Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

The Conundrums of Motherhood in the Modern World: Echo Theater’s “Cry It Out”

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Megan Ketch and Jackie Chung share new motherhood in Echo Theater Company’s “Cry It Out” [Photo:] Darrett Sanders

There is nothing quite so visceral, quite so individualistic in response, or quite so romanticized as becoming a new mother. These days the pressures of income and expectation, and the internal (or sometimes external) battle for a woman between motherhood and career can play out in a vast variety of ways, and can often be difficult to express convincingly to anyone who has not gone through them. Which is what makes Molly Smith Metzler’s “Cry It Out,” from The Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre important to see.

 

In the play, which makes its west coast premiere with this production, one woman’s home space becomes the crossroad for three women and one man dealing with the daily struggles and priority changes inherent in both the process of having and bringing home a first child.

Jessie Gelb, a young lawyer on leave, invites her neighbor Lina for coffee in her back yard, desperate to talk to another new mother in a commuter suburb of New York. Lina, from south shore Long Island, is everything Jessie is not – rough around the edges, plain talking, and dependent upon the largess of the alcoholic mother-in-law with whom she lives.

As they bond over the joys and struggles of the first few months of motherhood – baby monitors in hand – their peaceful retreat is invaded by a seemingly desperate, wealthy stranger. He has been watching their meetings from his pricey cliffside home, and envies the bond they have formed. This, in turn, leads to a brief encounter with his wife, a woman whose experience of new motherhood is on a different spectrum from Jessie’s and Lina’s.

Jackie Chung is Jessie, making her a neat balance of anxious vulnerability and growing confidence. Chung’s nuanced emotional palate sets a tone of realism which makes the play connect so internally with those who watch. Megan Ketch’s Lina brings a passion and brassy humor set again in the real, underscoring the two characters’ bond – one they would probably not have in circumstances other than new motherhood – by never giving in to easy attitudes.

Brian Henderson’s briefer appearance as the somewhat panicked Mitchell, offers a compelling look at what happens when idealized hopes and less than ideal realities collide. There is a wistfulness in his portrayal of his character’s lack of observational acuity, which underscores his role as outsider. Emily Swallow’s powerful, disquieting Adrienne – Mitchell’s wife – will spur discussions of class, character, and priority, even in in one’s own head, and brings a needed sharpness to what could otherwise become a more predictable play.

Director Lindsay Allbaugh truly understands these people, and makes this dialogue-heavy piece fill with movement and moments of visual intensity which give it power. Francois-Pierre Couture’s seemingly simple set design, combined with Rose Malone’s subtle lighting changes, give a sense of season and openness which flesh in, and humanize, the tale.

“Cry It Out” – a title superficially referencing the debate about whether to leave babies to cry themselves to sleep – is a play of priorities and impressions, of empathy and disconnect. These characters face the choices many new parents face in the modern world, few of which are easy. Funny, wrenching, and achingly recognizable as truth, the play will definitely leave an impression, and one worth mulling over.

What: “Cry It Out”  When: through August 19, 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Mondays, 4 p.m. Sundays. Where: The Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave. in Los Angeles. How Much: $34 except Mondays, which are Pay-What-You-Want. Info: (310) 307-3753 or www.EchoTheaterCompany.com
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Al Fresco “Midsummer Night’s Dream: light, fun, contemporary, if a bit uneven

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Evan Lewis Smith (Oberon), Aisha Kabia (Titania) and in back, Kelvin Morales (Puck) star in the INDEPENDENT SHAKESPEARE CO. production of “A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM” as part of their GRIFFITH PARK FREE SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL. [photo: Grettel Cortes Photography]

First, a confession. I am a Shakespeare nut. The first Shakespeare play I fell in love with as a child was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. The play has everything: comedy, magic, romance, a slice of the ridiculous, and a Shakespearean poetic dialogue which is more than usually easy to follow. Indeed, it’s a fun, lighthearted play to watch and, not to mention a hard play to kill, and thus perfect for a summer evening.

Enter the Independent Shakespeare Company, and their Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival. There a young, diverse and enthusiastic company brings this silly, wonderful play to life in a particularly accessible way. The vision is large, the al fresco setting clever, and though the performances are a bit variable, the net result ranges from pleasant to endearing.

The convoluted tale begins as Thesius, Duke of Athens prepares to marry Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons.

As preparation for these festivities continue, Hermia’s father applies to the Duke to force her to marry the man he has chosen – Demetrius – instead of Lysander, the man she loves. Hermia’s dear friend Helena was Demetrius’ fiancé until this new arrangement was proposed, and still loves him. Meanwhile, Titania, Queen of the Fairies and Oberan, their king, are having a row over a changeling child she has and he wants. Add to this a group of rough working men who gather to try to put on a play to entertain Thesius and Hippolyta at their nuptials.

All these folk at one point or another end up in the same forest outside Athens, and their often ridiculous stories soon intertwine. This is the meat of the play. Indeed, perhaps the hardest to make interesting is the connection between Theseus (Evan Lewis Smith and Hippolyta (Aisha Kabia), who do not galavant in the forest, but here the tensions between the two become interesting from the outset, setting a tone for the entire production.When the two performers transition into playing the royalty of Fairyland, it just gets better and better.

Kelvin Morales gives Oberon’s mischievous helper Puck a edgy, wicked streak which works well. Katie Powers Faulk makes Hermia  more empowered than sometimes, while Jose Acain’s Demetrius has the stolid feel of the overly entitled. Xavi Moreno emotes like mad as Lysander, though one wishes he didn’t sound whiney all the time, and Julia Aks handles the discarded Helena’s various moments of angst with understanding, but – as several of the players do – sometimes gets caught up in the rhythm of the Shakespearean poetry so much that it interferes some with its conversational intent.

Indeed, this is the biggest issue with this production: delivery of lines is uneven. The trick of playing Shakespeare in the modern age is to speak the Bard’s poetry as if it was normal speech and not iambic pentameter. Some of the cast do this very well, while others get caught in a sing-song way of speaking which distracts one from the story or the comedy at hand.

Still, as a whole it works. The “rustics” are particularly effective, and comparatively original. William Elsman gives Peter Quince, the play-within-a-play’s supposed director, an earnest ineffectiveness which works well. In an interesting twist Bukola Ogunmola creates a female Flute, the bellows mender – allowing a woman to play a woman (Thisbe) in the final play. Her portrait may remove one comic element of the original, but is a wonder of detachment which plays well to the comedy.

Daniel Jimenez and Patrick Batiste make the two lesser players among the rustics, Starveling and Snout, original and engaging, and Richard Azurdia’s shy Snug becomes a unique and truly silly lion, all but stealing some of the play performance scenes. David Melville’s turn as Nick Bottom, transformed by Puck as a joke, forever unflappable and self absorbed, proves funny. Though some of the best ridiculous lines get a bit stepped on, his “death scene” meets all expectations.

Director/ISC Artistic Director Melissa Chalsma knows how to use the specific performance space – site of the old Griffith Park Zoo – to great effect, moving her performers in and around the blankets and beach chairs of the audience, and interacting with them in specific and effective ways. The occasional injection of modernisms into the standard script enhances rather than distracting from the play itself.

The minimalist set of Caitlin Lainoff provides all variations of entrance and exit spaces, and keeps the action close to those watching in ways which aid the interaction. Ruoxuan Li’s costumes combine fantasy, contemporary and period in interesting ways, though that donkey head needs a greater anchor – one becomes anxious for fear it will fall off.

Yet, taken as a whole, this “Midsummer” is charming, airy, and a great way to spend an evening. This is the start of ISC’s 15th season, and the first of two productions in Griffith Park. Bring your blanket, or your low folding chair, and come join the fun. You will leave with a smile. This production plays in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”.

What: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”  When: through September 2, 7 p.m. every Wednesday to Sunday through July 22, August 5, 8, 12, 16, 18, 22, 26 and 31, September 2  Where: The Old Zoo in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. How Much: Free. Info: (818) 710-6306 or www.iscla.org

Everyone Has Fun in “Pump Boys and Dinettes” in Sierra Madre

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(l. to r.) Emily Kay Townsend, Sean Paxton, Mike Murray, Kevin Tiernan, Jimmy Villaflor in Sierra Madre Playhouse’s production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes” [photo: Gina Long]

Note: This show has now been extended through August 12

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the definition of what made something a Broadway-style musical was in flux. In this period a number of shows appeared which were essentially concerts sung by created characters, from those which were actually more of tribute concerts featuring the songs of a historic musical artist or group, to those which used original material and characters. Among these the most commonly done include “Always… Patsy Cline,” “Forever Plaid” and “The Marvelous Wondrettes”. One of the toughest to produce, as the performers double as the band, is “Pump Boys and Dinettes”.

Now at Sierra Madre Playhouse, “Pump Boys…” features original country songs (including one which reached the country music charts), and a minimalist plot about five buddies working in a roadside a garage and the two Cupp sisters running the Double Cupp Diner next door, on Highway 57 between Georgia and North Carolina. The guys play and are joined in singing by the ladies, who also produce pies, and serve a few guests on their side of the stage.

Frothy, tuneful and played by a cast truly enjoying themselves, “Pump Boys…” becomes a brief vacation from reality. Its cast sings with authority for the most part, and the guys prove to be excellent musicians. Indeed, their musicianship is the necessary element in making the show successful.

Sean Paxton, Michael Butler Murray, Kevin Tiernan and Jimmy Villaflor plus a quiet Jim Miller on drums, not only sing a lot of the songs but provide the entire band. Cori Cable Kidder, known to SMP audiences from her 2015 appearance as Patsy Cline, and Emily Kay Townsend provide occasional percussion, but are mostly there to sing and provide a lot of the sense of character and plot. The musicianship in all cases proves good to very good. Indeed, the only real shaky moment is a brief piece of tap choreography by Kidder.

Director/choreographer Allison Bibicoff has done what can be done to take a musical without a plot and give it a sense of authenticity on the small SMP stage.  In this she is aided by set designer Jeff G. Rack’s remarkably complex set, given the size of the SMP stage space. The cast has a strong sense of ensemble, and there are moments of real charm, including Villaflor and the women saluting the charms of having a farmer tan, and Paxton’s wistful rendition of “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine” – the song which made it to the charts.

Which is not to say the production is perfect. Some are better singers than actors, and some better actor/performers than singers. Still, the energy and general charm carries this piece through, and one is surprised that the show has ended, when it does.  SAlaAo, if you are looking for a place to rest your brain and have an evening of tuneful fun, “Pump Boys and Dinettes” offers just that – yet another sign of the reputation SMP is building for itself.

What: “Pump Boys and Dinettes”  When: Through July 29, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with added performances 2:30 p.m. Saturdays starting July 7. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre  How Much: $40-$45 general, $35-$40 seniors aged 65 and over, $25-$30 youth aged 22 and under  Info: (626) 355-4318 or www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Extraordinary Intimacy: “The Humans” Excels at the Ahmanson

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L-R: Reed Birney, Cassie Beck, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Sarah Steele and Nick Mills in “The Humans” at the Ahmanson Theatre [Photo: Lawrence K. Ho]

The neatest trick to accomplish, when writing an intimate play, is to find that spark which ties the issues and personalties of a few people to something inherently a part of everyone. That very concept centers Stephen Karam’s “The Humans,” the Tony-winning play just opened with the entire original Broadway cast at the Ahmanson Theatre. Every single person, and virtually every single issue, has some element with which we are familiar. The problems and conflicts the characters have with each other are not on their own earth-shattering, but they are (as the playwright himself has said) the things which keep us up at night.

How these issues emerge, how they intertwine, and how these people – who essentially love each other – deal with them is the play. It is funny. It is wrenching. It leaves one with some curiosity about elements outside the frame. It is gently remarkable theater.

The Blake family has gathered for Thanksgiving at the New York apartment younger daughter Brigid is just moving into with her boyfriend Richard. Parents Eric and Deirdre come somewhat hesitantly from Scranton, bringing with them Eric’s mother – commonly referred to as Momo – who is in the later stages of Alzheimers Disease. Joining them is Brigid’s older sister, Aimee, a Philadelphia lawyer wounded by the breakup of her marriage, and by illness.

The apartment is almost a character – with a ground floor portion on entry and a stair down to a basement kitchen and dining area, and some very strange upstairs neighbor whose actions create enormous booming interruptions to the family proceedings. Trash compactors roar outside the lower door. The light bulbs seem to have a life of their own. And the furniture, with a couple of exceptions, has yet to arrive. As the family readies for and eats dinner, wrestles with issues of expectation, religion, aging, traditions large and small, and the nature of love, the audience is drawn in to sit with them, and to understand what it is driving some members’ lack of sleep.

Reed Birney has a feel for Eric’s combination of taciturn, teasing but loving care, and internal wrestling with a faceless fear. As Deirdre Jayne Houdyshell embodies that mother who fusses, radiates a specific sense of humor, wants to fix everyone’s problems, and yet wrestles with secrets of her own. Sarah Steele embraces Brigid’s combination of family loyalty and resistance, making her both a determinedly individual person and one connecting the varied personalities together.

Nick Mills gives Richard the semi-attached attitude of the observer looking in on a unit he is now becoming a part of. His attempts at connection are treated with the earnestness necessary to keep him on an edge but not rejectable. It’s a subtly tricky performance. Perhaps most remarkable is the performance of Lauren Klein as Momo. Late stage Alzheimers is tough to watch in real life, and even tougher to recreate, yet she makes the mumblings and particularly the moments of rage absolutely believable.

There is a reason this play won an award while still off-Broadway for ensemble performance. It is absolutely seamless, with characters as comfortable with each other as families are. Director Joe Mantello choreographs the thing as much as directs it, using David Zinn’s two-tiered set with real finesse. The sense of family, of separation and togetherness, of tension and softening, ebb and flow as such a gathering does. A nod also to Fitz Patton’s sound design, creating as it does the character of an upstairs neighbor we essentially never even see, but whose presence proves startlingly intrusive at oddly apt moments.

“The Humans” is fine, fine theater. It speaks to all the mistakes people who love each other make, all the expectations we have of each other and of ourselves, and yet does so by being small, intimate, and very character driven. This is not splashy fun, but it Is often very funny. This is not about the world’s problems, but it echoes a humanity full of flaws even if full of potential good. Its very familiarity is its strength, and will rest with you long after the play, which is performed without intermission, is done.

What: “The Humans”  When: Through July 29, 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 Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $130. Info: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org

“Legally Blonde” at Candlelight: Froth, Fun and a Bit of a Message

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Callandra Olivia as Elle and Jordan Killion as Emmett in Candlelight Pavilion’s “Legally Blonde” [Photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

The management of Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont has had a remarkable timeliness this past year or so. On the night that white supremacists were marching in Charlottesville, they were opening “South Pacific,” with its messages about the dangers of racial intolerance. As the “Me Too” movement took hold they were running “9 to 5”. As the immigration debate heated up, “Ragtime,” concerning immigration and racial issues at the turn of the last century, was running on their stage. And now, in the most lighthearted of these, the musical based on the film “Legally Blonde” echoes in comic form the push for women’s equality in the workplace commonly called “Time’s Up.”

So, how does this “Legally Blonde” stack up? The show proves polished and teeming with youthful energy. The storyline, silly as it is, comes as a kind of affirmation of hard work, and a rejection of the exclusionary silver-spoon contingent of our society. The music, though comparatively unmemorable, leads to a number of striking dance numbers. In short this is delightfully breezy piece with a quietly serious core.

Essentially, the story follows Elle Woods, a UCLA sorority girl who has skated through college with the understanding that she will end up married to a boy from a prominent family. When that boy rejects her instead and leaves for Harvard Law School, Elle’s sorority sisters help her prep for the LSAT, and she ends up accepted there as well. Once it becomes clear that the boyfriend, Warner, has more upper-crust marriage intents, Elle buckles down as a law student, encouraged by Emmett, another student from a comparatively humble background. Soon she begins to shine on her own, if only as a form of vengeance.

Callandra Olivia has a great time as Elle, creating a character which manages to do what this part always needs: begin as a stereotype and then rise out of it toward a specific ethic and professionalism. As the offensive non-fiance, Warner, Matthew Malecki manages to be as condescending  as needed, and as needy as written. Tara Shoemaker radiates all the nastier traits of the privileged class as Warner’s new love interest.

As Emmett, Jordan Killion balances a mild geekiness with whatever is the mature version of a gee-whiz view of the world. As the hairdresser who keeps Elle grounded – and whose personal concerns provide Elle with proof of the power of knowing the law, Molly Stilliens has an absolute ball, particularly when drooling over Nic Olsen’s UPS guy. As the professor who both gives Elle her big shot and proves her biggest wake-up call, Ron Hastings has a command and a harshness which make that part the catalyst it should be.

Director Chuck Better keeps this very episodic tale moving, in part thanks to his own design for an equally impressive moving collection of set pieces. Alison Keslake’s choreography creates atmosphere and keeps the focus on the lighter, sillier parts of the piece. Rod Bagheri’s musical direction leads to fine ensemble work. if only the mics were set quite so “boomy”, as some essential lyrics get lost in the electronic tonalities.

Still, if you are looking for a bright, airy evening of theater – there are even two dogs on stage – and an light-hearted, mildly feminist message, then “Legally Blonde” is for you. Put on your pink, and come watch justice prevail for a night.

What: “Legally Blonde”  When: through July 14, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont. How Much: $63-$78 adult, $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive. Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or www.candlelightpavilion.com

As We Babble On: Minority Life and Art in the Era of the Internet

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As We Babble On 1: (L-R) Sachin Bhatt, Will Choi, Jiavani Linayao, Jaime Schwarz, and Bobby Foley star in East West Players’ production of Nathan Ramos’ As We Babble On [Photo: Michael Lamont]

[Note: Though this review ran on the SCNG newspaper websites before closing, it was not posted here until after the show had ended]

It is a large order: give an empathetic sense of what life is like for artistic persons of color trying to get ahead. Inject humor, avoid or explode stereotype, and evince hope using forms interconnected with the comparatively youthful generation beginning to feel empowered to make or coordinate change. The good news: by and large Nathan Ramos’ “As We Babble On,” receiving its world premiere at East West Players, in association with the Los Angeles LGBT Center, does quite a lot of what was ordered.

Essentially, we watch the birth and content of the graphic novel Benji, a Korean-American cartoonist and gay man, begins to construct when passed over for a promotion at a huge NYC comics enterprise. Benji, like virtually all of the people in the play, is actually bi-racial – a fact which further complicates the ways the world sees him and them, and how they all define themselves. Into all these intertwining conflicts, the story develops.

As he attempts to branch out and do his own work, Benji bumps into a former lover, wrestles with his relationship with the young African-American video blogger who is his roommate, and must deal with his automatic reaction to his budding journalist sister potentially, and stereotypically, connecting with a wealthy young man who can open doors. What he does with all of this, defined in terms of who is or should be a super hero – and what his own role in such a tale would be – proves consistently entertaining, rather heated, and fairly illuminating.

Will Choi is Benji. In trying to make his character the unassertive person he is, Choi resorts to a kind of full-body whining which proves mostly annoying, but when he pulls out of that space and into the creative and intellectual processing part of his character, he is as witty as his material, and as effective.  As his wildly assertive roommate, Jiavani Linayao proves a highly entertaining bundle of energy, radiating her character’s resilience, and assurance of her own power to persuade, to tilttilate, and to marshal her online forces even as many of them see her as a fetishist’s dream.

Sachin Bhatt in every element of his carriage as Benji’s former boyfriend, embodies the paradox of the person whose professional success has come at the cost of being the token, or the nervous-making “other,” in almost all of his social settings. On the other hand, Jaime Schwartz, as Benji’s more caucasian-appearing sister, deals with issues of youth and femininity as barriers in an online journalistic world where her roll has been assigned to fluff pieces rather than the in-depth hard journalism she knows she is capable of. Enter Bobby Foley, shining with an upper class confidence as a tycoon’s son famed for excess, who may or may not be intent on either using Benji’s sister or caring for and assisting her.

Some of the best of this production comes from Tasshi Nakagawa’s layered set, which provides spaces for the many online commentaries from the roommate’s fans or Benji’s mom, thus providing the many other characters which semi-populate the storyline and the stage. Director Alison M. De La Cruz doesn’t shy away from the more intense, more sexual, or even on occasion more crass elements of the play, giving it a starkness at important moments which can be either humorous or disturbing. Special shout-out to Sheiva Khalily, whose projections not only include the online commentaries of the unseen characters, but the cartoon-hero versions of the play’s central figures as Benji increasingly sees and draws them, and the comic book “titles” for specific moments in Benji’s journey.

The play apparently began as a two-act piece and has been edited into a single, long act with no intermission. This is effective in some ways, in that the story continues to build toward Benji’s own self revelations, and those of his friends, in a single arc. It is made into a long sit, however, as you can tell by the warning explanations to everyone prior to curtain that there will be no bathroom break.

“As We Babble On” is not a great play, but it offers up insights worth taking note of, and offers a nod to the way of the arts in a world lived increasingly online. It has entertaining characters, but – if this matters to you – also contains a certain amount of fairly overt sexuality of varying types. This is not a play for kids. Go catch it quick if you are interested, though, as it enters its final weekend.

What: “As We Babble On”  When: through June 24, 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Where: East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Also St. in Los Angeles. How Much: $40 – $50  Info: (213) 625-7000 or http://www.eastwestplayers.org

“Her Portmanteau” at Boston Court: The Baggage of Being Foreign

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(L to R) Joyce Guy (Abasiama), Omozé Idehenre (Adiaha), Délé Ogundrian (Iniabasi) in “Her Portmanteau” at Boston Court Pasadena [photo: Craig Schwartz]

The topic of immigration is on everyone’s front burner these days, for often very sad reasons. For many, the interest, or the threat, of immigration comes from the effects any group of immigrants at any time have had on what one considers the dominant American culture. It has always been this way, sadly, whether it is disquiet over the Irish, the Chinese, the Eastern European Jews, the Italians or Polish, the Cubans, or the Vietnamese boat people, to name just a few.

Still, there is another aspect to being (as we are, whether we admit it or not) a nation of immigrants: the difference between those who have by practice or generation, regardless of how much they honor their original culture, become Americanized, and those who carry the original culture because it is still theirs. It is this which is explored in Mfoniso Udofia’s  “Her Portmanteau,” now receiving its west coast premiere at Boston Court Pasadena. Here three steps on that assimilation scale look at what is shared, and what separates a “foreigner” from a part of our American ethnocultural tossed salad.

Iniabasi Ekpeyong has just arrived from Nigeria. Though born in the US she has been raised by her late father back on the family compound. Now she is in New York to meet the mother and half sister she hasn’t laid eyes on since childhood. Her mother Abasiama Ufot, and her half-sister Adiaha Ufot are unfamiliar in more ways than one might expect, as language and culture and a disorienting distance between expectation and reality create barriers and end-run openings for the three women.

This work is part of Udofia’s 9-part cycle of plays documenting the Ufot family, but stands well on its own. In it, the entire idea of the US as a paradise is placed up against the friction between traditional family roles and hierarchies, traditional modes of hospitality, even traditional and adapted foods, and how such things can hamper even well-intentioned attempts at understanding. What one runs from and what one runs toward become the ways in which these people balance the bonds of blood and the differences of experience, like a portmanteau, an old fashioned style of suitcase built with two distinct sides one fills separately and then brings together to fasten. Only then do they touch.

Dele Ogundiran is Iniabasi, expecting reunion traditions unfamiliar here, and anxious in many directions at the end of an interminable flight. Watching her severity and fear gradually unbend gives weight and humanity to the awkwardness of difference where one expects to find sameness. Omoze Idehenre, as the American-raised daughter Adiaha, brings to the obligatory balance of inherited traditions and American-centered cultural frameworks a sense of exasperation and kindness which lay the groundwork the play develops. Joyce Guy gives the mother of the two other women, Abasiama, a palpable aura of apology, for distance and for difference, gradually laying out her own burdens, and gradually absorbing those her daughters face.

Director Gregg T. Daniel gives this word-rich play a sense of activity and interwoven characters which keeps it from devolving into a kind of panel discussion. This is particularly important as significant sections of the piece are at least partially in Ibibio, one of Nigeria’s traditional languages which is spoken here laced with occasional English words and phrases. That Iniabasi speaks it as first language, her mother Abasiama can return to it willingly, but – though she understands it well enough – Adiaha chooses to only use English is shorthand for the transitions which are at the core of the play. Daniel makes this work.

A note of praise also for Tesshi Nakagawa’s set design for the cramped Inwood apartment in NYC, for Jeff Gardner’s subtle but essential sound design, and for Erin Walley’s props, so evocative of the cultural interplay so necessary in telling this tale.

Yes, unless you speak Ibibio, you will not understand every word. That is, one assumes, a point – a rich conversation and interaction which is in itself isolating here, though communal somewhere else. Take that in, as part of “Her Portmanteau”: part of what these characters carry with them as they bump into being American.

What: “Her Portmanteau”  When: through June 30, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Where: Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena  How Much: $20-$39  Info: (626) 683-6801 or www.BostonCourtPasadena.org

“Soft Power”: Politics, Music, Comedy and Manipulation

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L-R: Conrad Ricamora and Francis Jue in the world premiere of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power” at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

There is a moment in “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” which premiered this week at the Ahmanson, when the disquiet hits you. The  show has a lovely time acknowledging musical theater tropes, discussing the power of the musical to slowly convince people of an idea (this is what “soft power” is – gradual bending of minds), and expressing the outrage and increasing xenophobia which accompanied the 2016 election. However, it is also using that very soft power to behave like a propaganda machine. You become enthused, then disturbed by the fact you have been gently manipulated toward that very enthusiasm.

Which may be the point. David Henry Hwang, the remarkable Chinese-American playwright, and Jeanine Tesori, whose “Fun Home” was a highlight of the last Ahmanson season, have created a subtly complex theater piece in the guise of something far lighter.

As has been true in the past, Hwang makes himself a character in the piece – an American writer trying to work with Xue Xing, a television producer from The People’s Republic of China, without much success. The things which keep them at odds have a lot to do with differing views of family responsibility and love. In the midst of their attempted collaboration, Hwang, Xing’s American girlfriend Zoe, and Xing go to see “The King and I” and to a rally for Hillary Clinton. Only Xing, by line-jumping, actually gets to meet her, and even take a selfie.

Shortly after, a near catastrophe takes Hwang into a dream world. This dream is the musical, detailing how Xing would recount this episode of his life in later years, complete with a lot of spin. It is charming, tossing in all kinds of homages to the American musical form (including even the idea of using a dream sequence to advance the story).

In it, Xing and Hillary have a far less fleeting moment. She is seen as a commodity marketing herself in ways Miley Cyrus would approve of, and Xing’s condescending view of democracy seems underscored by the 2016 election outcome. Indeed, Hillary is herself romanced – at least for a while – by the description of order and intelligent leadership Xing presents as an alternative.

As Hwang awakes from this dream, he must wrestle with the images it carried. Though dealing with the rising xenophobia around him, he rises to a hopeful, emotionally satisfying musical conclusion. To an audience in California, where 2/3 of the voters picked Hillary and were as appalled as those onstage with the final results, this is an easy sell. Almost too easy. Songs bring people to their feet, exactly as they are expected to. Oh, how easily we are swayed.

Still, there is the fear, even in the show, that Xing’s version of events will win out, and as playwright Lillian Hellman pointed out in 1934, a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. It is this which one should actually be wrestling with here.

In the process, however, one finds a clever script filled with high humor and the occasional low comedy, and with music which resonates after the curtain falls. A highly versatile cast makes this extremely episodic and somewhat fractured story work.

Most particularly, Francis Jue gives Hwang the tone and aspect of the wry observer, who must in the end come to wrestle with both truth and hope. Conrad Ricamora gives Xing a vibrating confidence which makes his message all the more powerful and his humanity all the more charming. Alyse Alan Louis, as the progressive Zoe and the dream Hillary, finds a humanity in both even as her portrait of the former candidate must by the very nature of this piece be completely over the top.

A remarkable ensemble brings all the other characters to life, from stuffy old-boy senators, to Chinese media stars, American street hoods, and Hillary campaign supporters. Perhaps the most pointed standout is Kendyl Ito, whose portrait of Xing’s daughter provokes great laughter of recognition simply by body language. Still, there is no weak link in the entire cast.

Director Leigh Silverman has used David Zinn’s mobile set pieces to keep this rather various and deeply episodic piece flowing, funny, and consistently engaging. Choreographer Sam Pinkleton creates a sense of culture and space, while offering strong nods to the musicals this piece honors as much for their ability to sway as for their art. The costumes of Anita Yavich, with hair by Tom Watson, allow the quick shifts in ethnicity, age and status. Music supervision by Chris Fenwick continues the polish

Indeed, this is all done very, very well. Which is the most unnerving. From the start “Soft Power” is out to display the ability of song, which goes to the heart without necessarily passing the head, to instill belief systems, and create rallying cries. And it does.

What: ‘Soft Power”  When: through June 10, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 pm. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added 2 p.m. performance Thursday, June 7  Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles  How Much: $30 – $130  Info: (213) 972-4400 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

 

“Red Speedo” at The Road: Ethics, Sports, and the Individual

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Coronado Romero, Adam Peltier and Jason E. Kelley star in Southern California Premiere production of “Red Speedo” at The Road Theatre on Magnolia [photos: Brian M. Cole]

 

Playwright Lucas Hnath has built some of his considerable reputation on positing ethical puzzles – tracing a single choice or event to the ramifications for others who must then also make choices, done while never signaling a single “rightness”. The play becomes all about the character of each person involved, rather than preachiness. One just has a chance to wander. sometimes with gentle humor as well as drama and pathos, where a single fundamental choice leads.

Which brings one to Hnath’s “Red Speedo,” now at The Road Theatre Company in North Hollywood. Ray is a swimmer on the verge of qualifying for the Olympics. If he does, his lawyer brother has brokered a sponsorship deal for him with Speedo. Now Ray’s coach – owner of the gym where he trains – has discovered a cooler full of performance-enhancing drugs in his own office refrigerator. He feels honor bound to report this, which would throw suspicion on his entire gym. Ray’s lawyer suggests flushing the drugs and moving on. Where does Ray stand in it all?

Adam Peltier, as Ray, manages to tread the fine line between a genuine if undereducated and somewhat dim athlete, and turning the character into the stereotypical dumb jock. Although the portrait has intentional comic elements, the audience’s gradual exposure to his underlying humanity gives a certain gravitas to the conundrums of the storyline. As Ray’s brother Peter, Coronado Romero gives the initial fast-talking dominance an increasing physical vocabulary of insecurity. In the end, their story becomes more about marketing than family, and finance over partnership, with all the ethical and emotional baggage that carries with it.

Jason E. Kelley’s coach has to handle the ambition which comes from having a winner in the stable, and then struggling with the official ethics of his sport. As played, this role establishes what is to be gained and lost in the play’s puzzle, and Kelley gives it just the right tone. As Ray’s former girlfriend, who may have been complicit in creating the problem which needs solving, Kimberly Alexander voices a rich combination of bitterness, righteousness and concern. Both characters underscore the question-marks of the piece.

Director Joe Banno keeps this very talky piece in motion, and the tensions building in ways which prove engrossing throughout. Kudos to set designer Stephen Gifford and sound designer Chris Moscatiello who create the atmosphere of a competition poolside area without having to build an entire pool on stage. The results are immersive. A nod also to fight director Bjorn Johnson, whose choreography makes the culminating scene in this increasingly intense play both convincing and cathartic.

“Red Speedo” is, in its essence, an examination of the modern drive to win, the baggage that any athlete looking to end up on the world stage must carry with him, and how easy it is for that athlete to end up being seen as a commodity. As such it offers an audience a chance to ponder the ethics of sport itself – a process which will last after the play is done.

What: “Red Speedo”  When: through July 1, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays  Where: The Road on Magnolia, 10747 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood. How Much: $34 general, $15 seniors/students  Info: (818) 761-8838 or http://www.roadtheatre.org

“Singin’ in the Rain” at Candlelight: Singing, Dancing, and All the Trimmings

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Wesley Alfvin in the classic moment from “Singin’ in the Rain” at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater [Photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

Is there any more iconic movie musical than “Singin’ in the Rain”? The move to bring it to the stage has been, from the start, a risky one, simply because it must compete with something so familiar. When it works, though, it is a sheer delight of old-school musical fun: catchy songs, clever comic characterizations, and lots of tap dancing.
Now at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, it is indeed done well, and the result is a rollicking delight, made only that much better by the Candlelight Pavilion’s traditionally tasty meal.
The tale is now part of the American canon: Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, silent screen heartthrobs, are caught in a conundrum when talkies suddenly arrive, thanks to Lina’s less than glamorous pipes. Enter Kathy Seldon, an aspiring actress Don is attracted to, who can sing up a storm. What will be her role? Will “Lockwood and Lamont” survive? And what will be the role of Don’s comedic best buddy Cosmo, in the new world of movie music?
Director/Choreographer DJ Gray has adapted the great dance numbers, many of them created by Gene Kelly, to the Candlelight stage – a brilliant move, creating the reminiscence which is part of the musical’s charm.  The performers, from chorus to stars, dance up a storm, and have the energetic verve which propels this kind of production.
Wesley Alfvin leads the cast as Lockwood, cutting a handsome figure, singing convincingly, and dancing well enough to make Kelly proud. Andrew J. Koslow, as Cosmo, handles the difficult comic “Make ‘Em Laugh” with aplomb, even if some of the pratfalls are made awkward by the sheer necessity of movable set pieces. As Kathy Seldon, Colette Peters keeps up with the two guys on the dancing front, and sings respectably, but Krista Curry all but steals the show as Lina, producing a voice which can only be compared to fingernails on a blackboard.
John Nisbet brings both kindness and fluster to the head of the studio, while Brandon Kallen flings about appropriately as the director also forced to change styles with the advent of sound. Still, in many moments the real stars are the members of the versatile ensemble, playing small parts, providing background or supporting song-and-dance folk, and generally setting the tone for the entire piece.
Kudos go to music director Douglas Austin for finding the sound of early talkies, and getting the most out of those classic tunes. A nod also to Mitch Gill, whose set proves agile enough to keep the story rolling, and yet incorporate all the many and varied settings (and demands of some of the signature production numbers). Yes, it actually rains, and yes, if you sit right by the stage you may get wet.
“Singin’ in the Rain” was never a wildly deep story, but rather a chance to celebrate some of the best of what classic movie musicals were about: songs, dancing, romance, and fun. If that calls to you, then go see this production. Candlelight Pavilion shows, at their best (and their recent shows have often been among their best ever) can be a welcome respite from the complexities and uncertainties of the workaday world. And you eat well.
What: “Singin’ in the Rain”  When: through June 2, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays  Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont  How Much: $63-$78 adults, $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal-inclusive  Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or www.candlelightpavilion.com
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