Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Celebration Reigns with “In the Heights” at Candlelight Pavilion

The cast of "In the Heights" celebrates life at Candlelight Pavilion [photo:  Demetrios Katsantonis]

The cast of “In the Heights” celebrates life at Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

When the musical “In the Heights” by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes, hit Broadway in 2008, the excitement it created came from two angles. First, it celebrated the sense of neighborhood and the stresses of change in the largely Latino barrios of New York itself. But on a larger scale, it used contemporary hip-hop and Latino musical forms to celebrate the elemental life force of similar barrio neighborhoods from the Bronx to Huntington Park, and the threats posed to their close-knit fabric by the forces of gentrification. As such it contained a universality which, when combined with the high energy music born from salsa and marenge, became identifiable across cultures and geographic location.

Now this lively, heart-filled musical has opened in a finely polished production at Claremont’s Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater. With sharp, live percussion, a talented, focused and ensemble cast, and a message everyone can connect to, the show is a sure-fire hit.

Chris Marcos as Graffiti Pete, Revel Day as Benny, Ruben Bravo as Sonny, and Ruben J. Carbajal as Usnavi [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

Chris Marcos as Graffiti Pete, Revel Day as Benny, Ruben Bravo as Sonny, and Ruben J. Carbajal as Usnavi [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

The story looks at one block in a low-rent section of New York City. There, Usnavi works the corner bodega left him by his father, and along with his young cousin Sonny provides basic services, and a community center for the rest of the neighborhood. That community includes the Rosarios, owners of a car service and proud parents of Nina, the daughter whose departure for Stanford has become a symbol of “getting out.” Nina’s return brings its own issues, particularly in relation to her interest in Benny, a Rosario employee her parents think of as beneath her.

Also part of the community are Daniella, owner of the hair salon she’s soon to close and move thanks to rent hikes, and her two employees, Carla and especially Vanessa – the girl Usnavi is trying to get up the nerve to ask out. These, a young artistic tagger known as Graffiti Pete, an ambitious seller of fruit-flavored ices known as the Piragua Guy, and a joyously various ensemble of singer-dancers round out the extended family of neighbors. At the heart of all of it is the aging Cuban woman who acts as everyone’s grandmother, Abuela Claudia.

A hot summer, a city-wide blackout, rising personal and communal tensions, and news someone from the Bodega has a winning lottery ticket all combine to create a very recognizable drama, filled with humor, pathos, and all that lively music.

Ruben J. Carbajal proves articulate and deeply committed as Usnavi, providing the glue which holds the show together. Ruben Bravo and Chris Marcos as Sonny and Graffiti Pete vibrate with the energy of youth – kids with hip-hop roots and big hearts. Anyssa Navarro brings to the torn and somewhat desperate Nina a sense of the weight which comes with carrying the dreams of an entire neighborhood on your shoulders, while Revel Day provides a subtle sense of the outsider looking in as Benny.

Dominique Paton shimmers as the troubled but ambitious Vanessa, Orlando Montes as Nina’s introvertedly angry father, and Jackie Lorenzo Cox as her disappointed, practical mother provide a balance of truly adult forces in the mostly youthful tale. Candida Celaya cements all these characters and more together with a subtle power as the fragile Abuela. Indeed, everyone in the cast is right on point, providing one of the most evenly fine ensembles Candlelight Pavilion has had in many years.

But the excellence doesn’t stop there. Director Benjamin Perez uses the small stage as if it was a full city street, and takes the audience there with him. Marissa Herrera’s energetic and organic choreography becomes a physical celebration all its own. Anna Louizos Designs’ adaptation of the original Broadway set continues this polish, as do Karen Fix Curry’s costumes and even Mary Warde’s extremely convincing wigs.

The best of this production comes from the melding of all the theatrical elements into a seamless whole. The story is captivating, the music, though not wildly hummable afterward, proves apt for the story and as organic as the dance. The tech is solid, enhancing the whole. The deep love for the genuine, rounded people being portrayed and their individual and communal struggles is evident throughout. This is a story centered on a strong sense of character – all the characters – and their sense of place.

The secondary joy of any Candlelight Pavilion performance is that it comes with dinner. Make this your night on the town. “In the Heights” will offer up surprises for those who like their musicals more standard, but the surprises will be pleasant ones.

What: “In the Heights” When: Through September 13, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and Thursday September 10, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for brunch Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 general, $30-$35 children, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

A Heroic Misfire: “Journey to the West” in Covina

It’s seems a most romantic story. Jeff Lowe, a board member of the Covina Center for the Performing Arts, heard Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor’s score for their nascent musical, “Journey to the West” when he was in college, and fell in love. He found the music spoke to him, listened to it almost obsessively, spread CDs to his friends, and it became a part of the fabric of his life. The show, which was only produced once as a part of a festival of new musicals, disappeared until Lowe – ten years after that first listen – was able to pull together the cast and crew necessary to bring it to the stage.

Now “Journey to the West” is in an extremely limited run at CCPA, in association with Alchemy Theatre Company. West, who is directing, has combined a talented cast of varied experience, added the choreographic skills of Jenny Moon Shaw, costumer Aja Bell and set designers/buildiers Jonathan Daroca, Dan Malarky, Jeremy Ojeda and Jesse Runde. The show is on its feet.

The good news is the quality of his troupe. The bad news, sadly, is that these fine people’s talents cannot counteract the fact that the show itself just isn’t very strong. Add some technical glitches, and the net result is simply not ready for prime time.

The story is is based on one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, and an elemental hero’s journey. Jiang-Lai, an arhat or minor god, is forced to return to earth as a human child unaware of his immortal past, and to grow up and complete a specific quest within a certain time frame if he wishes to return to the skies. In his quest he is aided by Kuan-Yin, the beautiful arhat who loves him, and thwarted by Hou-Lai, a jealous arhat who wants Kuan-Yin for himself. He gathers three acolytes – the monkey god Monkus, a boar-like demigod Tu-Bao, and the river dragon Tsunami. They also protect, or divert, him on his journey to find the sutras which will save mankind.

R. Adam Trent makes a charmingly innocent Jiang-Lai. Andrea Somera becomes a richly heart-felt Kuan-Yin. Both sing well and lead the cast in every way. Yet, here is also the underscore to the technical issues of the piece. Whereas Somera is comparatively easy to hear throughout, Trent’s mic is so placed that his lines – both spoken and sung – are often too soft. This is only made worse by the mics on the live band (particularly the guitarist), which are left way too hot and create a booming musical “underlay” which has a tendency to drown out singing and spoken lines on a regular basis. This is bad for many, but most painfully true in the case of Brian Piernat’s Monkus, who introduces himself in a hip-hop rap which looks like it might be quite clever, but nobody can hear at all.

William Crisp looks terrific and sounds even better as the menacing Hou-Lai. Paul Stuflosky is just silly enough to be the boorish Tu-Bao, and Kenny Ugwa has a wonderful time as the somewhat “iffy” helper, Tsunami. Yet, in Ugwa’s case an introductory song reminiscent of reggae ends up with no accompaniment at all (other than something going boing on occasion). This leaves both Ugwa and the chorus behind him searching for key and harmony, which is especially unfortunate given the truly ingenious visuals which accompany this moment.

In other words, the audio design credited to director Lowe needs significant overhaul, and music director Matthew Capurro – the liaison to the band – would be a large part of that as well. They should also address the blank spots between scenes: moments screaming for some sort of transition. But to just condemn the show because you have trouble hearing it properly, or it’s staged a bit choppily, would not really say all that needs saying. One still must wrestle with a couple of essential facts about the script itself.

First, Oberacker and Taylor bit off a very, very long and complex story which they have tried with only moderate success to fit to the length of a standard American musical. The result is a show which, including a standard intermission, comes in at about three hours long. Secondly, though some of the music is quite beautiful, including the tune to “Happy Little Arhat,” and “I’ve Learned Mine,” the lyrics are far too often very fast-paced patter songs which are difficult to spit out, and regularly offer up such predictable and simplistic rhythm and rhyming schemes as to be comparatively unmemorable. In the end, the show can’t really tackle all that the novel wanted to say, and tries to cram the rest into one long final musical number.

Still, there has been a lot of hard work put into producing “Journey to the West.” Shaw’s choreography proves fascinating from start to finish, and there are captivating and innovative uses of dance as incidental to the plot (especially the dancers with lanterns signaling elements of life force) which make a powerful visual statement. The chorus is good – very good – and the energy in the production is high.

Which makes a person wish they could hear it all. Which makes one wish even more that the things these talented folk have worked so hard on were more worth hearing, as written. I can empathize with Lowe falling in love with something he wants the world to see. I also empathize from experience with the syndrome – I’m sure at play here – of working on a production for long enough to become convinced it’s awesome simply because one is living inside it for so long.

Sadly, the only thing which can assist this production other than a rewrite is to at least get the sound right. Perhaps the sense that one must have the story explained at the end will be less powerful if one can hear what people are saying and singing along the way.

What: “Journey to the West” When: Through August 16, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave, in Covina How Much: $30 and $40 Info: (626) 331-8133, ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com

Ode to Fandom: “Always, Patsy Cline” in Sierra Madre

Cori Cable Kidder as Patsy Cline and Nikki D'Amico as Louise Seger in

Cori Cable Kidder as Patsy Cline and Nikki D’Amico as Louise Seger in “Always, Patsy Cline” [photo: Gina Long]

This show has been extended through September 13.

Revision: This show has now been extended through September 27.

In the world of local theater, there are two different kinds of musical productions commonly available. One is what is thought of as the “standard American musical,” with a story line enhanced with songs and dances – usually ones which advance the storyline and may be integral to the plot. The other is the “tribute concert,” a chance to recreate a musical group, performer or even revisit a particular performer’s music in such a way that folks can come to the theater to hear either a reenactment of a period concert performance (see “Beatlemania” as foundational in that genre), or come to a celebration of a performer’s music by obviously more contemporary performers, such as when a group of tuxedoed gentlemen take turns singing songs connected to, say, Frank Sinatra .

However, there is a third category I tend to refer to as the bio-tribute: it ostensibly tells some tale related to a famed musician, but is actually mostly a chance to hear lots of that performer’s songs. Among these, the most amorphous is “Always, Patsy Cline,” a show based on a true story, written by Ted Swindley. Now at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, it offers two performers a chance to play both sides of the tribute coin: one, who narrates, offers up an entertaining portrait of one die-hard fan’s encounter with her idol. The other plays the songstress herself, and sings the songs Cline was famed for, both in recreated concert settings, and as Cline’s side of conversations with the fan who idolized her.

The best news in the SMP production has to be the performers themselves. Nikki D’Amico proves a hoot as Louise, the wildly enthusiastic, uninhibited Texan whose wholehearted enthusiasm leads an exhausted Cline to come home with her after a concert gig, igniting a friendship which lasted until Cline’s untimely death in early 1963. Cori Cable Kidder has Cline’s particular vocal styling down fairly well, and thanks to Krys Fehervari’s impressively accurate wigs, looks the part. It’s a carefully underplayed portrait but it works after a fashion, though sometimes it seems that this Patsy Cline is being overwhelmed by Louise’s sheer energy.

Director Robert Marra has given the potentially static piece as much action as he can, in large part by giving D’Amico’s Louise a brash physicality – even during many of Cline’s songs – which keeps the visual energy strong. Musical director Sean Paxton has assembled a live band to back up Kidder’s vocals, and with the possible exception of the opening night fiddler, their polish helps create the essential “country” sounds of the various stages of Cline’s career.

Also worthy of note is John Vertrees’ impressively expansive-looking country barn, plus separate late-50s kitchen, set on SMP’s tiny stage. A. Jeffery Schoenberg does right by Cline’s wardrobe too – a woman making waves in country music who, early on, eschewed the usual gingham and fringe for sheath dresses and gold lame pants.

As a script, “Always, Patsy Cline” seems neither fish nor fowl, but that’s not this production’s fault. For those who just want to sit back and listen to Cline sing her songs, the enthusiastic Louise seems a distraction. For those who want to know more about this particular, factually based relationship between Cline and her most ardent fan, the comparative lack of spoken lines by the legendary singer (who was reportedly quite a lively friend) leaves the tale significantly one-sided. Still, the end result becomes a walk down memory lane for some, and an amusing snapshot of an era and a charmingly pushy fan for others. And, of course, there are those songs, and, truth be told, even this child of the rock era can listen to “I Fall to Pieces” or “Crazy” or “Walkin’ After Midnight” any old time.

What: “Always, Patsy Cline” When: Through September 12, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. all Sundays and Saturday, September 12. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $34.50 general, $32 seniors, $25 youth to age 21 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Musings: Bad Behavior, Theatrical Edition

Over the past couple of months there has been a significant discussion in theater circles about the concept of basic theatrical etiquette. By this I do not mean how performers and/or crew behave backstage, but rather, the increasingly boorish actions of some audience members. The general question appears to have two foci: whether or not some audience members have forgotten how to appreciate a live performance in a group setting, and how addicted people in the US have become to electronics.

And here comes the moment when I begin to sound like a curmudgeon, which I really am not. However, my observations over time have made the most recent events in New York seem recognizable (regrettable, but recognizable), particularly when I see echoes of the behavior here, closer to home.

To begin, the problem of inattention or distraction due to electronics is not new. I can remember, a good 25 years ago and more, being startled to see parents take their tween children to shows, only to allow them to listen to their headphones the entire time. I kept wondering what made that experience any better than leaving a kid with a babysitter? And that was before the onset of our most addictive convenience, the cell phone.

Cell phones have become an increasing annoyance for actors and audience members alike. I can remember several searing moments of theatrical drama which were interrupted by a loud electronic cha-cha, deep in someone’s purse. And you know how that one goes: first the quieter but annoying music, then the dive-and-dig by the phone’s owner, leading to the much louder musical interlude before the phone can finally be silenced. Best of all is the person who just denies the call, and thus must face that exercise all over again about ten minutes later when the person at the other end calls back.

But now many of us Americans see phones as our appendages – something which must be on, or even out, all the time. YouTube is full of union-violating cell phone footage of, say, Idina Menzel’s last night as Elphaba in “Wicked,” or someone or other’s stellar curtain speech, even though the program specifically states (and sometimes so does an announcer at show’s start) that the taking of photographs and videoing is strictly prohibited. And, of course, even if not recording the performances onstage, texting with its ensuing glow can distract actors and audience-members alike, particularly if something intense is supposed to be happening in the production itself but the audience is full of little, glowing screens… and audience members are looking at them instead of the stage.

Hence the reaction of most in the industry to Patti LuPone, who, on July 9 – having been annoyed by the glow of cell phones all through a matinee of “Shows for Days” – had finally had enough. That evening, a young woman in the front row spent the entire first portion of the play looking at her phone, and LuPone was done being nice. As she exited – as she usually did – through the audience, she reached over, pocketed the woman’s phone, and gave it to a stage manager so it could be returned at the end of the show.

The reaction was swift, and dual. When I mentioned this outside the theatrical community, there was outrage: “She had no right to do that,” was the common reaction. On the other hand, from those I know who are theater lovers, the reaction was congratulatory. Indeed, the overall impression was similar to that I felt when watching those kids with headphones: she (or someone else) paid a lot for that seat. Why did she come if she didn’t want to watch the show? And maybe, just maybe, those around her learned a lesson about how to be an audience. I tend to lean toward the latter, but I do understand that swiping someone’s possession, even temporarily, is fairly extreme.

But some audience members these days evoke the extreme. In that same week, also in New York, just before the start of an evening’s performance of “Hand to God,” an audience member climbed up on stage to plug his cell phone into the electrical plug on the show’s set. The plug was a fake (because… it was part of the SET), but the opening had to be delayed while a stage manager came out and cleared the phone. The general reaction to that was “What was that guy thinking?” Ironically, you can see this on YouTube too, because someone… wait for it… filmed it on his or her cell phone.

To simply finger-wag at the obsessive and tech savvy, however, would miss a larger point. We are growing into a people who simply do not know how to behave when in large groups. We see movies in our own homes, where we can talk to our partner, get up and walk around, even take the show we want to watch into a different room on our tablet. There is no longer, unless we’re willing to pay top price, even a chance for seeing films in the communality of a darkened theater. And when people do go to such places, top theaters such as the ArcLight chain have someone come in to gently remind people they are not at home and quiet is expected. Because you have to say that now.

Theaters are apparently the same way. That man who thought a piece of set was there for his personal convenience is symptomatic of the “I’m seeing it in my living room” philosophy. This lack of consideration for those around you has been experienced in a number of live productions – the drunks at the dinner theater I discussed a few weeks ago, the mother who chatted with her young daughter (who should have been learning how to behave in a live performance space) and handed her snacks from noisy bags all through a production of “Wicked” I attended a couple of years ago. These are symptomatic of a larger lack of empathy and/or respect for the communal wonder of live theatrical performance.

My mother, who taught middle school for a generation, used to say that for people in that age group (say, 12-14) the world is a movie put on for their benefit. When they walk out of a room, they intuitively believe that nothing happens until they walk back in. Teachers and such don’t have home lives, because that’s not how the students know them. Consequences come as a surprise, because all around them is – in their minds – really only going on in their heads.

The problem is, this attitude seems to now be spreading to adults, and live theater is most especially vulnerable, and thus having to deal with the results.

So, why am I writing about this just now? I’ve recently seen a few egregious bits of audience behavior which seem to underscore both the obliviousness and the electronics addiction of modern audience members, and I found it particularly annoying. The most recent came while attending a show at a small, but increasingly professional theater. I watched as a group of people in the front row, at one edge of the stage, proceeded to put their water bottles, and even a purse, on the stage itself, like it was a nearby shelf. Fortunately, their possessions were out of the area in which an actor would have to stand. On the other hand, their detritus was on full view to the rest of the audience. Besides, that was just extremely tacky.

Of course, audiences have been a trial at times since the days of Shakespeare and before. In those days they’d throw garbage at actors they didn’t like, and pour beer on each other. Then, and clear into the 19th century, audience members of the wealthier classes could actually sit on the stage, and interrupt as they felt was warranted. But it was assumed we had outgrown some of that foolishness – certainly the more we got into realism as an acting and production style.

Of course, the point could be made that even if they were throwing fruit, it was because they were engaged with the production, even if on an insult level. What bothers me the most about the obliviousness factor of today is that it means they are disengaged from the very thing they have come to watch. The patrons who have come to the theater with the intent to immerse themselves in the sights and sounds and insights on the stage lose out because of those who aren’t able to be fully present.

What can be done? As usual – and I admit I’m doing it – it’s easier to complain and highlight than to solve. Change will be a matter of group effort, I suppose. Perhaps the widespread publicity created by both Ms LuPone’s action and that idiot who thought a set was just another room created for his convenience will be a start. Perhaps these will spur people into thinking about how to appreciate what legitimate theater is: a communal experience of art and expression with a treasured immediacy no other medium can produce.

That would certainly be nice. In the meantime… wait. That was my cell phone. I think my editor has an assignment for me. BRB…

History, Gut-Wrenching Power Highlight “Bent” at the Taper

Charlie Hofheimer and Patrick Heusinger in Martin Sherman’s "“Bent" [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Charlie Hofheimer and Patrick Heusinger in Martin Sherman’s ““Bent” [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Every once in a while there is an opportunity to see a great play which has become more historically important than “just” a play. Thus, if done well, the experience not only offers the power and wonder of something well written and well performed, but a kind of awe for all it has taught and has still to teach about humanity, history, and the nature of the human heart.

The production of Martin Sherman’s “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum is one such opportunity. I first read about “Bent” and it’s New York run in Time Magazine, when the play was new, and have always hoped to see a fully realized professional production. In the meantime, its impact could be seen everywhere. The examination of the Nazi treatment of homosexuals was revelatory, even to many activists, when it first appeared in the late 1970s.

The story centered on the idea that SS had a separate designation – a pink triangle – for the gays in their vicious concentration camps, and that gay men were the only ones to be treated worse than the Jews. Thus, the play led to the use of the pink triangle as a defiant symbol of pride from the early 80s on. Interestingly, it was only after “Bent” became a sensation that books about this period in LGBT history were able to find publishers. Now we take this knowledge for granted.

Which, in its own way, frees the audience currently at the Taper to focus on the play itself. As important as its historical revelations included are the implications of its characters as individuals, and the examination of both the nature of love and the fearsome will to survive. Combine this with the particular horrors of Nazism and the particular restrictions of homosexuality in a totalitarian state, and this play holds a power far beyond an essential history lesson.

The focus is on Max, a gay, hedonistic opportunist in Weimar Berlin, always on the cusp of the next deal. As the Nazis rise, he and his lover, Rudy, are arrested and sent to Dachau. There Max works to figure the angles, and begins a friendship of sorts with the “pink triangle” named Horst. Through the horrors of his arrest and transition, he still tries to work survival deals, all the while coming closer and closer to facing the very nature of love itself, as revealed in extremity.

Patrick Heusinger embodies Max’s dualities – the ferocious need to control and to win with the softness he cannot recognize – in ways which prove at first funny, then desperate, and then riveting. There is an inner wildness in his portrayal which seems held down with effort to try to manage the world. Andy Mientus makes the fragile Rudy radiate with an inner sweetness one knows will be gobbled up by everything the society around him is becoming.

Charlie Hofheimer’s Horst makes no attempts to hide who he is, from the pink triangle on his chest, to his stance – the ultimate challenge to Max’s willingness to compromise himself. Indeed, this underscores the essentials of the story: it is with Horst that Max must face his own demons, one by one, from his need for nurture to the challenge of acknowledging his true identity, even to himself.

Director Moises Kaufman has concentrated on the conflicted humanness of it all, giving the entire play an intimacy even in the comparative openness of Beowulf Boritt’s elemental, implied sets (his “electrified fence” proves particularly effective). Sound designer Cricket S. Myers deserves special kudos for the subtextual hummings which flavor important moments of the text, as do Justin Townsend’s increasingly harsh lighting motifs.

In sum, this play is powerful, in part because it does not shirk either the brutality or sexuality of its basic themes. The scene where Max and Horst, two Dachau prisoners not even allowed to look at each other, manage to make love with words alone is perhaps the most striking and the most famous. The descriptions of Nazi mind games and tortures, especially the casual nature of them, is both graphic and impossible to forget. This is harsh stuff, from any angle, and yet it is absolutely engrossing – not in the prurient sense, but in the context of relation to the very human characters one connects to so vividly.

There are no known statistics on the number of homosexuals who died in Nazi concentration camps, nor of the many more who were castrated to keep their “disease” from spreading. That they were designated, along with the Roma (gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Emigrants, Criminals, Communists and of course Jews as deserving of their own uniform color code says there were enough to matter. Indeed, considering the behavior toward gays in modern Russia, or worse in the 10 countries in Africa and Asia where gay people face the death penalty for being themselves in 2015, it is important to remember that this is not just old news.

And the fact nobody knew much about the Nazi condemnations until nearly 40 years later is reason enough to celebrate a new production of “Bent.” All the more exciting to be able to say this production will prove gut-wrenchingly powerful, yet theatrically satisfying in its own right, quite aside from the impact it once had on our sense of history.

What: “Bent” When: Through August 23, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Another Little Piece of Joplin: Reworked “Night” returns to the Playhouse

Tony-nominee Mary Bridget Davies & Company. [Photo: Joan Marcus]

Tony-nominee Mary Bridget Davies & Company. [Photo: Joan Marcus]

Update: The Pasadena Playhouse has extended the run of this show until August 23.

Just a little over two years ago, a tribute to the woman dubbed The Queen of Rock first appeared at the Pasadena Playhouse. More than just the usual tribute show, what was then called “One Night with Janis Joplin” used an evening of song and conversation with Mary Bridget Davies’ Joplin to explore the roots of her music, her strong ties to traditional blues, and the passion which brought her to toss aside a middle class lifestyle in favor of the short but important life she would have in rock and roll. The show was a solid hit.

Now, after some revision and a trip to Broadway, where Davies was nominated for a Tony, what is now called “A Night with Janis Joplin” has returned to the Playhouse. In some ways the changes have added depth and balance to the show’s storyline and energy. In some others, the focus on Joplin herself has blunted a bit. Still, the end result is one enjoyable trip back to the late 60s, and the melding of musical forms which was so central to that entire period.

Randy Johnson, who wrote this homage and also directs, was specifically concerned with not just creating a classic “tribute band” kind of concert, and that still remains. What has expanded is the look at those blues – and the great performers who sang them – which so inspired Joplin to become a singer herself. In the show’s biggest change, rather than having one person try to be all of those great talents, separate members of the chorus of “Joplinaires” have moments in the sun as Etta James (Jenelle Lyn Randall), Bessie Smith and Odetta (Sylvia MacCalla), a symbolic “blues singer” representing all those lesser known voices from the past (Sharon Catherine Brown), and most especially Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone (Yvette Cason). Plus, all four gather together to be the girl-group Joplin admired, the Chantels.

With all these different and highly talented voices expressing the traditionally African-American roots which shaped Joplin’s own style (though she admits in the script that she only sounds like “a white chick singing the blues”), the structure of the production proves more balanced. Each singer had (and in this show has) her own style and structure, and it becomes a treat to see how each of these influenced specific aspects of both Joplin’s sound and her choice of repertoire.

Of course, central to the whole thing is Davies’ Janis. She looks the part, as she always has, and gives her all to the raspy joy of Joplin’s singing. In the course of the last few years that has morphed a bit. She’s no longer an imitator, with exactly the same sounds as one could find on a recording. Rather, the whole focus on matching Joplin to her influences has let a bit more creativity sneak in. Sometimes lyrics once intelligible get lost in the soaring shouts which express the energy of the moment – a shift which can be exciting or annoying. Sometimes the tune takes second place to spoken observations. Still the magnetism is there, and the feel of Joplin’s music. And there is all that fearsome energy, especially when the first act closer – a duet between Joplin’s Queen of Rock and Aretha’s Queen of Soul – rocks the house in memorable ways.

What “A Night with Janis Joplin” now offers, in ways which were more hinted at the first time through, is a demonstration of musical forces which surrounded her and moved her toward stardom. This is not a biography, except a musical one, and doesn’t touch on the things we all know came with that stardom: the lifestyle and drugs which would lead to her death at the height of both her popularity and her own personal satisfaction with her music. Once again, as with the first version, one cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Janis Joplin had had a chance to mature as an artist past age 27. But then, one could ask that of many of the most terrific musical talents of that era.

What: A Night with Janis Joplin When: Through August 16, 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: $45 – $150 Info: 626-356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

So Silly: “Joseph…” at Candlelight Pavilion makes all the right moves

The cast of

The cast of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” [photo: Adam Trent]

On the list of works by the team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, if “Evita” is the most complex, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is the most lighthearted fun. Originally written to be sung by the chorus of a girls school, it has an unabashedly teenaged silliness at its core which, when translated into a Broadway-style musical, evokes an innocent charm that proves both funny and uplifting.

Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, a fresh and energetic production offers up a prime example of both the silliness and the professionalism which makes all that fun translate to the audience. Blessed with a fine dancing chorus and unrelentingly energetic choreography, sharp pacing and a cast which sings with gusto and accuracy, this production provides charmingly innocent family entertainment.

The story is literally Biblical – the tale of Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, whose jealous brothers sell him into slavery. In Egypt, after ending up in prison, his ability to read dreams leads him to the right hand of the pharaoh. There he saves Egypt from famine, and eventually saves his family as well. As set by Webber and Rice, the story is rich in silliness and catchy tunes, and can be a visual treat especially if the dancing is up to par.

At Candlelight, much if the show’s success lies at the feet of director and choreographer Alison Hooper, whose meshing of song and dance and story keep the show hopping. She has assembled one of the finest of Candlelight’s recent dancing choruses, and their work powers everything else. 

Joseph with his eponymous coat

Joseph with his eponymous coat

As the narrator, Alyssa Grant offers up a consistent, if rather low-key charm, providing the calm between major production numbers. Caleb Shaw’s Joseph radiates the character’s open, innocent nature, and sings with both power and nuance. Standouts among Joseph’s many brothers are Robert Johnson’s country stylings in “One More Angel in Heaven,” and James Joseph, who brings down the house with the “Benjamin Calypso”. The entire cast prove themselves impressive quick-change artists as they move from Biblical, to country, to 50s rock, to stereotypical French, to Caribbean, to disco with an impressive seamlessness.

Colleen Bresnahan, who has both adapted and enhanced the standard set, and Jenny Wentworth’s evocative costuming are stars themselves. Indeed, setting has often been an issue with productions of “Joseph,” with some staying rather to subtle and others going so over the top that the needed innocence of the piece gets lost in the glitter and sensuality. Here the balance is just right.

Of course, one of the perks of going to Candlelight Pavilion is the dinner which comes with the performance. So, from the perspective of family entertainment, this has it all: good food, and an engaging and lively show whose music will stick with you. What’s not to like?

What: “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” When: through August 9, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for lunch matinees Saturday and Sunday Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 adult, $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Fascinating “Shiv” at Boston Court: What Imperialism Costs the Heart

Monika Jolly and Dileep Rao as Shiv and her father, in Aditi Brennan Kapil's

Monika Jolly and Dileep Rao as Shiv and her father, in Aditi Brennan Kapil’s “Shiv” at The Theatre @ Boston Court

At a time when the entire concept of white privilege is under a microscope, it becomes especially fascinating to explore the larger concepts of European/American imperialism and what that process has done to the world we now live in. Most particularly, what has been lost as several centuries of the practice interfered with the natural self-development of the peoples of the earth.

Which proves foundational to Aditi Brennan Kapil’s “Shiv,” now receiving its west coast premiere run at The Theatre at Boston Court. As the best introspective plays often are, this tale can be approached on a number of levels, but at its core it examines what is left behind when foundational cultures clash with dominant ones. It does so through the engaging story of one immigrant family from India.

Shiv is the daughter of a small-town Indian family. Her father was, back home, a celebrated anti-imperialist modernist poet. He raises his daughter on the stories of his upbringing in the home gifted to his family by local royalty. There his competitive nature had full sway, and his pride of place brought him to prominence.

Now he has come to the US, supposedly to give his daughter advantages in the western-controlled world, but at great cost to himself. His poetry does not translate well, and his daughter is left adrift, as both her father’s representative in this new world and the reminder of what he himself cannot do within it. All of this is seen through Shiv’s eyes, as she searches for the missing pieces of her father’s American narrative at the site of what were once a private publisher’s symposiums of Indian writers.

Which, of course, is only one level of the play. Symbolism proves key, and the mystical elements of Indian belief and culture mesh with motifs of light and power in ways which make the show a full-body experience. Unpacking these deeper elements may take a while, but the work is worth it.

Monika Jolly is Shiv, shifting back and forth from youth to adulthood with a seamlessness which underscores the central themes of the character’s struggles to balance the two parts of her life. Dileep Rao, as her father, manages to offer up external charm and internal desperation in the same breath, radiating hope toward his daughter at the same time as his own is evaporating in favor of cultural submission.

As the operator of the country estate once a center for supposed cultural awareness, James Wagner displays an openness which allows Shiv to move forward in her own explorations of her cultural identities. In balance to this, Leonard Kelly-Young speaks as the gut-wrenchingly absolute imperialist, deciding with western eyes what to value of eastern art, as the professor who owns this estate, where Shiv works and searches for answers to her father’s mysteries. Indeed, it is Kelly-Young’s powerful albeit brief performance which underlines all the ugliness toward which the play has built.

Under the direction of Emilie Beck, the production’s beautifully stark feel allows the many layered elements of this piece to coalesce. Stephanie Kerley-Schwartz’s imaginative setting allows Shiv’s character to float in her own imagination, tied only when she wants to be to the physical realities of the world around her. Tom Ontiveros’ integral video design fills the imagination and underscores the ethereal in the piece.

By the end one cannot help but wonder, as the characters do, what India or any other nation absorbed by western empire would have been like if left to mature on its own. Indeed one symbol near the end sticks in the mind as a visual of the disconnect between east and west: a snow globe holding a miniature Taj Mahal. As Shiv notes, why would there ever be snow on the Taj Mahal?

This, as with all things in this play, says many things at once. Yet, all of it proves engrossing from start to finish, and definitely worth the work of pondering after the fact. Go see “Shiv,” then take it home with you and let it steep awhile. The results will disturb the overly-confortable, but will voice what the modern world – American and otherwise – needs to hear.

What: “Shiv” When: Through August 9, 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 general, $29 seniors (62+)/students Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com

Dinner Theater/Fundraiser in Glendora: SGVRT has some lessons to learn

Every once in a long, long while, when I’m asked to write a review of a production I go to see, I end up somewhat stumped by the extenuating circumstances of the actual product I experienced. This is most certainly true of the community-based San Gabriel Valley Repertory Theatre’s new melodrama-dinner theater venture, given the general name Dining Dramatically.

Their first ever effort, a one-weekend rendition of David J. Chapelle’s faux-antique melodrama send-up, “Two Gun Junction,” opened to a series of mistakes and unexpected upheavals which make it difficult to give a normal theatrical critique. So this will be a cross between some carefully chosen advice for the future, a feel for what the production I saw was actually like, and some sense of why someone might (or might not) want to venture out for their last performance of this particular piece on Sunday, June 28, at 5 p.m.

One should start with the things the company could not help, or did not – being new at this – know they would need to worry about. The production is being done in partnership with Glendora’s Golden Spur Restaurant, in their banquet room across the parking lot. Timing became an issue, as the main courses – pegged into the production with a grand “Dinner is served” announcement – weren’t ready when they was supposed to be, causing a major gap in the proceedings. And, from before the festivities officially started, a few of the audience members had been traveling (and continued to travel) back and forth between the performance space and the restaurant bar, leaving them hammered and impressively obnoxious during the actual production. Both these elements are fixable – one by better timing coordination with and/or by the kitchen, and the other by not allowing guests to come in with alcohol not purchased in the performance space. This they will learn as they go.

Sadly, the small clump of profoundly unruly patrons, who were seated at the table closest to much of the performance, made it ferociously hard on nervous, opening-night performers. Lines were forgotten, or lost in the noise and interruption. Actors, as staged – one assumes – by Production Director Patrick Towles (nobody was actually listed as the show’s director), had to wend their way between tables of guests, and thus had to actively engage with the worst of the sots on occasion. A better layout of tables, allowing an aisle down the center with room to move, would have made the traversing of their space much more accessible and, even without the extra human impediments, more free-flowing.

The performers ranged widely in ability, as much as one could see given all the other issues of the day. Steven Edberg was the obvious villain, in black cape and mustache. Raquel Badayos charmed as the heroine of the piece – an heiress in disguise out to prove her own financial acumen to herself and her father. Denise Spainhower Truex was a bit young for the supposedly aged store-owner with the vapid understanding of money. Kevyn Allen made a fine figure of a man as the square-jawed hero. Cristina Grigerio was the wooden villainess.

Sean Larson was “The Host,” starting and stopping the production when necessary for the injection of the meal and the dessert, and holding up signs so the audience could join in booing and cheering when called upon. As such he had the most contact with the majority of the audience, and set the stage for the evening.

Still, and despite the host’s signs, what the show itself lacked other than the full attention of anyone due to the circumstances was some understanding that this “melodrama” was written as a send-up of the form, in the vein of the old Dudley Doright cartoons. It was supposed to be performed in an over-the-top manner which would have everything broadly spoken, at a reasonably clipped pace. There there were gaps between lines on a regular basis which slowed things down, and an attempt at realism which made the silliest lines sound dumb instead of the sort of “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” a satire would bring with it.

The meal was reasonably good, once it arrived. The purpose of the production was laudable too, as they are engaged in using the play as a fundraiser for a charity helping veterans attend college. Still, at $65 (without alcohol) for dinner and the show, they are going to have to look into upping their game some to make this viable. Their next effort will be “Villain of Mystery Island” for the weekend of August 7, and if you are reading this before 5 p.m. on Sunday, June 28, you can go see this current production with all the mess and kerfuffle of opening night long gone. Who knows. The lack of obnoxious drunks may have improved the entire thing mightily.

What: “Two Gun Junction” When: Sunday, June 18, 5 p.m. (door opens half an hour beforehand) Where: The Golden Spur Restaurant, 1223 E. Route 66 in Glendora How Much: $65, dinner inclusive – reservations required Info: (909) 301-2983, http://www.sgvrt.com or (for reservations) sgvrt626@gmail.com

It’s Good, If You Can Catch It: On Golden Pond’s Short Stay in Covina

Joe Parrish and Rosemary London lead the cast in Covina Center for the Performing Arts' "On Golden Pond"

Joe Parrish and Rosemary London lead the cast in Covina Center for the Performing Arts’ “On Golden Pond”

As comfort-plays go, you can’t do much better than “On Golden Pond,” by Earnest Thompson. Written originally in 1979, it has been updated by the author several times since, for film and later productions, to keep pace with the shifts which have made the timeless places less so over the years. Yet, at its core this play is less about place than character, and a good production of the play focuses on the creation of people you can believe care about each other.

Given this essential factor, “On Golden Pond” as presented at the Covina Center for the Performing Arts is, indeed, a good production. The performers range from good to very good, and the feel of their interrelatedness is right. This sense of ensemble makes it possible for director Jeff Lowe to shift from a very representational setting to what he calls a “more stripped away” feel – something comparatively unusual with this particular piece.

The story has been a film, and on stage locally many times. Norman Thayer, a crusty retired professor, and his wife Ethel, both at the tail end of life, return for another summer to their well-worn cabin at a lake they have loved since their individual childhoods. There they are joined by their somewhat estranged daughter Chelsea, and her new companion Bill, who end up leaving Bill’s 13-year-old son Billy behind as they move on to Europe. The time proves transformative to Norman, who finds Billy an antidote to the evidence of age’s toll, and to Chelsea, as she comes to terms with her relationship with what she sees as a demanding and consistently displeased father.

Again, this really only works if both Norman and Ethel are not only believable as individual actors, but believable as a richly fond couple whose mutual love and respect has kept an outwardly frustrating marriage very much alive. Joe Parrish and Rosemary London do just that, giving an almost constant, subtle underscore to the brusk familiarity of their lines which make you understand how that relationship could have held on so well for so long.

Lisa Apostle handles the nervous Chelsea well, and John Catanzaro gives considerable humor – and another underscore of relational wisdom – to her beau. Tyler Campbell has a lovely time as the somewhat simple, earnest mailman who was Chelsea’s long-ago summer boyfriend. Most importantly, Jackson Capitano becomes quite convincing most of the time as Billy, and the chemistry between him and Parrish creates a significant factor of charm in the production. Capitano does need to occasionally slow his lines a bit to be sure we get all the humor in them, however.

Set Designer Dillon Nelson has provided the requested skeletal set. It works better than one expects, allowing for some of the show’s running “gags” – the screen door’ issues, the tendency for Norman to lock the door when his wife is outside – to work better than one would expect simply by being offstage. Sound designer Steven Humenski has managed to mesh a few bits of the film score in at just the right times, and of course the calls of the lake’s loons.

“On Golden Pond,” when done as well as this, is a peaceful thing. It is not a stunning new statement of life. It is not cynical or challenging. Rather, it is an homage to aging and relationship, and as such says things that few plays have said better. This production is certainly worth seeing, but you’ll have to be fast to catch it. Though it only opened on June 19, it will close on the 28th.

What: “On Golden Pond” When: through June 28, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N Citrus Ave in Covina How Much: $15 – $25 Info: (626) 331-8133 ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com

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