Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Pasadena area.

Go See This!: “Buyer and Cellar” offers belly laughs and fantasy

Michael Urie as the storyteller in Jonathan Tolins' monologue about a struggling actor's fantasy job for Barbra Streisand [photo: Joan Marcus]

Michael Urie as the storyteller in Jonathan Tolins’ monologue about a struggling actor’s odd employment by Barbra Streisand
[photo: Joan Marcus]

Nothing is trickier than telling a compelling story about a famous living, or recently alive, person and intending it as a fiction. Even beyond the potential for litigation, one will run up against those who know the person in question and have their own opinions (witness Alan Alda playing Richard Feynman for a host of CalTech grads, poor man). And if the person in question is an iconic figure for a particular societal group, it just gets stickier.

None of which deterred playwright Jonathan Tolins from creating one of the funniest things on stage this summer: “Buyer and Cellar,” now at the Mark Taper Forum fresh from a riotously successful New York run. Essentially a long, uninterrupted monologue by the articulate physical comedian Michael Urie, “Buyer and Cellar” uses as its spin-off a very real book published by the very real Barbra Streisand. The book, titled “My Passion for Design” details all the many elements of her Malibu retreat, including the collection of mock 19th century stores developed along a “street” in her basement to house her various collections. What, Tolins wondered, would happen if someone was hired to be the storekeeper down there?

And so, in the character of that employee, one Alex More – an out-of-work gay actor getting a chance at a weird connection with a stereotypical goddess of the gay community – we hear the completely fictional story of why a person would take such a gig, and what bizarre, wonderful, and wrenching things that decision brings into his life.

The comedy is wry, but often fall-out-of-your chair funny. The insights into the isolation of fame, and into a once-poor young woman’s obsession with amassing goods, are sharp and interesting. The awkward balance of confidante, servant, and compatriot required of Alex’s job, and the toll they take on his outer life, keep it grounded. But mostly what you remember is complete delight.

Tolins’ script has that fast-paced “let me tell you a story in one breath” intensity which keeps you on the edge of your seat. Urie’s equally breakneck delivery, and the sheer visibility of the two other characters he “creates” to interact with Alex (Streisand, and Alex’s equally Brooklyn-born boyfriend) prove compelling watching. Indeed, one is startled when the roughly 100 minutes are up.

Director Stephen Brackett brings a wonderful physical dimension to a piece which needs that vitality to bolster the volume of words. Some of the visual moments are among the funniest. Andrew Boyce’s simple set lets the story tell itself, while Jessica Pabst’s costuming – most particularly a rather voluminous cardigan – help enhance Urie’s changes of character.

Yet, in the end it is all Urie and Tolins: the first with his talent, his ability to pretzel himself into different body shapes, and his overarching charm which win the day, the other with a near-perfect script for Urie to work with.

It is interesting that, at the show’s start, great pains are taken to make sure everyone knows that the story and characterizations are pure fiction, even if Streisand’s book is not. Perhaps that was litigation rearing its ugly head. Even so, it doesn’t need to be real to be a treat. As a matter of fact, it takes the pressure off to know it’s all made up, even if one couldn’t help but wish at some points that is was something that really happened.

“Buyer and Cellar” is performed without an intermission.

What: “Buyer and Cellar” When: Through August 17, 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: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or
http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“We Will Rock You”… Not: Queen musical at the Ahmanson an epic fail

Ruby Lewis and Brian Justin Crum lead the cast of "We Will Rock You," the Queen musical at the Ahmanson [photo: Paul Kolnik]

Ruby Lewis and Brian Justin Crum lead the cast of “We Will Rock You,” the Queen musical at the Ahmanson [photo: Paul Kolnik]

First, let me say that I love the music of Queen. It was the soundtrack of my college years. I have been a Freddy Mercury fan a long time, and mourned his passing. I even made sure my children, as they hit teen status, knew and respected the band’s work. I do not hate loud music, gratingly amazing guitar riffs, or rock concert lighting effects. I need to say this lest anyone feel that my take on “We Will Rock You,” the musical with story and script by Ben Elton using music by Queen, has anything to do with being a fuddy duddy and just not liking the atmosphere or the music.

I say this so you will believe me when I tell you “We Will Rock You,” just opened at the Ahmanson, takes band-tribute musicals to a new low. It’s worse than boring: it’s stupid. The jokes sound like they were written by a junior high class clown just discovering sex. The dialogue was purloined from a bad Disney Channel sitcom. The script is riddled with cliches, and steals (rather badly) from a dozen film and television plots. All of this is gussied up with elaborate effects and fantastical costumes and wigs, but it doesn’t matter. It still has no soul, and – worse when discussing this sophisticated band’s work – no intellect.

The story, which must be explained in super-titles before the curtain rises, is that we are visiting a post-apocalyptic earth run by a thinly disguised Microsoft (Globalsoft, in the script), which has banned all instruments, and anything but computer-generated pop music as well as having created a world where people’s relationships are entirely online. This world’s rebels (bohemians, of course) try to escape torture and reeducation by the rather Tron-like enforcers led by Khashoggi, a man who looks like Max Headroom with feet, working for Globalsoft’s narcissistic leader, even as they search for genuine life through something they’ve heard of called rock music.

Our hero, who has given himself the name Galileo Figaro (get it?), hears the lyrics of every possible kind of rock song in his head, and spews them forth in notebooks. He escapes his society along with a female loner he dubs Scaramouche, and they run to Las Vegas and the crumbling Hard Rock Cafe (only one of several product placements in this thing) to find a bohemian group who have named themselves after stars of our era – including a dumb, muscly man known as Brit (for Britney Spears, because that’s funny) and his ditsy female sidekick Oz (for Ozzy Osborne, cue more laughs). They and their friends, especially the deep voiced Buddy (yes, Holly and the Crickets), gather rock-and-roll memorabilia they proudly mispronounce and wait for “the one” who will help them find the last remaining instrument on earth.

The cast of this thing approaches it earnestly enough, though the dialogue doesn’t give them much to work with. Brian Justin Crum, as Galileo, does sing just close enough to Mercury’s stylings to make the songs he sings work. He gives his character an earnest energy, as if by sheer dint of belief he could turn this show into something worth all that effort. Ruby Lewis, as Scaramouche, has little genuine chemistry with Crum, but that may be in part because there is not much in the script to help. She sings with great power, though a few of the great lines get swallowed.

In a particularly odd moment, protagonists ride a motorcycle toward the audience, while the road moves swiftly the opposite direction, behind them.

In a particularly odd moment, protagonists ride a motorcycle toward the audience, while the road moves swiftly the opposite direction, behind them.


The chorus, which has a phenomenal number of costume changes, sings and dances with abandon, even as – on occasion – their costumes break. Jared Zirilli does what he can to make Brit a dopey kind of funny. Ryan Knowles has the best timing of anyone as Buddy, and a kind of wired gleefulness which makes him engaging even as what he’s saying isn’t. Jacqueline B. Arnold proves imposing as the “Killer Queen,” leader of the bad guys, but has issues singing the low parts of some songs. Everyone is trying here, including the designers of the elaborate video backdrops and the over-the-top costumes. It just isn’t worth the effort, at least in-between musical moments.

Thankfully, there are those great songs, at least most of the time. In the early scenes Elton has seen fit to rewrite the timeless lyrics to fit into his lame storyline – an unfortunate choice. Still, the band, led by conductor Nate Patten, is very good indeed, and some of the famed solo riffs live up to one’s anticipation.

Of course, the best and most famous of Queen’s work is saved for last. Unable to fit “Bohemian Rhapsody” into the weird storyline, they actually use supertitles to convince the audience to stay for an encore, because it will be that – the one song everyone has waited all night to hear. And this becomes the revelation: when all they have to do is render a song, this cast is actually very good. Why in heaven didn’t they do that all night long, rather than dampening everyone’s spirits with such a lame plot and script?

How this musical won an Olivier is beyond me. Makes me a little nervous about what is being considered quality in London these days, if it was for anything other than a technical element.

What: “We Will Rock You” When: Through August 24, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $120 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Passion is Still Stupid: In “Stupid Fucking Bird” Chekhov’s “The Seagull” speaks to a new age

The cast confronts the audience

The cast confronts the audience

This show has now been extended through August 10

Playing with classics has become part of the theatrical landscape. One can either go for staging, say, Shakespeare or Moliere or Sophocles in an alternate time period or social reference, or one can take the conceptual theme of the original, and the main characters, and turn the play on its ear. For example, several years ago The Theatre at Boston Court produced Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” reset (with distinct cultural adaptation) in a China on the verge of revolution – a shift which worked startlingly well.

Now, once again at The Theatre at Boston Court, this time in concert with Circle X Theatre Company, one finds a revision of another Chekhov classic, “The Seagull.” “Sort of adapted” by Aaron Posner, the play “Stupid Fucking Bird” highlight’s Chekhov’s essential ethos – the idea that people who become so wrapped up in themselves create their own tragedies – and places it in a modern framework. It works, absolutely, and for several reasons: Chekhov’s theme was an essential human one which transcends time, the adaptation is clever, concise and passionate, and the direction and performance are done with complete conviction and absolute craft.

The script trims down and adapts the character list, but the story is still the traditional angsty knot. Conrad, the bitter son of actress Emma Arkadina, is a creator of dubious performance art his family belittles. He lives on his mother’s estate, working with and worshiping a young actress named Nina, who does not return his affections, while the woman who runs the house, Mash, holds her grand passion for Conrad close to her despairing heart. Dev, the slightly dim, good-hearted friend of Conrad’s, adores Mash but knows he has little chance there. Emma fears encroaching age, and fights it off by keeping famed author Doyle Trigorin on a short leash, at least until he notices Nina. All the while, aging uncle Dr. Sorn, watches with a combination of kindness and frustration. And so it begins.

If all of this sounds like a soap opera, you are correct, except for the essential Chekhovian concept that all of this internal wrangling, despair and high feeling is elementally ridiculous – a product of each of the characters’ emotional myopia. In the hands of director Michael Michetti, that rings through all the drama, as it plays out in a tight production with a strong and engaging cast. Add to this the extra thrill of Posner’s Thornton Wilder-style dissolving of the fourth wall, including actors stepping into and out of character, and you’re looking at something compelling and genuinely fun.SFB_lead

Will Bradley leads the cast in every way as Conrad, vibrating with intensity and a kind of emotional impotence. In both energy and engagingly dark approach he is matched by Charlotte Gulezian’s habitually depressed Mash. Adam Silver creates Mash’s and Conrad’s ultimate foil in the easy-going, upbeat, pleasantly dim Dev. Amy Pietz gives Emma a gentle undercurrent of desperation, and a grasping need which proves visceral.

Matthew Floyd Miller’s calm, detached, even opportunistic Doyle becomes physically and emotionally above all the petty commitments at his feet, while Zarah Mahler’s aura of fragility places Nina distinctly in both Doyle’s and Conrad’s crosshairs. Arye Gross gives the good doctor the air of a man weighed down by his own desire to be empathetic to these folk, like a huge, human sigh.

Under Michetti, this all moves quite rapidly, allowing no time for the dismalness to settle, and shifting in and out of the play’s supposed setting with the efficiency of a light switch. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s modular set pieces prove both realistic and representational, allowing for quick shifts in scene and mood. Sean Cawelti’s projections often provide that mood, and flesh out settings artfully.

In short, “Stupid Fucking Bird” brings the essential Chekhovian message to a new era, a new language, and a new immediacy without losing those elements which give it something to say about the human condition: finely tuned characters wrestling with stunted emotions doing melodramatic things which get them nowhere, held up to a mirror that makes them look somewhat silly. Thus it proves both wrenching and humorous, visceral and cerebral. If you love to watch people play with classic themes, you’ll find this one engrossing.

One word of warning: as the name may suggest, this show is not for children, deserving at least an “R” rating on the standard scale for both language and nudity. Still, for most adults, i.e.: those willing to take that as integral to context, it is most certainly a show to see.

What: “Stupid Fucking Bird” When: Through July 27, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with added performances 8 p.m. Wednesday July 16 and 23 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34, with senior and group discounts available Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

The Vatican as Political Hotbed: “The Last Confession” offers Papal mystery

David Suchet as a Vatican political manipulator in "The Last Confession" at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

David Suchet as a Vatican political manipulator in “The Last Confession” at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Okay, I’ll confess. I’m hooked on mysteries: novels, BBC series, unrealistic forensic-based television icons (albeit in small doses), reality shows, you name it. The best are those fraught with intrigue and political wrangling. Add a touch of an unknown society, or of religious dogma, and it just gets better. So, you can imagine my excitement at seeing David Suchet (yes, “Poirot” to most American viewers) in Roger Crane’s “The Last Confession.”

Now at the Ahmanson Theatre in its one US stop before heading to Australia, “The Last Confession” is perhaps best categorized as a psychological thriller. A high ranked cardinal in the Catholic political sphere looks back at the events surrounding the short tenure of Pope John Paul I, whose 33-day reign in 1978 has been the source of philosophical statement, myth and conspiracy theory ever since. Cardinal Benelli (Suchet) is dying, and in his confession he examines his responsibility and influence in, first, the election and then the death of this brief pontiff.

There are two possible pitfalls in all of this. First, one must avoid turning this into a philosophical panel discussion. Second, one must avoid turning the whole thing into a collection of ridiculous conspiracy theories worthy of Dan Brown.

Certainly, the energized direction of Jonathan Church and the fascinating modular set of William Dudley keep the first from happening. And by and large, one avoids the second through two separate actions, from both the director and the script itself: concentrating on character as much or more then on the mystery, and developing an underlying philosophical conversation on the priorities of any man leading the Vatican.

Suchet creates an interestingly intersected man. As power broker, Benelli fights his own ambitions by promoting someone deemed pure and innocent of the Vatican intrigues, while his struggles with faith and a fear of the status quo lead him to abandon the pope he created to his fate. Philip Craig gives Benelli’s confessor a hardness which makes the questions asked and answered particularly sharp, and offers a few surprises of his own.

As the simple cardinal made Pope, Richard O’Callaghan provides an antithesis to the general tension, carrying with him an inner calm that can be humorous and remains unflappable. It makes for delicious contrast with the general aggressiveness of those in the Curia. Likewise, as the assistants he brings with him into the Vatican, Sam Parks and Sheila Ferris contribute to the humor and humanity of this man quickly become the outsider in an insider’s game.

Indeed, when it comes to performance, the ensemble is universally strong. Worthy of special note are Donald Douglas, as the amiable Pope Paul VI, balancing opposing forces with diplomacy, Stuart Milligan as the bishop whose charge of the Vatican Bank comes with mafia connections, and Nigel Bennett as the ferocious defender of the norm whose powerful push to thwart the new pope proves overwhelming.

In the midst of this sort-of whodunit, filled as it is (whether truthfully or not) with all the politics and power struggles of a great political mystery, a subtextual, and textual wrestle with faith has its moments. Sadly, it all builds toward a potentially intense conclusion that simply doesn’t happen. All the sizzle drains out in a last-minute twist which proves unpredictable, not in a particularly satisfactory way. Instead of leaving the play with satisfyingly complicated scenario to chew over, one leaves scratching one’s head.

That the Vatican is full of intrigue is not news. One only has to follow either the upper reaches of the church in its the reaction to priestly misconduct or the prosecutions of high ranking Vatican personnel to know that. And the new Pope Francis, in his recent announcement of the excommunication of all mafia members makes some of the drama within this play almost pale by comparison. Still, it is fun to speculate on the inner workings of such an insular place, and what that can do to essentially good people. If only, in the end, there was a more satisfying “there” there.

What: “The Last Confession” When: Through July 6, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $105 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Silly, Lighthearted Nostalgia: “Bye Bye Birdie” in Claremont

Maggie Anderson's Kim waits for a kiss from Kevin McDonald as singer Conrad Birdie in "Bye Bye Birdie" [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

Maggie Anderson’s Kim waits for a kiss from Kevin McDonald as singer Conrad Birdie in “Bye Bye Birdie” [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

For those of us who grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there are certain cultural earmarks. We all remember Ed Sullivan and the fact that every set we knew was tuned to him on Sunday nights. We all remember (whether or not we were devoted fans) Elvis, back when he was cool and comparatively un-spangle-y. And we remember when a black-and-white Dick Van Dyke was tripping over an ottoman every week.

Out of that time, and in that time, came the Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” for which Van Dyke won the Tony which propelled him onto television. Vaguely based on the hysteria caused when Elvis was drafted, it managed to make fun of its own time in a lighthearted and tuneful way which has now turned it into a cute and lighthearted period piece. Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, its view of working women may remind one more of “Mad Men” than anything relatable today, but that is offset by the general cheer and silliness.

Kim McAfee is the 15-year-old, midwestern small-town fan whose name is chosen for a spectacular event: Conrad Birdie, the heartthrob rocker, will sing to her on The Ed Sullivan Show and then give her his last kiss before reporting to the army. All of this is the machination of Birdie’s manager, Albert Peterson, who has written the song and is trying to make enough money to marry his longtime assistant. The assistant, Rosie Alvarez, is in a duel for Albert’s attentions with his domineering and comically manipulative mother and business partner, Mae. And, of course, neither Kim’s newly acquired boyfriend Hugo, nor her father, are particularly happy to see her kissing a sex symbol on television.

Maggie Anderson sings and dances well, and gives a genuine quality to Kim, which makes a nice antidote to the far-too-old Ann Margaret of the film version. David Aldrete stomps and pouts as the stereotypical father, and has a great moment in the show’s two best songs: Hymn for a Sunday Evening (which apparently embarrassed Ed Sullivan no end), and the oft-repeated “Kids”. Candace Elder oozes understanding as Kim’s mother.

Beth Mendoza has a terrific time as the overblown Mae, right down to the Brooklyn accent. Kevin McDonald really looks the part of the young Elvis-style crooner, black leather jacket and all, as Birdie. Yet, perhaps the most central figures to making the whole show work are Allen Everman’s earnest and intense Albert, and Amber-Sky Skipps’ Rosie. Backed by a strong dancing ensemble, given great numbers to perform by choreographer Hector Guerrero and tight, interesting characterization by director John LaLonde, these two power the storyline.

Skipps has, perhaps, the roughest time, simply because her character was created for one of the greatest dancers ever on Broadway, Chita Rivera. The great dance sequence with a band of shriners is rough, and sometimes lacks the crispness of the other numbers, but her characterization is strong and wins out in the end.

In truth, “Bye Bye Birdie” is fun, but mostly lightweight nostalgia. Its cheerful lyrics, like the charmingly ironic “How Lovely to be a Woman” sung by a teenager, or the show’s most famous number, “Put On a Happy Face,” will leave one bright and bubbly. The show is good for kids, as the most “immoral” moment is Birdie’s hip-swivels, an homage to the part of Elvis that Sullivan wouldn’t show on television. And the food is good – particularly so, this time. So, go take a look. It’s a nice, simple way to celebrate the advent of summer.

What: “Bye Bye Birdie” When: Through July 13, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: meal inclusive, $53-$68 adults, $25 children Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Hollywood Drama/Human Face: “Stoneface” reintroduces Buster Keaton

French Stewart as Buster Keaton waiting for the house to fall in "Stoneface" [photo: Jim Cox]

French Stewart as Buster Keaton waiting for the house to fall in “Stoneface” [photo: Jim Cox]

The story of early Hollywood offers a host of human dramas. The switch from silent to sound, the development of the monolithic studio system, the pressures on actors and others to live up to their publicity – all of this can be grist for the novelist or playwright’s mill. The trick is to avoid melodrama – to stay real to the people behind the celluloid. When that happens, the window on this fascinating, artistic and insular world can be a revelation.

Take as a uniquely framed, fascinating example “Stoneface,” Vanessa Claire Stewart’s tale of silent star Buster Keaton, which has just expanded from the Sacred Fools Theater Company to the Pasadena Playhouse. The play was written for, and stars, the playwright’s husband French Stewart, who has long been an aficionado of Keaton and his work. As such, his moves echo the man on the screen. It adds to the sense of convoluted but engrossing authenticity which makes the play work.

Keaton, for the uninitiated, was a comic genius of the silent screen comparable to (though vastly different from) Charlie Chaplin. His stunt work was amazing, although it led to the breaking of virtually every bone in his body at one time or another. His ability to weather – on screen – all sorts of physical disaster without changing expression became his hallmark – hence the nickname Stoneface.

Off screen, of course, everything was more complex. Fame swept him away, as did a glamorous but not necessarily heart-based marriage. Keaton’s deep friendship with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle contributed not only to his alcoholism but, as the power of the big studios grew and sound appeared, his disaffection with Hollywood itself. That he would resurrect himself before the end is both surprising and sincerely satisfying.

Stewart is impressive, but this is not a one-man show by any means. Some of his best work plays off of others, especially Joe Fria as Keaton’s younger self, with whom the older man has significant arguments. Scott Leggett gives a touchingly real portrait of Keaton’s close friend Arbuckle, seen mostly in that period after false accusations ruined his career. And this is only the start, as a well-defined ensemble cast creates Keaton’s world.

Worthy of note are Jake Broder as his agent-manager, Tegan Ashton Cohan as his first wife, and Rena Strober in the dual role of Norma Talmadge – that wife’s sister, and as Eleanor, Keaton’s last, more enduring spouse. Pat Towne makes an appropriately bombastic Louis B. Mayer, Conor Duffy and Daisy Eagan fill in the story, and Guy Picot delivers a brief but brilliant turn as Charlie Chaplin. A special nod goes to Ryan Johnson, who accompanies the play live, just as one would watch (or film) a silent movie.

Still, this cast and this script become the magic that is “Stoneface” thanks to director Jaime Robledo’s vision, which seamlessly moves from film to live action to film, taking a story told in vignettes and giving it a sense of wholeness, and occasionally of magic. Joel Daavid’s angular and facile set, with its built-in moments of Keaton sight gags, and Ben Rock and Anthony Backman’s excellent projection design give the story both teeth and the underlying, innate fascination.

According to “Stoneface” (and other reading seems to back this up), Keaton was a whipcrack smart, inventive artist whose vision was obscured by changing times, personal dramas, and power struggles he was ill-equipped to fight. Yet, in the end of the play what one remembers is the underlying rumble of resilience which, if Stewart is to be believed, gave him an ability to bounce back few could equal.

Word of advice: go early, and go in to sit in the theater. You’ll see much, if not all, of one of Keaton’s comic films – a film referenced throughout the play. Also, just for fun, go find a copy of “The General,” the comparatively subtle piece once reviled and now considered his greatest work. In the process, marvel at what he does with his body, all the while keeping that signature stone face.

What: “Stoneface” When: Through June 29, 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: $34 – $74 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

“Charley’s Aunt” at Whittier: Take an old favorite, add zing, and enjoy

The cast of "Charley's Aunt" at Whittier Community Theatre, in a period-style portrait

The cast of “Charley’s Aunt” at Whittier Community Theatre, in a period-style portrait

Just as with film, some older stage comedies easily stand the test of time. Nobody objects to a new, albeit period, production of “Harvey” or “Arsenic and Old Lace” because they are genuinely funny. The same is true for less-often revived works as well, as long as they are approached as if new – that is, approached with the same zest that performers would give a brand new joke. The rule of thumb is, always, that one cannot expect something with a long reputation of being entertaining to continue to be so without human energy and commitment.

This is hard on less experienced performers or companies, where some performers may let the script drive the show while others are more in charge. Take, as an example, the production of “Charley’s Aunt” at the Whittier Community Theatre. The silly, cross-dressing comedy has been beloved for over 120 years, having originally opened in London in 1892. As such, the wit has the same formality one hears in Oscar Wilde, and comes from the same ethos. Yet, the humor reaches the audience through emotional connection and vitality in the playing of it. At Whittier, this verve is unevenly present. A little charging up of a few characters is almost all that is needed for the piece to shine.

The story has a good foundation for humor. Jack Chesney and Charley Wykeham, two Oxford undergrads, have fallen in love. The objects of their affection, Kitty and Amy, are the niece and ward of a stuffy solicitor who would never see his way to letting the girls be alone with two college men. Fortunately, on the date they hope to meet for lunch, Charley’s benefactor and aunt – whom he has never met – is due to arrive. Then she doesn’t.

To keep the tryst from dissolving, the boys talk fellow student Lord Fancourt Babberley into dressing up as an old woman and playing the wealthy, widowed aunt. The plot thickens as the solicitor, as well as Jack’s father, both make plays for the elderly woman in order to solidify their fortunes. And then, of course, a very aunt-like woman arrives with her own ward in tow.

Let’s face it, a guy dressed up as a woman but wanting to be a guy is just funny. Kieran Flanagan, as the increasingly reluctant Lord Babberley is absolutely the best thing in the WCT production, in part because he has all the best bits. Andrew Cerecedes, as Charley, does frustration and panic very well, and Austin Sauer, as Jack, certainly looks the part of an Oxford man, though he sometimes needs to evince a bit more excitement.

Anthony Duke does well as Jack’s proud but somewhat impoverished father. Tim Heaton plays the solicitor as such a dunderhead it all ends up in a comic “sameness.” Jim Gittelson as Jack’s “scout” or in-house servant should be tying everything together with lively commentary about his betters, but instead sometimes slows the action down with his formality. Nancy Tyler as the mysterious arrival, brings the speed back up, and Jasmine West, Amanda Riisager and Louisa Brazeau play the sweet innocent young ladies to the hilt.

Which is all to say that, at its core, this is a fine production. It just needs a little juice. Tightening and energy will bring it back to the level people have been laughing at all these years. Director Roxanne Barker has a long history in community theater, and knows how to make that happen, but needs to make certain that it does.

One possible issue, at the start, has to do with the set, whose design is uncredited in the program. The standard housing of an Oxford man at that time would have been comparatively cramped, but in a noble attempt to create a set allowing a series of very quick changes, Jack’s is vast – and the humor to be gained with a small space full of panicky young men is lost. On the other hand, the set’s two other aspects work well with the script, so perhaps that is the gain to this particular loss. In a positive note, a strong nod goes to Lois Tedrow who once again supplies a host of reasonably period costuming.

In the end, “Charley’s Aunt” is long for a modern theater-going audience, but the WCT production is often quite engaging. A bit more zip and the evening will fly by. In general, it is good to see a play which has been so loved for so long up on its feet again. And that may be one of the purposes of a place like Whittier Community Theatre – itself the oldest continually operating community theatrical group west of the Mississippi River.

In that vein, one must also tender respect for WCT’s recent loss. Deac Hunter, who was busily playing supporting roles onstage as recently as this season, passed away in March at age 92. A longtime WCT member, he was the kind of person community theater is built on. If you go to the performance, look for a lovely remembrance in the program. Even as just an audience member, I will miss him.

What: “Charley’s Aunt” When: Remaining performances 8 p.m. June 13 and 14 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors, students, juniors, and those with military ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

“Les Miz” Rises: Great musical done right in La Mirada

The Company of the McCoy/Rigby Entertainment production of "Les  Miserables" in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

The Company of the McCoy/Rigby Entertainment production of “Les Miserables” in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

If I had to make a list of the most fulfilling stage musicals I have ever seen, “Les Miserables” would be up there in the top five. In live performance, it offers a significant combination of strong story (well edited from another medium though it may be), strikingly memorable music, lushness, message, and star turns. When I first saw it in its original London production, one of the things which also struck me was the comparative simplicity of the performance format: tech did not outweigh content. At the time, when musical theater was full of roller skates and falling chandeliers, the production of “Les Miz” was comparatively simple – occasionally stunningly so.

Which is part of what upset me about the 25th anniversary revival tour, when it arrived at the Ahmanson. Though I am never one to insist that any theatrical work be chained to its original staging, the new rendition went higher tech, taking it a direction which, in several critical moments, picked spectacle over substance. And the performers knew it. The heart was drained from the entire proceeding.

All of this brings me to the relief I felt seeing the new rendition by the McCoy Rigby Entertainment series at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. It’s like the show has its mojo back: strong performances, tight pacing, and a more performer-centric production. It works. It works the way it always does when it is done right: the cast has chemistry, the story has power, and the audience is swept up in the sheer melodramatic richness of it all.

A strong ensemble powers the piece, creating space for some fine performances. James Barbour brings to Jean Valjean just the right measure of fear, anger and deeply loving regret. His voice handles the extreme range of music with a naturalness which belies its difficulty. Randall Dodge’s Javert vibrates with moral conviction without becoming a complete cartoon. In the brief but powerful part of Fantine, Cassandra Murphy balances desperation and heart-wrenching despair with grace, while Michael Stone Forrest becomes memorable in the even more brief but pivotal role of the Bishop of Digne.

Randall Dodge as Javert and James Barbour as Jean Valjean [photo: Michael Lamont]

Randall Dodge as Javert and James Barbour as Jean Valjean [photo: Michael Lamont]

Kimberly Hessler and Nathan Irvin make a splendid couple as the young and idealistic lovers Cosette and Marius, while Jeff Skowron and particularly Meeghan Holaway have delightful fun as the blatantly evil Thenardiers. Young Jude Mason makes a plucky little Gavroche, and sings with intensity and clarity beyond his apparent years. Anthony Fedorov looks scrappier than is sometimes portrayed, but still lights the egalitarian fires as the passionate student Enjolras. Valerie Rose Curiel’s voice has a slight pop overtone which sometimes seems inappropriate, but she gives the ill-fated Eponine considerable character.

Still, it is by looking at the production as a whole that one finds the most satisfaction. For me, the “tell” as to whether or not the words and story matter most is the death of Javert. This production returns to the simple, stylish, understated concept from the first production – a confirming moment which, I will admit, produced a fist-pump from me: if they got that, they got the whole balance right.

Kudos, thus, to director Brian Kite who took the best of the old and worked with it to make it new. Choreographer Dana Solimando, often in this production more of a movement coordinator, gives the piece visual style. Praise also to set designer Cliff Simon and lighting designer Steven Young. If there was an Achilles heel in this performance it came at the hands of the microphones which had a tendency to blank out at critical moments. I’m sure sound designer Josh Bessom has been on that ever since.

So, if you haven’t ever seen “Les Miserables” done on stage, this is a fine version to check out. If you have, this one will not disappoint. One can only hope that those in the future who wish to keep this remarkable musical alive will learn from the errors of their forebears that when the material is this good, quite often the “less is more” rule definitely applies.

What: “Les Miserables” When: Through June 22, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

A Small Joy: Little Candle Productions world premiere of “Cold Tangerines” at Fremont CT

Lynn Downey Braswell as Shauna, surrounded by one version of her alter-egos (Betsy Roth, Kira Shea and Susannah Hicks) in the double-cast production of "Cold Tangerines: The Play" [photo: Karissa McKinney]

Lynn Downey Braswell as Shauna, surrounded by one version of her alter-egos (Betsy Roth, Kira Shea and Susannah Hicks) in the double-cast production of “Cold Tangerines: The Play” [photo: Karissa McKinney]

NOTICE: The run of this play has now been extended, by popular demand, to July 13

Author Shauna Niequist has developed a reputation for writing about the ordinary stuff of life. She does so from a religious perspective, but if “Cold Tangerines: The Play,” an adaptation of Niequist’s book by Lynn Downey Braswell, is any indication, the human commonalities are central, with faith more of an undercurrent. And because of that, this play has a universality made truly entertaining by the way in which it is staged.

Now at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena, Little Candle Productions’ world premiere of this adaptation proves funny, charming, touching and heartwarming in a comparatively un-saccharine way. For this one can thank the adaptor, a strong cast, and Karissa McKinney’s tight and engaging direction.

The central character and narrator is Shauna, played here by Braswell. Essentially, this becomes the story of her journey into actual adulthood, framed by the three continual voices in her head: the frustrated perfectionist (Kira Shea, alternating with Aliza Pearl), the anxious wife and potential mother (Emily Greco, alternating with Betsy Roth) and the harsh evaluator of self-image (Abby Lynn, alternating with Susannah Hicks). As Shauna speaks, her “voices” act out the situations or provide Greek chorus. It works on a number of levels.

First, Braswell’s narration creates quick connection, as does her delivery. The added voices offer physical comedy, punctuation and an evocative illustration for the issues discussed. The words have a genuine feel, and the adaptation moves smoothly from episode to episode without overplaying any one theme or leaving one wishing for too much more.

Kira Shea must be the chameleon, and does so without missing a beat, shifting from the voice in Shauna’s head to the various males with whom the central storyteller interacts. Emily Greco’s impressive gifts of comic timing and facial expression lead both to the greatest empathy in the piece and some of its most laugh-out-loud moments. The contrast between Abby Lynn’s portrait of a calm exterior and inner wranglings also adds connection to the narrator and to the audience.

The set is basic, and Carol Doehring’s lighting design moves the audience focus from voice to voice in a deceptively effortless way. Andrew Villaverde’s use of sound enhances the storytelling. There is a great sense of ensemble in the piece, and of a singular vision reached by many people at once.

This is not an earthshaking play, any more than Niequiest’s book is an earth shattering book, but it has a gentle, recognizable something to say about the human spirit. Intimate in concept and theme, it works well in the FTC’s small, close-in space. “Cold Tangerines: The Play” can be summed up as the “warm fuzzy” of plays. And sometimes, that can be just what the doctor ordered.

What: “Cold Tangerines: The Play” When: Through June 29, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena How Much: $25 general, $20 students and seniors Info: (866) 811-4111 or http://www.fremontcentretheatre.com

Experimental Setting: “The Gondoliers” rides into Sierra Madre

Craig McEldowney, Jenna Augen, November Christine and Dan "DW" McCann are "The Gondoliers" and their wives in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

Craig McEldowney, Jenna Augen, November Christine and Dan “DW” McCann are “The Gondoliers” and their wives in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]


One of the great movements of the 20th century theater was a push to move classics of the stage out of their traditional boxes. This is, of course, most evident in the productions of Shakespeare, which was moved outside of the usual “doublet and hose” setting into all kinds of fabulous and/or symbolic situations. Such moves can make an old warhorse speak with new energy.

Indeed, even lighter works like those of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan took well to being toyed with. This spelled the death knell of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, whose totally unchanged, Victorian stagings of their operettas began to seem dusty. But it also meant that new generations could find current connections to their comedy, and the political and social commentaries the operettas were grounded in. Which brings us to the production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers” at the Sierra Madre Playhouse.

Director and adaptor Alison Eliel-Kalmus has chosen to make the piece a play within a play, sort of, and to ground this silly tale in modern space. In her version, it is Coronation Day 1953, and most of London is madly celebrating the crowning of a new, young and vibrant queen. A group of actors must leave the general merry-making for a run-through of “The Gondoliers” prior to traipsing off to perform in Brighton – where their sets and costumes have already been sent. So, in an empty space, using whatever theatrical flotsam they can, they sing through the show in their street clothes.

From a purely practical, financial sense, setting the show this way allows one to do away with colorful period costumes (it is supposed to take place in a fantasy-era Venice), and use whatever bits of scenery are to hand. And they do. The artistic advantage to be had from this is a focus on the music – some of Sullivan’s best – and on the comparatively caustic commentary on the class system and monarchy the tale contains.

As for the performance itself, in any Gilbert and Sullivan operetta the lyrics are key. Articulation is everything. Classically trained vocalists used to singing the great operas sometimes have problems with this differing view of the art form. This production is no exception, as the chorus and occasionally a central character get more involved with the lovely music than words it is not only vital to hear but understand in order to follow what’s going on. Still, though this is particularly annoying in the first half, it does improve in the second.

The story revolves around the future of the supposed kingdom of Barataria. The king has died in an insurrection, and his long-hidden son must replace him. The problem has several facets. First, The Grand Inquisitor of Spain removed the boy in infancy and placed him with a lowly Italian peasant to be raised as his son. Now, the peasant is gone and Giuseppe and Marco, raised as brothers, are gondoliers. No one can remember which is the foster son.

So, both gondoliers, who are essentially “republican,” and therefore anti-monarchy, move to Barataria, along with their wives, to take over command of the country. Then, of course, there is Casilda, the daughter of a Spanish duke, who was married to the late king’s son when both were infants. She has fallen for another, unaware she was married, and the gondoliers both have wives. What will happen?

Dan “DW” McCann and particularly Craig McEldowney make a lively pair of gondoliers, vocally up to the parts and entertainingly egalitarian in character. As their spouses, Jenna Augen has an almost Imogene Coca-style of comic silliness, while November Christine manages an earnest passion and richness of tone one could only wish was matched by enough vocal articulation to fully get her often entertaining lyrics. James Jaeger and Joy Weiser make much silliness of the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro, while Kara Masek, as their daughter, sings beautifully when called upon – and that’s about all her part is called on to do.

Also worth noting are John Szura as the Inquisitor, Leslie Thompson as the new king’s foster mother – and the person who sorts out the puzzle of the piece, and John King, who makes much out of the Spanish servant Luiz – a man with his own secrets.

In short, though there are a few rough spots, and the characters Eliel-Kalmus has created sometimes blur a bit with the characters in the musical offering, this production is a good chance to hear one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s greatest musical treasures. Still, one wonders at the choice to set the piece in this particular time period, as the juxtaposition is a bit odd: actors celebrating the crowning of Queen Elizabeth II, then coming in to perform a piece about the ridiculousness of monarchy and the class structure. Then again, maybe that’s the point.

What: “The Gondoliers” When: Through June 21, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Ave. in Sierra Madre How Much: $28 general, $25 seniors, $18 youth, $12 children under 12 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 366 other followers

%d bloggers like this: