Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Delightful “Ah, Wilderness” Lights up A Noise Within

Deborah Strang and Nicholas Hormann lead the cast of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah Wilderness” at A Noise Within

When one thinks of Eugene O’Neill, one thinks of wrenchingly serious plays, but “Ah, Wilderness” gives him a chance to explore the comparative innocence of a life he wished he could have lived. In the new production at A Noise Within, the play becomes a charming celebration of the nature of adolescence with characters recognizable over time and ethical distance in a way which makes the entire play approachable and embraceable.

In this warmhearted view of a middle class, small town family’s 4th of July in 1906, we follow 17-year-old idealist Richard Miller as he butts heads with his practical father, college-boy elder brother, overly nourishing mother, and the rest of his extended family. He yearns for the daughter of an overly straight-laced man, reads the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, espouses socialism, and generally disrupts the calm of his family circle. In the ANW production, this comparatively lighthearted tale has been laced with popular music of the period – a move which instantly reinforces both the setting and the lighthearted nature of the thing.

Emily Goss and Matt Gall at a peaceful moment in ANW’s “Ah Wilderness”

Nicholas Hormann sets up the feel of the entire piece as Nat Miller, the easygoing patriarch of Richard’s family and publisher of the town newspaper. That very casual but upright “man of the world” quality sets the tone for the family and the entire play. Deborah Strang fusses and nurtures as Richard’s warm, worrying mother. Against these settled people’s maturity flails Matt Gall as the passionate Richard, whose journey into rebellion (and then back into the fold) becomes the focal point of the play. Gall gives Richard both the aura of conviction and the simplicity of lovesick youth in a combination which works well to tie all the pieces of this tale together.

Ian Littleworth, as Richard’s Yale-going elder brother, reflects the pompousness of the newly independent young man, while Katie Hume and Samuel Genghis Christian provide Richard’s younger siblings – the very observant, somewhat sardonic younger sister and the even younger littlest brother. Indeed, there is an aura of youth and innocence throughout this family circle, which balanced by the subtle struggles of the house’s other two occupants.

As Nat’s “old maid” sister, Lily, Kitty Swink finds a combination of determination and pathos, especially in Lily’s relationship with her former love interest, the flawed Sid, whose battle with addiction – though kept lighthearted in Alan Blumenfeld’s rendition – still provides a haunting connection to the darker side of small town life. Among a sizable cast, Emily Goss gives a youthful bravado to Richard’s clandestine love interest, while Emily Kosloski has a lovely time with the “fallen woman” Richard encounters while in defiant despair.

Director Steven Robman has given these folks a timbre and a pacing which keeps the story light on its feet. Scenic Designer Frederica Nascimento utilizes very mobile set pieces to create the swift changes needed to keep that pacing on target. Most of Garry D. Lennon’s costumes evoke era and class with an easy grace. It all works together to make a delightfully intelligent and largely uplifting whole.

“Ah, Wilderness” is not a rollicking comedy, but rather will evoke the laughter of recognition, and a chance to see a rare side of O’Neill: a balance to his more usual, far more grim works. For those who have never seen it, the ANW production will be a treat. For those who have, this production will confirm why it is worth seeing again. If only coming of age always involved this much charm. “Ah, Wilderness” plays in repertory with ANW productions of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and the soon-to-open musical “Man of La Mancha”.

What: “Ah, Wilderness” When: through May 20, 7 p.m. March 19, April 9, and May 14; 7:30 p.m. April 20; 8 p.m. April 15 and 21, May 19 and 20; 2 p.m. matinees March 19, April 9 and 15, May 14 and 20 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: starting at $25 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Cliches Sink “God’s Waiting Room” at The Matrix

(L/R): Randy Vasquez, Kathleen Garrett, Mark Adair-Rios and Jeremy Glazer in “God’s Waiting Room” at the Matrix


Going to see a play called “God’s Waiting Room,” advertised with a rainbow theme, would tend to indicate that one was in for a play similar to “Steambath,” the 1970 play making commentary about faith by turning heaven into a steambath and God into the Puerto Rican attendant there. One assumes something sophisticated about faith and, given the artwork, LGBTQ relationships with organized religion or the deity behind it. If so, one would be vastly disappointed.

“God’s Waiting Room,” a new play by Robert Austin Rossi presented by Elephant Theatre Company at the Matrix in Hollywood, is about the waiting room of a Palm Springs hospital in which Lois Ruggerio’s estranged brother is dying. She flew across the country to sit in the waiting room, but won’t go into the ICU where her brother lies. Turns out her brother is gay, she’s not only a conservative Catholic, but is also addicted to The 700 Club, and Pat Robertson’s vitriolic diatribes about the sinfulness of “the gay lifestyle”. When she meets a generally beloved and obviously more open-minded Episcopalian priest who is also visiting her brother, the heated discussion begins.

Sadly, that conversation is almost entirely in cliches. She’s bitter, and spews her very standardized homophobic vitriol all over the room. Her husband is increasingly frustrated with their long journey’s pointless end, to wit wondering why they came (which he says over and over again, for what else can be said?). The priest is gentle to a fault, reasoning from the heart – a heart particularly close to this situation – about the need for love and compassion using all the standard lines. The nurse who goes in and out tsks at the stupidity of this prejudiced woman, but that’s all she’s asked to do. The man supposedly dying behind the ICU door appears from happier days, between scenes, to narrate the story of his “freed from family chains” life, and add pathos to the tale of his family’s rejection.

Although the script is pedantic, it could have been played with by an artful director to become more nuanced. Not much luck with that here. Director David Fofi allows for the heat to rise so quickly, there’s no place for the main character to go. Kathleen Garrett’s Lois is practically foaming at the mouth with agitation so quickly and to such an extent that her character really doesn’t have much of way to expand upon it, until a hopelessly unrealistic sudden reversal in the last couple of minutes of the play. As the priest, Mark Adair-Rios is so consistently calm and quiet-voiced that he also has almost nowhere to go and no way to enhance his character’s sense of tolerance and patience without disappearing as a personality altogether. Given the resumes of these two actors, this cannot be their call.

Likewise, the other performers are left with rather 2-dimensional characters played all in one key. Randy Vasquez does what he can with the upset woman’s husband, but doesn’t have a whole lot in the script to work with. Jeremy Glazer, playing the object of everyone else’s conversation has little chance to build his narration into an actual presence, leaving one without a sense of his rebellious life, or the respected activist he supposedly had become. Leshay Boyce makes nice work of the nurse manning the waiting room, but is given little to truly add to the storyline beyond the occasional eye roll.

By the end – an end which is supposed to be moving and redeeming, I assume – you just don’t believe anything could change, despite the last-second revelations which are supposed to turn this in to a heart-wrenching drama. Indeed, despite performers manfully trying to create a dramatic arc, there really isn’t one, the tension does not build, and the ending seems tacked on as thoroughly as those pat resolutions one sees to one-hour TV detective shows that have run out of time to do anything more complex.

Suffice it to say that, given the premise, this could have been honed into a better play. Given the current script, it could have at least been nuanced by a director into a better, though not great, piece of theater. As it is, “God’s Waiting Room” has absolutely nothing new to say, and says it in a most imperfect way.

What: “God’s Waiting Room” When: through April 2, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays Where: Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood How Much: $28 Fridays and Saturdays, $20 Thursdays and Sundays Info: (323) 960-7784 or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2863684

“Collective Rage” Fizzles at Boston Court

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If a play intends to use cultural references in the course of its work, it probably makes sense to be sure that the audience will catch a clue as to what those references are. Indeed, without the commentary by a staffer in the program for The Theatre@Boston Court’s production of Jen Silverman’s “Collective Rage: A Play in 7 Boops,” the play would lose much of its ability to make a point. As it is, assuming that people will understand the questionable content of early Betty Boop cartoons is a bit like assuming everyone knows that Barbie dolls are essentially copies of a 1940s “action figure” from an underground, sexually explicit German cartoon strip. Didn’t know that? You see my point.

With that said, this examination of – one assumes – the way men think about women thinking about women has some fascinating moments as stereotype meets stereotype in reference to female sexuality. Indeed, the constant reference to the term Donald Trump used to describe female parts becomes elemental in the increasingly surreal storyline, as if it was the only thing that women value in themselves and others.

The five characters are all named Betty Boop, and range (in sequential number order) from a bored socialite angry at her husband’s casual dismissal of her angst, to an isolated and ignored wife, to an ambitious if under schooled,overtly sexual cosmetic counter saleswoman, to a proudly butch lover of trucks, and finally an androgynous woman recently released from jail. What seems to become an overarching theme among them all is the adaptation they find necessary (well, except perhaps the saleswoman, who is busy trying to reinvent herself) to a male view of things. The more masculinely they can see themselves, the more they find power. But then, isn’t that the stereotypical male assumption about powerful women?

What makes this work as well as it does is both the quality of ensemble, and the consistent vision of director Lindsay Allbaugh. Through projections, most of which create chapter headings for this extremely episodic tale, and the use of spare and thus easily repurposed set pieces, courtesy of Francois-Pierre Couture and properties designer Jenny Smith Cohn, the individual snapshots of dialogue and character development are woven together better than one might expect. As a group, Elyse Mirto’s socialite, Courtney Rackley’s mousy wife, Anna Lamadrid’s streetwise sexual being, Karen Anzoategui’s reliable pal, and Tracy A. Leigh’s practical ex-con weave their stories together with a remarkable precision, taking the often somewhat artificial dialogue in very human directions.

Yet, whether this – in the end – leads to a coherent whole is something else again. The concept wants us to follow along as these five women are placed up against the predatory sexual attitude the males in the Max Fleischer films of the early ’30s showed toward Betty. Thus, what they apparently want is each other, and a masculine sense of entitlement, even as they constantly reframe that conversation. In the end, however, the resolutions seem trite rather than profound. If that is also to be a reflection on the cartoon which inspired it, one is left asking whether there is enough “there” (or even, as titled, rage) there to warrant attention.

What: “Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Boops” When: Through March 19, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with an understudy performance 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 1 and a $5 performance 8 p.m. Monday, March 6 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $39 general, $34 seniors, $20 student Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com

Corny but Polished: “42nd Street” at Candlelight Pavilion

"Listen to the Lullaby of Old Broadway" at Candlelight Pavilion's "42nd Street" [photo:  Demetrios Katsantonis]

“Listen to the Lullaby of Old Broadway” at Candlelight Pavilion’s “42nd Street” [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

Sometimes one goes to the theater for something profound. Sometimes one goes for something which will leave behind an underlying message to be chewed over a bit for its power or its emotional impact. Sometimes one goes to the theater for distraction, and for fun, with nothing more profound required than songs, dances and general earnest silliness. When this last is your goal, what better show than “42nd Street”? And what better venue than Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, where you get to add a charming dinner to the mix.

There are three things necessary for a production of “42nd Street” to succeed. First, corny though it is, it must be played straight. Second, just about everyone in the cast has to be able to tap dance, and well. Third, the leads must radiate an innate innocence. All of these can be found in Candlelight’s production. The tale, silly as it is – and borrowed from the 1933 movie of the same name – uses the music of Harry Warren and Al Dubin, who wrote songs for a string of Warner Brothers hits in the early era of sound. The classic story of “small town girl makes good on the Great White Way” blends all of the elements which made those early talkies historic.

Peggy Sawyer, newly in New York from Allentown, Pennsylvania, manages to snag a part in a Broadway show which, at the height of the Depression, is a lifesaver for many of the “kids” in the cast. In this she is aided by Billy Lawlor, the show-within-a-show’s youthful tenor, though she runs up against the pompous, aging Dorothy Brock, who is not only the star of that show but has brought along the sugar daddy who will fund the production. When Dorothy breaks an ankle, exacting director Julian Marsh must search immediately for a replacement or the entire show will fold. Will Peggy be up to the leap which will make her “go on a showgirl, but come off a star”?

Director/choreographer DJ Gray has a strong command of this particular genre of musical, and has gathered a fine cast of dancers to provide the backdrop to the storyline. Indeed, top quality tap sets the stage for the rest of the production’s finest aspects. Emma Nossal gives Peggy the sweet combination of determination and innocence so necessary to the atmosphere of the show, and sings and dances up a storm. John LaLonde’s commanding presence and deeply resonant voice make him a perfect Julian Marsh. Michael Milligan gives Pretty Lady’s (the show within a show) youthful tenor the combination of ego and zing necessary to make him an engaging foil.

Sarah Meals does well as the pompous, aging star of the show, while John Nisbet has a lot of fun as the kiddy car king able to finance the entire production. Shannon Gerrity leads the chorus in support of Peggy’s chances, while Cynthia Caldwell and Josh Tangermann, as Pretty Lady’s writing team, become more actively engaged in the performance of the thing than usual. Among a large (by Candlelight standards) and highly gifted chorus, Chad Takeda proves a standout as the slinky thief in an otherwise period tap ballet to the show’s title tune, rather as if Bob Fosse’s choreographic concepts had invaded that sphere.

Gray has a strong sense of the purpose of this kind of show, and that is evident throughout. The costumes and wigs are right. The pacing and timbre of the piece keep it light and mildly silly. The skills of the performers are solid and highly entertaining to watch. The singing, under the musical direction of Douglas Austin, proves so organic it makes one forget the fact the orchestra was recorded ahead of time. In short “42nd Street,” as done by this company, is all one can hope for with a show of this type. That it comes with a lovely meal means one can guarantee a lighthearted, upbeat evening. In times like these, opting for the occasional bit of fluffy froth isn’t necessarily out of place.

What: “42nd Street” When: Through March 25, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 5 p.m. Sundays, with doors opening for lunch matinees at 11 a.m. Saturday and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $61-$76 adults, $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Whittier’s “Steel Magnolias”: Back to the Point

Nancy Tyler, Marty Crouse, Rose London, Evelyn Goode, Juli Ray and Veronique Warner Merrill in "Steel Magnolias", helping celebrate Whittier Community Theatre's 95th anniversary [photo: Avis Photography]

Nancy Tyler, Marty Crouse, Rose London, Evelyn Goode, Juli Ray and Veronique Warner Merrill in “Steel Magnolias”, helping celebrate Whittier Community Theatre’s 95th anniversary [photo: Avis Photography]

Most people know Robert Harling’s salute to southern womanhood, “Steel Magnolias,” from the 1989 film – a film I have always had issues with, because it seems to violate the central point of the piece. So, when the Whittier Community Theatre announced a production, it provided a chance to get reacquainted with the original play and its original concept.

The story centers on Truvy Jones’ beauty shop in small-town Louisiana. There, a group of neighborhood women gather regularly to be family to each other. Truvy’s husband – who apparently sits all day in front of the TV – is never seen. Neither are her two boys, who leave town as the play begins. This is not their world, it is Truvy’s, regularly including Clairee Belcher, the widow of the town’s mayor still looking for meaning beyond cheering on the high school football team, M’Lynn Eatenton, who – as the play begins – is readying for the wedding of her medically fragile daughter Shelby, and Ouiser Boudreax, the grumpy divorcee with an odd-looking dog.

The shop is the safe space for all these women, and for Annelle, the lost soul who becomes Truvy’s assistant. Indeed, the point of this play (as I have always seen it) is that the walls of this shop provide a fortress against the male-dominated world outside. Here they have control, and a particular brand of understanding comfort unavailable anywhere the men in their life stand. For that reason, the play has only one set – the shop – and the outside is left to our imagination. In a real sense, those other places don’t matter. This is where these women find home.

At WCT, this essential fact is honored, and though the production proves a bit low-rent, the essentials still work. Veronique Merrill Warner gives Truvy a tone of humor and level-headedness which set the tone for the rest of the show, though it is sometimes a bit underplayed. Nancy Tyler’s Clairee evokes a foundational love of life, even as her character searches for her own identity after a lifetime of being “the mayor’s wife.” Rose London radiates an almost sacrificial practicality as M’Lynn, trying to be the voice of sense for her daughter even as she faces frustrations of her own with humor. Marty Crouse is a hoot as the crabby Ouiser, whose underlying warmth becomes increasingly obvious as the play moves forward.

Evelyn Goode does not radiate fragility as Shelby, but perhaps that is the point. Most certainly, it makes her story the surprise it should be for the rest of the characters. In the process she creates a genuine balance of optimism and romantic impracticality as she learns to put a good face on difficult situations. Julie Ray’s Annelle seems a bit more seasoned in some ways than the 20-year-old character is supposed to be, but gradually blends into the troupe and provides important humor and pathos as she does.

Director Philip Brickey has a feel for the part of country these women are to come from, and it shows. He uses Suzanne Frederickson’s rather spare set well, and keeps the pace rolling along with a necessary briskness. Jennifer Coffee has created and collected costumes which are good for the characters, though the wigs they wear at various times do not always live up to the demands of a play about a hair salon.

Still, what matters most is the chemistry of the ensemble, and here that increases as the play progresses. “Steel Magnolias” has become a national term since the play and then film swept the country, rather than a specifically southern euphemism, in part because the struggles present were so much more elemental than geographic. The production at WTC will help one remember why. If you go, you will help them celebrate this company’s 95th birthday season.

What: “Steel Magnolias” When: Through March 11, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 5 at 2:30 p.m. Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 adults, $12 seniors, students, children and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Stunning “Fun Home”: A Musical Balance of Whimsey and Heartbreak

The three Alisons, Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan and Alessandra Baldacchino in "Fun Home" at the Ahmanson [Photo: Joan Marcus]

The three Alisons, Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan and Alessandra Baldacchino in “Fun Home” at the Ahmanson [Photo: Joan Marcus]

It is rare to say that one has seen a musical without a flaw – or at least a flaw that doesn’t serve the purpose of the work – yet that is what must be said of the musical “Fun Home,” just opened at the Ahmanson Theatre. The winner of 5 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the show is adapted from the award-winning, autobiographic graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. On stage, one watches the tale that Bechdel told in her book, while at the same time watching the artist wrestle with its creation. This all works with a wit and pathos which proves engaging from start to finish.

“Fun Home” (a family euphemism for the family business – a funeral home) is the story of Bechdel’s coming of age in a tiny Pennsylvania town, focused on two competing forces: her relationship with her autocratic, esthete of a father (whose life in the closet informs his connection with his family) and her coming to terms with her own lesbianism.

Utilizing three versions of Alison at the same time, it features the 43-year-old cartoonist Alison, the 19-year-old “Medium Alison” in her discovery-filled first year at Oberlin, and the 10-year-old “Small Alison” trying to figure out the hows and whys of her particular, peculiar world. These three, played quite brilliantly by a wry Kate Shindle, a wide-eyed Abby Corrigan and an extraordinary Alessandra Baldacchino respectively, center the piece in its convoluted but engrossing character studies as Alison bounces off the people who formed her understanding of self.

Alessandra Baldacchino, Pierson Salvador, and Lennon Nate Hammond in one of the funniest moments from "Fun Home" [photo: Joan Marcus]

Alessandra Baldacchino, Pierson Salvador, and Lennon Nate Hammond in one of the funniest moments from “Fun Home” [photo: Joan Marcus]


As musicals go, this one defies some of the usual conventions. The songs of Jeanine Tesori, who composed the music, and Lisa Kron, who wrote the lyrics as well as the book, prove organic to the tale itself, moving with ease from delightful silliness to deep introspection in ways which may not be immediately hummable but rather become emotional touchstones within the larger tale. In their lighter moments, the charm is radiant, as one realizes early on when Small Alison and her two smaller brothers (Pierson Salvador and Lennon Nate Hammond) create their own ridiculously upbeat commercial for the funeral home, after being caught playing inside a casket.

In darker moments, they provide the vehicle for understanding the interior wrestlings of Alison’s parents, as they sing their inexpressibles. As her father, a popular local English teacher with an obsession for antiquities which extends to his museum-like restoration of their home, Robert Petkoff’s every move evokes subtle hints of the man’s internal struggles. Susan Moniz gives her mother, the ballast of this tense and exacting household, a particular form of rigidity rooted in both knowledge and anger.

As Alison’s college girlfriend, Karen Eilbacher moves with an ease which describes her comfortable self-knowledge, creating a door for Alison’s own. Robert Hager rounds out the cast, and underscores the father’s angst and sense of shame, as a series of separate and distinct young men who attract his illicit fancy. Which may give the impression that “Fun Home” is grim. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Though there are moments of deep sadness and guilt, this is essentially the story of self-discovery, and the joy to be found in being oneself.

Director Sam Gold keeps the thing fluid, as David Zinn’s costumes and sometimes minimalist sets make one able to look backward and forward at the show’s critical moments. Danny Mefford’s choreography utilizes the children’s gifts most remarkably, while Chris Fenwick’s musical supervision, and Micah Young’s musical direction of the onstage orchestra, links the real and the fantastical into a most satisfying whole.

“Fun Home” is, in the end, a whole-body experience. Played in 90 minutes, without intermission, its slow build keeps one enthralled until the shock and understanding of ending – one which tends to propel the watcher to his or her enthusiastic feet.

What: “Fun Home” When: Through April 1, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with added 2 p.m. performance March 30 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, in the Music Center 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $125 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Clash of Culture: “Free Outgoing” at East West Players

Anna Khaja as the desperate mother so central to "Free Outgoing" and its examination of media and cultural norms in modern India

Anna Khaja as the desperate mother so central to “Free Outgoing” and its examination of media and cultural norms in modern India

What happens when traditional values and rigid social norms come face to face with teenaged curiosity and social media? That is the essential question at the root of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s “Free Outgoing,” now onstage East West Players as part of their 51st anniversary celebration. Set in the state of Chennai, India, a teenaged girl, a promising student and the apple of her widowed mother’s eye, faces explosive reaction when a video of her sexual encounter with a boy at her school goes viral. With a mother on an impossible quest for damage control, a brother furious at the consequences for his own future, and a community rushing to judgement, the implications of gender bias and rigid societal norms come front and center.

Such a play – which is loosely based on an actual incident – could easily become preachy or pedantic, but Chandrasekhar has chosen a fascinating window on the situation. As a former journalist, she comes from the perspective of how someone like this loving mother reached the eventual stage of abject desperation which became public knowledge. What could have brought someone to that place? By peeling back layer after layer of maternal reaction, one reaches the true meat of the tale. The girl is focal to the story, and yet she is never seen. Instead it is the collateral damage we watch, as the mother, brother, and the mother’s occasionally supportive male colleague end up in an increasingly insular, and increasingly desperate space.

Anna Khaja is Malini, the proud mother, quick to show off the many academic awards her girl has won. As she processes the news of her daughter’s downfall, and the difference in severity of public reaction to the girl’s behavior over the boy involved, she goes through all of the stages of grief, from anger and denial through acceptance and even responsibility. It’s a strong and intelligent performance, often underplayed to significant effect.

As her fellow prisoner in this judgmental situation, Kapil Talwalkar gives the girl’s brother Sharan at once the quick temper of youth and a personal desperation, then gradually mellows this into a balance of previously unavailable connection to his mother and fierce protectiveness of his victimized sister. The warmth which begins to envelop these two central characters – mother and son – is also an important note of progress and understanding so different from the crowds which form outside their door.

Dileep Rao brings a moment of clarity as the father of the boy the girl was with, radiating a subtle but constant sense of gender privilege. Anil Kumar creates, in the awkward but sympathetic colleague, both a sense of earnest concern and a little edge of creepiness which powers later segments of the play. In a sterling bit of the actor’s art, Kavi Ladnier plays three extremely distinct characters who define the stages of Malini’s family’s degradation, so different from each other that it seems startling that a single actor could have created them all. In this she is aided by Rachel Myers’ satisfyingly apt costumes.

Still, this is Khaja’s play. Under the carefully paced direction of EWP’s artistic director Snehal Desai, this mother’s internal wrestle with culture, ethics, love and pain speaks volumes about powerlessness in the face of disaster. And, of course, the disaster itself speaks to the powerlessness of women in general, in a society where a woman’s reputation is everything, and is still couched in terms which allow little in the way of sexual expression or self-determination.

“Free Outgoing” offers, in a way, a reversal on the theme of “Death of a Salesman,” where a grown man’s actions undo his family and his life. Here a grown woman is undone by the guileless behavior of two people barely out of childhood, and watches all of life fall away due to externalities over which she has absolutely no control. As such it is a fascinating and empathetic character study, and a condemnation of any society which would impose such a severe and destructive norm, particularly in such an uneven circumstance.

What: “Free Outgoing” When: Through March 12, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso Street, in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $35 – $50, with student, senior and group discounts available Info: (213) 625-7000 or http://www.eastwestplayers.org

“Zoot Suit” is Back: a window on a forgotten past returns to the Taper

The famed opening moment of "Zoot Suit" - the first professionally produced Chicano play - in its revival at the Mark Taper Forum

The famed opening moment of “Zoot Suit” – the first professionally produced Chicano play – in its revival at the Mark Taper Forum

“Zoot Suit” is now extended until March 2, when it absolutely must close.

The return of Luis Valdez’s groundbreaking musical “Zoot Suit” to the Mark Taper Forum is less of a theatrical milestone than it is a major cultural event. Centered on the actual events revolving around the Sleepy Lagoon Murder and the Zoot Suit Riots – both “forgotten” parts of Los Angeles’ World War II history until this show opened in 1978 – the tale celebrates the culture of Mexican-American Los Angeles during that repressive time with a gravelly pride.

Still, one must stand back from the importance of the vehicle to also examine the production itself. Directed as before by its creator, Luis Valdez has worked to keep it true to the original in many strategic ways, from the carved newspaper opening to the iconic pose of El Pachuco – the symbol of Chicano masculinity which has remained central in Los Angeles’ Latino consciousness.

The blend of culture and language is also still central. Interestingly, this has always included a mixture of languages: Spanish, local slang, and English. For those who are familiar with all of these, and many Angelinos are, there is an immediate connection. For those who are less familiar, there may be a certain disconnect but also a chance to bump up against a vibrant part of the L.A. community in a most enthusiastic way. When the show was first produced, the program included a glossary of terms for the uninitiate. That is missing this time, but most of the audience may not need it.

Told through a combination of fact, fantasy and music, the story is elemental Los Angeles. During the period of World War II, a series of events led to the arrest of over 100 Mexican-American young men for the death of a single man near a reservoir euphemistically called Sleepy Lagoon. Their trial was less about a single murder and more about a condemnation of an entire people and an entire lifestyle, and is now well documented as a gross miscarriage of justice. The fight to defend the young men, and then to overturn their convictions, provides a backdrop for a love letter to a way of being and an innate toughness which carried a people through this very difficult time.

The cast divides into those playing the historical figures of the story, and those representing an elemental force which stood up against the inequities of the time period. Matias Ponce is Henry Reyna, the leader of a “boy gang” whose entire crew ends up arrested for something they didn’t do. As such, Ponce underscores Henry’s resolute sense of self, his sense of family, and his ability to keep himself together in the midst of a nearly hopeless situation. Standouts among Henry’s fellow zoot suiters include Raul Cardona exuding a particular maturity as the married father “Smiley,” Oscar Camacho as the impulsive Joey, and Caleb Foote as Tommy, the non-Hispanic member of the gang.

Melinna Bobadilla radiates with an innate innocence as Henry’s girlfriend, while Stephani Candelaria and Andres Ortiz make Henry’s siblings a study in contrasts. Brian Abraham gives a gravitas to the lawyer whose ardent defense of his young and mistreated clients seems as potent today as it does in its historical context. Tiffany Dupont, as the woman who coordinates communications between the legal team, walks that fine line for any woman of the period between femininity and official status.

But surrounding all of this, and more, are the more symbolic figures, and their presence ends up defining much of the action. Fiona Cheung, Holly Hyman and Mariela Arteaga form the singing Pachuca Trio, a multi-ethnic representation of L.A. itself. And, of course, there is Demian Bichir as El Pachuco, that central narrator and representation of the larger theme of the piece. Bichir has the moves and style down pat, though the directorial choice to have him speak in a gravelly voice (except when imitating others) has the side effect of making him often very difficult to understand. This is a pity as he is the glue holding the show and this production together.

The music, an eclectic mix of big band hits of the era with original songs and instrumentals by Lalo Guerrero and Daniel Valdez, and the upbeat swing choreography of Maria Torres add to the sometimes frenetic tone of the show, which proves energetic from start to finish. One should not really call this a musical, in the classic sense, in that there are no soulful songster moments but rather an undercurrent which creates the atmosphere of time and place.

All of which is not news to those who remember “Zoot Suit” from its first incarnation 39 years ago. For a new generation, reviving this story – which is simplified history, to some extent, but important nonetheless – puts modern struggles of identity and inclusion into context more startlingly than one would wish. However, despite a stated sense that this piece of theater is intended to speak to the larger issue of the Hispanic/Latino story in the US, it remains ultimately a story of Los Angeles and the particular consciousness of a large portion of our community. There it is received as golden, but one wonders how well that translates to the larger sphere.

What: “Zoot Suit” When: now extended through March 28, 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, 135 S. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $109 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Charming, polished “Beauty and the Beast” at Candlelight Pavilion

Matt Merchant is the Beast in  Candlelight Pavilion's

Matt Merchant is the Beast in Candlelight Pavilion’s “Beauty and the Beast”

Note: this production is currently sold out, though it may be possible that shows may be added to the schedule.

Local productions of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” are strangely hard to come by, considering both its charm and its general popularity. Now two disparate companies have joined forces to bring a solidly entertaining rendition to the edges of the Inland Empire, as the Inland Valley Repertory Theatre (IVRT) has come to the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont to make this potentially large musical shine on a comparatively small stage. The results are endearing, for the most part. The show is well cast and the magic works.

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past 25 years, you know some of Disney’s version of this ancient story. Belle, the beautiful, bookish daughter of an off-beat inventor, is pursued by Gaston, the village muscle-man, but yearns for a more romantic, expansive life. When her father is captured by a fearsome beast, she trades herself for his safety, and gradually comes to know the charms of both the beast and the magical castle he lives in. Still, Gaston will not be denied.

Lindsey Joan makes a charming Belle, with just the right carriage and vocal timbre to evoke the character everyone knows without being a carbon copy of the animated version. Matt Merchant has the mixture of size and grace needed to be the Beast, and sings with a conviction which makes his sorrowful “If I Can’t Love Her” one of the truly memorable moments in the production. Michael Moon, as Gaston, has the appropriately booming voice, selfish demeanor, and physique, to make him just as obnoxiously commanding as he’s supposed to be. Frank Minano manages to keep Belle’s father just kookie enough to seem a bit odd, but still warmly paternal.

In a show like this, the quality is often underscored by the supporting cast, and here this is very much the case. Bryan Overmyer seems to truly enjoy his time as the moderately lascivious Lumiere, Stanton Kane Morales gives warmth to the pompously precise Cogsworth, Nicholas Alexander somehow manages to make himself seem smaller than he is as Gaston’s minion Lefou, and Josh Tangermann proves as creepy as expected as the sinister Monsieur D’Arque. Angela Baumgardner makes a satisfyingly motherly Mrs. Potts, while Andrew Bar gives real presence to her son, Chip, which is remarkable when you consider that he spends most of the show as the face in a teacup.

Jenny Hoffman, Emma Nossal and Bailey Day Sonner prove most tuneful as the “Silly Girls” man-mad over Gaston, and Lizzie Porcari swishes about with style as Babette. Perhaps most impressively, Holly Jamison gives Madame La Grande Bouche the truly operatic voice she is supposed to have. All these fine performances are backed up by a solid and versatile ensemble.

Director John LaLonde has a real feel for material like this, managing to keep what could be a cloyingly saccharine story earnest and touching. Janet Renslow’s choreography manages the small stage well, though the often-celebrated, elaborately-patterned stein-clicking sequence during the hearty “Gaston” falls rather flat.

Still, that’s really the only hitch in a solid production. Completely kid-friendly, “Beauty and the Beast” offers a terrific chance to expose young people to the power and charm of live theater. At Candlelight, thanks to IVRT’s arrangement with the theater, one also gets a quality meal to go with the quality production (with reduced prices for the younger audience members). The combination can make for a satisfying adventure.

What: “Beauty and the Beast” When: Through February 5. Doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and Thursday, February 2. Doors open for lunch 11 a.m., Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $61-$76 adults, $30-$35 children under 14, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Ethics, Ethnicity, and Privilege: “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” at Sierra Madre Playhouse

Tamarra Graham as Shalita Burns meets, in her mind's eye, Leilani Smith and Jon Sprik as the characters in the memoir she is reading:

Tamarra Graham as Shalita Burns meets, in her mind’s eye, Leilani Smith and Jon Sprik as the characters in the memoir she is reading: “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” at SMP [Photo: Gina Long]


Although Thomas Gibbons’ play “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” has been billed as a story about cultural appropriation, the appeal underneath that essential concern is as large: the entire concept of literary ethics. As such, it plays not only to genuine and important concerns about who gets to tell stories tied thoroughly to a particular ethnic or cultural minority, but about all the angles authors have tried in desperation to get a work published. As such, even for those who would never think of embracing ethnic/cultural confusion, there are some very strong statements waiting at the core of the script.

As produced by Sierra Madre Playhouse, all of this comes fascinatingly to light. Well directed, well performed, and beautifully set, it becomes a show most definitely worth checking out.

Shelita Burns (Tamarra Graham) has joined a small publishing house as an editor, because they’ve given the green light to her quest to rediscover the lost voices of African American women authors long out of print, and create a series out of their works. Into that space has arrived a manuscript – a memoir of the life of a drifter, a woman who saw much of the South’s darkness, from Jim Crow forward. Her unique story has won a major non-fiction award, and though Burns had agreed that there would be no personal contact with Libby Price, the author, she decides to ignore this and give the award to Libby in person. This becomes its own rabbit hole, where it appears that nothing may be as has been assumed.

The arguments within the play – and for the audience – then stem from the tangled knot of knowledge and voice and empathetic response and even literary definition which evolve from what, at least initially, seems a pretty obvious concern. That very complexity – the fact that the play doesn’t try to make just a single point and slam it home – proves most satisfying. That, and the sheer quality of the production itself.

Graham makes her character at once deeply, emotionally connected to the work she is doing and ambitious enough to step outside her personal connection with the work she does to the greater rewards awaiting the success of the work she publishes. That balance, and the testing given to both parts, form the essence of the play. Olivia Cristina Delgado, as Shelita’s friend in the publishing business, underscores their elemental Gen-X-ness, and the business end of why a successful book is Shelita’s way forward.

Jon Sprik creates the dual characters of the Times reporter who makes Shelita voice her devotion to Libby’s work, and separate and distinctly develops the white man complicit in Libby’s story. Leilani Smith gives Libby – as narrator of the book she is credited with writing – an elemental warmth and earthiness which dances on the border between stereotype and genuineness, as the play demands.

SMP Artistic Director Christian Lebano provides the lynchpin to all of these characters as Sean, a writer living the under-appreciated life whose machinations bring Libby’s story to Shelita’s attention in ways which create every possible ethical question mark. By creating a character firm in his own unique understanding of the right, he provides Burns’ character with the ultimate foil, and underscores the complex nature of the questions the play has to ask.

Director Saundra McClain has set this episodic piece with a flow made possible by Christopher Scott Murillo’s multi-layered set, which allows the book’s characters to speak from behind a thin screen as those wrestling with the book’s content and future deal more concretely in the foreground. The seamlessness with which this story flows back and forth from the printed page to the modern understanding cements the power of the questions being asked.

In the end, “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” (the name comes from a quaint reference to the train stop beyond hell that someone who has done wrong may arrive at) will leave some in the audience with several levels of moral conundrums to discuss. As a writer, one sees several ethical lapses present in the narrative. Those with a closer connection to the culture being appropriated will find even more. Which are most important, or whether any are, will be the source of discussion after the play itself is done. But then, isn’t that one of the purposes of theater – to challenge one’s assumptions and leave room for change, doubt and revelation?

What: “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” When: through February 18, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with an additional matinee at 2:30 p.m. February 18. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth, $17 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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