Few L.A. theater success stories can rival that of Michael Leoni’s Elevator. Opening last June at the tiniest of the Hudson theaters for a mere seven performances at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, Elevator proved such a hit with audiences that it returned in July for a month-long run. Good fortune then struck with a Critic’s Choice review in the L.A. Times, and Elevator’s producers had themselves a bona fide hit. In September, the show re-reopened at the considerably larger Hudson Mainstage for another month of performances, ultimately re-re-reopening in October at the Macha, where it now heads into the homestretch of a smash two-week-turned six-month run fueled almost entirely by word-of-mouth—though the L.A. Times review certainly didn’t hurt.

The “What if” aspect of Leoni’s script is one that can’t help resonating with audiences. Are there any of us who haven’t imagined being trapped in an elevator, and worse still, what might happen if that elevator should plunge to the ground floor? Writer-director Leoni takes that fear and runs with it—with a cast of seven characters, at least one of whom each audience member can identify with.

There’s the CEO Woman (Deborah Vancelette), still single at forty-three, hating her job, worrying about getting older, and wondering if she might just be terminally ill. The Temp (Erica Katzin) is a perpetual dieter unable to shed those excess pounds, a fact that a looks-oriented society won’t let her forget. The Business Man (Jade Carter) is a loud-mouthed boor who seems to thrive on putting other people down. The Musician (David Ryan Speer) is a teenage slacker who can’t seem to get worked up about anything, unless perhaps it’s his music. The Maintenance Man (William Stanford Davis) is an elderly African American unable to escape racial stereotyping no matter where he goes. The Hot Girl (Karlee Rigby) is a drop-dead gorgeous blonde who would appear at first glance to have not a thought in her head other than wanting to look her best at all times. The Goth Girl (Rachael Page) has dried mascara circles under her eyes and a bad attitude that may have just gotten her rejected at yet another job interview.

As John Hughes did in The Breakfast Club, Elevator starts with a group of strangers trapped in tight quarters over an extended period of time, then allows each character to let down his or her mask and reveal truths that go from unexpected to downright astonishing.

Elevator’s brief initial run resulted not only in a WOW! review from StageSceneLA but a pair of Best Of 2009-2010 Awards as well, one for Leoni for Outstanding Direction Of A Drama and a second for Outstanding Acting In An Ensemble Cast/Drama. A return visit to the “new improved” Elevator five months later reveals a production that has gone from diamond-in-the-rough to polished gem, and one that could well see its Scenies upgraded next September from Outstanding to Best in both categories.

Elevator’s five returning cast members (Vancelette, Katzin, Davis, Rigby, and Page) are better than ever, and its two replacements (Carter and Speer) bring their own special qualities and gifts to their roles, making Elevator even richer. Vancelette captures all of the CEO Woman’s brittleness, her self-doubts, and the demons which pursue her. Katzin’s Temp is a powerful mixture of sarcasm, good humor, and longing. As the Maintenance Man, Davis brings his decades of experience to create a wise, richly layered performance with a minimum of dialog. Rigby continues to be a stunner, her self-revelatory monolog played with beautiful authenticity. Page’s Goth Girl, like Ally Sheedy’s in The Breakfast Club, keeps things hidden so deep inside her angry, antisocial shell that when she suddenly reveals the reasons for those mascara circles, the result is devastating. Carter brings not only the leading-man good looks that are just right for the Business Man, but a Neil Patrick Harris charm and serious acting chops. Speer (a recent graduate of the prestigious Cincinnati Conservatory) gives the Musician a goofy charm that proves irresistible. and reveals a terrific singing voice along with some talented guitar playing. (Tyler Tanner provides the offstage voice of the trapped septet’s only link to the outside world.)

Leoni’s script has been superbly fine-tuned over the past months. Elevator is even better for running a bit longer, making for an even richer theatrical experience. A number of between-scene sequences have been added to dazzling effect, one of them fast-forwarding the action as if an FF button had suddenly been pushed, another allowing the characters’ inner fears and rage to explode in a fantasy brawl.

The Macha stage being several times larger than the initial Hudson Guild’s, a brand new scenic designer (David Goldstein) has created a splendid new set, one which emphasizes the elevator’s cage-like nature and seems at times to move and sway and even plummet, almost like a theme park thrill ride. Goldstein has created an all-new lighting design as well, one which ups the excitement and clearly differentiates between reality and fantasy sequences. The sound design by Mario Marchetti continues to be a winner, allowing us to hear the character’s inner voices and backing scenes with Marchetti’s pulsating music soundtrack, thereby adding to the suspence. John Toom is technical director, Mark Maension sound engineer, Michael Abramson production manager, and David Michael Greens stage manager. Elevator is produced by Michelle Kaufer and Leoni and co-produced by MACHA Theatre/Films, Odalys Nanin.

Though currently scheduled to end its SRO run in January, Elevator’s phoenix-like life over the past six months suggests that this may well not be the last we’ll be seeing of Leoni’s riveting, emotionally moving, and highly satisfying thrill ride.

MACHA Theatre, 1107 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood
–Steven Stanley
December 11, 2010

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