Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Pasadena area.

An Ode to Human Connection: “4,000 Miles” in Sierra Madre

Christian Prentice and Mimi Cozzens in "4,000 Miles," now at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

Christian Prentice and Mimi Cozzens in “4,000 Miles,” now at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

It is rare for a small, essentially community-based theater like Sierra Madre Playhouse to receive a chance for the Los Angeles premiere of a high profile play, but it has happened. Amy Herzog’s Pulitzer-nominated “4,000 Miles” has arrived at the small theater to much fanfare. The play, which looks at the interaction between an idealistic, somewhat immature young man who has bicycled across the country and the leftist grandmother he ends up staying with in New York City, offers a few statements on growth, on city vs small town activism, and on what the maturation process really means.

The tale starts with the arrival of Leo at the New York apartment in the middle of the night. Thrown by the rejection felt from the girlfriend he’d hoped to connect with (recently landed in NYC herself), he ends up staying with Vera, the wife of his late grandfather. As she teaches him focus and responsibility, he opens up about the horror of his cross-country bike journey, and gradually they both come to understand one another. It’s not that he will stay in the city, but perhaps now there is a link which will survive the distances.

Christian Prentice makes a great Leo – handsome if rough-hewn, overflowing with energy and opinion, slow to learn to listen. He makes a fine foil for Mimi Cozzens, as Vera, a woman used to being alone but gradually and increasingly glad of the comparatively non-standard company. Their best moment comes in a scene in which Leo introduces Vera to a bong, producing genuine laughter onstage and off.

Alexandra Wright makes fine work of Leo’s erstwhile girlfriend, displaying all the confident maturity and practicality he seems at first to be incapable of. In a brief, but very funny scene, Susane Lee has a great time with the Chinese-American girl Leo picks up one night, who cannot get over the fact Vera has “The Little Red Book of Chairman Mao” on display in her living room.

Director Christian Lebano has taken this rather talky play and given it as much legs as one can. John Vertrees’ beautiful set – complete with a background scene which got – and deserved – its own applause, makes a very realistic apartment for these folks to inhabit, though in some ways it becomes claustrophobic. But then, that may also be a point.

If there is any issue, it comes from Cozzens’ portrayal. Vera is to be occasionally forgetful, but Cozzens makes her, if anything, more so. Indeed, the hemming and hawing happens so often it begins to look less like the script and more like an actress struggling for lines. This is too bad, as the best moments are rich and filled with a special kind of wisdom and fatalism which comes with intelligent aging.

Still, “4,000 Miles” has a lot to say about adaptation, maturing, and the conflicting agendas of various generations. It’s worth a look as a picture of one corner of the American landscape. That is what made the Pulitzer folk take a close look. One note: the play is not recommended by the theater for children under 16, due to adult language and situations

What: “4,000 Miles” When: Through November 8, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87. W Sierra Madre Ave. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 youth (15-22) Not recommended for children under 16 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Timeless Silliness: “The Importance of Being Earnest” at A Noise Within

Adam Haas Hunter is Algernon (aka Oscar Wilde) at A Noise Within

Adam Haas Hunter is Algernon (aka Oscar Wilde) at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]“

Of all the works of Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest” remains the most commonly produced. This, in part, because the tale is so silly, and in part because it pillories pomposity and rigid morality with such complete delight. Making fun of vapidity, the class system, and the spoiled is always a hit.

Now in a very classy new rendition at A Noise Within, the show offers up some interesting choices, a beautiful setting, and all of that satisfyingly uncomplicated humor. It makes for a relaxing, entertaining evening.

The tale, for someone who somehow has not managed to bump into the thing before, is essentially this: Jack Worthing, a country squire with responsibilities for a young and impressionable ward, has created an alternate persona so he can be frivolous when in London: a fictional brother named Earnest, whose name he adopts upon arrival in the city. As such he becomes engaged to Gwendolyn, the daughter of a noblewoman, who states she cannot marry anyone whose name is not Earnest.

Carolyn Ratteray and Christopher Salazar as Gwendolyn and Jack [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Carolyn Ratteray and Christopher Salazar as Gwendolyn and Jack [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Jack’s closest city friend, Algernon, already adroit at telling tales to avoid social obligations, adopts the persona of Earnest in order to ingratiate himself with Jack’s ward in the country, Cecily. Indeed, he proposes to her. Then Cecily and Gwendolyn meet, and this becomes complicated, to say the least, as they discover they are both engaged to Earnest Worthing. Comedy ensues.

Adam Haas Hunter makes a most engaging Algernon, draping himself across furniture and radiating a rather dissipated innocence. By comparison, Christopher Salazar’s Jack, though engaging in the second act country setting, seems a bit underplayed as the supposedly dissolute Earnest (something not helped by the only uninspired costume in the show).
Cecily and Gwendolyn
Jean Gilpin gives the pompous Lady Bracknell a wry sense of humor along with the usual officiousness, which makes her far more fun to watch. Carolyn Ratteray as Gwendolyn, and Marisa Duchowny as Cecily utter the vapid piffle of their parts with such earnest and convicted intent as to heighten the comic aspects of their moments on stage.

Jill Hill makes a fussy and more than usually bemused Miss Prism, Cecily’s tutor, and Alberto Isaac leers with such innocence at her, as the country parson, that there is great charm in the result. Also worthy of note is Apollo Dukakis, taking on the roles of both Algernon’s and Jack’s household servants with a worldy-wise air in once case and a bemused confusion in the other.

Director Michael Michetti has brought an unusual but logical spin by turning the dilettante Algernon into Wilde himself, complete with flowing locks and moderately outrageous clothes. Operating on a set, by Jeanine A. Ringer, with the feel of a hand-colored pencil drawing, and with costumes by Garry D. Lennon which echo the color scheme and add their own little bit of the florid (with the exception of the instance noted above), there is a unified feeling to this production which does nothing but enhance the comic flow.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” is, frankly, difficult to kill, but is far more satisfying in the hands of experts. The production at A Noise Within fits that bill almost all the time, leaving one laughing and charmed by a silliness which has remained constant for over 100 years.

What: “The Importance of Being Earnest” When: In repertory through November 22 – 8 p.m. October 4 and November 8, 14 and 21, 7:30 p.m. October 23 and 13, and 2 p.m. October 5 and November 2, 8, and 22 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40, with student rush and group ticket prices available Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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.

A Lesson in Acting: Cicely Tyson in “The Trip to Bountiful”

Cecily Tyson sparkles in "The Trip to Bountiful" at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Cicely Tyson sparkles in “The Trip to Bountiful” at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Every once in a while, a theatrical experience transcends the norm. Sometimes a single performer finds just the right interior space in a character to create what is lamely referred to as “theatrical magic.” At those moments, when that happens, one is once again presented with the reason live theater must exist: a moment of shared lightning unavailable in any other, less immediate medium.

Such a moment is the production of Horton Foote’s elegantly poignant “The Trip to Bountiful,” and, at its center, the overwhelming performance of Cicely Tyson. Miss Tyson, at 80, offers up a master class on how to create a character whose dignity, humor and vitality radiate into the audience with such intensity these watchers are pulled emotionally onto the stage.

Despite its setting in 1950s Texas, “The Trip to Bountiful” has a universality, as do all Foote’s works, in that they are as much character studies as historical tributes. His plays focus on what home means to the people who inhabit his worlds, and how that sense of home plays upon their sense of self.

Many may know the story line of “The Trip to Bountiful” either from prior productions, or from either of two filmed versions. Ludie Watts works in Houston, supporting his fussy wife Jessie Mae and his elderly mother Carrie. A constant worry is his mother’s attempts to escape their apartment, ostensibly to return to the tiny gulf town she grew up in, called Bountiful. One day she does manage that escape, and in the process she, her son, his wife, and a few folk she meets along the way all learn something important about themselves and about hope.

Tyson is Carrie, imbuing her with a tenacity, a faith and a humor which are absolutely infectious. From almost her first words, she has the audience on her side as Carrie’s clever planning outwits her pursuers and, despite elemental roadblocks, fights her way toward her goal. On the way, Tyson’s sheer energy makes it impossible to take your eyes off of her. Upon arrival, the peace Carrie finds makes one envious.

(l. to r.) Vanessa Williams (background), Cicely Tyson and Blair Underwood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

(l. to r.) Vanessa Williams (background), Cicely Tyson and Blair Underwood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

As the much-harrassed Ludie, Blair Underwood creates a man balancing two willful women while trying to find his own sense of his place in the world. Watching this escape and pursuit story, it is often easy to find Ludie less than sympathetic, but not here. His internal fight with his own dreams, his gradual unbending into the sense of his mother’s journey, and the warmth which flows between them help the play’s conflicts resolve. Vanessa Williams gives Jessie Mae all the snarky, controlling, self-centered frustration necessary to make one cheer for Carrie’s release. Still, there is just a hint of desperation under her constant energy, which gives the part a less two-dimensional feel.

Cicely Tyson and Jurnee Smollett-Bell [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Cicely Tyson and Jurnee Smollett-Bell [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Jurnee Smollett-Bell provides charming counterpoint to Jessie Mae’s edginess as Thelma, the young woman Carrie befriends on her journey. Her warmth and her regret at needing to move on touch the heart. Arthur French makes a truly sympathetic character out of the small town bus station attendant along the way, and Devon Abner creates the patient and understanding sheriff who takes Carrie the final leg of her journey.

Director Michael Wilson takes all these fine talents and wraps them around Tyson’s Carrie like a blanket. There is room for her to shine, and lovely people for her to play off of. The result is a play at once touching and funny, sad and revitalizing. The production is also beautiful to look at, thanks to Jeff Cowie’s evocative set designs, and the tonally rich costuming by Van Broughton Ramsey.

Yet, one always comes back to Cecily Tyson. This is the role she has waited years to play, and one can see why. When Carrie speaks, close to the end, about the way she is filled by the gulf air and wind off the land, you quickly understand that for Tyson that same richness comes directly from being on that stage, at this time.

So, run, don’t walk, to the Ahmanson and get yourself a ticket to “The Trip to Bountiful.” Inside you will find a great treasure, and leave knowing you have seen something extraordinary: a fine play graced with a remarkable performance by an extraordinary performer. This is why we go. This is why theater exists.

What: “The Trip to Bountiful” When: Through November 2, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays at 1 p.m., with extra performances 6:30 p.m. October 5 and 19 (and no 1 p.m. performance those days), and a 2 p.m. on October 30. Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in the Music Center in downtown L.A. How Much: $25 – $125 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 390 other followers

%d bloggers like this: