Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Come and See “Come From Away”!

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The celebrating ensemble of “Come From Away”, the joyous musical about airline passengers stranded in Newfoundland, now at the Ahmanson Theatre

No argument. Anyone who was alive and over 5 or 6 on September 11, 2001 remembers with aching accuracy all that they did, heard, and reacted to that day. With the passage of more than a decade, those memories have been refined down to the the most aching bits, the saddest moments. Since then national rancor and suspicion have grown, and grown more overt, in America.

As such, sometimes it is difficult to step back and look at that entire event from an angle other than the legitimately wrenching. But there are subtly positive stories from those days which can prove a connection with our shared humanity in ways which we could all use a chance to get back in touch with. One such story – and it is quite true – is celebrated in Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s “Come From Away,” the delightfully well crafted Broadway musical just opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.

As that terrible day unfolded, and the entire air space above the United States was ordered closed to all but military traffic, international flights already in the air coming from Europe and beyond, needed to be diverted to a place outside the US as soon as possible. For dozens of aircraft, that meant Gander, Newfoundland, off the Canadian coast.

Within hours there were roughly as many people sitting on planes parked on the aging airport tarmac as there were living in the island province to begin with. How the locals dealt with this diverse, frustrated, and frightened host of people who had “come from away” makes for one celebratory, reflective musical.

Sankoff and Hein’s book for this piece is extraordinary in its ability – in 90 minutes without an intermission – to develop a host of 30+ rounded characters that the 12-member ensemble sweeps into active life. Switching seamlessly from islanders to visitors and back again, dancing and singing with extraordinary precision and art, this is by far one of the best uses of theater’s special ability to suspend an audience’s disbelief since “Man of La Mancha”.

All this with an onstage band playing a score reminiscent modern Irish music, and a sense of urgency and heart which keeps one thoroughly engaged throughout.

The ensemble of Kevin Carolan, Harter Clingman, Nick Duckart, Chamblee Ferguson, Becky Gulsvig, Julie Johnson, Christine Toy Johnson, James Earl Jones II, Megan McGinnis, Andrew Samonsky, Danielle K. Thomas and Emily Walton all sing with strength and character, and create memorable moments along the way. Perhaps the strongest, at least for me, was Gulsvig’s “Me and the Sky”, where the first female captain of an American Airlines plane not only sings the love of flying which drove her to fight for such a position, but the specific horror of seeing the thing she loves most in the world used as a bomb.

Director Christopher Ashley has used the minimalism of Beowulf Boritt’s set design to create planes, busses, seaward cliffs, bars, and high school gyms out of chairs and belief. The rhythmic, emphatic musical staging by Kelly Devine ripples with energy. Toni-Leslie James’ costume designs allow for simple but evocative character changes in the twinkling of an eye. It is all tight, compelling and completely engrossing.

What’s more, it is hopeful. In a time when horror had struck, for those who were stranded there, the people of Gander and the surrounding area were the antidote to the events overwhelming the world. “Come From Away” is funny, charming, heart-warming without becoming overly sentimental, and compelling from first to last. This is not to say that the tragedy of that time isn’t present. It was, and it is, but the balance of care and conviction counters that with a richness of spirit.

Go see “Come From Away.” In this fraught time of our current history we need to be reminded that goodness is present in the world. Not perfection, but goodness. When you realize that most of the script comes from actually sitting and listening to the islanders telling their stories of those five days, it gives you faith in the potential of the human spirit.

What: “Come From Away”  When: through January 6, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, added 2 p.m. performance Thursday, December 7, 7 p.m. performance Monday, December 31. No performance December 5, and no 8 p.m. performance December 25 or 31  Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles  How Much: $30 – $135  Info: (213) 792-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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A Hymn to the Reagans: Bad Direction, Propaganda, and Schmaltz

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Brent Schindele and Kelley Dorney as Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis (Reagan), at the Reagan Ranch in “In A Booth At Chasen’s” at the El Portal Theatre

One does not have to have been a fan to realize that Ronald and Nancy Reagan were fascinating individuals. Their long and dynamic marriage, their shift from the world of Hollywood to the world of state and national politics, all of this had to begin somewhere. Enter a new one-act musical, “In A Booth At Chasens’s” now at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.

It’s an interesting idea. If only it lived up to the promise. Though producer John C. Herklotz goes on record from the start about how inspirational the Reagans were, it takes more artistry to turn that enthusiasm into live theater.  If only this show met that challenge.

Ostensibly this is about Ron and Nancy’s first, blind date. What it actually is is a series of brief vignettes of stages in their romance, each one with at least one song and none so long as to allow for actual character development.

The entire enterprise is less a musical in the classic sense – telling an actual story – than a framework for this series of Al Kasha and Phil Swann’s songs, which take precedence over the few lines of Sam Bennett’s abbreviated script. In between these moments of potential plot two uncredited gents schlep furniture, bicycles and standing mirrors on and off the stage while the two cast members change clothes.

Kelley Dorney is Nancy Davis. Though she sings about being shy, this is not particularly in evidence in Dorney’s performance. Still, she has a lovely voice and gives a natural quality to the character she doesn’t get much of a chance to flesh out.

Brent Schindele is Ronald Reagan, and seems to struggle between being a fairly human, frustrated actor on the professional skids (which is mentioned in just about every scene) and being an icon. Particularly when called upon to define the Reagan world view, the icon takes over and he becomes a statue – he stops moving in order to make sure the message is delivered in icon fashion. When this bleeds over into the times he is just a guy, the whole show stalls.

However, this isn’t entirely Schindele’s fault. Director Kay Cole has simply given these characters too little to do. The fellows bringing furniture on and off do not – except in the scenes inside Chasen’s itself – supply them with much in the way of props to work with, and Cole hasn’t worked with them on motivation to do more than sing most of the time.

Even in Chasen’s, Cole doesn’t connect their physical behavior to the songs they are singing. Take as example the moment Reagan, standing by the title booth, sings that he needs to run after Nancy and keep her from walking out on him (she having just left), all the while standing stock still, and then stays in that same spot to sing another verse.

Which is all to say that this enterprise has labored mightily to bring forth a mouse. Andy Walmsley’s minimalist set pieces are backed by projection screens on which Daniel Brodie has designed an ongoing salute to late 1940s Los Angeles, using archival footage of Hollywood Boulevard, Wilshire and more. The band lead by Jonathan Tessero is solid, and gives drama to the pieces. Still, it just doesn’t work.

What: “In A Booth At Chasen’s”  When: through November 25, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday November 15, 8 p.m. Friday November 16 and 23, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday November 17 and 24, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. November 18, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Wednesday November 21, 3 p.m. Sunday, November 25.  Where: El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. How Much: $25 – $65 plus premium. Info: (818) 508-4200 or http://www.InABoothAtChasens.com

“Valley of the Heart” at the Taper: Solid Script (Mostly) But Uneven Performance

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The two families whose interdependence becomes essential in Luis Valdez’s “Valley of the Heart,” now at the Mark Taper Forum

As someone who has taught history for a few decades, there is no doubt that the ugliness of the Japanese Internment is one of the several inexcusable black marks on our American story. At a time when the fate of immigrants and refugees has been put into question by some elements of government yet again, it is good to go back and look at the ugliness of the past, if only to warn and mobilize those in the present.

From a theatrical standpoint, what matters is how this is addressed. Should it be a history lesson, a polemic, or a smaller, human story which underscores the wrenching effects of a historic wrong? In Luis Valdez’s “Valley of the Heart,” now at the Mark Taper Forum, this last proves far more powerful than some of the other recent attempts to refocus our collective memory on the concentration camps on US soil where people were held for the simple sin of being of Japanese descent.

The script is strong, most of the time – more consistently engaging and personal than many of Valdez’s works. The production is as well. A couple of performances, and an awkward tacked-on ending mar this piece, and they do so in ways which pull one out of the story and jeopardize the very empathy the play otherwise engenders.

The play is the story of Japanese farm family in what is now the Silicone Valley just as World War II begins, and the Mexican family living on their property, helping them work the land. Both fathers are immigrants, struggling to balance their old traditions with the changing world their children inhabit. They are proud, if reluctantly interdependent men fashioning an American life.

When Benjamin Montaño falls for Thelma Yamaguchi, it flies in the face of all those family expectations. Thelma is in line for an arranged marriage with her brother’s roommate at Cal, and between cultural disconnects and lack of independent income, Benjamin has little chance. Then Pearl Harbor changes everything.

With the Yamaguchi’s farm in jeopardy, and arrests and internments looming, the young couple elopes, but then must cope with Benjamin’s agreement to keep the farm going while his wife is shipped off with her family to a desolate area of Wyoming. How the two families experience war, changing status, and the sheer unreasonableness of their lives’ shifts makes history come alive.

As Benjamin, Lakin Valdez shows passion, character, and pain as he grows into responsibilities beyond what he expected. Melanie Arii Mah gives Thelma the awkward stance of someone rooted both in American culture and the traditions and rigid roles of her parents’ world.

Likewise, the two mothers – Joy Osmanski as Thelma’s, and Rose Portillo as Benjamin’s – have an authenticity in their portraits of women deeply concerned for their families and wrenched by the choices made. Also worthy of note are Justin Chen as the Yamaguchi’s college student son, Moises Castro as the teenaged younger son of the Montaños, and Scott Keiji Takeda as the privileged city boy arranged to marry Thelma.

Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between these other naturalistic and connected performances and that of Christy Sandoval, as Benjamin’s younger sister, and Randall Nakano as Thelma’s father. Both seem more rooted in the implied tradition of Kabuki, speaking their lines with an artificial, bombastic quality which simply doesn’t fit the rest of the production, at least until Nakano’s has a health issue which must be treated more naturally. Granted, there are other hints of Kabuki, including Mariela Arteaga and Michael Naydoe Pinedo’s work as Kurogo – the anonymous persons in black who handle prop and set changes and (at least in this case) provide the occasional necessary extra character in the story. Still, Sandoval and Nakano interrupt the rhythm and reality of the play.

One is surprised at this, given that the playwright is also the director. His long history with El Teatro Campesino (an associated producer of this piece) means he is no neophyte at directing, and this is his play to interpret and work into a cohesive whole. What works so well most of the time trips up on these two performances.

Still, there is much to recommend here. The use of shðji screens and projected environments by scenic designer John Iacovelli, especially when combined with the representational actions of the Kurogo, make for powerful visuals and set the tone for the struggles within. Lupe Valdez’s costumes set the period and economic structures with subtle ease.

And, of course, there is the terrifically important tale of two immigrant cultures in California, and their joint response to the terrible inequalities of their time. As such it proves particularly powerful, and rather hopeful.

What: “Valley of the Heart” When: through December 9, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance 8 p.m. Monday, November 19 (and no performance on Thanksgiving). Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $99. Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org Read more of this post

Weirdly Fascinating: “Prelude to a Kiss” at Whittier Community Theatre

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Jessica Taylor Gable and Jason Cook as the soon-to-be-starcrossed lovers of “Prelude to a Kiss” at Whittier Community Theatre [photo: Amy Lauren Gettys]

In a time when so many of the old community theatre companies have disappeared, Whittier’s is remarkable, having opened the second of four shows constituting its 97th straight season. The new production, Craig Lucas’ “Prelude to a Kiss,” is hardly your typical community theater show, but then Whittier has been doing a lot of bending that image lately.

The tale follows the whirlwind romance of Peter and the often pessimistic Rita up to a wedding which, thanks to the appearance of an unknown elderly man, sets their story on an odd trajectory. Is Rita still Rita, or has there been some kind of exchange between Rita and the unknown man? If so, now what?

Jason Cook is  Peter, the boy in this boy-meets-girl fairy story. As such he becomes both protagonist and narrator, and is largely responsible for not only the tone but the tempo of the piece. It takes him a bit of time to warm to this, but once in full swing, he proves as nonplussed and yet desperately hopeful as one could wish. As Rita, Jessica Taylor Gable makes a good foil for Peter’s casual optimism, and switches gears well as the tale becomes more convoluted. In the second half, as more is revealed and things get weirder, both hit their stride in ways which propel the story and capture the audience’s focus.

Also worthy of note are Jose Barajas as Peter’s longtime and rather bland friend, and Nancy Tyler, particularly when playing the elderly man’s concerned daughter. Loriston Scott has some solid moments as a bartender, and Kathryn Hunter and Gary Page make real characters out of Rita’s quirky parents.

Still, it is as that elderly man that Lewis Crouse often nearly steals the show. He manages to balance the weird internal struggles of this dual person, while connecting with the two principals in very interesting ways.

Director Roxie Lee has a sense of what can make this production work and has created real connection between the characters. It all works, with one major exception. In also designing what set there is – mostly furniture which can be moved quickly on and offstage, she has neglected the fact that the stage of The Center Theatre, where they perform, is really quite large. The space defeats the innate intimacy of this piece. Narrowing the entire area would do the show great service, and perk up the first half which is broken too much by the episodic pauses for furniture shuffling.

Still, especially in the second half, “Prelude to a Kiss” proves amusing with an undercurrent of great heart. One word of warning, though. Unlike most community theater fare it has references to sexual fantasies and intimacy which may make it unsuitable for younger children, and those who would be offended by such elements.

Still, it’s worth taking a look, and celebrating a theater which may easily be the longest-running company in Southern California.

What: “Prelude to a Kiss”  When: through November 17, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a Sunday matinee 2:30 November 11  Where: The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier  How Much: $18 adults, $15 seniors (62+), juniors (18 and under), students and military with ID  Info: (562) 696-0600 or whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Powerful “Dear Evan Hanson”: Ethics and Angst in the Digital Age

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L-R: Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen,’ Aaron Lazar as ‘Larry Murphy,’ Christiane Noll as ‘Cynthia Murphy’ and Maggie McKenna as ‘Zoe Murphy’ in the First North American Tour of “Dear Evan Hansen,” now at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles

When news hit that the Tony-winning “Dear Evan Hansen” was headed for L.A. on its first national tour, a dash for tickets seeming mildly reminiscent of the “Hamilton” frenzy began. Such enthusiasm can spark a certain amount of skepticism from someone like me, who has seen a goodly share of musicals come and go. Even a Tony only means it was the best that year on Broadway, not necessarily that it will stand the test of time.

I needn’t have worried. This is a musical for the next generation: youthful isolation, the economic divide, the power of social media to empower or increase that isolation or make a lie seem true, all of these have a place in “Dear Evan Hansen.” What proves remarkable is how well this material is woven together into a touching, warm and real piece of musical expression. Yes, it is deeply emotional, and yes, that is just fine.

Evan Hansen is a self-conscious, awkward, and lonely teenager walking into his senior year of high school. When – under pressure from his worried single mom, and his therapist – he writes a supposedly encouraging letter (though it turns out not to be) to himself and prints it out in the school computer lab, an angry, tormented bully swipes it. When that bully then kills himself with the letter in his pocket, it is taken as a suicide note addressed to Evan, and a fiction begins that gradually changes Evan’s life.

Much of what makes this work is Ben Levi Ross’s Evan. With a strong, yet youthful voice and a remarkable sense of the physical awkwardness which defines Evan’s world, he manages to become complex and vulnerable and mature as the show goes along. Marrick Smith, as Connor, the bully, is able to shift from tormented and angry young man to Evan’s interior alter-ego, again in subtle changes of vocal tone and physical carriage.

Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll, as Connor’s heartbroken and vulnerable parents, and Jessica Phillips, as Evan’s sometimes desperate, loving mother, offer the balance of adult perspectives in this tale. Jared Goldsmith as the tech geek and Phoebe Koyabe as the pushy planner provide the outsiders who fall into or help expand Evan’s increasing online life, giving focus to the immediacy of the teenage experience. As Connor’s conflicted sister and the object of Evan’s yearning, Maggie McKenna provides the general skepticism which grounds the story.

Yet all these serve the larger production, as Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songs drive the piece and wrench the heart, telling Steven Levenson’s story. Director Michael Grief has molded a technological staging to match the ever-present media which powers Evan’s rise and fall, and illustrate the runaway quality of anything posted on the ‘net. David Korins, as set designer, and Japhy Weideman’s projections bring that online world into the physical reality of the stage in fascinatingly immersive ways.

Austin Cook, as music director, directs an onstage band of power and presence. The songs themselves, especially those which essentially end each act – the powerful “You Will Be Found” which leaves few dry eyes in the the audience, and the gently loving reassurance of family in “So Big/So Small” tie together a piece rooted in emotional connection, and in the ways in which those connections fail and can be mended.

“Dear Evan Hansen” will move you. That is a given. It is for and about a generation musicals rarely work to reach. If you know young people who were thrilled by “Hamilton,” let them see this and recognize, if not themselves then people they have known along the way. It is that kind of show, and its not-completely-happy ending still resonates hope, growth and wisdom.

Note that Stephen Christopher Anthony plays Evan on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday matinees, and Sunday evening performances.

What: “Dear Evan Hansen”  When: through November 25, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m and 8 p.m., 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance 2 p.m. Wednesday, November 21 to compensate for no evening performance on November 22 (Thanksgiving Day) Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles’ Music Center  How Much: $99 – $285  Info: 213-972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

 

 

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”at ANW: Anything But Dead

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Kasey Mahaffy and Rafael Goldstein are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, oblivious to the drama of Paul David Story’s Hamlet and Katie Rodriguez’s Ophelia in the background. [photo: Craig Schwartz]

There is a certain fascination in the fact that two theaters in Pasadena are featuring plays based on looking sideways at a Shakespearean works. At Boston Court, a new play looks at “The Merchant of Venice” from the Jewish perspective. At A Noise Within it’s the now-classic “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” in which two seemingly superfluous characters in “Hamlet” become the center of a debate about existence.

The latter, the seminal work of Tom Stoppard, demands a specific rhythm from its cast, as 20th century nihilism swirls around Elizabethan storytelling, and wry humor coats the original tragedy. This odd juxtaposition is the heart of why the play works so well, if it is done right. At A Noise Within, it is done right.

Kasey Mahaffy and Rafael Goldstein are the title characters, summoned for reasons they don’t understand to a castle full of tragic drama they are not connected to. As such, they concentrate on the vagaries of fate, the potential purposelessness of their own existences, and the simple question of what they can possibly be supposed to do regarding the unintelligible theatrics floating around them. The two create the sense of bond which makes the entire play work, and create characters of memorable quirkiness.

As the head of the troop of players who will be elemental to Hamlet’s confrontation of his uncle, though they don’t know it, Wesley Mann gives just the right tone of insular irony to the part. In this he is backed by as peculiar a crowd of performers – from the wistfully abused Alfred (Sam Christian), joined by Mark Jennings, Jonathan Fisher, Philip Rodriguez, Oscar Emmanuel Fabela – as an ANW audience could expect.

Paul David Story, as Hamlet, Jonathan Bray as his uncle Claudius, and Abby Craden as his mother Gertrude make the sudden injections of Shakespearean characters and speech seem natural segues from the contemporary discussions of the title pair. Indeed, the entire crew of Shakespeareans, by their seeming ease with the plot going on offstage, set the tone for the disconnect between that and these two hapless, somewhat dimly philosophical figures whose doom is ordained by elements outside their understanding.

Director Geoff Elliott does some of his finest work piecing this thing together into an entertaining, wistful, cohesive whole. A lot of this is pacing, and a lot of it is creating space and action for the many long and elaborate discussions between two clueless men. Costumer Jenny Foldenauer manages the historic and the fanciful equally well, while Frederica Nascimento’s set, with its seeming scrim between “Hamlet” and this play, helps signal the intersections between the two.

This “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is funny, intellectually satisfying, cleverly staged, and one of those moments when ANW tropes actually propel the sense of the thing forward. It is most certainly worth a look, especially for anyone who is a Shakespeare nut, like me.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” plays in repertory with “A Picture of Dorian Gray.”

What: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”  When: through November 18; 2 p.m. October 21 and 27, November 4, 10, 17 and 18; 7 p.m. November 4 and 18; 7:30 p.m. October 25; 8 p.m. October 26, and 27, November 9, 10, and 17  How Much: from $25 general, $20 Student Rush with ID an hour before the performance

Shakespearean Side Story:”Everything That Never Happened” at Boston Court

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Leo Marks is Shylock and Erica Soto is Jessica in “Everything That Never Happened” at Boston Court Pasadena [photo: Jenny Graham]

Boston Court Pasadena’s Co-Artistic Director Jessica Kubzansky loves Shakespeare. That I know. She has directed insightful productions of the Bard’s work at several venues, and in her “RII” at BC she  pared one play down to great effect, allowing more focus on essential and timeless themes in a comparatively obscure history play.

Thus, it is not really a surprise that she would embrace directing the world premiere of Sarah B. Mantell’s “Everything That Never Happened.” A sideways look at “The Merchant of Venice” from the perspective of Shylock and Jessica, it becomes a discussion of culture, erasure, revenge, and the normalization of inequality which offers a countermeasure to the antisemitic overtones of the Bard’s original.

In “Everything…” Mantell has eschewed the Elizabethan language as she propels us into the world of Jessica, the Jewish daughter of moneylender Shylock, who is being wooed by the Christian Lorenzo. As their non-Jewish servant, Gobbo, looks on and occasionally collaborates, Jessica must figure out what matters to her most.

What she sees in Lorenzo is freedom, not only from the oppression of being a Jew in Venice, but from the rigid limitations her faith places on her behaviors. Shylock, on the other hand, finds his pride in his culture – a buffer against a larger community which puts his people in a ghetto and spits upon him even as they beg for the money he lends. What will remain, and what be washed away, as these strong personalities pull apart?

Leo Marks gives a gravitas to Shylock, quietly strong and innately sure of his direction – a stance which gives Jessica’s eventual betrayal the aspect of an inner earthquake: subtle and devastating. As Jessica, Erika Soto moves from romantic dreamer to shaken realist in incremental steps grounded in identity and a gradual realization of the cost of her dreams.

Paul Culos gives Lorenzo the casual command of a man unaware of the extent of his unearned privilege: romantic, somewhat devious, and sure he will get his way. Dylan Saunders’ Gobbo is a truly Shakespearean servant, observant and protective in practical ways uncluttered by the cultural frameworks he stands firmly between.

Kubzansky gets these people, and the literal undercurrent of the play, as rivers and canals flow by, an echo of the passage of time and of the things which can overwhelm us. Francois-Pierre Couture’s minimalist set creates a sense of space, storage for quickly shifting scenic elements, and even waterways where there are none. Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting delineates space and time, and John Nobori’s sound design, sometimes intentionally overwhelming, hints at great tides to come.

Still, it is the play itself, which manages to be linear and nonlinear all at once, that underscores the points Shakespeare didn’t bother to make: the locked gates of the ghettos, the dangers of revenge in a world suspicious of closed societies, the entire undercurrent of otherness which made Shylock at once an easy target and an unacknowledged tragedy.

“Everything…” happens fast. The play is only an hour and 25 minutes long. Still, within that time there are the seeds of awareness, and by the time the Kaddish is sung, what has been lost by the events of that other play happening in their background has a rich profundity.

What: “Everything That Never Happened” When: through November 4, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays  How Much: $20 – $39  Info: 626-683-6801 or http://www.BostonCourtPasadena.org

 

“Dorian Gray” at A Noise Within: Recreating a Hit

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Frederick Stuart, Amin El Gamal (rear) and Colin Bates as Dorian in “A Picture of Dorian Gray” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Of all of Oscar Wilde’s creations, the overall theme of “A Picture of Dorian Gray” has most become a part of the English language. References to a portrait in a closet going to hell have appeared in any number of literary genres, and many who have never actually been exposed to Wilde’s story know in general what that reference means: someone who is dissolute in some way or another without it showing.

What may be less well known is the odd combination of license and Victorianism with which it is invested, or the more homoerotic tone of the original story Wilde himself had to tone down considerably when the work went from its magazine debut to the permanence of book form. Now Michael Michetti’s adaptation of “Dorian” has been revived and is once again directed by its adaptor at A Noise Within in Pasadena, 12 years after its wildly popular premiere at The Theatre at Boston Court (now Boston Court Pasadena), where Michetti is co-Artistic Director.

Although I often object strenuously to any sense of being wedded to the first presentation of a particular play, here there is a need to make some comparisons. Not only is the adaptation by the same person, but the director is the same. What have time and a difference of venue meant to this work?. In a play taken virtually word for word from Wilde, perhaps the most obvious, but in some ways the most unfair disadvantage of this production is its Dorian.

Wilde’s Dorian is a young man who radiates almost hypnotically attractive youth and innocence. He shines as a beacon of both to such an extent that the more jaundiced men with whom he comes into contact praise that beauty and youthfulness as both the greatest advantage he has, and the most fleeting. Thus begins the tale.

In Michetti’s first production, actor Steve Coombs’ Dorian was just that – a young man of Byronic beauty with a physique like Michelangelo’s David. At ANW, Colin Bates has an edgier, tougher, stringier aspect, making all the comments about his radiant innocence and Hellenic perfection ring somewhat hollow, not because he is not a fine actor (he definitely is) but because the tale centers so much on the dichotomy between Dorian’s riveting physical image and the increasingly twisted soul beneath.

On the other hand, the theme of a man who seems universally attractive while operating with a complete lack of conscience seems almost prescient, given the news cycle of the last couple of weeks. And so the play itself has more to offer now than perhaps it did before.

Standing out in a strong cast is Amin El Gamal, as the shyly adoring painter Basil. He manages the delicate balance of adoration, gentleness and pent-up emotion necessary to balance the wry, bitter quality of Frederick Stuart’s Lord Henry, the man most responsible for leading Dorian astray. Stuart’s delivery almost always offers hints of snide fatalism, and here that proves just the right irritant.

Beyond these three, Chelsea Kurtz makes fine work of the young actress Dorian’s adoration destroys, Jose Angel Donado exudes contained fury as her vengeful brother, and Daniel Lench sets a standard as Lord Henry’s uncle. Beyond these, a talented ensemble handles the many other characters who float in and out of Dorian’s world as his debauchery increases.

Michetti and James Maloof have designed a set which allows for quick scene changes and an interesting balance between reality and the weirdly dreamlike quality of Wilde’s storytelling. There is a strong sense of pacing and focus, and the choreography of John Pennington helps define the destruction of Dorian’s character with a fluidity which moves the story forward.

Yet, it is hard to buy into this Dorian, and thus into that aforementioned great dichotomy of Wilde’s story: the very Victorian concept of visible sin – of how an evil soul will wrench one’s physical self – and the portrait which twists so the man himself can remain unblemishedly beautiful.

Be aware that this adaptation borrows from both versions of Wilde’s original story, and thus emphasizes far more than the more easily acquired print edition the homoeroticism which underscored Wilde’s own life. There is also stylistically important full frontal male nudity. To paraphrase a favorite university theater director, if either of these will offend you, then you will be offended.

This play will be performed in repertory with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”.

What: “A Picture of Dorian Gray”  When: through November 16, 8 p.m. October 19, 20, November 2, 3, and 16; 7 p.m. October 28, November 11; 7:30 p.m. November 15; 2 p.m. October 20, 28, November 2, 3, and 11  Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena   How Much: from $25, student rush with ID an hour before performance $20  Info: 626-356-3121 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t: SCNG Gives Up Printing/Posting Reviews

Fate plays tricks on one, now and again. Change can arrive bidden or unbidden, and the consequences are not always predictable. Take this site, for instance. Originally my son arm-twisted me into creating it, concerned that the medium of print news was disappearing. Still, my theatrical critiques continued to appear in the Pasadena Star-News, the first daily I ever wrote for, as well as other related papers: a list which grew longer and longer as the parent company morphed into the Southern California News Group. The size of the once proud and independent Star-News shrank from a historic building bustling with reporters, editors, workers in the basement press room, and all the others who make a newspaper go, to three guys in the back of a modern building doing local reporting while everything else was handled by some editor or business exec at one of various other sites. Still, one of those editors (it changed over time) okay’d my assignments, and my critiques still showed up in print.

Now print news – at least major outlets’ version of it (NY Times, LA Times, Washington Post, etc.) – is making a comeback in the era of “Oh my God! What kind of crazy is going on in Washington?”, but the damage has already been done to the smaller papers, who have been bought and consolidated, and then consolidated again, until what were once the voices of local information have been homogenized nearly to the point of pointlessness. Online sources (Pasadena NOW, for instance) have taken over some of that, though their journalistic skill can vary greatly.

And what of coverage of the arts? In the case of the SCNG, the Lifestyle pages, once the home of critiques of theater, dance, restaurants, film, etc., are now all apparently controlled from a single desk for all papers in the chain. Local is out. This is why all theater criticism disappeared from those pages in August. They were still available online, though you had to be a detective to find them (as I heard over and over again from those who couldn’t figure out to get there). Then it was determined that too few people were visiting those online pages (see above, though that wasn’t apparently part of the discussion), and it was concluded that nobody wanted to read theater criticism anymore. So… no more critiques will be offered in any SCNG papers.

Thus it turns out my son’s urging was a very good thing. My reviews will still appear here, and linked to my new Facebook page, called rather obviously “Reviews by Frances Baum Nicholson”. There will be a monthly preview column which will appear in only the San Gabriel Valley-area papers as well, but it will be mostly a preview of what’s coming up, rather than any evaluative tool.

There may be other connections. I’m still looking into other avenues for my work to get out there. What will come of that I do not know. In the meantime, here I am. Please go to the “Contact the Author” section of this website to see how to receive word of reviews, go “like” my FB page, or subscribe by email in order to see what I’ve posted, if you are interested.

Thank goodness for the Internet, I guess. It is seen as being the death of the daily paper, but it has to be acknowledged as where the majority of Americans find their information these days. Of course, you do need to be careful and find trustworthy sources in order to avoid being led by the nose. In that vein, and to be helpful, I offer the chart below. Critiques or no, being able to access accurate information has never been more critical, and I find this chart, created by a nonpartisan organization, is valuable to have on hand. Yes, this is me wearing my “other hat” as a teacher of US government, but there ya go. Sometimes the two parts of my life blend.

How-biased-is-your-news-source

“Bonnie and Clyde” at Candlelight Pavilion: Tuneful if Fanciful Fare

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Beau Brians and Callandra Olivia are “Bonnie and Clyde” at Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont

When one hears the names Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, one is inclined to think first of the groundbreaking 1960s film based on their exploits, or about the fact the two were briefly considered heroes in the financially downtrodden midwest of the Great Depression until those same exploits became too deadly. In 2009 the La Jolla Playhouse premiered a musical. which later traveled to Broadway, based on the legendary criminal couple, focused on their apparently quite real love story – the illicit nature of which was as tantalizing to the 1930s public as their bank robberies.

Now open at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, “Bonnie and Clyde” proves both captivating and intense, with an engaging pacing and energy. Featuring a fine cast, an score of eclectic styles, an on-stage band, and tight, knowledgeable direction, the show has a bit of something for almost anyone who is fascinated by the combination of brutality and passion these two and those closest to them represented.

The story borders on legend by now, and must of course be truncated some to fit into a couple hours on the stage. Clyde, a long-time petty crook from an impoverished family, falls for Bonnie, a struggling waitress separated from the husband she married at 16, and they fall in love. As Clyde’s ambitions and crimes increase he sucks in both Bonnie and his brother Buck to create a gang which gradually moves from petty thefts and store robberies to bank robberies and murder. Their story becomes fodder for tabloid newspapers, but they become increasingly hunted by law enforcement until their predictable, untimely end in an ambush.

Beau Brians gives the necessary edginess and sings with intensity as Clyde. Callandra Olivia creates in Bonnie a mixture of a young woman wrestling with the dichotomy of personal love and desire, and the dawning acknowledgement of the dangerous path her dreams have let her take. Nic Olsen, as Clyde’s brother and sometime partner in crime, is played for a kind of innocence which counterbalances Clyde’s amorality. Katie McGhie, gives Clyde’s sister-in-law Blanche the kind of backbone missing from the film, and a moral core which pounds against the gang’s actions even as she is drawn into them. All of these performers sing extraordinarily well. Indeed, a duet between Olivia and McGhie, “You Love Who You Love,” is one of the high points of the entire production.

Other standouts among a large and versatile cast include Jennifer Lawson and Lisa Dyson as Bonnie and Clyde’s mothers, respectively, David Sasik as the young deputy in at the finish who had known Bonnie in her waitressing days, and Michael Lanning – a member of the original company – as an intense country preacher. Also worthy of particular note are Serena Thompson and Joey Caraway as the young Bonnie and Clyde, bringing gravitas to their youthful dreams.

Director Victor Hernandez was a member of this show’s Broadway cast, and the familiarity and love he has for this production shines through in every aspect. Chuck Ketter’s remarkable set makes terrific use of the Candlelight’s small stage, making scene changes virtually instantaneous and helping propel the intensity of the piece. Music director Ryan O’Connell leads the on-stage band and keeps the tone and pacing of the entire production – one almost entirely sung – on target.

As happens with most people who become legends, the history of this “Bonnie and Clyde” plays fast-and-loose on occasion with the documentable facts, but it does seem to instill what appears to have been the romantic aspect of their story with somewhat greater accuracy than some accounts. Certainly, it is worth taking a look, and at Candlelight Pavilion it comes with a good meal as well.

What: “Bonnie and Clyde”. When: through October 13, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. on Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for lunch on Saturdays and Sundays  How Much: $63 – $78 adults, $$30 – $35 children under 12, meal inclusive. Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or www.candlelightpavilion.com

 

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