Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Pasadena area.

Funny, Issue-Filled “Immediate Family” at the Taper

The entire  "Immediate Family" gathers for a heated game of cards [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

The entire “Immediate Family” gathers for a heated game of cards
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]

It has long been a rule of the theater that social change or tension is best examined in intimate situations. That, for all its prodigious humor, is the aim of Paul Oakley Stovall’s new play “Immediate Family,” now at the Mark Taper Forum. The play offers up an awkward reunion in a family full of secrets and unspoken tensions as a way to look at how the restructuring of the very concept of family creates its own issues in modern America.

The play covers so many issues at the same time that may be its only major flaw: one shuffles from tension to tension, meaning that some get shorter shrift than perhaps they should. Indeed, the playwright’s intent appears to be the conversations one will have afterward with others in attendance. Still, busy though it may be in content, the production itself proves so well conceived the audience leaves satisfied, as the characters prove likable, the comedy is genuine and the message surprisingly heartwarming.

The story takes place in the Hyde Park home in Chicago which Evy Bryant Jerome has inherited from her parents, a powerful African-American preacher father, Jessie, and his always-supportive wife. Indeed, their portrait hangs in the living room, surveying their progeny’s actions with implied expectation and judgement. Now Evy’s brother Tony is getting married, and the widely dispersed clan is gathering: half-sister Ronnie from her home in Europe, and Evy’s favorite brother Jesse, Jr. from New York. For Evy, this is her entire immediate family, but for Jessie, Jr. family extends beyond blood to the silly-tough neighbor girl he grew up with, Nina, and Jesse’s same-sex partner Kristian – whose arrival brings much to the surface.

The conversations this gathering inspires create the play, ranging from issues of orientation, race, class, to what makes a family a family. Evy’s determinedly cultured and almost desperately even approach plays against Nina’s brashness and unabashedly trashy humor. Kristian being a white Swede brings its own disquiets. Even the circumstances of Ronnie’s family connection create issues relating to the noble father’s potential feet of clay. The result is fast-paced, often very funny, sometimes equally wrenching, and a bit like encountering a rubber ball in a small box – bouncing around from surface to surface without ever landing anywhere for long.

The virtual choreography which keeps this from becoming a series of static conversations is beautifully designed by director Phylicia Rashad. Her sense of place and people connects these diverse characters and, with the aid of John Iacovelli’s evocative set, allows them large and small conversations and the intimacies of life in separate but unified spaces. And the performances are uniformly individual and strong.

Shanesia Davis’ upright Evy vibrates with the rigid strength of her upbringing – a sort of seething righteousness – even as it isolates her from the rest of the characters’ innate informality. Kamal Angelo Bolden’s casually happy Tony makes great counterpoint to Davis’ character, and that balance becomes essential. Bryan Terrell Clark gives Jesse a solidly non-stereotypical carriage and a certain playfulness which offsets the serious divisions this character sparks. Cynda Williams provides an egalitarian sense of civilization as Ronnie, the outsider-insider.

The two actual outsiders (at least from a certain perspective) are also the most unlike. Yet, both are catalysts for the necessary explosions which redefine the Bryants themselves. As Nina, the earthy lesbian from next door, J. Nicole Brooks gives a physicality to underlying sexual tensions with a gleeful abandon – an in-your-face counterpoint to the general gentility of the Bryant family. As Kristian, Jesse’s Swedish boyfriend, Mark Jude Sullivan starts out with an almost comical accent, but soon settles into a gentle but confident person determined to not be overlooked.

“Immediate Family” has a charming intimacy, even as it seems to cover a lot of ground rather quickly: religion, mendacity, acceptance, the importance of race, the shadow of a patriarch, all appear in sometimes rapid succession. And yet there are also moments of gentle depth, as the Bryants come gradually to terms with who they are, and how they relate to one-another. And there is laughter – almost constant, healthy laughter over people’s behaviors we cannot help but recognize.

In short, the play is very human. Performed without an intermission it will leave you wanting, truly wishing for, more. Still, what it has to say is apt, and with laughter it manages to get many points
across which might otherwise sink in more slowly. It is certainly worth a look.

What: “Immediate Family” When: through June 7, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Satudays, and 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

A Fine Frolic: “The Wedding Singer” in Covina

Kyle Caldwell (center) is The Wedding Singer at Covina CPA, backed with style by Ricky Wagner and Ryan Jones

Kyle Caldwell (center) is The Wedding Singer at Covina CPA, backed with style by Ricky Wagner and Ryan Jones

If one is going to see one of those rather cliche, tap-dancing musicals from the 30s, one does not expect depth. The reason to go is the dancing, the music, the comedy and the romance. So, that being true, why not consider embracing a musical from the late 1990s based on a film celebrating the eccentricities of the early 1980s in the same vein? If this appeals to you, then head on over to the Covina Center for the Performing Arts and their cheerful, lighthearted, often silly rendition of Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy’s “The Wedding Singer.”

The production, under the direction of Wendy Friedman, proves just as well crafted as the show itself proves silly. The story pays homage to the 1998 movie: Robbie is the lead singer/performer in a band which has become known throughout New Jersey for a great wedding song, and thus a favorite at receptions. That’s great until his fiancé leaves him and his bitterness begins to infect his work. At the same time, Julia, who waits on people at a reception hall, becomes engaged to a boyfriend focused on finance who considers his new fiancé more as a trophy than a love interest. Can Robbie and Julia save each other?

Kyle Caldwell makes a highly entertaining Robbie – just over-the-top enough to make his struggles comic and his joys delightfully silly. He sings well, and can play the guitar enough to be convincing as a locally popular musician. Ryan Jones, as the band’s stereotypically randy bassist, and particularly Ricky Wagner as a veritable Boy George look-alike make entertaining counterpoint to Robbie’s angst, and prove equally musical.

It's all about the romance for Robbie (Kyle Caldwell) and Julia (Susanna Vaughan)

It’s all about the romance for Robbie (Kyle Caldwell) and Julia (Susanna Vaughan)

Susanna Vaughan makes an appealingly mainstream sweet young thing, as Julia. Jackie Bianchi has an absolute blast as her dissolute cousin, and Jabriel Shelton gives Julia’s fiancé all the intensity and hubris one expects from a Wall Street up-and-comer. Also worthy of note are Susan E. Silver as various moms, and Christina Marie Harrell as Robbie’s dedicatedly romantic grandmother. In two brief, but memorable appearances, Taj Johnson rocks the house as Robbie’s self-focused ex-girl.

Still, this is a very silly show. Along with fine individual performances, what makes it all work is a solid ensemble of dancer/actors who create incidental character after character, and dance up a storm. Lindsay Martin’s lively and evocative choreography really comes alive in the hands of these performers, and music director Richard Seymour manages to balance the vocal talents of the entire company with the recorded soundtrack in such a way that one soon forgets one is listening to pre-fab music.

Despite one moment where the thing should look a bit more Vegas-like, Dillon Nelson’s facile set proves terrific at keeping the pacing flowing – a necessity in such an episodic tale. Costumer Mark Gamez has the era down, right to the period wedding veils. The look helps make the show a true success.

In short, don’t go for depth, but for the same kind of sheer fun one might find at a production of “42nd Street” go see “The Wedding Singer.” One note: there is the occasional scatological reference, so be cautious about young children. Other than that, it will prove a great way to have a good time in the theater without carrying any particular baggage away.

What: “The Wedding Singer” When: Through May 3, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $20-$30 Info: (626) 331-8133, ext. 1 or

Fine Performances Highlight ANW’s “Julius Caesar”

 Freddy Douglas (Cassius) and Robertson Dean (Brutus) join the other conspirators in "Julius Caesar" [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Freddy Douglas (Cassius) and Robertson Dean (Brutus) join the other conspirators in “Julius Caesar” [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

The third segment in A Noise Within’s spring repertory, a new rendition of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” offers up a production extremely strong on performance, innovatively timeless in setting, and powerful in final feel. If, in the process, it has a bit of a rough – or internally derivative – start, the net result outweighs the awkward beginning.

Directors love to toy with “Julius Caesar.” Its setting has proved surprisingly malleable, and has been reset everywhere from Mussolini’s Italy to JFK’s Washington. Some directors wallow in its bloodiness. Some revel in the political discourse. Some underscore the internal wrestles of people like Brutus or Mark Antony, or even Cassius. Most do some combination of the above.

At ANW, co-directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott have chosen to at least begin the piece in an otherworldly, Brechtian way (not surprising in a repertory season also featuring a Brecht-Weill musical), but seem to abandon this somewhat as the tale unfolds. So cast members come up – as they do in the Elliotts’ other spring production, all speaking their important lines at once, don costumes hanging on stage, and then – in true Brecht fashion – hold up cardboard signs proclaiming what part they are playing. Then, things get serious, and except for continuing to use painters’ scaffolding as the set’s skeleton, we move into a separate arena.

And what an arena! What makes this production work is a series of individually impressive performances which mesh in exciting ways. Robertson Dean gives Brutus both the simple faith and anguished legacy which ground his political fortunes, making him far more three-dimensional than he is often played. Rafael Goldstein turns Mark Antony into a ferociously righteous wolf, initially mistaken as boyish in this intense power struggle. Patrick O’Connell gives Caesar himself an innate nobility which makes one question the ambitions read into him more than one usually does.

Still, the most fascinating role proves to be Freddy Douglas’ Cassius. Here he becomes a true, devout and unalterable revolutionary: the kind of man who fights not just on principle, but because he aims to preserve a belief (in this case, in the preservation of the Roman Republic) which is the definition of his entire world.

All these fine men are surrounded with a solid supporting cast. In something as intricate as the political discussions of “Julius Caesar,” it is essential that all involved not only speak Shakespearean language as if it was native to them, but truly understand – with depth – what they are talking about. They become the translators for the general public, and here that is exactly what happens. Each person fits into their part or, in this case, parts (as the rest of the company each fill several roles), not only defining them as separate individuals but giving each a distinct understanding of the surrounding upheaval.

So, in the end this is what one remembers from this “Caeser”, as the thing becomes a play of passions, and an examination of how differing passions can lead people to clash even as both can be seen (at least in hindsight) to have been right. One must mention Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes, which work hard to make almost all characters look essentially the same, in drapery deeply reminiscent of clerical cassocks. One gets the point, but the audience must strain sometimes to keep the people straight. Good thing she gives them differing colored scarves by the end, so at least we can tell which side those with multiple parts are on at that moment.

So, go check out A Noise Within’s “Julius Caesar.” It plays in repertory with Charles Morey’s very funny adaptation of the Beaumarchais farce, “Figaro,” and the aforementioned Brecht-Weill “The Threepenny Opera.” Each has a distinct feel, and each will – on a certain level – leave a bit of disquiet in their wakes.

What: “Julius Caesar” When: Through May 8; 2 p.m. matinees April 11, 25 and 26, and May 3; 7 p.m. April 12 and 26; 7:30 p.m. April 16 and May 7; 8 p.m. April 17 and 18, and May 2 and 8 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40, student rush $20 Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or

Do I Hear a Waltz? I Do! – “Cinderella at the Ahmanson”

Paige Faure and Andy Huntington Jones in the reimagined Rogers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella"

Paige Faure and Andy Huntington Jones in the reimagined Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella”

For anyone who grew up in the particular age of television that I did, one of the two or three annual television events you waited for was the re-airing of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” remarkable at the time for being the only major musical written for television. Along with “The Wizard of Oz” and “Peter Pan,” it was one we could all sing along with – or even giggle at, as we got older and more “sophisticated.”

Of course, the one we all adore was neither the first R&H “Cinderella” for TV, nor the last. A live broadcast of a somewhat different rendition was the original, filmed in New York on a Monday in 1957. That’s when Broadway musical stars – including its first Cinderella, Julie Andrews – were sprung from their usual nightly performances. It was cut and changed some for the 1965 Leslie Ann Warren version we all knew, and then the show was rewritten again, slightly, for Brandy’s 1997 broadcast.

Now it’s on stage, and at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Using a new book by Douglas Carter Beane (a radical thing for the normally protective Rogers and Hammerstein Trust) and injecting music by Rogers and lyrics by Hammerstein gleaned from their archives as well as the more familiar pieces, this “Cinderella” aims to appeal to a different age. This prince is more nuanced. This Cinderella is somewhat more responsible for her own future. One of the step-sisters is even nice. It takes some adjustment, but after awhile one must admit this newer-than-new version has great visual and emotional appeal.

Paige Faure makes a delightfully likable Ella (or Cinderella) – smart, if somewhat despairing and more wowed than swept off her feet. Andy Huntington Jones gives the prince (and he gets a nickname too: Topher) a youthful bashfulness which works far better than the overt sense of privilege one usually sees. Branch Woodman provides the conniving senior minister, and Antoine L. Smith the noble, but surprisable town crier.

Aymee Garcia makes a deliciously ridiculous step-sister, voicing every spoiled child’s misguided attitude. Kaitlyn Davidson gives an interesting turn as the other step-sister, whose love for an earnest social critic allows her perspective on both her sister and Cinderella. David Andino makes an interesting addition as the somewhat bumbling revolutionary.

Indeed, all the cast do well. The show proves to be a festival of singing and colorful dancing, with characters kept just stereotypical enough to be fun and lighthearted. The one real question mark in the casting is the venerable Fran Drescher as the evil stepmother. Thing is, she really can’t sing. That famous raspy voice may be comic, but is a sign of vocal damage. In a show which is all about music, she just isn’t up to the rest of the cast.

Still, this “Cinderella” has many charms. One of the best is the Tony-winning costuming of William Ivey Long, which is quite literally magical. And, of course, even as there is more social commentary, and a significant increase in political correctness, there is the classic Broadway choreography of Josh Rhodes sweeping through the piece under the watchful eye of director Mark Brokaw, who still leads us to the romantic magic of it all.

So, go. Take the kids. There are special treats for them, and it’s just the kind of swoony thing they’ll remember for a long time. Just ask my companion, who looking back to our youth, was singing along with the most romantic pieces (albeit under her breath).

What: “Cinderella” When: Through April 26, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $125 – $40 Info: (213) 972-4400 or

“Pygmalion” at the Playhouse – A Master’s Masterpiece Shines

The impressive cast of the Pasadena Playhouse's "Pygmalion" [photo: Jim Cox]

The impressive cast of the Pasadena Playhouse’s “Pygmalion” [photo: Jim Cox]

It is fascinating how a play can become so familiar one can forget where it came from. Certainly, everyone knows that they know George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” but mostly because most have seen “My Fair Lady,” the highly romanticized musical (later film) based on the play. Yet, the original play was not about romance, but about societal equality and intellectual independence. Now, at the Pasadena Playhouse, one can experience a profound and polished production of Shaw’s original play, as originally written. For those sure they are familiar with the piece, this can prove revelatory.

Of course the play – whose name comes from the Greek myth of a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation – has a general plot which needs little explanation. The obnoxiously spoiled, and rather childish linguistics expert Henry Higgins, aided by the somewhat fusty Col. Pickering, takes on the task of transforming one Eliza Doolittle, a cockney street vendor, into a young lady who can pass as a duchess at a society event. What he doesn’t count on is Eliza’s intellect and free will, and her determination not to be seen as an object. In the end, the play becomes a condemnation of the image of women in late Victorian society – one which resonates remarkably clearly into the 21st Century.

Director Jessica Kubzansky has chosen to go back to the original script, leaving off later additions of embassy balls and semi-romantic returns. This is, frankly, extremely satisfying, as I have personally rebelled against the ending given in “My Fair Lady” since I first saw it on stage as a pre-teen. Shaw’s best works are often intellectual discussions with a plot, and here the complex and immensely satisfying battle of wits between Eliza and Higgins gets to stand on its own, making the point Shaw was actually out to make. That makes the play important again.

Paige Lindsey White makes a convincing Eliza. Her body language changes subtly as she matures, and her beauty proves equally subtle: a sharpness softened by care and carriage. This makes the transformation particularly satisfying, and (despite an English professor long ago who claimed it impossible) quite convincing. Bruce Turk makes Higgins both articulately intellectual and ridiculously childish – more a brat than a hermit. It works wonderfully well, adding a layer of comedy a more grounded character could not. Stan Egi gives Col. Pickering a decidedly unaware feel, as if he exists mostly on manners rather than intellectual rigor. All three give a lovely balance to the entire production.

Also worthy of high praise are Ellen Crawford, far less shockable and far more fatalistically practical than usual as Higgins’ housekeeper. Time Winters makes Eliza’s father less goofy and far more disturbed by his change of fortunes, and it works. Most particularly, Mary Anne McGarry gives an aura of wisdom and worry – the articulate view of a woman with a deep understanding of the limitations of womanhood – as Higgins’ mother. Alex Knox and Carolyn Ratteray each have deeply comic moments as Freddy Eynsford-Hill and his sister Clara, while Lynn Milgrim, as their mother, becomes symbolic of the comparatively piteous condition of a poor and widowed society woman.

Still, the unifying force and the significant vision are Kubzansky’s. She takes characters which can easily become prosy, and meshes them into an interesting blend of attitudes and desires one can truly connect with. Pacing and understanding flow easily – and that’s saying something when one speaks of Shavian works.

Stephanie Kerley Schwartz has created an elemental set which moves swiftly from scene to scene, allowing the flow of what is essentially an episodic tale to become remarkably even. Leah Piehl’s costuming holds fairly true to the period, and provides subtle personality clues along the way.

In short, this “Pygmalion” gets it right, start to finish. This play rarely has a chance to stand on its own, and project the message Shaw was trying to get across. This time, it does, and that is pure delight for anyone who loves a good intellectual argument.

What: “Pygmalion” When: Through April 12, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $30 – $75, with premium seating at $125.00 Info: (626) 356-7529 or

“Putting it Together” – Sondheim sings at Sierra Madre

The cast of Sierra Madre Playhouse's "Putting it Together." [photo: John Dlugolecki Photography]

The cast of Sierra Madre Playhouse’s “Putting it Together.” [photo: John Dlugolecki Photography]

The iconic American musical composer of the last 50 years, Stephen Sondheim, has also been the subject of five different “anthology” musicals – that is, compilations of songs written for other uses strung together to celebrate the song writer, often in the guise of a story-like theme. One of these offers a chance to hear many songs which might otherwise sit on a shelf: 1993’s “Putting It Together.” Ostensibly about couples arguing at a party, it serves as a chance to hear music written for television as well as for less-than-successful Broadway shows, all scattered between signature songs from Sondheim’s greatest works: “Company,” “Into the Woods,” “A Little Night Music” and the like.

Now Sierra Madre Playhouse is offering up “Putting It Together” in its small space, made even smaller by the set it shares in repertory with the children’s musical “Einstein is a Dummy.” In this particularly intimate space, details matter. Here, performers range from good to excellent, the timing is solid, and everyone puts their all into the production. The humor shows, as does the pathos and the signature irony and bitterness, all to the accompaniment of an impressive grand piano.

Ostensibly, one couple – a successful man of means and his long-time society wife – are hosting a party to which a young climber and his pretty young girlfriend arrive. An ambitious caterer looks on and weighs in on occasion while the couples form, explode, re-form and redefine. In reality, the plot notwithstanding, it’s a festival of known and lesser-known Sondheim, and that is a treat all its own.

The five-person cast throws their all into the work. Several have done the show before elsewhere, and that added familiarity with what is often very difficult music cannot but help. Kurt Andrew Hansen gives the philandering party-giver an air of ownership as he sings everything from the predatory “Hello Little Girl” to the romantic “Do I Hear a Waltz”. Kristin Towers-Rowles, as his wife, vibrates with attitude, and pulls off two of Sondheim’s most often sung – pieces, “Getting Married Today” and “The Ladies Who Lunch,” while making them very much her own. For songs so thoroughly attached to their initial performances, this is particularly impressive.

LIkewise, Chris Kerrigan brings a pathos to “Marry Me a Little” and a kind of panic to “Unworthy of Your Love” which are very much his own. As his date, Rachel Hirshee has fun being the pretty young thing, and has a lovely time with the more air-headed songs, like “More” and “Lovely.” Mike Irizarry, as the caterer and observer, sings with the most character definition, but is comparatively quiet-voiced next to the other four. Still, his mildly crazed “Buddy’s Blues” stands up well.

Director-choreographer Cate Caplin keeps the piece going, and provides the kind of movement which keeps the show from becoming just a concert. Jake Anthony’s musical direction paces things as they should and blends tones on the many duets in powerful ways. The thing looks polished and is often a lot of fun. There are a few issues with balance, but those do not keep the overall feel from being very attractive, particularly for such a small stage.

Still, truth be told, it is the music that wins the day. Sondheim is, for some, an acquired taste, but once one has acquired it the strong, sometimes dark, often insightful lyrics offer a specific spin on the human condition it is worth being reminded of. By the end you may find ourself (as I did, admittedly, for one or two pieces) going back to find out where they came from and why they are not heard more often.

“Putting It Together” plays evenings, while on weekdays and Sundays the matinees are productions of the children’s musical. It’s a nice balance, as Sondheim’s often very adult subject matter will provide limited enjoyment for kids.

What: “Putting It Together” When: Through March 28, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sunday March 22, and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays March 21 and 18 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $28 general, $25 seniors, $18 students, $15 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or

“The Producers” at Candlelight – Big musical fits well in smaller package

Bobby Collins and Jamie Snyder as Leo and Max in "The Producers" [photo: John LaLonde]

Bobby Collins and Jamie Snyder as Leo and Max in “The Producers” [photo: John LaLonde]

One of the most celebrated Broadway musicals of the recent past is Mel Brooks’ adaptation of his film “The Producers.” Ridiculous, clever and continuously engaging, it still demands a strong cast and a strong directorial vision to be a success. What a delightful surprise, then, to discover all of this at a place where you can also get a decent meal: the area’s last remaining true dinner theater, The Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont.

The story is as silly as one expects from Mel Brooks. Max Bialystock, a failing Broadway producer, joins forces with a timid accountant named Leo Bloom to make money by fleecing investors in a show intentionally so bad it closes. As Max gathers the money from a fleet of aged women he sequentially seduces, the two begin their search for a truly awful musical they can contract for, and cast. They hire a famously awful director, with his crew of stereotypical assistants, and the plot thickens.

Director Brian Thomas Barnhart and choreographer Janet Renslow work with considerable success to recreate the Broadway original on Candlelight’s smaller stage. A sizable, talented cast lives up to these demands, led by Jamie Snyder’s appropriately over-the-top Max, and Bobby Collins’ humorously fragile Leo. Both have strong singing voices, as well, and the entire cast proves impressive in dance routine after routine (including the famous “tapping walkers”).

Playing the ultimate stereotypes – in typical Brooks comedic fashion – Laura Thatcher creates the well-endowed, somewhat dim Swedish actress-turned-secretary Ulla, and Danny Blaylock creates the crazed former Nazi, Franz. Add to these Stanton Kane Morales’ cross-dressing director and Emerson Boatwright having a ball as his fawning assistant. Andrew Wade supplies a number of smaller character bits, and manages the classic tenor required for the Ziegfeld take-off “Springtime for Hitler.”

The polish doesn’t end there. James Gruessing’s set is a star all in and of itself – one of the most complex and layered ones Candlelight has ever used. The lighting is great, and the costumes, from The Theatre Company, are just right throughout.

More importantly, one laughs and laughs often. The show is genuinely funny, frankly funnier than in the production at the Ahmanson, where Jason Alexander, rather than living into the part of Max with great glee, seemed apologetic for not being Nathan Lane. No apologies here. Everyone is playing their parts full-out and the results are absolutely delightful.

One warning: Mel Brooks loves making fun of lust, and as such there are a number of moderately off-color references and actions which may make this a show that is inappropriate for kids. On the other hand, the show comes accompanied by good food and fabulous desserts, all of which contribute to a generally joyous experience.

So, go see “The Producers.” Having seen many of the productions in Candlelight Pavilion’s 30-year history, I’d rate this among the top ten. It really is worth one’s while to go and enjoy.

What: “The Producers” When: Through April 4, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for matinee brunches Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73, dinner inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or

Science Made Silly: “Einstein for Dummies” sings for kids

Katie Hotchkiss as Elsa, Jonathan Brett as Albert [photo: John Dlugolecki Photography]

Katie Hotchkiss as Elsa, Jonathan Brett as Albert [photo: John Dlugolecki Photography]

Last year Sierra Madre Playhouse embarked on a new endeavor: creating theatrical material suitable for school children’s weekday matinees. Last year it was “Battledrum,” an original work tackling the Civil War through the eyes of a pre-teen drummer. This year they have opted for a comparatively tried-and-true production, with the same object. For this they have chosen Karen Zacarias and Deborah Wicks La Puma’s “Einstein is a Dummy,” which tries in a fictional way to make the young and odd Alfred Einstein (and his underlying genius) approachable.

In another break from SMP tradition, this show will play in a sort of repertory: Battledrum for matinees, even on weekends, and “Putting It Together,” a salute to Sondheim opening this coming weekend, for evenings. It’s a solid choice, as “Einstein” is definitely for the pre-pubescent set.

The tale involves the young Albert – a violinist at this point – and Elsa, his friend and fellow odd person out. They are joined by Constantin, the bully of the piece, whose cello seems to represent his ego. For Einstein the world is fascinating – so fascinating it is simple to forget to practice, to bring dressier clothes for a recital, or even to listen the music teacher whose ridiculous last name is intended to elicit children’s giggles. Yet, as he ponders his world, a cat only he can see (Shrodinger’s?) encourages his wonder and his constant urge to find descriptors for the unseen.

Zacarias and Wicks La Puma are central figures in TYA, or Theater for Young Audiences, and several of their musicals are part of the children’s theatre canon, “Einstein…” especially. At SMP their work is presented by two separate casts, since many of the performances are on weekdays, intended for bus-loads of elementary school kids, and thus conflicting with many actors’ day jobs.

On opening night, The Proton Cast, as opposed to The Electron Cast, showed off the show’s best attributes, aided by Sean T. Cawelti’s elaborate video displays on Sarah Krainin’s deceptively simple set. Jonathan Brett created an Einstein both earnest and obliviously optimistic. His eyes are to the universe and snippy humans are mere distractions most of the time. Katie Hotchkiss gives Ella the warm understanding which makes for lasting friendship with a social odd-ball. Indeed, she embraces his views of the universe with a complimentary intelligence in a script determined to state that girls also like science.

Thomas Anawalt tackles the comparatively two-dimensional bully Constantin with a flare which makes him weirdly lovable, while Conor Lane makes absolutist music teacher Herr Scholoppnoppdinkerdonn a figure of comic rigidity. As the cat who spurs Einstein to think outside the box, and to stick to his theories, Molly Gilman has a ball. Freed from any possible social conventions, she can give attitude, have intellectually stimulating conversations, or just be a cat. It all seems meant.

Of course, any show about Einstein is going to have to embrace his classic equation. Here it is celebrated, but not really explained all that much. Perhaps one of the goals of the piece, other than showing that elementary school oddities who don’t fit well into society may become great thinkers, is to introduce E=MC2 to an audience who, when they meet it again in high school physics will already know without knowing that E is energy, M is mass, and C is the speed of light. A cute song emphasizes this, even if the larger implications are left for an older teacher to explain.

Director Derek Manson has kept the show light and airy, and rather silly, which is important when trying to reach a young audience. The musical director is the composer, which gives a strong emphasis to the songs which, if not memorable in the long run, make the production fun in the short term.

The show is short, lasting little over an hour. That’s just the right length for a class on a field trip. It’s also a good Sunday afternoon adventure, for people who know of kids who would enjoy a spate of children’s theater. Take advantage, as this is one of the musicals for kids people genuinely celebrate.

What: “Einstein is a Dummy” When: Through April 12, weekdays for scheduled school groups, 2:30 p.m. Sundays for the general public Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 Seniors, $15 Youth 13-21, $12 Children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or

Old Farce, Delightfully New: “Figaro” at A Noise Within

 Jeremy Guskin (Figaro) and Angela Sauer (Suzanne). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Jeremy Guskin (Figaro) and Angela Sauer (Suzanne). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Ever wondered where the expression “French Farce” got its start? Surely one would be the works of Beaumarchais, celebrating the fictional barber from Seville and French nobleman’s retainer, Figaro. Known to modern audience s more as the subject of comic operas by Mozart and by Rossini, the original plays were classic farce. Now, at A Noise Within, Charles Morey’s admittedly loose adaptation of Beaumarchais’ “Figaro” seems destined to be a solid hit. It’s just that funny.

The tale is familiar, but the rendition proves delightfully surprising anyway. Figaro, the valet to the Count, is about to marry Suzanne, the maid to the Countess and his true love. Suzanne clues him to the fact the Count’s gift of a bed and a room of their own, situated between that of the Count and the Countess, is a matter of convenience but not for Figaro and his bride. The Count is determined to have Figaro’s bride as well – and Figaro is furious.

Suzanne points out that the Countess is still in love, even if her husband is not, and a plot begins to form. Meanwhile the older housekeeper, Marceline, lusts after Figaro, family physician Dr. Bartholo loathes him, and gardener Antonio’s daughter, Fanchette, falls for the silly romantic boy Cherubin. If this sounds like a collection of circular stories, you’re right. But just wait.

In the hands of director Michael Michetti, the enterprise becomes a delightful romp. Though Jeanine A. Ringer’s multi-doored set has some functional issues, there is still the appropriately silly manner of comings and goings, hidden listeners and mistaken agendas. Switched identities lead to laughter, and the net result is suitable and usually happy endings. Still, it is the romp one remembers.

Much of the pacing and an equal percentage of the hilarity comes thanks to Jeremy Guskin’s Figaro. His arch approach to the character, his sly asides to the audience, and his sheer comedic physicality all work together to set the tone and the pace for the rest of the production. Indeed, this wry Figaro proves almost contemporary in his humor, perhaps because adaptor Morey readily admits “freely adapting” the older tale to meet tastes of a modern sensibility, and possibly because Guskin is just that funny.

Angela Sauer’s Suzanne provides a most suitable foil for this Figaro – strong, sardonic, and wise. Andrew Ross Wynn makes the Count a pompous grotesque, which aides the comedy, and Elyse Mirto’s sexually frustrated Countess makes a manipulatable foil for Suzanne. Jeanne Sakata vibrates with frustrated passion as Marceline, while Alan Blumenfeld makes a stuffy and distanced Dr. Bartholo. Will Bradley has a ball as the overly romantic Cherubin, while Natalie De Luna makes a seriously innocent Fanchette. Still, it seems the one performer having the most fun has to be Joshua Wolf Coleman, who becomes the simple Antonio, the pompous music master Bazile, and a toadying, speech-impaired judge, by turns.

The pacing, thanks to Michetti, stays lively, the jokes fresh, and the humor impressively current. Let’s face it – some things are just universally funny, and this production, given this sense of physical comedy combined with a classic, farcical set of situations, fits the bill to perfection. “Figaro” is only one of three shows which will play in repertory through this spring at ANW. It follows the spare “Threepenny Opera,” opened recently, and will be joined at the end of the month by a new version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Meaning this is the one to come and laugh at, and with. So do it. You’ll feel better by the end.

What: “Figaro” When: 8 p.m. March 14, April 4, 10, and May 1; 7:30 p.m. April 9 and 30; 7 p.m. April 19 and May 10; 2 p.m. March 14, April 4 and 19, and May 10; 4 p.m. April 5 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 general, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ext 1 or

Musings: When meaning, in a work of art, is relative

The process of reviewing About… Productions’ original piece “Properties of Silence” became a specifically interesting bit of discernment when I began discussing the play with some of my high school seniors, who saw it a day or two before I did. As a part of their programmed educational outreach, people from About… had come to their English classroom to try to elicit from the students what they felt various elements of symbolism in the work (and there are many) meant. When I saw it, I developed my own sense of what its central message was. Then I heard two of the playwrights (one of the stars and the director) of the play discussing it on KUSC. All of us had different spins on what the play was trying to say.

So, one of the central questions becomes, is that okay? If an audience sees something different from the author’s intent, does that make the intent skewed, the audience dense, or does it simply mean it has a depth which can be uncovered in different ways? For the students – many of whom were very confused indeed – can we say all windows through which to see the piece are okay to open, even if they may lead down a path the authors did not intend?

I have encountered this discussion before, of course. Not only have I had people write to tell me my assessment of a play – not of the production but the play itself – is off base, meaning different from theirs, but I’ve been startled by interpretations of my original writings as well. In my life as a published poet I have heard and read people discussing my poems, finding a meaning in it I never meant myself. Still (when I back away from ownership) I can see these alternate views have a validity. In the end, I tend to find such an encounter fascinating.

Indeed, I keep hearing the line from a favorite classic film, “The Philadelphia Story”, when a struggling novelist discovers his novel on the shelf of a wealthy acquaintance and says, startled, “You are a man of unexpected depth!” There’s something both satisfying and scary in having your work disentangled by someone with a different sense of what it looks like.

I had a professor in college, Dr. Sy Kahn, who made everyone taking his reader’s theater course buy his poetry chapbook. His contention was that, when students read pieces from that book they would have someone who could advise them on what the poems actually meant. As someone raised around the words of Shakespeare, I found this deeply disturbing. When you consider all the ways in which any Shakespearean line can be read, and has been read and interpreted over the last 400 years or so, that would not be possible if everyone had instructions on what to think about what they were going to say from the Bard himself. Most certainly, that openness to interpretation is what keeps his work, Elizabethan as it is, fresh and alive.

So, this is my point. My students are looking for guidance – looking for someone to start them on the processing of an art form (particularly in this rather surreal play) they are not used to. If I give them one piece of the puzzle, and the creative team from the production gives them an alternate one, it may seem confusing but in essence it underscores the very root of art itself: that no two people will necessarily see or hear it the same way.

Which is why theater, or writing, is a living thing. Guidance can be useful, but it is not to be taken as handing down the great tablets – the single expected understanding – if a work is serious, poetic and aspiring to depth. Of course, the meanings in a French farce (for example) are far simpler, but true art can be absorbed many ways. That’s what makes it possible to attend many different productions of a classic and never see quite the same thing twice. Or why a playwright and a critic may encounter completely different elements which catch and inspire them at a particular time.

As for my students, they were frustrated at not being told a single answer, but they’ve been in my IB Theory of Knowledge class, so they’ve learned (annoying though it might be) that there’s always more than one way to view almost anything. They are gradually learning to find their own way, based on that theory, in the world of theater, and that is actually quite exciting.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 430 other followers

%d bloggers like this: