Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Pasadena area.

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, http://www.sgvrt.com or (for reservations) sgvrt626@gmail.com

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 http://www.covinacenter.com

“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 http://www.centertheatregroup.org

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 http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

“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 http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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 http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

“Evita” at the Candlelight Pavilion: Not Quite Enough

Laura Dickinson is "Evita", as John LaLonde's Juan Peron looks on, at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Adam Trent]

Laura Dickinson is “Evita”, as John LaLonde’s Juan Peron looks on, at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Adam Trent]

As one looks back at the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, both what they did together and since their split, and it is difficult to find any single piece more significant than their musical “Evita.” The music, though typically repetitive, has far more verve than much of Lloyd Webber’s later work, and the sharp-edged lyrics Rice created for this odd but fascinating story have an intensity which matches the score.

For this reason, I am always on the lookout for a production of “Evita.” It can still have a lot to say. Yet, there are certain things which simply must be present, especially two truly dynamic performers, one to play Eva Peron herself, and one to play the narrator, revolutionary Che Guevara. It can be high tech or low, large cast or smaller, but if these two parts aren’t cast with people of strong voice and stronger personality, it doesn’t work.

Which brings me to the new production of “Evita” at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont. Years ago, when the musical was new, I saw the first truly low-tech version of the show at Candlelight, and was impressed by how well the show held up without all the fancy machinery or the huge cast. I wish I could say that this new production was as successful.

Richard Bermudez makes an intense Che [photo: Adam Trent]

Richard Bermudez makes an intense Che [photo: Adam Trent]


Despite a solid production, and a good to very good ensemble to back up the central figures, there is still a problem. Richard Bermudez makes fine work of Che: angry, sarcastic and powerful by turns. John LaLonde takes what has to be one of the most underrated parts in modern musical canon, Juan Peron, and makes him a real personality. But sadly these strong personalities only emphasize the comparative lack of zing in Laura Dickinson’s Evita.

She does all the moves, and – though sometimes her rock-style high notes become too shrill – handles the difficult music with a reasonable style, but the energy which creates this actual, larger-than-life character is absent. This is not the woman thousands of descamisados would have muscled into (albeit surrogate) power, who would have charmed all the charmable of Argentina. The fire is missing.

Which is admittedly a pity, because Chuck Ketter’s direction of the show moves it from its big-stage roots to the small and intimate Candlelight space without losing its most essential bits. Roger Castellano’s choreography almost has to be derivative of the original, but is generally well done. Admittedly (and this was also true the first time) one misses the projections which enhanced one or two moments, but doing “Evita” low-tech is also a great way to prove the show’s actual power is not based on gimmicks. And by and large this is still true. Except when it isn’t.

Indeed, there are a few lost moments, not all of which can be laid at Dickinson’s feet. The staging of Alexandra Specter’s brief moment in the sun as Peron’s dismissed mistress leaves her without the anchor of a door. Lucas Coleman’s turn as Magaldi, the tango singer who takes Eva to Buenos Aires, lacks fluidity or the kind of oily sexiness which makes him interestingly small-time.

Also, and very disappointingly for a show in which one can be swept up by orchestral moments alone, the score (always a recording at Candlelight) makes significant use of electronics rather than actual strings, robbing the music of its richness.

So, should one see this “Evita”? It has things to recommend it, and it comes with a fine meal. Is it what it could have been, at this venue? Not really. Having seen what this theater is capable of in relation to this important work, it should be better than it is.

What: “Evita” When: Through June 28, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. on Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for lunchtime Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 adults/ $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Comic Timing Makes “Odd Couple” Shine at SMP

David Brad Reed and Jack Sundmacher in the classic "The Odd Couple" at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

David Brad Reed and Jack Sundmacher in the classic “The Odd Couple” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

I doubt there is a single offering from the prolific Neil Simon more recognizable than “The Odd Couple.” From the hit Broadway play, to the hit Hollywood movie, to the long-running comedy TV series, “The Odd Couple” has entered the language. Profoundly tidy people are called Felixes, and most Americans – at least those of a certain age – immediately know what that means.

Now Sierra Madre Playhouse has opened a new production of this time-honored play. Well done from start to finish, it highlights just how funny Simon’s play is, and how little it has aged – especially if (as this one is) it is set in its original timeframe of the mid-60s.

By now everyone knows the general idea. Oscar Madison, a determinedly slob by divorced man behind on his child support payments takes in his poker buddy, Felix Unger, when Felix’s wife kicks him out. Felix is obsessively clean and a meticulous cook, and soon the two opposite behavior patterns make their friendship fray. This, especially, when they plan an encounter with two silly British sisters from their apartment building.

The SMP production proves well cast from the outset, as the entire ensemble of poker-playing pals not only look just right, but sound just as they should. As one of the two central figures, Jack Sundmacher’s Oscar is a bit less oafish than sometimes, but that emphasizes the situational aspect of his sloppiness. Brad David Reed is a bit less comic in his moroseness than some versions of Felix, but it works into the comedy in a different, less derivative way. This is a good thing.

Highlights of the SMP cast are Kari Lee and Jane Lui as the giggly Pigeon sisters – the girls from upstairs. They are truly comic from first to last. The fascinating choice of making them Asian as well as British highlights the internationalism of New York, Britain and comedy in general – a good choice all around. As the weekly poker players, Vince DonVito, Joe Langer, Richard Van Slyke, and most especially Steve Bean, as Murray the policeman, provide the buddies who give this elementally male story its energy.

Director Alan Brooks has used the comparatively small SMP stage to the utmost, utilizing John Vertrees’ set design which artfully creates all the complexities of a NY apartment in that limited area. The costuming by Angela Nicholas centers the piece and – particularly in the case of the Pigeon sisters – emphasizes the comedy on occasion.

For those who somehow have never seen “The Odd Couple” this is a great place to start. For those who have, do not expect the characterizations here to be mirrors of the ones by Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon or Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. These actors have created their own sense of what Oscar and Felix should be, and that is one of the pleasures of seeing the production. So do.

What: “The Odd Couple” When: Through June 27, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with one Saturday matinee on the closing day as well Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 students 13-21, $12 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

“The Elliots” in South Pasadena: Jane Austin in Adaptation

Kelly Lohman and Travis Goodman play the star-crossed lovers in "The Elliots", an adaptation of Jane Austin's work [photo: Kate Felton]

Kelly Lohman and Travis Goodman play the star-crossed lovers in “The Elliots”, an adaptation of Jane Austin’s work [photo: Kate Felton]

I can’t help but find it fascinating that in this age of casual manners and oversexed advertising the works of Jane Austin have received such an enthusiastic resurgence. Her mannered romances are, to coin a cliche, an entryway into a simpler time. Yet this simple time could be brutal to women, as estates were entailed to often distant male heirs, and women were stuck in between dreams of romance and the likelihood of being married off for prestige, a price, or family honor. That, for all the romance in her work, was Austin’s world.

Now a new Austin adaptation has arrived at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena, courtesy of Little Candle Productions. “The Elliots” is A.J. Darby’s rather truncated adaptation of Austin’s “Persuasion,” centering on the fortunes of one extended family and the heartbreaks they and their friends endure.

As tends to be true of Austin if you just deal with the dialogue, it proves rather talky and in desperate need of movement as a balance. On a stage as small as the one at FCT, this proves difficult, and director Karissa McKinney’s tendency to have everyone sit down a lot of the time just increases this sense of the static. The actors seem to feel that over-intimacy, to the point that some speak very softly. Still, there are some solid individual performances which pull the thing up by its bootstraps.

The tale centers on the family of Sir Walter Elliot, a nobleman of myopic stuffiness whose late wife has left him with three daughters. His eldest, Elizabeth, revels in her status and waits to marry the distant cousin who will inherit the family estate. The youngest, Mary, self-centered and hypochondriacal, is married to local nobleman Charles Musgrove. In-between the two is Anne, who was engaged to a young naval Captain Wentworth, a man of little name and less fortune, until her family convinced her that honor demanded she cut him loose.

Now Napoleonic Wars are over, and Wentworth has returned with fortunes, still bitter but now wealthy and honored, to the part of England the Elliots and Musgroves occupy. Anne is thrown, Charles’ two sisters are charmed, and as Sir Walter’s fortunes wane, romance, comeuppance and redemption are in the air.

Kelly Lohman creates the typical Austin heroine as the gentle, understated Anne. Kalen Harriman has a wonderful time as the discontented Mary. Steve Peterson trips over some of his lines, but certainly looks the part of the pompous Sir Walter, while Emily Greco often seems to control the stage as the snooty Elizabeth.

Nicklaus Von Nolde becomes increasingly likable as the henpecked Charles, while Paula Deming and particularly Madison Kirkpatrick shimmer with youthful energy as his younger sisters. Ryan Young makes great work of the hyper-pious vicar marrying one of the sisters, while Jeffrey Nichols, for all his Austonian good looks, seems to whisper the part of the other sister’s eventual suitor, making him a somewhat questionable romantic figure. As the central male heartthrob, the jilted Captain Wentworth, Travis Goodman begins a bit stiffly, but warms as he goes along, though he still needs less pause in his line delivery.

Adaptor Darby has changed the name of the tale for a reason: she has trimmed and condensed the number of characters to fit the time frame of a live performance. Still, in this trimming, there are essential persons one never meets, and those folks who do populate the stage spend a lot of time in exposition. Between this and the general lack of physical business, the thing feels a bit more stagey than is good for it. On the other hand, the thing looks right, with period furniture and Allison Gorjian’s period costumes (some in need of a press).

Interestingly, Little Candle Productions has taken up residency at the FCT, one assumes replacing of Ray Bradbury’s Pandemonium Productions, which passed away along with the author and his patronage. Their last venture, “Cold Tangerines: The Play” proved a great and well-deserved hit. One assumes there are more on the way. “The Elliots,” by comparison proves more of an interesting exercise – not awful, but not as realized as it could be.

What: “The Elliots” When: Through June 7, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Fremont Centre Theatre 1000 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena How Much: $25 general, $20 seniors and students Info: (866) 811-4111 or http://www.fremontcentretheatre.com

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 http://www.centertheatregroup.org

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