Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Nostalgic “Footloose” at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion's "Footloose" celebrates victory

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion’s “Footloose” celebrates victory

In 1984, the film “Footloose” bounced into movie theaters, bringing with it a fistful of major pop hit songs and the ultimate bit of righteous teenage fluff as a big-city boy leads a youth rebellion against a small town law forbidding dancing. Corny and almost universally panned by critics, it ended up with a staying power nobody could have imagined. Then in 1998, the whole thing was turned into a Broadway musical, written by the same folk who wrote the film, with most of the classic songs intact and a few added tunes.

Now that stage “Footloose” has burst upon Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont. Thanks to intelligent direction by John LaLonde, Andrew Russell’s attractive spin on the displaced dancing teen Ren, evocative choreography by Alison Hooper and comedic clarity by Spenser Micetich, it is a lighthearted hit.

Of course, the first selling point to any version of “Footloose” has to be all those memorable songs. From “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” through “Almost Paradise,” “Holding Out for a Hero” and, of course, “Footloose,” the works by such celebrated as Kenny Loggins, Sammy Hagar and more will take any listener of a certain age back in time. Seeing them in context again proves an added plus.

Russell’s Ren centers the production from start to finish, as he has just enough of Kevin Bacon about him to keep that rebel vibe heartwarming rather than obnoxious. As his love interest, the preacher’s daughter Ariel, Emily Martin manages both vulnerability and an essential toughness which keep the character interesting. Jason Webb, in the rather two-dimensional role of Ariel’s absolutist father, gives the part as much humanity as the script will allow, while Jennifer Webb’s turn as Ariel’s mother creates an underscore of deep sadness which helps with humanizing the entire family.

Spenser Micetich's Willard explains what "Mama Says" in a break-out moment

Spenser Micetich’s Willard explains what “Mama Says” in a break-out moment

Keely Milliken makes solid work of Ren’s fatalistic but supportive mother. Chassey Bennett, Taylor Barbara and Emily Chelsea have a ball as Ariel’s understanding if concerned friends. Indeed, the entire rest of the ensemble who play smaller adult parts, the teens Ren leads in rebellion, or both, dance and sing with enthusiasm and skill, and create a wealth of individuals to surround the central story. Still, perhaps the most eminently likable performance has to be Micetich’s rube-like Willard, whose earnest interest in Ren’s project, and especially his silly homage to his admittedly crazy mother, “Mama Says” prove consistently endearing.

Hooper’s choreography proves reminiscent of the film, but finds its own space on the comparatively small Candlelight stage. One does admit missing Bacon’s gleeful “Let’s dance!”, but all the other essential elements are there. LaLonde has a real feel for musical pacing, keeping the movement and energy flowing so well in what is admittedly a very episodic tale that the chunkiness of the script isn’t an issue. The costuming – including the iconic red tux jacket – evoke the film, the hair is right, and the musical director Rod Bagheri is to be congratulated particularly for the evenness of the larger numbers.

In short, “Footloose” was never very deep, but it was always fun. This stage version captures that – the teenage fight against inexplicable rigidity, the gentle romance of small town life, and the yearning for freedom every adolescent must wrestle with. And it has all those 80s hits. It is certainly worth a look. All that, and you get a pretty classy meal to go along with it.

Next on the Candlelight docket is a musical which, though wildly different from the innocent “Footloose,” also deserves notice. “La Cage Aux Folles” – a musical based on the French film of the same name, which was remade as the American film “The Bird Cage,” will offer great humor, skilled chorus numbers, and a few delightful (or perhaps infamous) surprises. Check for that one too.

What: “Footloose” When: Through August 27, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and for lunch matinees at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: adults $58-73, children 12 and under $30-$35, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Fabulous “Spelling Bee” finishing run in Sierra Madre

The "kids" celebrate competing in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at Sierra Madre Playhouse

The “kids” celebrate competing in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Sierra Madre Playhouse

I’m always fascinated by how shows on local stages go in waves. All of a sudden, within maybe a two-year span, the same play or musical will sprout in several different productions. The down-side is that often this can mean the piece – originally fun to see – gets beaten to death by sheer repetition. To some extent, this has been true of the small, clever musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”.

But wait.

It is that very fact which made the production of “Spelling Bee” running at Sierra Madre Playhouse all the more surprising. Even after seeing so many other renditions, this one proved especially captivating: totally on target in both character and energy (not to mention talent) from beginning to end.

The tale developed from an improv, and has that kind of quirky charm. Victors of local contests gather for the county bee which will vault the winner into the national finals. The pressure is intense, and the combination of nerdiness, neediness, and adolescent angst means all the contestants have scenarios running through their heads throughout the day. The hostess, herself a former winner, relives her glory days as a bonafide victor, while the edgy middle school vice-principal reads the competition words and a street tough doing community service provides “comfort” (meaning a juice box and a hug) to those who fail.

The ensemble cast works together seamlessly, as the story progresses with side-notes of internal fantasy throughout the competition. In the process, each “child” character has a specific and well-defined if often quirky charm. Joey Acuna, Jr. creates a delightfully hormonal Chip – the previous year’s champion wrestling with both a need to repeat and an intensifying interest in girls. Robert Michael Parkinson as Leaf, a deeply innocent child of hippie parents who gradually realizes he’s smart, often captures the heart.

Joy Regullano’s Marcy embodies all the internalized pressures of having to be perfect, while Hannah Leventhal’s intense Logainne wrestles with her own excitement, her two dads’ expectations, and a certain underlying moral force. Yet among the competitors the standouts – both in characters as designed, and as played – have to be Stanton Kane Morales’ weirdly earnest Barfee, and Cristina Gerla’s profoundly fragile Olive, who more than in any other version of this I’ve seen, find a genuine connection born of their own isolation.

Richard Van Slyke gives a nicely anxious vibe to the vice-principal. Gina D’Acciaro embodies all the odd twists of a middle-aged woman looking back to her childhood victory as the best moment in her life. Jaq Galliano does more with Mitch, the street tough, than the norm, as he wrestles with a genuine sympathy for these kids who haven’t seen real pain yet as well as his character’s completely inadequate role in providing them comfort.

Director/choreographer Robert Marra has melded all these find individuals into a well-paced, active and engaging whole. His choreography uses the small SMP stage to its full extent, especially in Marcy’s defining song. The audience volunteers who are always a part of “Spelling Bee” are also incorporated far more naturally into the show than usual, yet another sign of the solid sense of ensemble established onstage. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg creates just the right costumes, Jeff Cason does wonders with the lighting (as the set itself he has designed is the usual “Spelling Bee” minimalism), and Joe Lawrence’s musical direction keeps the show tuneful and fluid.

In short, this is – bar none – the best version of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” I have seen. It is charming, heart-felt, active and engaging. One must warn that it does have a few references to adult themes (particularly in the case of Chip’s rising adolescence), but offers a lot of laughter, much of it laughter of recognition. It also only has one weekend left, so hurry out and see this treat of a show. You will be glad you did.

What: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” When: Through August 21, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $35 general, $32 seniors, $25 youth, $20 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Okay, so… I’m kinda back! Thanks for waiting.

I’ve been away, so let me catch you up. The last post I left here explained that I had gone in for a knee replacement (officially a “complete right knee arthroplasty” for those who embrace technical accuracy). And, that I did, on June 15.

I had no idea how long recovery would take, but got a reality check just before they wheeled me in, as the anesthesiologist explained “This is the most painful operation you can have, because of what they do to the bones, so don’t get behind on your pain medications afterward.” Truer words were never spoken. Now, seven weeks since the operation, I begin to feel like myself again, am off the prescription pain med, and – though a little shaky of balance, but improving – ready to resume something vaguely like a normal life.

I am seeing a couple of shows this coming weekend, and will post the reviews here as soon as is appropriate, given my contract with print media as well. Then, well, I may take some more time because my day job starts up again and I will have to measure my stamina to some extent. Anyway, every theater I usually cover is opening something in September, so you’ll be hearing a lot from me in the near future.

While in recuperation mode, I have been watching a lot of films made from plays. I have come up with some musings on the subject of when that works and when that doesn’t work… but I think I’ll save that for tomorrow. Suffice it to say that I’m really glad to be getting back to being creative, thanks in part to no longer being hindered by medication which – though necessary – left me really a bit fuzzy around the edges (I keep hearing my former husband, after receiving an opioid to enable a biopsy, saying “You mean people PAY to feel like this?!”).

With that fuzziness departed, I’m climbing, albeit slowly, back into the saddle. Thanks for hanging in there. Thank you also to those of you who sent sympathetic and/or encouraging messages. That was lovely. Now I can look forward to walking again without being distracted by constant knee pain. And that makes the rest of this summer worthwhile.

Apologies – a brief (I hope) break

Greetings. Just a word to let all those who read this blog know that I had knee replacement surgery on June 15. Because of this, and the recovery necessary to be able to sit comfortably in any chair, theatrical or otherwise (not to mention getting past the use of the walker which would make that even more complicated), I must take a short hiatus from theatrical reviewing.

I hope to be back in a few weeks, and will gladly make contact with all those companies/press reps who wish me to cover their productions as soon as I know I’ll be able to attend. In the meantime, enjoy your summer and may all your productions sparkle, or spark important thought, or both. Live theater is the true magic in the world.

“The Little Mermaid” in La Mirada Charms Almost in Spite of Itself

Alison Woods as Ariel leads the cast of "The Little Mermaid", part of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment Series at La Mirada [photo: courtesy of Bruce Bennett, Theatre Under the Stars]

Alison Woods as Ariel leads the cast of “The Little Mermaid”, part of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment Series at La Mirada [photo: courtesy of Bruce Bennett, Theatre Under the Stars]

When a stage musical is created from a Disney animated film there are a few basic things to look for. How close was it to being a stage musical in the first place? How will they handle the fact some, if not all the characters are not human? Are the songs in the film appropriate and/or adequate for what one wishes to present on stage? What kind of special effects will be needed to recreate the familiar and beloved elements which made the film work, or should one move to create something new?

In “The Little Mermaid,” now at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts as part of the McCoy Rigby Series, the answers are extremely visual, creative in staging, and sometimes a bit of a let-down musically. Still, it can be a great way to introduce young people to musical theater as an art form, and has a lighthearted silliness which makes for appealing summer entertainment.

The story, based on a tale by Hans Christian Anderson, as reworked into a Disney film, is familiar to just about everyone by now. It follows a mermaid named Ariel, the daughter of King Triton, who yearns to leave the sea world where she feels she doesn’t belong for the world of humans. Fascinated by all she does not understand, she finds focus for her yearnings when she rescues a Prince Eric, thrown overboard from his sailing vessel, and falls in love with him. She cuts a deal with her evil aunt: her voice (though it is her signature) for legs and a chance to enter the human world.

The production uses sets and costumes designed for Broadway by Kenneth Foy, Amy Clark and, aided by Mark Koss, built for a production partnership headed by the Paper Mill Playhouse. Visually stunning, they capture an underwater feel in remarkable ways. The necessary characters “swim” with flowing fabric, Scuttle the sea gull flies and lands with authority, Sabastian has a significantly “crabby look,” and the evil Ursula’s tentacles wiggle and drape with ominous intent. It’s a great visual feast, aided by John MacInnis’ clever choreography and performed by an able ensemble of singers and dancers.

There are two great differences between the film and the stage production however, besides the obvious lack of water. First is the introduction of 14 songs with lyrics written, not by the award-winning Howard Ashman, but by Glenn Slater – whose work is comparatively pedantic. The second is a greater emphasis on the reason for Ariel’s yearning for the human world – that she doesn’t fit in under the sea – and Eric’s yearning to be a sailor rather than a prince, making both characters outsiders looking for someone who will understand. This, a response to those many who have disliked the film’s message that Ariel, as the girl, had to do all the changing in order to fit into Eric’s world.

Still, Alison Woods gives Ariel both an innocent sweetness and a remarkable voice, and makes the show worth watching. Melvin Abston has a lot of fun with Sabastian, the calypso crab. Eric Kunze, as the prince, is mostly asked to look handsome and sing well, and he does this with aplomb. Time Winters fusses charmingly as his tutor, constantly reminding him that he has duties to live up to. Adam Garst makes a sweetly geeky Flounder, and Fred Inkley becomes an imposing Triton.

Still, other than Woods, the standouts of the evening are Jamie Torcellini as the malaprop-dropping, tap dancing seagull Scuttle, Jeff Skowron in a brief but intensely memorable bit as a chef preparing a table-full of seafood dishes, and Tracy Lore as the sea witch Ursula – doing everything but twirling a mustache in her delightedly straightforward villainy. And, of course, there are those songs: “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” and “Kiss the Girl,” among others. These works by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman set the tone for the modern Disney animated film – a legacy which has allowed one after another to be turned into successful stage events.

So, go see “The Little Mermaid.” You’ll enjoy a visual treat, and be joined by bevies of young girls – some even in costume – who will swoon to every move, and know every important line. And this is important, really, as a gateway for a new generation’s enthusiasm for live performance. A little stage magic (and this show has quite a bit) goes a long way in that wooing process.

What: “The Little Mermaid” When: Through June 26, 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 for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20-$70 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

Sandra Tsing Loh’s “Madwoman…” Embraces the Midlife Crisis

Caroline Aaron, Sandra Tsing Loh and Shannon Holt in Madwoman In The Volvo at The Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

Caroline Aaron, Sandra Tsing Loh and Shannon Holt in Madwoman In The Volvo at The Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

Author Sandra Tsing Loh has made her name speaking to things many women wrestle with as they grow up and grow older, often with a wry humor which takes the edge off her topics’ occasional edginess. Best known to most Los Angelinos for her quick “The Loh Life” spots on KPCC, Loh has a a larger radio presence nationally, and has published popular books, including the celebrated memoir “The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones.”

Now she has turned that book into a play, just opened at the Pasadena Playhouse. From a trip to the desert and Burning Man, through marital upheavals and the re-sorting of her entire life, the play – a combination of narration and caricature – walks us through the hot flashes, sudden passion shifts and travails of Loh’s entrance into menopause. Often funny, the show also cuts close to the bone, detailing her mother’s retreat into depression, and her own struggles with the emotional wrenches hormonal changes and life changes can bring with them.

The results are mixed. The editing necessary to turn a full-blown memoir into a 90 minute play with no intermission means the tone shifts, particularly at the end, can be jarring. Not the storyline itself, though it is frantically episodic, but the actual tone of the narration – that moment when wry wit won’t do, and yet shift to seriousness meets with resistance. In the end, one can celebrate the performances, which are intense and compelling, but still wish for a bit more work on the script itself.

Joining Loh, who shifts constantly from narrator to participant in her own tale, are Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt, who play absolutely everyone else important to the story line, from gal pals on an adventure, to boyfriends, therapists, and all the other personalities which give this construction its most compelling moments. The sheer versatility of the two, who create individual character after individual character, becomes the focal joy of this production.

Director Lisa Peterson keeps the tale moving, and pacing is key in anything this episodic. Rachel Hauck’s geometric, open set design allows the “setting” to become anything needed, from a coffee house to an RV, simply by dint of audience imagination – another great aid to the pacing and flow of the piece. Indeed all the pieces are there, production-wise.

Yet, that ending still needs work. Yes, the arch tone of the beginning morphs into the seriousness of depression, and there are some issues with that shift, but perhaps most jarring is the almost tacked on upbeat close. Genuine though all its parts are, the final polish still isn’t quite complete. Still, there is much to recommend “The Madwoman in the Volvo” (the term comes from the moment she pulls off the freeway to have a meltdown), and much is very recognizable. And there are Loh’s familiar humorous descriptions, which can make even a session with a couple’s therapist funny in the extreme. It can only get better.

What: “The Madwoman in the Volvo” When: through June 26, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $77, premium seating $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

A Most Silly Mystery: “The Games Afoot” in Whittier

Members of the cast of WTC's "The Game's Afoot" commune over a mystery [photo: Avis Photography]

Members of the cast of WTC’s “The Game’s Afoot” commune over a mystery [photo: Avis Photography]

In 2012, a send-up of the mystery genre by famed comic playwright Ken Ludwig, “The Game’s Afoot, or Holmes for the Holidays” won the Edgar from the Mystery Writer’s of America for Best Play. Ludwig, best known for delightfully ridiculous farces like “Lend Me a Tenor,” took that same approach to the classic whodunit, peppering it with references to Sherlock Holmes and his creator, and to Shakespeare. The resulting mashup is now on display at Whittier Community Theater, as the closeout to their 94th season, and it’s a hoot.

Based, in some measure, on the historic figure William Gillette, a famed American actor who became synonymous with Sherlock Holmes around the turn of the last century, the play is set in his castle-like estate in Connecticut. It’s a dark and stormy night, of course, and Christmas Eve. Members of his “Sherlock Holmes” company have come to join him for the holiday, as he recovers from having been shot at the end of a production his iconic play, by a still unknown someone in the audience. Then a most unpleasant theater critic/columnist arrives, sparking ire, unwrapping secrets and generally turning the house on its ear. What will happen next?

Norman Dostal makes a jovial Gillette, relaxed and carefree until the various disasters strike. Kathryn Hunter has fun as Gillette’s fussy and overprotective mother, while Justin Patrick Murphy vibrates with a kind of macho frailty as his fellow actor and best friend. Kensington Hallowell offers a somewhat brittle but practical rendition of this friend’s actress wife. Jay Miramontes and Amanda Joyce round out the house party as the young, recently wedded members of the troupe who carry secrets of their own.

Kerri Malmgren seems to be having the most fun of anyone in the company as the snotty and totally obnoxious columnist, whose mishap sparks much of the action and all of the best comedic moments. Candy Beck becomes the unexpected and rather distractible female detective who descends upon them all as the plot unfolds. All these characters not only deal with a genuine mystery, which has layers itself, but in the farcical silliness which ensues when there is a need to hide a body.

Indeed, under the direction of Suzanne Frederickson, the mystery – though interesting – takes a back seat to those farcical elements, as the piece is often very funny. The pacing is good and the director’s own elaborate stage design offers all the right bits to heighten the humor and move the story along. Costumer Nancy Tyler’s dependence on rather generic formalwear may not be exactly period (the piece is set in 1936) but isn’t exactly out of period either. In short, the whole thing works pretty well, right down to the startling, and very funny surprise ending.

Also possibly interesting to a theatrical historian, the production makes use of elements the real Gillette introduced into the American theatrical landscape: a realistic, fully working set, and sound and lighting effects (in this case, lightning and thunder) to contribute to the sense of drama. Gillette, a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, who actually retired from acting in 1932, was considered the first realistic American stage actor. This creates a bit of extra humor for those in the know, as farce as a genre is never very high on realism, nor can its characters be.

So, go take a look. “The Game’s Afoot” is a lighthearted romp, with a couple of interesting plot twists and a lot of humor. It will make a good, and economical way to entertain oneself on a warm summer night.

What: “The Game’s Afoot” When: Through June 18, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 S. Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Musings: A Mom’s Gotta Boast

MK and me - Version 2

Proud mom with the newly minted grad, showing off the top of her mortar board, with her last college cue call: Stand by, Graduation… Go!

I have two children. They are grown now – one is about to turn 29, and the other is 25. Both are married – actually got married about two months apart. Both, as children, were members of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, touring Europe, singing with the L.A. Philharmonic, the Pasadena Symphony and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and becoming child chorus members (even featured performers) and supernumeraries in productions of the Los Angeles Opera.

Being a part of LACC taught them a lot, and not just about music. They acquired a sense of professional discipline, a more global world view (when I asked my daughter about singing at the Vatican, all she wanted to discuss was what it was like to be in the streets of Rome the night Italy won the World Cup), and the virtues and rewards of hard work. They also learned to love the process of theater, and both were in school musicals in high school long after they’d left LACC behind. My son, as he grew older, began to focus more on computers, though he now helps run a company which provides services to the film and television industry.

My 25-year-old daughter, who ran the stage crew through the latter half of high school, has landed closer to her family’s theatrical roots. (Her dad and I met in the drama department of the University of the Pacific.) A bit more than a week ago, she graduated from San Francisco State University as a Technical Theatre major. She helped operate the scene shop, ran or helped run shows large and small (the most recent, tech directing a full-blown production of “Urinetown”) and is a techie to the core.

During this past year she has also been an intern at San Francisco’s Circus Center, where people learn how to perform circus acts. Just after graduation, she jumped into a gig as a house manager for a music festival. And on it goes. In this industry what she has accomplished is important. She’s, well, a she. She’s not quite 5’5″. She doesn’t tower over people and she’s not the strongest person in the shop, but she has proved over and over again, in a very male-dominated part of the theater business, that she knows what she’s doing and can get it done.

So, I’m a very proud mom. Congratulations, Mary Kate Nicholson-White. Who knows where she will land eventually, as her husband is an active-duty Sergeant in the US Marine Corps. But wherever she goes, she will be the woman in the room who can use all kinds of power tools, build a stable structure (even a multi-story one), understand how to run a production, and… well… do a whole lot of behind-the-scenes things. Yup. That’s my girl.

The Immigrant Experience Lives in Boston Court’s “The Golden Dragon”

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Central to the intricately layered storyline of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s “The Golden Dragon”, is the Aesop’s fable of the ant and a cricket. This is not surprising when the observer begins to realize that this entire play is in many ways the story of a human ant hill: a single building of several stories, anchored by the eponymous, miscellaneously Asian restaurant at its base. It is the story of busy workers, the fragility born of immigrant status, and the particular privilege those who do not spend their days looking over their shoulders bring with them into this almost closed society.

Still, in the production now at The Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena, the first thing one becomes fascinated by amid the complexity of intertwining tales is the show’s staging. Five actors of disparate ages, genders and ethnicities play all the many people who populate the play, often doing so completely against type and sliding in and out of story and personhood with the efficiency and élan of a beautiful machine. The production proves remarkable to watch from that aspect alone, though director Michael Michetti has utilized this talented group to create one engrossing individual after another.

The most obviously interesting of the many, many portraits take the actors beyond gender. Justin H. Min creates the fragile “cricket” – a young woman held captive by a manipulative old man played by Ann Colby Stocking. Joseph Kamal and Theo Perkins are female flight attendants whose dinner at the restaurant comes up short when one of them makes an odd find in her soup. Susana Batras creates an immigrant Chinese kitchen boy whose rotting tooth becomes a problem for the entire kitchen staff of The Golden Dragon to deal with. In each case, and more, their portraits are intricately convincing – truly an homage to the power of live theater’s ability to let the imagination work.

The individual tales, of the cricket, the lascivious drunken shopkeeper, the adoring couple torn apart by an unexpected pregnancy, the old man dreaming of things he cannot have, the flight attendants’ meaningless relationships, and always that kitchen staff trying to figure out what to do with the howling young man, slide in and out of focus, shifting in waves back and forth. It is as if a classic play like “La Ronde,” in which individual characters link one separate scene to the next until there is a circle, had been set on its ear, with all the scenes sliding together and playing almost at once.

And again, what makes this work is the quality and timing of the cast and the impressive rhythm of Michetti’s direction. As the play, which is performed without intermission, flows over the audience more is absorbed than can be processed right away. That is also a tradition of Boston Court: plays which must be pondered afterward.

Also worth a nod is the Brechtian, non-representational set, made almost entirely of painter’s scaffolding, by Sara Ryung Clement. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s simple costuming lets actors shift from character to character with ease. Annie Yee’s choreography, particularly when coupled with the nearly choreographic synchrony of more base movements, enhances the storytelling, while John Nobori’s sound design gives an important cultural texture to the piece.

Go and see “The Golden Dragon”. There are levels of empathy which will stay with you long after you leave, though some of it proves disturbing the more one thinks about it. And there is an amazingly smooth, well articulated piece of performance to revel in. All this courtesy of the particular theatrical magic only live theater can make you believe.

What: “The Golden Dragon” When: Through June 5, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with understudy performances 8 p.m. May 16 and 18, and $5 night 8 p.m. June 1 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. (at Boston Court) in Pasadena How Much: $35 general, $30 senior, $20 student Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com

“The Glass Menagerie” Fits Well, Mostly, at Sierra Madre Playhouse

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Andrea Muller as Laura and Ross Philips as Jim, the Gentleman Caller in Sierra Madre Playhouse’s “The Glass Menagerie: [photo: Gina Long]

Of all of Tennessee Williams’ great plays, “The Glass Menagerie” remains the best known, showing up in high school English textbooks and even – back in the early 70s – bringing TV-shy Katharine Hepburn to the small screen. Perhaps what makes it so engaging is its semi-autobiographical nature. Perhaps it is the intense reality of its characters, and the sad yet open-ended conclusion.
Whatever the reason, it has captured the imagination of generations of theatergoers.

Now a new production at the Sierra Madre Playhouse offers up strong performances, evocative and atmospheric music, and a set and lighting design focused (as Williams wanted) on the fact it is a “memory play.” One choice of director Christian Lobano may fuzz focus at times, but in general this production offers a fine chance to see a great American classic.

The play centers on Tom, who is both protagonist and narrator, and his view of his family. Tom lives with and supports his mother Amanda, a faded southern belle whose husband has long since wandered off. Her constantly replayed tales of youthful popularity and her inability to develop enough practicality to survive without the support of others prove maddening to Tom, as does her insistence that her daughter, the club-footed and profoundly shy Laura will one day be receiving “gentleman callers” just as her mother did. Pushed, Tom does invite to dinner a male friend from his uninspiring workplace, with complex consequences.

The best thing in this production has to be the cast. Katherine James creates in Amanda the kind of conversational style obviously intended to cover an innate desperation, and the carriage of a woman trying to recapture a long-gone youth. Andrea Muller makes Laura fragile but not pitiful – a tough balancing act. Because she does this so well, Ross Philips’ gentleman caller can respond to her in ways which give her a warmth not always seen in productions of this play. Philips’ portrayal of Jim, the caller, balances the man’s own anxieties and optimism in ways which make his energy infectious.

The play’s original score, composed by Jonathan Beard, gives the entire play a specific, interesting undercurrent. Erin Walley’s set design takes the original stage directions and adapts them beautifully to SMP’s far smaller stage, while Pablo Santiago’s moody, sometimes dim lighting underscore the thing as a piece of memory. Indeed, in this fine production, if there is one thing which could arguably use a second look, it would be Lobano’s decision to remove Tom to the spot of narrator more often and more intentionally than usual.

In plays like “Dancing at Lughnasa” the narrator is always outside the frame. Even when speaking to characters in the story he does so from a distance, and he stands to one side as a constant observer. That distance is important to the storyline and the way that tale is told. The thing is, that concept doesn’t really translate to “Menagerie”.

One must have Tom in the room with Amanda to feel his rising anger. And one must have Tom away and unobservant when elements central to the storyline – particularly Laura and her caller – evolve in ways Tom can’t expect. To have him standing to one side agonizing over his sister’s fate distracts from a fantastically important (and extremely well done) scene Tom should never have seen. That, and the caller’s callous (and unscripted) action in the aftermath muddy the thematic angle of the piece.

Still, it says much about this production that one can nitpick a director’s choices. The entire performance has a clean and sharp quality which make it engaging from beginning to end. Most certainly, the strong characterizations carry the day. So, if you have never seen “The Glass Menagerie,” now is the time, and Sierra Madre Playhouse is the place. Go take a look.

What: “The Glass Menagerie” When: through June 19, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance at 7 pm on June 12, and at 2:30 p.m. on June 18. There will be no performances on June 10 and 11 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth (13-20), $17 children under 12 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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