Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Pasadena area.

History, Gut-Wrenching Power Highlight “Bent” at the Taper

Charlie Hofheimer and Patrick Heusinger in Martin Sherman’s "“Bent" [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Charlie Hofheimer and Patrick Heusinger in Martin Sherman’s ““Bent” [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Every once in a while there is an opportunity to see a great play which has become more historically important than “just” a play. Thus, if done well, the experience not only offers the power and wonder of something well written and well performed, but a kind of awe for all it has taught and has still to teach about humanity, history, and the nature of the human heart.

The production of Martin Sherman’s “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum is one such opportunity. I first read about “Bent” and it’s New York run in Time Magazine, when the play was new, and have always hoped to see a fully realized professional production. In the meantime, its impact could be seen everywhere. The examination of the Nazi treatment of homosexuals was revelatory, even to many activists, when it first appeared in the late 1970s.

The story centered on the idea that SS had a separate designation – a pink triangle – for the gays in their vicious concentration camps, and that gay men were the only ones to be treated worse than the Jews. Thus, the play led to the use of the pink triangle as a defiant symbol of pride from the early 80s on. Interestingly, it was only after “Bent” became a sensation that books about this period in LGBT history were able to find publishers. Now we take this knowledge for granted.

Which, in its own way, frees the audience currently at the Taper to focus the play itself. As important as its historical revelations included are the implications of its characters as individuals, and the examination of both the nature of love and the fearsome will to survive. Combine this with the particular horrors of Nazism and the particular restrictions of homosexuality in a totalitarian state, and this play holds a power far beyond an essential history lesson.

The focus is on Max, a gay, hedonistic opportunist in Weimar Berlin, always on the cusp of the next deal. As the Nazis rise, he and his lover, Rudy, are arrested and sent to Dachau. There Max works to figure the angles, and begins a friendship of sorts with the “pink triangle” named Horst. Through the horrors of his arrest and transition, he still tries to work survival deals, all the while coming closer and closer to facing the very nature of love itself, as revealed in extremity.

Patrick Heusinger embodies Max’s dualities – the ferocious need to control and to win with the softness he cannot recognize – in ways which prove at first funny, then desperate, and then riveting. There is an inner wildness in his portrayal which seems held down with effort to try to manage the world. Andy Mientus makes the fragile Rudy radiate with an inner sweetness one knows will be gobbled up by everything the society around him is becoming.

Charlie Hofheimer’s Horst makes no attempts to hide who he is, from the pink triangle on his chest, to his stance – the ultimate challenge to Max’s willingness to compromise himself. Indeed, this underscores the essentials of the story: it is with Horst that Max must face his own demons, one by one, from his need for nurture to the challenge of acknowledging his true identity, even to himself.

Director Moises Kaufman has concentrated on the conflicted humanness of it all, giving the entire play an intimacy even in the comparative openness of Beowulf Boritt’s elemental, implied sets (his “electrified fence” proves particularly effective). Sound designer Cricket S. Myers deserves special kudos for the subtextual hummings which flavor important moments of the text, as do Justin Townsend’s increasingly harsh lighting motifs.

In sum, this play is powerful, in part because it does not shirk either the brutality or sexuality of its basic themes. The scene where Max and Horst, two Dachau prisoners not even allowed to look at each other, manage to make love with words alone is perhaps the most striking and the most famous. The descriptions of Nazi mind games and tortures, especially the casual nature of them, is both graphic and impossible to forget. This is harsh stuff, from any angle, and yet it is absolutely engrossing – not in the prurient sense, but in the context of relation to the very human characters one connects to so vividly.

There are no known statistics on the number of homosexuals who died in Nazi concentration camps, nor of the many more who were castrated to keep their “disease” from spreading. That they were designated, along with the Roma (gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Emigrants, Criminals, Communists and of course Jews as deserving of their own uniform color code says there were enough to matter. Indeed, considering the behavior toward gays in modern Russia, or worse in the 10 countries in Africa and Asia where gay people face the death penalty for being themselves in 2015, it is important to remember that this is not just old news.

And the fact nobody knew much about the Nazi condemnations until nearly 40 years later is reason enough to celebrate a new production of “Bent.” All the more exciting to be able to say this production will prove gut-wrenchingly powerful, yet theatrically satisfying in its own right, quite aside from the impact it once had on our sense of history.

What: “Bent” When: Through August 23, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

Another Little Piece of Joplin: Reworked “Night” returns to the Playhouse

Tony-nominee Mary Bridget Davies & Company. [Photo: Joan Marcus]

Tony-nominee Mary Bridget Davies & Company. [Photo: Joan Marcus]

Update: The Pasadena Playhouse has extended the run of this show until August 23.

Just a little over two years ago, a tribute to the woman dubbed The Queen of Rock first appeared at the Pasadena Playhouse. More than just the usual tribute show, what was then called “One Night with Janis Joplin” used an evening of song and conversation with Mary Bridget Davies’ Joplin to explore the roots of her music, her strong ties to traditional blues, and the passion which brought her to toss aside a middle class lifestyle in favor of the short but important life she would have in rock and roll. The show was a solid hit.

Now, after some revision and a trip to Broadway, where Davies was nominated for a Tony, what is now called “A Night with Janis Joplin” has returned to the Playhouse. In some ways the changes have added depth and balance to the show’s storyline and energy. In some others, the focus on Joplin herself has blunted a bit. Still, the end result is one enjoyable trip back to the late 60s, and the melding of musical forms which was so central to that entire period.

Randy Johnson, who wrote this homage and also directs, was specifically concerned with not just creating a classic “tribute band” kind of concert, and that still remains. What has expanded is the look at those blues – and the great performers who sang them – which so inspired Joplin to become a singer herself. In the show’s biggest change, rather than having one person try to be all of those great talents, separate members of the chorus of “Joplinaires” have moments in the sun as Etta James (Jenelle Lyn Randall), Bessie Smith and Odetta (Sylvia MacCalla), a symbolic “blues singer” representing all those lesser known voices from the past (Sharon Catherine Brown), and most especially Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone (Yvette Cason). Plus, all four gather together to be the girl-group Joplin admired, the Chantels.

With all these different and highly talented voices expressing the traditionally African-American roots which shaped Joplin’s own style (though she admits in the script that she only sounds like “a white chick singing the blues”), the structure of the production proves more balanced. Each singer had (and in this show has) her own style and structure, and it becomes a treat to see how each of these influenced specific aspects of both Joplin’s sound and her choice of repertoire.

Of course, central to the whole thing is Davies’ Janis. She looks the part, as she always has, and gives her all to the raspy joy of Joplin’s singing. In the course of the last few years that has morphed a bit. She’s no longer an imitator, with exactly the same sounds as one could find on a recording. Rather, the whole focus on matching Joplin to her influences has let a bit more creativity sneak in. Sometimes lyrics once intelligible get lost in the soaring shouts which express the energy of the moment – a shift which can be exciting or annoying. Sometimes the tune takes second place to spoken observations. Still the magnetism is there, and the feel of Joplin’s music. And there is all that fearsome energy, especially when the first act closer – a duet between Joplin’s Queen of Rock and Aretha’s Queen of Soul – rocks the house in memorable ways.

What “A Night with Janis Joplin” now offers, in ways which were more hinted at the first time through, is a demonstration of musical forces which surrounded her and moved her toward stardom. This is not a biography, except a musical one, and doesn’t touch on the things we all know came with that stardom: the lifestyle and drugs which would lead to her death at the height of both her popularity and her own personal satisfaction with her music. Once again, as with the first version, one cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Janis Joplin had had a chance to mature as an artist past age 27. But then, one could ask that of many of the most terrific musical talents of that era.

What: A Night with Janis Joplin When: Through August 16, 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: $45 – $150 Info: 626-356-7529 or

So Silly: “Joseph…” at Candlelight Pavilion makes all the right moves

The cast of

The cast of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” [photo: Adam Trent]

On the list of works by the team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, if “Evita” is the most complex, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is the most lighthearted fun. Originally written to be sung by the chorus of a girls school, it has an unabashedly teenaged silliness at its core which, when translated into a Broadway-style musical, evokes an innocent charm that proves both funny and uplifting.

Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, a fresh and energetic production offers up a prime example of both the silliness and the professionalism which makes all that fun translate to the audience. Blessed with a fine dancing chorus and unrelentingly energetic choreography, sharp pacing and a cast which sings with gusto and accuracy, this production provides charmingly innocent family entertainment.

The story is literally Biblical – the tale of Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, whose jealous brothers sell him into slavery. In Egypt, after ending up in prison, his ability to read dreams leads him to the right hand of the pharaoh. There he saves Egypt from famine, and eventually saves his family as well. As set by Webber and Rice, the story is rich in silliness and catchy tunes, and can be a visual treat especially if the dancing is up to par.

At Candlelight, much if the show’s success lies at the feet of director and choreographer Alison Hooper, whose meshing of song and dance and story keep the show hopping. She has assembled one of the finest of Candlelight’s recent dancing choruses, and their work powers everything else. 

Joseph with his eponymous coat

Joseph with his eponymous coat

As the narrator, Alyssa Grant offers up a consistent, if rather low-key charm, providing the calm between major production numbers. Caleb Shaw’s Joseph radiates the character’s open, innocent nature, and sings with both power and nuance. Standouts among Joseph’s many brothers are Robert Johnson’s country stylings in “One More Angel in Heaven,” and James Joseph, who brings down the house with the “Benjamin Calypso”. The entire cast prove themselves impressive quick-change artists as they move from Biblical, to country, to 50s rock, to stereotypical French, to Caribbean, to disco with an impressive seamlessness.

Colleen Bresnahan, who has both adapted and enhanced the standard set, and Jenny Wentworth’s evocative costuming are stars themselves. Indeed, setting has often been an issue with productions of “Joseph,” with some staying rather to subtle and others going so over the top that the needed innocence of the piece gets lost in the glitter and sensuality. Here the balance is just right.

Of course, one of the perks of going to Candlelight Pavilion is the dinner which comes with the performance. So, from the perspective of family entertainment, this has it all: good food, and an engaging and lively show whose music will stick with you. What’s not to like?

What: “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” When: through August 9, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for lunch matinees Saturday and Sunday Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 adult, $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext 1 or

Fascinating “Shiv” at Boston Court: What Imperialism Costs the Heart

Monika Jolly and Dileep Rao as Shiv and her father, in Aditi Brennan Kapil's

Monika Jolly and Dileep Rao as Shiv and her father, in Aditi Brennan Kapil’s “Shiv” at The Theatre @ Boston Court

At a time when the entire concept of white privilege is under a microscope, it becomes especially fascinating to explore the larger concepts of European/American imperialism and what that process has done to the world we now live in. Most particularly, what has been lost as several centuries of the practice interfered with the natural self-development of the peoples of the earth.

Which proves foundational to Aditi Brennan Kapil’s “Shiv,” now receiving its west coast premiere run at The Theatre at Boston Court. As the best introspective plays often are, this tale can be approached on a number of levels, but at its core it examines what is left behind when foundational cultures clash with dominant ones. It does so through the engaging story of one immigrant family from India.

Shiv is the daughter of a small-town Indian family. Her father was, back home, a celebrated anti-imperialist modernist poet. He raises his daughter on the stories of his upbringing in the home gifted to his family by local royalty. There his competitive nature had full sway, and his pride of place brought him to prominence.

Now he has come to the US, supposedly to give his daughter advantages in the western-controlled world, but at great cost to himself. His poetry does not translate well, and his daughter is left adrift, as both her father’s representative in this new world and the reminder of what he himself cannot do within it. All of this is seen through Shiv’s eyes, as she searches for the missing pieces of her father’s American narrative at the site of what were once a private publisher’s symposiums of Indian writers.

Which, of course, is only one level of the play. Symbolism proves key, and the mystical elements of Indian belief and culture mesh with motifs of light and power in ways which make the show a full-body experience. Unpacking these deeper elements may take a while, but the work is worth it.

Monika Jolly is Shiv, shifting back and forth from youth to adulthood with a seamlessness which underscores the central themes of the character’s struggles to balance the two parts of her life. Dileep Rao, as her father, manages to offer up external charm and internal desperation in the same breath, radiating hope toward his daughter at the same time as his own is evaporating in favor of cultural submission.

As the operator of the country estate once a center for supposed cultural awareness, James Wagner displays an openness which allows Shiv to move forward in her own explorations of her cultural identities. In balance to this, Leonard Kelly-Young speaks as the gut-wrenchingly absolute imperialist, deciding with western eyes what to value of eastern art, as the professor who owns this estate, where Shiv works and searches for answers to her father’s mysteries. Indeed, it is Kelly-Young’s powerful albeit brief performance which underlines all the ugliness toward which the play has built.

Under the direction of Emilie Beck, the production’s beautifully stark feel allows the many layered elements of this piece to coalesce. Stephanie Kerley-Schwartz’s imaginative setting allows Shiv’s character to float in her own imagination, tied only when she wants to be to the physical realities of the world around her. Tom Ontiveros’ integral video design fills the imagination and underscores the ethereal in the piece.

By the end one cannot help but wonder, as the characters do, what India or any other nation absorbed by western empire would have been like if left to mature on its own. Indeed one symbol near the end sticks in the mind as a visual of the disconnect between east and west: a snow globe holding a miniature Taj Mahal. As Shiv notes, why would there ever be snow on the Taj Mahal?

This, as with all things in this play, says many things at once. Yet, all of it proves engrossing from start to finish, and definitely worth the work of pondering after the fact. Go see “Shiv,” then take it home with you and let it steep awhile. The results will disturb the overly-confortable, but will voice what the modern world – American and otherwise – needs to hear.

What: “Shiv” When: Through August 9, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $29 seniors (62+)/students Info: (626) 683-6883 or

Dinner Theater/Fundraiser in Glendora: SGVRT has some lessons to learn

Every once in a long, long while, when I’m asked to write a review of a production I go to see, I end up somewhat stumped by the extenuating circumstances of the actual product I experienced. This is most certainly true of the community-based San Gabriel Valley Repertory Theatre’s new melodrama-dinner theater venture, given the general name Dining Dramatically.

Their first ever effort, a one-weekend rendition of David J. Chapelle’s faux-antique melodrama send-up, “Two Gun Junction,” opened to a series of mistakes and unexpected upheavals which make it difficult to give a normal theatrical critique. So this will be a cross between some carefully chosen advice for the future, a feel for what the production I saw was actually like, and some sense of why someone might (or might not) want to venture out for their last performance of this particular piece on Sunday, June 28, at 5 p.m.

One should start with the things the company could not help, or did not – being new at this – know they would need to worry about. The production is being done in partnership with Glendora’s Golden Spur Restaurant, in their banquet room across the parking lot. Timing became an issue, as the main courses – pegged into the production with a grand “Dinner is served” announcement – weren’t ready when they was supposed to be, causing a major gap in the proceedings. And, from before the festivities officially started, a few of the audience members had been traveling (and continued to travel) back and forth between the performance space and the restaurant bar, leaving them hammered and impressively obnoxious during the actual production. Both these elements are fixable – one by better timing coordination with and/or by the kitchen, and the other by not allowing guests to come in with alcohol not purchased in the performance space. This they will learn as they go.

Sadly, the small clump of profoundly unruly patrons, who were seated at the table closest to much of the performance, made it ferociously hard on nervous, opening-night performers. Lines were forgotten, or lost in the noise and interruption. Actors, as staged – one assumes – by Production Director Patrick Towles (nobody was actually listed as the show’s director), had to wend their way between tables of guests, and thus had to actively engage with the worst of the sots on occasion. A better layout of tables, allowing an aisle down the center with room to move, would have made the traversing of their space much more accessible and, even without the extra human impediments, more free-flowing.

The performers ranged widely in ability, as much as one could see given all the other issues of the day. Steven Edberg was the obvious villain, in black cape and mustache. Raquel Badayos charmed as the heroine of the piece – an heiress in disguise out to prove her own financial acumen to herself and her father. Denise Spainhower Truex was a bit young for the supposedly aged store-owner with the vapid understanding of money. Kevyn Allen made a fine figure of a man as the square-jawed hero. Cristina Grigerio was the wooden villainess.

Sean Larson was “The Host,” starting and stopping the production when necessary for the injection of the meal and the dessert, and holding up signs so the audience could join in booing and cheering when called upon. As such he had the most contact with the majority of the audience, and set the stage for the evening.

Still, and despite the host’s signs, what the show itself lacked other than the full attention of anyone due to the circumstances was some understanding that this “melodrama” was written as a send-up of the form, in the vein of the old Dudley Doright cartoons. It was supposed to be performed in an over-the-top manner which would have everything broadly spoken, at a reasonably clipped pace. There there were gaps between lines on a regular basis which slowed things down, and an attempt at realism which made the silliest lines sound dumb instead of the sort of “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” a satire would bring with it.

The meal was reasonably good, once it arrived. The purpose of the production was laudable too, as they are engaged in using the play as a fundraiser for a charity helping veterans attend college. Still, at $65 (without alcohol) for dinner and the show, they are going to have to look into upping their game some to make this viable. Their next effort will be “Villain of Mystery Island” for the weekend of August 7, and if you are reading this before 5 p.m. on Sunday, June 28, you can go see this current production with all the mess and kerfuffle of opening night long gone. Who knows. The lack of obnoxious drunks may have improved the entire thing mightily.

What: “Two Gun Junction” When: Sunday, June 18, 5 p.m. (door opens half an hour beforehand) Where: The Golden Spur Restaurant, 1223 E. Route 66 in Glendora How Much: $65, dinner inclusive – reservations required Info: (909) 301-2983, or (for reservations)

It’s Good, If You Can Catch It: On Golden Pond’s Short Stay in Covina

Joe Parrish and Rosemary London lead the cast in Covina Center for the Performing Arts' "On Golden Pond"

Joe Parrish and Rosemary London lead the cast in Covina Center for the Performing Arts’ “On Golden Pond”

As comfort-plays go, you can’t do much better than “On Golden Pond,” by Earnest Thompson. Written originally in 1979, it has been updated by the author several times since, for film and later productions, to keep pace with the shifts which have made the timeless places less so over the years. Yet, at its core this play is less about place than character, and a good production of the play focuses on the creation of people you can believe care about each other.

Given this essential factor, “On Golden Pond” as presented at the Covina Center for the Performing Arts is, indeed, a good production. The performers range from good to very good, and the feel of their interrelatedness is right. This sense of ensemble makes it possible for director Jeff Lowe to shift from a very representational setting to what he calls a “more stripped away” feel – something comparatively unusual with this particular piece.

The story has been a film, and on stage locally many times. Norman Thayer, a crusty retired professor, and his wife Ethel, both at the tail end of life, return for another summer to their well-worn cabin at a lake they have loved since their individual childhoods. There they are joined by their somewhat estranged daughter Chelsea, and her new companion Bill, who end up leaving Bill’s 13-year-old son Billy behind as they move on to Europe. The time proves transformative to Norman, who finds Billy an antidote to the evidence of age’s toll, and to Chelsea, as she comes to terms with her relationship with what she sees as a demanding and consistently displeased father.

Again, this really only works if both Norman and Ethel are not only believable as individual actors, but believable as a richly fond couple whose mutual love and respect has kept an outwardly frustrating marriage very much alive. Joe Parrish and Rosemary London do just that, giving an almost constant, subtle underscore to the brusk familiarity of their lines which make you understand how that relationship could have held on so well for so long.

Lisa Apostle handles the nervous Chelsea well, and John Catanzaro gives considerable humor – and another underscore of relational wisdom – to her beau. Tyler Campbell has a lovely time as the somewhat simple, earnest mailman who was Chelsea’s long-ago summer boyfriend. Most importantly, Jackson Capitano becomes quite convincing most of the time as Billy, and the chemistry between him and Parrish creates a significant factor of charm in the production. Capitano does need to occasionally slow his lines a bit to be sure we get all the humor in them, however.

Set Designer Dillon Nelson has provided the requested skeletal set. It works better than one expects, allowing for some of the show’s running “gags” – the screen door’ issues, the tendency for Norman to lock the door when his wife is outside – to work better than one would expect simply by being offstage. Sound designer Steven Humenski has managed to mesh a few bits of the film score in at just the right times, and of course the calls of the lake’s loons.

“On Golden Pond,” when done as well as this, is a peaceful thing. It is not a stunning new statement of life. It is not cynical or challenging. Rather, it is an homage to aging and relationship, and as such says things that few plays have said better. This production is certainly worth seeing, but you’ll have to be fast to catch it. Though it only opened on June 19, it will close on the 28th.

What: “On Golden Pond” When: through June 28, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N Citrus Ave in Covina How Much: $15 – $25 Info: (626) 331-8133 ext. 1 or

“Matilda” Delights: Roald Dahl-based musical proves it’s a hit

The kids win the day in "Matilda" at the Ahmanson [Photo: Joan Marcus]

The kids win the day in “Matilda” at the Ahmanson
[Photo: Joan Marcus]

Every once in a very great while a show turns up which absolutely transcends the usual enthusiasms for a work of theater. Such a production is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s outrageous, impressive blast of fresh air, “Matilda: The Musical”, Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s glorious take on the Roald Dahl novel. Very British, very edgy as only Dahl could be edgy, very raucously alive, the show is as theatrical as you can get. At the end its audience doesn’t applaud, they roar – cheering performance, message and musical all at once. No wonder it ran away with the British Olivier Awards, then picked up four Tonys.

Now, at the Ahmanson, this show’s first national tour begins. Don’t miss it, as this is quite simply a show you truly do want to be able to say that you saw.

The story isn’t simple. What Dahl story is? Still, the basics surround a brilliant young girl who, despite having the most ferociously plebeian parents, develops an absolute passion for reading, and for that innate sense of right and wrong she learns from books and her own inner voice. As she enters a very British school, she battles her proudly ignorant parents, as well as a child-hating headmistress, all the while enthralling the local librarian with her stories and her timid teacher with her unselfconscious brilliance.

Mabel Tyler in the National Tour of “Matilda The Musical.” [Photo:  Joan Marcus]

Mabel Tyler in the National Tour of “Matilda The Musical.” [Photo: Joan Marcus]

Mabel Tyler – who rotates with two other girls, Gabby Gutierrez and Mia Sinclair Jenness, in the part – makes a delightful Matilda: quick, tuneful and filled with directed energy which powers the rest of the production. Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfeld have an absolutely wonderful time as Matilda’s comically, yet recognizably loathsome parents. Ora Jones creates peaceful safe space as the appreciative, enthusiastic librarian. Jennifer Blood has an innate sweetness as the earnest young teacher.

The children, most particularly Luke Kolbe Mannikus as the somewhat heroic Bruce and Serena Quadrato as the spoiled but friendly Lavender, are absolutely amazing. Filled with energy, vocal expertise and dance skills which would power an adult chorus (and adult “older versions of themselves” do occasionally join), they bring to life some of the show’s best songs and most telling lyrics, and are generally so engaging one must step back to realize how young some of them are. Also worthy of note, Danny Tieger has fun as Matilda’s monosyllabic older brother, and Jaquez Andre Sims has a ball playing the mother’s ballroom dance partner.

Bryce Ryness is the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull in "Matilda: The Musical" at the Ahmanson  Photo by Joan Marcus

Bryce Ryness is the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull in “Matilda: The Musical” at the Ahmanson
Photo by Joan Marcus

Yet, most central to the story itself is Bryce Ryness’s evil headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. In keeping with the tradition of English panto – and this production was born out of that tradition, as an RSC holiday treat – this dominating figure is played by a man. Ryness uses his height to tower over the children, and becomes a kind of live cartoon in the best eerie sense of the word. It is a performance which must be seen to be fully processed.

The consistent quality of the main performers, and that of the impressive ensemble surrounding them, are accomplished on Rob Howell’s fantastical, yet recognizable set. He has also designed the costumes, making the more disgusting adult characters just enough outlandish to be seen through a child’s eyes at the same time the sympathetic characters have a special brand of shine. The illusions of Paul Kieve add to this even further. The polish is everywhere, and the sense of a unified whole helps the story charge along.

Indeed, that energy, that unity, that sense of empathy and of being on the edge of your seat even at the most outrageous moments comes in large part thanks to the vision of director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling. Between them they have created Dahl’s comprehensive world and brought it in all its gleaming newness to the public. It simply never stops moving, and that’s a good thing.

One caution, and it is an important one. The Ahmanson has some spaces, particularly along the edges of the orchestra where one ends up under overhangs, which can make it hard to hear clearly. This is unfortunate, as the lyrics are clever and propel parts of the story. Overcome that, and you will have the time of your life. Please note that this is appropriate for children (after all, that’s who Dahl wrote it for in the first place), although very young ones may not catch on all that well.

All in all, what “Matilda: The Musical” does is show off the qualities which keep live theater important. By bringing in a younger audience they are also training the audience of the future, and perhaps inspiring the performers of the future as well. As with all Dahl works, the show has things to say, this time about love and sacrifice, and quite a bit about parenting. Many an adult could afford to listen. Kudos to RSC for deciding to keep the show and its material singularly English. If the Harry Potter series taught us all nothing else, it taught us that American kids can translate all that better than adults think they can.

What: “Matilda: The Musical” When: Through July 12, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $175 Info: (213) 972-4400 or

Looking Back Artfully: “Waterfall” makes classic forms new again

Bie Sukrit and the ensemble celebrate the cultural traditions of Siam in "Waterfall" [photo: Jim Cox]

Bie Sukrit and the ensemble celebrate the cultural traditions of Siam in “Waterfall” [photo: Jim Cox]

Any time a musical looks back in time, and involves a romance between an English speaking foreigner and a native of a country in Asia, the parallels begin to pop into one’s head: “Sayonara” and its tragic love story, “Madame Butterfly” and its tragic love story, and the like. So perhaps the first thing which must be said about Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire’s “Waterfall,” the new musical at the Pasadena Playhouse is that, three-hankie ending though it may have, the story-line proves significantly more nuanced. It could have been pure melodrama, but at important moments chooses not to go there.

Placed on one of the more imaginative, fluid sets theater can offer, the deeply episodic “Waterfall” offers up lush music, thoughtful lyrics, and a storyline gifted with just enough cultural insight and edge-of-your-seat tension to avoid slipping into the maudlin. Its characters are well drawn, though in some cases this is as much about the artfulness of the performance as of the script. The event is a visual treat, and in the end offers not just a satisfyingly adult romance, but a view of the conflict and coexistence of western and Asian culture from a distinctly Asian lens.

The story revolves around the tensions of the late 1930s, just as the Japanese rise is beginning to look dangerous for its neighbors. Noppon, a Thai student who dreams of America, is studying in Japan. When he is delegated to escort a much-venerated senior Thai diplomat and his American wife, arrived for negotiations with the Japanese government, he finds himself smitten with Katherine, the wife. Surrounded by the tensions of the rise of empire, their story plays out in predictable and then less predictable ways. The ending is, in its own way, a study of the human spirit and what motivates people to move into an understanding of themselves.

Emily Padgett and Bie Sukrit. [photo:  Jim Cox]

Emily Padgett and Bie Sukrit. [photo: Jim Cox]

Bie Sukrit is Noppon, taking him from youthful excitement to steady adulthood with heart and a certain genuine quality which makes him particularly endearing. Emily Padgett creates in Katherine, a woman thrown into a culture beyond her experience, a careful combination of enthusiastic tourist and wistfully aware outsider. Both sing well, and connect with an intensity which powers the rest of the piece. As Katherine’s aging, cautious diplomat husband, Thom Sesma provides an anchored balance to Noppon’s youthful enthusiasm – an image of both maturity and roundedness not without its own aura of romance.

Also standouts in the large and mostly ensemble cast are Lisa Helmi Johanson, most memorable as the buoyant Japanese-American young woman caught between two worlds, neither of which will accept her as she is, and Jordan De Leon and Colin Miyamoto, who prove delightfully silly and youthfully fatalistic as Noppon’s two school friends. Perhaps the finest example of creating a character much more fascinating than the script comes from J. Elaine Marcos, as the diplomat’s longtime family servant. A look, even the twitch of an eyebrow, adds volumes to what she is to actually say to the other characters, and helps underscore the impact of a swiftly changing society.

In all of this, and with the aide of an impressive singing and dancing ensemble who become everything from traditional Thai ballet dancers to Japanese soldiers in formation to guests waltzing at an embassy ball, the underlying theme is one of the Asian view of the world. The wrenching “America Will Break Your Heart” underscores the prejudice and rejection facing anyone of Asian descent in the US in the first half of the 20th Century. The sly “I Like Americans,” sung by a Japanese official, offers up a view of the west as boorish, underscoring the American proclivity (both then and, sometimes, now) to be unaware or uncaring about the traditions of others. And yet, there is also plenty of invective to go around between Asian nations in a time frame of advancing imperialism closer to home.

To a great extent, and beyond Maltby’s articulate book and lyrics, the even-handedness of this piece can be laid at the feet of co-directors Tak Viravan and Dan Knechtges – who also choreographs – and is emphasized by the multi-national nature of the production itself. Sasavat Busayabandh’s set takes as its inspiration the watercolor of a Japanese waterfall which proves central to the storyline, and turns embassies, venerated Thai monuments and Japanese peaks into a series of paper canvases, aided by Caite Hevner Kemp’s evocative projections. The flow of torn paper takes us from place to place with a seamless quality which never allows the story to lag. Shire’s music is beautiful, often evocative, and thematically ties all the bits together as thoroughly as the set does.

Indeed, this is what makes this particular production of this particular musical stand out the most: it’s woven together so well. There are no dead spots, and the musical and visual themes which run like ribbons through the storyline keep momentum and direction flowing so elementally that one is surprised when it comes to an end. It seems so soon.

So yes, this is a romantic tale, but it goes back to the roots of the modern American musical in a way some others of recent note have not: it supplies a romantic base, but uses it to say things much larger about human nature and human connection, and about culture and society. In this it is less like those romantic tragedies mentioned above, and more like “South Pacific.” If the ending is not storybook, neither is the story. Still, in that more carefully human approach, there is enough pathos and joy to provide quite a hook. Indeed, the night I saw it the audible sniffling all around me as it closed said a great deal more than the applause about audience connection.

So there you have it. Go be one of the first to see “Waterfall.” You will be glad you did. I cannot believe this musical will not be going places in a big way.

What: “Waterfall” When: Through June 28, 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: $30-$87, plus premium seating at $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or

“Rumors” Has It… Mostly… in Whittier

The men of Whittier Community Theatre's "Rumors" use hand games to try to cope with one very odd anniversary party

The men of Whittier Community Theatre’s “Rumors” use hand games to try to cope with one very odd anniversary party

In the long and impressive line of theatrical comedies by Neil Simon, few really qualify as farces. To be a farce the story isn’t really about rounded people, but about the silly juxtaposition of persons in compromising situations with unforeseen events. For Simon, the comedy was usually more organic, even when the results were very silly: the people and their personalities underscored the humor. Indeed, as his career progressed, it was much more about the people than the laughter and the plays became more real, more nuanced, and more powerful.

However, Simon did write one genuine, door-slamming, mistaken-identity-filled farce. Now that play, “Rumors” is at the Whittier Community Theatre, and the results are – for the most part, anyway – just as funny as they should be. The actors play the over-the-top characters with great energy and style. The setting is as fraught with exhausting drama as it should be, and the results are very funny. If, on occasion, the pacing of the comedic lines slows a bit, that is something that can be overcome.

Four couples arrive, in stages, at the home of a fifth couple having an anniversary celebration. Mystery ensues, as the help has disappeared, as has the woman of the house, and her husband is found upstairs, offstage, stunned and bleeding from a gunshot wound. As the first couple to arrive tries to cover for the disaster, gradually aided or thwarted by the rest as they arrive, the misconstructions, fabrications and frustrations wrap the eight guests in a series of ridiculous situations. And then the police arrive.

This whole silliness is led in every way by Jay Miramontes and Michelle Pedersen as the Gormans, first uncovering the mystery then balancing hair brained schemes with careful coverups, aided on occasion by more than enough vodka and a real sense of performance polish. Kerri Malmgren and Jason Falske provide the next comic element as a calm society woman and her husband, so obsessed over the accident which has damaged his brand new Mercedes the house’s mysteries are just an additional frustration.

The warm and homey Cleta Cohen and Richard DeVicariis provide the practical element, comparatively nonplussed by the silly situation and focused on more basic needs of the rest of the thwarted party-goers. Michael Moore and most particularly Lindsay Marsh provide yet one more layer as the politician who can’t be associated with the obviously developing scandal and his paranoid wife devoutly sure her husband is full of scandals anyway.

Under the direction of Justin Patrick Murphy, this silly piece starts just a bit slow, but seems to rev up as the stage fills. Every once in a while someone, particularly Moore, seems to wait just a bit long in a play whose lines must consistently appear with whipcrack speed, but the comedy definitely wins out and the characterizations are strong and a lot of fun. Kudos to Amy Miramontes for gathering clothing just right for the kind of evening these characters are expecting and the kind of people they are. The costumer doubles, along with Andy Kresowski, as the stern and precise police duo who show up trying to sort out the craziness.

In short, this “Rumors” is a lot of fun. I admit to being rather a fan of farces, as a particularly carefree way to slough off the pressures of the everyday. This one is definitely worth a look, and, in the hands of this company of players, stays satisfyingly silly to its unpredictable but equally funny end.

What: “Rumors” When: Through June 13, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, June 7 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 Adults, $10 seniors (62+), juniors (18 and under), students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or

Magical, Lighter “Mary Poppins” Graces La Mirada

It's a jolly holiday with Mary Poppins and crew at La Mirada Theatre [photo: Michael Lamont]

It’s a jolly holiday with Mary Poppins and crew at La Mirada Theatre [photo: Michael Lamont]

When the national tour of Disney’s “Mary Poppins: The Musical” came to the Ahmanson Theatre, it did so with the original choreography which, though award-winning, was also disturbing enough to have the producer urge parents not to bring children under a certain age. This seemed sad to me, as the film this musical was based on had been a highlight of my own childhood. Much though I have appreciated Matthew Bourne’s unique talent as a choreographer (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Swan Lake”, “Cinderella”), I felt that the resulting creepiness was a disservice to the spirit, if not really of the original P.L. Travers books, then at least to the spirit which pervaded the movie.

What a delight, then to see the musical reimagined through the McCoy Rigby series at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Using new choreography by the late, much-mourned Dan Mojica, the musical takes on a cheery edge reminiscent of other Disney musicals, and more in keeping with what one expects from the version of “Mary Poppins” most Americans know. With a very talented cast, this newer and more lighthearted dancing, and all the charm of that wistfully nostalgic story, this show is a bonafide hit.

The story is a classic. The household of Mr. George Banks cannot keep a nanny, as his two smart and rascally children drive them away. The father is brusque, the mother feels inadequate, the cook fumes with frustration and the serving man alternates between dim and terrified. Then, based on an advertisement the children write, a tough but fantastical woman takes over the nursery and introduces the children to ethics and empathy and the delight of imagination. It changes everyone.

Brandi Burkhardt makes a cheerfully direct Mary, and sings and dances with style. Leigh Wakeford’s Bert radiates energy, charm and a particular form of star quality, and dances with an almost ferocious energy and precision. Shannon Warne gives Mrs. Banks a sweetness and an underlying sadness which balances well against the brusk aspects of Martin Kildare’s Mr. Banks. Noa Solorio and Logan J. Watts give the Banks children the right balance of mischief and wonder, and in a brief appearance Helen Geller underscores the wistfulness of the song she sings as the ancient Bird Woman.

Yet, this is truly an ensemble work, and the multi-talented ensemble ends up the star. From the park sequences to the ubiquitous dancing chimney sweeps, they provide individual and group work which takes this show from cute and clever to a performing tour-de-force. And this is no surprise, as the dancing is a tribute to their choreographer, who passed away far too young just weeks before the show was to open.

And, indeed, his vision and the vision of director Glenn Casale have done what was needed to bring the charm and warmth of “Mary Poppins” to a new generation. Kudos must also go to J. Branson’s scenic designs, which have a magic all their own.

So, go see “Mary Poppins” for any number of reasons. It’s fun. It’s extremely well done. It has an interesting mix of the songs you may remember and newer, but elemental ones. It isn’t wildly intellectual, though it has something to say both about making ethical choices and about understanding why people are as they are. Still, it’s a great way to spend a cheerful time. And bring the kids. Unlike last time this show hit town, bring the kids. After all, everyone needs a little touch of magic now and then.

What: “Mary Poppins” When: Through June 21, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with additional performances 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 16 and 7 p.m. Sunday evenings June 14 and 21 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


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