Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Pared Down, Powered Up: “Antigone” at ANW

Stephen Weingartner (Guard) and Emily James (Antigone). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Stephen Weingartner (Guard) and Emily James (Antigone). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

In an art form where longevity can be used by some to indicate intrinsic value, at least in the form of universality, none achieve this at a higher level than the plays of the Ancient Greeks. Certainly,Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy has played upon the imagination of human societies far beyond the original parameters of the people for whom it was written. Usually, one discusses the angst, tragic flaws and fate of “Oedipus the King,” but in modern times – as in the time when Jean Anouilh first translated and adapted it – the greatest focus should be the ethical and moral dilemmas at the heart of the second play, “Antigone.”

Now in a new translation and further adaptation of the Anouilh version by director Robertson Dean, A Noise Within’s “Antigone” proves an admittedly truncated, elemental edition. Narrowed down to its essentials, the grand Greek speeches reworked to resonate with a modern audience, the power of the essential struggles of its protagonists leaps out in a way which makes ancient struggles modern.

The tale remains essentially the same, though – like Anouilh’s version – it is placed in an era reminiscent of the late 1930s (Anouilh was actually writing his version as the Germans entered Paris). Oedipus is gone, his sons have fought to the death over who should run Thebes. Oedipus’ brother-in-law Creon backed one of the brothers, Eteocles, over the rebellious Polynices, and as a result has taken over as king after both brothers die in battle. To declare the rebellion dead, he has decreed that nobody shall bury Polynices’ body so that it may rot in public as a warning to all further rebels. Should anyone bury the body, that person shall be condemned to death.

Which leaves their sister, Antigone, with an agonizing ethical choice. If she buries the body of her brother, she shall die. If she she leaves it there to disintegrate she shall have allowed something immoral to happen that she could have stopped. Which is more important, her life or her conscience. For Antigone this is no choice at all, but to those around her more versed in political expediency, the choices she wants to make are either idiotic or tragically pointless. Yet, she knows what she believes is the right thing to do.

This production jumps to vivid life due largely to Emily James’ impressively, passionately intense Antigone. Small, and physically fragile, James’ heroine is vibrantly resolute – absolutely positive she is taking the only action possible, and yet equally sure it is an action which should harm no other. Riveting from start to end, she is impossible not to watch.

Eric Curtis Johnson makes Creon the consummate politician, even in exhaustion seeing life as a negotiation and honor as relative, at least until it hits too close to home. Brick Patrick moves Creon’s son, Antigone’s fiancé, from a casual nobility to a resolute passion as his world increasingly wraps around the fate of his intended. Inger Tudor makes the chorus – a character Dean has given a much larger roll, in that she speaks the words of several characters other than her own – the voice of reason as she sets and expands the tale beyond the intimate palace space.

Smaller parts are also impressively done. Lorna Raver fusses well as the shaken nurse. As Antigone’s more elegant sister Ismene, Kyla Garcia becomes a balance to the title character’s determined single-mindedness, as she ranges from fear to compromise with little effect on the outcome. Stephen Weingartner plays the parts once handed to three separate guards – the realist of the piece – whose focus is not on the reason for war or the ethics of Antigone’s actions, but on how it will affect his future in his chosen occupation.

All of this plays against Frederica Nascimento’s junk pile of a set, complete with a radio whose blasts of Edith Piaf set the scene as much as the column bases and collapsed chandeliers. Jenny Foldenauer’s costuming captures a time period without being too specific, and Martin Carrillo’s sound design keeps the audience circled with the continuing danger outside the door.

This “Antigone” has been pared down enough to be performed without an intermission, and that works too as the tension builds toward the known but still agonizing end. As director, Dean keeps the thing moving, literally, which is terribly important in a play which is mostly about fine, direct, but potentially static talk. As a result, one seems to barely breathe from start to finish – a most satisfying way to see a great and ancient work made new.

“Antigone” plays in repertory with “A Flea in Her Ear” and the upcoming “All My Sons.”

What: “Antigone” When: Through November 20, 7 p.m. October 4, and November 8, 7:30 p.m. October 29 and November 19, 8 p.m. October 24, November 14 and 20, 2:00 p.m. October 4, 24, November 8 and 14 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $44 and up, with student rush with ID an hour before performance Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or

A Pleasant “First Date” takes on La Mirada

The cast of "First Date - A Musical Comedy" in La Mirada [photo: Jason Niedle]

The cast of “First Date – A Musical Comedy” in La Mirada [photo: Jason Niedle]

There are many different reasons a theatrical musical can work. It can be a window on a piece of history, a great work of literature, or an important social issue. It can swell the heart with timeless romance, or charm with silliness and tap dancing. Then again, maybe it’s evocative of those awkward, or funny, or engaging moments most of us can resonate with, and so it’s a lovely, light-hearted way to spend an evening.

This would be what Alan Zachary, Michael Weiner, and Austin Winsberg’s “First Date” has to offer. As it takes a “millennial” couple through their blind date, it evokes all the nerves, uncertainties, self-deprecations, and random thoughts such a stressful event can create. Now a part of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment series at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, the fresh little musical gets a boisterously attractive treatment. This is not a musical you will leave with your mind resting on its epic intensity, but the very humanity of two people working their way through a familiar situation will let you leave with a smile.

Essentially, this is the story of the first date between Aaron and Casey. As they meet at a trendy restaurant, their external exchanges are matched by the internal dialogue played out, thanks to an amazingly versatile cast, by all the other voices they carry in their heads. The internal and external comedy leads to considerable laughter, occasional pathos, and a nonstop velocity. Due to this last, it makes perfect sense the show would be performed without intermission. This is a flow one would hate to break.

Marc Ginsburg is Aaron, a man coming back to the dating world after being left at the altar by his ex-fiance. As he unwinds this, the lure of his original attachment to the lover who jilted him plays like a background hum, as does the lasciviousness of his “player” best friend. Ginsurg manages the fine balance between vulnerability and simple fear of the unknown and the determination to move on with a fine hand. As the comparatively unconventional Casey, Erica Lustig walks between the character’s judgmental, sometimes angry self-protection and her genuine curiosity, as her sister’s resented voice of convention and her gay friend’s earnest voice of rescue echo in her head.

Justin Michael Wilcox, Leigh Wakeford, Scott Dreier, Stacey Oristano and Kelley Dorney morph from bar patrons into these many voices with a seamlessness which speaks to the near-choreographic use of the stage by director Nick Degruccio. Aided by the momentum of Lee Martino’s fast-paced actual choreography, the show is filled with movement which keeps what is essentially an extensive conversation from becoming static and lifeless. It is a clever use of all of what live theater has to offer in the way of storytelling immediacy.

And the individual characters created by the “voices” are worth special recognition, as they play everything from old sweethearts to pushy family to even the various advantages of differing social media in discovering the most embarrassing
moments in a new date’s previous life. The songs are fun, and push the story into interestingly introspective places, then out again into the sheer silliness of trying to assess a possible partner over dinner.

One caveat: understand this is about dating in the current day. References (at the very least in their heads) to the sexual nature of relationship are definitely there, and the language can get rather scatological. However, this proves organic to the characters and situation, and adds rather than detracts from the humor of the piece.

“First Date” is not – as written – great art, but it is most certainly a lot of fun. And as presented in La Mirada, has a charm and energy which makes it seem much shorter than it is, and leaves you wanting to follow the characters into the next phase of whatever comes after.

What: “First Date” When: through October 11, 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, (714) 994-6310 or

The Bard Goes Mod in “These Paper Bullets” (and it’s terrific)

The Quartos - a twist on the Fab Four - take center stage in

The Quartos – a twist on the Fab Four – take center stage in “These Paper Bullets” [photo: Michael Lamont]

Once upon a time it was considered necessary to place the works of William Shakespeare in a kind of historical isolation. The insistence on Elizabethan clothes, language, and setting led increasingly to an emotional and cultural distance which mothballed the relevance of the works. This barrier was broken in the 20th Century as the plays began to be staged in various contemporary frameworks, from Orson Welles’ placing of “Julius Caesar” in Mussolini’s Italy to, among others, the many wildly creative ventures of the Royal Shakespeare Company from the 1960s on. Now, “These Paper Bullets” at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood takes the Bard one more lively step toward the contemporary.

Subtitled “A Modish Ripoff of William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing'”. this new musical has a script by Rolin Jones heavily based on the original play’s lines and characters, reset in the London of 1964. What were once members of a victorious army have become, essentially, The Beatles (renamed The Quartos). The villain is no longer the victorious duke’s dark brother, defeated in battle, but an only slightly disguised Pete Best – the drummer the Beatles let go before they reached fame. And the music – deeply evocative of the Beatle’s own style (including a few opening riffs ripped directly from their hits) – is by talented Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong.

The result actually may approach some sense of what Elizabethan audiences saw when they went to one of Shakespeare’s comedies: great silliness within a cultural framework they would easily recognize. Most certainly “These Paper Bullets” proves very funny, appropriately over the top, and absolutely charming.

As in the original, there are two intertwined storylines which frame the piece. The first follows Claude, one of the band members, and his sudden yet abiding passion for Higgy – hip fashion model and daughter of the wealthy owner of the posh hotel in which the band is staying. The second follows Ben, somewhat older than his bandmate Claude, and deeply disdainful of the concept of love, especially as it relates to his former girlfriend, top end fashion designer Bea. Surrounding these two threads is a send-up of government investigations led by the pedantic Mr. Berry and his inept group of undercover agents.

Justin Kirk makes Ben a solid combination of grounded but goofy rocker and closet romantic. Nicole Parker creates, in Bea, a determinedly unromantic businesswoman gradually giving way to greater stereotype. Damon Daunno’s Claude makes being head over heels with a girl you’ve just met seem absolutely logical, while Ariana Venturi makes Higgy a truly hot mess – which has its own comic effect upon the piece.

Kirk and Daunno, along with bandmates James Barry and Lucas Papaelias, create the Beatle-like Quartos, playing their own instruments and singing with the gusto and even with head gestures reminiscent of the Fab Four. Greg Stuhr gives the pompous government official appropriate snotty idiocy, while his minions – Mr. Urges and Mr. Cake (Brad Heberlee and Tony Manna) provide extra comic relief.

It is director Jackson Gay who has turned this into such a silly, fast-paced, unified whole. From the development of a modular set (realized delightfully by designer Michael Yeargan) to Jessica Ford’s fashion-plate costumes and Paul Whitaker’s era-evoking lighting (the swirls of those ubiquitous daisies, as created by Nicholas Hussong, for example) the thing looks and feels right. The high (literally) living of the era – truly the foundation of the sex, drugs and rock and roll movement – gives everything a slightly surreal edge, while Gay’s use of the entire theatrical space continually connects the audience with the action onstage in ways Thornton Wilder would admire.

Simply put, this thing works. To hear, throughout, Shakespeare’s take on his characters as it bumps up against modern references works better than you’d think. And the references to other Shakespeare plays, modern issues and even the stagehands adds to the general silliness. Lighthearted, and funny, it also shows off the talent of Armstrong, who has found the tonalities and structures of Beatles tunes and melded them with some of his own signature sensibilities to create charming new songs that unify the show’s various elements and create the flow from scene to scene. This one is most definitely worth seeing, though it’s not a show for kids.

What: “These Paper Bullets” When: Ongoing – 8 p.m Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. in Westwood How Much: $43 – $82 Info: (310) 208-5454 or

Silly “Little Shop” Lights Up Whittier Community Theatre

Jonathan Tupanjanin and Mallory Kerwin [photo: Avis Photography]

Jonathan Tupanjanin and Mallory Kerwin [photo: Avis Photography]

In the treasure-trove of lighthearted, silly musicals, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s “Little Shop of Horrors” has to one of the most universally beloved. Based on a “B” horror film by Roger Corman, twisted to be firmly tongue-in-cheek, it becomes a send-up of every element of early 1960s cultural framework. Now the Whittier Community Theatre brings the show to the stage once more, accompanied by a live band and filled with a youthful energy.

The tale is silly from the start. Seymour Krelborn and Audrey work at Mushnik’s Florist Shop on Skid Row. For obvious reasons, the store is struggling until Seymour produces one of his collection of exotic plants – a completely unique piece of vegetation which fascinates the public and makes the shop famous. As they cope with the rising fame, and the unique dietary habits of the plant, Seymour also worries over how to save Audrey from her sadistic boyfriend, and whether the fame he’s achieving is worth the emotional and physical cost.

Director Karen Jacobson has gathered a sharp cast to bring this lovely trifle to life. Jonathan Tupanjanin sings up a storm and looks appropriately nerdy as the hapless Seymour. Mallory Kerwin matches Tupanjanin note for note, and certainly acts the part as the voluptuously innocent Audrey. Richard De Vicaris appears in his element as the crusty, accusatory Mushnik. Matthew Berardi puts his all into the slimy boyfriend who orders Audrey around.

The show’s only major issue, which touches the leads but is most frustrating with the narrating chorus, is the uneven power and effectiveness of the performer’s body mics. Most particularly with the chorus, Mindy Duong’s Chiffon and Gracie Lacey’s Chrystal go back and forth between whose mic is on too loud, and Jenae Denise Thompson’s Ronnette often seems to not have a mic at all, which destroys the classic girl-group harmonies of their signature moments. The performers themselves sing well (though Lacey is sometimes a touch flat) but when you can only hear one of them at a time, the impact is less than stellar.

Sam Maytubby and Steven Sandborn handle the physical maneuvers of the plant life, soon named Audrey II, while Bear C.A. Sanchez gives the plant a dominating voice. The rest of the cast, an ensemble of skid row residents, sing very well, move necessary set pieces when needed, and provide a few cameo parts. Kevin Wiley’s five piece ensemble provides some of the best musical accompaniment I’ve heard at a WCT production. Indeed, with the exception of the mic glitches, the show proves one of the most polished musicals of their recent past.

Kudos go to Mark and Suzanne Frederickson for the set design, which offers a chance for the quick scenic moves so necessary to this fast-paced tale. Patty Rangel and Nancy Tyler provide just the right costumes to make the piece work.

With “Little Shop of Horrors” WCT marks the start of their 94th season. That alone is worthy of recognition. That they should be able to put up an essentially amateur production with the qualities found in this one is both remarkable and deeply satisfying. Go take a look. You’ll laugh a lot, especially if you’ve never seen the show, and help support a venerable institution working to stay relevant long into the future.

What: “Little Shop of Horrors” When: through September 26, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with one matinee at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, September 20. Where: Whittier Community Theatre, at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors, students, juniors (18 and under), and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or

Women’s World: “Real Women Have Curves” returns to the stage in Pasadena

Santana Dempsey, Cristina Frias and Blanca Araceli in

Santana Dempsey, Cristina Frias and Blanca Araceli in “Real Women Have Curves”. [Photo: Philicia Endelman]

Theater’s greatest purpose, above and beyond the poetry, the pathos, or even the sense of artfulness, has to be the role of holding a mirror up to society. Sometimes this mirror reflect’s an observer’s own experience. Sometimes it reflects a world much of the audience would not otherwise see in such a visceral way. This window can create an almost subliminal path to empathy and understanding in a way any less immediate art form may not.

Take as example the seminal “Real Women Have Curves,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse. Josefina Lopez’s semi-autobiographical tale of struggling Latina garment workers in Los Angeles rings as true today as when it first appeared on the stage decades ago. Now in an enthusiastic, occasionally flawed, richly organic production at the Pasadena Playhouse, the show has lost little of its humor or its transformative power.

The tale centers on the rebellious Ana, the recent high school graduate with a newly minted resident’s card who has been strong-armed by her mother to help in her big sister’s tiny garment factory. There, while the sister, Estela, sweats the bills, deadlines and possible ICE raids (as she does not have the legal status her sister and mother have acquired), Carmen journals her frustrations and hopes, and dreams of college and a brighter future. She also documents the daily frustrations of factory life, with her mother, Carmen, and the two other factory workers: the angry Pancha who dreams of a life with the children she cannot have, and the delicate Rosali whose body image issues underscore her general fragility.

Director Seema Sueko has gathered a strong ensemble cast, and each character stands out even as they all create a unified sense of place and purpose. Santana Dempsey leads the cast in many ways as the rebellious Ana, vibrating with frustration and a deep unwillingness to give up on her dreams. Cristina Frias makes Estela wryly hopeful and in her own way, deeply committed to dreams which deepen as the story unfolds.

Blanca Araceli has the older generation’s attitudes and habits down cold, and makes the cultural references which define relationship and background with a particular conviction. Ingrid Oliu manages the balance of anguish, anger and community as the conflicted Pancha, while Diana DeLaCruz emphasizes the fragility and yearning of Rosali’s negative self-image all the while making her perhaps the most earnestly sweet member of the group.

Indeed, the only issues one can find with the production are subtle. There is constant talk of how heavy everyone other than Rosali is, and that is used to define character, yet the two sisters Ana and Estela are not particularly heavy. Though I would not have noticed it, the young Latina sitting with me pointed out that some of the most off-hand Spanish lines “a Mexican would say without thinking” are given an almost artificial, even hesitant, intensity. Yet these are only nit-picky things in what is generally a fine, funny and deeply satisfying production.

It looks good, too. David F. Weiner’s evocative set becomes a character all its own, while Abel Alvarado provides exactly the right clothing (and underpinnings) to define each character’s view of themselves, and a splendid splash for the show’s ending scene. The pacing, under director Sueko keeps the necessarily talky piece moving, and develops each character’s individual rhythm.

“Real Women Have Curves” was written by Lopez when she herself was very young. How splendid to see that it still speaks truth to an audience in 2015. Indeed, with the characters’ haunting, almost elemental fear of ICE, their determination to struggle against the assumptions of the powerful, and the balance of older values with the ambitions of the young, makes the piece a timeless window on an essential part of the American story. Not only that, it’s just a lot of fun to watch.

One mild disclaimer: there is a certain amount of stripping down that goes on, and for those who find even fairly innocuous exposure of female undergarments offensive, this one’s not for you.

What: “Real Women Have Curves” When: through October 4, 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 $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or

Polished, Delightful “Flea” Reigns at ANW

: Elyse Mirto, Jill Hill and Jonathan Bray in the classic farce

: Elyse Mirto, Jill Hill and Jonathan Bray in the classic farce “A Flea in Her Ear” at A Noise Within [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

The French farce, with its slamming doors, mistaken identities and outrageous slapstick is its own kind of art form. Of all those who have constructed these intricate comedies, none did so with more sophistication than George Feydeau. As wildly funny as any farce, Feydeau’s also contain significant undercurrents of social commentary, and a somewhat surreal quality which enhances the comedy.

Now, in a comparatively new translation by David Ives, one of Feydeau’s best and most well known farces has arrived at A Noise Within in Pasadena. “A Flea in Her Ear” has all the great elements: cases of mistaken identity, whispers of infidelity, elaborate plots which go awry, and impressively physical comedy. Under the direction of co-artistic director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, and now set not in the 19th Century France Feydeau knew, but rather the 1950s, all of this comes together in one massive, brisk, howlingly funny whole.

The plot, such as it is, surrounds the household of the distinguished insurance executive Victor Emmanuel Chandebise. Based on changes in his passion for her, his wife, Raymonde, is convinced he is being unfaithful. To confirm this, she and her best friend Lucienne, a woman married to a Spanish diplomat, decide to set a trap for Victor at a notorious “hotel” used mostly for rendezvous. What the two women do not know is that both Victor’s nephew Camille and his business partner Romain are very familiar with this establishment. In short order, chaos ensues.

In the dual, and exhausting, role of Chandebise and the hotel’s porter, Geoff Elliott creates two completely separate physicalities – a trick which only enhances the comic effect. Elyse Mirto, as Raymonde, creates a woman of comparative honor caught in events which, even if of her own making, shock her with a lack of control. Jill Hill’s Lucienne makes a great foil for her, and Luis Fernandez-Gil offers up the perfectly stereotypical outraged Spanish nobleman as Lucienne’s jealous husband.

Also worthy of note are Joshua Wolf Coleman as the practical family doctor, Jonathan Bray as the amorous Romain, and Jeremy Rabb as the former military man who runs the questionable hotel. Still, of all the performances, none matches both the silliness and the delivery of Rafael Goldstein’s Camille – a man whose undeveloped soft palate has left him unable to use consonants without a prosthesis which becomes its own comic focus.

“A Flea in Her Ear” is not profound, though there are messages within. Rather, it is a particularly find example of the sheer joy of well produced farce. The audience laughter proves constant and hearty. Rodriguez-Elliott knows how to make full use of the ANW stage space, and the results are satisfyingly energetic and nonstop. Fred Kinny’s comically unrealistic set, with its many doors, works perfectly with this equally ridiculous, but delicious silliness.

In short, ANW’s “A Flea in Her Ear” is a true must-see. It plays in repertory with the upcoming productions of Anouilh’s “Antigone” and Miller’s “All My Sons”.

What: “A Flea in Her Ear” When: through November 22; 8 p.m. October 2, 3, and 23, and November 7 and 13; 7 p.m. November 1 and 22, 7:30 p.m. October 22, and November 12; 2 p.m. October 3, November 1, 7 and 22 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $44, $20 student rush with ID Info: (626) 356-3100 ex. 1 or

“Macbeth” at SCSF – Flawed But Still Worth Seeing

Robert Shields as Macbeth with Daniella Tarankow as Lady Macbeth in the Southern California Shakespeare Festival presentation of Macbeth at Cal Poly Pomona

Robert Shields as Macbeth with Daniella Tarankow as Lady Macbeth in the Southern California Shakespeare Festival presentation of Macbeth at Cal Poly Pomona

The Southern California Shakespeare Festival, now in its 11th season, makes its home at Cal Poly Pomona. There each summer it utilizes current students in minor roles, current and former students behind the scenes, and Equity actors – both alumni and others – in the major parts of the great Shakespearean plays. As with many such enterprises this gives any production they do an interesting balance of polish and the up-and-coming, which can be either ennobling or a distraction.

In their new production of “Macbeth,” one gets a bit of both. Under director David Fox, there is an overt contemporary feel – an aura of timelessness – which both solves some costuming issues with ease, and makes the director’s point that these people are as addled by war as any population would be. Still, as is common with college productions, the female-heavy company leads to some creative casting which moves the piece out of the real and into the almost Brechtian realm of stretched suspension of disbelief.

Along the way, one encounters an equally various group of performances, ranging from solidly on point to over the top. In the end, “Macbeth” does indeed overcome all, but somewhat unevenly.

Admittedly, one of my favorite things to look for in any production of “Macbeth” has to be the use of the “three weird sisters” or witches. Here, in the persons of Linda Bisesti, Annie Dennis and Christine Menzies, they are played fairly straightforwardly, appearing and hissing their curses with considerable menace. Still, it provides what is needed. This cannot be said of Jasmine Mosebar’s Hecate, who so overspeaks her consonants in the tiny production space that one becomes more fascinated with her pronunciation than what she is saying.

As the tormented Thane who gives in to raw ambition, Robert Shields makes Macbeth extremely human. His passion for his wife, and his constant wrestling with the difference between his moral certainty and the enticements of the spirit world make him at once more pitiful and more humanly understandable than many who’ve taken on the role. This balances against Daniella Tarankow’s Lady Macbeth. She starts at a fever pitch, all but frothing at the mouth over the potential advancement of her husband. Thus even the calculated murder of Duncan comes with a seething overtone which leaves little chance for expansion, even when the character goes mad.

Sam Robinson supplies a solidly interesting Banquo, the saner head which never has a chance to prevail, and Nathaniel Akstin-Johnson, as King Duncan’s son Malcolm, seems at least initially to carry himself more nobly than his royal father. On the other hand Matthew Reidy’s Duncan is delivered with a stagey and artificial rhythm.

The absolute best of this production comes with Kris Dowling’s measured but passionate Macduff – reasoning and heartwrenching by turns – who brings a most human face to the terrible proceedings, and Will Dinwiddie’s silly, drunken, on-point Porter.

The entire production – the largest cast this company has ever fielded – is fitted into the tiny space of the Cal Poly Studio Theatre. There, set designer Sonia Fracasso has created a physical manifestation of the general flotsam of war, which becomes the backdrop to everything base and majestic. Costume designer Valerie Philyaw has pulled together a fantasy-modern style which mixes mens’ suits and 20th century fatigues with swords and battle axes. Lighting designer Clayton Fournival has worked with sound designer Spencer Saccoman to make the pre-production feel of the space full of foreboding, but almost too dark to walk through.

At the end of each “act” (Shakespeare broke it into 5, SCSF breaks it into two) both the intermission break and the final lines come almost as a surprise. This is less that any lines have been cut (they have not, especially at the end of the play) but that there is a lack of the flourish which would give a tone of finality. This is a pity, in that people who wish to applaud are not given the usual cues to do so.

In short, this production of “The Scottish Play,” as theatrical types superstitiously call it, has things to recommend it, but still has the aura of the college production: coping with occasional odd casting and performance/design experimentation which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Yet the program is ambitious. This show even went on tour during its first week, if only to Pomona’s School of Arts and Enterprise.

In the end one is generally glad to have seen a Shakespearean production which takes its material, and the intelligence of its audience seriously, even if it has its faults. This approach is frankly refreshing, when compared to those who feel they have to invent actions to overcome an audience they don’t expect to understand what is going on. I’ll take the former any day, even if it wobbles a bit.

What: “Macbeth” When: Through October 4, Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. with an added performance Friday, September 25 at 8 p.m. Where: Studio Theatre on the campus of Cal Poly Pomona, 3801 W. Temple Ave. Building 25, in Pomona How Much: $15 general, $12 seniors/students/Cal Poly faculty and staff Online ticketing: Info: (909) 869-3987 or

Celebration Reigns with “In the Heights” at Candlelight Pavilion

The cast of "In the Heights" celebrates life at Candlelight Pavilion [photo:  Demetrios Katsantonis]

The cast of “In the Heights” celebrates life at Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

When the musical “In the Heights” by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes, hit Broadway in 2008, the excitement it created came from two angles. First, it celebrated the sense of neighborhood and the stresses of change in the largely Latino barrios of New York itself. But on a larger scale, it used contemporary hip-hop and Latino musical forms to celebrate the elemental life force of similar barrio neighborhoods from the Bronx to Huntington Park, and the threats posed to their close-knit fabric by the forces of gentrification. As such it contained a universality which, when combined with the high energy music born from salsa and marenge, became identifiable across cultures and geographic location.

Now this lively, heart-filled musical has opened in a finely polished production at Claremont’s Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater. With sharp, live percussion, a talented, focused and ensemble cast, and a message everyone can connect to, the show is a sure-fire hit.

Chris Marcos as Graffiti Pete, Revel Day as Benny, Ruben Bravo as Sonny, and Ruben J. Carbajal as Usnavi [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

Chris Marcos as Graffiti Pete, Revel Day as Benny, Ruben Bravo as Sonny, and Ruben J. Carbajal as Usnavi [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

The story looks at one block in a low-rent section of New York City. There, Usnavi works the corner bodega left him by his father, and along with his young cousin Sonny provides basic services, and a community center for the rest of the neighborhood. That community includes the Rosarios, owners of a car service and proud parents of Nina, the daughter whose departure for Stanford has become a symbol of “getting out.” Nina’s return brings its own issues, particularly in relation to her interest in Benny, a Rosario employee her parents think of as beneath her.

Also part of the community are Daniella, owner of the hair salon she’s soon to close and move thanks to rent hikes, and her two employees, Carla and especially Vanessa – the girl Usnavi is trying to get up the nerve to ask out. These, a young artistic tagger known as Graffiti Pete, an ambitious seller of fruit-flavored ices known as the Piragua Guy, and a joyously various ensemble of singer-dancers round out the extended family of neighbors. At the heart of all of it is the aging Cuban woman who acts as everyone’s grandmother, Abuela Claudia.

A hot summer, a city-wide blackout, rising personal and communal tensions, and news someone from the Bodega has a winning lottery ticket all combine to create a very recognizable drama, filled with humor, pathos, and all that lively music.

Ruben J. Carbajal proves articulate and deeply committed as Usnavi, providing the glue which holds the show together. Ruben Bravo and Chris Marcos as Sonny and Graffiti Pete vibrate with the energy of youth – kids with hip-hop roots and big hearts. Anyssa Navarro brings to the torn and somewhat desperate Nina a sense of the weight which comes with carrying the dreams of an entire neighborhood on your shoulders, while Revel Day provides a subtle sense of the outsider looking in as Benny.

Dominique Paton shimmers as the troubled but ambitious Vanessa, Orlando Montes as Nina’s introvertedly angry father, and Jackie Lorenzo Cox as her disappointed, practical mother provide a balance of truly adult forces in the mostly youthful tale. Candida Celaya cements all these characters and more together with a subtle power as the fragile Abuela. Indeed, everyone in the cast is right on point, providing one of the most evenly fine ensembles Candlelight Pavilion has had in many years.

But the excellence doesn’t stop there. Director Benjamin Perez uses the small stage as if it was a full city street, and takes the audience there with him. Marissa Herrera’s energetic and organic choreography becomes a physical celebration all its own. Anna Louizos Designs’ adaptation of the original Broadway set continues this polish, as do Karen Fix Curry’s costumes and even Mary Warde’s extremely convincing wigs.

The best of this production comes from the melding of all the theatrical elements into a seamless whole. The story is captivating, the music, though not wildly hummable afterward, proves apt for the story and as organic as the dance. The tech is solid, enhancing the whole. The deep love for the genuine, rounded people being portrayed and their individual and communal struggles is evident throughout. This is a story centered on a strong sense of character – all the characters – and their sense of place.

The secondary joy of any Candlelight Pavilion performance is that it comes with dinner. Make this your night on the town. “In the Heights” will offer up surprises for those who like their musicals more standard, but the surprises will be pleasant ones.

What: “In the Heights” When: Through September 13, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and Thursday September 10, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for brunch Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 general, $30-$35 children, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or

A Heroic Misfire: “Journey to the West” in Covina

It’s seems a most romantic story. Jeff Lowe, a board member of the Covina Center for the Performing Arts, heard Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor’s score for their nascent musical, “Journey to the West” when he was in college, and fell in love. He found the music spoke to him, listened to it almost obsessively, spread CDs to his friends, and it became a part of the fabric of his life. The show, which was only produced once as a part of a festival of new musicals, disappeared until Lowe – ten years after that first listen – was able to pull together the cast and crew necessary to bring it to the stage.

Now “Journey to the West” is in an extremely limited run at CCPA, in association with Alchemy Theatre Company. West, who is directing, has combined a talented cast of varied experience, added the choreographic skills of Jenny Moon Shaw, costumer Aja Bell and set designers/buildiers Jonathan Daroca, Dan Malarky, Jeremy Ojeda and Jesse Runde. The show is on its feet.

The good news is the quality of his troupe. The bad news, sadly, is that these fine people’s talents cannot counteract the fact that the show itself just isn’t very strong. Add some technical glitches, and the net result is simply not ready for prime time.

The story is is based on one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, and an elemental hero’s journey. Jiang-Lai, an arhat or minor god, is forced to return to earth as a human child unaware of his immortal past, and to grow up and complete a specific quest within a certain time frame if he wishes to return to the skies. In his quest he is aided by Kuan-Yin, the beautiful arhat who loves him, and thwarted by Hou-Lai, a jealous arhat who wants Kuan-Yin for himself. He gathers three acolytes – the monkey god Monkus, a boar-like demigod Tu-Bao, and the river dragon Tsunami. They also protect, or divert, him on his journey to find the sutras which will save mankind.

R. Adam Trent makes a charmingly innocent Jiang-Lai. Andrea Somera becomes a richly heart-felt Kuan-Yin. Both sing well and lead the cast in every way. Yet, here is also the underscore to the technical issues of the piece. Whereas Somera is comparatively easy to hear throughout, Trent’s mic is so placed that his lines – both spoken and sung – are often too soft. This is only made worse by the mics on the live band (particularly the guitarist), which are left way too hot and create a booming musical “underlay” which has a tendency to drown out singing and spoken lines on a regular basis. This is bad for many, but most painfully true in the case of Brian Piernat’s Monkus, who introduces himself in a hip-hop rap which looks like it might be quite clever, but nobody can hear at all.

William Crisp looks terrific and sounds even better as the menacing Hou-Lai. Paul Stuflosky is just silly enough to be the boorish Tu-Bao, and Kenny Ugwa has a wonderful time as the somewhat “iffy” helper, Tsunami. Yet, in Ugwa’s case an introductory song reminiscent of reggae ends up with no accompaniment at all (other than something going boing on occasion). This leaves both Ugwa and the chorus behind him searching for key and harmony, which is especially unfortunate given the truly ingenious visuals which accompany this moment.

In other words, the audio design credited to director Lowe needs significant overhaul, and music director Matthew Capurro – the liaison to the band – would be a large part of that as well. They should also address the blank spots between scenes: moments screaming for some sort of transition. But to just condemn the show because you have trouble hearing it properly, or it’s staged a bit choppily, would not really say all that needs saying. One still must wrestle with a couple of essential facts about the script itself.

First, Oberacker and Taylor bit off a very, very long and complex story which they have tried with only moderate success to fit to the length of a standard American musical. The result is a show which, including a standard intermission, comes in at about three hours long. Secondly, though some of the music is quite beautiful, including the tune to “Happy Little Arhat,” and “I’ve Learned Mine,” the lyrics are far too often very fast-paced patter songs which are difficult to spit out, and regularly offer up such predictable and simplistic rhythm and rhyming schemes as to be comparatively unmemorable. In the end, the show can’t really tackle all that the novel wanted to say, and tries to cram the rest into one long final musical number.

Still, there has been a lot of hard work put into producing “Journey to the West.” Shaw’s choreography proves fascinating from start to finish, and there are captivating and innovative uses of dance as incidental to the plot (especially the dancers with lanterns signaling elements of life force) which make a powerful visual statement. The chorus is good – very good – and the energy in the production is high.

Which makes a person wish they could hear it all. Which makes one wish even more that the things these talented folk have worked so hard on were more worth hearing, as written. I can empathize with Lowe falling in love with something he wants the world to see. I also empathize from experience with the syndrome – I’m sure at play here – of working on a production for long enough to become convinced it’s awesome simply because one is living inside it for so long.

Sadly, the only thing which can assist this production other than a rewrite is to at least get the sound right. Perhaps the sense that one must have the story explained at the end will be less powerful if one can hear what people are saying and singing along the way.

What: “Journey to the West” When: Through August 16, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave, in Covina How Much: $30 and $40 Info: (626) 331-8133, ext. 1 or

Ode to Fandom: “Always, Patsy Cline” in Sierra Madre

Cori Cable Kidder as Patsy Cline and Nikki D'Amico as Louise Seger in

Cori Cable Kidder as Patsy Cline and Nikki D’Amico as Louise Seger in “Always, Patsy Cline” [photo: Gina Long]

This show has been extended through September 13.

Revision: This show has now been extended through September 27.

Another Revision: This show, which is apparently completely unstoppable, is now extended through October 30.

In the world of local theater, there are two different kinds of musical productions commonly available. One is what is thought of as the “standard American musical,” with a story line enhanced with songs and dances – usually ones which advance the storyline and may be integral to the plot. The other is the “tribute concert,” a chance to recreate a musical group, performer or even revisit a particular performer’s music in such a way that folks can come to the theater to hear either a reenactment of a period concert performance (see “Beatlemania” as foundational in that genre), or come to a celebration of a performer’s music by obviously more contemporary performers, such as when a group of tuxedoed gentlemen take turns singing songs connected to, say, Frank Sinatra .

However, there is a third category I tend to refer to as the bio-tribute: it ostensibly tells some tale related to a famed musician, but is actually mostly a chance to hear lots of that performer’s songs. Among these, the most amorphous is “Always, Patsy Cline,” a show based on a true story, written by Ted Swindley. Now at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, it offers two performers a chance to play both sides of the tribute coin: one, who narrates, offers up an entertaining portrait of one die-hard fan’s encounter with her idol. The other plays the songstress herself, and sings the songs Cline was famed for, both in recreated concert settings, and as Cline’s side of conversations with the fan who idolized her.

The best news in the SMP production has to be the performers themselves. Nikki D’Amico proves a hoot as Louise, the wildly enthusiastic, uninhibited Texan whose wholehearted enthusiasm leads an exhausted Cline to come home with her after a concert gig, igniting a friendship which lasted until Cline’s untimely death in early 1963. Cori Cable Kidder has Cline’s particular vocal styling down fairly well, and thanks to Krys Fehervari’s impressively accurate wigs, looks the part. It’s a carefully underplayed portrait but it works after a fashion, though sometimes it seems that this Patsy Cline is being overwhelmed by Louise’s sheer energy.

Director Robert Marra has given the potentially static piece as much action as he can, in large part by giving D’Amico’s Louise a brash physicality – even during many of Cline’s songs – which keeps the visual energy strong. Musical director Sean Paxton has assembled a live band to back up Kidder’s vocals, and with the possible exception of the opening night fiddler, their polish helps create the essential “country” sounds of the various stages of Cline’s career.

Also worthy of note is John Vertrees’ impressively expansive-looking country barn, plus separate late-50s kitchen, set on SMP’s tiny stage. A. Jeffery Schoenberg does right by Cline’s wardrobe too – a woman making waves in country music who, early on, eschewed the usual gingham and fringe for sheath dresses and gold lame pants.

As a script, “Always, Patsy Cline” seems neither fish nor fowl, but that’s not this production’s fault. For those who just want to sit back and listen to Cline sing her songs, the enthusiastic Louise seems a distraction. For those who want to know more about this particular, factually based relationship between Cline and her most ardent fan, the comparative lack of spoken lines by the legendary singer (who was reportedly quite a lively friend) leaves the tale significantly one-sided. Still, the end result becomes a walk down memory lane for some, and an amusing snapshot of an era and a charmingly pushy fan for others. And, of course, there are those songs, and, truth be told, even this child of the rock era can listen to “I Fall to Pieces” or “Crazy” or “Walkin’ After Midnight” any old time.

What: “Always, Patsy Cline” When: Through September 12, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. all Sundays and Saturday, September 12. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $34.50 general, $32 seniors, $25 youth to age 21 Info: (626) 355-4318 or


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