Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Pasadena area.

Rockin’ the House: The Buddy Holly Story hits Candlelight Pavilion

Buddy Holly and the Crickets perform in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story" at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont

Buddy Holly and the Crickets perform in “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont

by Frances Baum Nicholson

There are a lot of reasons to go to the theater. One is simply for entertainment. If that is your goal, and particularly if you love musical nostalgia, you’ll have fun with Alan Janes and Rob Bettinson’s “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” now at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont. Though this musical does tell a rather simplified version of the small segment of Buddy Holly’s life between the first contract he signed with Decca in 1956 and his death in the airplane crash which also took the lives of The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens in 1959, it is mostly a concert of the music he recorded within that time.

With that in mind, it becomes important that the leading man both look and sound like Holly, and – if possible – be able to play a decent electric guitar. Jared Mancuso manages all of this. Indeed, at least in the looks and the sound category the result is almost spooky. As his back-up band The Crickets, Julian Johnson, as Joe, is a virtual gymnast with a string bass, Lonn Hayes gives considerable character to drummer Jerry, and Cullen Law’s Cricket offers a mean second guitar.

Virtually all of the rest of the performers become the “ensemble,” stepping out to play important folk in his life, then becoming back-up singers, enthusiastic fans and whatever else is needed. Of these, Jade Rosenberg is sweet as Buddy’s young wife Maria Elena, John Nisbet has fun with Hi-Pockets, the DJ who first gets him on the air, David Laffey has some strong moments as the man who managed them to stardom, and Jennifer Strattan makes fun work of that managers insistent wife.

Also worth a nod within that ensemble are Robert Hoyt as a fairly convincing Big Bopper, and Orlando Montes, who – though he looks decades older than the 17-year-old Valens was when he died – sings a mean “La Bamba.” Indeed, more than half of the second act of “The Buddy Holly Story” is devoted to Holly’s final concert, with Valens and The Big Bopper, before they all stepped on that fateful plane. That is probably the best of this entire show, with so many great hits, the entire rest of the ensemble singing backup, and a solid sense of the era and the vitality of early rock-and-roll.

Bravo to director John LaLonde, for keeping the pacing constant, and for understanding what the focus of it all had to be. This is not a show for the intellect, but for the heart and the tapping foot.

Even knowing that the show ends with the singular finality of Holly’s story, everyone leaves the performance space bouncing and singing. And sometimes that’s what going to a show is all about. There is no real attempt to hide that this is a tribute rather than a biography, and that’s just fine. At Candlelight Pavilion, the entertainment comes wrapped in a tasty meal and some singularly impressive desserts at intermission. So, leave your burdens at the door, go in, eat, talk, drink, and if the spirit so moves, dance in the aisles.

Sometimes, it really is just about being entertained. Here, you will be.

What: Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story When: Through February 22, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays in January plus Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays in February, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. Saturday and Sundays for matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 adults, $20 children under 12, inclusive of meal Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

A Triumph of Spirit – A New (Very New) “Billy Elliot” in La Mirada

The cast of McCoy Rigby's "Billy Elliot" [photo: Michael Lamont]

The cast of McCoy Rigby’s “Billy Elliot” [photo: Michael Lamont]

Every once in a while live theater offers the opportunity for a truly remarkable event. This can be planned, and the McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of “Billy Elliot the Musical” might even reach those standards on its own. But when the immediacy of a live production becomes a part of the drama, that becomes even more of a specialized thrill.

Let’s face it: from a dance perspective, or even from the perspective of its multiple themes – respecting individual promise, tolerance, dying traditions, or the tricky nature of living between two established and contradictory sub-cultures – “Billy Elliot” is a powerful, likable, satisfying piece of musical theater. The fact of McCoy Rigby Entertainment being offered one of few licenses to produce a first regional productions is not surprising, given their track record of both respect for and quality of the musical art form. And then comes the extra layer.

Mitchell Topin as Billy Elliot [photo: Michael Lamont]

Mitchell Topin as Billy Elliot [photo: Michael Lamont]


Only a week before opening, the talented young Noah Parets, their Billy, broke his arm during rehearsal. Considering how thoroughly the show rests upon Billy, who almost never leaves the stage and dances massive, emotionally charged, physically demanding solos, this stopped the show it its tracks. Thus the drama. After a quick and panicked search, 14-year-old Mitchell Tobin took over the role, which was to open in five days. The good news is, he’s terrific – emotionally satisfying, gifted and amazingly connected. He still looks around a bit, as the choreography is somewhat new even to this “Billy” veteran. Still, in watching him, feeling the audience willing him to succeed, one could not help but feel a part of the show in a uniquely participatory way.

This only enhanced an otherwise highly enjoyable production. The cast is strong throughout, the choreography by Dana Salimando rich and engaging, and the look and feel of the thing crisply paced, authentically evoked, and deeply satisfying, thanks to director Brian Kite. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the script and lyrics were written by the film’s screenwriter, Lee Hall, and the music is the best to date for Broadway by Elton John, or that as a musical it has picked up just about every award possible. Still, this production lives up to that promise.

The story, for those who do not know, is filled with the pathos of changing times. It is the 1980s, the Labour Party – associated with creating Britain’s Euro-Socialism – has been replaced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. The new government’s moves to close underproductive mines lead to coal miners’ strikes which, as it turned out, led to the defeat of the country’s most powerful union and the gradual, eventual closing of almost all deep coal mines in Britain. In the subculture of coal mining, as it wanes, a boy named Billy, pushed toward manliness by taking boxing lessons, chooses ballet instead and proves naturally talented. What happens next is, perhaps, an indicator of larger changing times.

As has been said, Tobin does well, making an engaging, vulnerable, deeply likable Billy. As the brassy woman who soon recognizes his talents, Vicki Lewis provides much of the comedy, and delivers home truths with style. Also fun, as Billy’s friend and fellow social oddity Michael, Jake Kitchin makes the slightly geeky gently engaging. He and Tobin also share one of the show’s silly-coolest moments in “Expressing Yourself.” Likewise, Marsha Waterbury’s forgetful, opinionated grandma adds to both the comedy and pathos, as she delivers both the hope and the bitterness of her world with an offhand brusqueness.

Vicki Lewis as the local ballet teacher, with her hapless pupils [photo: Michael Lamont]

Vicki Lewis as the local ballet teacher, with her hapless pupils [photo: Michael Lamont]

David Atkinson plays Billy’s father, finding a neat balance between love, frustration, and increasing fear. In her brief but important appearances, Kim Huber exudes warmth and nurture as Billy’s late mother. The host of finely articulated, embittered miners, their wives and children, and the silly squad of young girls in the ballet class with Billy all add color and texture to a very satisfying tale.

Yet, because it becomes so thoroughly the focus, what you will remember best is Tobin’s Billy. He really is an extraordinary dancer, especially for his age. And in this instance, that becomes all the more impressive. This is a finely crafted, emotionally satisfying show, and definitely worth going to see. The added bit of last-minute drama does nothing but add to the respect for all involved, and to the sheer quality of the entire product they ended up with.

What: “Billy Elliot the Musical” When: Through February 8, 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 at http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

“The Manor” returns: Quasi-History in Beverly Hills

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For 13 years, on a semi-regular basis, Theatre 40 has produced “The Manor,” based on, albeit fictionalized from, actual events which occurred at the play’s performance site: the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. Written by Kathrine Bates, the play is founded in the tragedy which befell the Doheny family in the 1929, when the son of oil magnate Edward L. Doheny met a tragic end at the house his father had built for him and his bride.

In “The Manor,” Doheny becomes Charles MacAlister, a self-made mining magnate. We meet him at the height of the 20s, as he celebrates the marriage of his beloved son Sean to Abby, the daughter of his friend and legal consultant. Another guest at the wedding is a senator – a former fellow miner turned politician – with whom he chooses to make a deal that evening which will come back to haunt him. At the same time, Abby’s friend and former crush, Greg, and Greg’s rather garish wife are also introduced. Though all is rich, and most see the future as a brilliant thing, the groundwork for trouble is laid. In the second half, as the 30s begin, the dangers come home to roost.

The play takes the audience from room to room, not in the way that John Krizanc’s “Tamara” did in the 1980s – having different audience elements follow different parts of the storyline, which they’d share at various points to gradually tell the whole story – but by putting on each scene three times, and having the audience rotate in thirds so everyone sees the whole thing but in differing order. It is a formula which has worked over time, and certainly continues to do so under current director Flora Plumb.

Darby Hinton makes a gently commanding MacAlister – a man whose confidence comes in great measure from a strong sense of family and friendship. As his wife Marion, playwright Bates vibrates with loving and protective enthusiasm – obviously the glue which holds the household together at times. John-Paul Lavoisier, though his looks would seem more appropriate in a modern perfume ad than as the son and business partner of a 20s tycoon, does much to balance the sense of strength and business savvy with a gentle care and concern for his family and future. Annalee Scott rather neatly underplays Abby, leading to a sweetly realistic portrait which clicks better and better as the storyline grows.

Ben Gavin balances an stolid attractiveness with an awkwardness of class as the handyman Greg, while Cynthia Gravinese creates a significantly grating portrait of his grasping wife. Stephen Gustafson makes solid work of the MacAlister lawyer, though he’s not given a whole lot to do. Daniel Leslie, in an ill-fitting tuxedo, doesn’t seem very impressive as a US Senator, but handles his part with ease. Perhaps the best of the performers in the actual storyline is Melanie MacQueen, as the senator’s cool and long-suffering wife. The other really memorable performers are those who take the audience about the place – butler Daniel Lench, mute housemaid Esther Levy Richman, and most particularly housekeeper Katherine Henryk.

It is obvious that people love this thing, and one can see why. It is admittedly fascinating to see this tale play out on the stage where a similar drama actually did. This theatricality makes up for a sometimes artificial pacing, though the last half an hour is very strong and unified. The only completely unnecessary element is an allusion to the ghosts at the very end which – though it may simply be a way to get the entire cast back in the room for a curtain call – thins the sense of the “real,” replacing it with the corny.

Still, I cannot sniff at any piece of theater which inspires Los Angelinos to discover more about their own history. Indeed, the Doheny tale is a particularly colorful chapter.

On a practical level, the good news, at least in comparison with “Tamara”-like adventures, is the comparative lack of stair climbing and trailing over large expanses. The less than good news is the “light refreshment” offered at intermission. Don’t expect more than Doritos, packaged crackers, juice and water. Still, this is a singular event, which only takes place when the city of Beverly Hills has not scheduled other things in what is now a landmark and a museum of sorts.

What: “The Manor” When: Through February 13, 6 p.m. on January 22, 23, 29 and 30, and February 10 – 13 (all matinees were sold out by opening day) Where: Greystone Mansion, in Greystone Park, 905 Loma Vista Drive, above Sunset Blvd. in Beverly Hills How Much: $55 with tickets only available in advance Info: (310) 694-6118 or http://www.theatre40.org

A Clown Walks into a Bar – “Clown Bar” sends up Noir, sort of

The cast of "Clown Bar" and the seedy underbelly of clown life, at redwhite+bluezz in Pasadena

The cast of “Clown Bar” and the seedy underbelly of clown life, at redwhite+bluezz in Pasadena

Perhaps the most copied and parodied form of suspense is Noir – the hard-bitten detective both investigating and swept up in the dark underbelly of society. If Noir is your thing, then a new ridiculous-disturbing spin on the genre has just landed at redwhite+bluezz, the restaurant attached to the Pasadena Playhouse. There, on Thursday nights, a slim dinner lets you into the underbelly of funny, as you become part of Adam Szymkowscz’s “Clown Bar” – a slimy, scatological speakeasy run by the clown subculture’s own mob.

Just how this will sit with an audience may depend entirely on just how spooky each individual finds clowns. Regardless, do not expect a circus atmosphere.

The plot has former clown Happy Mahoney return to his roots as he searches for the murderer of his hapless brother Timmy. In the process, he must face his own past and the consequences of his brother’s inability to live up to Happy’s successful level of funny. In his investigation, he rubs shoulders with the comically grim lounge singer, a stripper-clown, clown toughs and clown has-beens. It’s all noir, just with face paint, and tongue stuck firmly in cheek.

Shawn Parsons is Happy, managing a physicality somewhere between Sam Spade and clownish with significant sincerity. Joe Fria gives Timmy a wistful quality, and a gentle desperation, which fits the standard Noir ne’er do well character. Emily Goss provides the stripper with, or without a heart of gold, and Erin Holt becomes the sincere but hampered gangster’s moll. Surrounding these are bleak clowns and mobsters, some funny, some more grim, including Amir Levi, Chairman Barnes, the over-the-top Esteban Andres Cruz, Rafael Goldstein, the homicidal Mandi Moss, and Bruno Oliver. Richard Levinson provides the piano accompaniment to the original songs by Adam Overett which propel the proceedings.

Under the direction of Jaime Robledo, and in the tight performance space of a long, skinny restaurant, there are a few timing issues which still need addressing for the truly clownish to win – entrances must happen from too far away, and sometimes the rhythm of the thing seems forced. And it is just possible that the whole thing takes itself just a tad too seriously. Still, the concept is fascinating, and the sense of subculture – and the dangers inherent in stepping in and out of that culture’s single-focus, creates both the occasional humor and the pathos.

The price of this production comes with a meal which, though tasty, is small – itself almost a comical version of what nouvelle cuisine is like. Come early, as significant entertainment is to be found in the bar beforehand, where clowns hang out along with other patrons.

“Clown Bar” has a fascination, especially for those who find clowns creepy to begin with. For those for whom clowns are not innately disquieting, it sometimes struggles for a balance between its Noir concept and humor. In the process it is most, most definitely an adult entertainment. This is, after all, a seedy bar scene, not a big top. And it is a curiosity – one of those things one does not see everyday. As such, it may be worth a look.

What: “Clown Bar” When: Through January 29, Thursdays only, 8 p.m. dinner/show with 7:30 p.m. pre-show Where: redwhite+bluezz at the Pasadena Playhouse, 37 S. El Molino Ave in Pasadena How Much: $60, including prix fixe dinner with three entree options Info: (800) 838-3006 or http://www.BrownPaperTickets.com

“Blithe Spirit” at the Ahmanson: Spiritualism, Cynicism, Comedy, and a Star

Angela Lansbury, in her Tony-winning role, headlines the cast of "Blithe Spirit" at the Ahmanson

Angela Lansbury, in her Tony-winning role, headlines the cast of “Blithe Spirit” at the Ahmanson

When a classic play is revived, there are several reasons to go see it, if it’s done well. The first is to rediscover an old friend, particularly a beloved one. The second is, in the case of a major professional production, often to see a famous person or persons play a part he or she has wanted to do a long time. If the results of either desire are met, the show can be considered a satisfying success. Of course, sometimes the results can stun – become more powerful than either of the expectations above would prepare one for – as in Cecily Tyson’s recent “The Trip to Bountiful” – but one should not expect that. More often, as in the production of “Blithe Spirit” which has just arrived at the Ahmanson, the result proves satisfying in large part because of the juxtaposition of an experienced actor or actress having fun, and an old friend of a play: well done, even if not stunning.

The Noel Coward classic appears here in a touring production fashioned on the 2009 revival which won Angela Lansbury her fifth Tony Award. Well produced, the result is funny and almost appealingly grating, just as it should be. The story itself has much to say about relationship – a theme to which Coward returned with absolute regularity.

Charles Condomine, a skeptical novelist living in a British village, invites the local medium to conduct a seance at the house he shares with his second wife, Ruth, as part of research into a new book. In the process of the seance, and to his shock, his first wife’s ghost appears, but only to him. The misconstructions and chaos begin almost immediately, witnessed by the seance’s other participants – a practical doctor and his wife. The anxieties which erupt are only exacerbated by an uptight village girl-housemaid. You know this is not going to end well.

Director Michael Blakemore allows tight timing and, thanks to Simon Higlett’s set, just enough special effects to keep the story moving and increasingly funny. The performers make the characters, though as comic as they need to be, also as real as the situation and script will allow. This is important in a Coward play.

Charles Edwards exudes confidence and charm as the novelist. Charlotte Parry gives his wife that genteel but not glamorous look required of the part, and the straight-spined society edge. Simon Jones and Sandra Shipley provide such a classic “country doctor and wife” they looked as if they stepped out of a late-30s British film.

Jemima Rooper, as the ghostly first wife, Elvira, has an absolutely delightful time – in many cases, it is her energy which emphasizes the comedy and sets the pace for the entire piece. Likewise, Susan Louise O’Connor, as the dim, literal, and countrified maid provides a certain amount of understated commentary on stuffiness, just through her presence and the occasional wry look.

And then, of course, there is Angela Lansbury, the actress whose 70-year acting career (she was in “Gaslight” at age 18, believe it or not) has brought her to this theater, this part and this celebration. She’s having a ball, which is both a good thing and perhaps a bit dodgy for the play itself on occasion. As Madame Arcati, the once-celebrated London medium residing in Condomine’s village, she is supposed to be a bit unique and over the top. Her abandon, and that of the now unrestricted Elvira, provide balance to the ordered structure of everyone else’s lives. And Lansbury does “odd” well. The trick is not to do it too repetitively or for too long at a stretch, and sometimes she dances pretty near the limit.

Special kudos to the meticulous work of Higlett’s, Bill Butler’s and Martin Pakledinaz’s costume designs, which place the piece neatly into a specific period. Most particularly the costuming of the ghost (later, ghosts) proves clever without being overly dramatic. The production is brilliantly set, with quoted notes from the original script between acts, terrific Coward music recorded in period, and an overarching sense of time, place and attitude.

And that is why to go: go for the technical accuracy, the clean and crisp production, and the well performed, tight, humorous, charming little play. It says nothing new, but it says what it has always said in what is mostly describable as the best possible way. And go for Lansbury, for even when she oversteps a bit, she does so with a kind of panache worth taking in. Certainly, at 89, she can be granted a little license.

What: “Blithe Spirit” When: Through January 18, 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: $25 – $140 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Panto at the Playhouse: Silly Fun for the Holidays

The cast of "Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight", a Panto at the (Pasadena) Playhouse

The cast of “Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight”, a Panto at the (Pasadena) Playhouse

In Britain, the “panto” has been a beloved theatrical style since the early 18th century. Always a comedy, somewhere between burlesque and Saturday Night Live, it contains specific characters, silly comic stylings and a few hard-and-fast traditions. The most prominent of these is a character classified as “The Dame”: an over-the-top, overtly commanding female always played by a man. Though the jokes change with the era, and the popular songs injected into the piece shift with the times as well, the panto continues to be an integral form of entertainment in the British world.

Three years ago, the Pasadena Playhouse and the Lythgoe family of entertainment professionals initiated the British panto as a new, and continuing holiday tradition: Panto at the Playhouse. The new rendition has just opened for everyone’s entertainment. This year the show is “Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight,” as scripted by Kris Lythgoe and directed by Bonnie Lythgoe. A stellar cast provide plenty of silliness, references to everything from Disney to current events, and provides enough magic and romance for the youngsters to find plenty of fun.

Olivia Holt is Aurora, the princess under threat of dying before her 18th birthday. Garrett Clayton is the rather self-focused handsome Prince of Alhambra, who is to wed her. Patrick Cassidy is the King of Pasadena, and Aurora’s father. And from here it gets even sillier. Ben Giroux’s Silly Billy is a full-blown borscht belt comic, supposedly guarding Aurora, and supposedly madly in love with her. David Engel provides the Dame part, as Aurora’s Nanny Tickle. The evil fairy who doomed Aurora to death, Carabosse, is played by Lucy Lawless, while the Good Fairy who counters her is Tamyra Gray. These folks are surrounded by a fine troupe of professional adult dancers, and one of two teams of child performers as well, who provide villagers, various lords, ladies, soldiers and fairies necessary to the tale.

The show is loosely constructed, with reason. The extremely episodic script’s jokes are there to make the adults laugh, while the children are captivated by the storyline. Kids are encouraged, and some buy wands and swords in the patio to wave at magical moments. There’s an orchestra of sorts, and the songs – popular stuff of the last few decades, ranging from “Eye of the Tiger” to “All of Me” to “Happy” – are sung with enthusiasm if not always with great style. That is, except for a beautifully stylish “O Holy Night” rendered by Gray toward the show’s close.

Choreographer Spencer Liff manages considerable charm with his dancers, and Albermarle Productions has provided costumes which add to the comedy and set the storyline.

It can be a great entertainment to watch good actors being intentionally, freely silly. This is one of those kinds of shows. There will be no depth, but considerable laughter. Look out for occasional ad libs, and for the comfort everyone has on stage. Heck, Lawless even gets in a sideways reference to her television sidekick (to considerable cheering from the audience). Though some of the comedy is filled with double entendre, I would not hesitate to bring the kids. Like old Warner Brothers cartoons, the adult humor elements merely keep the parents engaged while the kids have a good time watching the characters do their thing.

In short, “Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight” is fun, extremely light, kid-friendly and engaging. Is it great art? No. Is Panto at the Playhouse likely to become a long-standing tradition? Yes, and with reason. See for yourself. Come early, and explore the activities in the Playhouse community center, which sometimes even include a visit from Santa. On Saturdays and Sundays, neighboring redwhite+bluezz Jazz Club hosts a character breakfast for a separate fee.

What: “Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight” When: Through January 4, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and Monday, December 29, 12 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, and 12 p.m. and 4 p.m. Sundays, with 4 p.m. performances also on December 24, 26 and 30 Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $29 – $127, with special Gold Tickets (limited to 10 per performance, for an added $50 above the ticket price) which let a child on stage briefly Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

Farce with Force: “What the Butler Saw” at the Taper

L-R: Paxton Whitehead, Sarah Manton (background) and Charles Shaughnessy in Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw” at the Mark Taper Forum.  [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

L-R: Paxton Whitehead, Sarah Manton (background) and Charles Shaughnessy in Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw” at the Mark Taper Forum.
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Farce, as a theatrical art form, is often seen as simply a ridiculous chasing about – fun and funny, but not particularly intellectually derived. Indeed, many typical farces are. Still, on occasion the ridiculous backdrop of a farcical situation can be used to make pointed, even cutting remarks about society at large, all in the guise of silliness.

One example of this is the Joe Orton classic, “What the Butler Saw,” now at the Mark Taper Forum. Though the net result is a guffaw-inducing, the underlying messages are actually far more savage. This 1968 piece, produced first only after its author’s murder, examines with great bitterness the state of government’s encroachment on people’s lives, using British Health’s psychological services as a vehicle. Now, though some of its material starts out feeling a bit dated from a feminist (or even “aware of rape culture”) perspective, it still wins one over as just that: a mocking send-up of bureaucracy.

This aided by an absolutely splendid cast, whose timing – thanks in part to director John Tillinger – proves so tight that every bit of physical comedy works exactly as it should, and whose characterizations allow for just enough empathy to keep the audience connected.

Charles Shaughnessy plays a psychologist running a British in-patient mental hospital. Estranged from his rampantly sexual wife, he had developed a casting couch approach to his kingdom – an approach he is about to try out on a new and innocent young secretarial applicant. Frances Barber plays his wife, whose latest encounter with a bellhop has led to a possible blackmail, if her husband can’t hire the male bellhop as a new secretary instead of the innocent young girl already on the couch. How to make that happen pushes her toward the scotch bottle.

Paxton Whitehead, as the doctor’s pompous superior, come to inspect the hospital, provides some of the greatest comedy as he half-hears, misdiagnoses, and sparks the craziest parts of the play, all the while thinking of how to publish his outrageous “discoveries” to achieve greater fame. The chemistry between the three makes the piece work, aided over and over again by Sarah Manton’s gentle but determined young secretary, Angus McEwan’s completely gonad-driven bellhop, and Rod McLachlan’s authoritative, then bemused police sergeant.

James Noone’s brightly lit, glaringly open office space, graced with the necessary multitude of openings, sets the tone for the inspired farcical chasings about. The requisite doors slam, as mistaken identities, hidden agendas, and the senior doctor’s silly imaginings and misinterpretations create greater and greater havoc. Laughing out loud is almost guaranteed, from the beautifully executed physical comedy as well as the sheer silliness of the plot twists. Indeed, once a certain amount of rather disquieting exposition is out of the way at the start, the piece inspires roars of laughter over and over.

Which is all to say “What the Butler Saw” – the non sequitur of the title notwithstanding – proves highly entertaining. Still, and this would fit Orton’s “Angry Young Man” time period, it is also an bitter commentary on vapid human connection, and the misuse of power. When you step back you begin to see it, delivered though it is with the syrup of belly laughs. And though the play may be 36 years old, that dark undercurrent still rings disturbingly true.

What: “What the Butler Saw” When: Through December 21, 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 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

Romance, Tragedy, and a Lesson: “Stop Kiss” stuns at the Pasadena Playhouse

Angela Lina and Sharon Leal in "Stop Kiss" at the Pasadena Playhouse.  [Photo by Jim Cox]

Angela Lina and Sharon Leal in “Stop Kiss” at the Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo by Jim Cox]

There is no greater way to expand the understanding and empathy of people towards those not like themselves than by finding a story which becomes common ground. That’s perhaps the simplest way to “put a face” on an issue which may not otherwise resonate with the majority. That may also be the most important factor in the newest venture at the Pasadena Playhouse.

In Diana Son’s “Stop Kiss,” there are two central themes: the gradual development of a strong relationship that solidifies into love, and a violent act which rips the warmth from that story yet also does much to solidify its definition. The two themes unfold at the same time, allowing the audience to process both violation and relationship in an intertwined, very powerful way.

In essence, the tale is one of Callie, a long-time New Yorker, and the friend-of-a-friend newly moved from St. Louis, Sara. Callie’s social life hangs upon her college relationships, as she surfs a high profile but unsatisfying job and lands the perks of “who you know” as a city-dweller. Sara brings with her an idealism, having received a grant to spend two years teaching 3rd grade in the Bronx, and a sense of forward motion Callie has missed. The two click immediately, becoming fast friends moving slowly but inexorably toward something more. Then, at the moment of transition, their world shatters in a hate crime.

Angela Lin makes a genuine, worldly yet innocent Callie, secure in her world, yet still searching for meaning and connection. Sharon Leal exudes a personal confidence as Sara which, even though counteracted by her initial sense of being a New York outsider, leads to an expansion of both her own and Callie’s view of their worlds.

As Callie’s guy friend and occasional bootie call, John Sloan provides the symbol of her life before the play begins – one lived at arms length from true emotional connection. Brandon Scott, as the young man Sara left behind, provides a view of her own, solidly Midwestern, interconnected roots. Jeff de Serrano offers up the classic detective, hammering for facts and thus making Callie face home truths. Amanda Carlin, though also a hospital nurse, makes the most impact as the witness to the attack who calls police: empathetic but from a distance.

Director Seema Sueko uses David F. Weiner’s easily shifting set pieces to switch back and forth from the charm of a New York apartment to the chill of a street with great swiftness, keeping the pace going and thus the two tensions moving as well. In this play, performed without intermission to also avoid a break in the elemental flow, this proves key. Combine that with the charm, the sheer likability of the two main characters as portrayed, and one simply cannot look away. In the end, the responses of everyone onstage achieve a natural quality which may even be the point, but certainly lets the dramatic endings sync together like a resolved fugue.

“Stop Kiss” was written in 1998. What is both warming and sad about that fact is that the very scenarios described therein could happen today, 16 years later. Some of what is discussed is, for the traditional Playhouse audience, a bit controversial. Yet, that is not at the core of why one should see this lovely piece. Love, trauma, shattered dreams, and new realizations are foundational to many beloved moments in the theater. The themes do not change because the characters are different.

But then, of course, seeing them applied to these characters offers a chance to find that face, albeit a fictional one: that character (or characters) which can humanize an issue, and create the very empathy which brings an understanding and helps a society to move forward. Seems a tall order for a small relationship play, but it could be a start. This especially when the production is as fine, as moving, and as meaningfully intense as the one at Pasadena Playhouse.

What: “Stop Kiss” When: Through November 30, 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: $45 – $75, plus premium seating for $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Tighter Staging will Save the King! – “The Lion In Winter” in Whittier

William Crisp as Henry II confronts his sons in Whittier's "The Lion in Winter"

William Crisp as Henry II confronts his sons in Whittier’s “The Lion in Winter”

On the short list of 20th century playwrights whose work I love in part because if their rich use of language, James Goldman is right up there. Take, as example, his play “The Lion in Winter.” In many ways it proves very talky, but this drama pitting King Henry II of England against his sons, his imprisoned wife, and the King of France remains a constant favorite because the characterizations are rich, and the talk is clever, fast-paced and unrelentingly poetic. It’s a feast for the both the imagination and the ear.

Yet this can all careen off the tracks if the pace is too slow, or broken up too much. Heat drives this play, and heat onstage dissipates quickly if not constantly fed. Which brings me to the new production at Whittier Community Theater. The cast is, particularly in the two most central parts, excellent. The costuming and feel of the piece are right. But constant breaks in the pacing, caused by the need to move furniture between each one of the short vignette-like scenes, make it excruciatingly long. In the process, that elemental heat cools.

This is fixable, but it will take some creative restaging along the way. That would be wonderful, because rather than listening to an audience groan at the length, it would be terrific to be able to embrace this show for all the things it does right. They are many.

William Crisp makes a terrific Henry – playing the elaborate game of political competition with relish, bringing a consistency to this medieval king even as he is wound-able, strong, afraid of aging, and admiring of intellect equal to his own. Candy Beck tackles the prodigious Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s wife, nemesis, equal, and prisoner let out for Christmas. In a subtle supporting role, and despite a somewhat questionable wig, Jamie Sowers proves on a par with these two powerful and powerfully played characters as the young Alais, sister to the King of France, raised at Henry’s court to be the next queen, yet become Henry’s mistress. Her subtle strength makes her less of a pawn than often played, leading to a particular inclusion in this fascinating trio.

The portraits of Henry’s three sons are a bit variable, though they power the piece when necessary. Colin McDowell’s Richard the Lionheart manages the mix of fragility and power necessary, but tends to deliver his lines in a comparatively hollow tone. Jonathan Tupanjanin makes Prince John just as much a spoiled child as is necessary. Thanks to one mention of his being pimply in the script, he has been given facial spots which look like large measles or major melanomas, and are very distracting. Acne is a bit more subtle, even onstage.

Brandon Ferruccio makes middle son Geoffrey as frankly devious as can be, becoming the most memorable of the sons. Despite another odd wig, Luke Miller makes the young king of France subtly mature and even more subtly as devious in his own way as Geoffrey. It’s an interesting take on the character.

Karen Jacobson and Nancy Tyler are to be celebrated for finding costumes which truly fit the characters and the time period. Set designer Mark Frederickson has created the impression of a medieval castle, which sets the tone, but as used may also be creating much of the problem.

In the hands of director Lenore Stjerne, every scene is centrally staged, and uses the entire set. This means that between each scene lights dim, stagehands come out and move furniture, place or replace candles, hang tapestries, etc. – a project which can take 3 minutes or so. That’s too long, as pacing is key to effectiveness in this play. The use of “trucks,” which allow the quick wheeling in and out of setting pieces, or simply isolating some scenes in one part of the stage which is preset for the purpose, would solve this show’s one major problem and let people go home about a half hour earlier.

And that would be good, because this version of “The Lion in Winter” is definitely worth seeing, especially for the performances of the two leads. Hopefully the timing glitches will be solved by the start of the second weekend.

What: “The Lion in Winter” When: through November 22, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2:30 p.m. matinee on Sunday November 16 Where: The Center Theater, Whittier Community Center, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors/students/military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

A Lighthearted Dose of Good vs Evil: “Pope! An Epic Musical” at Theatre Unleashed

The cast of Pope! The Epic Musical, being epic

The cast of Pope! The Epic Musical, being epic

Musicals come in several forms. The classic Great American Musical uses its songs to advance the plot, has beautifully choreographed (and sometimes significant to the plot itself) dance numbers, and other elements which define the high end of that art form. Newer forms border on opera, where the music cannot be divorced from the plot. Old 20s musicals are sillier, easy to parody, and full of tunes which have entered the American Songbook.

And then there are the musicals where the music’s just a conduit for keeping things lighthearted – a way to ensure that the general silliness has a platform to stand on. Such a show is the west coast premiere production of “Pope! An Epic Musical” now at Theatre Unleashed in North Hollywood. With book and lyrics by Justin Moran and music by Christopher Pappas, the thing flows with great rapidity, scattering site gags and ridiculous suppositions with great abandon. It’s an entertainment, through and through.

In its silliness this show does have a basic point, but must be (and is) played impressively tongue in cheek. A young man whose name actually is Pope, yearns from an early age to achieve that lofty position. He does, and uses it as a bully pulpit for celebrating the good in life and in people. As such he incurs the wrath of an evil archbishop who connives to unseat him and establish a new inquisition in his place.

Makes for pretty good melodrama, especially if the results prove as over the top as this musical offering demands.

Jase Lindgren is the earnest, innocent and youthful Pope, straightforward in his approach and stunned at his condemnation. As the girl with a lifelong crush on him, who chooses the convent and thus saves him, Sammi Lappin sings well and has some particularly clever moments. Shawn Cahill makes the Archbishop the kind of melodramatic villain usually twirling a mustachio and ordering women be tied to train tracks. He has a great time in the process, and drives the piece more than any other cast member.

Also worthy of special note in an enthusiastic and versatile cast is R. Benito Cardenas, very, very funny as Cardinal Duncan – a man so desperate for a friend he willingly jumps in as the Archbishop’s central henchman. Jude Evans also deserves special credit, as he plays not one, not two, but three different characters including Jesus himself. Mark Lopez offers a most comic moment as God.

Essentially, as put together by director Gregory Crafts, this thing is just fast-paced, cleverly designed fun. Nothing in it, especially the Catholic hierarchy is intended to be accurate. By the same token, do not expect the moments of a cappella religious-sounding music to be as tonal as you expect. The vocal approximations work, because the whole thing is a bit “off” on purpose.

A special nod to the uncredited costumer who creates the ultimate quick-change approximations of collars, habits and such that allow swift shifts in character and setting without much need for a set.

“Pope! An Epic Musical” is that oddly delightful mix of comic books, Monty Python-esque satire, foolishness, and good ol’ “innocent goodness defeats calculating villainy” destined to make you leave with a smile even as it doesn’t bear much in the way of close examination. So, go laugh it up. There’s still a bit of time before the end of the run.

What: “Pope! An Epic Musical” When: Through November 17, 8 p.m. Saturday and Monday, 7 p.m. Sunday Where: The Belfry Stage, Upstairs at the Crown, 11031 Camarillo St. in North Hollywood How Much: $15 (or make a $5+ donation to Susan G. Komen for the Cure and name your own price) Info: (818) 849-4039 or http://www.theatreunleashed.com

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