Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Pasadena area.

Intro to a Great Man, Sort Of (Paul Robeson celebrated at the Mark Taper Forum)

Daniel Beaty is Paul Robeson in the one-man show he also penned, "The Tallest Tree in the Forest"

Daniel Beaty is Paul Robeson in the one-man show he also penned, “The Tallest Tree in the Forest”

There is no doubt at all that Paul Robeson was a remarkable man. Gifted with an extraordinary, deep bass singing voice, he rose out of poverty to become the most celebrated black entertainer – and one of the most celebrated entertainers of any background – in America. He was also Ivy League educated, and credentialed as a lawyer, both of which fired in him an articulate but nonetheless passionate anger regarding racism, here or abroad.

One would assume most people know this, His confrontation with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was legendary, as was his love of the Soviet Union (at least in its early days). Still, according to Daniel Beaty, who wrote and performs “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” at the Mark Taper Forum, many nowadays do not. For that group, this new one-man show has a lot to offer. Yet, a single major element keeps the whole thing from being as good as it might have been.

Directed by Moises Kaufman, and making grand use of John Narun’s projection design, “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” follows Robeson from youth to old age in flashes of dialogue, peppered by many of the songs the man was most famous for singing. Beaty plays all the parts, managing even Robeson’s ambitious wife without being silly. The tale strings together with greater power than one might expect.

Yet there is still one unfortunate, glaring issue.

Music is central to this piece, as it was central to Robeson’s life and career. Indeed, he is often considered the ultimate interpreter of that Hammerstein and Kern classic, “Ol’ Man River.” Yet, one reason he made this song so much his own was his treatment of the stereotypical, if well-meaning, lyric language. Robeson sang it all with careful and precise articulation, as a refusal to play down to the step-n-fetchit characterization so common in Hollywood and on Broadway at the time.

This is not what we get from Beaty. Though he also plays the music straight, the articulation isn’t there. His voice is a good one, if not as deep as Robeson’s true bass, but he slurs words and notes. Often. Sometimes to the detriment of the point the song is there to make. This would not be quite so annoying if it weren’t so far from the quality which was a defining characteristic of the man being celebrated.

Still, even as one trips up over the music issue, Beaty’s script is strong and his portrayal careful and grand, with occasionally fascinating results. It is also extraordinarily well researched. Though it is tough to get such a large life crammed into a couple of hours, he has picked highlights which truly show the evolution of a lawyer into an artist and an artist into a towering, politically controversial figure.

If people really do need to learn who Robeson was – a sad state of affairs, if true – then “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” would make a reasonable intro. Just go home afterward and look up film of Robeson actually singing those great songs. Then you will have the whole picture.

What: “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” When: Through May 25, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with some exceptions Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Subtle and Stunning: “Come Back, Little Sheba” renewed at A Noise Within

Deborah Strang and Geoff Elliott as Lola and Doc in the fine A Noise Within production of Come Back, Little Sheba [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Deborah Strang and Geoff Elliott as Lola and Doc in the fine A Noise Within production of Come Back, Little Sheba [photo: Craig Schwartz]

For some, William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba” is from another time – close enough to be discomforting but not close enough to be relevant. I might have believed so too, except for a wise and understated performance of the work just opened at A Noise Within. There, the time frame has the same impact as the set: it simply provides a place where troubled, very human characters can exist. Those characters themselves, in the hands of a strong and insightful cast, prove timeless in their very humanity. All at once, this play is not a dinosaur, but a window on the human soul. And, quite unlike the more familiar renditions, there is a quiet knot of hope in there somewhere.

The tale is, for some, a familiar one. Doc and Lola live in a small house somewhere in the midwest. He is a chiropractor, having had to give up a promising medical education when Lola became pregnant. They then lost the baby. Now Lola, heavy and stupefyingly lonely, grasps at anyone who walks in the door as a source of conversation. Doc, after a long bout of drunkenness, has been in AA for almost a year and is deeply proud of his own self control. Yet this is powered by an inability to look back – in conflict with Lola’s longing for her popular and coquettish youth.

Lili Fuller and Miles Gaston Villanueva as the new, potentially disturbing generation [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Lili Fuller and Miles Gaston Villanueva as the new, potentially disturbing generation [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Into this world has come a boarder: a young college student named Marie. She brings a sweetness, but a generational shift: holding a useful, handsome but somewhat vapid boyfriend intimately close even as she is engaged to a rising young businessman back in her home town. For Lola, she is a lovely reminder of her own days of popularity. For Doc, she is a reminder of his youth, and the purity he lost. What will happen if he finds out she isn’t the sweet, pure thing he believes her to be?

The internal struggles of Lola and Doc power the piece. Though not much happens to change them in the script itself, it is up to the actors to find the subtle adjustments which come from wrestling with boredom and demons and a shifting world. This task is left to Deborah Strang, whose portraits are always an intellectual and emotional treat, and Geoff Elliott in perhaps the most underplayed and cerebral turn of his in recent memory. Between them they keep the play fascinating.

Along with these two, Lili Fuller makes a sweet-faced, but calculating Marie, Miles Gaston Villanueva’s jock of a boyfriend manages to be rather narcissistic and detached from seriousness without devolving into stereotype, and in a brief appearance Paul Culos gives the out-of-town fiancé the aura of success and single-mindedness without the snobby elitism which sometimes colors the character. Mitchell Edmonds makes Doc’s AA sponsor a warm, determined and practical guy, while John Klopping has a lovely time as the earnest young milkman flattered by Lola’s interest in his self-improvement. Jill Hill makes lovely work of the neighbor woman, whose shift in tone and attitude seem natural and heartfelt.

Pulled together by director Elliott and co-director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, this “Come Back, Little Sheba” has a gentle rhythm, a terrific use of space, and – and I say it once again – an underplayed subtlety which makes the whole thing hum along. Dramatic moments mean something when everything else is not played at forte, and the opportunity to watch the internal wrestlings in, particularly, Strang’s face ends up telling so much more than if everything was rather overblown.

One must make a nod to Stephen Gifford’s representative set design, and to Leah Piehl’s solidly period costumes. They ground the play, as do the equally period props and furniture amassed by Kristina Teves.

As for the play itself, yes, the material is dated. How many middle-to-low income couples, even in the midwest, can afford to have the wife stay at home? How many pregnant girls these days face shotgun marriages? Our post-birth control pill age is far more apt to accept a variety of ethical models of behavior, and to consider the narrower views of sex in that generation to be fusty and unworkable. Still, those things are window-dressing in a work about struggle, identity and loneliness. That is the core of this classic play, at least in this production.

As a result, a treasure has been discovered where there might easily have been something less interesting. That is worth celebrating.

What: “Come Back, Little Sheba” When: Through May 17 in repertory with “MacBeth” and “Tartuffe,” 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.April 13 and May 4; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., April 26 and May 10; 8 p.m., April 25, May 16 and 17; 7:30 p.m. May 15 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Coward’s “A Song at Twilight” – a great playwright looks in the mirror

Sharon Lawrence and Bruce Davison spar in "A Song at Twilight" at the Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Michael Lamont]

Sharon Lawrence and Bruce Davison spar in “A Song at Twilight” at the Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Michael Lamont]

One of the patterns in the lives of great modern comic playwrights comes as they move into the second half of life. At that point their work tends to balance the usual humor with a more serious undertone. Perhaps they reach for something new. More likely, a greater life experience with its backward looks and painful mistakes balances out their humorous view of the world with something nearer the heart.

Most certainly this happened to the great Noel Coward – a man of wit, bite and fame. He was also troubled along with many fellow men of letters by the cost of that fame, as their lives were lived in the spotlight in a Britain where homosexuality in men, including themselves, was punishable by imprisonment. Just a year before this Neanderthal law was repealed, he offered up a new, and now comparatively obscure play “A Song at Twilight,” about the devil’s compromise men such as himself were forced into. It proves stunning in its honesty, as well as carrying with it the traditional wry tension between the sexes.

Now at the Pasadena Playhouse, “A Song at Twilight” highlights the struggles of being a gay man from the inside, written by someone all too familiar with the risks connected in his own lifetime to simply being who he was.

Sir Hugo Latymer, a celebrated novelist of international fame, is relaxing in a suite with a beautiful view of the Alps, being waited upon by his favorite hotel employee, the charming and efficient Felix, as his wife Hilde sorts out his affairs. Suddenly he encounters – once again – the woman with whom he once had an affair, who arrives with substantive proof that his life in public is not his private truth. The results mix humor, fondness, terror and a gradual understanding of the damage a hidden life has caused not only Latymer but all those with whom he is closely connected.

Bruce Davison gives Latymer the sharp wit and casual elegance as he stands in for Coward’s own view of life. His timing is quick, and his pathos understated. It’s a beautifully and correctly underplayed part. As his German wife, Roxanne Hart brings an innate sadness to the brusk, efficient woman. Indeed, it underscores the price paid by anyone fond of the person whose lie becomes a life’s work.

Sharon Lawrence and Roxanne Hart as the two sides of care for a famed yet innately frightened man

Sharon Lawrence and Roxanne Hart as the two sides of care for a famed yet innately frightened man

Sharon Lawrence’s sharp-edged, wise yet often brutal wit as the dreaded former lover Carlotta is just the right foil for Davison, and interestingly for Hart as well. The contrasts between characters, and yet their interconnectedness at certain moments, is a sign of both the playwright’s and the actors’ art. Zach Bandler makes the affable Felix a more fully drawn character than many a hotel employee in such plays, radiating both efficient professionalism and an underlying sympathy.

Yet, as is often the case with Coward’s work, in the end what one remembers is the feel and theme of the piece. This is enhanced by Art Manke’s beautifully structured direction, which keeps what could easily become a kind of panel discussion on its feet and human. Tom Buderwitz’s set design is, in itself, a character – filled with grandeur and openness even as its central occupant finds himself incapable of at least the second and to some extent the first.

In short, the play and this production become deeply moving even as they often prove humorous. Consider how many people in that dark century of law had to live a lie in order to avoid being jailed for being themselves. Would this were a tale only told in the past tense, but as recent actions in central Africa and Russia attest, people in some parts of the world still live under that same Damoclesian sword.

And how fascinating that in the same week as this lovely production opened, Coward’s own home country allowed same-sex couples to marry. Coward would have been pleased.

What: “A Song at Twilight” When: Through April 13, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $44 – $64 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

Lighthearted Nostalgia: “Crazy for You” taps into Candlelight Pavilion

The grander than grand finale of "Crazy for You" [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

The grander than grand finale of “Crazy for You” [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

The American fascination with the original, silly American musical is never-ending. Sometimes it results in revivals of some of the early greats: “42nd Street” or “Anything Goes” among them. Sometimes it leads to satire, as newer shows like “The Drowsy Chaperone” underscore our nation’s passion for their often ridiculous characters and sometimes illogical story lines. And then there is “Crazy for You,” which found the balance by giving a new, though reminiscent plot line and then peppering the piece with the best of George and Ira Gershwin’s songs.

Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, “Crazy for You,” the lighthearted, comic little musical, makes a surprisingly satisfying splash on their tiny stage. There’s lots of tap dancing, plenty of tuneful moments (as one would expect from the Gershwins), many good hearted musical stereotypes, and some genuine laughs. It’s a fine, if not particularly mentally taxing way to spend an evening.

The story is basic, pre-war Broadway. Bobby Child loves to dance, but his mother wants him to settle into business and marry the wealthy and suitable Irene. After he auditions rather disastrously for Bela Zangler of the Zangler Follies, he falls in line with his mother’s dreams and heads out to serve foreclosure papers on a theater in an obscure desert town in Arizona. There he meets up with every possible western type, and a girl named Polly, and having taken on the guise of Zangler, in the best tradition of such pieces decides to gather folk and put on a show.

Of course, traditional tap numbers are essential

Of course, traditional tap numbers are essential

Chris Duir makes a fine Bobby, dancing well, singing with gusto, and also able to handle the required clowning with style. Most particularly, the mirror gag he performs with Bryan Overmyer’s Zangler takes real skill on both their parts, and earns its genuine laughs. Susanna Vaughan makes a cheery, corn fed Polly, and though the chemistry between her and Duir is not particularly strong, they charge their way through the musical with an individual vitality which makes up for it.

Among the sizable cast, Overmyer and Jenny Moon Shaw also have some fun moments as the traditional comic duo, whose brief appearance in the second act adds a layer to the comedic tone. Shaw also makes a most severe mother for the energetic Bobby, and Angela Calderon ends up almost a non sequitur as the suddenly sultry Irene. David M. Laffey sticks out even over the other silly western “types” as the large and somewhat dim Moose. Yet, one could go on and on, as the cast displays both singing and dancing talent in significant abundance.

Director Neil Dale keeps the pace flowing, while Dustin Ceithamer’s recreation of Susan Stroman’s choreography is adapted well to the much smaller space. So is the set (uncredited) which has been shrunken to fit the space without losing any of its essential elements. A bravo also goes to Mary Warde for wigs which – and you’d be surprised how unusual this is – do not look so cheap/fake as to distract from the show.

Again, “Crazy for You,” despite its comparative youth, has more in common with the popular musicals of the 30s than with anything recent. Thus it is lighthearted, airy, full of tap dancing feats and silly comedy. For a moment when all you want is entertainment, it should be very appealing. And, at Candlelight Pavilion, it comes with a lovely dinner as well.

What: “Crazy for You” When: Through April 27, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for brunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $53-$68 general, $25 for children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1524 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Witches Rule the Dark in A Noise Within’s “MacBeth”

Elijah Alexander is the ill-fated "MacBeth" at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Elijah Alexander is the ill-fated “MacBeth” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Like any big Shakespeare fan, I collect productions of “MacBeth.” This dark and cynical tale contains some of the Bard’s finest language, and its focus on the rapidity with which ambition can overtake ethics certainly resonates in our modern world. Besides, its mystical aspects provide a rich canvas for a good director. What form shall the witches take? How shall the superstitions inherent in the piece be incorporated into the larger play?

Now, at A Noise Within in Pasadena, director Larry Carpenter has set his play in no time and every time, where swords occasionally compete with pistols and modern military garb blends with 15th century armor. In the midst of it all, three amorphous characters take on most of the “minor” roles – servants, doctors, murderers – when not embodying the witches who spark the madness. It’s great entertainment, with its aura of doom and its constant physical engagement with the audience. Even some of those scenes which often become awkward have a consistency of vision which pull them into the spookiness of the whole.

Elijah Alexander is MacBeth, making him a likable man, but a man of physicality – easily manipulated by desires, whether for his honor, his wife, or power – not a man to ruminate on consequences before it is too late. Jules Willcox steams as his lady, radiating a passion which moves MacBeth to murder, yet is not going to be able to control the resulting whirlwind which puts him largely beyond her reach. As these two collide with and repel each other, the rest of a strong cast rounds out the story of their whirlwind.

Matt Orduna’s solidly noble Duncan plays well against MacBeth’s lighter-weight sensibility. Leith Burke’s Banquo becomes the image of the stalwart, if admittedly somewhat ambitious friend, until he is undone. David DeSantos’s resolute, wise MacDuff, gradually working to right the ship of Scotland, echoes Duncan’s nobility and intelligence. Feodor Chin, as that odd combination of wisdom and changeable nature, Duncan’s son Malcolm, makes his vagaries almost make sense. Katie Pelensky and Theo Taplitz, as MacDuff’s doomed wife and son, create a moment of light and home in the midst of the terror.

Amin El Gamal is a witch and a very creepy servant in A Noise Within's "MacBeth" [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Amin El Gamal is a witch and a very creepy servant in A Noise Within’s “MacBeth” [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Still, it is the witches who give the play its focus and fascination. Amin El Gamal, Thom Rivera and Jeremy Rabb create the rich foreboding and mystery which elevates this production, not only in their initial roles but as many other smaller elements – a necessity when spreading 28 major and minor characters among a cast of 17. They also effectively underscore how central the idea of the evil is to everything in MacBeth’s life, as, for example, they enhance the often badly handled “dagger I see before me” speech in a way both literal and spooky. Standout in all of this is El Gamal’s truly creepy androgynous servant, who can make one’s skin crawl as a complicit voice of doom.

Carpenter’s use of ghosts – not just that of Banquo, but the gradually swelling host of MacBeth’s silent, observing victims – emphasizes the sense of doom, and underscores the madness of the storyline. It’s a great concept.

The witches, with puppet enhancements [photo: Craig Schwartz]

The witches, with puppet enhancements [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Their otherworldliness as witches is aided by Sean T Cawelti’s fascinatingly simple, yet creepy bits of puppetry. Susan Gratch’s facile platform of a set and evocative lighting set the tone of dark portents. Jenny Foldenouer’s fanciful costuming allows both the swift-change aspects of the witch characters and the quick definition of everyone else.

In short, from the consistency of tone to the layered portraits to the clever and facile use of witches, this “MacBeth” is a treat. By paring down the often overwhelming volume of persons onstage, the central characters stand out more brightly, and the point is more effectively made. In short, it’s a finely crafted production worthy of sold-out audiences, and a true pleasure for a longtime Shakespeare aficionado such as myself.

What: “MacBeth” When: in repertory, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. March 22, 8 p.m. April 22, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. April 12, 7:30 p.m. April 24, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. April 27, 2 p.m and 8 p.m. May 3, 7:30 p.m. May 8, 8 p.m. May 9, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. May 11 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

“Harmony” at the Ahmanson: fascinating true story a la Manilow

(L-R): Will Blum, Douglas Williams, Will Taylor, Matt Bailey, Shayne Kennon and Chris Dwan in“Harmony,” a new musical, with music by Barry Manilow and book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

(L-R): Will Blum, Douglas Williams, Will Taylor, Matt Bailey, Shayne Kennon and Chris Dwan in“Harmony,” a new musical, with music by Barry Manilow and book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

With much fanfare, “Harmony,” the new musical by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman has opened at the Ahmanson Theater. A long-held dream by its creators, it offers up charm and history, pathos and laughter, and a lesson we should have all been aware of, about a group of men who broke barriers just before that became impossible. And it works, with one moderately irritating exception.

The story is incredible and, allowing for a bit of artistic license, true. It concerns the Comedian Harmonists, a group of six close-harmony singers who took Germany, then Europe, and then the US by storm in the 1920s and 30s. The composition of the group was eclectic in many ways, including the fact it had both Jewish (including a former rabbi) and non-Jewish members. Their style was a combination of the close-harmony jazz which grew out of barbershop, the like of which one hears in early film recordings, combined with the silliness of the Marx Brothers. Their art was amazing, including their political satire, and they were as wildly popular in their day as the Beatles were in their own.

Then the Nazis rose to power, and even their popularity could not save them from the consequences.

Sussman’s book handles the necessarily episodic tale with enough flow to make it seem like one story instead of a series of vignettes. Even as you pop from place to place and time to time, you get to care a good deal about the six men and the women who loved them. Director Tony Speciale has gathered a cast of fine comedic and musical talent, and the result is a treat to watch. It’s a visual treat too, as Darrel Maloney’s projections onto Tobin Ost’s angular period-evocative sets and costumes pull you into place and time.

Matt Bailey is unemployed actor Harry Frommerman, the group’s optimistic and energetic founder, who placed an ad in the paper inviting others to join his group. Will Taylor is “Chopin” Bootz, his co-founder and the group’s talented pianist, whose love for a Jewish radical gets him into trouble at the end. Will Blum has a particularly silly time creating Bulgarian singing waiter Ari Leshnikoff, while Chris Dwan gives voice to Erich Collin, the medical student disappointing his upper crust Jewish family by going on the stage. Douglas Williams oozes profundity as operatic bass Bobby Biberti, and Shayne Kennon pretty much owns the stage as Josef Cykowsky, the Polish former rabbi whose story centers the tale. All these men sing, ham it up and connect with each other with a special kind of energy which makes the show work.

Indeed, the whole enterprise is a visual treat. Manilow’s music includes perhaps one or two too many angsty show-stoppers, but they are done very well, and the richly evocative “Where You Go”, sung by Leigh Ann Larkin as Cykowsky’s supportive, converted German wife and Hannah Corneau as Bootz’s more angry one, is a highlight worth seeing the show for. As for the performance pieces the Harmonists sing as a group, it is there that trouble follows. They sing them with great art, and sometimes great intentional silliness, but the style they are given is not quite the style that made the Comedian Harmonists famous.

In a recent interview, Manilow said he needed to adjust the kind of music they were singing, as the original seemed too close to the music behind Mickey Mouse cartoons. And therein lies the rub. One cannot escape the fact that the kind of music early animated films used was recordings of the popular song styles of the day – a sound similar to the Harmonists. To dismiss that sound is to dismiss what The Comedian Harmonists actually were (go listen on YouTube). Instead, in “Harmony” they sound at times like artificially antiquated Manilow. That’s not a bad sound, but it is not the Harmonists’ sound.

Still, and despite this distracting element, the story remains compelling. The choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter is goofy and creative, and the harmony on stage and in song that these characters achieve is impressive. In an era when the memory of that generation is fading, and the witnesses are mostly gone, it is also a uniquely personal look at what the Nazis did to German art and culture. Imagine what would have been, if the creative heart of that generation had not been declared degenerate. As a side note, today in Germany the Comedian Harmonists’ records and films are considered treasures. Time tells.

What: “Harmony” When: Through April 13, 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. in downtown Los Angeles, at the Music Center How Much: $20 – $105 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“Battledrum” – Music helps the young to identify with the Civil War

James Semenc, David Craine and Donzell Lewis the drummers in one of the multiple casts of "Battledrum" in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

James Semenc, David Craine and Donzell Lewis the drummers in one of the multiple casts of “Battledrum” in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

Arguably, in many circumstances the best way to teach children something about the past is to show them. For that reason, various groups at one time or another have created theatrical experiences intended as living educational tools. These can either be taken to schools or – if it is possible – students can be brought to the theater to appreciate two things at once: live theatrical performance, and a greater understanding of whatever historical period, etc., the show is trying to make come alive.

One of the most recent of these is “Battledrum,” by Doug Cooney and Lee Ahlin, the new, original musical running at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. Its main purpose is to educate, and in that capacity it has booked an impressive number of daytime performances for classrooms-full of students. The usual lobby posters have been replaced with an extensive historical display of photos and commentary. Even samples of period clothing appear at the end of the hall. Opening it to the general public for evening performances appears to be only a sideline to the show’s main purpose.

The story revolves around an under-discussed aspect of warfare prior to the 20th century: the role of the drummer boy. Drums were used by officers to communicate across long distances, and thus the boys playing them were often seen by the enemy as targets in the same way the radio man would have been in the 20th century.

In this case, the topic is the American Civil War, and we follow three disparate boys who end up as drummers for the same northern company. One has been with the army for some time, moving up to the primary drummer as those above him have been picked off, and is proud of his status as first drummer. One is a boy the company picks off after his farm is destroyed by those troops. He has nowhere else to go, and likes to drum, but his loyalties are complex. The third is an escaped slave absorbed – somewhat problematically – by this company and befriended by the two other boys.

As a play, “Battledrum” is a good introduction to the tensions and risks of war for younger children. The characters are empathetic, and the music – though not particularly memorable – is sung with gusto and commitment. There is a sense of military hierarchy, and the pathos of an absent mother and of a young Southern woman in shock. And there is enough drumming to keep the kids rather envious. It is also short – less than an hour and a half, without an intermission, so the wiggles will be comparatively few. On the adult evenings, at least, members of the local Civil War Roundtable, who study and portray folks from that period, were on hand to give a local angle to that rather distant war. This may be an attempt to add a certain sophistication to what is essentially a live “afterschool special”.

The show has been double-cast, because of all the daytime performances. The night I saw it, Chris Clowers brought a gee-whiz quality to young Rufus, who escapes his burning barn to end up in the friendly hands of his enemy. Patrick Dillon Curry gave a sense of youthful authority to the drummer boy somewhat resentful of Rufus’ presence as his potential replacement. Damone Williams created a very likable, earnestly freedom-seeking young escaped slave ready for the protection and adventure of his new military position. Will Cespedes provided – and provides for all performances – an anchor of command as the friendly but authoritative company captain. The cast was rounded out by other strong players, with smaller or multiple parts, including Kaitlin Cournelle, Mark Ostrander and Tara Bopp.

Director Christian Lebano has put his all into making this play work, and it does give a sense of authenticity (though perhaps the treatment of the slave is a bit on the warm and fuzzy side for even northerners of the era), until the very end, when suddenly all the performers are drummers, doing a really cool routine no captain would ever be a part of. It’s as if nobody really knew how to end it on a historically accurate note.

In any case, the costumes by Elizabeth Nankin are excellent, the setting – though spare – gives an open impression on the tiny SMP stage, and the vitality and pacing of the piece keeps the audience connected. It’s a great way to be introduced, as a child, to what the Civil War was like, even if it is rather the “kinder, gentler” version of events. In any case, it’s great for grade school kids.

What: The West Coast Premiere of “Battledrum” When: Through April 19, 7 p.m. March 21, 22, and 29, April 5, 12, 18 and 19; 10 a.m. April 11; 1 p.m. April 8; 2:30 p.m. March 23 and 30, and April 6 and 13 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Ave. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 youth (13-21), $12 children Info: (626) 355-4318

Moliere at A Noise Within: It may be Baroque, but don’t ” fix” it

Geoff Elliott and Freddy Douglas as Orgon and the felonious Tartuffe, at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Geoff Elliott and Freddy Douglas as Orgon and the felonious Tartuffe, at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

There is a particular challenge to producing a classic comedy for a modern audience. By “classic” I do not mean vintage Neil Simon, but the comedies of Shakespeare, Sheridan, Moliere and others of considerable vintage. The first challenge is to acknowledge that they are, and can continue to be, funny. The second is to find a way to bring that humor to an audience using the play itself, rather than assuming the observers will not “get” or will be bored by the original script.

This is the challenge in A Noise Within’s production of Moliere’s spot-on send-up of fraudent piety, “Tartuffe.” A solid translation by Richard Wilbur supplies the base. For the most part, Julia Rodriguez-Eliott’s direction gives the respect, and a proficient company makes the antique language and situation glow with recognizable flair.

Almost. The production trips up at the very end, simply because the director either does not trust the intelligence of her audience, or believe in the subtle humor a modern company can create from a historic, tongue-in-cheek, obsequious speech. The shift is so sudden and so glaring it leaves one resentful, rather than glowing with the humor of what is otherwise a splendid production.

Central to the success of this show is Tartuffe himself. Freddy Douglass makes the flim-flam artist masquerading as an ascetic religious zealot so grating, with such an underscore of sly malace it is easy for the audience to join in the instant dislike most of the onstage characters feel. This balances will against Geoff Elliott’s blindly devoted Orgon. It’s standard Elliott, but here that works well (though one wonders why the not-so-subtle, anachronistic addition of bat-wing glasses is needed to indicate his blindness).

The rest of the cast proves equally strong. Among the standouts, Alison Elliott makes fine work of Orgon’s daughter, fighting for her own love life as her father angles her toward the religious con man. Rafael Goldstein makes her original intended just enough of a milquetoast to push the girl to fight her own battle, along with Mark Jacobson as her appalled and frustrated brother. Deborah Strang contributes yet another strong performance as the practical maid who sees the whole thing for the ridiculous situation that it is.

Indeed, it all rolls along with Moliere’s wry and somewhat dark humor at the fore, until we reach the end. Understanding that the play was banned twice, this version contains a flowing speech at the end praising the greatness of the King of France (Louis XV) – probably a necessity to finally get the thing on the stage. It’s reminiscent of a similar speech at the end of one Gilbert and Sullivan opera, to counter Queen Victoria’s lack of amusement at a previous satire.

Instead of letting the rather overblown (and thus satiric) statements roll as their own comedy, the whole thing suddenly becomes a burlesque skit – out of context and out of character. It’s jarring, and doesn’t let the silliness of the “deus ex machina” ending ride under its own power – a great disappointment.

Still, the majority of the production is splendid. Special nods ot Steven Barr of Trifecta Scenery and to Miriam Dafford and David King, scenic painters responsible – one assumes – for a most intimidating portrait of the title character which appears at a major moment. Angela Balogh Calin’s costume designs cement the sense of period (regardless of the nonsensical glasses).

Indeed, it all works, until it suddenly and spectacularly doesn’t.

“Tartuffe” has a lot to say about how people can – then and now – be bamboozled into a restrictive and destructive sense of religion. It always surprises me how current Moliere’s central statement is. Most of what you would see at A Noise Within would underscore this. All that needs to be added is for the director to trust the audience enough to understand they will “get” comedy without needing to be distracted from the words, or having them disguised.

What: “Tartuffe” When: In repertory through May 24, 8 p.m. March 8, April 13 and 14, May 2 and 24; 7 p.m. March 23, April 20, and May 18; 7:30 p.m. April 10; 2 p.m. March 2 and 23, May 18 and 24 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Community Noir: “Laura” in Whittier

The cast of "Laura" mysteriously appears at Whittier Community Theatre

The cast of “Laura” mysteriously appears at Whittier Community Theatre

Ah, “Noir”. The works of the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, with their cynical gumshoes and fatalistic romantic tone, stand apart even today as a special part of American culture. Of these, none is better known than “Laura,” which began life as a story, a novel and then a play, all by Vera Caspary, before becoming an Otto Preminger film.

Now “Laura” returns to the stage in Caspary and Geoge Sklar’s original version at the Whittier Community Theatre. It’s a solid performance – well cast and strongly directed – which shows the polish often-maligned community theater companies can achieve. And there’s that good old mystery to go along with it.

For anyone who doesn’t know somehow, “Laura” is the story of a murder investigation. The detective in charge, Mark McPherson, finds himself fascinated by the victim whose portrait hangs in her apartment. In a story filled with peculiar twists and turns, this detective’s determination to find out the truth both of the murder and of the obviously complex character of victim Laura herself, make for fascinating watching.

Director Suzanne Frederickson has the feel for this piece, and it shows all the way down to the costuming and furniture. She has amassed a cast which manages to fit the various stereotypes required of this kind of story, and with talent enough to make them all human.

As McPherson, Steven Sullivan is the picture of a solid Irish cop, from his sharp eye, a crisp loyalty, and a subtle tugging of the heart. As the man who feels he “created” Laura, Norman Dostal manages the somewhat soft and slimy panache required to make Waldo a disturbing character. Jay Miramontes gives Laura’s fiance an interesting balance of acquisitiveness and fondness, while Candy Beck fusses with great warmth as the loving maid Laura hired and befriended.

Also worthy of note, the mysterious “girl” gets rounded treatment by Amy Anderson, Kieran Flanagan makes nice work of the rebellious teen from down the hall, and Julie Breihan bristles with genuine indignation as his frustrated, heartsore mother. John Francis makes a short, entertaining, but somewhat less believable appearance as a beat cop.

Considering the generally somewhat “low rent” nature of community theaters, which survive on tiny budgets and volunteers both in front of and behind the scenes, this production proves quite delightful. The pacing is good, the tone is right, and the mystery appropriately mysterious. If you’ve never seen “Laura” nobody telegraphs the ending. If you have, it’s a lovely and inexpensive chance to spend time with an old friend.

Although this run is almost over, stay tuned for this company’s next offering: “Charley’s Aunt”, due at the end of May.

What: “Laura” When: 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28 and Saturday, March 1 Where: The Center Theatre, 8730 Washington Ave., in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors, students, and military ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Chekhov For Laughs! – Christopher Durang’s great, comic “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”

Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole and Mark Blum in Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning  “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”  [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole and Mark Blum in Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Christopher Durang’s plays have always been remarkable for their unique combination of wry humor, human insight and respect for the craft of theater itself – the things you can do with a play you can’t as easily do in any other medium. He also makes fun of his own genre with as much artfulness as is possible to mount, which I first encountered in the 1981 one-act “An Actor’s Nightmare”, and now in his terrifically funny, Tony-winning send-up of Anton Chekhov, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

Now at the Mark Taper Forum, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” smashes together the most telling elements from any number of Chekhovian works, and transplants it to the modern U.S., where it all begins to appear fairly ridiculous. In the process, the play makes fun of the film industry, bad writing, Disney, and any number of other things, ending up so full of cultural references that they alone makes the show roaringly comical. For the Chekhov aficionado, and I admit to being one, the production actually is (and usually I hate using this term, as it is so often misapplied) absolutely hysterical at times.

Vanya, Sonia and Masha are the now-aging children of college professors who named them after Chekhovian characters. While Masha has been off becoming a famed film star, Vanya and Sonia have stayed behind in their Bucks County home. There they nursed their parents through their final years, but then ended up staying on unsure of how to proceed. Now, Sonia reflects on her empty life and her status as the adopted child, making an occupation out of negativism and despair. Vanya quietly longs for companionship, and mourns the treasures of youth.

David Hull appalls Kristine Nielsen with a hilarious "reverse strip tease", as Spike [photo: Craig Schwartz]

David Hull appalls Kristine Nielsen with a hilarious “reverse strip tease”, as Spike [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Then Masha comes home for a rare visit, trailing a dim, physically gorgeous young aspiring actor names Spike in her wake. He, in turn, meets the girl visiting next door: Nina, the very young, would-be actress who idolizes Masha even as Masha sees her as a threat. All the while, the cleaning woman, Cassandra, offers up messages of foreboding, in a crazed mix of ancient Greek, voodoo, modern television references and observational wisdom.

And that doesn’t tell you the half of it. Mark Blum’s Vanya has the wistful yearnings of his namesake, a calm which ties the piece together some, and then utters a most delightfully out-of-control Russian-style harangue against modern society with a rich and memorable passion. One will never look at postage stamps, a repeated reference, quite the same way again. Kristine Nielsen proves absolutely brilliant as the morose Sonia, turning her melancholy on and off like a switch, and at one critical point offering up the best Maggie Smith imitation you can imagine – by itself fall-down funny.

Shalita Grant as the wise and weird Cassandra [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Shalita Grant as the wise and weird Cassandra [photo: Craig Schwartz]


Christine Ebersole gives Masha an interesting balance of self-absorbed emotional hyperbole and practical sense, in both verbal and physical presence. David Hull’s hunky young Spike, played as thoroughly for stereotype as possible, makes nice, upbeat, simple contrast to the angsty characters around him, as does Liesel Allen Yeager’s wide-eyed, innocent enthusiasm as Nina. Shalita Grant proves a true treasure as the sharply defined, practical and self-contained Cassandra.

Director David Hyde Pierce builds upon the original direction of Nicholas Martin with the expectedly sure sense of comic timing and contrast. The beautiful coordination of all these very recognizable characters into a single whole which neither neglects the subtle comic nudges nor overdoes a one of them is a wondrous thing in itself. David Korins’ set design creates a very real space for these characters to cling. Costume designer Gabriel Berry gets a special nod for creating exactly the right costume-party costumes at a pivotal moment in the storyline.

Indeed, what proves most lovely and relaxing about “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” has to be the sheer quality of every aspect of the thing. Acting, writing, directing, and every visual component work together to create a single moment of intelligent wit, filled with satisfying surprises and a few bits of ardent social commentary. In the midst of the upheavals of daily existence, I cannot think of a better way to spend a couple of hours.

What: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” When: Through March 9, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $90 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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