Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

The Freedom to “Fly” – Tuskegee Airmen celebrated, as only stagecraft can, in Pasadena

Desmond Newson, Damian Thompson, Omar Edwards, Terrell Wheeler and Brooks Brantly in "FLY" at The Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

Desmond Newson, Damian Thompson, Omar Edwards, Terrell Wheeler and Brooks Brantly in “FLY” at The Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

One of the great, and completely non-transferable, pleasures of live theater comes from an audience’s willing suspension of disbelief. Whereas most other media demand absolute realism – real walls, real planes, real surroundings of any kind – in the theater (to paraphrase Shakespeare) when actors speak of their surroundings, the audience sees them. This can lead to a specific kind of emotional power, and a fluidity of storytelling, the kind of storytelling amply demonstrated in “Fly” at the Pasadena Playhouse.

“Fly,” by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, tells in small the story of the Tuskegee Airmen – the unit of African-American fighter pilots trained at Tuskegee University and sent to Europe to protect US bombers flying over occupied Europe. The 332nd Fighter Group, known commonly as the Red Tails, established an extraordinary record for bravery and excellence, and broke down significant racial barriers between themselves and the white bomber pilots during the heat of battle. Yet, even getting to that place was a matter of a larger battle, overcoming the skepticism of the white officers who would train and assign them here at home.

In “Fly,” this tale becomes visceral through a series of theatrical effects. Four fascinatingly individual characters are taken through their training and battle careers on a set made up of four chairs, four trunks, and a series of screens upon which their surroundings – including the skies through which they fly – are projected. It works, as we dive and weave with them through the clouds, or walk carefully with them through the dangers of a night off base in the deep South. Their sublimated emotions of anger, frustration and joy are given “voice” by an extraordinary dancer using tap as a vehicle for the emotions which could not be overtly expressed in their segregated world.

An impressively articulated ensemble makes the show work. Brooks Brantly creates the brash W.W., a man from the gangs of Chicago whose ladykiller persona hides a deep-seated drive to rise. Terrell Wheeler becomes Oscar, a man of great principal focused on the importance of this unit to the pride of his race. Damian Thompson creates J. Allen, a man from the Caribbean bringing a more British view to the stresses of training under white officers. Desmond Newsom focuses the story as Chet, the kid of the group – a boy whose fake ID and love of flying has allowed him to sneak into the program.

Speaking with his feet to their stresses and celebrations, the extraordinary Omar Edwards takes the art of tap into new dimensions. Providing the stressors upon these young recruits, the casual prejudices of Anthony J. Goes’ training officer underscore the innate prejudice of society at large and the military specifically during that period. As the pilot and co-pilot of the bomber our fighter pilots protect in Europe, Ross Cowan and Brandon Nagle emphasize the changes in attitude forged by battle, and combine with the Brantly and Newsom for the show’s funniest, and in many ways most telling moment: a pseudo-ceremony blown way out of proportion.

Under director-author Khan, such scenes become organic, as the play – which runs 90 minutes without intermission – remains compelling watching from start to end. Beginning and ending with modern day, and the final acknowledgement of the impressive feats of the 332nd, the show becomes a neat package of humanity and history, tied together in ways which emphasize the human cost of prejudice as well as conflict. As such it becomes a truly American tale.

Special acknowledgement needs to go to projection designer Clint Allen, whose work makes the moments of action come alive on Beowulf Boritt’s cockpit-shaped set. It’s a visual treat, even in its stark simplicity.

In short, go see this. The tale is compelling, deeply emotional, and essentially true. The acting is top-notch from start to finish. The minimalism of setting makes the story the star. And the ending is one of the most moving of recent memory. What a marvelous addition to what has long been designated as Black History Month.

What: “Fly” When: Through February 21, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $77, with $125 premium seating Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

Solid “Guys and Dolls” at Candlelight Pavilion (plus a good dinner!)

Robert Hoyt as Nicely-Nicely Johnson leads a rollicking "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" in Candlelight Pavilion's "Guys and Dolls" [photo: Demetrius Kastantonis]

Robert Hoyt as Nicely-Nicely Johnson leads a rollicking “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” in Candlelight Pavilion’s “Guys and Dolls” [photo: Demetrius Kastantonis]

Essentially, there are three elements which are necessary for the musical “Guys and Dolls” to work. First, it must be done completely straight. The peculiar formality of Damon Runyon characters’ slang must be respected as ordinary speech. The seriousness of every characters position must be taken at face value, no matter how silly it seems to the watcher. Second, the leads must be able to sing – really sing – including the minor characters. Third, everything from costumes to setting must be just a little bit larger than life.

Add to that appropriate, often fun choreography and singers who really can act, and you have a formula for happy result. All of this is present at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, where even when the casting is a bit more original than sometimes, the results are fit nicely together into the silly-serious package that makes the show.

The tale, concocted from several Runyon stories, follows a couple of connected paths: Nathan Detroit, operator of a famed floating crap game, must find a venue for his event – difficult because “the heat is on.” Speaking of heat, his fiancé of many years, Adelaide, is pushing for a wedding. To finance his search for a site, Nathan bets visiting high roller Sky Masterson that he cannot convince Sarah, the leader of the local Salvation Army-style mission, to go to pre-Castro Havana with him for an evening. As Sky worms his way into Sarah’s world, Nathan ducks the cops and his girl, and all of New York’s underpinnings sing and dance up a storm.

Victor Hernandez is a far scruffier Nathan than sometimes appears, but that plays well to his equally scruffy occupation and current circumstances. His fuddling indecisiveness around Adelaide, played with authority by Stacy Huntington, seems more organic as is his fear of marriage. Allen Everman gives Sky a slickness which evolves into genuine concern with small but interesting “tells”. Ashley Grether’s Sarah has a kind of frenetic strength which provides just the right counterpoint. Indeed, Her “If I Were a Bell” becomes a highlight of the piece.

Backing these leads are both a fine ensemble of dancers, and some secondary players worthy of special note. Robert Hoyt gives the ever-apologetic Nicely-Nicely Johnson real presence. Emerson Boatwright becomes a truly comic visual joke as Big Jule, and plays it to the hilt. Jim Marbury supplies just the right combination of authority and practical frustration as Lieutenant Brannigan, the cop who never quite catches a break.

Greg Hinrichsen’s mash-up of New York makes a facile setting for the story, and Laurie Muniz’s choreography captures the feel the show must have – a kind of gentlemanly machismo for the gamblers, and classic burlesque for Adelaide and her girls. Andrew Orbison has the singers on target with even the complex things they must coordinate without a conductor – not a small feat. Still, the unifying force for tone, tempo of performance and structure is the sure hand of director John LaLonde. He has brought together all the elements, and keeps the whole thing cohesive, intentionally silly, and invariably upbeat.

So, go have fun. Damon Runyon was once a household word – quoted even in Abbot and Costello films. Today, it’s tough to find his stories, except in “Guys and Dolls”, making the show, in its way, a form of literary treasure. At Candlelight you also get a lovely meal, making the total evening relaxing and generally satisfying. What a nice way to welcome in the new year.

What: “Guys and Dolls” When: Through February 27, open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, at 5 p.m Sundays, and opened for matinee lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 adults, $30-$35 children, meal-inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

“Deathtrap” in Sierra Madre: Red Herrings and Suspense Galore

Chriopher Cappiello and Shaw Purnell watch as Karesa McElheny, playing a psychic, "feels" the room in "Deathtrap" at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

Chriopher Cappiello and Shaw Purnell watch as Karesa McElheny, playing a psychic, “feels” the room in “Deathtrap” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

As fun as suspense-thriller plays are to watch, they are always difficult to review simply because one must tip-toe around the plot to avoid handing out unintended “spoilers”. Thus, a discussion of the Sierra Madre Playhouse production of “Deathtrap,” the wildly popular thriller which set records off-Broadway, may seem a bit cagey. Still, this production, which was postponed several times to accommodate the wild popularity of SMP’s “Always, Patsy Cline,” provides just enough fascinating red herrings, and just enough jump-out-of-your-seat surprises to be very satisfactory.

This is, in part, due to Ira Levin’s well crafted play itself, in part due to the stylish direction of SMP Artistic Director Christian Lebano, and in part due to a good, ensemble cast who can carry this whole complex construction off.

The tale surrounds frustrated, if famous playwright Sidney Bruhl. Though his fortune was made by hit suspense plays, his more recent ones have fallen flat. Now, steeped in deep writer’s block, he begins to imagine other ways of acquiring a hit script to move forward with. And this is when everything gets rather dark, and extremely convoluted.

Christopher Cappiello, as Bruhl, captures the frustration, the desperation, and the potentially fearsome calculation of a man who cannot be second rate. As his practical, if a bit wary wife, Shaw Purnell displays an opposing calm and content approach to life which may actually provide Bruhl with an added irritation. David Tolemy gives an increasing self-absorption to the playwriting workshop student Bruhl has taken under his wing, while – in a tiny but essential part – Don Savage creates the jolly, but practical voice of Bruhl’s legal advisor and friend.

Still, the absolute standout in this production has to be Karesa McElheny, as Bruhl’s neighbor – a famed psychic played as the most fascinating spiritual kook since Noel Coward’s Madame Arcati. Every time she enters the room, the energy rises.

Kudos go to set designer John Vertrees. I am genuinely amazed at how much real estate he managed to get onto the tiny SMP stage, and how polished it looks. Also polished are the costumes of Vicki Conrad and Ken Merckx’s fight choreography. If there is one fly in the ointment it is that some of the antique pistols used in the play will, to anyone who knows how firearms work, be anomalous with what they are supposed to do. Other than that, the polish is constant.

There is a reason “Deathtrap” lasted so long in New York. Its twists are genuinely startling, and certainly not for either the intolerant or the faint of heart. It also offers up a rather comic, if occasionally disturbing, view of the deep and profound nature of writer’s block which can warp the imagination of anyone who makes a living by the written word.

As produced at Sierra Madre Playhouse, the suspense stays constant, suspicion of everyone allows for edge-of-your-seat viewing, and that satisfying kind of anxiousness which makes suspense stories fun doesn’t let up until the final curtain. “Deathtrap” may not be deep, but it is filled with memorable characters and great weirdnesses of plot. And that can make for one entertaining evening. One warning: due to some of the violence and a few more adult situations, I would not suggest bringing young children.

What: “Deathtrap” When: Through February 20, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays and Thursday, February 4 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth (13-20), $17 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

“The Bridges of Madison County” at the Ahmanson: Great Songs, Elaborated Story

Andrew Samonsky and Elizabeth Stanley in the Tony Award-winning "The Bridges of Madison County" at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. [Photo: Matthew Murphy]

Andrew Samonsky and Elizabeth Stanley in the Tony Award-winning “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. [Photo: Matthew Murphy]

I admit to much anticipation about the arrival of Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown’s musical adaptation of “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Ahmanson. From everyone I’d talked to who’d seen it in New York, the music was extraordinary. Indeed, the Tony Awards it received were both to Brown for the insightful lyrics and music, and for the lushly emotional orchestrations. What nobody discussed much was the book of the thing – the script. Everyone knows “The Bridges of Madison County” from either the novel or the wildly popular 1995 film, yet this was rarely mentioned, perhaps in part because it is a variation on the known.

And herein lies the problem. For anyone deeply attached to the storyline as they know it from those other, older sources, award-winning playwright Marsha Norman’s spin will cause some awkwardness. Unlike the novel, this time the story is told strongly from Francesca’s point of view. And the tale covers much larger ground, taking us back to the Naples from which she came, and forward to the end – not just of the immediate romance – but the longer, more complex lives of the two protagonists. The emotional struggle is there, and perhaps even more mature than before, but the question marks are gone.

Having never seen the film or read the book, I was freed from expectation, though I did take someone with me who was familiar with both. Still, for those around me who were enthusiastic, it was obvious that the music was the thing. Brown, who is conducting during the Los Angeles run, even has his own fan base: clumps of young people raced to the orchestra pit at show’s end to have a word with him. And there’s reason. The word “rich” is overused for theatrical scores, but here it is absolutely correct. The combination of profound lyrics which move people and even plot forward and this emotional swirl of music which matches the timbre of character and passion so precisely creates the essential reason to see this show performed live.

As for story, it’s fairly well known by now. Francesca, a WWII war bride from Italy, lives on a farm in the small town of Winterset, Iowa. It’s 1965, and her husband Bud and teenaged children have taken a prize steer to a major competition leaving her behind – a situation which she is very comfortable with. When a National Geographic photographer named Robert comes to her door, lost while looking for the last of a series of local covered bridges he is to capture for the magazine, there is an instant rapport. This turns quickly into a whirlwind and heated romance – a kind of passion Francesca has never known before, and a connection which surprises Robert at its intensity. Then, as Bud and family return, comes Francesca’s choice. The difference this time is we see where that choice takes her.

Elizabeth Stanley is Francesca, convincingly a farm woman while still radiating a sense of tamped down expectation. Her operatic voice gives grounding to the songs of questioning and of discovery she sings. Andrew Samonsky’s ruggedly handsome Robert carries himself with a confidence born of independence, yet softens into songs of yearning (“Temporarily Lost” proves particularly heart-tugging) and of passion which round out his character in non stereotypical ways. In critical supporting roles, Cullen R. Titmas turns Bud into a deeply caring soul aware that his passion for his wife is not returned in the same measure, but loving her all the same. Mary Callanan is a hoot as the nosey, but empathetic neighbor who underscores for Francesca that she is not alone. David Hess, as the neighbor’s lightheartedly devoted husband has some great comic bits all his own.

What makes this musical work as much as it does, beyond that warm, enveloping score, is the quality and maturity of the lyrics. These are grown people handling grown yearnings – wistful, inquiring, loving, frustrated, passionate – and their complexity is reflected in what they sing far more than in what they say. Which is all to say that the reason to see “The Bridges of Madison County” is to be swept away by that element. Stage musicals have that capacity to make song into dialogue in a way which really doesn’t translate at the same power level to any other medium. Here it is key, and well worth taking the time to stop and listen, even if the way the story has been laid out seems somewhat dissonant, at least as it is carried further than the novel, from expectation.

What: “The Bridges of Madison County” When: Through January 17, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, except for December 24 and 25 and January 1 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $130 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“The Christians” at the Taper: Much to Ponder

Andrew Garman in “The Christians" at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Andrew Garman in “The Christians” at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

There is a time-worn adage which says one should never discuss politics or religion. Particularly these days, as fractures within the largest faith in the US – Christianity – have divided people into liberal and conservative camps, mainstream denominations and evangelical start-ups, small worship environments and mega-churches, the danger of debate is evident everywhere from social media to political campaigns. Many works of theater have attempted to address the swirling issues involved: faith, money, salvation, adaptability (or lack of it) and practical business which define modern religion in the US. Few have jumped into the central argument with both feet as thoroughly as Lucas Hnath’s award-winning “The Christians,” now arrived at the Mark Taper Forum.

The plot proves deceptively simple. You are invited into the service of a massive mega-church to hear a sermon by Paul, it’s founder. In that sermon, he admits to having had to confront an essential tenet of the faith he has professed, and announces a change in belief, and thus direction, which he feels will be a more faithful interpretation of God’s word. And this is where the fracturing begins. As playwright Hnath states in an introduction to the piece, “putting… beliefs into words will always result in a misinterpretation of said beliefs.” And as his associate pastors, his parishioners, even his wife struggle with change, rift, and for some a sense of betrayal, the entire underlay of belief shows its raw, unfinished edges.

Andrew Garman makes Paul a man of deep sincerity whose sense of assuredness – of being able to take his followers with him on what they will see as a radical journey – shows you how the character gathered such a flock, at the same time it also makes him unable to see how fragile his hold really is. These same people may easily fall away from changes in something they consider their rock. As the antithesis to Paul’s belief, Larry Powell gives great heart to associate pastor – a man whose faith was formed at Paul’s feet, and whose more narrow passion for the mission of the church leaves him with no room for the sudden shifts in his personal foundations.

Exemplifying the terrible cost of change upon parishioners of any church which offers absolute answers to the questions of its followers is Emily Donahoe as a single mother torn between supporting her long-time pastor and a desperate need for a community she now sees moving away from him. Philip Kerr, as a church trustee, brings in the financial realities – what happens when the monetary base for a hugely complex ministry is shaken by dissent and rifts. And in a last, but particularly powerful set of scenes, Linda Powell brings the struggle of the supportive wife whose beliefs no longer sync with her husband’s. What are her choices in this situation?

Staged as a riff off of a classic mega-church Sunday service, thanks to Dane Laffrey’s evocatively stark set, the production balances the rather cerebral and pointed conversations with the uplifting music of a gospel choir led with style by Scott Anthony. Director Les Waters has a feel for this juxtaposing of the public and private, and the piece moves with the constancy of a well-oiled religious experience, even as it questions much of what that experience means. The play is performed without an intermission, letting the tension rise as expectations would have in a service. The very beauty of this show’s “construction” makes it particularly engaging.

Of course, even that pales next to the potential inner struggles one can hear within the audience itself, as some look in from the outside, some find themselves siding with one element or another of this potent and unfinishable argument. Most certainly it will offend some, satisfy others and leave many with a lot to talk about after the play is over. I strongly suggest (and I never do this) that one read the introduction by the playwright in the program itself, as it lays groundwork for openness and gives one more access to the play’s essential points just by setting a mindset ahead of time.

“The Christians” is powerful, in its intertwining of intellect and passion. As such, it does what theater does so well – make people think, ponder their own understandings, share with others and, regardless of viewpoint, become emotionally engaged in either the concept or the characters, or both. Don’t go to see an easy play, but go to see one which will stick with you.

What: “The Christians” When: Through January 10, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“A Christmas Story” the Musical? – Covina Center’s version works up to a point

The Red Ryder BB gun at the center of the nostalgic "A Christmas Story" at Covina Center

The Red Ryder BB gun at the center of the nostalgic “A Christmas Story” at Covina Center

There are several forms of live theater which thrive in this general area. They range from the fully professional, with polished productions and highly trained casts, through the small-stage venues where the community supports seasons aimed at their interests, with a combination of old pros and newer talents working toward making a name for themselves. Then there are the true community playhouses which offer a chance for people who love to perform to do so, nurture children with talent, and do so for the love of the thing on small budgets but large doses of enthusiasm. Sometimes these companies can have rough edges, but there is a genuine quality to the enthusiasm of their audiences and the vibrance on stage which is a core element of what theater is for.

Which brings me to the new production at Covina Center for the Performing Arts. As the holidays close in, and theatrical companies look for something festive to draw a family audience, I always look for the theaters doing something less usual. There will be several renditions of “A Christmas Carol,” of course, but at CCPA they’ve opted instead for a staged, and musical version of a modern classic film. Hence, “A Christmas Story – the Musical”. That tale of Ralphie, a small town midwestern boy in the late 1940s doing everything he can to make Santa deliver a Red Ryder BB gun, has become a holiday staple itself. This live version offers that same simple and nostalgic quality which makes the film charming. Here it is done in true community spirit, with all the energy, but some of the inconsistency, which makes community theater unique.

Jim Follett leads the cast as Jean Shepherd, the narrator of the piece, looking back on the most tangled, but in many ways most wonderful Christmas of his childhood. Tony Quinn gives The Old Man (Ralphie’s dad) the combination of overt frustration and internal warmth which often makes him the quiet hero of the tale. Veronique Merrill Warner sings well, and provides the balance of practicality and kindness which you know makes that household run. Shannon Page also sings well, and has some signature moments, as Ralphie’s teacher.

Among the kids, Jackson Capitano is absolutely perfect as Ralphie’s somewhat goofy friend Flick, and Kaden Cutler makes good as Ralphie’s other pal, Schwartz. Paul Anderson and Sean Hill make decent, if somewhat self-conscious playground bullies. Gilbert Aguirre, as Ralphie’s little brother, makes the snow suit scene a thing of beauty and often shines in even ensemble scenes. The one questionable bit of casting is Ralphie himself. Why did they cast a girl in the part?

Don’t get me wrong, Kiera Ward sings beautifully, and handles the constant spouting of the tongue-twisting “a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time” as well as any kid could, but she lacks that sort of rough-and-tumble carriage so stereotypical of boys of the 40s and 50s. Most specifically there is literally no punch to Ralphie’s eventual tussle with the bullies he can no longer take. Rather, she has Ralphie “fight like a girl” when he most needs to completely let go of his bundled frustrations.

This is not Miss Ward’s fault, but must be laid at the feet of the co-directors, Wendy Friedman and especially Osbaldo Alvarado, who teaches acting to youngsters at the acting school next door to the theater. If a girl must be cast, for vocal skills or whatever, then significant movement training should have been part of the gig.

The large surrounding ensemble is enthusiastic and for the most part sings and dances well. The choreography by Emily Dauwalder highlights the skills of the performers, and keeps the company’s tendency to sing while walking back and forth across the front of the stage at bay somewhat. Kudos to the unlisted costumer of the piece, who has recreated period, class and time of year without overdoing it. The functional, multi-piece set is shuffled from scene to scene with lightning quickness by one of the fastest and best “choreographed” group of stage hands I’ve seen in a long time. There’s even a slide for Santa’s rejects, when needed. Tyler Wigglesworth’s musical direction, aided by pre-recorded instrumentals, keeps the musical portions fairly sharp.

In short, “A Christmas Story – the Muslcal” proves entertaining if not perfect. The warmth of the audience is also worthy of note – the kind of an audience which feels so at home someone actually shouted from the audience during the curtain call “That’s my aunt!” when one of the performers came forward. This is what true community theater has always been about. So, what the heck. Go be community. Don’t expect consistent polish, but do expect heart. And around the holidays, that can often count for a lot.

What: “A Christmas Story – the Musical” When: Through December 13 (excluding Thanksgiving weekend), 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $22 general, $32 luxury balcony (website pricing is incorrect) Info: (626) 331- 8133 or http://www.covinacenter.com

“West Side Story” Shows Polish at Candlelight Pavilion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solid “Diary of Anne Frank” Graces Whittier Community Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Decades Later, “Rent” Still Grabs You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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