Flamenco and friendship join forces to help a middle-aged Jewish single New Yorker recover from the death of her 91-year-old mother in Stephen Sachs’ laughter-and-tear-packed new dramedy Heart Song.

Heart-Song_3 Nearly a year has passed since Momma’s passing, and neither pills nor the kneeding hands of masseuse Tina (Tamlyn Tomita) have done much to lift 60something Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap) from the doldrums of losing her last living relative. She won’t even allow herself to relax and let Tina’s fingers work their magic, not when her cell phone rings and it’s her rabbi reminding her that she’s got only seventeen days to decide on a headstone for her mother’s one-year ceremony.

That’s when Tina gives Rochelle an ultimatum. Either she accompanies the Japanese-American masseuse to her next flamenco class or there’ll be no more massages and no more Tina in her life, a double whammy that would pretty much leave Rochelle with zilch.

Heart-Song_1 And so a reluctant Rochelle soon finds herself in class with Tina, Daloris, Alicia, Bernadette, Sarah, Elisa, and their Spanish gypsy instructor Katarina (Maria Bermudez) … and wishing she was anywhere but there.

Audiences will, on the other hand, be delighted that Rochelle has agreed to take the plunge, playwright Sachs and the remarkable Dunlap having drawn us in from the get-go, Katarina’s Act One-opening history of flamenco segueing from the grief-like gritos that punctuate flamenco to Rochelle’s cries of pain as Tina’s fingers, fists, and elbows hit yet another pressure point.

Add to that Rochelle herself, a woman whose defense-mechanism sarcasm provides as many Act One laughs as Neil Simon at his most one-liner masterful, particularly as delivered by the divine Dunlap, for whom Sachs has written the proverbial role of a lifetime.

Heart-Song_4 Though Tina and Rochelle’s flamenco classmates serve mostly as Heart Song extras, one of them, African-American Daloris (Juanita Jennings), stands out as a major player, the only one who can pierce Rochelle’s self-defensive armor. A five-year cancer survivor for whom flamenco has been as much a life-saver as a double mastectomy and chemo, Daloris’s own struggles serve to put Rochelle’s in perspective and convince her new friend to give Katarina’s flamenco class a try.

Following his smash hit Bakersfield Mist (soon to be published in Smith & Kraus’s Best Plays Of 2012 anthology), playwright Sachs has once again written a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, though Heart Song does suffer somewhat from an Act Two departure from the play’s central premise of flamenco as healer; once Katarina has opened Act Two with an explanation and demonstration of the multiple meanings and uses of the mantón (that’s Spanish for embroidered shawl), she and flamenco pretty much vanish from sight and mind till the play’s grand finale.

In their place we have Rochelle, Tina, and Daloris bonding over wine until a sudden “my people’s concentration camp was worse that your people’s concentration camp” shouting match threatens to derail the three women’s budding friendship, a beautifully written, powerfully acted sequence that has nothing to do with flamenco’s healing powers, leaving Heart Song’s heel-tapping, finger-snapping finale to feel somewhat tacked on.

Still, despite seeming at times like two distinct one-acts sharing the same three principal players, Heart Song packs an overall satisfying punch. Sachs’ female leads are richly drawn characters performed to perfection by his quartet of stars under Shirley Jo Finney’s astute direction.

Heart-Song_2 Don’t be surprised if Dunlap collects award nominations galore for her tour-de-force star turn as Rochelle, a role which allows the stage-and-screen vet to go from wise-cracks to despair to rage and then back again, and one which Dunlap gives her passionate all.

Heart-Song_5 Jennings is a wonder too as Daloris, a role she invests with dignity, warmth, and the wisdom of a sage. Tomita (looking every bit as stunning as she did as the 20something star of The Karate Kid 2 and The Joy Luck Club) is equally marvelous, particularly in Tina’s anguished recollections of her mother’s WWII internment, which Tomita herself evoked in 1990’s Come See The Paradise. As for Bermudez, the veteran dancer proves as gifted in her dramatic stage debut as she is at the art of flamenco (in addition to choreographing Heart Song’s stunning dance sequences). Andrea Dantas, Mindy Karsner, Elissa Kyriacou, and Sherry Lewandowski complete the cast deftly.

Heart-Song_6 Tom Buderwitz’s scenic design combines Spanish aches and dance studio barres to provide an effective backdrop for Heart Song’s many locales, Ken Booth lighting them all with dramatic color and flair. Dana Rebecca Woods has designed a terrific bevy of costumes, from fabulous flamenco wear to stylish casual garb to Rochelle’s dowdy duds, while prop designer Misty Carlisle provides everything from bowls and wine glasses to Rochelle’s mother’s one-year-anniversary candle. Best of all is Bruno Louchouarn’s masterful sound design, whether underscoring live flamenco vocals with ghostlike echoes or adding to the dramatic impact of scenes in ingeniously layered effects.

Heart Song is produced by Deborah Lawlor, Simon Levy, and Sachs. Corey Womack is production stage manager, Terri Roberts assistant stage manager, and Scott Tuomey technical director. Casting is by Cathy Reinking.

With the Fountain’s Forever Flamenco revue now in its ninth smash year, Heart Song provides L.A. theatergoers with its comedic-dramatic companion piece, one which, despite a certain Act One/Act Two disconnect, proves certain to entertain and touch the hearts of L.A. audiences for weeks and possibly even months to come.

The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
May 25, 2013
Photos: Ed Krieger

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