Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Wiz of Oz at Candlelight: gentle but pleasing

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion’s “The Wizard of Oz” head off to see the wizard


You’d have to come from another planet, or be under the age of 5, to not know anything about “The Wizard of Oz.” For those of us who were not born in the earliest parts of the last century, it is the film we think of. In the pre-Internet age, the film’s annual appearance on television was a major family moment. At the dawn of the digitizing age, the film was even used to ridicule colorization (“If they had their way, they’d colorize the first ten minutes of ‘The Wizard of Oz'”). In my personal sphere, a dear friend’s mother is one of the last surviving cast members of the film, having played a munchkin as a child.

Few really stop to remember that “The Wizard of Oz” was originally a book – the first in a long series by L. Frank Baum (and, eventually, others). In its third life, the story has become a stage musical, using the material from the film, including a song left out of the original and the very 30s introductions once added to others. This musical has arrived at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont as a chance for kids on vacation, and their families, to beat the heat, eat a lovely meal, and be transported over the rainbow.

And, for the most part, that’s what they will get. The production, though there are a few creaky bits, makes the most of the small Candlelight stage, thanks in part to Chuck Ketter’s many, many backdrops and set pieces, and to the expansive performances – especially one – under the direction of John LaLonde.

The trick with any stage production of a musical film is to not try to compete with the movie. Here that’s hard, as so many have the thing virtually memorized. Still, Jaidyn Young, who shares the part with Sydney Dawn, makes an earnest and innocent Dorothy, singing the signature “Over the Rainbow” and holding her own as a dancer. Jesse Ashton Rhodus gives Scarecrow an appropriately loose-limbed quality, and a quietly positive air. Andrew Lopez, though handed the most unfortunate costume, becomes a very earnest and heartfelt Tin Man. Still, the best of this group is Austin Rea’s take on the Cowardly Lion, which eschews Burt Lahr’s Borscht Belt humor and Brooklyn accent for a deeply earnest innocence which plays beautifully and more originally with the rest of the group.

Also worthy of note are Jim Skousen’s apologetic wizard, Candace Elder’s concerned Aunt Em, and Michael J.Isennock in the dual roles of the Mayor of Munchkin City and Nikko, the captain of the flying monkeys. Sami Nye’s cheerful Glinda balances Courtney Bruce as the Wicked Witch of the West. As the show’s villain, Bruce has a great time, and handles the quick comings and goings with comparative ease, but sometimes gets so wound up by her own villainy she becomes difficult to understand.

There are a few technical issues as well, most particularly in the generally charming approach of Glinda’s bubble (oil that contraption – it shouldn’t squeak), and the decision to use blinking lights in the essential witch-with-a-firey-broom sequence (which don’t turn off when needed). Also, one wonders if it might be possible for the twister to be less static, though the way of presenting those things caught in it is clever.

Still, the choreography by Kim Eberhardt makes even the restored, if somewhat odd, “The Jitterbug” interesting. The magic of the Wizard and the disappearance of the Witch both prove quite effective, and the consistent use of a very competent children’s ensemble along with the usual chorus gives the thing a vitality and charm which proves the most important thing in the piece.

In the end, this “Wizard of Oz” has many more pluses than flaws. And, although you may find yourself repeating an awful lot of the words along with the actors – at least in your head – take the time to look around at the children in the audience. They are having as good a time as the kid in the balcony who waved at Glinda’s bubble every time it went by, on opening night. Note that there is a specific children’s menu for this show, complete with theme-based drinks.

What: “The Wizard of Oz” When: through July 29, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, at 5 p.m. Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for lunch Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $61-$76 adults, $30-$35 children, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

So… Where Have I Been?

It’s the start of June. It’s the start of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. It’s… well, there’s a lot of theater going on out there. So, why is nobody hearing from me? Because I’m not in Los Angeles at the moment.

As anyone who has read the “About Me” part of this blog-thing knows, I teach high school. Last week was finals week. Then Friday morning way, way, way too early, I got on a plane to Salt Lake City, Utah… not because I wanted to see the sites (though there are sites to see) but because I was meeting with over 700 other teachers and professors of US Government to score the nation’s Advance Placement American Government and Politics exams. This year there are 320,000 to be read.

I do this for a lot of reasons. First, I teach the course and the best way to know how to prepare my students is to see how students respond to the questions, how those essays are being evaluated (i.e.: what the rubric looks like), and what nuances are implied in the process of scoring which will let me read between the lines of what the people who write this stuff are really emphasizing.

I also came this year because the curriculum is changing, as is the test, in a year or so and I want to know lots of details about that.

And, of course, they are paying me. Not the only reason to come, but it helps.

I do not get to choose when this happens, and it just so happens that this time it completely coincides with the start of the great wave of show openings which become the Fringe every year. And the opening weekend of Whittier Community Theatre’s last show of the season. And a lot of other fascinating things.

So, I’m sorry to have been silent. Look for me again closer to the end of June, when I will be back in action. And in the meantime, go look at the Hollywood Fringe website, find something which looks interesting, and go. You can tell me all about it.

“The House in Scarsdale” at Boston Court: Evaluating the Search


There are two ways to approach Dan O’Brien’s “The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage”. One can look at it as just that – a memoir created by gradually collecting as many as possible of the secrets a family never told. In this view, the show becomes an elaborate puzzle made up of the various reticent members of a deeply dysfunctional family which gradually come together to underscore the demons inhabiting the playwright himself. That works, after a fashion.

The other view, however, which can be far more intriguing, is to look at the entire play as the story of a quest: the kind of quest where the searching is everything. It allows for conjecture and obsession and self-affirmation, but is also a thing in itself which becomes integral in the quester’s view of the world. Now receiving its premiere at The Theatre at Boston Court, the play is far more interesting in the latter view.

Here it takes its place alongside other questing folk of story and legend who defined themselves by the search, not the finding. Like the unsuccessful search for the Holy Grail (sorry, Indiana Jones fans), the journey was the story all along. Finding the thing being searched for would (and is) almost pointless. The questing, and the questions, make the story.

O’Brien, according to this work, is the youngest of six children, none of whom (as the play begins) he has contact with. He has been cut off by his parents as well, and his aunts have been told not to speak with him. How a family could reach this state is one question, but as he pursues the whys and reexamines his own memories, it is the search as much as the purpose of it which is most interesting to follow. Is he looking for a verification of his own sanity in a family short on just that? Is he looking for a reason why his marriage is in trouble? Is he trying to reconstruct a sense of family?

Or, is he in love with the search itself as a symbol of his own identity as a seeker? This last begins to seem more and more clearly the answer as the tale unfolds.

All of this is presented on a nearly empty stage by two men. One, the Dan played by Brian Henderson, becomes the protagonist on the quest, narrating his own story as he calls, writes, visits and pieces together with private detectives and psychics the story of himself. The other, the Dan played by Tim Cummings, is sometimes the argument inside the protagonist’s head, as well as becoming all the people on the other end of the quest’s questions and investigations, at least as Dan remembers them. For both men this is a tour-de-force, performed without intermission in an inexorable forward motion rife with adventure, anger, frustration, and a certain joy of the chase.

Director Michael Michetti wisely allows this tale to play out with a minimum of distraction and a maximum of the actors’ art. The set by Sara Ryung Clement is two chairs and two screens upon which are projected a few photos – some out of focus, which makes its own point – as well as innumerable drawings which illustrate the remembrances and mental architecture that the protagonist constructs. Indeed, these projections, designed by Tom Ontiveros, become, themselves, a character in the piece. What is real? What is dim recollection? What is conjecture? What is pure fantasy?

There is no doubt that the production is splendid, or that the script is articulate, complex and compelling. Henderson and most particularly Cummings create scene after scene out of words and the air. Yet the argument still lies in the question: to what purpose? Audience members will have differing answers depending on which spin they take from the start. My contention, obviously, is that this is a quest story. Indeed, the singular note of regret in this work comes as the answers appear to be found. To say more is to lessen the moment’s impact, but the overall feel is “Now what?”

“The House in Scarsdale” was workshopped at several prestigious institutions, including the Center Theatre Group, while in the process of completion. The results are fascinating watching, even if the ending is, at best, a hanging one.

What: The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage” When: through June 4, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with added $5 performance May 22 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $39 general, $34 seniors, $20 students Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com

“Archduke” at the Taper: Pseudo History, but Solid Social Commentary

L-R: Stephen Stocking, Patrick Page, Ramiz Monsef and Josiah Bania in the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s “Archduke.”
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]

To begin with, I must issue a disclaimer. I teach history, so a play which is ostensibly about historical people engaged in historically documented events pushes me to look at the thing first as a historian and then as a theatrical critic.

Thus, there are two ways to approach Rajiv Joseph’s new play at the Mark Taper Forum. “Archduke” is ostensibly a historical play, in that its characters were elemental in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which opened the door to the devastation of World War I. However, taken as such, it must be pointed out that the facts have been treated with a considerable amount of creativity.

Therefore, “Archduke,” as a history-based document, would be highly problematic. Rather, one must look at the underlying messages of the play, as it examines the nature of obsession, and the gullibility of the disenfranchised young. As such it touches more on what would inspire the young to politically desperate action in any age. Given this understanding, it proves both very funny and touchingly powerful.

The story must, of course, center on Gavrilo Princep, the bright and highly nationalistic 19-year-old revolutionary and assassin. Only in this version he’s none of these. Rather, this Gavrilo is a dim peasant whose surprise tuberculosis diagnosis starts him on a journey to find some reason for having lived. Taken in by a Serbian colonel obsessed with freeing his people from Austro-Hungarian domination, Gavrilo and his two compatriots are more swept up by the colonel’s hospitality and elegant lifestyle than by politics.

Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that the center of this piece is Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the historic founder of The Black Hand, the group responsible for the assassination. Here, “Apis,” as he is called, appears as a madman with ferocious powers of persuasion. Can he take three “lungers” – that is, young men with a TB death sentence – and turn them into a revolutionary movement? Through bombast, coercion and a taste of the good life, it appears possible.

Stephen Stocking looks remarkably like the photos of the historic Gavrilo, and his ability to balance the character’s unschooled childlike qualities and fatalistic objectivity in the face of so much emotion makes the play work. As Dimitrijevic, Patrick Page provides the perfect counter to the underplayed future assassin, making the colonel pound and rage and pronounce with an intensity which perfectly overwhelms the innocence of his “converts.”

Ramiz Monsef and Josiah Bania give Gavrilo’s two fellow tubercular innocents a truly charming combination of simplicity and live-for-the-moment happiness, making it completely understandable that they would debate which was more important: assassination or a sandwich.

Todd Weeks provides the sanity in all the madness as the doctor left unable to assist the young men in their illness, while Joanne McGee, as the colonel’s cantankerous servant, balances sarcasm and pathos in keeping the proceedings from becoming too cartoonish.

Director Giovanna Sardelli truly understands the interplay of the underlying messages here, and balances the humor (which is genuinely funny throughout) and the darker elements in creating a true ensemble. In this she is aided by Tim Mackabee’s remarkable set: at many points comparatively stark, but lush at just the right moment. Denitsa Bliznakova has an eye for using costuming for both character development and historical context. In combination, the results are powerful and deeply engaging.

If anything, “Archduke” is about the ease with which the intelligent, passionate, but obsessed can convince those with little to lose to do things which may seem incomprehensible to the observer. Move this forward and it can be applied to all forms of outrageous and deadly acts, from a white supremacist in a church basement to an ISIS convert putting on a suicide vest. And that is the serious core of the play, all the delightful humor notwithstanding. In the end this matters far more than the play’s many liberties with history.

What: “Archduke” When: through June 4, 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 Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213)62802772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

The Originalist: A Spin on Scalia at the Pasadena Playhouse

Note: Though this review appeared online and in print for newspapers of the Southern California News Group, it was not posted here – for various reasons (but mostly the day job getting in the way) – until the day it closed. So, here it is, just as informational writing.

In the opening moments of John Strand’s “The Originalist,” the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is addressing a large group at The Federalist Society. For those who care to look, this is an elegant shorthand about his background. (If you need to know more, check out Jeffrey Toobin’s article in the April 17 copy of The New Yorker, which discusses that organization’s agenda, and its foundational drive to train and raise up originalist conservative judges.) It is also an immediate line in the sand: this man is incredibly secure in his view of the role of the judiciary, and will not be swayed.

Now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse, “The Originalist” offers up a potentially interesting discussion. Scalia has hired a liberal law school graduate to be one of his clerks. Though dismissed by some as a token – liberal, female, and Black – there is some indication that he wants her there so he can hone his own opinion by bouncing it off of the opposition. The playwright assures us that it “is a play about hope.” What the play wants to argue for is the idea of returning to a sense of the middle ground, of compromise. Indeed, by the end of the play, Scalia has actually taken one piece of this intern’s advice on wording. Still, that is not what most of the audience will come away with, for two reasons.

First, the Justice Scalia in the play comes off as a confident, extremely well-versed constitutional scholar willing to use shock language to make his point as he writes dissenting opinions on court rulings with which he fundamentally disagrees. He is quick to skewer those whose opinions don’t match his, in part with intellect, but in great part with a snide quality he takes great relish in. For those within hearing who agree with Scalia’s conservative views, this play thus becomes confirmation of their own views, especially on issues of individual rights. For many who are opposed to his opinions this play may seem an advertisement for a path they see as destructive to progress. Few will actually spend time absorbing the one brief moment of compromise as having much impact.

Second, there is an attempt to humanize Justice Scalia which also seems to jar with the persona one faces through most of the play. His moments of kindness seem pasted on, rather than allowed to become integral to the point at hand – that of being able to hear views not his own without belittling them. Of course, there is some reason for this. This is the man whose tone has been critiqued over time by scholars – not his originalism or his jurisprudence necessarily, but his tone. In the play he acknowledges this, and refers to himself as a monster, satirically but even so there is meat there.

However, though one can argue with the play itself, one cannot argue with the performances. Edward Gero makes such a good Scalia it’s almost spooky. He radiates confidence and that satiric absolutism without ever turning into a cartoon. Jade Wheeler gives the clerk, Cat, all the warmth and complexity that the script’s Scalia lacks, as she reasons her way through a difficult job while also dealing with difficult side issues. Brett Mack makes the insufferable young Federalist Society member and SCOTUS clerk wannabe, Brad, as annoying, and clueless about American social issues, as that sounds. Brad is, perhaps, the play’s only truly two-dimensional character, but Mack gives it what character one can.

Director Molly Smith has given this extremely talky, episodic tale a sense of movement and life which flows seemingly effortlessly from start to finish. Misha Kachman’s minimalist scenic design allows for the quick shifts needed to accomplish Smith’s goals. Indeed, there is craft throughout this piece, which is performed without intermission.

Still, one must look at the takeaway. Antonin Scalia was a complicated man who ended up on the wrong side of many SCOTUS decisions which advanced rights and governmental power in ways he felt were unConstitutional, because he was an originalist. This play does not really explore that complexity, but neither does it achieve its agenda of pushing the viewer toward the view Cat seems to be leaning into: that compromise is possible and all sides should be respected and heard. Certainly, the audience reactions I heard came, rather, from internal confirmation bias in one direction or the other, which is the exact opposite of the play’s intent.

What: “The Originalist” When: This show has closed Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena Info for future shows at the Playhouse: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

“Jesus Christ Superstar”: Candlelight Pavilion hosts classic rock opera

Richard Bermudez as Judas and Kyle Short as Jesus in Candlelight Pavilion’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” [photo: James Suter]


The first major splash made by the songwriting team of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber was a 1971 concept rock opera album titled “Jesus Christ Superstar.” For many of my generation, that was how we first encountered this work, allowing our imaginations to fill in what the characters looked like and the setting they would wander through. As it moved quickly to stage, and then to film, it developed a new, wider audience, and the show has rarely been off the boards since.

Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, “Jesus Christ Superstar” – for those who don’t already know – gives a comparatively modern spin to the tale of the last few weeks of Jesus’ life. Though ostensibly “humanizing” the story (i.e.: making it more about the man than a deity), it stays fairly faithful to the commonly held storyline, while embracing what is always a dramatist’s challenge: finding a motivation for Judas’ betrayal. And the music is literally classic Lloyd Webber: lush in spots, stridently rock-and-roll in others, somewhat thematically repetitive, with that unforgettable quality which has kept him a success for decades.

At Candlelight, co-directors Chuck Ketter and John LaLonde have assembled a fine cast. They look right, sing with skill and intention, and create the atmosphere necessary for the show to be a success. Also necessary for success are a few key players. Heading the list, Kyle Short makes an effective Jesus, balancing his dynamism against his exhaustion and fear. Emily Chelsea gives Mary Magdalene’s songs a slight country lilt, but it works.

Stanton Kane Morales as Pontius Pilate, develops a rather wistful tone, which works well. Camilo Castro, a true bass, gives Caiaphas the aura of villainy necessary for this show’s spin on events. A remarkable ensemble, including Orlando Montes as Peter, sings well, dances with enthusiasm and skill, and creates the atmospheres necessary – whether of fawning, devotion, delight, demand, or panic – to make the piece work.

A true standout in all of this is Richard Bermudez as the angsty Judas, angry and horrified, and in the end sure he’s been duped into his actions. Bermudez has the combination of vocal strength and articulation necessary for what becomes the binding storyline behind the obvious. One just wishes that the shadow of his final demise looked a bit more like a person, but that is nitpicking.

Pacing is everything in this show, and band director Alan Waddington never lets the thing slow down or pause. Putting a band on the small Candlelight stage means the large ensemble must be maneuvered with skill in front of and even above the musicians at times, which works remarkable well except when someone in a long robe has to climb a ladder in a hurry – a bit nerve wracking to watch. Still, the two directors have a gift for the visual, and some moments prove especially impressive, including the very last sequence, as Jesus is executed. Indeed, the final tableau as the lights go out is particularly powerful.

Kudos also to choreographer Dustin Ceithamer for creating dance and movement which look spontaneous even as they are not, and to costume coordinator Merrill Grady for giving the sense of that Renaissance view of the Middle East which so characterizes one’s mind’s-eye view of the time period.

In short, it is good to see “Jesus Christ Superstar” again, in part because – above and beyond the religious significance – the subject matter of political manipulation and the dangers of flying off the handle seems very current, and in part because it is good to revisit a work from the start of two songwriting careers which, both together and independently have helped define the stage and screen as it is known today. And, of course, at Candlelight Pavilion one also gets a tasty meal.

What: “Jesus Christ Superstar” When: through April 29, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for lunch matinees Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $61 – $76 adults, $30 -$35 children, meals inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ex.100, or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Enough Yucks for the Buck?: “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” at the Falcon

In one of the shows high points, the cast of “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” celebrates commedia dell’arte

The comic playwriting team of Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor has created several funny send-ups of classics, known as the “Complete (abridged)” plays. The best known is the wildly funny “Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged)” which even had them falling out of their chairs in London. Thus, a chance to see their more recent concoction, “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” here in the Los Angeles area seemed a no-brainer. Now at the Falcon Theatre, it has another hallmark, being the last show of the last season orchestrated by Falcon founder, the late Garry Marshall, himself no slouch in the comedy department.

Sadly, though there are a number of funny moments, this “Complete History…” does not quite hold up. Well performed by a trio of very talented, high-energy and versatile actors, it still suffers from two essential flaws: a convoluted and unfunny construct which becomes the show’s driving force and supposed aim, and too little material which is funny enough (or not too dated) to power a full two acts of performance.

First, the construct: supposedly a famous Chinese manuscript written by the brother of “The Art of War” writer Sun Tsu, called “The Art of Comedy” (by Ah Tsu… get it?) has been uncovered in a trunk, though it is missing its final chapter. The discovery was made thanks to guidance from a mysterious man in a bowler hat and clown nose. Presenting this fictitious book, and trying to figure out its final chapter, becomes the focus of the show, leading to the uncovering of the identity of the bowler hatted mystery force which brought the book to light.

The best of what follows is a true homage to the history of comedy: the introduction (to many) of the characters in commedia dell’arte, including use of an actual slap-stick, definitions of various “takes”, burlesque silliness, visual comedy of various kinds, and the recurring gag of potential attack with cream pies. There are also slide shows illustrating what is, and what isn’t funny. For the most part, these work too, though some seem a bit forced. There are send-ups of medieval Catholicism, modern politics, and even an homage to Chekhov, whose wry comic takes on the self-absorption of the Russian aristocracy were produced as if they were tragedies.

But there is a lot of dated material. For example, a big musical number about the Supreme Court makes fun of a very alive Antonin Scalia, though he has been dead for over a year. There are other references to personalities only the older members of the audience will remember with that detail, particularly Joseph McCarthy (or Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, for that matter) and Richard Nixon. Indeed, between this and the need to resolve the “who is the man in the bowler hat” scenario, the second act begins to drag and a lot of it simply becomes unfunny.

One cannot fault the performers, however. Zehra Fazal, Marc Ginsburg, and Mark Jacobson prove quick-change artists and creative cross-dressers, interact with the audience and each other, handle physical comedy with great polish, and get just as much as can be gotten out of the material they are handed. Director Jerry Kernion keeps the timing as good as it can be, making the sometimes positively frenetic pace of the thing seem natural. One wonders whether he was allowed – by the playwrights’ people – to insert more updates than a few slides of current political figures into the mix, because given the general artistry of his and his performers, one would think he would have done more to make the thing current if he could have.

Stephen Gifford’s set is just about perfect, setting a specific tone from the very start and facilitating all those costume changes. Those costumes, by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg, and Warren Casey’s many and varied comic props, do as much as absolutely possible to make this show as funny as it is. This is a grand effort by a lot of people. It’s just that, by the second half, much of it is simply not funny.

So, sadly, although “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” has some admittedly very laugh-out-loud moments, the lack of consistency and the oddly unsatisfying premise mean that this show does not live up to its potential. Is it terrible? No. Is it poorly done? Also no. It’s just not anywhere near as good as it should have been, but that’s as much the fault of its authors as anything else.

What: “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” When: through April 23, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays Where: The Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside, in Burbank How Much: $30 – $45 Info: (818) 955-8101 or falcontheatre.com

“Man of La Mancha” at ANW: Valid tinkering with a classic work

Geoff Elliott and Kasey Mahaffy, as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in “Man of La Mancha” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]


When one first hears that A Noise Within has reset the powerful 1960s musical “Man of La Mancha” in a modern prison in the developing world, it can make one nervous. After all, it is based not only on one of the great works of international literature, but a historical figure who actually did end up imprisoned by the Inquisition for a segment of time. How can one take the piece out of its historical context? Yet, it is one of the hallmarks of a theatrical work that it can stand up to being reset, both in time and location. The new physical trappings of the tale can inform a wider understanding of the impact of the piece, even if the actual language stays the same.

As a consistent modern interpreter of Shakespeare, ANW co-Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott knows this. Indeed, a work like “Julius Caesar,” about ancient Roman politics, has been reset by various great companies in Mussolini’s Italy, in JFK’s America, or even in a dystopian future without losing its integrity. So, her decision that “La Mancha” can handle the same treatment seems particularly apt.

What may be less wise on Rodriguez-Elliott’s part arises from the demands of this particular work. As musical director Dr. Melissa Sky-Eagle states up front, “Despite the folk-inspired nature of the music itself, the voices required [in “Man of La Mancha”] need to be almost operatic in nature.” While many of the performers – a number of them new to ANW – are very much up to this demand, some of ANW’s stock players are not, really. This creates an imbalance which sometimes distracts from not only the original message of the show, but the additional intent of this new staging.

The story is, of course, a story-within-a-story. Don Miguel de Cervantes, the poet, playwright and novelist seen by many as the Spanish equivalent (at least in literary impact) to William Shakespeare, has been thrown into prison by the Inquisition while awaiting trial. There he must defend himself against the other prisoners, who are out to steal what goods he has. He does so by enacting for them the tale he carries in a manuscript – the manuscript for his finest work, “Don Quixote de La Mancha.” Interrupted on occasion by the guards, he pulls his hearers into his story, both literally – to create the needed characters – and figuratively, as they come to appreciate his view of the world.

For those who know more traditional productions of this work, there are a few things missing. For one, there is no dancing and thus no faux horse and mule. Rather, Don Quixote and Sancho ride mops as if they were hobby horses. The props are less things that Cervantes has brought with him, and more found objects from the prison itself. And that transformative moment when Cervantes becomes Quixote is dulled a bit, in that this Cervantes already has so much facial hair there is little need to add much.

Still, the grime of the prison, the seediness of the inn, and the grim lives of those Quixote encounters are still very much in evidence, and the music – particularly at certain moments – proves as wrenching and powerful as ever. But there is inconsistency in this. Geoff Elliott is Cervantes/Quixote, and his speaking voice has the force and grandeur needed, but this character must be able to sing in a commanding and heartfelt way that Elliott really cannot master. His breathing is often labored, his vocal tone goes chesty, and some of the important lyrics – and the lyrics are particularly important throughout this show – become comparatively unintelligible.

On the other hand, Kasey Mahaffy’s Sancho can sing in a bright and tinny way, and it works, in part because it emphasizes the character’s simple, practical approach to the world. Indeed, one of the few cuts one truly regrets is the shortening of Sancho’s last song, which takes away some of its humor – a humor Mahaffy emphasizes to good effect throughout. Cynthia Marty, as both the nervous housekeeper Quixote has left behind and the annoyed wife of the innkeeper, creates two solidly interesting characters, matched by Gabriel Zenone’s fatalistic innkeeper.

Michael Uribes creates two strong characters, as the reputed leader of the prisoners, and as the pseudo-intellectual fiancé of Quixote’s niece, more worried about what he will inherit than about the man he will inherit from. Cassie Simone sings beautifully as the Quixote’s deeply embarrassed niece. ANW regular Jeremy Rabb has a somewhat less successful time as the gentle padre, who must offer tender songs in a rich tenor voice that Rabb has to work to reach.

Cassandra Marie Murphy (l.) proves a stunning Aldonza at A Noise Within


By far the finest performance of this production is Cassandra Marie Murphy’s passionate, bitter Aldonza, creating in her portrayal that combination of despair and curiosity which makes Aldonza so interesting, and singing those deep, powerful, angst-ridden songs with a fire you cannot look away from.

Kudos to ANW for using a live orchestra, and one which uses the original orchestration (no strings except a bass and guitars) which gives the enterprise such a direct, and folk-Spanish feel. Fred Kinney’s scenic design gives a sense of space and enclosure – the dual demands of such a dual tale. Angela Balogh Calen’s costumes are largely supposed to look frayed and dirty (as well as reflecting a non-specific prison garb) and all of this comes off well. Lighting is key in this story, and Ken Booth’s design helps carry the story forward in very specific ways, as do Erin Walley’s “found object” props – essential in this prop-heavy show.

In the end, with the new underscore of continuing spaces of despairing imprisonment and horror in our world, the main sentiments of “Man of La Mancha” come through: hope may seem madness, but can lift up those who choose it. And that is just as apt today as it was for the original creators of the musical, or Cervantes himself. It could have been more even in presentation, but it is definitely there.

“Man of La Mancha” plays in repertory with “King Lear” and “Ah, Wilderness”.

What: “Man of La Mancha” When: through May 21; 7 p.m. April 16 and 30, May 21; 7:30 p.m. April 6; 8 p.m. April 7, May 6, 12 and 13; 2 p.m. matinees April 16, 22 and 30, May 7, 13 and 21 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Poetry Reigns in “The Belle of Amherst” in Sierra Madre

Ferrell Marshall in “The Belle of Amherst” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: John Dlugolecki]


I once heard someone refer to Emily Dickinson as “the Vincent Van Gogh of American poetry”. By this, I assume, the speaker was making a correlation between the two as having been dismissed artistically in their own lifetimes, yet become highly celebrated in the more modern era. Certainly, the increasingly reclusive Dickinson, who wrote over 1000 poems and created phrases that even those who don’t think they know her work are familiar with, was ignorable in her own time in part because her poetry didn’t follow the elements expected from a poet in that period, and partly (it must be said) because she was female.

All of which is covered in William Luce’s now-classic one-woman play “The Belle of Amherst,” currently at Sierra Madre Playhouse. There, Ferrell Marshall has taken on the story of Dickinson with a generous understanding of what her poetry has to say, and the heart of the woman behind all those now-familiar words. Directed by Todd Nielsen to balance this treasure trove of verbiage with enough action to keep the hearer engaged, the play works well to both charm and and instruct.

This has been a lifelong dream for Marshall, who has been a fan of Dickinson’s work since she was quite young. That sense of dedication shows, as Luce’s script balances a combination of emotion, story-telling, and the integration of poetry into narration, to create a solid portrait of a particular artistic soul: the good daughter of a Victorian, if loving, father whose emotions were splayed on paper in ways they could not be uttered in real life. Though physically quite different from her subject, whose self-characterizations indicate she was quite petite, Marshall has a sense of quietness in her portrayal, balancing Emily’s wit and her darkness in ways which make her works make sense and her poetry sing.

Also worthy of note is the constant reference made to others outside the house Dickinson intentionally made into a fortress, especially friends from her school years, and former neighbor Helen Hunt Jackson, who was perhaps the best known American woman writer of her day. Indeed, Jackson’s pithy commentary in her letters to Emily, as a woman making her living by writing, makes a neat balance to Dickinson’s more internal art.

As for the production itself, the set dressings – furniture, photographs, and such – evoke the era and class of this poet, placed on a set left amorphous enough to handle this show and “A Wrinkle in Time,” with which it in repertory. To this are added occasional projections which celebrate Dickinson’s love of her gardens, turning the flowers she wrote of into what feels like wallpaper. Marshall’s single costume evokes a sense of period, though lacking in some of its specifics. Still, the net result sets one in the proper atmosphere to enjoy the backstory and the written words of a woman who – according to Luce – coveted her own mysterious image a bit, and yet longed for connections she considered herself too plain to ever acquire.

In short, “The Belle of Amherst,” in the person of Marshall, is worth a look. Come ready to sit and listen, for this is a quiet tale, told without elaborate flourishes. It is, however, a telling look into the person behind such poetry as “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me…” or “Hope is a thing with feathers…” and perhaps rediscover what poetry can do that prose cannot.

“The Belle of Amherst” plays in repertory with “A Wrinkle in Time”.

What: “The Belle of Amherst” When: through April 23, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth (13-21), $17 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Blind Folly or Alzheimer’s? – A Noise Within’s questionable take on King Lear

Geoff Elliott’s “King Lear” with Erika Soto’s Cordelia in the final scene at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]


It is an interesting new spin on Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to look at the downfall of this unwise king from the lens of Alzheimer’s Disease. That is what director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott does in the production now in repertory at A Noise Within. It turns the focus almost exclusively on Lear, and allows for his admittedly conniving daughters to seem legitimate in their frustrations and outrage with him (at least at first). As someone who has watched a parent dissolve into this dread disease, I can say that the concept makes for interesting conversation.

However, when taken as a whole, to dismiss his behavior as the result of this condition is to negate much of the rest of what Shakespeare has to say about familial love, envy, and lust for power. It could (though actually does not) make a uniquely wrenching star turn for Geoff Elliott in the title role, but at what cost? It is too easy on Lear, for one thing, and twists the focus away from other important themes.

Essentially, Lear is a foolish man. Having ruled his country with intensely loyal people around him, he is used to expecting richly voiced praise. When he insists his daughters say how much they love him, he gets two fulsome answers and one honest, practical one, and turns on this last as a sign of disrespect. Thus, he hands over power to the two women who have his interests least at heart, and their own greed at the fore. He becomes an inconvenience and they whittle away at his dignity and even ability to defend himself until there is nothing left. Madness, thus, becomes a thing of circumstance, playing on a weak mind but not on a disabled one, as one can tell when he comes to himself toward the play’s end.

In the ANW production this last thing is made tricky by the disease itself – one which is emphasized over and over by projections of MRIs of slices of the brain which add color to the intentionally bleak set. When you descend into Alzheimers you forget who you are. No coming back from that.

Still, the larger loss is to the importance of and subtext about the moral decay present in daughters Goneril and Regan, and in the villainous Edmund, who determinedly destroys his legitimate brother Edgar and his father, the Earl of Gloucester. It also makes the dogged, sacrificial devotion to Lear by the banished Earl of Kent make less sense, and it makes the king’s Fool occasionally rather superfluous.

Finally, this interpretation leaves Elliott’s Lear without much room to expand. By making him significantly altered even at the start, he blossoms into what becomes (in this interpretation) an unreasoning fury so early that the rest of his long journey becomes a certain amount of emotional station-keeping. Still, as expected, Elliot uses Shakespearean language as if it was his own, and consistently stays true to the concept of this particular form of human disintegration.

Indeed, the cast itself is splendid. Trisha Miller and Arie Thompson advance the two older sisters from a radiation of privilege and power to a sense of self-focused obsessive, destructive behavior. In this they are matched by Jeremy Rabb as Regan’s noble, but easily vicious husband, while Christopher Franciosa provides an increasingly empowered foil for Goneril as her equally high ranking spouse. Freddy Douglass radiates evil in every tone as the deadly Edmund, and Rafael Goldstein handles desperation well as the maligned Edgar.

Apollo Dukakis gives the Earl of Gloucester some of what one hopes to see in a Lear: a happiness born of power and authority which dissolves thanks to his undeservedly horrifying fate. Perhaps most memorable, in this production, is Kasey Mahaffy’s wry, tuneful and audacious Fool – whom Rodriguez-Elliott has given a most spectacularly apt exit.

Fred Kinney’s bleak but extremely adaptable set design underscores the militaristic nature of the piece, which has been reset as if in the mid-20th century. Angela Balogh Calin does her best work in designing the dresses worn by the royal women, while Robert Oriol’s music sets the sense of doom throughout the piece.

In short, this is a good production of “King Lear,” except that in one important way, it isn’t. All the parts are there, but in service to a somewhat skewed interpretation which denies the larger play much of its power. “King Lear” plays in repertory with “Ah, Wilderness” and the soon-to-open “Man of La Mancha”.

What: “King Lear” When: in repertory through May 6, 7:30 p.m. April 13 and May 4; 8 p.m. April 8, 14, 23 and May 5; 2 p.m. matinees April 8, 23, and May 6 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: from $44, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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