Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Educational Effort in “Bye Bye, Birdie” at Fremont Centre Theatre

The adult/teen cast of Bye Bye, Birdie sing in celebration of Ed Sullivan: Front - l. to r.- Mirai Booth-Ong, Chloe Lesieur, Tony Prichard, Clara Daly; Rear - Jasmine Einbinder (l.), Meera Sinroja, Stephanie Harvey, Stacy Toyon, Elliott Scott, and Shaina Hammer

The adult/teen cast of Bye Bye, Birdie sing in celebration of Ed Sullivan: Front – l. to r.- Mirai Booth-Ong, Chloe Lesieur, Tony Prichard, Clara Daly; Rear – Jasmine Einbinder (l.), Meera Sinroja, Stephanie Harvey, Stacy Toyon, Elliott Scott, and Shaina Hammer

There are any number of organizations in and around the Los Angeles area which aim to train young people in various aspects of theatrical performance. One of these, which has recently taken up residence at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena, is Young Stars Theater, an organization which doesn’t charge for their training sessions, and offers up chances for the more dedicated performers to get into the larger aspects of production by doing all the behind-the-scenes work on shows of their own. It’s an ambitious mission.

The current production of “Bye Bye, Birdie” emphasizes both some of the plusses and some of the traps of this enterprise. One of the down-sides may be overextension, in that they have created two separate companies to perform the show. One, the “Roll Cast” is entirely made up of children and youth. The other, the “Rock Cast” to which critics were invited, claims to be a more traditional combination of adults and teens. The problem stems from having to free up some of the best teenaged performers to play the adults in the all-youth cast. This leaves some supporting roles in the adult-and-teen cast to be played by not-quite-teens, and that can get a bit uncomfortable. More simply, it also dilutes the number of quality performers available in both settings.

The story hasn’t changed, and is set in the traditional 1950s. Teen rock star Conrad Birdie has been drafted (as Elvis was). Albert and Rose, Conrad’s manager and songwriter and his secretary/girlfriend Rose, cook up a plan to give him a sendoff which will allow Albert to move on to a more stable job: a young female fan will be chosen at random to be serenaded with a new farewell song and a goodbye kiss from Conrad himself. And thus, Kim MacAfee’s family in Sweet Apple, Ohio, is descended upon by Conrad, Albert and Rose, surrounded by Birdie fans, and told they will all be on the Ed Sullivan Show. What could go wrong?

Individual performers in the YST production stand out quickly as the show begins. Tara Cox gives Rose the right combination of enthusiasm and frustration, and sings and dances well. As Albert’s guilt-slinging, clingy mother, Stacy Toyon has a ball, and plays the comedy to the hilt. Kurt Loehler’s Albert seems powered by a comic fatalism, which works well enough.

As Conrad Birdie, Matthew Golden grows into the part, ending up with an excellent “One Last Kiss” which sold that entire scene. Meera Sinroja, as the head of the local Conrad Birdie Fan Club sings well and turns what could have been a small part into a focal one.

Tony Prichard has a lot of fun with Kim’s fusty father, while Chloe Lesieur, as Kim’s little brother Randolph, sings very well, performs with real zeal, and pretty much steals the show. As Kim, Clara Daly proves earnest, but still needs to work on volume when she sings. Not that any of the child performers should emulate the vocal cord-damaging belting of an Andrea McArdle, but projection is still important in several cases. Mirai Booth-Ong gives Kim’s mom the appropriate mix of love and frustration.

Many of the other performers just seem to be finding their footing on stage, including Liam Walker as Kim’s boyfriend Hugh. He rarely opens his eyes very much, and doesn’t look at the people he’s supposed to be talking to. Still, in his one moment of significant drama, he steps up well. His fellow young men are indeed very young for some of the girls they’re supposed to be interested, but do what they can. The entire ensemble works well together. Indeed, some of the best moments are ones where everyone is singing, including the signature “Telephone Hour”.

Jack J. Bennett and Gloria Bennett, the husband-and-wife team who operate Young Stars Theater, do just about everything to make this production happen other than performing. Gloria does costumes, lights, sound, stage managing, and musical direction. Jack does set design and construction, and directs. This is economically sound, but perhaps a few more “techies” would be of use.

Though the layout of the piece uses the depth of the FCT stage better than many have, the direction doesn’t take into account the patchy lighting, and people singing major songs wander into the shadows. The set, always a problem in a piece this episodic, creates long pauses between scenes as walls must be moved around furniture. The pre-recorded music which takes the place of an orchestra nobody could fit into that space is electronic and tinny. Even a real piano, recorded, would have given a feel of greater depth.

Still, it’s always fun to see kids really getting into acting. “Bye Bye, Birdie” is light and a bit goofy, and totally appropriate for these young performers to engage in. Their next production is Disney’s “Aladdin, Jr.”, which will likely highlight the best of what they do, and – being a show which isn’t double-cast – allow their best to shine all at once.

What: “Bye Bye, Birdie” When: through October 23, 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays; check the website for which cast is performing when Where: Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont St. in South Pasadena How Much: $30 Info: (626) 269-3609 or

Music as Brotherhood: “Bars and Measures” at Boston Court


There are several layers to Idris Goodwin’s play “Bars and Measures”, just opened at The Theatre at Boston Court as part of a “rolling premiere.” Several themes relating to identity, race, faith and cultural attributes float together in a kind of orchestrated wrangle between brothers over what truth is, what art is, what justice is, and what limits family loyalty might have. The play proves intense, and leaves one with a lot to chew over, but its spare direction by Weyni Mengesha lets all these topics shine with a specific clarity.

The tale centers on two brothers. One, a respected jazz artist and convert to Islam currently in jail awaiting trial, and the other a Juilliard graduate more comfortable with classical music, trying to learn his brother’s music both as a form of family bonding, and as a way to support what he believes to be his brother’s innocence.

One is learning the struggles, indignities, and hardenings of incarceration. One is stretching out of a comfort zone and internalized prejudices to attempt understanding the world through his brother’s lens. Both, being African-American, face internal debates about where and with whom they fit.

Matt Orduna gives Bilal, the brother in prison, a kind of elemental dignity which carries him through the torments and prejudices of imprisonment and gives gravitas to the character’s composing life. Donathan Walters finds an interestingly middle stance in Eric, as a conventional guy trying to balance a satisfyingly conventional life with the edginess of both his brother and the jazz music he is learning to both appreciate and perform.

As both the FBI agent who set Bilal up, and a series of correctional officers, Brian Abraham vibrates with a strength and confidence which make him dominatingly convincing. Zehra Fazal creates, in the opera singer Eric shares his musical world with, yet another balance – this time of honoring cultural traditions yet embracing the wider modern world.

Still, the focus is on the two brothers and the gut-level expression of the jazz which both works to unite them, and to explain their elemental differences. In this – the scatting which becomes its own communication – Orduna and Walters excel. It becomes one of the elements which deepens the storyline far beyond the actual plot. Indeed, the play’s layered nature, and what it has to say about manipulation, prejudice and trust must be unpacked over time.

But then that is what one expects of plays at Boston Court: works which take thought even after the show is over.

What: “Bars and Measures” When: through October 23, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Satudays, 2 p.m. Sundays, plus 8 p.m. Wednesday performance on October 19, and two understudy performances 8 p.m. October 3 and 5 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave (at the intersection with Boston Ct) in Pasadena How Much: $30 general, $25 senior, $20 student Info: (626) 683-6883 or ;

“A View From the Bridge” – Disturbingly Current, Classically Miller

L-R: Catherine Combs (obscured), Dave Register, Alex Esola, Andrus Nichols (obscured), Frederick Weller and Thomas Jay Ryan in the Young Vic production of “A View From the Bridge at the Ahmanson Theatre. [Photo: Jan Versweyveld]

L-R: Catherine Combs (obscured), Dave Register, Alex Esola, Andrus Nichols (obscured), Frederick Weller and Thomas Jay Ryan in the Young Vic production of “A View From the Bridge at the Ahmanson Theatre. [Photo: Jan Versweyveld]

As anyone who has taken a basic college American literature course probably knows, one of the elements which always set the plays of Arthur Miller apart from those of his contemporaries is the connection of American male archetypes to the standard structure of Greek tragedy. Most especially, this involves the concept of the “fatal flaw” – the essential character glitch which leads a man down a path of destruction, entirely due to his own actions or understandings.

Now the intense New Vic production of one of Miller’s greatest works, “A View from the Bridge” has arrived at the Ahmanson straight from New York, where it won a host of honors, including two Tony Awards. As a production it is stunning: contained (both literally and figuratively), visceral and achingly tragic. Given the current political climate, it also proves disturbingly timely for a piece written in the mid-1950s.

The tale concerns life in an Italian-American neighborhood near the Brooklyn Bridge, one closely associated with the dockworkers at New York Harbor. Based on an actual tale told to Miller by a longshoreman, it concerns Eddie, who has developed an obsessive love for Catherine, the orphaned niece he has helped to raise. When his wife Beatrice arranges for two cousins to enter the country illegally from Italy, and Catherine falls in love with one of them, Eddie’s possessiveness explodes.

One of the things which sets this work apart from other Miller works is the use of a sort of chorus, or narrator. He appears in the form of Alfieri, the lawyer who grew up in the same neighborhood and now provides what legal help he can for those who run afoul of local law, immigration or other elements of this insular community. This addition is at once both clarifying and disturbing.

Director Ivo Van Hove has created a sense of watching a man in a cage of his own making, utilizing Jan Versweyveld’s box-like cube of a set to define the limitations of both Eddie’s understanding and ability to exercise the control he feels is necessary to his manhood. As a result, we as an audience are as much voyeurs as Alfieri is, watching a possibly preventable tragedy happen without being able to do anything about it.

Frederick Weller leads the cast as Eddie, played as a man constantly wound tight by his need for control. His whole body often seems to sock the air he walks through, as if to underscore his sense of manliness. This, contrasted with the two cousins hiding in his home.

Alex Esola’s Marco, a passionate and terrified family man arrived in the US to make money on the docks for his starving family at home, still operates with the ease of a man comfortable in his own physicality. Dave Register’s gentle Rodolpho moves with the lightheartedness of a man in love with life and the promise of a new country. Their intimidation factor, for Eddie, is thus as much a matter of muscle ease and tension as it is of plot.

As Catherine, Catherine Combs creates a girl at once childlike and womanly – still greeting the father-figure she sees in Eddie with a kind of girlish abandon, and yet smitten by Rodolpho’s enthusiasm for life.  Andrus Nichols’ Beatrice balances emotional fatigue, innate jealousy and observational disquiet as she watches the dangerous dance the rest of the cast engages in. All this is bound together by the contextual narration of Thomas Jay Ryan’s almost flaccid Alfieri – a man with knowledge, but no power over anything the play contains, and a lawyer’s understated admiration for the straightforward seething which provides the story’s foundation.

Through all of it are Miller’s searing words which pound in the individual struggles: the tension between family loyalty and rigid neighborhood codes of conduct, Eddie’s desperate need to justify his growing hatred of Rodolpho by suggesting his lack of manly qualities, the struggle of Catherine to be seen as a woman, and of Beatrice to be seen as a wife. And always Marco, moving in quiet desperation as his children starve back home.

In short, this is a very good production of a very good, if disturbing play. Van Hove’s choreographic direction creates an elemental rhythm which gives the production its heartbeat. The use of a classic requiem as background underscores the feel of watching the death of an entire world in small. And each member of this polished and gut-wrenching ensemble gets all one can from the characters one can’t take one’s eyes off of, like watching a spectacular car crash.

Miller is always worth watching. This production is up to the mastery of the words.

What: “A View From The Bridge” When: Through October 16, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with one 2 p.m. Thursday performance October 13 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $125 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup. org

Passionate “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”: A Treasure at the Taper

L-R: Jason Dirden, Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, Keith David and Lillias White in August Wilson’s "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom," directed by Phylicia Rashad.  [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

L-R: Jason Dirden, Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, Keith David and Lillias White in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” directed by Phylicia Rashad. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

More than any other American playwright, the late, Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson captured snapshots of the past 100 years of African-American history with a delicate combination of poetry, personhood and precision. For the most part, his plays were set in individual decades within the same predominantly Black neighborhood of Pittsburgh, The one exception in location is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which shifts to the Chicago of the 1920s, and the music scene growing there.

Now open in a new, sharp and moving production at the Mark Taper Forum, a group of studio blues musicians gather to rehearse and await the arrival of the great Ma Rainey. While they debate and discuss, and occasionally play in the studio rehearsal room, the star’s white manager and the white studio owner bicker in the studio itself over the viability of blues in the modern market, and over who should have control regarding the upcoming session – them or Ma.

Under the insightful direction of Phylicia Rashad, a truly extraordinary ensemble of actors bring all the tensions, ambitions and joys of this era and these people to fully-formed life.

As the old hand studio musicians wrestle over style and possibiities with a brash young trumpeter/composer, the balance between ambition and anger, and between complacency and danger become increasingly overt. When Ma actually arrives, she proves commanding, much to the frustration of the white men who brought her there.

How long will such command last? What is her status, really, in such a segregated era? And what legitimacy does her success give to the ambitions of the young trumpeter looking to make his own future?

Damon Gupton and Keith David embody the easy-going feel of long-time musicians who have created a comfortable space for themselves as back-up to musical stars. Glynn Turman, as the aging, well-read and philosophical piano player, marks the middle ground between his comrades’ complacency and a pride of race and of place. That they play this music as if they’d been doing it all their lives is an added plus.

Lillias White gives Ma Rainey herself an almost ferocous presence, and her singing is truly a nod to the blues greats of the period. Nija Okoro, as Ma’s female companion, radiates a country innocence and curiosity as, though in a dissimilar way, does Lamar Richardson as Ma’s young, stuttering nephew.

Ed Swidey makes Ma’s manager about as obsequious as a white man would be to a Black star of the era. On the other hand, Matthew Henerson’s grouchy and commanding studio owner overtly expresses the understanding that the artists under his roof are simply the tools of his trade, and equally expendable.

Still, as the most interesting, and most damaged of these characters, Jason Dirden shines as the trumpeter aiming to sell his own songs played by a band he hopes to create in the aftermath of this recording session. The intensity he brings, at once annoying to his fellow musicians and an almost visceral voice of change, powers the entire play.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” proves compelling from start to finish, which is no surprise in any Wilson play, particularly when this well and elegantly performed. Deep, warm and legitimately, startlingly angry at times, the play vibrates with a life Wilson celebrates like no other. Take the time to enjoy this theatrical treat.

What: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” When: through October 16, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (no public performances October 4-7) Where: The Mark Taper Forum, in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25-$85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

“The Fantasticks” From a New Angle: Pasadena Playhouse takes a risk

Ashley Park, Alyse Rockett and Conor Guzmán in The Fantasticks at The Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

Ashley Park, Alyse Rockett and Conor Guzmán in The Fantasticks at The Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s deceptively simple musical, “The Fantasticks” has achieved a place in theatrical history no other show could match. It opened in a tiny Off-Broadway theater in 1960, and ran there for 42 years, making it the longest running show of any kind anywhere in the world. Indeed, at another venue, it is running in New York again today.

What made it work, from the start? First, the storyline, loosely based on a Rostand comedy, had universal ideas to impart. Second, it had an underscore of wit and sheer silliness which proved endearing to generation after generation. Third, it was very simple in production: 8 actors, an “orchestra” consisting of one piano (or sometimes two) and a harp, a couple of poles to hold up a sign and a paper moon/sun, a ladder and a big trunk, with everything else “created” by a mime.

Now the Pasadena Playhouse has recreated this show, and for a “Fantasticks” purist there is an initial moment of concern. First, there is a set. Second, it becomes essentially a play within a play. And then there are some adaptations to the lyrics (some admittedly very necessary) and to small elements of plot. Yet, frankly, one really needn’t have worried. My advice is to set one’s preconceived notions aside, and dive into director Seema Sueko’s vision.

The set, by David F Weiner, is a dilapidated and abandoned Southern California theater, shut since 1969. There is a sense of disorder which might be attributed to conflict, and that powers the director’s approach of having a troupe of actors break into the space with a need to create art in the midst of chaos. However this is also a specific nod to the Playhouse itself, which shuttered in that year, and at one point nearly became a parking lot. The last production done by what was then the Playhouse’s acting school was “The Fantasticks”.

Once the actors arrive, the beloved musical rises out of pieces of flotsam and scaffolding. And just as other productions have used the ladder and poles, these random bits create in the imagination all the places and spaces needed to tell the story of two fathers who pretend to feud in order to inspire their children to fall in love.

There is the storybook romance, the moonlit tryst, and the many other manipulations the fathers try which eventually begin to fall apart. Then, as the young lovers try to venture into the world on their own, there is the hurt and experience which brings them back to each other with love beyond youthful, starry-eyed romance. There are also the silly or romantic songs, the ridiculous aging actors brought in to help the fathers’ plot, and the wise El Gallo to narrate. There is also the Mute, a dancer/mime.

Philip Anthony-Rodriguez gives El Gallo a slightly dark wisdom, and sings the show’s most famous song, “Try to Remember” with a wistful edge. Regi Davis and especially Gedde Watanabe are a hoot as the two fathers: schemingly well meaning, simple and sure of themselves. Conor Guzman gives Matt, the boy dreaming of romance and adventure, a sureness which plays well with Ashley Park’s charmingly quirky Luisa. All these folk sing well – the young lovers particularly – and the story moves with a natural flow.

Hal Linden shines as Henry, a send-up of all aging actors

Hal Linden shines as Henry, a send-up of all aging actors

Of course, some of the best bits are left for the two aging actors called upon to flesh out various fantasy moments. As Henry, the ancient Shakespearean whose company has disintegrated along with his memory, Hal Linden provides just the right combination of confusion and pomposity. Amir Talai, as Henry’s faithful companion Mortimer, offers up one of the most creative and effective of Mortimer’s supposedly famous death scenes in recent memory.

Yet, there are admittedly a few question marks. Though the adaptation of some song lyrics proves both wise and socially appropriate, and the replacement of cartoonish “Indians’ with “musketeers” works well, the young couple’s eye-opening traverse through the world has been given a arc which may not click with some.

Most especially the exchange of Luisa’s “rose colored glasses” for a gradual metal plating of her head, though symbolic, seems a break with the more lighthearted romantic structure of the piece. Likewise Matt’s misadventures are no longer nearly fantastic and symbolic, but contemporary and severe. Also the Mute, played by Alyse Rockett, leaves off miming at odd moments, like the reconstruction of the fathers’ wall, even though it is consistently referenced in the script.

Even so, this production still embraces the sheer theatricality of allowing one’s imagination to take one all sorts of places you can’t really see. It’s still filled with the same winks at youth and idealism, and at the artificiality of the acting profession itself. The songs still soar, and the intimacy is still surprisingly available, even in the Playhouse auditorium, which is worlds larger than its first setting. For this reason, “The Fantasticks” still delights.

And, in the end, the moral that true love is more than fantasy romance, and that friendship survives best with boundaries, are things we can all still buy into. This is why “The Fantasticks” will probably be on stage somewhere on and on into the future.

What: “The Fantasticks” When: through October 2, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $90, with $135 premium seating Info: 626-356-7529 or

Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” – An Intellectual Treat at ANW

Rafael Goldstein (Septimus Hodge) and Erika Soto (Thomasina Coverly) in "Arcadia" at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Rafael Goldstein (Septimus Hodge) and Erika Soto (Thomasina Coverly) in “Arcadia” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

When I first saw Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” at the Mark Taper Forum many years ago, I was stunned at its power, and said so in print. I was startled at the mixed reaction I got to that review from people who had seen the show as well, and who usually had the interest in arts that I did. The same thing happened the next time I reviewed a Stoppard play. Thus, let me say from the start that Stoppard’s work is for those who enjoy mental and emotional rigor, and “Arcadia,” now enjoying a finely polished production at A Noise Within, is no exception. If you don’t want to do that kind of work while sitting in an audience, you may find it disappointing.

If you do, you will find this production, and this work, an absolute treasure. As the play explores the meaning of truth, and of genius, it raises questions about everything from morality, to the universe, to the nature and purpose of science and of scholarship. It does so with feet firmly in two very different time periods at once, peopled with characters ranging from fascinating to ridiculous to endearing, and in language which is the kind of spoken poetry great playwrights use.

The story revolves around a single English country estate, seen both in the early 19th Century and present day. There, in a sunny formal room, a historian’s modern research into the evolution of the formal gardens is interrupted by a pop-academician interested in gaining enough information to achieve quick fame. The current residents of the house, descended from those in the past period, include those who echo the skills, temperaments and occasional genius of their antique forebears.

Alternating with these scenes, one is introduced to those forebears, and to the actual events, personalities and talents which the moderns are trying to parse from the few remaining bits of documentary evidence. By the end, in a moment reminiscent of Einstein’s contention that “the distinction between past, present and future is a stubbornly persistent illusion”, both time periods are running in the same room at the same time, moving forward as inexorably as a mathematical formula.

Foundational to this tale is the interaction between the 19th Century tutor at this estate, and the brilliant daughter he is there to teach. Rafael Goldstein as Septimus, the tutor and a former school friend of Lord Byron, balances the man’s scholarly intellect and articulate sensuality in ways which provide much of the glue for the rest of the antique tale. As his student, Thomasina, whom we first see at age 13 and later just before her 18th birthday, Erika Soto vibrates with curiosity and an innate wisdom, and her character’s passionate interest in what mathematics can tell one about the universe.

Susan Angelo and Freddy Douglas [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Susan Angelo and Freddy Douglas [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Balanced against these antique figures are Susan Angelo as the controlled and scholarly Hannah, a researcher looking for answers to a series of mysteries about the house and gardens as a follow-up to a recently published book. Her arguments for proof and scholarship even as she has her own suppositions gains legs when Bernard, given a slightly over-the-top egoism by Freddy Douglas, appears to scoop up what he can in a hurry and write a lecture he hopes will gain him a moment of limelight.

In between them is Valentine, played with a kind of internal fire by Tavis Doucette. The eldest son of the owners of the house, he has been culling old household accounts for information to fit into computerized equations for a study foundational to his graduate degree, and the vagaries and gut instincts of historical research are “noise” to his view of facts. Jill Renner is there as his rather vapid sister Chloe, while Richy Storrs does double-duty not only as their non-speaking but musically talented brother, and as Thomasina’s egotistical sibling as well.

Abby Craden, as the rather officious and flirtatious Lady Croom, commands the more antique household, joined sometimes by Stephen Weingartner as her pompous military brother. Eric Curtis Johnson handles the duality of a highly regarded professional landscape architect who is still essentially Lady Croom’s servant, while Mitchell Edmonds performs the duties of the patient butler with style. As one of the most humorous characters in the enterprise, Jeremy Rabb’s nervously ambitious yet ostensibly awful poet gives face to a man totally misunderstood by those researching him roughly 200 years on.

Under the comparatively understated direction of Geoff Elliott the piece has a flow and a subtle choreography which allow the necessarily episodic nature of the thing to feel a sense of unity. Leah Piehl’s accurate costuming for the period portion, and inaccurate pieces for use in the modern dress-up segment, show subtle character notes, and underscore some of the play’s points. Frederica Nascimento’s gorgeously understated Georgian hall allows for light to become its own character, while Robert Oriol’s sound design underscores the explosive nature of the playwright’s words.

In short, this production of “Arcadia” fills the eyes and the mind. Likable, or even humorously unlikable characters carry one through a dizzying array of conversations one may need to take a while to chew over afterward. Yet, that work is worth it. The richness continues to unfold. The play will be performed in rotating repertory with Jean Genet’s “The Maids” and Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid”, all marking the 25th season of ANW.

What: “Arcadia” When: In rotating repertory through November 20, 8 p.m. September 30, October 1, November 5, 8 and 11; 7:30 p.m. October 20 and November 10; 7 p.m. October 30 and November 20; with 2 p.m. matinees October 1 and 30, and November 5 and 20 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $44 general, student rush with ID $20 an hour before the performance Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or

“Beauty and the Beast” in Whittier – Great for kids

Gabriel Borjon and Lencia Kebede waltz in "Beauty and the Beast" [photo: Avis Photography]

Gabriel Borjon and Lencia Kebede waltz in “Beauty and the Beast” [photo: Avis Photography]

Whittier Community Theatre always tackles an ambitious collection of productions, and their 95th season opener is no exception. Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” requires a sizable cast, a lot of costumes, and several characters who must be both excellent singers and the embodiment of various archetypes. The show also demands multiple sets, quick changes, a credible orchestra, and attractive choreography. It’s a tall order for a community group to come up with, so it is no shame to admit that there are both hits and a few misses in the WCT production.

The tale is, as the song says, “as old as time” and a consistent morality lesson. Belle is a beautiful, bookish young woman who is an oddity in her provincial French village, as is her inventor father. While the boorish local he-man, Gaston, plots to wed her, Belle sets off to find her father who has disappeared in the forest. There, she encounters an enchanted castle and a brutish beast, and trades her freedom for her father’s. While Gaston works his wiles at home, she becomes increasingly friendly with a beast who turns out to be shy, terrified, and unschooled in either behavior or learning.

The best of the WCT production is Lencia Kebede’s Belle. Beautiful, and gifted with a soaring voice, she embodies the fire, strength and charm the character must have. As the Beast, Gabriel Borjon is subjected to a combination of staging and mic problems which make many of his calmer lines tough to hear, but sings reasonably well and bellows with authority. Fortunately, their chemistry works well, centering the production on their developing romance.

John Scoggins as Cogsworth and Eric Cajiuat as Lumiere keep the comedy going [photo: Avis Photography]

John Scoggins as Cogsworth and Eric Cajiuat as Lumiere keep the comedy going [photo: Avis Photography]

Chad Adriano stumps about with appropriate boorishness as Gaston, though much of his charm is implied by the fine performances of his adoring “silly girls”: Jennifer Bales, Mallory Staley, and Meghan Duran. Cesar Carbajal accents this with a very, very good version of Gaston’s minion, LeFou. Still the show is often best served by Eric Cajiuat’s delightful candlestick, Lumiere, John Scoggins’ stuffy, practical clock, Cogsworth, and – particularly when it comes to vocals – Monika Pena’s duster, Babette.

Janet Arnold-Clark overcomes a kind of lopsided costume as the cook and teapot, Mrs. Potts, while Kassius Lake becomes an earnest Chip, her teacup son. Amanda Benjamin holds her own as the wardrobe, Mme. La Grande Bouche. As Belle’s anxious father, Mark Rainey has some fine moments, particularly in tandem with Kebede, while Mark Rosier manages a truly sinister feel as the asylum owner D’Arque. All these are surrounded by an ensemble which rises to the occasion, particularly in the second half’s castle vs village battle, in ways which are both cute and engaging.

Roxie Lee directs with an experienced hand, using the Whittier’s Center Theater stage effectively. The tale is very episodic, particularly at first, and – even with Lee’s necessarily minimalist village sets – seems to take a while to get its rhythm going. When it does, particularly in the second half when Rebecca Schroeder’s choreography has its greatest effect, things sparkle quite a bit. The small orchestra, under Brian Murphy’s steady hand, provides real quality, though sometimes the sheer volume begins to drown out those onstage – another possible mic problem to be overcome.

Still, if you want to see true stage magic, watch the glow in the eyes of the children in the audience. Perhaps the sweetest element of opening night was watching a very little girl in a Belle dress having her photo taken after the show with Kebede, who had crouched down in the signature ball gown to the child’s height. So much happiness there, and what a lovely introduction for that child to the power of live theater.

What: “Beauty and the Beast” When: through September 24, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 adults, $15 seniors (62+), juniors (18 and under), students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or

“La Cage Aux Folles” Offers Laughs and Lessons at Candlelight Pavilion

Members of the chorus of Candlelight Pavilion's production of the Tony-winning, ground-breaking musical "La Cage Aux Folles" kick up their heels.

Members of the chorus of Candlelight Pavilion’s production of the Tony-winning, ground-breaking musical “La Cage Aux Folles” kick up their heels.

In 1983 a new Broadway musical splashed upon the scene. Based on a play which had inspired an equally delightful French comic film, “La Cage Aux Folles” offered up a combination of traditionally melodic show tunes thanks to Jerry Herman (of “Hello Dolly” fame), and a script by Harvey Fierstein which – like his “Torch Song Trilogy” the year before – pushed the envelope of what a production on Broadway could be about. It won Tonys for both Herman and Fierstein, as well as for direction, best actor and Best Musical. In the process it offered up, as Herman put it, a good “old fashioned entertainment” that made the story of love and expectation in the setting of a drag club more charming and accessible to a wide audience.

Now at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, “La Cage…” speaks to a new age with the same combination of charm, humor and acceptance. How fascinating it is to see how little the show has aged in the 34 years since its premiere. Indeed, much of what was said then still needs saying today, even in the guise of sweet entertainment.

The tale is clever and funny. The practical Georges runs and emcees a famed nightclub in St Tropez called La Cage Aux Folles. His highly dramatic longtime partner, Albin, morphs into the celebrated ZsaZsa, star of the club’s show, backed by a cast of impressive drag queen singer-dancers. Together Georges and Albin have raised Georges’ son – the result of a startling one-night-stand – and now that son, Jean-Michel, has returned home to tell the couple that he is engaged to be married. The only problem: the girl he loves is the daughter of an extreme right-wing politician bent on a return to “traditional morality.” Worse, this potential father-in-law and his wife want to come meet Jean-Michel’s family, inspiring the young man to request the presence of his completely absentee biological mother, and to try to push Albin out of the scene. When his mother never shows, Albin steps in, and the comedy increases.

If this sounds familiar, perhaps it is because the musical, and the play and film that inspired it, in turn inspired the 1996 Robin Williams film “The Birdcage”.

At Candlelight, director-choreographer Roger Castellano has collected a solid cast, allowing the appeal of the show to shine as it should. John LaLonde takes command as the elegant Georges, even funnier in his attempts to appear stereotypically “manly” at times. Adam Trent makes Jean-Michel likable, allowing the potentially terrible hurt he inflicts upon Albin to feel more a matter of desperation than rejection. As Jacob, Albin’s “maid” and personal assistant, Bryan Martinez proves a howl, being as overt as his employers are trying to be subtle. The balance works tremendously well. Likewise, Orlando Montes’ solid stage manager offers yet another view of the club’s unique world.

Steven Biggs comes off just as intolerable as one would expect a character leading the “Tradition, Family and Morality Party” would be, balanced well by Lisa Dyson as his initially mousy wife finding a voice for herself in the rarified air of La Cage’s world. Daniel Reyes and Rachel McLaughlan make lovely work of the cafe owners who have known Georges and Albin as neighbors for years. Emma Nosal creates in Anne, Jean-Michel’s love interest, an attractive contradiction: loving her parents, but increasingly leaning toward the world Jean-Michel sees. Karla Franko gives restauranteur Jacqueline a flair which blends well with Albin’s ZsaZsa.

Chuck Ketter's Albin invites you to "see life from a different angle" in La Cage Aux Folles

Chuck Ketter’s Albin invites you to “see life from a different angle” in La Cage Aux Folles

Still, much of the show rests firmly on the shoulders of Chuck Ketter’s Albin. It’s trickier than one might think, playing both a gay man, albeit a proudly effeminate one, and becoming a convincingly female character when called upon. In this, Ketter shines, though his singing voice sometimes lacks the power of LaLonde’s. Still, when it counts – the iconic, angry “I Am What I Am” which closes the first act – he shines, making the song the anthem it should be. And all of this is backed by eight chorus boys in convincing drag, who sing and dance with conviction.

The end result proves most satisfying. In “La Cage Aux Folles” the laughter is silliness and friendly recognition, the hurts are universal, and the denouement a victory for love in general. The songs, as Herman said upon receiving the Tony, are “simple, hummable show tunes” and just as fun as that sounds. The moment of righteousness which is “I Am What I Am” will move a stone to tears. In short, if you’ve never seen “La Cage…” this is a good opportunity to catch up, and to do so with the added benefit of a lovely dinner beforehand. Go take a look.

What: “La Cage Aux Folles” When: through October 8, doors open 6 p.m. for dinner Fridays and Saturdays, as well as Thursday September 29 and October 6; doors open 11 a.m. for lunch Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: adults $58 – $73, children $30-$35 meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or

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

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

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