Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

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

This Year’s Panto: “Cinderella…” Proves Underwhelming

(L - R) Lauren Taylor, Alex Newell  Matthew Patrick Davis and the ensemble of  A CINDERELLA CHRISTMAS at The Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Philicia Endelman]

(L – R) Lauren Taylor, Alex Newell Matthew Patrick Davis and the ensemble of A CINDERELLA CHRISTMAS at The Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Philicia Endelman]

For the past five years, the Pasadena Playhouse has chosen not to produce the standard fare, opting instead to invite in the Lythgoe Family Panto as a holiday children’s treat. Always starring a big name or two, the plays are founded on the old British pantos, which featured a well-known story and included in its cast at least one cross-dressed character. The Lythgoe versions have featured Peter Pan, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Aladdin, and now Cinderella in their newest, “A Cinderella Christmas”.

These shows, written by Kris Lythgoe and directed by Bonnie Lythgoe, are listed as musicals, though the music is usually pop hits and other contemporary favorites maneuvered into a more classic story. They are interactive, with audience members asked to boo, clap and shout out phrases as the play unwinds, and they have an intentionally over-the-top silliness which can power through any shaky script bits and keep the audience engaged.

However, with their Cinderella story, they may have hit a few snags. For one thing, the show is very talky by comparison with their usual, and many of the jokes are aimed at adults rather than the kids who fill the room. Not that keeping adults amused is a bad thing, but the trick is to pull what Warner Brothers cartoons were famous for: making the kids laugh and the adults laugh at the same time, even if for different reasons. This time, that really doesn’t happen much.

The second is one bit of casting. There are always a few famous leads, and this production is no exception. Morgan Fairchild plays the baroness who is Cinderella’s stepmother, and at this she does a rather underplayed but suitable job. However, Disney Channel’s Lauren Taylor has adopted that back-of-the-throat, sliding singing style which is great for modern pop music, but does not carry well onstage. As a result, unless you are familiar with the song she’s singing, like Katy Perry’s “Rise”, you can’t understand the lyrics. The choice of music for the character may also be at fault for the underwhelming nature of her singing performance as well, as most of her songs are low and slow and make the necessarily lively pacing of the show drag to a virtual halt – something for which she cannot be blamed.

On the other hand, Alex Newell, cross-dressed as the Fairy Godperson, sings up a storm and pretty much stops the show near the end with his version of One Moment in Time. Likewise, Kenton Duty’s Prince Charming proves most likable, with solid timing and stage presence and charming musical-theater voice. Ben Giroux and Josh Adamson, take up yet more cross-dressed parts, having a delightful time as the completely atrocious step-sisters. Oh, those mind-boggling costumes!

Another standout is Davi Santos as the prince’s audacious and engaging personal servant. Also fine is Matthew Patrick Davis, who turns Cinderella’s best friend, Buttons, into the show’s single most attractive character, provides most of the narration and direct communication with the audience, and even handles those not-quite-successful joke lines like a pro. As is sometimes true of such a show, there would be no “there” there without that performance.

A nod must also be made toward the dancers, both the six adults who frame the piece and the bevy of children (two groups alternate performances) who show style and emotional engagement with the material from start to finish. Most of the choreography, by Spencer Liff, seems more suited to providing back-up to a pop star than to a Prince holding a ball, etc., but it is lively and very well performed.

The person in charge of the music, Michael Orland, does a lot with a small (and slightly over-amplified) band, and the combination of set designer Ian Wilson and lighting designer Chris Wilcox give this extremely episodic storyline a continuity.

All of which is means that “A Cinderella Christmas” can be fun (though its correlation with Christmas is tenuous at best). It just doesn’t quite hold up, either in script or in production, to some of the other Lythgoe products of the past. Still, it is silly, the kids get to shout at the stage on cue and, if one purchases a “gold ticket”, even come up on stage at the end. There is even a chance to wave the occasional magic wand or sword to make things happen. Particularly for young children, this may be a better bet than those Christmas shows which rely more thoroughly on a story simply to be watched.

What: “A Cinderella Christmas” When: through January 8, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 12 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 12 p.m. and 4 p.m. Sundays, with special matinees at 3 p.m. December 23, 26, 28 and 30, and January 5. No shows December 25 or January 1. Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25-$125 (no charge for children under 2, if they sit on a lap) Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

Engaging “A Christmas Carol” Charms at A Noise Within

Alan Blumenfeld (Christmas Present) and Geoff Elliott (Scrooge) in ANW's A Christmas Carol. [Photo Craig Schwartz]

Alan Blumenfeld (Christmas Present) and Geoff Elliott (Scrooge) in ANW’s A Christmas Carol. [Photo Craig Schwartz]


For some theatrical companies, versions of the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” have become an annual staple. One such theater is A Noise Within, in Pasadena. When they first moved from Glendale to this, their permanent home, I went to see what they’d done with the time-honored story, and was generally pleased even though there was a most odd and somewhat deflating costuming choice at the end which truly got in the way. Now, four years later, I decided it was probably time to take another look.

When evaluating what spectacle may be added to this tale, one must always remember that Dickens, and many after him up to and including Patrick Stewart, have made theater by simply reading the thing aloud onstage. It is that powerful all on its own. What theatricality one adds must never get in the way of the story itself, and – at least in my book – retain the innate spookiness of the thing which makes Scrooge’s fear real and his conversion more understandable.

A Noise Within’s co-artistic directors, Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, who also co-direct this production, have honored this concept most of the time. There are still signature dollops of ensemble in anachronistic diaphanous fluff and bowler hats, but they are mostly enhancing the scary or dreamlike bits. Thus, in Elliott’s adaptation, the original author is treated as star of the piece.

Freddy Douglas acts as narrator, in contemporary dress, reading Dickens’ evocative descriptions and setting up each scene. Geoff Elliott gives Scrooge the appropriate crustiness and self-absorption, and makes his gradual softening seem more organic to his own history. Eric Curtis Johnson creates a gentle, bookish Cratchit, which balances well against Elliott’s character.

The ensemble accompanying these central figures gives each of a wide variety of characters individuality and interest, powering the story along.

Among the characters they create, Jill Hill gives Mrs. Cratchit a lovely balance of humanity and authority, creating a sense of unity and family. Indeed. Savannah Gilmore, Jack Elliott, Samuel Genghis Christian and Rigel Blue Pierce-English work well together to create a happy, if impoverished Cratchit household, joined by Eli Stuart’s genuinely charming Tiny Tim. Rafael Goldstein gives Scrooge’s nephew Fred a gentle nature and radiant optimism, Alison Elliott gives a quiet bitterness to Scooge’s fiancé, Belle, and Jeremy Rabb creates an almost ferociously sad aspect as Marley’s ghost.

As for the beneficial visiting ghosts, Deborah Strang’s otherworldly sprite works well as the Ghost of Christmas Past, emphasizing the warmth of Scrooge’s younger self. Stephen Weingartner’s huge and rather odd-looking Ghost of Christmas Present still embodies the essence of Dickens’ cheerful view of the holiday, and the underpinnings of deprivation which need to be addressed.

In a most exciting change from my previous experience of ANW’s version of this classic, the unnamed Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come offers up a far more Dickensian, darkly hooded, spooky, silent figure which, when combined with an impressive headstone, cements Scrooge’s rising terror at what might become of him. Jeanine A. Ringer’s mobile set and prop pieces help the necessarily episodic tale flow as a single piece, as the story itself does.

In short, the A Noise Within production of “A Christmas Carol” offers a genuine treat, and stays generally true to the Dickensian. Stay after the show for a chance of photographs with the major characters.

What: “A Christmas Carol” When: through December 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday December 21 and 22, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25, with student and Sunday rush tickets available for certain performances Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

“A Little House Christmas”: A Less Standard Christmas Offering in Sierra Madre

Sofia Naccarato, Rachel MacLaughlan, Rich Cassone, and Katie-Grace Hansen are Laura, Ma, Pa and Mary Ingalls in "A Little House Christmas" at Sierra Madre Playhouse [Photo: Gina Long]

Sofia Naccarato, Rachel MacLaughlan, Rich Cassone, and Katie-Grace Hansen are Laura, Ma, Pa and Mary Ingalls in “A Little House Christmas” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [Photo: Gina Long]


With the advent of the holiday season, the demand for something appropriate rises, and theaters – particularly small theaters – begin to struggle with what to provide for their patrons. There is always “A Christmas Carol,” and a wide variety of versions of it, and of plays about people performing it, exist. Still, that has been done so much that a theater out to make its own mark may turn to something else.

Sierra Madre Playhouse has pushed aside Dickens for Laura Ingalls Wilder, and brought back “A Little House Christmas” first produced there two years ago. Then it was all rather precious and stagey. This year’s production is thus a revelation. With a new, strong and naturalistic cast, a director who understands how to make the piece flow, and a feel of continuity – even with the injected period songs which once stood out like interruptions to the tale – this year’s “Little House” proves charming and sweet, but organically so.

The story is derived from one in Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie”. Christmas approaches, the Wilders invite those who aided them as they built their barn to come out to the country for a celebration. Unfortunately, a gully-washing rainstorm begins, the creek starts to rise, the guests must leave quickly, and it soon becomes possible that even Santa may not be able to get to the Wilder home in time for the 25th. What will the Wilders do?

Director Alison Eliel Kalmus not only has a feel for the pacing and tone of this work, she also operates the AKT children’s theater company at SMP, from which were supplied most of the talented children who take significant parts (many of which are double-cast) in the play. The quality of the child actors proves particularly important in a story told from a little girl’s perspective, but the adults are not slouches either.

Among the adults, Rachel McLaughlan’s Ma radiates practical hopefulness, even as she seems weighted by the worries prairie women faced, and sings beautifully when called upon. Rich Cassone gives Pa the open-hearted life force one expects, balanced realistically with the limitations of time and place.

Thomas Colby humanizes the lonely bachelor Mr. Edwards with a genuine heartiness and warmth far from the potentially saccharine rendition one almost expects. Barry Schwam makes family’s uncle – a man unglued by his Civil War experiences – a touching piece to this puzzle, while Valerie Gould’s extremely human Mrs. Oleson charms far more than the expected stereotype.

The children who performed on opening night were likewise un-stagey, and brought a humanizing force to the proceedings. Most especially, Sofia Naccarato’s innocently charming Laura and Katie-Grace Hansen’s Mary showed character, timing, total engagement with story and character, and – especially in Hansen’s case – strong and secure singing voices without that harsh Andrea McArdle overtone so common in youthful stage performers.

Adam Simon Krist and especially Patrick Geringer made the visiting young cousins likable and familiarly boyish. Samantha Salamoff, called upon mostly to be disgusted and moderately disengaged, did this well as the snobbish Nellie Oleson.

One of the real stars of this production has to be Stephen Gifford’s set, which takes all these remarkably realistic people and places them in time and space. Tanya Apuya’s costumes are likewise accurate and character-appropriate. There are little glitches now and then: people who are supposed to be soaking wet aren’t, and little girls sit around in their nightdresses on a winter evening when there is no dry wood for the fire without even wearing shawls, but somehow these seem minor when compared with the general genuineness of feeling this production has to offer.

In brief, this rendition of “A Little House Christmas” proves itself to be far less cloying, far better paced, and far more cohesive than SMP’s previous rendition. As a result, it makes for a fine, and comparatively unique, holiday treat for young and old. Certainly, it makes a break from the predictable Christmas fare.

What: “A Little House Christmas” When: through December 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with extra performances at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, December 10 and 17, and 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, December 20-22 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $34.50 general, $32 seniors, $25 children and youth Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Funny, Bitter, Powerful, Unforgettable: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” at the Taper

Aisling O’Sullivan and Marie Mullen in the Druid production of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" by Martin McDonagh, directed by Garry Hynes. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Aisling O’Sullivan and Marie Mullen in the Druid production of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” by Martin McDonagh, directed by Garry Hynes. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


There seems to be a pattern in modern Irish drama – one both constructed (in part) by and reflected in the work of playwright Martin McDonagh – of developing characters of great richness and charm, in situations which can appear darkly humorous until these same characters prove invested with fantastically fatal flaws. Such a work is “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” just opened at the Mark Taper Forum.

This production by the Druid theater company of Galway, features essential elements of their premiere of the work in the 1990s: from director, and Druid Artistic Director, Garry Hynes (the first woman to win a Tony for directing, for the New York production of this piece), to award-winning actress Marie Mullen, who created one role in the original production and returns to play another. Add to this strong new performances by from Druid regulars, and you have a work steeped in modern Irish thought and culture, filled with unforgettable characters recognizable as funny, infuriating, and, on occasion, grippingly awful.

Maureen Folan, in her 40s, is the sole caregiver to her somewhat hypochondriacal and seriously manipulative mother, Mag. At a celebration nearby, she reconnects with the elder of two brothers from a neighboring farm, Ray, and begins to dream about a life outside of the drudgery of her current situation. Mag’s interference brings up implications both imaginary and real, as Ray’s immature younger brother Pato is called upon to act as go-between when Ray returns to work in England. Each of these connections, fraught with friction, may lead to either happiness or terror.

Central to the piece is Aisling O’Sullivan’s Maureen, edgy and consistently, sharply, seething with resentments. Balancing this sharpness is the wry charm, and devious maneuvering of Mullen’s Mag, the sort of full-body performance (oh, those facial expressions) one can easily recognize as remarkable. Indeed, she manages to make the audience like Mag and despise her all at once.

Aaron Monaghan creates, in Ray, an open, decent man whose straightforward nature provides a profound contrast to the roiling complexities of the Folan household. As the character often central to the comic relief, Marty Rea’s Pato radiates a constant restless energy and an obtuse, silly and selfish view of things which balances out the tensions and deviousness of the rest of the play.

Hynes knows these characters from long acquaintance, bringing an organic feel to the play as if it rises out of its very setting, Francis O’Connor’s decayingly gray country cottage. The aura of looming darkness and the moments of lighthearted humor seem likewise to have a sense of natural flow, and her respect for the language itself and the rich roundness of the characters brings with it a deep humanity which connects across all barriers of culture and framework.

Like other great works examining the affect of fatal flaws on humankind, from Chekhov to Miller, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” reflects a potential truth far beyond its context, yet in this case uses the specifics of Irish life, accent and cultural framework to create something at once pointed in its beauty and disturbing in its implications. This is, in short, a true work of art, both as written and as performed.

This is the first stop on Druid’s U.S. tour of this production.

What: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” When: through December 18, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. No performance on Thanksgiving Where: The Mark Taper Forum, at the Music Center 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

Dignity and Nostalgia: Fine Cast at Whittier Community Theatre celebrate “The Dining Room”

The cast of "The Dining Room" at Whittier Community Theatre illustrates one use for that iconic part of the house. [Photo: Avis Photography]

The cast of “The Dining Room” at Whittier Community Theatre illustrates one use for that iconic part of the house. [Photo: Avis Photography]

Playwright A.R. Gurney’s best work has revolved around the upper-middle class New England of the early to mid-20th Century, either by placing his plays in that space, or among people reminiscent for that time and space. As such, his works become a window on an entire society, with its structures, standards, and mores, which has essentially evaporated in the intervening societal upheavals. Never is this more true than in “The Dining Room,” a set if interlaced vignettes revolving around that once-formal space in a more formal era.

Now finishing a short run at Whittier Community Theatre, “The Dining Room” offers a small group of 8 performers a chance to become a wide array of people, current and historical, inhabiting, reminiscing about, or even rediscovering the value of a home’s formal dining room. If this sounds rather silly, it isn’t. Instead, it is a window on a particular kind of intimacy, observed even in the breach.

Director Candy Beck has brought together a particularly skilled cast, and her near-choreography of their comings and goings makes the transitions from scene to scene and character to character both seamless and easy to follow. It’s a neat piece of direction, as well as a nod to the quality of the versatile performers.

The characters shift quickly, and Keith Bush, Michael Durack, Allison Hicks, Jay Miramontes, Jonah Snyder, Nancy Tyler, Randi Tahara and Veronique Merrill Warner produce a wild collection of family members, visiting professionals, servants and observers. Their interactions, which range from an aged father giving funeral instructions to his son to a little boy sad to hear that his favorite maid is going to stop working for the family, from a college student whose surprise visit home uncovers a family scandal to a couple of teenagers stealing from the liquor cabinet, create a communal portrait of a room and its purpose. The standout among this crowd of fine performers has to be Tahara, most particularly as the aged woman with dementia who doesn’t recognize her own house or her own sons, and as a woman watching her marriage fall apart.

The stories are often poignant, sometimes very funny, and always contain the kind of conversations which tend to happen in this specific room’s formal surroundings. Director Beck has also designed the set, which allows the flow of persons on and off stage, including a number of quick changes, and gives the feel of a large house’s formal dining room.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to see “The Dining Room,” do so. It provides a unique kind of window on a disappearing formality of finger bowls and live-in cooks, table manners and fine china, which is a part of Americana, even if out of reach for most of us. And it will give anyone a greater appreciation for that formal dining table which has been passed down the family. WCT have done themselves proud, making this particular production worth seeing.

What: “The Dining Room” When: through November 19, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general; $12 seniors, students, and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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