Los Angeles Theater Review: HEART SONG (Fountain Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on June 5, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

CHICK ‘N’ SCHTICK THEATER

It’s no small feat when a play inspires me to do something with my life. While watching Stephen Sachs’ Heart Song at the Fountain, I felt compelled to join a Flamenco class inmediatamente. The problem was I wanted to bolt from the theater during this play to do so. But here’s the caveat about this formulaic, chick-flick twaddle: My Jewish Cats-loving mom would probably love it. So, while my optic Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review Fountain Theatre's "Heart Song."nerves may have ached from all of the necessary eye-rolling, a few in the audience (all women that I could see) were wiping away tears at play’s end.

I suppose that in tough economic times, even the great Fountain Theatre is joining the legions of those who see theater as commerce. Why else produce this play if it were not precisely the kind of script that community theaters around the country would produce? Both the situations and characters are right out of a multi-cultural made-for-Lifetime movie; there are cheaply used modern references like those found in a sitcom (Aleve, the NRA, Dunkin’ Donuts, Life of Pi); and the lead role of Rochelle – a kvetching, uptight, middle-aged Jewish woman – is bestowed with enough Neil Simon-wannabe retorts to make you ferdrayt.

As the one-year anniversary of her mother’s death approaches, Rochelle is advised by her middle-aged Japanese masseur, Tina, to join an all-women Flamenco workshop to work out her angst. After the first go-round, Rochelle befriends Daloris, a righteous, proud, middle-aged black woman who is a breast cancer survivor and the third main character.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review Fountain Theatre's "Heart Song."The class, a.k.a. The Circle, is led by a fiery, Spanish, middle-aged gypsy guru, Katarina de la Fuente, who imparts enlightening life-lessons to the women, and delivers Flamenco history not just to her students but with a steely stare directly to the audience in other scenes (always a head-scratcher of a device in the theater). The other four students in the class are as flat as the paper they are typed on; even though they have names, you might as well call them Student #1, Student #2, etc. While they are supposed to represent flabby, everyday women (the “class is not for professional dancers,” says Tina), three of the four actresses cast in these roles have major dance backgrounds.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review Fountain Theatre's "Heart Song."The play is not without interesting moments, but they usually come courtesy of the joy of Flamenco – how the blues relate to Flamenco music, fascinating Flamenco history, et al. Sadly, even as we learn plenty about these characters, we never really get to know them. Heart Song wants so desperately to connect with its intended audience (women of color and especially middle-aged Jews, who are known to flock to the theater) that it settles for issue-packed proceedings over fully-fleshed character development. Some of the dialogue could have been lifted from a daytime TV talk show and the matters discussed will make some wonder if theater is just mimicking the self-important, topical sitoms of the 1970s.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review Fountain Theatre's "Heart Song."In a particularly pernicious and uncomfortably intense (for the wrong reason) scene, Rochelle has invited Tina and Daloris over for her attempt at homemade tapas. After wine and a joint are passed around, remembrances occur, but than a ridiculous argument ensues as to whose lineage experienced the worse injustice: Rochelle fights for Concentration Camps as Tina fights for Internment Camps while Daloris tries to break it up. It’s tough to care when the women were actually one-upping each other as to which culture is the better victim. The characters in this scene are like symbolic ingredients on a Passover Seder Plate: They only serve to represent issues of generations past. They’re victims, once removed.

Rochelle is the biggest stock character of all. While she may be using humor to hide her pain, her unbelievable quick-wittedness and kibbitzy comments feel artificial and, as a result, often land with a thump: “Don’t knock global warming. Jews love global warming. It means we don’t have to go to Florida” and “Jews doing Flamenco? What? Instead of ‘Olé!’ the crowd shouts ‘Oy vey’?” are just the tip of the Borsht Belt iceburg.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review Fountain Theatre's "Heart Song."The estimable Pamela Dunlap does a yeoman’s job of bringing this shockingly unlikeable character to life, but she comes off like Mae Questel on steroids. Even as Dunlap gave it her all, I couldn’t help thinking, “Enough already, Rochelle.” Tamlyn Tomita is made to hurl out WWII statistics, body therapy jargon, and Japanese customs as Tina, and Juanita Jennings’ Daloris even sings a gospel song. Jennings gives the most centered performance of the night, but neither she nor her capable cohorts can do anything about the racial stereotyping, which is hardly offensive but highly silly. Plus, disclosures come too easy for these characters and they are so self-aware that it gives the actresses nothing to discover. Although Flamenco teacher Katarina is only a life coach and has no relationship with the others, Maria Bermudez dazzles with her scorching, intense presence.

Even the normally inventive director Shirley Jo Finney (The Ballad of Emmett Till, In the Red and Brown Water) is uninspired by the script. We never get a sense of where they are: Rochelle’s apartment, a dance studio, a park, and even a graveyard all look the same on Tom Buderwitz’ set, which looks like a faux Mexican living room in a Silverlake house, even while we are in New York City.

Now I can go find that Flamenco class and dance my troubles away, many of which are born of paint-by-numbers theater.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review Fountain Theatre's "Heart Song."

photos by Ed Krieger

Heart Song
Fountain Theatre
scheduled to end on July 14, 2013 EXTENDED to August 25, 2013
for tickets, call (323) 663-1525 or visit http://www.FountainTheatre.com

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