Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Pasadena area.

Wait for it…

I’ve seen some searches here for my review of Arthur Miller’s “The Price” at the Mark Taper Forum. Scheduling issues on my part – I was singing in a concert the night it opened – postponed my viewing of the play until Friday, Feb. 27. I will post a review the next day.

I Want to Laugh More! – Inconsistency of focus mars WCT’s “Johnny Guitar the Musical”

Johnny Guitar at Whittier Community Theatre

Johnny Guitar at Whittier Community Theatre

Over the past couple of years, one of the last of the strongly supported community playhouses, the all-volunteer Whittier Community Theatre, has produced several spunky productions of American musicals. Most particularly, their “Into the Woods” was quite stunning, and shows like “Quilters,” and “The Pajama Game” have garnered worthy praise. Thus, when I saw that their new production of the spoof of classic westerns, “Johnny Guitar,” leaves much to be desired, it does not come from the company’s amateur status, but from a misread on the part of those organizing the production.

“Johnny Guitar,” by Nicholas van Hoogstraten, Joel Higgins, and Martin Silvestri, takes the standard western formats and, if done right, plays them all with tongue firmly in cheek. Even the story sounds like all the B-westerns from the heyday of such things. Miss Vienna, a bad girl gone good, owns a bar outside a small western town – a town operated in tandem by Emma, the daughter of the founder of the town bank, and McIvers, the area’s largest landowner and rancher. Emma, holding a secret passion for the outlaw The Dancing Kid, is out to destroy Vienna for her supposed romantic connection to the Kid. Into all of this rides a man of height and heart bearing a guitar instead of a gun. But does he have a more violent past? Will he help Vienna?

Yes, it’s just that silly, and the staging should add more. Sound effects must be huge, choruses should appear from behind rocks, furniture, curtains, etc. Everything must be played large and melodramatically, resulting in almost constant chuckles and some significant outright laughter. Visual comedy can be emphasized, like constant references to Johnny’s being so tall, when the actor is not. It should be fast-paced, and moderately ridiculous. That’s what makes it work.

The production at WTC can’t seem to make up its mind whether it is going to play the thing straight, and thus awkwardly, or live up to the wry humor of the script. At the start, it shows promise, when the opening ballad has the chorus suddenly pop out from behind the saloon bar, and continue singing unphased when one of their number is gunned down. The sound effects are right, and the minimalist set has just the right elements. Some of the cast – most especially Jonathan Tupanjanin, as the youngest of the outlaws – can really sing up a storm, and for the most part all sing with enough energy and conviction to make it work.

But it’s uneven. They get serious too often, and that seriousness slows things down. Sometimes the chorus sings from offstage, when having them appear, sing, and disappear would have given more stage business, and more comedy to something which begins to feel drawn out.

As Vienna, Mallory Kerwin has the heart for the thing, and a powerful voice, but is visually wrong. She should look like a slightly more risqué Miss Kitty (for old “Gunsmoke” fans) but spends much of her time in an outfit more suitable to Dale Evans. Matt Berardi has great potential as Johnny. He has the swagger and the overly cool delivery down. There could be much comedy, though, as in his “playing” of a guitar which obviously has no strings, which is otherwise just kind of awkward.

Lindsay Marsh is solid – that is, slightly overdramatic and intensely repressed, just as she should be – as the vicious Emma, while Greg Stokes makes a stolid and gruff McIvers. Jay Miramontes truly enjoys his role as The Dancing Kid, though the dancing should be emphasized more, particularly if it’s going to be as intentionally unimpressive as it appears when he finally performs. Justin Patrick Murphy, Andy Kresowski and Richard DeVicariis have a lovely time playing henchmen, posse members, bartenders and the like, and, joined with Tupanjanin, becoming the chorus for song after song.

The live band accompanying them is small but good. The mics need to be balanced more, as some (especially Kerwin’s) are cranked up too high while others are very hard to hear. Special kudos to the stage crew who utilize the elements of Mark Frederickson’s very facile set design to change scene quickly and keep the pace going.

In short, this is good enough that it should have, and could have, been better. Consistency in the over-the-top melodrama of the piece would have let to more laughter (though there definitely were some funny moments) and made it all feel more cohesive. Director John S. Francis is experienced enough to know that this. What this show needs is real tongue-in-cheek everything, as the story line is just as light as the old Saturday serials, and the music is memorable more as a satire on musicals and westerns than as great art. Still, this company deserves the community’s support. Community theater, where volunteerism is prized, is always worth supporting.

What: “Johnny Guitar the Musical” When: Through March 7, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 1 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

A Noise Within’s Threepenny Opera: Brecht but with a twist

Andrew Ableson, as Macheath, celebrates his wedding in A Noise Within's "The Threepenny Opera" [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Andrew Ableson, as Macheath, celebrates his wedding in A Noise Within’s “The Threepenny Opera” [photo: Craig Schwartz]

by Frances Baum Nicholson

One of the signature elements of the entire arts movement in 1920s Berlin is “The Threepenny Opera,” a reworking of John Gay’s 18th century “The Beggar’s Opera” by German greats Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Stark, unrealistic by design, and seated in an essential socialist view of a harshly capitalist society, its jazzy, sometimes atonal songs and scruffy collection of anti-heroes poke a finger at all the conventions of society, theater and popular storytelling.

Now at A Noise Within in Pasadena, “The Threepenny Opera” melds the essential concepts of Brechtian theatrical production with the theatrical traditions of ANW’s artistic, and production, co-directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliot and Geoff Elliott with significant success. There are still some issues to be resolved, particularly as they relate to sound, and it is possible that Brecht purists will be frustrated by ANW’s tradition of cartoonish/clownish additions, and a significant amount of editing, but as a piece of theater it stands up.

The tale is of Macheath, or Mack the Knife, who has married Polly, the daughter of the scruffy Peachums, who operate a business making money out of organizing the beggars of the city. Furious over the marriage, they try to turn Macheath in to the police, thwarted by the fact the Chief of Police is Macheath’s old army comrade Tiger Brown. Eventually Macheath is arrested, then set free by another of his women, then rearrested when he can’t stay away from his favorite brothel, and finally saved by a completely ridiculous deus-ex-machina underscoring the ridiculousness of happy endings (a Brecht hallmark).

Andrew Ableson is that very balance of soullessness and grimy good looks as Macheath. Marisa Duchowny sings particularly well, and has perhaps the funniest (if also the most scatological) moment as the deflowered Polly. Geoff Elliott and most particularly Deborah Strang make the Peachums impressively unlikable, and yet humorously dark. Jeremy Rabb gives Tiger that manipulatable quality so necessary to be a crime lord’s dupe, while Maegan McConnell, as Tiger’s daughter, and Stasha Surdyke, as Jenny Diver, the prostitute who was once Mack’s central lover, offer up memorable portraits of those carried away by, or done with Mack’s inability to control his desires.

Costumer Angela Balogh Calin has created costumes based on an essential, sometimes clownish miscellany, yet thrashed and dirty about the edges, with only Macheath briefly accorded a truly dapper look. Frederica Nascimento’s set – made heavily from bits of scaffolding and ladders – holds fairly true to the Brechtian ideal of minimalism and labels.

Indeed, the only problem (and it is essential) with this production as a piece of theater has to do with sound. The jazz band which accompanies the show is good, but in a space made mostly of concrete it is also loud. On several occasions it threatens to drown out the actors, whose mics are not all set at a strong enough level to overcome the music. Articulation is also a problem. For example, one can hear every word Strang sings, but many of the lyrics sung by the small chorus of ruffians, or by individual characters including Macheath himself, get lost as much due to diction as to being overwhelmed by music. This is a problem because the lyrics advance the storyline and enhance the characters. To not hear, and understand, them is to be lost in the plot.

Fortunately this is very solvable. That’s good because the rest of this is certainly impressive. One rarely gets to see a fully staged production of “The Threepenny Opera,” yet it has much to say about greed and inequity which is just as relevant as ever. For those to whom this matters, it is also impressively raw and fairly scatological, and is most definitely not a musical to bring younger children to.

“The Threepenny Opera” is the first of three productions which will play in repertory at ANW this spring. The next, “Figaro”, opens on March 7, followed at the end of the month by “Julius Caesar.”

What: “The Threepenny Opera” When: in repertory through May 17, 8 p.m. March 12, April 3, 11, 24 and 25, and May 9 and 16; 7 p.m. March 15 and May 3, 7:30 p.m. April 2 and 23, with 2 p.m. matinees on March 15, April 12 and 18, May 2, 9 and 17 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 general, $20 student rush. Group prices available. Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

“The Whipping Man” – Intimate Civil War drama at the Pasadena Playhouse

Adam Haas Hunter, Jarrod M. Smith and Charlie Robinson all have a legacy attached to "The Whipping Man" at Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Jordon Kubat]

Adam Haas Hunter, Jarrod M. Smith and Charlie Robinson all have a legacy attached to “The Whipping Man” at Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Jordon Kubat]

The best kind of historical plays and films are those which look at some aspect of an era in a complex, yet personal way. This becomes more and more difficult with portions of history which have become iconic, larger than life, epic moments in human or national development. Which is part of what makes “The Whipping Man” by Matthew Lopez, a co-production with South Coast Repertory now opened at the Pasadena Playhouse, so powerful. In the intimate relationship of three men at the end of the Civil War, portraits of slavery, Southern defeat and the lives of the South’s Jewish minority all coalesce.

The tale is set shortly after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Caleb, Confederate officer and son of a wealthy Richmond business owner returns to his ruined home, a damaged man in many ways. There he finds two of his former slaves: Simon, a resourceful man who acted as butler, and John, a young man his own age who was at one time his friend. Surrounding all three is a unifying element. Caleb’s family is Jewish, and his parents raised their slaves to be Jewish as well, a concept – of a people held in slavery until delivered – which offered a profound message to those so included.

What makes this play work is the unifying themes which underlie all the differences of these three men – the faith, the shared history, and the sheer unknown implied by a post-slavery-based world. This, to which one adds a powerful ensemble cast whose common sense of the play itself and their characters’ involvements make everything connect, and define the play’s power.

Adam Haas Hunter makes Caleb profoundly vulnerable, even as the aspects of a life of superiority constantly rumble under the seemingly accepting surface. Charlie Robinson proves a powerful and defining character as Simon, making him a man of innate command, the keeper of traditions. Used to running a household, he exudes a practical and hopeful energy, especially regarding a future he’s sure he can see. Jarrod M. Smith makes the reckless, damaged John a person whose happy-go-lucky opportunism hides deep scars both physical and emotional.

Director Martin Benson has a real feel for this play, where visceral connection or dissension is an essential element. His staging keeps the discussions from becoming static – a particularly difficult concept when dealing with a character forced to sit throughout most of the proceedings. Things flow rapidly, and the continuous redressing of the stage in each scene says a great deal before anyone speaks a word. Tom Buderwitz’s half-burned, collapsing mansion sets the perfect tone of change and potential despair. Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes prove essentially historically accurate, and provide changes which also add layers to the narrative in quick, sometimes amusing ways.

In short, “The Whipping Man” offers a unique and rounded approach to a very difficult subject. The surprises of the script, which unfolds in an unforeseen direction, only contribute to the sense of seeing something very new about something very old – the best essence of a historical drama, in that it speaks to what has come after in subtle but essential ways. Surprise, enrichment, polish, and a new window from which to view a well-worn subject all contribute to making this play one to see. So go. No matter where you approach this from, it is worth the time.

Also, be sure to step into the Playhouse’s Friendship Center. Though I don’t always find “additional information about the play” displays helpful or even appropriate, this time the exhibit, which correlates ancient Jewish tradition, the stories of Jewish participation on both sides of the Civil War, and the connections between Jewish scripture and American slavery may prove extremely instructive to some, as it relates to the play’s essential themes.

What: “The Whipping Man” When: Through March 1, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave in Pasadena How Much: $30 – $75, with premium seating $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Curiouser and Curiouser – Lewis Carroll examined in world premiere at Boston Court

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In recent years a certain amount of suspicion has attended the stories of those repressed Victorian gentlemen who became friends with, and told stories to, young children. J.M. Barrie’s potential over-attachment to the young boys of a widow sits right next to the century-old delight of his “Peter Pan.” And then there is the mystery of Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, and the three days excised from his diaries. During those days something changed in his relationship with the three girls of the Liddell family, especially the middle daughter, Alice. Before, the two had been fast friends, forming the foundation for “Alice’s Adventures Underground” or “Alice in Wonderland”. Afterward, the friendship vanished, and association with the Liddells all but vanished. Speculation about those three days has been pondered ever since.

Which leads to Lily Blau’s “The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll,” developed in collaboration with Sydney Gallas at The Theatre at Boston Court, in Pasadena. Now receiving its world premiere, the play examines the larger storyline behind Dodgson’s connection to the Liddells, at least as it might have been. In the process it covers Dodson’s professional relationship with their father, to the brilliance of Dodgson’s mathematical mind as a lecturer at Christ Church College in Oxford, to his passions for photography and nonsensical writing, for which he is best remembered.

Also on hand are his foibles – his stammer, which made him socially awkward with adults, and his enforced repression as an ordained deacon, which may have contributed to concerns about his fascination with the family of pre-pubescent girls. The play leaves the relationship as somewhat of an open question, allowing for Dodgson’s fantasies, yet leaving the audience to decide whether or not he recollects his time with the Liddells as it actually happened.
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Leo Marks appears the essence of vulnerability as Dodgson, from his speech troubles to his jittery sense of excitement. Jeff Marlow becomes his alter ego as the White Rabbit, pushing him to remember that time yet always with an edge: did he or did he not live out his fantasies as time passed.

Corryn Cummins creates the rebellious, somewhat rough-and-tumble Alice whose unique curiosity fueled Dodgson/Carroll’s storytelling, all the while managing to capture the trusting innocence of a protected child. Erin Barnes gives her older sister Ina the edge of logic and practicality Alice lacks, while Ashley Ruth Jones gives the younger, sicklier Edith an impatience and even occasional detachment as her illness progresses. All three girls, though young in the storyline are played by adults, which works in part because the entire tale is in Dodgson’s mind – age is relatively less important than image – and partly because it removes any extra disquiet from the underlying implications of the plot.

Erica Hanrahan-Ball gives real spine to the protective and disapproving Mrs. Liddell, while Time Winters makes her husband a man of balanced forces and kindly tone. Indeed, it is perhaps Winters and Hanrahan-Ball and their read on their characters, which frame the questions posed by the White Rabbit and the storyline itself.

Director Abigail Deser, who has worked with the playwright for several years to hone and polish this piece, creates a state of underlying tension amid an atmosphere radiant of the time and place the story occupies. Stephen Gifford creates a fascinatingly modular set, opening up or closing off Dodgson’s world with the flick of a piece of panel or the slide of a drape. Likewise, Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting takes one from literal to fantastic in subtle ways. Costumer Garry Lennon gets a lot of it right, though someone needs to do some serious doctoring to Dodgson’s tie.

Nonetheless, the careful crafting of this piece is obvious everywhere, and the playwright’s fascinating juxtaposition of the internal fantasies of a man whose social life was thwarted in numerous ways and the overt world in which he walked day by day keeps one interested from start to finish. “The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll” is performed without an intermission, and one can see why as the tensions and angst grows slowly over the course of the piece.

In the end, one is left to answer one’s own questions. Nobody knows what really happened in that three day gap, and this script allows one to be more or less generous to Dodgson and to Carroll, depending on how one reads the performances and the performers. It makes for an interesting evening, and significant discussion post-performance. But then, most of what the Boston Court does is worthy of discussion, though since this play has more its feet on the ground than some, this conversation may be a bit more about the real. Check with the theater, as the Boston Court is known for after-play discussions of historical and literary aspects of the time period and the play, and several are offered this time.

What: “The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll” When: Through March 1, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 with senior, student and group discounts available Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

What a Way to Go! – “Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye” at the Ahmanson

 Barry Humphries in  “Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye – The Farewell Tour.”  [Photo: Matt Jelonek]

Barry Humphries in “Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye – The Farewell Tour.”
[Photo: Matt Jelonek]

For the past 60+ years, the extraordinary character of Dame Edna Everidge has been a larger-than-life satiric send-up of megalomania and excess on stages large and small throughout the English-speaking world. Beginning in Melbourne, Australia in the 1950s, this wild creation of Barry Humphries has developed a fan base which includes the British royal family and celebrities from Joan Rivers to Burt Reynolds among a host of others. She won a Tony, too, along the way. Always literally glittering, with her signature flamboyantly bat-winged glasses and her “naturally purple” hair, Dame Edna is unmistakable, as audience after hysterically-laughing audience can attest.

Yet, she, and her 80-year-old creator, are also deciding to slow down. Thus, “Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye: The Farewell Tour” has landed at the Ahmanson Theatre. After stints in Australia, Britain, and “all the major cities,” the show has hit Los Angeles, which Dame Edna dubs the home of “some of the smartest people”, to allow us all one last glimpse of a unique talent, and a dying, vaudeville-esque art form exquisitely done. This is something to be celebrated – Dame Edna has lost none of her bite or her panache.

From her opening salvos (looking out at the audience, “you’ve aged!”), to honoring “the paupers” in the upper balconies and abjuring them to hold on tight so they don’t fall out of their seats, to the ribbing of front-row patrons for the size of their houses, their fashion sense, or their age, she is sharp, pointed, occasionally a bit scatological, and consistently, bitingly funny. Humphries has underscored in interviews that satire is the process of saying exactly the opposite of what you mean in order to point out the ridiculousness of your opposition. Dame Edna is expert at that, and the pace never wavers.

In the second half, Dame Edna admits to having returned from an ashram in India where she claims to have found wisdom and given up “the cult of celebrity.” Indeed, she assures her “possums” – as she calls her audiences – that she had been “following a false god.”

Dame Edna celebrates her ashram experience

Dame Edna celebrates her ashram experience

Of course, her version of eschewing celebrity still comes with a quartet of dancers (Ralph Coppola, Brooke Pascoe, Eve Prideaux and Armando Yearwood, Jr.), a most glamorous, vaguely Indian outfit, and ostrich feather fans. That’s how this comic icon finds her bliss.

And this is and has always been the essence of Dame Edna. From her silly songs, accompanied by Jonathan Tessero on the piano, to her pointed skewering of the pompous, the self-righteous, or the faddish, she has become such a rounded character that, as she flings out her signature gladiolas for everyone to wave and “tremble,” the audience follows her in cheerful glee. The energy never stops for a moment. As she disappears near the end, replaced by a remarkable video of Dame Edna’s long career, Humphries himself appears, in jaunty Victorian smoking jacket and rakish fedora. He speaks with fondness of his creation and his long career, and though it appears it must be, doesn’t quite close the door on the idea that he and Dame Edna may only be saying farewell for now.

Dame Edna is not Humphries’ only creation, though she is the most famous. And though she may be retiring, Humphries does not intend to disappear from the public eye, though the spoken goal is for this octogenarian to slow down, devote more time to his painting, and perhaps – at least close to home – take out one of his other creations for an occasional spin. Still, Dame Edna is a powerful thing to lay aside – so real that her 90s memoir “My Glorious Life” ended up on bookstores’ non-fiction shelves. Though we say farewell, there is always the vague hope we will meet again. On the chance that might not happen, don’t fail to take in her Glorious Goodbye. You won’t regret it for a second.

What: “Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye” When: through March 15, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. Sundays, with additional performances at 6:30 p.m. Sundays February 8, 15 and 24, 8 p.m. Tuesdays February 10, 17 and 24, and 2 p.m. March 5 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $115 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

The Craft of Negotiation: “A Walk in the Woods” in Sierra Madre

Nancy Youngblut and John Prosky work to understand each other in "A Walk in the Woods" in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

Nancy Youngblut and John Prosky work to understand each other in “A Walk in the Woods” in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

It is one of the oddities of the arts. On the same weekend that Robert Redford returns to the screen in a film called “A Walk in the Woods” at the Sundance Festival, a play also called “A Walk in the Woods” – but a completely different walk in completely different woods – opens at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. While the first is a comic look at a hike along the Appalachian Trail, the show at Sierra Madre has a far more powerful and, though there are amusing moments, more serious statement to make.

The good news is that though Lee Blessing’s play was written in 1988 it still proves disquietingly powerful, at least in the solid production at SMP. This despite the fact its setting might read as passé.

Two diplomats meet a number of times in the woods outside Geneva. One, Andrei Botvinnik, is a long-time nuclear negotiator for the Soviet Union. The other, Joan Honeyman (the part was originally John, but Blessing has approved of shifting the character to be female) is a newly minted senior negotiator from the United States. The first is a practical man, the second a fiery and determined newbie on the international stage. As their encounters gradually shift from perceived antagonism toward a rather fatalistic friendship, they make statements about essential humanity and about the nature of high-powered international relations that are, at once, heart-warming and deeply disturbing.

John Prosky makes Andrei a gentleman and a gentle man. His aura of worldly sadness makes the character’s concentration on little joys that much more compelling. Nancy Youngblut gives Joan a bristly tension and a wariness at the start. Watching that stiffness gradually melt, and the obvious increased understanding as it radiates through her character, becomes one of the production’s joys. And watching how well the part of Joan balances that of Andrei, which one remembers that it was written for a man and has not been adjusted for the gender change, says much about how little gender need matter in discussions of this depth.

Director Geoffrey Wade has taken a script which could easily become physically static – a costumed debate – into a living thing. This is essential to the production’s success. Rei Yamamoto’s recreation of a clearing in the woods provides a fine combination of the representational and the implicit, expanding the sense of space on SMP’s tiny stage. This becomes particularly significant in a tale where the woods stand for the natural, for an innate if momentary freedom, and where two people who sit on opposite sides of a solid table can sit next to each other on a bench.

Although “A Walk in the Woods” centers itself around treaty negotiations regarding Cold War arms control, what it has to say about diplomacy and negotiation as an art form, and the nature of such things when world powers are the ones arm-wrestling, applies just as powerfully today as it did when the play was new. It may no longer be USA vs USSR, but power, potential frying of the world, and the entire concept of image having more importance than progress resonates disturbingly strongly. And that, as well as the strong performances, the humor and the humanity of the characters, is why a trip to Sierra Madre Playhouse would be a good idea.

What: “A Walk in the Woods” When: Through February 21, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 students 13-21, $12 children under 12 Info: (626) 355-4318

Rockin’ the House: The Buddy Holly Story hits Candlelight Pavilion

Buddy Holly and the Crickets perform in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story" at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont

Buddy Holly and the Crickets perform in “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont

by Frances Baum Nicholson

There are a lot of reasons to go to the theater. One is simply for entertainment. If that is your goal, and particularly if you love musical nostalgia, you’ll have fun with Alan Janes and Rob Bettinson’s “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” now at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont. Though this musical does tell a rather simplified version of the small segment of Buddy Holly’s life between the first contract he signed with Decca in 1956 and his death in the airplane crash which also took the lives of The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens in 1959, it is mostly a concert of the music he recorded within that time.

With that in mind, it becomes important that the leading man both look and sound like Holly, and – if possible – be able to play a decent electric guitar. Jared Mancuso manages all of this. Indeed, at least in the looks and the sound category the result is almost spooky. As his back-up band The Crickets, Julian Johnson, as Joe, is a virtual gymnast with a string bass, Lonn Hayes gives considerable character to drummer Jerry, and Cullen Law’s Cricket offers a mean second guitar.

Virtually all of the rest of the performers become the “ensemble,” stepping out to play important folk in his life, then becoming back-up singers, enthusiastic fans and whatever else is needed. Of these, Jade Rosenberg is sweet as Buddy’s young wife Maria Elena, John Nisbet has fun with Hi-Pockets, the DJ who first gets him on the air, David Laffey has some strong moments as the man who managed them to stardom, and Jennifer Strattan makes fun work of that managers insistent wife.

Also worth a nod within that ensemble are Robert Hoyt as a fairly convincing Big Bopper, and Orlando Montes, who – though he looks decades older than the 17-year-old Valens was when he died – sings a mean “La Bamba.” Indeed, more than half of the second act of “The Buddy Holly Story” is devoted to Holly’s final concert, with Valens and The Big Bopper, before they all stepped on that fateful plane. That is probably the best of this entire show, with so many great hits, the entire rest of the ensemble singing backup, and a solid sense of the era and the vitality of early rock-and-roll.

Bravo to director John LaLonde, for keeping the pacing constant, and for understanding what the focus of it all had to be. This is not a show for the intellect, but for the heart and the tapping foot.

Even knowing that the show ends with the singular finality of Holly’s story, everyone leaves the performance space bouncing and singing. And sometimes that’s what going to a show is all about. There is no real attempt to hide that this is a tribute rather than a biography, and that’s just fine. At Candlelight Pavilion, the entertainment comes wrapped in a tasty meal and some singularly impressive desserts at intermission. So, leave your burdens at the door, go in, eat, talk, drink, and if the spirit so moves, dance in the aisles.

Sometimes, it really is just about being entertained. Here, you will be.

What: Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story When: Through February 22, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays in January plus Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays in February, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. Saturday and Sundays for matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 adults, $20 children under 12, inclusive of meal Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

A Triumph of Spirit – A New (Very New) “Billy Elliot” in La Mirada

The cast of McCoy Rigby's "Billy Elliot" [photo: Michael Lamont]

The cast of McCoy Rigby’s “Billy Elliot” [photo: Michael Lamont]

Every once in a while live theater offers the opportunity for a truly remarkable event. This can be planned, and the McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of “Billy Elliot the Musical” might even reach those standards on its own. But when the immediacy of a live production becomes a part of the drama, that becomes even more of a specialized thrill.

Let’s face it: from a dance perspective, or even from the perspective of its multiple themes – respecting individual promise, tolerance, dying traditions, or the tricky nature of living between two established and contradictory sub-cultures – “Billy Elliot” is a powerful, likable, satisfying piece of musical theater. The fact of McCoy Rigby Entertainment being offered one of few licenses to produce a first regional productions is not surprising, given their track record of both respect for and quality of the musical art form. And then comes the extra layer.

Mitchell Topin as Billy Elliot [photo: Michael Lamont]

Mitchell Topin as Billy Elliot [photo: Michael Lamont]


Only a week before opening, the talented young Noah Parets, their Billy, broke his arm during rehearsal. Considering how thoroughly the show rests upon Billy, who almost never leaves the stage and dances massive, emotionally charged, physically demanding solos, this stopped the show it its tracks. Thus the drama. After a quick and panicked search, 14-year-old Mitchell Tobin took over the role, which was to open in five days. The good news is, he’s terrific – emotionally satisfying, gifted and amazingly connected. He still looks around a bit, as the choreography is somewhat new even to this “Billy” veteran. Still, in watching him, feeling the audience willing him to succeed, one could not help but feel a part of the show in a uniquely participatory way.

This only enhanced an otherwise highly enjoyable production. The cast is strong throughout, the choreography by Dana Salimando rich and engaging, and the look and feel of the thing crisply paced, authentically evoked, and deeply satisfying, thanks to director Brian Kite. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the script and lyrics were written by the film’s screenwriter, Lee Hall, and the music is the best to date for Broadway by Elton John, or that as a musical it has picked up just about every award possible. Still, this production lives up to that promise.

The story, for those who do not know, is filled with the pathos of changing times. It is the 1980s, the Labour Party – associated with creating Britain’s Euro-Socialism – has been replaced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. The new government’s moves to close underproductive mines lead to coal miners’ strikes which, as it turned out, led to the defeat of the country’s most powerful union and the gradual, eventual closing of almost all deep coal mines in Britain. In the subculture of coal mining, as it wanes, a boy named Billy, pushed toward manliness by taking boxing lessons, chooses ballet instead and proves naturally talented. What happens next is, perhaps, an indicator of larger changing times.

As has been said, Tobin does well, making an engaging, vulnerable, deeply likable Billy. As the brassy woman who soon recognizes his talents, Vicki Lewis provides much of the comedy, and delivers home truths with style. Also fun, as Billy’s friend and fellow social oddity Michael, Jake Kitchin makes the slightly geeky gently engaging. He and Tobin also share one of the show’s silly-coolest moments in “Expressing Yourself.” Likewise, Marsha Waterbury’s forgetful, opinionated grandma adds to both the comedy and pathos, as she delivers both the hope and the bitterness of her world with an offhand brusqueness.

Vicki Lewis as the local ballet teacher, with her hapless pupils [photo: Michael Lamont]

Vicki Lewis as the local ballet teacher, with her hapless pupils [photo: Michael Lamont]

David Atkinson plays Billy’s father, finding a neat balance between love, frustration, and increasing fear. In her brief but important appearances, Kim Huber exudes warmth and nurture as Billy’s late mother. The host of finely articulated, embittered miners, their wives and children, and the silly squad of young girls in the ballet class with Billy all add color and texture to a very satisfying tale.

Yet, because it becomes so thoroughly the focus, what you will remember best is Tobin’s Billy. He really is an extraordinary dancer, especially for his age. And in this instance, that becomes all the more impressive. This is a finely crafted, emotionally satisfying show, and definitely worth going to see. The added bit of last-minute drama does nothing but add to the respect for all involved, and to the sheer quality of the entire product they ended up with.

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

“The Manor” returns: Quasi-History in Beverly Hills

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For 13 years, on a semi-regular basis, Theatre 40 has produced “The Manor,” based on, albeit fictionalized from, actual events which occurred at the play’s performance site: the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. Written by Kathrine Bates, the play is founded in the tragedy which befell the Doheny family in the 1929, when the son of oil magnate Edward L. Doheny met a tragic end at the house his father had built for him and his bride.

In “The Manor,” Doheny becomes Charles MacAlister, a self-made mining magnate. We meet him at the height of the 20s, as he celebrates the marriage of his beloved son Sean to Abby, the daughter of his friend and legal consultant. Another guest at the wedding is a senator – a former fellow miner turned politician – with whom he chooses to make a deal that evening which will come back to haunt him. At the same time, Abby’s friend and former crush, Greg, and Greg’s rather garish wife are also introduced. Though all is rich, and most see the future as a brilliant thing, the groundwork for trouble is laid. In the second half, as the 30s begin, the dangers come home to roost.

The play takes the audience from room to room, not in the way that John Krizanc’s “Tamara” did in the 1980s – having different audience elements follow different parts of the storyline, which they’d share at various points to gradually tell the whole story – but by putting on each scene three times, and having the audience rotate in thirds so everyone sees the whole thing but in differing order. It is a formula which has worked over time, and certainly continues to do so under current director Flora Plumb.

Darby Hinton makes a gently commanding MacAlister – a man whose confidence comes in great measure from a strong sense of family and friendship. As his wife Marion, playwright Bates vibrates with loving and protective enthusiasm – obviously the glue which holds the household together at times. John-Paul Lavoisier, though his looks would seem more appropriate in a modern perfume ad than as the son and business partner of a 20s tycoon, does much to balance the sense of strength and business savvy with a gentle care and concern for his family and future. Annalee Scott rather neatly underplays Abby, leading to a sweetly realistic portrait which clicks better and better as the storyline grows.

Ben Gavin balances an stolid attractiveness with an awkwardness of class as the handyman Greg, while Cynthia Gravinese creates a significantly grating portrait of his grasping wife. Stephen Gustafson makes solid work of the MacAlister lawyer, though he’s not given a whole lot to do. Daniel Leslie, in an ill-fitting tuxedo, doesn’t seem very impressive as a US Senator, but handles his part with ease. Perhaps the best of the performers in the actual storyline is Melanie MacQueen, as the senator’s cool and long-suffering wife. The other really memorable performers are those who take the audience about the place – butler Daniel Lench, mute housemaid Esther Levy Richman, and most particularly housekeeper Katherine Henryk.

It is obvious that people love this thing, and one can see why. It is admittedly fascinating to see this tale play out on the stage where a similar drama actually did. This theatricality makes up for a sometimes artificial pacing, though the last half an hour is very strong and unified. The only completely unnecessary element is an allusion to the ghosts at the very end which – though it may simply be a way to get the entire cast back in the room for a curtain call – thins the sense of the “real,” replacing it with the corny.

Still, I cannot sniff at any piece of theater which inspires Los Angelinos to discover more about their own history. Indeed, the Doheny tale is a particularly colorful chapter.

On a practical level, the good news, at least in comparison with “Tamara”-like adventures, is the comparative lack of stair climbing and trailing over large expanses. The less than good news is the “light refreshment” offered at intermission. Don’t expect more than Doritos, packaged crackers, juice and water. Still, this is a singular event, which only takes place when the city of Beverly Hills has not scheduled other things in what is now a landmark and a museum of sorts.

What: “The Manor” When: Through February 13, 6 p.m. on January 22, 23, 29 and 30, and February 10 – 13 (all matinees were sold out by opening day) Where: Greystone Mansion, in Greystone Park, 905 Loma Vista Drive, above Sunset Blvd. in Beverly Hills How Much: $55 with tickets only available in advance Info: (310) 694-6118 or http://www.theatre40.org

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