” was cut short because yet another building had to be pointed out.

Still, there was plenty to learn on the tour, both about Houston and Wilshire, and there were some really harmonious moments. For example, the El Rey Theatre, itself a landmark, was also the location of Houston’s first tour, opening for Luther Vandross. And if nothing else, the tour had great comedy, especially when Hengst would veer off-script and interact with passers-by.

Plus, at moments, the juxtaposition of Houston’s life-after-death and the architecture of Wilshire worked. The former location of the Ambassador Hotel was highlighted, and drew an interesting parallel to the Beverly Hilton, where Houston died, as the Ambassador, of course, was the site of Bobby Kennedy’s death. (The use of “I Have Nothing” here was particularly effective.)

The Ambassador itself died as well, as did so many other locations Hengst/Houston highlighted. Other locations that didn’t get torn down either faced death (The Wiltern, twice) or were dramatically changed (too many locations to list). Houston may have passed just over a year ago, but she left an L.A. that was much different than she lived in — just as the Houston who left us was much different than how she would likely want to be remembered.

That theme felt half-baked, though, as did the rest of the show. A one-day-only engagement, It’s Not Right, But It’s OK didn’t have to be a program that would sell tickets for years — the audience was going to buy tickets if they were interested in the source material, not on the actual execution of the program. But Houston’s death is still fairly recent; using her memory as a tie-in for a tour of Wilshire’s architecture at times felt in bad taste.

Case in point: the ending, where Hengst/Houston runs into MacArthur Park, a location known for its strong gang presence and drug-dealing. The tone is unclear: Are we supposed to laugh at the fact that Houston has “returned” to the drugs and shady dealings that colored the latter half of her life? If so, that’s the kind of dark joke that, were Houston still alive, would probably get big laughs if converted into a standup bit. But as the conclusion to what at many points felt like a tribute to the musical icon, it felt tacky and unnecessary.

That’s what made It’s Not Right, But It’s OK neither right nor OK. Neither fully camp nor a true tribute — nor even a proper education about Wilshire — it just never truly came together.

Paula Deen’s Guilt-Free Admission of Using N-Word, Hiring ‘Slave’ Waiters

Originally published on Squid Ink, LA Weekly’s food blog. For original, please refer to: Paula Deen’s Guilt-Free Admission of Using N-Word, Hiring ‘Slave’ Waiters – Squid Ink.

Paula Deen has found the one problem that can’t be solved with butter, y’all. And that problem is her casual racism when planning wedding parties.

As reported first by the National Enquirer (and picked up just about everywhere else), the celebrity chef and patron saint of all things deep-fried gave a deposition in which she is quoted as saying “of course” she has used the N-word (so blasé!). She also reportedly said of racist jokes, “I can’t determine what offends another person.”

But perhaps the most shocking portion of the 2011 Rose Parade Grand Marshal’s three-hour depo was in reference to her brother Bubba Hiers’s wedding — “Bubba” being a nickname for Earl, because in the South, Bubba is a nickname for everything.

At Bubba’s wedding, Deen hired a waitstaff of all middle-aged black men in white suits and black bowties. Deen said she was inspired by a restaurant she had previously visited.

“I mean, it was really impressive,” Deen is quoted as saying. “That restaurant represented a certain era in America…after the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War.” After, during and before: Apparently, the “certain era” Deen described is all the time.

Deen said she thought that the servers at the restaurant — clarifying that there were both men and women, lest you think Paula Deen is sexist, goodness no — “were slaves.”

So naturally, Deen chose that image as a catering inspiration point for the wedding of a man who owns a business called Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House.

The deposition — which the Enquirer claims it has video footage of — is for a lawsuit filed in March by Lisa Jackson, a former employee of Deen’s, who is suing Deen and Bubba for sexual harassment and racial discrimination in the workplace.

The lawsuit alleges that Deen wanted the waiters to tap dance as well, as they would at “a true Southern wedding,” but was worried about media scrutiny. Because admitting to casually using the N-word in a deposition is the definition of “discreet.”

Deen’s rep issued a statement to TMZ, saying she “does not condone or find the use of racial epithets acceptable” and “is looking forward to her day in court.”

It is unknown whether Uncle Bubba has given his deposition yet, but considering the brunt of Jackson’s complaint is against him — including routine sexual harassment of her and witnessing the beating of a black employee — for his sake, he might want to read the coverage of his sister’s deposition as a cautionary tale.