Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Intimate, Engaging “A Raisin in the Sun” at A Noise Within

Saundra McClain as Lena Younger [Photo:Craig Schwartz]

By any measure, Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” is an essential part of the canon of American plays, but its messages prove especially needed in our current climate. In 1959, it became the first straight play by an African-American to appear on Broadway. It chronicles a decisive period in the life of the Younger family in post-World War II Chicago, and the dreams which grew out of or were squelched by that time, that place and that family.

Now a new and sparkling production at A Noise Within contains a specific intimacy which allows the many messages of the play to rise in rich moments of character and place. A strong piece with a strong and talented cast, it carries inside it the innate nobility of people who have risen up from darkness and can see – can just see – the light up ahead.

Saundra McClain leads the cast as Lena, the Younger matriarch. There is a passionate decisiveness in McClain’s Lena which gathers her clan – even those feeling caged by it – into a close-knit unit for which she is the foundation. Ben Cain makes the impulsive, ambitious and sometimes foolish Walter Lee an interesting balance of hope and anger, and shows in subtle carriage shifts the moments when a more cohesive manhood becomes a part of him.

Toya Turner makes Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth, move with that particular kind of tired which comes from swimming up stream all the time, as she wrestles between despair and the potential for promise. Perhaps most entertaining to watch is the energy of Sarah Hollis, whose Beneatha – the younger sibling working toward becoming a doctor – becomes a symbol of the coming generation, with its desire to reconnect with cultural roots and its push against the very things which have both sustained those working to rise and possibly kept them from rising.

As one of the two men Beneatha dates, Keith Walker radiates the privilege which creates class differences even among those fighting for recognition from the larger community. Amir Abdullah, by sheer carriage, exhibits in the African student the command of a person unburdened by the legacy of American slavery. Bert Emmett makes the white man with awkward news more of a product of his time than a villain, and as the youngest Younger, Sam Christian exhibits a genuine innocence which becomes the reason for so many others’ strivings.

Director Gregg T. Daniel has choreographed this production as much as directed it, creating intertwining patterns of love and frustration, of hopeful striding and heart-wrenched staggers, all in service of a genuineness which radiates a special kind of truth. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s set uses the the thrust A Noise Within stage to make the small apartment both restrictive and connected to the audience in important ways.

In short, the production at ANW is not to be missed. If you have seen this play many times you will not be disappointed in this version. If you have never seen it, take the chance to introduce yourself. It is, indeed, part of the canon and particularly apt in this fraught period in our history.

“A Raisin in the Sun” plays in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Henry V”.

What: “A Raisin in the Sun” When: through April 8, 2 p.m. March 11, 17, 25, 31, April 7 and 8; 7 p.m. March 11, 25 and April 8; 7:30 p.m. March 17, 15 and 29; 8 p.m. March 16, 17, 30, and April 7 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25, student rush $20, “pay what you can” March 14, 7:30 performance Info: (626) 356-3121 or


Allegiance: Important Statement, Mediocre Musical

George Takei, as the aged Sammy in the original Broadway production of “Allegiance” [photo: Matthew Murphy]

There are two ways to look at the East West Players/Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC)’s new production of the musical “Allegiance,” just opened at the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo. Both have a validity, which must be acknowledged, but the results of those two ways of examination may prove very different.

The first is the affirmation it gives to people of Japanese descent, as it tells the tale of that black mark on 20th century American history, the Japanese Internment. The story is an important one, and – as the program states – those Issei and Nissei who lived it are disappearing with time. Having a way to keep their story alive, and to let those culturally linked to it see themselves on stage, is important indeed. To some extent, “Allegiance” does that.

The other way to look at “Allegiance” is simply as a work of theater, evaluating it on the more universal aspects one normally ascribes to a Broadway musical. There the results are far more mixed. With all its good intentions, passion and relevence, “Allegiance” proves somewhat antiquated in style, formulaic in construction, and lacking the depth one would hope to find in a piece about something so profound.

The story follows a single family through the devastating changes to Japanese American life caused by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent Executive Order 9066, forcing all Japanese on the US mainland out of coastal areas, with the loss of homes and businesses, and into prison camps. In the process, it works to present the rifts within and around that Japanese community as they cope with the overt racism of this event: of generation, of political thought, and of action.

This is a tall order for any musical. The essential book, by Mark Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, although choppy at times, manages to cover this episodic story with breadth if not depth. However, Kuo’s musical numbers keep the pacing of the piece from working properly. Every single song is formulated the same way: start small and introspective, then build and build to a highly dramatic and affirmative ending, even if it really isn’t appropriate to end that way.

With the exception of the opening number – which promises all the elements which should be there throughout – the songs, which multiply during sequences in the camp, disrupt any attempt to build tension and dramatic structure. Instead, you have dialogue, dramatic musical affirmation, then a bit more dialogue, then another dramatic musical affirmation, pretty much in the same tone throughout. It makes what should be a consistently heartrending story become formulaic, and doesn’t really allow for enough development of characters we should want to care about.

Still, the ensemble works hard to make things flow, and to create characters which resonate with the audience. Ethan Le Phong and Elena Wang have the most fully rounded portraits to deal with, as the young adult brother and sister – Sammy and Kei Kimura – whose tale is central to the piece. Le Phong makes Sammy vibrate with an energy half anger and half determination to live into his identity as an American. Wang, as a woman trying to preserve the bond between generations, speaks to a growing self-identity forged through difficult times.

Scott Watanabe gives their determinedly Japanese father, legitimately angry at the loss of the fruits of a lifetime of labor, a stalwart, noble quality which underscores the reasonableness of the anger. George Takai makes the elderly grandfather the antithesis of this – a man who has long learned to adapt to whatever comes, finding a way to create his own happiness in the midst of disarray and discrimination.

Also worthy of note are Natalie Holt MacDonald as the white American army nurse assigned to the camp, whose heart goes out to the people she can only partially help and to Sammy in particular, and Greg Watanabe, as the recognized advocate for Japanese in America whose approach to government has been blamed by some as acquiescence.

Director Snehal Desai has worked to take this choppy thing and make it into a cohesive whole. At times this works brilliantly, as it does in the scene surrounding the family’s arrival at the Heart Mountain camp in northwest Wyoming. In others, even the constant use of Se Hyun Ho and Adam Flemming’s projection-rich sets cannot keep this show on emotional target.

In sum, the Japanese Internment was a blight on American democracy, and putting it on stage for all to see is important. As a contemporary anthropologist said at the time, the fact that these same internees returned to their homes and worked to become part of the American mainstream is remarkable, given their treatment. To celebrate their story and struggle in music and on stage, and to let Japanese Americans experience their own heritage is enriching within that community as well. “Allegiance” does all that. One just wishes it was as good as its intentions.

What: “Allegiance” When: through April 1, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Where: JACCC’s Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo How Much: $25 – $130 Info: (213) 680-3700 or

Boston Court’s “Streetcar”: Diversity Meets a Classic

Jaimi Paige as Blanche and Desean Kevin Terry as Stanley in Boston Court’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” [photo: Jeff Lorch]

When I was in high school and college, casting of the shows produced there was founded primarily in giving the best performers a chance at the best roles. This often meant that traditionally white characters were played by persons of color (though, it should be noted, rarely the other way around for understandable sensitivity reasons – even then we were way, way, way beyond black face). As I moved out into dealing with productions in the larger world, this was no longer the case, as the rising voices of actors of color has pointed out. Indeed, that very thing is one which made the casting of “Hamilton” so rich: the wide variety of ethnicities playing this country’s not-nearly-that-diverse Framers.

So then, in this new openness, it should not be surprising when the often experimental The Theatre at Boston Court decides to diversify their production of Tennessee Williams’ classic “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Indeed, it provides another layer of symbolism in this tale rich in class intolerance, brutal reality, and the deep fantasy of the traditional South.

It is, of course, the tale of Blanche DuBois, a middle-aged single white woman from Mississippi who has lost the family home but still lives with the airs of a Southern belle. With nothing left, she travels from her small town to her married sister Stella’s home in the French Quarter of New Orleans. There she moves in with the sister and her rough-hewn brother-in-law, condemning both the marriage and their small apartment for not living up to the upbringing and status she finds worthy. As the play unfolds, the true story of Blanche’s own downfall, and her mental fragility, play out against the heightened dynamic of her sister’s marriage and her own wan hopes for a more gentle future.

At Boston Court, director Michael Michetti has placed the piece in a multicultural New Orleans, with the landlords upstairs as Latinos and both Stella and her husband Stanley as African American. With Blanche left as white, the underscore of social difference is illustrated far beyond the lines of the play (which are not changed to accommodate the ethnic shift – Stanley is still Polish, etc.). That it works as well as it does comes from the straightforward commitment of the actors themselves and the power of Williams’ characterizations. As a result, the story and the people in it simply expand beyond the visually obvious.

The one hitch in this “keep the script the same, but make the rest different” concept is the melding of the contemporary with a play first produced in 1947, not from an ethno-cultural standpoint, but in the small details. For example, Blanche speaks of telegrams, and talking to the telephone operator. Stella and Stanley carry cell phones. One can, and perhaps should, treat these oddities as yet another layer of her fantasy life, but it sometimes takes one out of the play to concentrate on rationalization. On the other hand, the music manipulated by sound designer and DJ Sam Sewell moves it into the contemporary. It is a conundrum.

Still, the performers keep the production compelling, regardless of the details of setting. Jaimi Paige gives Blanche the right combination of snooty airs and inner terror in ways which emphasize both her deeply annoying condescension and the terrible underpinnings her desperate keeping up of appearances conceals. Maya Lynne Robinson gives Stella a significant sense of command. Indeed the marriage of Stella and Stanley, even with its defined edges, has an unusually strong atmosphere of equality about it largely due to the way Robinson defines her role. Desean Kevin Terry walks that fine line with Stanley between the traditionally defined sense of maleness and a need to push against a belittling in his own home which seems to echo messages from outside it as well.

Luis Kelly-Duarte creates in Mitch, Blanche’s brief love interest, the kind of sensitivity which puts him squarely between the standards of Stanley and the needs of Blanche. Mariana Marroquin makes very interesting work of Eunice, the practical upstairs neighbor, while Joma Saenz makes her husband Steve just needy enough to create yet another layer of masculinity in the piece. In a small but standout role, Chris Ramirez turns the young bill collector at the door into a rich picture of innocence – the antithesis to the agendas of everyone else in the play.

Director Michetti creates an architecture of characters within a set which is itself an impressive piece of architecture. Efren Delgadillo, Jr. has designed the framework of the apartment in such a way that the audience – seated not only in front but along the sides – is allowed to look inside the lives of everyone in the building with a particular intimacy. Indeed, that is a hallmark of this production: its sense of intimacy, which makes all the human tragedies so much more engrossing.

In total, one can best say that this is “not your father’s/mother’s ‘Streetcar'” but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Go for the artistry. Put on your ability to suspend the literal, and look for the depth the Boston Court production has to give. It will be worth your time.

What: “A Streetcar Named Desire” When: through March 25, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $39 general, $34 senior, $20 student Info: (626) 683-6801 or

Moliere’s “Too Learned Ladies”: Modern Adaptation at Parson’s Nose r.: Hannah Mae Sturges, John Rafter Lee, Jill Rogosheske and Dorothy Brooks go cultish in Parson’s Nose’s adaptation of Moliere, “Too Learned Ladies”

Parson’s Nose Theater is a unique enterprise which, after existing for a number of years in other people’s houses, has finally found a home of its own in Old Town Pasadena. The group has as its mission “introducing classic theater to audiences of all ages”. In other words, they take classics of the canon and rewrite them in shorter form, utilizing less ardently poetic and/or antiquated speech, and thus make them approachable for those who find sitting through Shakespeare, Moliere, and the like to be both arduous and somewhat perplexing. Indeed, the point may be to have people fall in love with the ideas before they must wrestle with the greater complexities.

Whether one approves of this approach to great works or not, the company does have a purpose, put on display in their version of Moliere’s “Too Learned Ladies” (originally a 5-act play called “The Learned Ladies”) now running in their new and permanent space. A very late and rarely done Moliere piece, it ridicules both educational charlatans and women who embraced a faux intellectualism to rise in the social pecking order of the time. As such, it rings amusingly true to a modern audience, especially as done by Parson’s Nose, in modern dress using modern language in what can best be described as the Reader’s Digest version of the play.

In the household of Chrysale, there is significant upheaval. His wife, Philaminte has come under the spell of a charlatan named Trissotin, who spouts awful poetry, claims to understand the cosmos, and broaches no argument with his supposed genius. Having sucked in both her spinster sister-in-law, Belise, and her daughter Armande, Philaminte uses her supposedly superior knowledge as a weapon to control Chrysale, and rid the house of faithful servants who see through Trissotin’s con-artist ways.

Now her other daughter, Henriette, wishes to marry young Clitandre. Although Chrysale is happy to say yes, his role as henpecked spouse means he must get Philaminte’s approval as well. While his brother-in-law, Ariste, pushes him to stand up for himself and his daughter, Belise develops a theory that Clitandre is really in love with her, and Philaminte forges plans for a different fate for Henriette. How will it all end, and what can be done to shake the household free from the firm, cultish hold Trissotin has on so many?

Lance Davis, who co-wrote this adaptation of the original and also directs, plays Chrysale with a sheepishness which allows the rest of the play to make sense. Jill Rogosheske makes a powerful and pompous Philaminte, and John Rafter Lee has a ball spouting the ridiculous theories and horrible poetry of Trissotin. Dorothy Brooks has considerable comic effect as the foolish Belise, and Hannah Mae Sturges displays all the intense conviction of the recent convert as Armande.

Frasier Perez-Yadon gives the earnest suitor, Clitandre, the combination of sense and ardor which makes him a suitable foil for all the foolishness in his intended’s household. In this he is aided by Paul Perri’s solidly sensible Ariste. Kyla Schoer gives the hapless Henriette a genuine quality which makes her a standout. James Calvert, playing three distinct and essential roles, appears to be having the most fun, as a maid, a rather unfortunate “beat” styled poet, and the sensible notary called upon to sort out the disparate opinions of Henriette’s parents about her future.

Davis and Gary Lamb have given this silly story a modern framework of language which makes it very approachable, and lets the humor shine through. It is a most entertaining, if quite short, evening of theater. Jen Orsini’s simple set, and mostly modern-dress costuming, lets the whole thing move swiftly from scene to scene, and the pacing of the thing keeps the comedy of the play itself in focus.

Understand that there are, perhaps, things lost in the Parson’s Nose approach. Most translations/adaptations of Moliere try to preserve the concept that the originals were written in verse, and that is gone here. Yet, so are the cultural references which translate poorly to a modern audience, and the jokes about the court of Louis XIV which no longer resonate. Still, it is a great starting place for those who would love to know more about classic theater, but need to be convinced it can be approachable. If that is what you are after, this production of “Too Learned Ladies” will prove entertaining, non-threatening, and charmingly polished.

What: “Too Learned Ladies” When: through March 4, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays Where: Parson’s Nose Theater, 95 N. Marengo Ave. Suite 110 (entrance on Holly St.), in Pasadena How Much: $30 adults, $20 seniors, $15 students Info: (626) 403-7667 or

A Noise Within’s “Henry V” – Powerful Portrait, Well Played, But…

Rafael Goldstein (center) is Henry V, mounting the set at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Of all the history plays of Shakespeare, the one which has always fascinated me most is “Henry V”. From its prologue, which defines the very essence of live theater and the suspension of disbelief, through the humanity of its central figure wrestling with the understood demands of the crown and the lasting echoes of a misspent youth, it has an articulation of language and emotion which have always caught my imagination.

Now a new, pared down version of this great play is opening the spring repertory season at A Noise Within in Pasadena. Gifted with strong and versatile actors and a direction which keeps the play from becoming too static, it seethes with the balance of forces which can make a rational man move into war, and a different, more immature one look upon it as a playful adventure. The great speeches are there, and the essential elements, but the particular editing of the script (though some version is almost always necessary for modern playgoers) leaves a question mark or two.

In this production, and with a couple of exceptions, everyone in the comparatively small company plays at least two and sometimes three parts. Everyone joins in to give parts of the various speeches assigned to Chorus, rather than have someone assigned that part. This proves an interesting effect, although cutting up the speech into chunks may dilute the power of what is said. Even so, that it all works as smoothly as it does is a testament to the versatility of the company, and the singular vision of the directors.

The story is essentially that of Henry’s determination to defeat the army of France and retake lands there which had traditionally belonged to the English crown. It is a tale which, for two reasons, would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audience. First because Henry was seen and celebrated as a great warrior king. Second because this play followed upon two others about Henry’s youth, and his escapades with some rather questionable cronies, including the wildly popular Sir John Falstaff (Henry IV, parts 1 and 2) and an extra play just about Falstaff (The Merry Wives of Windsor),

Indeed, that character’s popularity had obviously begun to weigh upon the playwright, or the actor playing Falstaff, to the point where this play is used to kill him off.

Which is where the production at ANW becomes interesting. In the editing of the play done, one assumes, by directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, the comic characters who had surrounded Falstaff are given fairly short shrift. They show up briefly and some of their more comic moments are cut.

This is perhaps because the focus of this spring repertory is on courage, and too much emphasis on the bawdy or self-serving nature of these comedians would detract from that larger theme. Olivier did much the same – needing to concentrate on Henry the hero – when filming the play during World War II. It works. Still, leaving in an execution scene involving these folk, when you have not explained why that execution would be hard for Henry, makes him seem less conflicted about his role in the life and death decisions his position makes him take. That is unfortunate.

Yet, despite this, the play is very well performed. Rafael Goldstein is Henry, making him intense and direct, but as human as Shakespeare intended – able to rouse men to action and to loyalty while still wrestling with the depth of responsibility which comes with what he is doing, Goldstein excels at this kind of balance, and his work centers the play. As his most obvious foil, Kasey Mahaffy is at his best as the petulant Dauphin, while Erika Soto makes lovely work of the French princess, Katherine, who will be one of Henry’s prizes if he wins. All of this is surrounded by a solidly ensemble cast involving many of the best of the ANW company.

Still, there are a few question marks which must be addressed. The set, by Frederica Nascimento is imposing, but cumbersome. It is often positioned in a way which appears somewhat illogical, and gets in the way of some of the battle scenes. Costumer Angela Balogh Calin has created amorphous-period clothing which suits the militarism of the piece, and allows for the carrying about of broadswords, but why has the fight choreographer, Kenneth R. Merckx, Jr., only given shields to the French? It makes for much noise, but a seemingly unequal fight.

Most uncomfortably, the choice to keep a line without its reason. A sequence has been cut in which the French circumvent Henry’s lines, burn his army’s tents and massacre all the young squires waiting behind the battle. That is fine, as it neatens the whole battle concept, but then why leave in Henry’s statement, written specifically to address hearing of the massacre of these boys, as a closing line to that battle sequence? Without context it becomes wryly comic, and seems out of tune with the character or what is going on.

Which is all to say that the performers are very good, and the production proves powerful and interesting. Its visual feel, except when the set gets in the way, has an authority which ties the piece together well. Using a cast of 16 to play 30+ people resonates with what Shakespeare himself was confronted with. And the play works. One could wish some edits were designed differently, and that a Chorus was there as a single voice to call all to use their imaginations, but Henry survives all of this, and does so with style.

Go see “Henry V”. It is not often done, and this one captures the central points of Shakespeare’s concept: that a man once profligate has molded himself into an inspiring leader, but at a cost. That this king knows war is hell, but counts on God and the loyalty of his diverse army to push through against remarkably uneven odds to the attainment of what he truly believes to be the right. And all this with some of the Bard’s most inspired language.

“Henry V” will soon play in repertory with “A Raisin in the Sun” and, later, the comic “Noises Off”.

What: “Henry V” When: 2 p.m. February 17 and 18, March 10, 18 and 24 and April 1; 7 p.m. March 18 and April 7; 7:30 p.m. April 5; 8 p.m. March 9, 10, 23 and 24, and April 6 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25, group and rush tickets available Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or

Unpacking the Baggage: “Water by the Spoonful” at the Taper

L-R: Josh Braaten, Sean Carvajal, Keren Lugo and Luna Lauren Vélez in “Water by the Spoonful” at the Mark Taper Forum. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Water By The Spoonful,” just opened at the Mark Taper Forum, continues the legacy of her “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue”, now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Elliott, honorably discharged from the Marines after being wounded in Iraq, has lost the woman who raised him to cancer – the woman he considers his mother – works a minimum wage job, and is haunted by the image of an Iraqi man uttering a phrase in Arabic. This is where we begin.

Elliot’s search for family connection, those family members’ search for roots or redemption, and the wider circle of people who influence those yearnings provide the story of this play. Clues to these people’s vital, and sometimes vitriolic, interconnectedness build gradually, and often painfully, in ways defined as much by the performers as by the script itself. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has her focus on their elemental isolation, and the devastating effect of the lost or sacrificed links to humanness.

Sean Carvajal plays Elliot as far more of a street kid than his counterpart at the Douglas – reactionary and emotional, and more youthful (which is odd, as it takes place a few years after the previous play). Still, it works as a contrast to the cousin who is also his closest friend. Keren Lugo’s Yazmin – an adjunct professor desperate to keep family traditions and connections – uses a scholarly calm to balance Elliott’s passionate intensity in ways which obviously set her up as the new family core, now that her favorite aunt is gone.

Nick Massouh provides the definition for the terrors Elliott can’t move past, as both the ghost of his dreams and the professor who translates the Arabic phrase the ghost repeats throughout the play.

Running a concurrent, then intertwined narrative with Elliott’s, Luna Lauren Velez makes understated work of Odessa, another aunt of Yazmin’s, and the web mistress of a chat site for recovering meth addicts. It works in a low-key way which heightens the tremendous angst at the play’s close. As another recovering addict on the site, Orangutan, Sylvia Kwan’s immaturity and conflict balance well against Chutes&Ladders, played by Bernard K. Addison as the calming, if overly self-protective member of the group.

As Fountainhead, the overblown nom de plume for the newest list member – a man still in denial of his powerful need for crack – Josh Braaten is awkwardly pompous, a trick in part of the script but greatly a matter of manner. This makes him difficult for the onstage group and the audience to connect to, which is, of course, the point.

Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has splayed these personalities across Adam Rigg’s broad and eclectic set. It works for the most part, until the last scenes, when the introduction of a bathtub seems disconnected from any of the spaces one has encountered, making it somewhat inexplicable.

Still, in the end, what one comes away with in this version of this production is almost a voyeuristic sense of watching train wrecks happen in slow motion. Secrets spew, fears capture, sorrows are huge, and disconnects are potent. That this is, indeed, a portrait of America (hence the Pulitzer Prize) says a great deal about the actual American experience. That this portrait is as recognizable as it is speaks to the undercurrent of our national identity in a way which is tragic, human and very real.

What: “Water by the Spoonful” When: through March 11, 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 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue: A Trilogy Starts at the Douglas

L-R: Rubén Garfias, Peter Mendoza and Jason Manuel Olazábal in “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

What happens when a young man joins the service as his father and grandfather before him did? Over the course of our national narrative, particularly over the last century, this has been a recognized, even celebrated legacy. Bring it up to modern times, however, and modern sensibilities, and what is this legacy actually doing? How does the enormous irregularity of Vietnam play into that framework?

“Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue,” the first in a trilogy by Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes, examines this and more as it balances three generations of a Puerto Rican family’s struggle with just that legacy. Now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, the play examines what these men carry with them, what they cannot tell, how they coped, what that cost, then balances that against their innate love of the natural beauty found in an island which remains a nation within the larger nation they fight for.

Elliot is young Marine back from the invasion of Iraq to recover from wounds suffered there. He enlisted without telling his family, but proud of the fact his father and grandfather had also served. His father, Pop, never talks about Vietnam, though he met Elliot’s mother – a nurse in an evac hospital – during his own recovery from wounds. His grandfather suffered through the winters in Korea, keeping his fellow combatants’ spirits up by playing Bach on his flute. We watch an interplay – a fugue – of all four people’s experiences, both in combat and in coping with the after-effects of what they cannot fully explain.

In this mix, what will Elliot do, as he struggles to define the older men’s understanding, and prepare himself for a return to the front?

Peter Mendoza fills Elliot with the optimism of youth, and a quiet version of curiosity about how his own understandings stack up against those of the older men who will not share experiences with him. Jason Manuel Olazabal moves like a man with something twisting inside as he relives the nameless threats which balance against and overwhelm humane moments of soldiering, the scarring effects of Vietnam. Ruben Garfias handles the switches from aged grandfather declining into dementia to young soldier struggling to play a flute with frostbit fingers – the inner memories which may not surface.

All turn wistful when thinking of the lush greenery of Puerto Rico, and their sense of community there even when returning after long absence. In this they echo Caro Zeller’s former nurse, pulled into a sense of life by tending a random, junglesque garden in the midst of New York. That constant juxtaposition of verdant life with the consistent experience of death and horror which constitutes military action forms another fugue within the play.

Director Shishir Kurup has used Sibyl Wickersheimer’s seemingly simple photo panel set to create a sense of generational link and disconnect as one floats from the present to the past to the present again while the stories intertwine. The focus on the fragility of each of these characters, even as each of them pull themselves up to move forward, underscores the needed message this play has for the world. Depending on who one empathizes with, this can be read – as most fugues can – more than one way.

“Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue” is the first in Hudes’ “Elliot Trilogy,” which are all being performed in Los Angeles in overlapping productions – the first time any city has hosted all three at once. Next on the list is “Water By the Spoonful” at the Mark Taper Forum.

What: “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue” When: Through February 25, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

Powerful, Timely “Ragtime” at Candlelight Pavilion

The Cast of “Ragtime” at Candlelight – the elements which made the 20th Century

By design or by accident several local theater companies have offered up seasons including classic shows which address very, very current issues. One such is the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater where, and not for the first time in this last calendar year, they are producing something powerfully relevant while also being impressively entertaining.

Indeed, their recently opened production of Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ musical “Ragtime,” based on E.L.Doctorow’s award-winning novel, finds the setting of Candlelight Pavilion an advantage. Originally over-produced, this less overblown presentation allows what works in the show to shine through. And in times like these, the messages it has to offer prove particularly important.

The story of both novel and musical centers around three distinct groups of people, the African-American musical scene of Harlem centered around ragtime musician Colehouse Walker, the upscale white suburbanites defined by Mother, and the eastern European refugees focused on an Ashkenazi Jew from Latvia. As their stories bump into each other, and into the famous names of their New York, the layers of hardship and privilege, of racial stereotyping and artistic creativity, of injustice and promise intertwine in ways which prove both tragic and enriching. It is a disturbing mirror for anyone watching today, as many of its concerns are still uncomfortably present.

What makes “Ragtime” work is the richness of the music, and the genuineness of the characters most central to the tale. At Candlelight, the company’s largest-ever cast includes several remarkable performances which make this all happen. Standouts include strong, intensely focused and deeply heartfelt performance of Trance Thompson as Colehouse, balanced by the sincerity of Jessica Mason as Sarah, the mother of his child. Christianna Rowader gives a balance of empathy and frustration to Mother – a woman coming into her own at a time when society had already defined her place. In this she is aided by young Andrew Bar, articulate and interesting as Mother’s Little Boy.

As Tateh, Allen Everman evokes a quiet desperation while Orlando Montes and Cheyene Omani play with the characters of two of the era’s most colorful personas: magician Harry Houdini and scandalous Evelyn Nesbit. All of these are backed by a strikingly good ensemble who supply major figures of the time, and create the world in which these people move, and sing the show’s powerful songs. Most notable is RaShonda Johnson, whose dirge for the dead Sarah becomes one of the evening’s standout moments.

But, although the ending is frankly overly hopeful, “Ragtime” is worth seeing at this time in history because of what it shows us in our past: racial injustice and the historic grounding for Black distrust of institutions, marginalization and squalor as experienced by those who immigrated to this country during that time (and who we now know laid the groundwork for much of its success), and the myopia of traditional power structures intent on turning back the clock to a “safer” place. It is a warning, and it is a rich hope for a world where we can, indeed, look back on these stories as from a time which we have finally outgrown.

What: “Ragtime” When: through February 24, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for matinees at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $63-$78 adults, $30-$35 for children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or

“Pirates” at the Playhouse: Reimagined with Humor and Mayhem

Doug Pawlik as Freddy in Pirates of Penzance at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jenny Graham]

For just over 100 years, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in London produced the comic operas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan just as they had when the company hosted their premieres. But times changed, and they did not. By continuing to do these classic, silly operettas just as they had been produced originally, right down to costume designs and sets, they may have operated as a time capsule, but the world around them gradually passed them by. This is sad, because – as has been amply illustrated at the Pasadena Playhouse – by being innovative, something like “The Pirates of Penzance” can appeal to a new audience.

There, The Hypocrites, an innovative company based in Chicago, has arrived with their version of this charmingly ridiculous show. It is anything but static, either in time or for the audience itself, who not only becomes participant, but must occasionally get up and move out of the way as the small, multi-talented company dances about. To be honest, Gilbert and particularly Sullivan suffer a bit in the process, but the end result is fun, funny, and connected to the contemporary audience this company is trying to reach.

For starters, you won’t recognize the Playhouse itself. Its interior has been transformed into a tropical wharf-like space with bleachers and picnic tables, kiddie pools, a tiki bar, and a pier all of which are occupied by both the audience and the cast who wades through them. The music, originally written for a standard stage orchestra is performed by ten singer-instrumentalists, many of whom play multiple parts and all of whom play one or more of the kind of instruments you can carry around with you, including the accordion, because they are all constantly on the go.

The tale itself is silly but fairly straightforward. Freddy, as he is called here, was apprenticed by accident to pirates at a young age and has now reached his maturity. As such he informs the Pirate King that he wishes to leave and will, sadly, being now loyal to his nation, soon be hunting his former shipmates down as criminals. He is urged to take along with him Ruth, the maid who brought him to the pirates, and who has been the only woman he has ever seen, but Freddy rightfully feels he ought to see what other women look like before agreeing to settle down with Ruth. Then the pirate crew spy the lovely daughters of a local Major General, Freddy falls for Mabel, one of the daughters, and much singing, tension and general fun ensues.

At the Playhouse this is all set as if one was at a beach party on the lake. The audience interacts constantly with the performers, some of whom play several parts (pirates double as the army called in to subdue them, etc.), and the entire proceeding is rather spectacularly fluid.

Standouts in this production include Doug Pawlik as a skinny, earnest Freddy, Dana Omar in the dual role of Ruth (with her gray hair in rollers) and Mabel, and Shawn Pfatsch as the Pirate King. Still, as is always true in this silly thing, the standout is Matt Kahler as the vapid and completely unqualified Major General, in part because he does a superb job with Gilbert and Sullivan’s most ridiculous and ridiculously difficult patter song.

If there is a down side in all of this it comes in two aspects. First, the style of the thing is frenetic, bounding from spot to spot in the performance area and making it sometimes difficult for the uninitiate to tell where to focus next. Second, staging the entire thing basically in the audience space is not necessarily the most advantageous to the sound system. Gilbert’s lyrics and lines are funny and the acoustics muddy the diction, sometimes significantly.

Still, it was fun to watch small children engaging with the performers in the midst of the storyline, and to get a feel for the free-wheeling “get up if you need to, the bar is open, this is a party” spin on the thing. Director Sean Graney and his merry band are most certainly having fun, and that fun is infectious. Nods also to Katie Spelman for the seemingly impromptu choreography. In the end, those who are Gilbert and Sullivan purists must turn back to Queen Victoria’s own response to this when new: “This time… We are amused.”

What: “The Pirates of Penzance” When: through February 25, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: starting at $25 Info: (626) 356-PLAY or

“Cabaret” in La Mirada: Remarkable and Timely

The cast, led by Jeff Skowron (center) welcomes you to “Cabaret” at the La Mirada Theatre [photo: Jason Niedle]

One of the most emotionally unsettling musicals to make it to the Broadway stage is John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Cabaret.” Based on John Van Druten’s play “I Am a Camera,” which was taken from Christopher Isherwood’s short novel “Farewell to Berlin,” it shows in small the creeping infection of Nazism into the freewheeling life of early 1930s Berlin. By balancing the story of Cliff – based on Isherwood – an aspiring writer who ends up knee deep in the social shifts of the period with performances in a dark and dubious caberet, one looks at Hitler’s rise from the under side. It has always proven telling and disquieting, and absolutely fascinating.

Never has one seen it done more strikingly than in the new production just opened at La Mirada Theatre courtesy of McCoy Rigby Entertainment. Between small adjustments to the script and song list, and a surreal setting worthy of classic UFA films of the time, graced with performances ranging from very fine to absolutely remarkable, this new production brings back and may even amplify the punch of the original. It is not comfortable, but then it was never supposed to be. It is, however, extraordinarily good theater.

The story follows Cliff as he moves into a boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider, an aging, fatalistic spinster whom he watches fall in love with the Jewish fruit seller who is one of her less questionable boarders. Cliff becomes friends, and eventually lovers, with Sally Bowles, the Englishwoman who headlines at the Kit Kat Klub, a cabaret filled with licentious and edgy entertainers led by its odd and slippery emcee. Cliff wrestles with Sally’s unique morality (or lack of it), with the fact his first real friend in Berlin turns out to be a Nazi, and with what he sees coming for Schneider and her love interest. All the while cabaret performances break into the story line to highlight the shifting winds of humor and ethic, and portend horrors to come.

There are so many things to celebrate about this particular production, but the most obvious to all is the performance of Jeff Skowron as The Emcee. Creepy, clever, cold-eyed and challenging, Skowron makes the character as lascivious and undefinable as possible, creating the chilling atmosphere which swallows all human emotion in favor a kind of sexual sarcasm. It works well and lays the foundation for all attempts at genuine feeling and lightness the show contains.

Embracing what often seems the show’s least interesting part, as he spends most of his time being the observer, is Christian Pedersen as the wide-eyed young American novelist. He gives to Chris an easily manipulated, genuinely nice guy spirit whose social innocence leads him into adventure, and to the edges of a national disaster. Zarah Mahler handles the very tricky part of Sally with an important confidence. Sally is not supposed to be as good a performer as advertised, but to do that means tamping back Mahler’s own skills until, suddenly, Sally finds her own voice on the show’s namesake song. Then she roars into life, even as her song celebrates fatalistic self-destruction.

The true standouts of the piece, other than Skowron, are Kelly Lester and Jack Laufer as the elderly, doomed romantic couple. Most particularly worthy of note is Lester’s Schneider in her wrenching “What Would You Do?”, sacrificing love for safety in a time which will allow her neither, and Laufer’s genuineness, which makes their entire affair just that much more elementally sad.

Director Larry Carpenter has reimagined this work in interesting ways. For one, removing the comparatively cutesy “Meeskite” and adding a song removed from the original Broadway production (though added to the film), “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes”, thus giving added focus to the rising intensity of the thing. The use of John Iacovelli’s mobile, forced perspective drops and set pieces, the angular choreography of Dana Solimando’s cabaret numbers, the use of puppetry at a pointed moment, the mostly gray costuming of David Kay Mickelsen, and the sense of hovering doom created by Carpenter’s staging work together to make this piece – as intentionally fractured as it is – a powerful whole,

I cannot think of a time more apt for such a polished, innovative production of this work. It is good to be reminded how the innocent can become participant in the rise of horror, how quickly what is laughable can become frightening, if ignored, and how soon fear and a sense of privilege can lead people who seem otherwise reasonable into an attitude of acquiescence or complicity in the evil which comes. Read Laufer’s bio in the program if you need a further nudge. Go see this before it disappears, if you want a rich experience of what a powerful thing musical theater can be.

What: “Cabaret” When: Through February 11, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20-$70 general; student, senior and group discounts are available Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or

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