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Review: 1940s Comedy 'Born Yesterday' proves timely at Center REP

By Sam Hurwitt

Posted: 02/04/2016 10:00:00 AM PDT


Center Repertory Company's latest show, "Born Yesterday," is a classic comedy from 1946, well loved for the kookiness of its main character. It's probably best known for the 1950 movie based on the play, which won Judy Holliday an Oscar for the role she'd originated on Broadway. (There was also a 1993 remake starring Melanie Griffith, but the less said about that the better.)

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But Garson Kanin's play is more than just a popular chestnut. It's also a biting commentary on the corrupting influence of money on politics that feels all too relevant today, in an election year where that very subject has been hotly discussed.

In "Born Yesterday," a very rich, very powerful and very crooked junkyard magnate named Harry Brock has come to Washington to get some personally advantageous legislation pushed through Congress by any means necessary. Embarrassed by his ex-showgirl girlfriend's ignorance and lack of social graces (not that he has any himself), he hires a local journalist to educate her. Of course, he soon finds that her wising up may not be a very good thing for him after all.

Much of the humor of the play comes from not only how appallingly uneducated Billie Dawn is, but how defiantly she owns it. If there's a hero to be found here, it's not the moralizing reporter Paul Verrall, who takes it upon himself to teach her, although actor Jason Kuykendall's portrayal makes Paul's calm, confident intelligence very appealing. It's the formidable, defiant Billie who owns this show, and Sharon Rietkerk makes a stupendous Billie Dawn, with a squawking voice, blasé coarseness and sharp comedic delivery.

Of course, part of the point is that the bullying big shot Brock isn't any less ignorant and is much more boorish than Billie is. Will Springhorn brings an explosive belligerence to Harry, a need to always feel on top by putting everybody else down, that makes the pair's scenes together crackle with an electricity.

Harry is surrounded by yes-men: his all-purpose henchman (an endearingly eager-to-please Colin Thomson), his corrupt lawyer who drinks to forget any ethics he may once have had (Jackson Davis, amusingly wobbly) and the senator he's bribed into subservience (a stoic Jesse Caldwell). But, as Billie wisely observes, why should guys like Harry get to call all the shots? "Who ever voted for him?"

Deftly directed by Timothy Near, Center Rep's production brings out all the humor beautifully but also makes you feel the emotion of Harry and Billie's souring relationship, as well as the simmering sparks between her and Paul. The staging is full of marvelous details, sometimes just as simple as the expression on somebody's face in the background. Monica Cappuccini has a wonderful bit as the senator's politely disapproving wife, silently getting good and drunk to withstand Harry and Billie's loutishness.

The setting itself speaks volumes: Erik Flatmo's elegant set is a palatial hotel suite with two-story-tall windows with a direct view of the Capitol building, so close up it looks like it's right across the street. It's an omnipresent visual reminder of that this sprightly comedy is ultimately and always very much about dirty money getting way too close to the workings of government, and the complicity of those who just sit by and do nothing to stop it.

 


Born Yesterday Brings Past (and Present) to Life: New Center REP Show Reminds Us Why Theater is Important

By Sara Hare

Posted: 02/05/2016


When the actors walked on stage and the action began, I have to confess that Born Yesterday, the new show from Center Rep Theater at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts, made me feel very old. Not that I was alive in the WW2 era in which the play is set. Far from it. Decades from it. My parents aren’t even old enough to remember WW2.

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But for the first few moments of the show, a period piece that opens in an opulent hotel room in Washington D.C. with the Capitol building in the backdrop, I felt as if I’d stepped into an elevator (the kind with a uniformed operator, of course) and been transported to a different time. I was. A time when a two-bedroom suite at an upscale D.C. hotel costs $235/night!

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The first few very funny moments of Born Yesterday were reminiscent for me of watching the Wes Anderson movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film that I loved not only for its re-creation of an elegant era but for a sort of wacky, corny, even slapsticky humor, all of which are also present in Born Yesterday. And the similarities do not end there. Impeccable costumes were spot-on reinterpretations of the time. Authentic accents (for Born Yesterday think: wise guy) and old-timey mannerisms were, too. But there was something else going on in the back-story of Born Yesterday. And that something was a political commentary on the present.

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The cynic could say the show was dated and dull. But that troll would not be paying attention. As I sat in the intimate Margaret Lesher theater, wondering if this period piece was quaintly amusing or just older than my grandmother, suddenly I had an epiphany. Suddenly I understood why theater is so important (I am always searching for such reasons because I love the theater madly). Theater brings the past to life. It’s one thing to read a history book. It’s entirely another to see an era brought to life before your very eyes, depicted in living color complete with fur coats (now politically incorrect) and permed hair-dos (oh, the chemicals!) and unbridled, unabashed sexism (how could women live with that back then?)

But there was something more, still. The charm, the style, the flair of this once glorious, oh-so-civilized by-gone era were brought back to life in Born Yesterday but this timeless show also brought to light the themes of human greed and the abuse of power that remain unchanged. Isn’t this more of what we are still seeing in Washington today?

After applauding the final bows from this stellar cast including the impressive Sharon Rietkerk, I strolled down the circular stairs of the Lesher Center talking with a friend. She loved Born Yesterday  above all for its bold and somewhat daring political statement. “That kind of corruption is still what is going on now,” my friend lamented. I was thrilled to have seen Born Yesterday for many reasons. Not the least of which that it gave me insights into the past and the present.  And short of watching the buffoonery of a certain Republican candidate, it provided more laughs than either of us would have shared on an otherwise dreary winter evening. Best of all, Born Yesterday made me feel just that. It’s a lively romp that made me feel young(er) again. It’s a great show. Don’t miss it!

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Vmedia Theatre Arts Reviews and Events

www.vmediabackstage.com

Spend Presidents Weekend in Wash D.C. with Harry & Billie and Garson Kanin's Classic Comedy 'Born Yesterday'

By Vince Mediaa

Posted: 02/04/2016

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“Because when ya steal from the government, you're stealing from yourself, ya dumb ox” Billie Dawn is the perfect dame for Wash D.C. - “Born Yesterday” Rings the Election Year as the Ideal Play for the Season.

Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday" first premiered on Broadway on February 4,1946. The play was adapted into a successful 1950’s film of the same name. The movie, starred the spirited Judy Holliday, who won an Oscar for her role. Center Rep Company opens its winter play with this classic Washington D.C. comedy now at the Margaret Lesher Theatre through February 27th. Directed by Timothy Near, she has assembled the perfect cast and creative team to bring D.C. to Walnut Creek. Kanin’s classic is a gem that is also the perfect commentary for this election year.

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Director Near doesn’t try to gloss over the 1946 comedy with any contemporary headlines, she lets Kanin’s script keep its iconic charm. The failed 1993 screen remake with Melanie Griffith shows that updating this plot does not work. Near lets the play stand on its own. “A little education is a dangerous thing”. That's what junkyard mogul Harry Brock learns in "Born Yesterday" played like a lion by Will Springhorn. 

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Harry hires handsome writer Paul Verrall to smarten up his simple minded and unrefined ex-showgirl girlfriend, Billie Dawn, so she won't embarrass him while he's robbing politicians in Washington, D.C. Harry is uncouth himself, but he doesn't matter since he has enough money to buy off Washington. The amazing local favorite, Sharon Rietkerk plays the classic blonde, Billie Dawn. Rietkerk proves she has that gutsy, hilarious and full giddy Billy style. Looking like a charmed Lady Gaga from the ‘40’s, and sounding like Cyndi Lauper, she brings mindless authority and a sexy girlish presence that makes her as adept in her comic timing Billie Dawn, is a line chorus showgirl, her claim to fame is the five lines she had in Anything Goes, she proudly shares that with Jersey junkyard millionaire, Harry Brock. Jackson Davis is excellent as Ed Devery, Brock's wayward lawyer, and Senator Hedges is skillfully played by Jesse Caldwell, whose influence can be bought. Harry has come to Washington to expand his empire. Kanin’s dialogue and political banter verses Brock's gangster slang is terrific. Billie’s lack of sophistication is a social liability to Harry. He could have picked a safer teacher to improve Billie's knowledge, than the reporter, handsomely played by Jason Kuykendall, who keeps sniffing around trying to find out what Harry's up to in Washington.

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Rietkerk and Kuykendall are exceptional together as student and tutor. Their on stage flirting is warm and their comic timing set the sold out opening crowd smiling during their scenes.  The very funny Monica Cappuccini plays the Senator's wife in a wonderful scene where drinking is the best way to avoid Billie’s misguided Wash D.C. ways.

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The great character actor, the lovable Colin Thomson plays Harry's brother and side kick goon, Eddie Brock. Director Near respects the timing of the three-act play, with its conveniently timed entrances and exits through many doors on a single set. The period swanky D.C. hotel two story suite designed by Erik Flatmo all draped in red, gold and navy blue, with regal period upholstery -- is a stunner. The back window opens to a perfect view of the Capitol building, it steals the elegance of the look, but is impressive. Ditto for Victoria Livingston-Hall’s sharp costumes, Billies first act gowns glow with glamorous body language, and in the second act as she understands Harry's world her look is more sophisticated. All the men are in black, grey and white, except for Harry’s King Lear robes and bright pajamas. There is that “Mad Man” look to the tall handsome, Paul Verrall, and the maid staff is bright red. Near keeps the wait staff bouncing and moving through all three acts. Dialect coach Lynne Soffer has Rietkerk's Jersey sound foolproof, Judy Disbrow's wigs on the blond beauty are flawless, and Kurt Landisman's light design is most captured in the looming Capitol Building window drop.

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Other notable performances by Michael Abts, Val Garrahan, Dominic Lessa and the delightful Adrienne Krug, as the wait staff and maids, all moved like keystone cops on the fun two story set of steps and doors. Billie has always been happy being the dumb blonde. “I got two mink coats,” she says, justifying her lack of general curiosity. But when she gets an unaccustomed hunger for knowledge and a yen for Paul, Billie’s eyes are opened to Harry’s corruption and Kanin's story makes that political downfall come to his leading lady’s rescue.

One of the best moments in the two and half hour play happens in almost complete silence with Harry and Billie playing a card game of GIN. Near directs the two in near perfect card shuffling speak and Billie begins to see the real game. Garson Kanin wrote very pre-women's lib, money and politics and he brings the issue to the table in 1940. Great insight and a very adorable play that holds strong today. This is a great cast and production, and a great way to take a President's holiday weekend winter night in Walnut Creeks short visit to Wash D.C.

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Center REP's Comedic Classic 'Born Yesterday' is as Relevant Today as Ever!

By Rich Cereghino

Posted: 02/08/2016

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Center Repertory Company's production, "Born Yesterday," currently playing through February 27 at the Lesher Theater in Walnut Creek, CA, is a classic comedy from a different era (1946), but is just as relevant as ever. It is best known for the antics of its main character, an uncouth, corrupt junkyard magnate named Harry Brock (artfully played by Will Springhorn).

Brock brings his showgirl mistress Billie Dawn (Sharon Rietkerk) with him to Washington, D.C. to get some personally advantageous legislation pushed through Congress by any means necessary. However Billie’s ignorance and lack of social skills quickly become a liability to Brock’s business shenanigans so he decides to hire a cool, calm journalist, Paul Verrall (Jason Kuykendall) to educate her. However, during her learning process, Billie realizes how corrupt Harry is and she begins interfering with his plans to bribe a Congressman into passing legislation that would allow Brock's business to make even more money. It doesn’t take long before Brock soon finds that her “wising up” may not be a very good thing for him after all.

Much of the humor of “Born Yesterday” comes from the uneducated, yet defiant Billie Dawn. Quite frankly, Rietkerk (Dawn), with her squawking voice and sharp comedic talent takes ownership of this show.

Of course, Will Springhorn as Harry Brock is very convincing with his explosive belligerence and a need to always feel superior by putting everybody else down (does anyone feel a sense of Donald Trump here?). In any case, when Brock and Dawn are in the same scenes there is a genuine sense of electricity in the air.

Always on a power-trip, Harry is constantly surrounded by a group of “yes men,” including Eddie Brock, an eager-to-please henchman (Colin Thomson), Ed Devery (Jackson Davis), his corrupt lawyer, and Senator Norval Hedges, who's been bribed into subservience (Jesse Caldwell).

“Born Yesterday,” written by Garson Kanin, is probably best known for the 1950 movie based on the play, which won Judy Holliday an Oscar for the role she'd originated on Broadway. (There was also a 1993 remake starring Melanie Griffith).

Garson Kanin's play is more than just a popular nugget. “Born Yesterday” is a biting commentary on the corrupting influence of money on politics that feels all too relevant today, in an election year where that very subject continues to be hotly discussed.

Directed by Timothy Near, Center REP's production of “Born Yesterday” offers quite a bit of humor but at the same time also makes the audience feel the emotion of Harry and Billie Dawn's souring relationship.

What is particularly striking is the gorgeous set of “Born Yesterday,” designed by Erik Flatmo and brought to reality by Center REP's incredible scene shop team, lead by Technical Director Joshua Lipps! The elegant set features a palatial hotel suite with two-story-tall windows with a direct, close-up view of the Capitol building. The setting itself is a constant reminder that this comedy is very much about the cozy relationship between dirty money and the effect is has on the workings of government.


My Cultural Landscape

http://myculturallandscape.blogspot.com/

By George Heymont

Posted: 02/07/2016

 

One of the most frequently heard warnings about an actor's life is that "Dying is easy, comedy is hard!" If someone told you that they planned to revive a post-war comedy to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its world premiere, you'd probably wonder how well the script would hold up in front of today's audiences.

Therefore, I tip my hat to Center Rep's artistic director, Michael Butler, for having the foresight to schedule a production of Garson Kanin's hilarious Born Yesterday -- and to Timothy Near, who directed the show with a comedic zeal and political timelessness that handsomely framed a bravura performance from one of the Bay area's most versatile actors.

Kanin's play premiered on February 4, 1946 at the Lyceum Theatre with Judy Holliday in the role originally cast with Jean Arthur. The character of Billie Dawn (an illiterate showgirl being kept by a corrupt businessman specializing in junk metal) showcased Holliday's talents, which can still be seen in the 1950 film adaptation.

Like George Bernard Shaw's 1913 classic (Pygmalion), Born Yesterday found its inspiration in Ovid's tale of a sculptor who fell in love with the statue he created. Whereas Henry Higgins finds Eliza Doolittle selling flowers in Covent Garden, Paul Verall (Jason Kuykendall) is a political writer who falls for a stereotypically dumb blonde bombshell.

Although Billie Dawn (Sharon Rietkerk) may look like a classic sculpture (and have a voice that could shatter glass), she does not like to be taken for granted. Uneducated, and raised by a single father who insisted that everyone should have a hot meal for lunch, she's nobody's fool. This woman knows how to manipulate men who only see her as a mindless sex object.

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When Billie and her boyfriend, Harry Brock (William Springhorn), arrive in Washington, D.C. for some intense lobbying, Verall's attempt to interview Brock is quickly sabotaged by Harry's arrogance and short temper. Brock's lawyer, Ed Devery (Jackson Davis), suggests that Billie might benefit from some cultural tutoring in order to make her seem more refined while socializing in political circles. After a visit from Senator Norval Hedges (Jesse Caldwell) and his wife (Monica Cappuccini), Harry begins to understand how Billie's refreshing bluntness could turn into a social liability.

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With the kind of financial bullying that is frequently displayed by Donald Trump, Harry decides to hire Verall to help with Billie's transformation. Although Paul initially declines the offer (based on a sense of journalistic ethics), he quickly caves when Brock offers him an impressive salary.

As Billie's education proceeds, her vocabulary begins to expand (along with a new determination to be her own woman). Not only is she getting all kinds of rebellious ideas from the books Verall has recommended, Billie is also starting to understand the power she has accumulated thanks to Ed's meticulous planning (which has resulted in her gaining legal control over Harry's junkyard businesses).

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Thanks to Lynne Soffer's excellent work as a dialect coach, Springhorn and Rietkerk sound marvelously unsuited to the pretentiousness which runs rampant in the nation's capital. Not only does Rietkerk wear Victoria Livingston-Hall's costumes with the comic flair of a burlesque queen, the mere sight of her walking up a flight of stairs in a tight white ensemble could make a man's knees buckle with lust.

Working on Erik Flatmo's elegant unit set for a luxurious two-story hotel suite with a view of the United States Capitol, Timothy Near's ensemble is obviously having themselves a blast. Monica Cappuccini drew big laughs from her tiny role as a greedy Senator's wife. Colin Thomson provided the evening's nervous muscle as Harry's younger and obviously more stupid brother, Eddie Brock.

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It's fascinating to see how Kanin's 70-year-old script captures the brutal misogyny that still exists in business and political circles, the easy corruption of elected officials, and the stunning ease with which an informed woman can exert her will over an abusive boyfriend who turns out to be all bark and little bite. Topping it all off is Rietkerk's hilariously sexy and not-to-be-missed performance as Billie Dawn. Listening to her play the equivalent of a gangster's dumb broad, it's difficult to reconcile her Billie with Rietkerk's ingratiating portrayal of Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music.

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