Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Pasadena area.

What. What? If you’re confused… so am I

So, as I wrote last week, when my print editor – the person responsible for the features sections of three papers which have carried my work for years – was let go, I was given to understand that all the critiquing associated with those papers was going online. My new editor, who was described to me as my “new, online editor” works from a paper owned by the same company, but located at the other end of the 710 freeway. Personal interaction would have an electronic distance, but then it was all electronic anyway.

Okay, I wrote about it, but felt that this was just one more adaptation one was to make in the modern world. I’ve gotten kinda good at adaptation.

Then I opened Friday’s Pasadena Star-News and saw, in print, two of my reviews (and one by another critic – usually of opera – whom I have known for many years). Okay…

I’ll be frank. I have no idea what’s happening. Did the critiques appear in print because of hue and cry? Did they simply have extra room? Or, was the information I was handed by those supposedly “in the know” (who were very close to, if not on top of, the decision-making) not particularly accurate.

So, apparently certain random reviews of mine will make it into print. Yay, I guess. In any case, they’ll all be here, including the ones that don’t appear anywhere else.

And the personal state of flux continues. On the other hand, I did see 8 shows in 10 days, and with the exception of those I must wait to publish so they can appear online at the papers first, they’re all up. Stay tuned for the installment of “had to be elsewhere first” material which will appear on Thursday.

As for the rest, it’s just wait and see and wait.

“Marjorie Prime” at the Taper: A speculation on human-techological interaction

Lisa Emory and Lois Smith square off as daughter and mother in "Marjorie Prime" [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Lisa Emory and Lois Smith square off as daughter and mother in “Marjorie Prime” [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Some of the best science fiction of the past 60 years or so has revolved around the concept of artificial intelligence, and the potential for robotics to mimic humanity. As we get closer to the reality of such things, we begin to examine the powers, limitations, and emotional effects a human-looking electronic being could have on the human race.

Which brings me to “Marjorie Prime,” a play by Jordan Harrison receiving its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum. In some ways it says things echoed in other quarters about the limitations of programming, in other ways it offers a new examination of the plusses and pitfalls of emotional interaction with humanoid machinery.

The given in the world of “Marjorie Prime” is that one can create a robotic version, physically anyway, of someone who has passed away. That “prime” version of the person must then be programmed through the process of human reminiscence to talk and behave in a way that will mimic the original person. According to Harrison, the effects of such a thing will vary, depending on the person and the circumstance, from therapeutic to destructive.

Jeff Ward and Frank Wood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Jeff Ward and Frank Wood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Lois Smith is Marjorie, a woman with advancing dementia. We first meet a “prime” in the form of Walter Prime (Jeff Ward), a youthful-looking replacement for the husband she lost long before, whose programming by several people allows him to remind her of her own past, and – as in “The Notebook” – keep Marjorie more connected to her own history than would otherwise be possible.

Marjorie’s world is also populated by those who love her: her frustrated, sometimes bitter daughter Tess (Lisa Emery) and her gentle, empathetic son-in-law Jon (Frank Wood). As time goes on, Marjorie and later Tess become “prime” versions. What was therapy for someone without a memory becomes hauntingly incomplete and increasingly painful for those whose memories are intact but limited to their own perspectives, making it difficult to program the replacements themselves. Will programming a prime stave off loss? Did the programmer “get” the interior monologue of the lost person well enough to create an imitation with any kind of veracity?

Lisa Emery and Frank Wood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Lisa Emery and Frank Wood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Smith makes the distinction between Marjorie and her “prime” version a symphony of subtleties. Her spot-on dementia persona drifts into a static, formula personality in ways which underscore the point of the play. Emery’s Tess moves from frustration with impending loss to frustration with the limits of imitation, to the blandness of imitation itself. Wood’s Jon, played as a man whose heart is big and often worn on his sleeve, curdles as his world is increasingly artificial.

And – in one stark statement of a scene – the three primes try conversing with each other as if they were real. The conclusions are all in there.

Director Les Waters moves the setting and tone of the piece into increasing isolation, just as the play does. Sometimes this makes the staging rather static – unfortunate in a work which is all underplayed to some extent, to maximize the few moments of great emotion. Mimi Lien’s minimal set, which moves at one point to make its own interesting statement, keeps the focus on the personalities (or, in some cases, the lack of personality) which make this play interesting to watch, but emphasizes their bleakness and increasingly spare environment.

“Marjorie Prime” moves slowly, and is performed without intermission. As a play it is a “ponderable,” and that balance between what has been said before and what is new may inspire many to dismiss it as almost cliché in its view of the potential advances of AI. To avoid that, one must focus on the human characters. One wishes there was a bit more chance to do so.

What: “Marjorie Prime” When: Through October 19, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 S. Grand Ave. at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25-$70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“Good People” in La Mirada – 21st Century Class Consciousness

Katie MacNichol, Sophina Brown and Martin Kildare in "Good People" in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

Katie MacNichol, Sophina Brown and Martin Kildare in “Good People” in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

Long ago, my sociology professor made much of the fact that there were not specific social classes in the United States: that, like the Horatio Alger model, everyone had the ability to rise. This has become more and more debatable in the last half-century, as social forces clamp some into specific spaces in our national culture , not all of which are related to race.

In illustration, find the McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of “Good People,” David Lindsay-Abaire’s examination of class and culture in Boston, now at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Lindsay-Abaire, whose powerful examination of the nature and collateral damage of grief, “Rabbit Hole,” was a signature piece of last year’s MRE season, looks at the issue through the lens of a “Southie” – someone from traditionally blue collar, Irish, South Boston.

Margaret is a middle aged Southie at the end of her rope. Having just lost her most recent job, in part due to her struggles to care for her disabled adult daughter, she’s desperate for work. Her lifelong friend bumps into an old classmate, briefly Margaret’s love interest, who escaped the life of South Boston for a career as a doctor. Margaret decides to push him to lift her up, at least as far as giving her a job.

Has he become a “lace curtain Southie,” thinking he’s better than everyone else? Is her anger toward him justified? Is the lifestyle he now lives the dream Margaret thinks it is, or does class create struggle even there? What, in the end, are these characters’ actual truths, as the two possible endings for a Southie kid come face to face.

Margaret with her own: MacNichol with Anne Gee Byrd (l.) and Gigi Bermingham (r.) [Photo: Michael Lamont]

Margaret with her own: MacNichol with Anne Gee Byrd (l.) and Gigi Bermingham (r.) [Photo: Michael Lamont]

Katie MacNichol creates a distinctly edgy, biting quality to the desperate Margaret: quick to assume, aggressively judgemental and painfully honest, yet gifted by a sense of community on her home turf. As her buddy Jean, Gigi Bermingham offers up the same cynically humorous view of their individual desperations, while Anne Gee Byrd makes Margaret’s upstairs landlady obstinately practical, but caring in her own distant way.

As Mike, the doctor, Martin Kildare gives subtlety to the divide of sensitivities inside a successful man with Southie roots. Sophina Brown, as his wife, offers the third element: a woman raised with greater sophistication, whose struggles to connect her husband’s present image with his past may loom as large as Margaret’s.

Though not touted as a comedy, “Good People” has many laughs in the midst of these tensions. The title of this play comes from the phrase, “He (or she) is good people” – an important valuation in South Boston.The rest of the play is, in the end, an examination of what it means to be, or not be, good people – a goodness which resides in there somewhere, apparently particularly among people in extremity.

Though not as compelling as “Rabbit Hole,” as a play, the performances make the thing worth watching, as does director Jeff Maynard’s handling of this episodic tale. He smooths the transitions from place to place, and makes great use of Stephen Gifford’s representational set pieces. Adriana Lambarri’s costumes create instant class separations, and underscore the central themes of the piece.

For us west-coasters, who may have only heard of Southies in relation to the more local arrest of Whitey Bulger, it’s a look at a part of the country where the turf wars are more distinct, and more ingrained in social history. It’s also a good examination of why, at least in certain parts of the country, my sociology professor was probably wrong.

What: “Good People” When: Through October 12, 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 http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

No Mere Trojan Rabbit: Monty Python Captures Candlelight Pavilion

Adam Trent, Raymond Ingram and Chelsea Emma Franko in "Spamalot" [photo: John LaLonde]

Adam Trent, Raymond Ingram and Chelsea Emma Franko in “Spamalot” [photo: John LaLonde]

There is a reason that the clowns are the finest athletes in the circus: you have to be very, very good at something to do it “badly” and not get seriously hurt. By the same token, anyone creating a satirical version of an art form must be excellent at that art form in order for the humor to work. Otherwise, it just looks awkward and amateurish rather than snarky and funny.

Which is why it is delightful to be able to say that the new production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot” at the Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont has the absolutely necessary combination of crisp production, talented performers and unified wit needed to pull this thing off. One bad performance, or unintentional awkward transition, and much of what makes this show so very funny would be lost.

“Spamalot” is, of course, Python member Eric Idle’s reworking of the absolutely classic satiric film, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” which made fun of every possible aspect of the genre of medieval romantic stories and movies. Set to music by Idle and John Du Prez, it sets tongue firmly in cheek, and gets sillier and sillier as the evening progresses. That is, it does if the show lives up to its potential. Here it does.

The tale starts out as a silly version of King Arthur and the search for the Holy Grail. It takes any number of side trips, reworks Arthurian characters with abandon, and makes almost no sense, but then it isn’t intended to.

Raymond Ingram's King Arthur joins in dancing "The Knights of the Round Table" [photo: John LaLonde]

Raymond Ingram’s King Arthur joins in dancing “The Knights of the Round Table” [photo: John LaLonde]


In a comparatively small cast called upon, in most cases, to play a number of parts throughout the evening, there are several standout performances. Chelsea Emma Franko sings beautifully and carries the integral part of The Lady of the Lake with style and wit. Just such a performance is necessary to keep this thing moving. Raymond Ingram makes a solid King Arthur, and Adam Trent has a ball as his servant (complete with traditional coconuts).

Emerson Boatwright is the perfect, geeky historian, and a delightful Prince Herbert. Matt Dallal gives Sir Robin the properly milquetoast attitude. Jotape Lockwood’s dim Sir Lancelot, Bryan Vickery’s solid Sir Galahad, and Robert Hoyt in several parts but particularly Galahad’s mother all work well together. Indeed, the ensemble quality of this makes it all work, as the rest of the ensemble who back up these major players helps to prove.

The only major thing which could use fixing is the occasional bit of diction, especially when, as Lockwood must at one point, one must speak in an accent. The lines in this show are its best feature, so understanding what you hear is a must.

Director Chuck Ketter has just the right touch regarding both the pacing and the ridiculousness. Janet Renslow’s recreation of Casey Nicholaw’s original choreography, adapted for the smaller Candlelight stage, keeps the whole thing lively and showcases the multiple talents of the cast.

As was true of the original film, there are somewhat scatological jokes of one kind and another. One might want to rethink bringing small children, or the kind of adults who would be disquieted by Monty Python’s sometimes colorful humor. Still, I admit to taking my own kids, when younger, to see the film. My son even had a shirt with the French taunts on it which he was sad to grow out of.

Candlelight’s “Spamalot” is just plain fun. That it comes with a pretty nice dinner is just an added plus. Go and have fun. That’s what this show is all about, after all.

What: “Monty Python’s Spamalot” When: Through October 19, open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $53 – $68, meal inclusive/ $25 for children 12 and under

“Kiss Me Kate” at Pasadena Playhouse: an old friend, a new spin

Wayne Brady and Merle Dandridge star in "Kiss Me Kate" at the Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Earl Gibson III]

Wayne Brady and Merle Dandridge star in “Kiss Me Kate” at the Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Earl Gibson III]

The story of “Kiss Me Kate” has always been worthy of note. The first winner of a Tony for Best Musical, it was the surprise come-back victory for Cole Porter, and his most successful creation in a lifetime of writing songs for the theater. Now at the Pasadena Playhouse, and inspired by famed 1930s productions adapting familiar shows to an African American cast, director Sheldon Epps has taken this backstage musical in a similar direction.

For the most part, this offers up a freshness, making a wittily familiar favorite something one can see through a new lens. Still, there is some unevenness to tighten up before it has all of the impact one could wish.

The essential story looks at a theater company about to start their out-of-town try-out of a new musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” The director, producer and star is a famed and rather pompous actor named Fred who has recruited the equally famous wife he divorced a year before to play Katherine, the female lead. Thus the edgy relationship between their characters onstage is reflected in an equal edginess offstage, with comic results. Meanwhile the secondary female, playing Bianca, hangs all over Fred while stringing along her longtime partner, whose gambling habit is about to get everyone in trouble.

Beginning with the blues/gospel styling of the iconic “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” the audience knows this production is going to be challenging its expectations. Jenelle Lynn Randall, as the leading lady’s dresser, grabs attention from the very first note. Merle Dandridge, as the obstinate Katherine, lives up to the romantic yet commanding part of the spurned lover ready for change, and sings the great “So In Love” from deep in her soul.

(l-r) Jay Donnell, Eric B. Anthony, Joanna A. Jones and Terrance Spencer  [Photo: Earl Gibson III]

(l-r) Jay Donnell, Eric B. Anthony, Joanna A. Jones and Terrance Spencer [Photo: Earl Gibson III]


Joanna A. Jones makes a deliciously wicked Bianca, delighted in her own sexuality, while, as her partner, Terrance Spencer’s gee-whiz charm and muscular dancing make that couple’s moments on stage among the most entertaining. Also impressive as a dancer is Rogelio Douglas, Jr., whose “Too Darned Hot” with Randall provides the steamiest moment. Indeed, the entire company – ensemble most definitely included – puts their whole heart and soul into this undertaking with attractive results.

A special nod goes to John Iacovelli for a set which evokes period without becoming boxy, and to David K. Mickelsen for the colorful costumes which evoke the quasi-period feel and the color of old style Broadway musicals. These two help to keep the show in its own era: as a self-styled “American Negro Theater” production in the 1940s.

There are a couple of issues, however. The much-touted star, Wayne Brady, makes that central figure of the producer/actor/director extremely human, but almost too human, too sensitive. The character needs to be, at least when “on,” more of a figure of ego, capturing the stage with an almost larger-than-life quality. That would make his more human, more fragile private moments stand out. Here it all blends, which dilutes the energy of the piece – a situation not aided by a singing voice occasionally on the edge of flatness.

Also, though Jeffrey Polk’s choreography is lively and sometimes impressively athletic, its overt sexuality sometimes seems out of keeping with the time period portrayed. As example, why would an actress’ dresser strip down, mid-show, on opening night, in an alley?

Still, it is fun to see “Kiss Me Kate” again, and fascinating to see how small shifts here and there create a new underlying theme to the piece. And, of course, one more chance to hear that silly song, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is never amiss. Also, the opening of this production signals the unveiling of the new carpet and especially the new seats in the theater. That in itself is worthy of celebration.

What: “Kiss Me Kate” When: Through October 12, 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: $57 – $145 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Shifts in My Newspaper World

I have waited to mention it, except to those press reps I contact in the process of doing my job as a theater critic, but now may be the time.

The Los Angeles Newspaper Group has decided to take all theatrical criticism online – at least for the papers I have written for over the past 30+ years (The Whittier Daily News, The San Gabriel Valley Tribune and – for the longest of all – The Pasadena Star-News). They let go my longtime print editor, Catherine Gaugh, as a part of the deal, and reinstated a policy from roughly 25 years ago that anything which cannot be seen on opening day, or at least opening weekend, is too old to be news.

I have already run into a few stalwart, old school newspaper subscribers who are flummoxed by this, but I have to be of two minds about the change. On the one hand, first, it does mean they will continue to run theatrical criticism at all, which – given the shrinking space in the actual printed paper – is a good thing. Second, I can still remember the days when my first editors would panic over the idea of being beaten to the printed review by the Times, so in some ways this is a return to an old standard of competition.

On the other hand, it does make me glad to have this alternate venue for publishing the critiquing I do, as people constantly ask me what I think about productions at theaters I have habitually frequented. If I can’t make it in the papers’ narrow time frame (and sometimes nobody else at the paper does either, due to time or space restraints), I can at least write it here. In this modern era, when some critics actually hold on to reviews until they can print, say, two which speak to opposite ends of a point they’re trying to make, timeliness has a different impact than it once did. I may see something in the second week perhaps, or midway through the week after opening (as I will be doing this week with two theater companies), and will still have a place to offer my response to what I have seen.

After all, I started this blog site on the urging of my son and others who were convinced that the newspapers I grew up experiencing were an albatross as a genre, and would eventually disappear. Apparently we are one step further along that road. I admit that makes me sad.

So, go read the work at the papers’ websites when you can. If it is at their sites, it will be more timely, as I now cannot publish anything in this space which was sent there first until three days after they put it up. (I currently have two waiting for that time to pass.) But if you can’t find it there, I’m right here waiting.

It’s an odd thing, the push into the electronic and post-electronic age: convenient for those who feel comfortable in this new world, frustrating for those – including some of my most faithful readers – who don’t. Well, then, there’s nothing to be done. Let’s pull up our socks and go to the theater. That art form, at least, as it arises from flesh and blood and the passions of the heart, is about as tangible as it gets.

Beckett’s Woman: “Happy Days” at The Theatre @ Boston Court

This play has been extended through October 19. Marc Cardiff will step in for Tony Shalhoub during the extension.

Happy Days 1

When students study Samuel Beckett, it is almost always by reading or seeing “Waiting for Godot,” undoubtedly the playwright’s definitive masterpiece. As such, people go into a production of “Godot” with a certain knowing – a certain expectation of what may be found there. In other words, when it comes to Beckett, the potential for real surprise – something he was initially known for – comes from his less-produced, or at least less well known work.

At The Theatre at Boston Court, the playwright’s “Happy Days” offers just such satisfying newness. Of course, it isn’t new, and yet though it was first produced in 1961, yes it is. Inspired by Cyril Cusack’s wife, Maureen, who suggested after “Krapp’s Last Tape” that Beckett “write a happy play,” it approaches much which still applies in the disaster which seems to be our modern society.

The play which rises from that request by Maureen Cusack bases itself in utter despair, which the playwright felt only a woman would be able to face with dauntless cheerfulness. Whether or not this is a good thing, or any definition of happy, is open to interpretation.

From the start, we meet Winnie – a woman already sunk to past the waist in the earth of a desolate place. Her husband Willie is in a cave somewhere behind her. He speaks little and usually somewhat unintelligibly. Still, knowing he is there gives this rather overbearing woman the strength to talk herself into buoyance, even as her situation becomes more and more starkly bleak.

Of course, that’s only the superficial view. The toughness and indefatigable coping skills of a woman in the face of apocalypse, the constant stream of repetitive babble even when sleeplessness and hopelessness have given it all a grim undertone, say many complex things. There is much about social standards, marriage, and the elemental nature of womanhood, all to be gleaned as the evening matures.

Winnie is often considered one of the great woman’s roles of the modern theater, and at the Boston Court, Brooke Adams is very much up to the task. In what is essentially a two-act monologue, done while unable to move anything but one’s arms and face, Adams takes us from cheery optimism, determinedly gauging each day as a “very happy day” to all that comes after: the gradual loss of faith and of actual, as opposed to imagined, hope as she sinks further and further into an overwhelming reality. Happy Days 2

Willie, an often thankless part made comical and quizzical by Tony Shalhoub (Adams’ husband), makes an important counterpoint to Winnie. In his grunts and monosyllabic commentary, Willie refuses to live up to expectations, or to answer when spoken to, even appears at times to have disappeared or died. Though the part proves minimal in scripted utterings, it is Willie who creates the question with which the play ends – a question even Beckett determinedly claimed he did not know the answer to.

Director Andrei Belgrader balances the grim, unforgiving quality of set and situation with just enough humor to keep the darkness from descending too soon. He also establishes a pace which makes room for the performers’ art and interpretation without stretching the necessarily repetitive script to a point where the audience disengages. This is a major element in this production’s success.

Takeshi Kata’s diorama-like set falls well into Beckett’s vision for the scene at hand. Melanie Watnick’s costumes evoke the barren, the bleached, the dirty and the worn. The thing looks right, which becomes particularly important in a play where setting is almost a character.

In short, this play – like many others, new and old, produced at Boston Court – asks an audience to absorb, discuss and ponder. “Happy Days” may be listed as a classic, but not one commonly done. It proves most certainly to be a tour de force for Adams, and worth watching if only for that. For all these reasons, go see this “Happy Days”. Then feel free to ask yourself and everyone around you what the answer is to that ending question. You may learn much in the process.

What: “Happy Days” When: Through October 12, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34, with student and senior discounts Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

A Noise Within’s “The Tempest” – When a formula fits the product

Deborah Strang is Shakespeare's magical Prospero [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Deborah Strang is Shakespeare’s magical Prospero [photo: Craig Schwartz]

If you have encountered the works of Shakespeare enough times at A Noise Within, you begin to see certain patterns emerge. Any of them which have ANW artistic directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliot as co-directors of the production will have reoccurring central elements from show to show, as well as certain guaranteed casting choices which you can almost bet on.

These elemental moves include concepts borrowed from Asian and Classical Greek theater traditions, and there will also usually be an odd whimsy, often involving the injection of a carnival-like moment, at some point in the show. Sometimes this all feels like a non sequitur to the plot, but in their new production of “The Tempest” their signature moves gel, and help sell the play itself.

From the very start, the hovering “ensemble,” anonymous in Greek-like masks and acting similarly to the pseudo-invisible stage hands of Chinese opera, makes a huge impact. As the magical Ariel (Kimberleigh Aarn) tosses a ship about, the fabric sea is made menacing by this chorus. Indeed, the very magical nature of the tale of Prospero, an overthrown noble with magical powers who wreaks his revenge through the use of spells and spirits, benefits from the eerie otherworldly quality of this production.

In a bit of a twist, though not a precedent-setting one, ANW stalwart Deborah Strang is Prospero. It’s an interesting choice, in that it redefines the parent-child relationship Prospero has with Miranda, the innocent daughter who will become the love interest of a young man tossed by Prospero’s magic onto the island’s shores. Still, though solid, it is not Strang’s finest performance, mostly because one expects more from someone that strong. The dependence upon magic and the gradual rejection of it, not to mention the internal war between revenge and forgiveness, would seem to give her a greater palate to work with than that which is is used.

Eliza Kiss (who also sings the best of the original music), Kimberleigh Aarn and Dekyi Ronge as Ariel and her ensemble spirits [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Eliza Kiss (who also sings the best of the original music), Kimberleigh Aarn and Dekyi Ronge as Ariel and her ensemble spirits [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Aarn’s enslaved spirit, on the other hand, seethes with that odd combination of duty and desire for freedom. She enjoys her magic, yet chafes at the control over her life. The Elliots have chosen to have Geoff Elliot play the monster Calaban more as a grotesque human than as a truly monster-ish monster. It certainly makes his situation more pitiful, and the comedy which surrounds him more approachable. Alison Elliot’s Miranda proves as sweet and openly joy-filled as one could want, while Paul David Story’s earnest Fernando has the right kind of boyish charm to make the romance between them a sweet balance to the oddity of their environment.

Indeed, the rest of the company shipwrecked upon this strange place also offer up fine performances, especially William Dennis Hunt’s touchingly antique Gonzalo. One sometimes wishes they had more to do, as they spout long explanatory passages about the strangeness of their environment. Still, the silliness of Kasey Mahaffy’s Trinculo and Jeremy Rabb’s Stephano, as they get Calaban drunk, makes up for much of the rest.

Kudos to Peter Bayne for the fascinating original music – some of which sets Shakespeare’s lyrics – and the general sound design. Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes set this fantasy piece solidly in the “English gentleman” period of the late 1800s. The whole thing has an air of calypso about it, but a subtle one which suits the vagueness of Shakespeare’s location just fine.

In short, though I cannot say this is the finest rendition of “The Tempest” I have ever seen, I appreciate the way it establishes a sense of mystery, and the way in which things which have become Elliot signatures continue that “presence” as the ancient tale unfolds. And then, of course, I always like a chance to root for Ariel, waiting for her freedom as these silly mortals sort out their dramas.

What: “The Tempest” When: Through November 22 as part of their repertory season, 8 p.m. Oct 3, Nov. 1 and 22, 7 p.m. Oct. 26 and Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 6 and 20, and 2 p.m. Oct. 4 and 26, and Nov. 16 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: Single tickets from $40, $20 for student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

The Pajama Game in Whittier – Kinder/Gentler Management vs Union

cast picture

The musicals of the post-WWII years can be a fascinating window on American society at the time. Suspiciously anti-social rock stars were followed by swooning teens and made household words by Ed Sullivan. Corporations were endemic, and the fodder for satire. Unions were virtuous, not to mention victorious when fighting unreasonable management.

That last, of course, was best exemplified in the charmingly silly musical “The Pajama Game,” now enjoying a brief but spirited revival at the Whittier Community Theatre. I have a personal fondness for the show, though I know it is now seen as somewhat obscure. Still, even if it isn’t familiar to you, the score probably is, featuring hits like “Hey There,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” and “Steam Heat.”

The story is simple enough: Sid, a young and handsome factory supervisor who’s new in town, falls for Babe, the head of the union’s grievance committee. As a strike nears, their romance runs into conflict with the management-union struggles of the pajama factory where they both work. Other office workers dabble in romance, rage with jealousy, or just look on with wry amusement.

Amy and Jason Miramontes (who are married) play lovers Babe and Sid

Amy and Jason Miramontes (who are married) play lovers Babe and Sid

At Whittier, this “Pajama Game” has much to recommend it, even if there are a few weak spots. Amy Miramontes is charming as Babe, with an aura of worldly-wise sophistication and a charming voice. As Sid, Jason Miramontes (Amy’s husband) proves handsome and energetic, creating a charming version of this often rather wooden character, though he needs to work just a bit on pitch when he sings. Beyond the leads, the standout, if brief, performance has to be Eric Nelson as Babe’s tolerant,. charmingly uncomplicated Pop.

Other performers worthy of particular note are Tina Quick-Snedaker as Sid’s wise and motherly secretary, Justin Patrick Murphy as the lascivious union Prez, Greg Stokes as the wildly emotional time-study man Heinzie, and Jeri Harms as the intense, sensual corporate secretary Gladys – over whom Heinzie hovers. Isabella Ramirez, Becca Schroeder and Jennifer Bales do a reasonably Bob Fosse-style “Steam Heat” – the particular triumph of Schroeder’s choreography.

Indeed, the entire cast proves likable, even if there are moments of varying skill.

Director Roxie Lee has taken this episodic tale and kept the pacing moving, thanks in part to her self-designed, minimalist set. She keeps the characters earnest and well connected to each other, which adds to the flow. Musical director Brian Murphy succeeds in celebrating the sheer tunefulness of this show, including putting together a solid orchestra. Karen Jacobson gets a major nod for managing convincingly period costuming on a community theatre budget.

In short, “The Pajama Game” is a window on another time and another ethos. It is tuneful and endearing, and lets a younger generation know that those old folks weren’t quite as pure as it may seem. And it’s fun. You will easily find yourself humming the tunes as you leave, and wondering what happened to the whole universe in which this little tale takes place.

What: “The Pajama Game” When: Through September 20, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors/students/military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

“6 Rms Riv Vu” in Sierra Madre: a classic comedy brings modern insights

Jeremy Guskin (l.) and Lena Bouton (r.) deal with Lynndi Scott as the lady across the hall in "6 Rms Riv Vu" in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

Jeremy Guskin (l.) and Lena Bouton (r.) deal with Lynndi Scott as the lady across the hall in “6 Rms Riv Vu” in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

There comes a point, with older works of theater, when they stop being “dated” and start being a window on another time. When that happens, they can provide insightful views of the differences and most engagingly the similarities between the work’s era and our own. This is obvious with truly classic works – Shakespeare, Moliere, even Oscar Wilde. In our fast-changing world it also rings true for plays and musicals only a few decades old.

As example, the production of “6 Rms Riv Vu”, Bob Randall’s Tony-winning play from 1972. Now in a fine production at Sierra Madre Playhouse, it looks back at the people whose lives overlapped the societal mores of two distinct periods, who are thus forced to find balance in the midst of very mixed messages. As ethical values continue to shift today, it offers a chance to stop and think.

The play – most definitely a comedy – centers on two people, Anne Miller and Paul Friedman, who find themselves locked in a rent-controlled New York apartment they’ve both been sent by spouses to check out and possibly rent. As time passes, they begin to share vulnerabilities: their sense of incompleteness in their married lives, their sense of disquiet at their own lack of adventure, and fairly soon their mutual attraction.

What makes the play worth watching is what they do with the information they glean, as played out by a somewhat young, but interesting cast. Jeremy Guskin feels natural as Paul: a bit geeky, a bit henpecked, a bit startled by his own bravado. Lena Bouton brings to Anne that settled housewife aura, but with the undercurrent of resistance to patronization and frustration at her own “goodness” showing through.

Lynndi Scott all but steals the show as the obtuse lady across the hall. Bob Rodriguez gives the perfect “operating on autopilot” maintenance man – the instigator of the leads getting stuck in the first place. In cameo roles, Kristin Towers-Rowles vibrates with energy as Paul’s feminist wife, Craig EcEldowney hums with paternalistic attitude as Anne’s businessman husband, and Jull Maglione and Albert Garnica provide the play’s bookends as an expectant couple also checking out the apartment.

Director Sherri Lofton gives the play a relaxed, yet intense pacing and enough movement to keep an essentially two-person piece from devolving into a static debate. John Vertrees’ set design makes the small SMP stage look like a reasonably-sized apartment, which is quite a feat. The costuming by Naila Aladdin Sanders pretty much nails the polyester double-knit look of the era. The authenticity greatly enhances the experience.

As a result, “6 Rms Riv Vu” has much to recommend it: it’s funny, well acted, well produced, and has something quite specific to say, which is still worth listening to. It’s also funny in the way of the best comedies of that era: jokes at just the time when the tale would otherwise become painful, yet still making a “truth” available under the laughter.

This is the start of a new era for the Sierra Madre Playhouse, as they embrace a new board and a new artistic director. The focus is obviously quality, and the shaking off of the “community theater” label. So far, so good

What: “6 Rms Riv Vu” When: Through September 6, 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: (standard pricing) $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 children 12 and under (NOTE: general and senior tickets purchased in July for any performance between now and the end of the run will be on a special: $19.72 – the date of the play) Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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