Heart Song: Theater Review

Ed Krieger
Aging Jewish New Yorker finds unlikely spiritual solace in flamenco lessons and sisterly bonding. Both glib and sincere, this slick entertainment musters enough accessible duende (or soul) to please and enrich general audiences.

Stephen Sachs' new play in East Hollywood melds flamenco, Judaism and a daughter's grief.

As Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap) lies on a massage table in her Riverside Drive apartment resisting with every locked muscle the ministrations of her therapist Tina (Tamlyn Tomita), she vividly conveys how she would be falling apart if the tension were not otherwise keeping her in place. A year ago, her nonagenarian mother, a camp survivor, died, and Rochelle is deeply conflicted about unveiling her tombstone upon her first yahrtzeit.

Acerbically noncompliant and defiantly bitter, Rochelle can be very funny about maintaining her defenses and denial, and Tina threatens to stop working on her unless she agrees to a radical therapeutic changeup: joining her at flamenco lessons downtown with the charismatic Katarina (Maria Bermudez) and a group of women as strategically representative as any bomber or submarine crew in a World War II picture.

The world premiere of Stephen Sachs’ new play at the Fountain Theatre in East Hollywood logically and shrewdly cross-pollinates its varied audiences: in addition to the house’s nonpareil theatrical offerings, co-founder and co-artistic director Deborah Lawlor has also been the most dedicated impresario of regular flamenco performances in Los Angeles.

In bringing an isolated woman in crisis to the healing qualities of physical self-expression and mutual support, it follows a familiar yet satisfying template, and while it can gloss somewhat simply through its issues, it does so without condescension either to the characters or the audience, and without oversimplifying its observations about flamenco (or the Shoah or the Japanese internment) to the point of misrepresentation. Katarina can incarnate an oracular mouthpiece for considerable exposition about the art form, but Bermudez has been directed with such an appreciation for her natural magnetism that the lessons go down with genuine delight.

While neither an innovative play nor a transcendent production, Sachs still manages to maintain a consistent intelligence and even the obligatory one-liners, though not strikingly witty, never clunk. Indeed, its tone and quality, and even its seriousness, are pleasantly redolent of the kind of smartly tailored commercial comedy with an undertow of substance that Broadway would showcase in the postwar generation, updated in its attitudes and with a more contemporary sense of sentiment and uplift. There is still an audience eager for this kind of theater, and it’s far bigger than the intimate confines of the Fountain.

Appropriately, Shirley Jo Finney, who has directed so many fine productions at the Fountain in recent years, applies a professional efficiency that keeps the dialogue snappy, the pace brisk, and the pathos credibly restrained. She truly excels with the relationships among the principal characters, which generate touchingly affectionate warmth without scanting bristling dueling wounds.

It’s such a pleasure to watch Juanita Jennings (as Daloris, a cancer survivor) and Tomita ply their compassion with Rochelle while maintaining their own integrity as a model for her to find security within herself. And Dunlap, with her stubbornly inventive self-deprecations and raging defiance of change or growth, gives a towering central performance, compromised only by being cast rather against type as a Jew of her age and background, which only nags when reciting a confoundingly Gaelic-toned inflection of the climactic Mourner’s Kaddish. 

Venue: The Fountain Theatre, East Hollywood (runs through July 14)
Cast: Pamela Dunlap, Tamlyn Tomita, Juanita Jennings, Maria Bermudez, Andrea Dantas, Sherrie Lewandowski, Mindy Krasner, Elissa Kyriacou
Director: Shirley Jo Finney
Playwright: Stephen Sachs
Set designer: Tom Buderwitz
Lighting designer: Ken Booth
Sound designer: Bruno Louchouarn
Costume designer: Dana Rebecca Woods
Choreography: Maria Bermudez
Producers: Deborah Lawlor, Simon Levy, Stephen Sachs