Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

“No, No Nanette”: Tunes, Taps, and Dinner at Candlelight

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Erin Dubreuil, as Nanette, and Mary Murphy-Nelson as the comic maid Pauline, star Candlelight Pavilion’s “No, No Nanette” on an upbeat note.

The musical “No, No Nanette,” though originally a product of the 1920s, became a hit first on Broadway and then in stages large and small around the nation beginning in the 1970s. As such it sparked a revival of the “classic” old school musical filled with frothy songs, tap dancing, and a remarkably simplistic romantic plot. Still, it’s fun to see the one which started it all, at least in modern terms. Now one can, at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont.

The plot is typical: Jimmy Smith, a good-hearted, wealthy businessman goes behind his skinflint wife’s back to platonically assist three women from around the country who inspired his sympathy. Now they are coming to see him and he asks his lawyer and friend Billy, whose spendthrift wife spends all he makes, to square the three women away so they will no longer intrude upon his life. In the midst of this, Billy’s ward Nanette, despite having decided she loves Billy’s nephew Tom, decides she wants to sow a wild oat or two before marrying him. Through secrets and happenstance, all these folk end up heading for the same Atlantic City cottage at the same time. Hilarity, and a lot of song and dance, ensue.

Erin Dubreuil makes a sweet Nanette, singing and dancing with skill and style. Tracy Ray Reynolds gives Billy’s wife Sue a flamboyant glee. Colette Peters radiates sensibility but still cuts a mean rug as Jimmy’s more cautious mate. Frank Minano has a lovely time as the over-generous, innocently enthusiastic Jimmy, making him a lovely accompaniment to the equally pure adventuring of Dubreuil’s Nanette. The other characters, and the versatile chorus, give the show its fluffy feel. It’s all light-hearted fun.

Still, the real standout of this production is Mary Murphy-Nelson as the grumpy, and extremely funny maid, Pauline. As she threatens to quit, dances with and scolds her vacuum cleaner, and otherwise offers commentary on the world at large and the silliness of the proceedings around her in particular, Murphy-Nelson’s comic timing remains the best thing in this show.

Director John Lalonde knows how to create order out of all this silliness. Choreographer John Vaughan has the tappers tapping and the waltzers waltzing with Busby Berkeley-esque period style. The set by Chuck Ketter adapts well. One can argue that it is tough to cut a three-act show into the required two a Candlelight production must have, but even this is done with a kind of confidence which takes the audience along for the ride.

In short, “No, No Nanette” is light, frothy fun. Songs like “Tea for Two” have re-entered the American songbook because of it, and even the most titilating moments are nothing which could offend anyone of any age. At Candlelight, of course, this comes with a good meal and (should one wish) a luscious dessert.

What: “No, No Nanette When: through April 13, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and a special Thursday performance April 11, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch matinee at 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $63 – $78 adult, $30 – $35 children 12 and under Info: http://www.candlelightpavilion.com or (909) 626-1254 ext.1

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The Glass Menagerie at ANW: Their Best Work, Mostly

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Deborah Strang as the demanding Amanda and Rafael Goldstein as the increasingly detached Tom in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” at A Noise Within in Pasadena. [photo: Craig Schwartz]

One of the seminal works of American theatrical literature is Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” the play which vaulted him to fame. It was in my high school English textbook, in the equivalent for that preliminary English course everyone has to take in college, and one of the great plays studied in my theater lit course. It appears on stage with remarkable regularity, and has been on television more than once. A sad and introspective tale, it can be taken as Greek tragedy, as a statement on America’s disconnect, as one of several Williams’ treatises on the tawdry aftereffects of Southern culture, or simply as a character study.

At A Noise Within in Pasadena what seems to win out is character study. Perhaps this is because the four-person cast contains the strongest performers in the ANW membership stable. Co-Artistic Director Geoff Elliott has given these performers space to create far more rounded and interesting characters than on some occasions, and there are haunting moments in the production worthy of special note. If only there wasn’t an over-literal tacked on ending to annoy a Williams aficionado at the play’s close.

Deborah Strang makes comparatively (and interestingly) subtle work of the unsubtle Amanda, a faded Southern belle whose desperate hold the youth she enjoyed before marrying the wrong man has poisoned any possible connection with her only son. As that son, Tom, Rafael Goldstein radiates with resentment, thwarted ambition, and an edgy empathy for his disabled sister.

Erika Soto makes Laura,  the sister, more complex than is often seen. The touchingly memorable moment – shared, thanks to a particularly apt bit of direction, with the audience – when she looks in a mirror and can actually see herself as beautiful for a moment will stick with the observer long after the play ends. Likewise Kasey Mahaffy as Jim, the “gentleman caller,” gives a nervous edge to the part which intimates a connection that just almost comes off. It makes the pain and the depth of their scenes worth the entire production.

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Kasey Mahaffy as Jim and Erika Soto as Laura

Fred Kinney’s scenic design is clever, but the adaptability it has to have is mostly due to the one weird twist in the direction at play’s end. This is a memory play. Memory plays have to stop where the memories end. The fact that Laura’s memory will not leave Tom alone, and the underlying question mark about the people/lives he left behind is the lingering fog which gives the play some of its power. Here, that question is answered, nullifying Williams’ point.

Why Elliott chose to do this – answering a question which is aways left for the audience to surmise – is an abject mystery. Frankly, it seems a sign of distrust, either in his audience or in his performer, or (even worse) Williams himself. In any case, it proves moderately insulting, and fudges what is otherwise a fine, fine production of an American classic.

Still, given everything which leads up to that moment, this version of “Glass Menagerie” is worth taking a look, my sincere, rueful “if only” qualifier to the ending notwithstanding.

“The Glass Menagerie” plays in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Othello” and Mary Zimmerman’s “Argonautika”.

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What: “The Glass Menagerie”  When: through April 26, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. March 30, 2 p.m. April 20, 7 p.m. April 14, 7:30 p.m. April 4 and 25, 8 p.m. April 5, 20 and 26  Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena  How Much: from $25, Student Rush with ID one hour before performance $20, On April 14 all remaining tickets $25 (available online with the code SUNDAYRUSH) or at box office Info: http://www.anoisewithin.org or (626) 356-3121

Did You Fall Off the Face of the Earth… or What?

I know, it certainly seems like that. I was here, and then suddenly I wasn’t. It wasn’t intentional, but rather a result of being completely overwhelmed by the (to me, anyway) monumental shifts in life which seemed to all hit at once.

I owe a huge apology to Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont for not ever writing the review I intended to write about their fine production of Steve Martin’s “Bright Star,” a Eudora Welty-ish tale of class, hate and redemption in the South. I hope some of you went. It was disturbing in places, but strong, well directed, and filled with the bluegrass-tinged music that always reminds me of the musical based on Welty’s “The Robber Bridegroom” which I adored in my 20s.

I also owe an apology to the Ahmanson, for seeing and then never writing about the touring production of “Falsettos” which landed there. It was, to be frank, a bit disappointing to see how dated this had become. What were once triumphant, charming, and sad facts about life in gay America in the early 80s had become dry and thus somewhat slow, stating so many things now painfully obvious. Still, the performers were good and deserved to be celebrated.

So… what was I doing instead? Well, I was becoming a retired person. Not, at least not immediately, from theatrical criticism, but from the day job. After a total of 40 or so years as an educator, the last 35 of which have been spent at Blair High School in Pasadena (a treasure of a public school which never gets the credit it deserves), on May 31 I literally left the building.

Prepping for this is when I discovered my classroom (including the boxes full of stuff which had been schlepped from place to place as we moved out of our main building so it could be refurbished and remodeled) was essentially my attic.

Thus I have been sorting through nearly 40 years of educational stuff I had saved, some so old they were printed in purple ditto ink, and tossing away outdated paperwork, sample history textbooks, academic competition format materials, pirated VHS recordings, worksheets, workbooks, and an awful lot of “why the hell did I save that?” bits and pieces. The things which still had value were handed off to those who will be teaching what I have been teaching. It was weird to be divesting myself of so much, but it was time to go. I still love teaching, and care deeply about my students, but it is hard on the body to stand on linoleum over concrete day in and day out, and my oomph was not optimum.

Anyway, on top of this I had promised my wife that when I retired we could move closer to her family. Once she knew retirement was near, her family chimed in with “when you move to Louisville…” advise and comments even before we had decided to return to what was her home town. So, we’re returning to her home town (where I also went to grad school, so it is not entirely foreign territory). That meant that what of the last month and a half or so has not been involved with the details of retirement, and passing various educational batons, has been dedicated to house-hunting. This has meant flying back and forth, lots of document-gathering, etc. Found a nice place too, at a ridiculous price for anyone used to housing costs in SoCal.

Now I have been coming to grips with leaving my own home town. Let’s face it, I love California. I love Los Angeles County. I love the theater culture here, and the extraordinary diversity of people, cultures, arts organizations, languages… all of it. I have roots here dating back to the 20s. To walk away from this is a huge shift in some elemental personal paradigms. Still, it is time for a new, and frankly affordable adventure.

So, what happens to me, the drama critic? Well, I’m not gone yet and there are still some things to see. Still, my son is already talking about a redesign of this blog space to reflect a theater writer talking about Louisville (Actors Theatre especially) and the comparatively nearby regional theater world of Cincinnati. We’ll see. I may end up writing more philosophically about theater, its role in culture, and the need for its preservation. Nothing is yet completely decided, and – of course – the artistic world I move into will have to decide I’m worth listening to. This is never a one-way street.

So, that’s where I’ve been. That’s where I’m going. I am getting over the overwhelming redefinition of my day to day, predicated by walking away from one profession I have practiced for nearly 2/3 of my life, and am beginning to look at what awaits on the horizon. I’ll let you know what I find along the way. You may end up as surprised as I probably will be at the results.

In the meantime, expect a few more reviews from the L.A. area before I leave town. Expect some from some part of the country even after that, if I can manage it. I am preparing to move, not die, and I’ve been writing about theater at least as long as I have been teaching – perhaps even a bit longer. This labor of love, which has survived the curtailing of newspaper publication and the shifts in Equity rules, is not ready for a final curtain.

As for the school I’m leaving behind? I am most proud to have helped found the Gay Straight Alliance there in 2005, and worked hard to create the school’s currently touted “open and accepting” atmosphere, where being a nonconformist in any one of a number of ways is welcomed and appreciated. I am also proud of my work with their strong and creative student government (the ASB). I am told the administration intends to name the ASB room after me, which is touching and humbling. Still, this is a public school district, where bureaucracy can sometimes thwart intent. We’ll see.

Watching the Mighty Fall: “The Judas Kiss” at Boston Court

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Rob Nagle as Oscar Wilde and Colin Bates as the source of his downfall, Lord Alfred Douglas, in “The Judas Kiss” at Boston Court Pasadena [photo: Jenny Graham]

One of the tragic tales to come from the criminalization of homosexuality in Britain has always been the story of Oscar Wilde, the celebrated, flamboyant author and playwright whose great fame turned into great scandal, imprisonment, and self-imposed exile. Modern playwrights have examined this to highlight historic injustices, make comparisons with the intolerance of modern nations, and even to highlight the double standards of the Victorian Era. David Hare’s “The Judas Kiss” takes a different tack.

Now at Boston Court Pasadena, Hare’s play looks instead at Wilde and the man whose relationship with him caused his downfall: Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquis of Queensbury, commonly called “Bosie.” The petulant and self-absorbed Bosie’s hold over the older Wilde, pushing him (among other things) to try to sue the Marquis for libel and thus to open himself to prosecution for homosexuality, becomes a framework with which to study how relationships can turn manipulative and eventually destructive to the person manipulated.

There seems ample evidence for Bosie’s petulance and opportunism. Most certainly, the destructive effect on Wilde’s life and fortunes is undeniable. What Hare’s play does, however, is look at how this manipulation worked.  Bosie pushes Wilde one way, Wilde’s friend and former lover (and eventual executor of his literary estate) Robert Ross tries to reason him into another, and Wilde makes disastrous decisions in the name of love.

Rob Nagle gives Wilde the right combination of flamboyance and deep insecurity, ready to lean on a young man who never has an interest at heart except his own. Even with the elaborate language and gesture, this is a romantic caught in that time-old trap of allowing blind love to push him away from those who actually have his best interests at heart. As Bosie, Colin Bates radiates immaturity, self-obsession, and obliviousness as he drags Wilde to shame and bankruptcy.

Darius De La Cruz makes a worried, earnest and frustrated friend as Robert Ross, giving a gravitas to the disaster his character is trying to help his former lover avoid. Matthew Campbell Dowling, Maria Klein and Kurt Kanazawa provide a backdrop of lasciviousness which was the secret underpinning of Victorian society, as does Will Dixon as the hotel manager busy keeping his clients’ secrets.

Director Michael Michetti has kept the production spare, allowing the larger-than-life Wilde a central place, seeming increasingly pure and victimized as all around him exude a sensuality he seems to have eschewed for what he sees as a more spiritual connection. That contrast alone says a great deal about what set him up for disaster.

Se Hyun Oh’s set hints at both opulence and penury consecutively, and Dianne K. Graebner’s costumes give color to these colorful lives. Still, the net result is a fine writer’s ruin. To see in that antique echoes writ large of modern romantic disasters is a point of the play all its own.

The play includes nudity and sexual situations, and is recommended for children and adults 17 years old and up. Children under 13 will not be admitted.

What: “The Judas Kiss”  When: through March 24, 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance at 8 p.m. Monday, March 18. Where: Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena. How Much: $39 adult, $34 senior, $20 student  Info: http://www.bostoncourtpasadena.org or 626-683-6801

 

Quietly Soulful: “Tuesdays with Morrie” in Sierra Madre

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Jackson Kendall as Mitch Albom and Larry Eisenberg as his former professor Morrie Schwartz in Sierra Madre Playhouse’s “Tuesdays with Morrie” [photo: Gina Long]

In Mitch Albom’s memoir “Tuesdays with Morrie: an old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson,” Albom details his mid-life reconnection with a favorite Brandeis sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz. Albom, by then a respected sports reporter, and Schwartz, retired and diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), begin an every-Tuesday conversation which becomes Albom’s escape from the rigors of an intense and unending job, and for Schwartz a chance to offer elemental lessons to a favorite student.

Dramatized by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher, the play version of “Tuesdays with Morrie” now graces the stage of the Sierra Madre Playhouse. I mean “graces” quite literally. Schwartz’s peaceful openness provides a strong balance to Albom’s focused energy, and in the process offers up the lessons about calm acceptance, the humor in life, and the inevitability of its finalities. All this happens in a gentle series of conversations kept active and engaging by director L. Flint Esquerra’s subtle choreography.

Jackson Kendall plays Mitch Albom, both narrator and and participant in the dialogues which so shaped his world. Kendall balances the intensity of a man dashing from event to event with his character’s inner desire to get back to something more meaningful. Larry Eisenberg, as Morrie Schwartz, a man at home in his own life and, even as it begins to betray him, his own body makes realistic, convincing shifts required of advancing ALS, without being maudlin or losing the sense of the man behind the disease.

Indeed, Eisenberg’s humorous delivery underscores the practical positivity which made the encounters between the two men worth recording. So too the production, which allows for audience empathy without ever reaching a place where tragedy is the preeminent theme.

Set designer Amanda Knehans has provided a polished yet homey space capable of changing with the storyline without need for actual shifts of scenery, allowing the story to flow unimpeded through time. This it does, as “Tuesdays with Morrie” is performed without intermission, a choice which can sometimes feel long but in this instance proves exactly what the arc of these encounters needs.

Though it is true that watching someone convincingly disintegrate under the ravages of ALS may sound excruciating, in this production that proves not to be the case. Rather, one ends up focused on the profound legacy Morrie leaves behind for all of us, and not just Mitch Albom.

“Tuesdays with Morrie” plays in brief overlap with “Stuart Little,” SMP’s annual program for young people.

What: “Tuesdays with Morrie”  When: through March 31, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, except March 17. A special “Pay What You Can” performance will take place at 7 p.m. Monday, March 18  Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre. How Much: $40 general, $36 seniors 65+, $20 students 21 and under.  Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

“Deathtrap” in Whittier: Reliably Convoluted Suspense, Well Done

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Guy C. van Empel and Andrea Stradling as the struggling playwright and his supportive wife in “Deathtrap” at Whittier Community Theatre [photo: Amy Lauren Gettys]

Note: Short run ends March 2

The tricky bit about reviewing a play laden with suspense is how to discuss the show without committing the mortal sin of giving out spoilers. Even with a well-crafted but also well known play like Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap,” there is always a significant population of potential audience who does not yet know the whodunit, or even the why. With one as convoluted as “Deathtrap” is, the chances for over-explaining are even more present.

In discussing the Whittier Community Theatre production this is a particular problem. The play is done very well indeed. The set is suited to not only the stage but the needed elaborations necessary for the scary bits. The cast of confident, well-honed actors never telegraph answers before their time, and create fleshed out characters as much as possible. The intelligent direction does all the things needed for the tension to build appropriately.

WCT, currently in its 97th season, has a real reason to feel proud.

The story centers on playwright Sidney Bruhl, whose most famous, certainly most successful play – a mystery of considerable nuance – is in the rear view mirror of his career. Struggling to find some new thing which will spark the next great hit, he has had to resort to giving playwriting workshops to stay afloat, all the while living on his wife’s rapidly shrinking inheritance.

Now he has received a brand new script from one of the workshop attendees, which has all the elements of the best of his genre of work. Shall he convince the young man to let him fiddle with, and thus co-author it? Shall he steal it as his own? Or, shall he act the benevolent grandparent of the piece, and offer the younger playwright a chance to shine on his own? This is the first of many decisions which will have Bruhl and those around him twisted in knots.

Guy C. van Empel is a convincing Bruhl, fussing over his own career, plotting and planning to reclaim it one way and another. As the younger man, Mason Meskell vibrates with confidence and drive. Andrea Stradling manages the gentle, supportive, ethical wife whose presence can’t help but underscore Bruhl’s current situation. Todd Rew has a lovely time as Bruhl’s rather fussy lawyer, and Phyllis M. Nofts gives a standout performance as an internationally acclaimed psychic visiting a home nearby.

Director Justin Patrick Murphy has really taken apart the nuances of this play and found the essence of each. The surprises really are surprising. The characterizations bounce off of each other with just enough friction to keep one wary. The set, designed by the director, manages to fit the feel of a two-story restored colonial farmhouse onto the Whittier stage with just the right amount of room for each necessary action. The props are an impressive collection of miscellaneous weaponry, adding to the fun.

In short, this production of “Deathtrap” shows polish and the appropriate tension, and is a hoot to see, whether you’ve memorized the ending or have never seen the thing ever before. Well paced, well performed, and edge-of-your-seat fun, it will leave you with that nice balance of fear and laughter (yes, laughter) which proves a satisfying, and not particularly taxing, evening in the theater.

Note: WCT production runs are very short. This coming weekend is the last time to see this show. Take the time. It’s worth it.

What: “Deathtrap”  When: one remaining weekend, 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday. Where: The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier.  How Much: $18 general, $15 seniors (62 and over), juniors (18 and under), and military with ID. Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Powerful “Ragtime” at the Pasadena Playhouse

Photo by Nick Agro / Pasadena Playhouse

The cast of “Ragtime” at the Pasadena Playhouse: a smaller ensemble proves mighty where it counts.

[This show has now been extended through March 9.]

One of the first things that resonates from the new production of the musical “Ragtime” at the Pasadena Playhouse is its timeliness. Nevermind that it is set in roughly 1900, that it is based on a 1975 book by E. L. Doctorow, or that the musical had its American premiere here in Los Angeles in 1997. The topics of the book, and of the musical – the complacency of the rich, the struggles of the immigrant, and an income and justice system rigged against African Americans – are as clearly resonant today as perhaps at any time in-between.

Newly reimagined by director David Lee, the Playhouse production has been paired down to its essentials in ways which may not allow for the roar of a crowd, but create an intimate connection with the central characters that carries the story. Set in New York and peppered with that period’s famous individuals, it boils down to the story of a well-off white family from New Rochelle whose comfortable life is contrasted with, and eventually collides with other elements of the times. These include a desperate immigrant artist and his young daughter whose dreams of American prosperity come up against the harsh realities of the East Side slums, and a Harlem romance that goes sideways in the face of overt racial hatred.

The cast forms a fluid ensemble as characters rise who, one after another, form more than usually powerful connections with the audience. Standouts include Clifton Duncan in the wrenching part of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a man whose dreams dissolve in the brutality of racial divide. Marc Ginsburg manages the hope and the desperation of Tateh, the Eastern European immigrant unprepared for the reality of America.

Bryce Charles as the innocent young woman Walker woos, and Valerie Perri as the revolutionary Emma Goldman also shine, while Shannon Warne, as the white, well cared-for Mother in New Rochelle offers up a subtlety of emotional shift which, though not as dynamic as some of the others, creates a unifying arc.

Lee’s direction is tight, though setting the piece in the modern “warehouse of a national historical museum” (something you only discover if you read the program) is overly subtle. Still, Tom Buderwitz’s design – mostly masses of stacked, rather facile crates – does allow for a flow of empathetic projections by Hana Sooyeon Kim, and a constant tempo unimpeded by needed set changes. The hidden onstage orchestra, directed by Darryl Archibald, balances with the intimacy of the rest of the production while allowing some remarkable voices like Duncan’s to shine.

What sets this “Ragtime” apart from its predecessors is its ability to be large and small at the same time. There are huge themes underscoring the more personal individual tales, and these themes are, sadly, not foreign to anyone in the audience. Still, the connection created by individual characters, and the lack of white noise from a large supporting cast, brings this large world into a more audience-involved arena, where emotional connection can leave a lasting impact. Yes, sometimes small is better. Come see for yourself.

What: “Ragtime”  When: through March 3, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays (no 7 p.m. performance Sunday, 2/24). Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. How Much: tickets start at $25. Info: (626) 356-7529 or PasadenaPlayhouse.org

“The Empty Nesters” at the Zephyr: Domestic Drama Lacks Oomph

In this era of the rise of the helicopter parent, it is genuinely fascinating to begin thinking about what these folks will do when their hovering is no longer needed and their kid goes confidently (one hopes) off to college or a career in another part of the country. Indeed, this is the major enticement in going to see “The Empty Nesters,” by Garret Jon Groenveld, at the Zephyr Theatre on Melrose: a chance to see how someone plays with the concept.

The problem is, the play itself proves repetitive, and the direction often proves static.  The two performers – a long-married couple coming back to the stage after years doing other things in the entertainment industry – exhibit such a lack of genuine chemistry onstage that the necessary sympathy for their situation doesn’t gel. The set is clever, but has its own issues. In short though there is a lot of potential in this thing, it simply isn’t realized.

We meet Greg and Frances as they stand in line for the the Sky Bridge at the Grand Canyon, on a planned vacation intended to get their minds off of the fact they just dropped their last child off at college. He is grumpy and unreasonable. She is obsessed with the fact their daughter has not called to check in. When she suddenly questions their future together – in line at this tourist attraction – a conversation begins which moves from the bridge to a cafe to their hotel. We follow.

The script is not funny, even in places it should be, but it is not tragic. It has these people saying the same things to each other – the same lines even – in several settings, sometimes with an added insight, but often not. There is a limited physicality in the meandering script, and director Richard Syed has opted for set change rather than much in the way of action to add to the piece. So they stand and talk, then sit and talk, then sit and stand and talk about what they have already talked about, with a few enhancements.

John (JW) Walker and Pamela Gaye Walker are the couple. They play the two as very realistic, with the pauses and tonalities of an ordinary conversation, which makes it surprisingly uninteresting. Neither gets wildly emotional. Neither becomes overly self-revelatory even in movement or delivery. Naturalism can be great, but in this production it just makes things rather ploddy.

The design of the production, by William Cone, uses impressive projections to create detail in the changing settings, while a beautifully orchestrated movement of furniture happens onstage. Still, lighting designer Donny Jackson and animator of those projections Andrew Jimenez should have checked to be sure that their projector was high enough in the ceiling (or behind a scrim looking toward the audience) so that the projections would not occasionally hit the upper part of John Walker’s head. It is not convincing to listen to a man talking sincerely about his life while part of the hotel room wall is shining just above his ear.

In short, “The Empty Nesters” is well-meaning, but it just doesn’t ever really engage. Sad to say, even at 75 uninterrupted minutes, it is really too long for the material – for what there is in it to say.

What: “The Empty Nesters”  When: through February 17, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Where: The Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles  How Much: $35 general, $45 reserved  Info: 866-811-4111 or http://www.EmptyNestersPlay.com

Controversial, Fascinating “Nude/Naked” Examines Art vs Societal Norms

With its provocative title, “Nude/Naked,” Lightning Rod Theater’s premiere production at the McCadden Place Theatre in Hollywood, may at first seem to be something prurient. What fascinates more than anything else is how much it is not, at least not if you’re really listening. Playwright Paul Hogan Zeidler’s examination of the once subculture world of the artist in an era of nonstop media and social commentary strikes both at cultural norms and at the particular ethos which centers the truly artistic mind. At both, this world premiere play manages to be engrossing from start to finish.

Bennett Duquesne has had an admittedly controversial career, as the once journalistic photographer shifted into art photos featuring his daughter from early puberty on in pictures made arguably more timeless by her nudity and more art because of his use of light and symbolism. His work has graced the halls of major galleries and the pages of coffee table books, and his model, now in her 20s, has become an increasingly integral part of his artistic process even when not in front of the camera.

Now, a series of events while he was away has led to the death of a rather mediocre student of his, shot in his own living room. As he and his daughter try to keep their world private, both the spread of online media and the consolidation of traditional informational outlets leave them under a judgmental and unsophisticated microscope. There they find themselves invaded, analyzed, and critiqued by people who don’t know them, or their sense of what makes their work artful.

Bjorn Johnson plays Duquesne as a man grasping to hold onto the safe space he has created for himself in great measure by constant and almost myopic focus on the art he creates. It’s a particular logic that emphasizes a good picture over any other implications, and he makes it seem both appropriate (at least for a while) and, in the end, protective. Sorel Carradine matches him in tone as Duquesne’s daughter Abby. For her the art has allowed freedom and a way to process the difficult moments of her life, or abstract it into something outside herself. They make a solid team, which allows the drama around the characters to come up against a wall of safety most evident as it cracks and reforms.

Jonathan E. Grey’s practical lawyer and friend balances out the insularity of the Duquesne duo, Lucas Alfano gives Abby’s wealthy and mercurial boyfriend an edgy, dangerous quality which underscores her deceptively calm home life. Stephen Tyler Howell creates in the shooting victim the kind of superficial self-centeredness which makes him almost completely unsympathetic, particularly as the denouement unfolds. Asia Lynn Pitts, as a writer from an arts magazine recently bought by Rupert Murdoch, offers the populist approach to artists and art which strays so far from the artistic community Duquesne identifies with.

One is often concerned when a playwright directs his own work, but here that creates a seamless sense of intent. Zeilder knows what the play is saying, and needs to say, and has the right cast there to make it come alive in just the way he intends. Pete Hickock’s set and Matt Richter’s lighting – almost a character itself sometimes – and sound design bring a sense of the immediacy and reality to the piece, and Will McMichael’s fight choreography allows a particular menace which proves the perfect explosion of the Duquesne home’s outward calm.

In short, “Nude/Naked” becomes a critique of the possibilities of art in a world of superficial judgmentalism at the same time it explores the underlying reasons for artistic choice and the demons which are sometimes exorcised thereby. It makes for a riveting evening of theater. Come early, as the biggest issue at this venue is finding street parking.

What: “Nude/Naked”  When: through February 17, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays  Where: McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place in Hollywood  How Much: $25. Info: 310-204-4883 or http://www.sewersocialistprods@gmaio.com

 

 

No Kidding: Candlelight’s “Titanic” Better than B’way Version

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Passengers and crew of “Titanic” assemble to board for the ill-fated journey in the Tony-winning musical now at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater

Going to see “Titanic” at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont was something I approached with trepidation. Thought the music was written by Maury Yeston, whose work I have always liked, and the book by Peter Stone, and its storyline was based completely on actual people, which I approve of, I was haunted a bit by the first version I saw. I need not to have worried.

The first time I saw the Tony-winning musical it was somewhat anticlimactic. For one thing, the epic movie of the same name had been recently released, but for another the national tour of the original Broadway production itself, which was born at the Ahmanson production I saw, seemed a weird combination of occasionally brilliant theatricality and staging moments which were either overblown or simply ridiculous. Indeed, it was hard to connect with the musical itself because the visuals were so uneven.

Turns out (and the irony is not lost on me) that in the case of a musical about what was then the largest vehicle in the world, smaller is better. Crammed onto the comparatively little Candlelight stage, all the overblown theatricality gives way to story, and the characters shine over the comparatively subtle optics. Add the impressive quality of the performers in this new production, who sing so well that no huge chorus is needed to back them up, and the intimacy, musicality, and pathos shine far more brightly than anything I could have anticipated.

This is, in large part thanks to director/set designer Chuck Ketter’s vision.

The story is not new to much of anyone, but author Stone has concentrated on just a few people, often the less well-known among those who boarded the maiden voyage of this supposedly unsinkable ship. Yes, designer Thomas Andrews is there, along with the pompous and demanding ship-owner Bruce Ismay and the about-to-retire Captain E.J. Smith, but the rest are a combination of first, second, and third-class passengers and crew, most of them comparatively new to the general public. The songs tie in closely with the storyline rather than being stand-alone, and the small live orchestra gives a chance for emotional nuance which the theater’s usual pre-recorded instrumentals would not.

Ketter’s set design allows for quick changes of place which keep the pace electric as relationships define, personalities emerge, and the ship steams on toward its disastrous destiny. The entire production is tight, intense, and riveting in a way that old original simply wasn’t.

The talented company of 20, who cover a musical originally written for more than 40, are a true ensemble, rising out of the crowd to create well-fleshed-out characters and then moving back again with a seamless flow. Standouts in a company full of them include Gavin Juckette as the ship’s overwhelmed radio man, Catie Marron as a 3rd class passenger dreaming of new beginnings and new love, and Sarah Meals as the ambitious 2nd class passenger constantly stealing into 1st class.

As well as these, kudos go to Gregg Hammer as one of the ship’s stokers. Jamie Snyder and Samantha Wynn Greenstone as Isidor and Ida Straus, owners of Macy’s whose characters come into their own in the show’s second half, as Ida famously refuses a lifeboat if it means leaving her husband. Marc Montminy makes a wistful Captain Smith, and Greg Nicholas a despicably self-centered Ismay.

Musical director Andrew Orbison helps with the ensemble spirit as he guides performers and orchestra alike through the lush score. Dylan Pass handles the incidental choreography, and (and this is often a sticking point for me) Michon Gruber-Gonzales has done wonders with the wigs which firmly set this piece in time and place.

In short, this “Titanic” is definitely worth a look. At Candlelight it comes with a meal which tends away from standard “rubber chicken” in the dinner theaters of old, and the desserts are definitely worth the wait until intermission. Still, it isn’t the food which made this a fine production to see. They kept the best and redid the rest. It’s what a revival should do.

What: Titanic, the Musical. When: through February 23, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. There will be one special Thursday evening performance with doors open at 6 p.m. on February 21. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont. How Much: $63 – $78 general, $30 – $35 children under 12, inclusive of meal  Info: 909-626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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