Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

“West Side Story” Shows Polish at Candlelight Pavilion

The cast of "West Side Story" leap with hope, honoring the original choreography in Claremont  [photos: Demetrios Katsantonis]

The cast of “West Side Story” leap with hope, honoring the original choreography in Claremont [photos: Demetrios Katsantonis]

Of all the composers who have approached the Broadway musical, a very, very few compete on the same level as Leonard Bernstein, even just musically. In many ways his best, “West Side Story,” with its modernized Romeo and Juliet, lyrics by a then-young Stephen Sondheim, direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins, ushered in a new form of the entire genre. Beautiful but raw, its tale of prejudice, abusive law enforcement, angry youth and cultural disconnects resonates across the years like few other pieces have.

A good “West Side Story” can capture all that raw energy in ways which entertain, touch and impassion. To be good, it must have solid dancers, singers able to handle the complex rhythms and soaring notes of the Bernstein score, and youth. This, with a few notable exceptions, is a young person’s story. Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, virtually all of the necessary elements are there. The result is a most satisfying evening of beautiful music, touching story and amazing energy.

The tale is literally classic. Two rival gangs vie for control of a beaten down New York City neighborhood. One group, composed of down-and-out whites, many the children of European immigrants, calls itself the Jets. The other, the Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks, is seen as having moved in on Jet territory, while for the Sharks this is simply the neighborhood into which they have landed. Contact – often violent – is common, and except for neutral zones like the school gym where dances take place, the two groups carefully maintain a separation. That is until Jet founder Tony meets Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks. As battle lines form, their love becomes more hidden, more real, and more potentially tragic.

If looking for a reason why the Candlelight Pavilion production works so well, one need look no further than Ayme Olivo’s absolutely charming Maria. Gifted with a lovely, well-trained voice, she epitomizes the innocence and romance of her character, growing with her as the plot deepens. As her brother, Bernardo, Juan Caballer vibrates with pride and intensity, Michael Gonzalez makes a manlier-than-sometimes Chino, while Celeste Lanuza’s Anita carries herself with an air of very feminine command, dances with expertise, and makes “America” the highlight it can be. Maria Tony Dance

Although Jarred Barnard is so pacific as Tony that it seems unlikely he’d have ever been in a gang, Chaz Feuerstine makes Jet leader Riff a true believer. Joined by the rest of the Jets, most especially Josh Switzer’s barely contained Action and Lacey Beegun’s convincingly tough tomboy Anybodys, they prove a formidable counterbalance to the tense Sharks. Also a standout is Jamie Snyder as the drugstore owner, Doc, for whom Tony works – a man torn by the violence around him and the loss of young potential.

Director Hector Guerrero makes the piece work, keeping the pace quick with the help of Mitch Gill’s amazing puzzle-box set design. Guerrero has, in large part, recreated the original Jerome Robbins choreography as well, only in small – something elemental to the personality of the show. Douglas Austin’s work as musical director deserves special kudos, as his cast sings the excruciatingly difficult pre-rumble quintet, without a visible conductor, as if it was a piece of cake. Indeed, one is left without much to criticize music-wise except for the inexplicable cutting of the overture, which along with Bernstein’s overture to “Candide”, stands among the most outstanding pieces of orchestral Broadway music ever written. It also serves to lay the ground for the intensity to follow.

Still, this colorful and tuneful musical makes for a delightful if touching evening. If you’ve never seen a live performance of this work, you’re in for a treat. If it’s an old friend to you, as it is to me (as it was the first show I ever worked on, way back in high school), go and reacquaint yourself with an old friend. If it has nothing new to teach, it still has a ring of universality which travels across time.

What: “West Side Story” When: Through November 22, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and for lunch matinees at 11 a.m. Saturays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58 – $73 adult, $30 – $35 child, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or

Solid “Diary of Anne Frank” Graces Whittier Community Theatre


The Whittier Community Theatre, now in the midst of its 94th consecutive season, has admittedly had its ups and downs, but when they do something right, they really do it right. Take as prime example their current production of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” This deeply touching and absolutely true story of Jewish families hiding from the Nazis in a Dutch attic, as described to her diary by the teenaged Anne, cannot help but be affecting. Now, between casting, pacing and even the set design, WTC has brought the tale to life with an appropriate, clean vividness. As we, this year, mark the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Hitler, the show proves both instructional and endearing.

The tale is part of the modern psyche. After the liberation of western Europe Anne’s father returned to the attic where he, his family and several others had hidden for three years. Among the things left behind was the diary he had given his younger daughter, Anne, as they entered that attic. An aspiring writer, she dedicated long hours to describing their time there, philosophizing about the human race, and dreaming of a time beyond their self-imposed captivity.

Director Lenore Stjerne has gathered a cast of performers who not only embody the characters in that attic with skill, but look the parts as well. Richard De Vicariis, in perhaps his best role, plays Anne’s father Otto, the group’s central organizer and a man intent on keeping his humanity in the midst of claustrophobic human strife. Patty Rangel is Anne’s mother Edith, domestic and practical and desperately trying to maintain a sense of community.

James J. Cox is the somewhat questionable, bitter friend Otto feels he must pay back by bringing to the attic, while Joan Meissenburg makes interesting work of his materialistic, desperate wife. Tim Heaton gives the hermit-like last-minute addition to the group a petulant angst which helps define the tensions of this captive group. Casey Morlet makes a sympathetic Miep, the young woman who continued to supply the group with basic necessities throughout their isolation. John Francis makes Otto’s employee, and Miep’s partner in secrecy, a fragile but dedicated man.

Fitted in with this are the three young people, who define the specific conflicts of energy, desperation and hope. Wesley Mathews makes the shy, introverted Peter into a careful but deep thinker. Brenna Hanlen gives Anne’s older sister Margot a calm fatalism which provides interesting counter-balance to Anne’s optimism. And, as Anne – narrator of her own story and rich optimist about human nature – Gracie Lacey leads the cast in every possible way.

Thanks to Suzanne Frederickson’s set design, which utilizes the large Whittier stage while still giving a sense of the limited attic space, Stjerne can keep the flow going in such a way that one remains enraptured with the story. This is good, because the play is a long one – the first act an hour and a half – but the general quality means you don’t notice the passage of time. The costumes, created and coordinated by Karen Jacobson, accurately reflect time and place. Indeed, this whole production shows an extraordinary attention to detail, and a respect for the content which makes it a success.

In short, this “The Diary of Anne Frank” is most certainly worth seeing. I would also recommend it for young people who may not have been exposed to the book. Personally, my grandmother gave me a copy when I turned 10, with an introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt. This is powerful stuff, and as we reach a stage of history where almost all those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust have passed away, it behooves us to take the time to remind ourselves what they went through. Perhaps such remembrances can mean that one day we will reach a world where genocide itself is a thing of the past. Anne Frank seemed to think we might.

What: “The Diary of Anne Frank” When: Through November 21, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 15 Where: Whittier Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Blvd. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $12 students/seniors Info: (562) 696-0600 or

“Breaking Through” – Strong Production, Cliche Story at Pasadena Playhouse

Nita Whitaker, Alison Luff, Teya Patt in BREAKING THROUGH. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

Nita Whitaker, Alison Luff, Teya Patt in BREAKING THROUGH. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

One of the trickiest things to write about, for either stage or screen, is the interior of the entertainment business. In part due to the overall public fascination with fame and its potentially fleeting nature, everyone thinks they already know everything they need to. And what most people know is the soap-opera aspects emphasized by the tabloid-style press and by episodic television. This may indeed be what the interior of the entertainment business really is, but to explore it risks being either obvious or repetitive of all other attempts to look at the same thing.

Take as example the new musical just opened at the Pasadena Playhouse. “Breaking Through” with a book by Kirsten Guenther and the songs of Cliff Downs and Katie Kahanovitz, tries to explore the world of the popular music industry in this risky and treacherous age. Based on Kahanovitz’s actual experiences, it boasts a strong musical core, and reasonably interesting characters but cannot escape the stereotypical melodrama of the oft-told tale.

The story follows Charlie Jane, the daughter of a once-popular musical star who fell and vanished over a decade before. She writes wistfully interesting songs and comes to her mother’s old record company to try her hand at stardom. What happens, of course, is that the machine which is the modern music industry offers the Faustian choice between personal artistic integrity and fame. The choices Charlie Jean makes, and the examples around her of the outcomes of others choices, create the drama.

As the central character, Alison Luff manages the combination of innocence and drive which makes Charlie Jane feel genuine. She sings in more than one style with an authenticity legitimizing her rise, even as she morphs into a standardized pop star look. As her roommate and pal, who tries to keep her realistic, Teya Patt has show-stealing moments and provides a reality check not only for Charlie Jane but for the audience. Matt Magnusson, as the established star who becomes Charlie’s segue into the recording company system, finds a credible balance between genuine talent, captivation with his own image, and a deep fear of irrelevance.

Perhaps the two most captivating character studies, however, come in supporting roles. As the industry executive who ends up piloting much of Charlie’s career, debating her own choices in the process, Nita Whitaker climbs beyond the usual stereotype with strongly evoked character and a powerful song of internal monologue, “For the Best,” which stops the show. Playing a star eaten up by the system, Kacee Clanton does more than provide a warning, creating a particular pathos which also climbs beyond her stereotypical lines.

An ensemble of talent and precision backs up the story, and aided by Tyce Diorio’s choreography and John Iacovelli’s mobile set, creates the atmosphere in which Charlie Jane’s story unfolds. Director Sheldon Epps has avoided the pitfalls of such an episodic tale by using this ensemble and this amazingly facile collection of set pieces – aided impressively by the projections of Kaitlyn Pietras – to create a constant flow from space to space and time to time, in and out of concert sessions into intimate spaces without one extra breath. Indeed, if this show could become superior based on pacing and professionalism, the job would be done, and done well.

The original songs represent all the styles in discussion, providing not only mood but a comparison between the glitz of packaged popular music and the more intimate songs expressive of individualism. This appears the show’s creators are most interested in pushing forward: the villainy of the “music machine” which homogenizes the musical talents it absorbs. In this it succeeds, though by itself it cannot overcome the melodramatic nature of the general storyline. If the top studio executive, played by Robert W. Arbogast, (the show’s major villain) could twirl a mustache, he would. The sweetness of the heroine and the villainy of the system are so intense it becomes simplistic.

Which is all to say that “Breaking Through” proves visually and musically interesting. It is profoundly well produced. Unfortunately, it has little to say which is actually new, or particularly subtle. And this may be its breaking point. Musicals today are expected to fall into one of two categories: the “just for fun” shows reminiscent of the extravaganzas of the 30s, and musicals with something specific, and fairly profound, to say. This show falls in that gray area somewhere in between.

What: “Breaking Through” When: Through November 22, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $87 with premium seating at $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or

Two Decades Later, “Rent” Still Grabs You

"Rent" at La Mirada Theater [photo: Jason Niedle]

“Rent” at La Mirada Theater [photo: Jason Niedle]

Nearly 20 years ago, Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” a raw, updated version of the tale of “La Boheme,” burst onto the scene in New York and came to define the entire ethos of the youthful artistic fringe of the age: battling regulation, battling personal demons, fighting for truth, expression and existence in the age of AIDS. The big question, when McCoy Rigby Entertainment in La Mirada chose to revive the piece was its relevance, almost two decades later. The answer is an almost surprise yes.

The story is that of the inhabitants of a former music publishing house, turned squatter’s heaven, in the East Village of New York City. They snake in electricity and scrounge for food, refuse to pay rent to a former fellow bohemian now married rich and become their landlord. They fight to preserve the homeless encampment next door. But most of all, they fight to find and celebrate their unique visions and to live into the moment. Indeed, as these young people celebrate life many also share a virus which, in their time and their income bracket, had a high likelihood of limiting their time on earth. Hence their mantra: “no day but today”.

The music has become iconic in its own right. From the joyous “La Vie Boheme” to the rich “Seasons of Love,” the intense and angry “Take Me or Leave Me” and the achingly sad “Without You”. Indeed, without singers who can handle this intense and often blockbuster score, the show cannot shine. Fortunately the entire cast – ensemble included – is well up to the task.

Standouts include Mark Whitten as the independent filmmaker, Mark, whose project to document a year in the life of his close-knit neighborhood becomes the foundation for the entire story. He makes Mark a mixture of joy and fatalism – just a bit goofy, with an elemental love for the people and the purpose of his part of the city. Devin Archer makes Mark’s damaged former rock star roommate Roger fragile and damaged, but with a particular kind of resolute purpose. As Mimi, the heroine-addicted exotic dancer Roger falls for, Cassie Simone makes much of the pathos, the manipulativeness and the openness of a young girl trying to find her space in the world.

Also impressive are John Devereaux as Tom, the professor loving the free life of the Village, and Amber Mercomes as Joanne, the young lawyer trying to balance her powerful family and the love which has swept her into bohemia. Yet the two finest performances come from its two most colorful characters. Emily Goglia gives the activist performance artist Maureen the drive and the edginess to make the show’s send-up of performance art both very funny and very serious at the same time. As the deceptively strong drag queen Angel, Lawrence Cummings delivers a personality capable of such tenderness and understanding that one experiences his loss with a touch of the visceral, echoing the characters on stage.

Director Richard Israel keeps the show vital and intense, and gives each person – even those in the background – a sense of character and place. Though not usually one to compare a new production to the first one, I admit to missing one staging moment from that original version, which used the wistful “Without You” to examine the three central relationships – all in crisis – at the same time, next to each other on stage. Here the singers Roger and Mimi bring focus center stage, while the struggle of love and disease between Angel and Tom has been relegated to separateness and distance from the center, and Maureen and Joanne are not even present. This may be, to some extent, a result of Stephen Gifford’s many-leveled set design, but I still miss that sense of unity in disparity.

Choreographer Dana Solimando has the ability to create organized and visually satisfying chaos, and here that works just as it should. Musical Director John Glaudini has the songs crisp and vital, with some vocal licks from a couple of the ensemble members providing exclamation points in some of the best-known moments.

In short, “Rent” has made it to our time with a lot of the shine still on. When you consider that its statement about art and living for the moment goes right back to an opera premiered in the late 1800s, still valid when “Rent” came along about 100 years later, why would another 20 years make that much difference? The story is not about the disease which chases them. It’s not about the squalor in which they live, or the life choices they have made. It is, rather, about the sense of love and community which makes this all work. And finding community, as well as fighting for art, are themes which transcend time.

What: “Rent” When: Through November 15, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or

“All My Sons” at ANW: Timeless and Powerful

A moment of gentle humor in a suitably tense "All My Sons", Arthur Miller's great morality play, at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

A moment of gentle humor in a suitably tense “All My Sons”, Arthur Miller’s great morality play, at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

When a play becomes a classic, the underlying message is timelessness. Somehow, the work has created characters which transcend their own age, and delivers a message with an innate universality. Most certainly this is true of the best works of Arthur Miller, often termed America’s premiere playwright. As if one needed proof, the solid rendition of his breakthrough work “All My Sons” at A Noise Within in Pasadena offers up that particular balance of the timely and the timeless, with a moral struggle as true today as it was in the years after World War II.

The story wrestles with profiteering during that war, but it provides a window on modern wrestles between the corporation and the idealist, and between morality and mammon. As many know, it centers on a small, midwestern town and the two families at the center of its greatest controversy. During the war, the company owned by Joe Keller and his partner and neighbor Steve Deever made cylinder heads for aircraft. One day some came out cracked, but this was disguised and the cylinder heads were delivered anyway, leading to the deaths of 21 pilots. Both men went to jail for the coverup, but Keller has since been released on appeal. Deever is still in prison.

Now, in the post-war era, Keller’s younger son Chris, a former army officer who lived through heated battles, helps run the business. He wants to become engaged to Deever’s daughter, Ann, though his mother Kate insists that this is impossible. Ann was Chris’ elder brother’s girl before the war, and though he and his plane went missing, Kate insists he’s going to return. Between Kate’s fervent belief, Chris’ intense belief that the only way his war experience can mean anything is if the world is better for what he and his men went through, and the hovering suspicions of Joe’s complicity in those pilot’s deaths, tension hovers ever near. Then news arrives which brings the tensions between truth and hope, between practical capitalism and idealism into sharp and painful focus.

Director Geoff Elliott has made a few interesting choices in this production. Though the costumes (Leah Piehl) and setting place this very firmly in the 1947 in which it was first performed, the casting – far more diverse than a midwestern neighborhood of that era would have seen – seeks for universality. Also, the director has cast himself as Joe Keller, the focal point of much of the play’s drama. This is a bit disappointing, as an independent eye would have challenged him – as has been true in some other fairly recent ANW productions – to do his most creative interior work. Here he sometimes reverts to what one can recognize as a more formulaic approach for his own part.

The same is not true for the rest of the cast, however, all of whom prove strong and compelling. Rafael Goldstein steps into Chris’ passion and belief system as if it was made for him. The events which begin to rock Chris’ understandings seem to hit on a visceral level, making the character rounded and deeply believable. Maegan McConnell gives Ann the balance of trust and nerve and direction, and the chemistry between her and Goldstein center the conundrums of this young couple’s desire to move forward. Most profoundly, Deborah Strang’s aching, obsessive Kate has a naturalness about her maternalism which anchors the entire proceeding.

Also worthy of considerable note are Aaron Blakely, briefly but intensely present as Ann’s furious brother almost wooed back into the neighborhood fold, E.K. Dagenfield and Natalie Reiko as a young couple unusually untouched by the chaos of war which surrounded most of their contemporaries, and Vega Pierce-English as the neighbor boy urged to virtuousness by the the comparatively questionable Joe. Perhaps most captivating is the underscore to the entire debate over money’s role in both happiness and morality exemplified by Jeremy Rabb’s country doctor dreaming of a life in research and June Carryl as his wife, insistent he live out his promise of financial security instead.

There is a reason students still study “All My Sons,” as its ethical dilemma seems as fresh today as ever. Joe’s insistence that money and leaving something for his son to inherit trumps anything else, contrasted to his son’s insistence on seeing the world beyond the factory door – that age-old battle between the market and humanity – could be reset in any time frame from the Civil War to this year’s presidential campaign. The art of Miller is to bring it down to the extremely personal, to people you believe you know. That, and the solidly interesting performances from most of the cast, make this definitely worth watching.

“All My Sons” is part of ANW’s three-play fall repertory season, alternating with “A Flea in Her Ear” and “Antigone”.

What: “All My Sons” When: Through November 21, 7 p.m. October 25 and November 15, 7:30 p.m. November 5, 8 p.m. October 30, November 6 and 21, 2 p.m. matinee October 25 and 30, November 15 and 21 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: from $44, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or

“Seven Spots on the Sun”: Ethics and Mysticism Fascinate at Boston Court

Ethical struggles, such as whether to help wounded combatants others want to watch die, mark

Ethical struggles, such as whether to help wounded combatants others want to watch die, mark “Seven Spots on the Sun” at The Theatre at Boston Court.

In the traditions of much of the developing world, the mystical and the actual live in a particular balance with each other as the authors of truth. With this concept as backing, Martin Zimmerman’s play “Seven Spots on the Sun” examines how a people copes with the particular atrocities of modern civil war, balancing harsh reality and that underlying, deepening spiritual element.

Now at The Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena, “Seven Spots” proves riveting and wrenching as it explores the motives and consequences of the terrifying conflicts, which have afflicted, in this case, an unnamed Latin American country. Here, as in the real El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru or Colombia, villages change hands multiple times, with each side punishing those who aided the other one, and brutal tests of fear which harm mostly those whose compassion drives them.

The play begins on the day the post-war government declares an amnesty for all those who committed atrocities during the war, and how a small village – especially its healer and its priest – react. This plays against the flashback story of the young miner from a nearby town who, wanting the best for the wife he loves deeply, leaves the mine to enter the army just before the civil war begins. Gradually we become aware of how this young soldier’s life is twisted, and how that twist connects to the emotional upheaval in a village where amnesty means no satisfaction for great loss.

As the determined healer, Jonathan Nichols offers up a man with little time for mystery as he maintains what sanity of life he can in a village often overrun. When it a miracle does descend upon him, its connection to great pain is evident in every move. As his wife and co-worker, Murielle Zuker offers up a confident idealist unready to be dashed on the rocks of brutality. Angelo McCabe completes the trio as the local priest whose fear finally gets the better of him, proving him only a man.

Christopher Rivas radiates a kind of organic manliness as the miner turned soldier, and the decay in that confident joyfulness says much about the nature of war and the meaning of the play. As his happy, then concerned, then frightened wife, Natalie Camunas offers up the terror and frustration of a woman caught in the middle – needing something from those who were victimized by the good man she married who has devolved into a terrorizer.

Director Michael John Garces keeps the story moving, and works the mystical and symbolic elements of this tale into the otherwise straightforward story with such precision that even the most outrageous elements of magic feel logical in the moment. The terror is realized in such a way as to create gut-level reactions from the audience while still leaving much to an imagination already seeded with awful possibilities.

“Seven Spots on the Sun,” a reference to that cosmic condition which disrupts radio waves the way the war disrupts and blurs human lives, is performed without an intermission. It’s easy to understand why, as the intensity created in the first few minutes must continue to build to make the show’s overarching points about humanity and the limits to both forgiveness and empathy. Come ready to read between the lines and follow the symbols, and enjoy an intellectual feast even as you will squirm in your chair at how recognizable it all is.

What: “Seven Spots on the Sun” When: Through November 1, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34, with senior, student and group discounts available Info: (626) 683-6883 or

“The Sound of Music” at the Ahmanson Shines Like New

Kerstin Anderson plays Maria, here surrounded by the Von Trapp children, in the brand new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’'s “The Sound of Music,” starting its national tour at the Ahmanson. [Photo: Matthew Murphy]

Kerstin Anderson plays Maria, here surrounded by the Von Trapp children, in the brand new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’’s “The Sound of Music,” starting its national tour at the Ahmanson. [Photo: Matthew Murphy]

Like most people of my generation, “The Sound of Music” has been a constant since childhood. I was taken to see the film during its first Hollywood run, complete with the Bill Baird puppets in the theater’s show window. Though generally not one to like a film of a Broadway show over the original, I admit to having been underwhelmed by the between 18 and 20 renditions of the original, stage version of the show I have seen since I hit adulthood. In my experience, that Broadway musical (including the “live” television production a couple of years ago) tends to lack the energy, romance and pathos which charged the later film.

Then came the new production just born at the Ahmanson, prior to an extensive national tour. The clearest metaphor I can come up with is that moment when an art curator cleans centuries of dirt and varnish off of a finely crafted painting: suddenly the thing looks bright and new. So does this venerable piece. And what a delight this metamorphosis is to watch.

The tale was adapted from the autobiography of Maria Von Trapp. As we all know, a young postulant named Maria is assigned from her abbey to become governess to the children of a distinguished and wealthy World War I naval officer. The Captain, his seven children, the wealthy and manipulative baroness interested in the Captain, the apolitical concert promoter, even the warmhearted housekeeper and nascent Nazis are all in place. The Rodgers and Hammerstein songs have become almost cliche they are so universally known, and the story’s underscore of love’s battle with self-focus and rising evil becomes remarkably fresh in this new rendition.

Of the many things this production does right, the absolute key is casting. Rather than going for big names who either don’t connect with each other or can’t get under the characters’ skins, this one goes for people who become organic to the story and create the elemental interconnection which makes the piece work so well.

Young Kerstin Anderson is Maria: radiating a genuine and unabashed innocence and enthusiasm which proves absolutely infectious. Ben Davis changes Captain Von Trapp from the usual frosty man in need of a dose of humanity into a deeply human but deeply hurt widower who has retreated into a world he can control. Thus, the life which bounds from him when he opens up makes the show shimmer.

Also importantly, the overtly privileged Baroness Schraeder and the charming but untrustworthy Max Detweiler, in the hands of Teri Hansen and Merwin Foard, bring back into focus the smarmy bits of the story: two people willing to adjust to invasion and domination as long as their own personal worlds remain afloat. Ashley Brown brings down the house as the Reverend Mother – finding humor and pathos in her unwieldy charge, and the need to referee among her larger flock. Darren Mathias and Donna Garner create rounded characters from the Captain’s servants, and Carey Rebecca Brown – as both the annoyed Sister Berthe and a surprised party guest – creates memorable moments in characters onstage for only short moments.

As for the children, they manage a genuine quality while singing and dancing like old pros. Most especially, Paige Silvester’s Liesl proves a breath of fresh air, as she makes the girl really look and act like a 16-year-old, rather than someone pretending to be that young. By contrast – and it is the only questionable casting in the piece – Dan Tracy’s Rolf may sing that he is 17, but he looks about 25, which gives a bit of a creepy undertone to his sequences with the young Liesl.

Still, to stop at casting would be to miss the totality which lies at the feet of director Jack O’Brien. It is he who has created the sense of ensemble and the flow of the piece. Indeed, his use of Douglas W. Schmidt’s fascinatingly mobile, modular set keeps the story moving in such a fluid way one is surprised time has flown so quickly. Costume designer Jane Greenwood seats her artistry clearly in both the period and the Austrian countryside, right down to the lederhosen (though Rolf’s don’t seem to fit quite right). Danny Mefford’s choreography manages the feel of the traditional without once becoming a copy of what one is used to.

In short, this “The Sound of Music” has tensions and realities left out of the filmed version. The Nazis are genuinely scary, and genuinely seductive to some of the characters. The threat to the Von Trapps, and even the tensions between the German military and the Gestapo lie just under the surface as the tale plays out. The songs have more of a point, and the innocent warmheartedness of Maria becomes both a healer and its own kind of threat to those who care only for themselves. And the singing is absolutely gorgeous.

So, go see “The Sound of Music,” as it will be unlike any other you have encountered, even for those of us who think we’ve seen it all. And then there are those for whom it is new. One of the evening’s most charming moments came as Maria is about to leave the Von Trapp family, and a patron in the row behind me, who had obviously never seen the thing before, began chanting under her breath, “Oh, don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.” Admittedly, this is a classic American musical of the kind they don’t make anymore. But Oscar Hammerstein was in his own way the first to put social commentary into what had been up until then mostly musical entertainment. To see that highlighted again – for the first time in a long time – is a joy indeed.

What: “The Sound of Music” When: Through October 31, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays with a 2 p.m. performance Thursday, October 29 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $150 Info: (213) 972-4400 or

Pared Down, Powered Up: “Antigone” at ANW

Stephen Weingartner (Guard) and Emily James (Antigone). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Stephen Weingartner (Guard) and Emily James (Antigone). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

In an art form where longevity can be used by some to indicate intrinsic value, at least in the form of universality, none achieve this at a higher level than the plays of the Ancient Greeks. Certainly,Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy has played upon the imagination of human societies far beyond the original parameters of the people for whom it was written. Usually, one discusses the angst, tragic flaws and fate of “Oedipus the King,” but in modern times – as in the time when Jean Anouilh first translated and adapted it – the greatest focus should be the ethical and moral dilemmas at the heart of the second play, “Antigone.”

Now in a new translation and further adaptation of the Anouilh version by director Robertson Dean, A Noise Within’s “Antigone” proves an admittedly truncated, elemental edition. Narrowed down to its essentials, the grand Greek speeches reworked to resonate with a modern audience, the power of the essential struggles of its protagonists leaps out in a way which makes ancient struggles modern.

The tale remains essentially the same, though – like Anouilh’s version – it is placed in an era reminiscent of the late 1930s (Anouilh was actually writing his version as the Germans entered Paris). Oedipus is gone, his sons have fought to the death over who should run Thebes. Oedipus’ brother-in-law Creon backed one of the brothers, Eteocles, over the rebellious Polynices, and as a result has taken over as king after both brothers die in battle. To declare the rebellion dead, he has decreed that nobody shall bury Polynices’ body so that it may rot in public as a warning to all further rebels. Should anyone bury the body, that person shall be condemned to death.

Which leaves their sister, Antigone, with an agonizing ethical choice. If she buries the body of her brother, she shall die. If she she leaves it there to disintegrate she shall have allowed something immoral to happen that she could have stopped. Which is more important, her life or her conscience. For Antigone this is no choice at all, but to those around her more versed in political expediency, the choices she wants to make are either idiotic or tragically pointless. Yet, she knows what she believes is the right thing to do.

This production jumps to vivid life due largely to Emily James’ impressively, passionately intense Antigone. Small, and physically fragile, James’ heroine is vibrantly resolute – absolutely positive she is taking the only action possible, and yet equally sure it is an action which should harm no other. Riveting from start to end, she is impossible not to watch.

Eric Curtis Johnson makes Creon the consummate politician, even in exhaustion seeing life as a negotiation and honor as relative, at least until it hits too close to home. Brick Patrick moves Creon’s son, Antigone’s fiancé, from a casual nobility to a resolute passion as his world increasingly wraps around the fate of his intended. Inger Tudor makes the chorus – a character Dean has given a much larger roll, in that she speaks the words of several characters other than her own – the voice of reason as she sets and expands the tale beyond the intimate palace space.

Smaller parts are also impressively done. Lorna Raver fusses well as the shaken nurse. As Antigone’s more elegant sister Ismene, Kyla Garcia becomes a balance to the title character’s determined single-mindedness, as she ranges from fear to compromise with little effect on the outcome. Stephen Weingartner plays the parts once handed to three separate guards – the realist of the piece – whose focus is not on the reason for war or the ethics of Antigone’s actions, but on how it will affect his future in his chosen occupation.

All of this plays against Frederica Nascimento’s junk pile of a set, complete with a radio whose blasts of Edith Piaf set the scene as much as the column bases and collapsed chandeliers. Jenny Foldenauer’s costuming captures a time period without being too specific, and Martin Carrillo’s sound design keeps the audience circled with the continuing danger outside the door.

This “Antigone” has been pared down enough to be performed without an intermission, and that works too as the tension builds toward the known but still agonizing end. As director, Dean keeps the thing moving, literally, which is terribly important in a play which is mostly about fine, direct, but potentially static talk. As a result, one seems to barely breathe from start to finish – a most satisfying way to see a great and ancient work made new.

“Antigone” plays in repertory with “A Flea in Her Ear” and the upcoming “All My Sons.”

What: “Antigone” When: Through November 20, 7 p.m. October 4, and November 8, 7:30 p.m. October 29 and November 19, 8 p.m. October 24, November 14 and 20, 2:00 p.m. October 4, 24, November 8 and 14 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $44 and up, with student rush with ID an hour before performance Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or

A Pleasant “First Date” takes on La Mirada

The cast of "First Date - A Musical Comedy" in La Mirada [photo: Jason Niedle]

The cast of “First Date – A Musical Comedy” in La Mirada [photo: Jason Niedle]

There are many different reasons a theatrical musical can work. It can be a window on a piece of history, a great work of literature, or an important social issue. It can swell the heart with timeless romance, or charm with silliness and tap dancing. Then again, maybe it’s evocative of those awkward, or funny, or engaging moments most of us can resonate with, and so it’s a lovely, light-hearted way to spend an evening.

This would be what Alan Zachary, Michael Weiner, and Austin Winsberg’s “First Date” has to offer. As it takes a “millennial” couple through their blind date, it evokes all the nerves, uncertainties, self-deprecations, and random thoughts such a stressful event can create. Now a part of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment series at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, the fresh little musical gets a boisterously attractive treatment. This is not a musical you will leave with your mind resting on its epic intensity, but the very humanity of two people working their way through a familiar situation will let you leave with a smile.

Essentially, this is the story of the first date between Aaron and Casey. As they meet at a trendy restaurant, their external exchanges are matched by the internal dialogue played out, thanks to an amazingly versatile cast, by all the other voices they carry in their heads. The internal and external comedy leads to considerable laughter, occasional pathos, and a nonstop velocity. Due to this last, it makes perfect sense the show would be performed without intermission. This is a flow one would hate to break.

Marc Ginsburg is Aaron, a man coming back to the dating world after being left at the altar by his ex-fiance. As he unwinds this, the lure of his original attachment to the lover who jilted him plays like a background hum, as does the lasciviousness of his “player” best friend. Ginsurg manages the fine balance between vulnerability and simple fear of the unknown and the determination to move on with a fine hand. As the comparatively unconventional Casey, Erica Lustig walks between the character’s judgmental, sometimes angry self-protection and her genuine curiosity, as her sister’s resented voice of convention and her gay friend’s earnest voice of rescue echo in her head.

Justin Michael Wilcox, Leigh Wakeford, Scott Dreier, Stacey Oristano and Kelley Dorney morph from bar patrons into these many voices with a seamlessness which speaks to the near-choreographic use of the stage by director Nick Degruccio. Aided by the momentum of Lee Martino’s fast-paced actual choreography, the show is filled with movement which keeps what is essentially an extensive conversation from becoming static and lifeless. It is a clever use of all of what live theater has to offer in the way of storytelling immediacy.

And the individual characters created by the “voices” are worth special recognition, as they play everything from old sweethearts to pushy family to even the various advantages of differing social media in discovering the most embarrassing
moments in a new date’s previous life. The songs are fun, and push the story into interestingly introspective places, then out again into the sheer silliness of trying to assess a possible partner over dinner.

One caveat: understand this is about dating in the current day. References (at the very least in their heads) to the sexual nature of relationship are definitely there, and the language can get rather scatological. However, this proves organic to the characters and situation, and adds rather than detracts from the humor of the piece.

“First Date” is not – as written – great art, but it is most certainly a lot of fun. And as presented in La Mirada, has a charm and energy which makes it seem much shorter than it is, and leaves you wanting to follow the characters into the next phase of whatever comes after.

What: “First Date” When: through October 11, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or

The Bard Goes Mod in “These Paper Bullets” (and it’s terrific)

The Quartos - a twist on the Fab Four - take center stage in

The Quartos – a twist on the Fab Four – take center stage in “These Paper Bullets” [photo: Michael Lamont]

Once upon a time it was considered necessary to place the works of William Shakespeare in a kind of historical isolation. The insistence on Elizabethan clothes, language, and setting led increasingly to an emotional and cultural distance which mothballed the relevance of the works. This barrier was broken in the 20th Century as the plays began to be staged in various contemporary frameworks, from Orson Welles’ placing of “Julius Caesar” in Mussolini’s Italy to, among others, the many wildly creative ventures of the Royal Shakespeare Company from the 1960s on. Now, “These Paper Bullets” at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood takes the Bard one more lively step toward the contemporary.

Subtitled “A Modish Ripoff of William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing'”. this new musical has a script by Rolin Jones heavily based on the original play’s lines and characters, reset in the London of 1964. What were once members of a victorious army have become, essentially, The Beatles (renamed The Quartos). The villain is no longer the victorious duke’s dark brother, defeated in battle, but an only slightly disguised Pete Best – the drummer the Beatles let go before they reached fame. And the music – deeply evocative of the Beatle’s own style (including a few opening riffs ripped directly from their hits) – is by talented Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong.

The result actually may approach some sense of what Elizabethan audiences saw when they went to one of Shakespeare’s comedies: great silliness within a cultural framework they would easily recognize. Most certainly “These Paper Bullets” proves very funny, appropriately over the top, and absolutely charming.

As in the original, there are two intertwined storylines which frame the piece. The first follows Claude, one of the band members, and his sudden yet abiding passion for Higgy – hip fashion model and daughter of the wealthy owner of the posh hotel in which the band is staying. The second follows Ben, somewhat older than his bandmate Claude, and deeply disdainful of the concept of love, especially as it relates to his former girlfriend, top end fashion designer Bea. Surrounding these two threads is a send-up of government investigations led by the pedantic Mr. Berry and his inept group of undercover agents.

Justin Kirk makes Ben a solid combination of grounded but goofy rocker and closet romantic. Nicole Parker creates, in Bea, a determinedly unromantic businesswoman gradually giving way to greater stereotype. Damon Daunno’s Claude makes being head over heels with a girl you’ve just met seem absolutely logical, while Ariana Venturi makes Higgy a truly hot mess – which has its own comic effect upon the piece.

Kirk and Daunno, along with bandmates James Barry and Lucas Papaelias, create the Beatle-like Quartos, playing their own instruments and singing with the gusto and even with head gestures reminiscent of the Fab Four. Greg Stuhr gives the pompous government official appropriate snotty idiocy, while his minions – Mr. Urges and Mr. Cake (Brad Heberlee and Tony Manna) provide extra comic relief.

It is director Jackson Gay who has turned this into such a silly, fast-paced, unified whole. From the development of a modular set (realized delightfully by designer Michael Yeargan) to Jessica Ford’s fashion-plate costumes and Paul Whitaker’s era-evoking lighting (the swirls of those ubiquitous daisies, as created by Nicholas Hussong, for example) the thing looks and feels right. The high (literally) living of the era – truly the foundation of the sex, drugs and rock and roll movement – gives everything a slightly surreal edge, while Gay’s use of the entire theatrical space continually connects the audience with the action onstage in ways Thornton Wilder would admire.

Simply put, this thing works. To hear, throughout, Shakespeare’s take on his characters as it bumps up against modern references works better than you’d think. And the references to other Shakespeare plays, modern issues and even the stagehands adds to the general silliness. Lighthearted, and funny, it also shows off the talent of Armstrong, who has found the tonalities and structures of Beatles tunes and melded them with some of his own signature sensibilities to create charming new songs that unify the show’s various elements and create the flow from scene to scene. This one is most definitely worth seeing, though it’s not a show for kids.

What: “These Paper Bullets” When: Ongoing – 8 p.m Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. in Westwood How Much: $43 – $82 Info: (310) 208-5454 or


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