John Michael Higgins, Keith Carradine, and Gordon Davidson
in rehearsal for Stuff Happens
(Photo © Craig Schwartz)
John Michael Higgins, Keith Carradine, and Gordon Davidson
in rehearsal for Stuff Happens
(Photo © Craig Schwartz)
A lengthy chapter closes in a dramatic way, as Gordon Davidson directs his last show during his final season as artistic director of downtown's venerable Center Theatre Group, ending a near-four-decade tenure. Leave it to this audacious leader to pick a new play called Stuff Happens (Mark Taper Forum, opening May 25) as his swan song. It's a hot-button piece featuring Keith Carradine as President George W. Bush and Julian Sands as Tony Blair. To this mix, add renowned playwright David Hare (Plenty, The Judas Kiss, Amy's View) and a stellar cast of supporting performers (including Jane Carr, Stephen Spinella, and Dakin Matthews) and it sounds like a blockbuster sendoff for Davidson. The approximately 100 characters played by 22 actors include the likes of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell, as motley a group of strange bedfellows you're likely to ever meet on one stage. The "ripped-from-the headlines" story combines verbatim quotes and imagined dialogue in a dramatization of the U.S. and Great Britain's historic march to a pre-emptive war against Iraq. The play premiered in September 2004 in London, and this production marks its American debut.

Another of the month's highlights, also from Center Theatre Group, is a new work from master playwright Chay Yew (Porcelain, A Language of Their Own, Red). A Distant Shore (Culver City's Kirk Douglas Theatre, opening May 1) is a world premiere drama, directed by Robert Egan, described as a multi-generational saga of two families inextricably entwined in the fate of a small Southeast Asian country. It charts the struggle for a lasting love in a world divided by culture, class, and politics.

Springtime brings out the musicals full force, with several promising offerings. Reprise! Broadway's Best offers the rarely revived 1970 Lauren Bacall classic Applause (UCLA Freud Playhouse, opening May 1). Sheryl Lee Ralph as bon vivant Margo Channing and Jean Louisa Kelly as conniving Eve Harrington head a cast of seasoned pros in this sprightly Tony-winning adaptation of the classic Oscar-winning film, All About Eve. David Lee directs. Fasten your seat beats -- aisle or otherwise. The acclaimed Asian-American-focused East West Players offers the world premier of Imelda: A New Musical (downtown's David Henry Hwang Theatre, opening May 11), with book by Sachi Oyama, music by Nathan Wang, lyrics by Aaron Coleman, and directed by Tim Dang. In this musical biography of the first lady of the Philippines, we're offered a character portrait asking whether this remarkable woman operated out of greed or need as she saw the possibilities of her husband's enormous power. Another new work revolves around a famous real life figure. Michael Ajakwe Jr.'s Body Language (Featuring the Songs of Patti LaBelle), at the Stage 52 Playhouse and opening May 1, is a romantic comedy about a dance instructor and her wannabe-actor boyfriend. Set in 1983 when aerobics was the rage, Martin Luther King had just become a national holiday, and The Cosby Show had not yet changed American television, it's inspired by LaBelle's album Love Again. In a more classical vein is Matthew Goldsby's If Only... (West Hollywood's Globe Playhouse, opening May 7), based on Honoré de Balzac's acclaimed novel, Le Père Goriot. Craig Carlisle directs this tuner, in which an idealistic law student is manipulated into marriage and is forced to face some moral dilemmas.

Several comedies are included in the list of May highlights. A classic Noël Coward work is always worth a revisit. Director Art Manke is staging what is described as a fresh interpretation of the droll Private Lives (Pasadena Playhouse, opening May 6). Manke is casting the play with younger actors than usual, which he says is closer to its original incarnation, costarring Gertrude Lawrence and Coward in their 30s. Sardonic mirth is also to be found in Charles Busch's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife (Laguna Playhouse, opening May 28). The clever actor/writer Busch left his cross-dressing custom behind to serve as scribe only for this hit Broadway comedy, directed by Joel Bishoff, about a bored and depressed doctor's wife who has a fascinating encounter with a stranger. The Echo Theatre Company tackles an edgy piece: the West Coast premiere of Sarah Ruhl's Melancholy Play (at the new venue The Hayworth in L.A., opening May 28). Ruhl's work -- which has been produced across the nation, and in London and Germany -- is called a contemporary farce and absurdist fairy tale rolled into one. Also in Orange County is Lucinda Coxon's drama Vesuvius (South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, opened Apr. 30), directed by David Emmes, a story of a man and woman unexpectedly sharing a villa in Naples.

The American Russian Theatre (ART) Players present Evgeny Shvarts's The Shadow (Hollywood's Art/Works Performance Space, opening May 7). Called a satirical fairy tale for grownups, this ensemble piece directed by Istelle Petra takes an uncompromising look at state power, servile obedience, bigotry, fame, and indifference. The iconoclastic Son of Semele Ensemble presents the U.S. premiere of The Mysteries (Son of Semele in Silverlake, opening May 13). Presented in two separate evenings, the work was adapted by Edward Kemp for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Employing heightened language, 12 multi-ethnic actors explore nearly every character from the Old and New Testaments. Finally, Open Fist unveils the new work General Admissions (the last show in the soon-to-be-vacated Open Fist Theatre, opening May 19), written by Mark Banker and directed by Jeff Goode. The play is about what happens when everyone stops being polite and starts being real -- revealing their innermost thoughts, regardless of the consequences. Sounds like a souped-up revival of The Golden Girls.