Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Apologies – a brief (I hope) break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What: “The Little Mermaid” When: Through June 26, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20-$70 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musings: A Mom’s Gotta Boast

MK and me - Version 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or What’s Learning For? – “Sex and Education” at Laguna Playhouse

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One of the great debates of public education and its relationship with sports has often come down to what one does with a great athlete who is so sure of his (or her) place in the world that a rounded education seems superfluous. In a time when schools, and educators, are condemned if they cannot reach the entire spectrum of the student body, this can be particularly frustrating. Fortunately, sometimes that very frustration can make for great theater, and a chance to examine even the more prurient reasons why education matters.

Such a piece of theater is Lissa Levin’s “Sex and Education,” now open at the Laguna Playhouse. In one long, intimate act it examines the last few moments of a long-time high school English teacher’s 30-year career, when she decides to use a basketball star’s intercepted, profanity laden note to his girlfriend as a teachable moment. The result? A virtual hymn to the necessity of education, and the delight of language, which proves funny, fascinating and in a particularly important way, affirming.

Nick Tag is Joe Marks, a young man whose basketball prowess has made him a local celebrity and garnered invitations to play at a number of major colleges. All he has to do for that dream to begin is pass his last English final. The rule is, pass a note, flunk the test, and Miss Edwards catches him passing a note to his cheerleader girlfriend Hannah. Now he’s staying after school in hopes of convincing the teacher he insulted in this note (which she then read) that he should be passed along to his destiny. At least, that’s what he thinks this is about.

Tag makes a very convincingly overconfident teenager, radiating an assurance shielding a more vulnerable interior. As Hannah, Alexandra Johnston proves extremely funny as she creates cheers based on the more obvious, and then the more off-color aspects of the dialogue between teacher and student, yet can also be gently serious as Joe’s earnest but conflicted girlfriend.

Still, the main reason to see this particular production of this play has to be the performance of Julia Duffy as the frustrated, impassioned, adamant Miss Edwards. Duffy finds the balance between love of language and fury over disrespect, creating a compelling vibration on stage which is impossible not to find absorbing.

Director Andrew Barnicle takes the larger Playhouse stage and narrows it – and his characters’ sense of enclosure – thanks to Trefoni Michael Rizzi’s fascinatingly open-yet-claustrophobic set. The pace never stops and when this play, which is performed without intermission, ends one is startled to have been sitting so long. It proves just that consistently engrossing.

And, of course, there is a larger force at work here. Miss Edwards takes Joe’s aims in his snarky note seriously, asks him to think about the power of the words he uses – even if their only focus is getting his girl to have sex with him – to create actual impact and compelling argument. She expounds on the necessity of education when it comes even to holding a reasoned conversation. Indeed her argument is so compelling that, to be frank, it makes you wish you’d taken her class. In the end, this is an homage to the foundational nature of learning. It doesn’t do one teenaged basketball player any harm, either.

So, tool on down to beautiful Laguna to catch this fine performance of a most moving play. Levin has a gift for crafting language which sounds like ordinary conversation, yet imbuing it with an internal poetry both subtle and telling. This makes these characters all the more interesting and the ferocity of conviction on all sides a satisfying time in the theater.

One warning: the discussion includes colorful language and discussion of sexual situations. If this is not your cup of tea, don’t go.

What: “Sex and Education” When: Through May 22, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays, with an additional performance at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, May 15 Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach How Much: $48 – $61 Info: (949) 497-ARTS (2787) or http://www.lagunaplayhouse.com

“How to Succeed…” in Claremont: Success as a Period Piece

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion's "How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying" celebrates "The Brotherhood of Man" [photo: John LaLonde]

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion’s “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” celebrates “The Brotherhood of Man” [photo: John LaLonde]

The progression of the classic 1961 musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" from Pulitzer-winning popular satire to dusty antique to fascinating period send-up of the "Mad Men" era has admittedly been fascinating to watch. Its dated attitude toward womanhood, its assumptions of businessmen's sexual shenanigans, and its underlay of nepotism and testosterone kept it for a long time relegated to rather sad revivals by its aging original stars, as it moved further and further away from the social current of the day. Then, with time (it is, after all, over 50 years old now), its original charm seems reborn as it looks back on a singular era of American history.

And when looked at that way, its sheer silliness carries the day. Now in a good revival at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, "How to Succeed…" has a kind of winsome, ridiculous charm. At least it does when – as in this production – you find the leading man up to the task of making unadulterated ambition look cute.

The story follows the adventures of one J. Pierrepont Finch, a window-washer who uses an advice book on success to climb the corporate ladder in record time. In the process he cheerfully manipulates as many of the inner circles of corporate power as he can muster, all the while thwarting the CEO's inept and entitled nephew. His exploits are celebrated by a company secretary, Rosemary Pilkington, whose fondness for him threatens to derail his single-focused effort to move up.

Three essential elements are needed for this to work. The first, as has been said, Finch must be charming as well as ambitious. Dino Nicandros proves more than up to that task, managing a combination of silliness, slapstick and sincerity which creates exactly the right tone throughout.

Dino Nicandros as Finch and Steve Gunderson as his boss

Dino Nicandros as Finch and Steve Gunderson as his boss

Secondly, the supporting characters – a lot of them – must be clever and energized. No problem there. Jared Ryan Kaitz makes the boss' nephew just as slimy and whiny as he should be. Sallie Griffin makes Rosemary gently stereotypical, and pleasingly normal in a crazy storyline. Steve Gunderson gives just the right amount of ridiculousness to the oblivious CEO. Krista Curry all but steals the show as the naive bombshell Hedy LaRue, and Ann Myers stuns in the last number, when the boss' secretary lets her hair down.

Krista Curry as Hedy LaRue

Krista Curry as Hedy LaRue

Lastly, the whole cast has to be able to sing and dance, in choreography which makes the most of the wry lyrics. The entire ensemble – large by Candlelight Pavilion standards – manages this impressively well, and DJ Gray's choreography is up to the task most of the time. Indeed, the choreography of "Coffee Break" is funny from start to end, though "A Secretary is Not a Toy" never seems to quite find its thematic core.

Director John LaLonde has a gift for creating continuity in this very episodic tale, aided by Chuck Ketter's impressive, and impressively mobile set. One other major plus is the wigs, by Mary Warde and Michon Gruber-Gonzales, evoking the era of big hair without being so corny as to distract.

"How to Succeed in Business" spoofs all the elements of the era in which it was created. For a while, the memories of the inequality and boy's club mentality of that time were near enough to set one's teeth on edge, but now – with the passage of years (and, quite frankly, a woman as a legitimate candidate for the Presidency) – it has become less annoying than oddly nostalgic. Like the far more serious "Mad Men," it evokes an era which both fascinates us and reminds us of how, in so many ways, we've grown up. Come take a look. You'll get a lovely meal into the bargain.

What: “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” When: Through May 28, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and Thursday, May 26; 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch matinees at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 adults, $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

The Baggage of Oppression: “Father Comes Home…” at the Taper

L-R: Michael McKean, Sterling K. Brown and Josh Wingate in “Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)”  [Photo: Craig Schwartz].

L-R: Michael McKean, Sterling K. Brown and Josh Wingate in “Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)”
[Photo: Craig Schwartz].

A hallmark of fine modern playwrighting is the ability of a play to be enjoyed at more than one depth. Story and character can take an audience to one level, and a solid one at that. For those willing and/or able to look deeper, there exists another layer – symbolic, mythical, implied or even ancestral – which can make statements far larger than the comparatively surface scenario which appears most obvious. Such writing is elemental in the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, and one reason her works are held in such high esteem.

As case in point, take “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3” currently at the Mark Taper Forum, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this past year (Parks won a Pulitzer for “Top Dog/Underdog” in 2002, becoming the first African American woman to do so). The play can be taken pretty much as chronicle, or it can become a fascinatingly layered look at the legacy of slavery’s innate messages to the African-American experience, and why dignity and selfhood were and are an uphill battle, defining and redefining loyalty, respect and self-image.

The play follows Hero, a slave on a small plantation in Texas who ends up assisting his master as he rides off to be a Colonel in the Confederate Army. Hero first must struggle with whether to resist going to support a conflict which keeps him in bondage, then with what it means to be in the middle of that carnage working for that master, and then with the changed world of the plantation – and the changes in himself – when the he returns long before the war is over. Yet, this is only the baseline for what an audience encounters in the play.

Director Jo Bonney gives hints of the greater universality of the piece from the start, as unnamed family slaves are costumed by ESosa not just the garb of the era, but with hints of the future (one wears a Washington Grays baseball jersey, for example). This kind of subtle nudge at the play’s more universal underpinnings continues throughout, in all aspects of the play and the production.

Sterling K. Brown proves powerful even as his character wrestles with himself, as he leads the cast as Hero: a man struggling with the nature of loyalty and his right to own himself. Whose promises are real? What makes him have value? Balanced against Hero are three central characters whose own understandings bounce off of his in often emotionally intense, even violent ways.

Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and Larry Powell wait for Hero's return [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and Larry Powell wait for Hero’s return
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]


Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris makes Hero’s “wife”, Penny, ferociously real. Distressed he chooses to leave her and follow their owner, she waits with a loving anticipation even as she must live a life without news and find comfort where she can. Larry Powell, as the longtime friend whose escape Hero foiled (and whose punishment Hero was forced by the master to carry out) plays counterpoint to Hero’s acquiescence to his position in the world. Homer wants more, even while hobbled, and is willing to risk to get it.

Also a powerful counterpoint to Hero’s view of life is, obviously, his master. Michael McKean makes the Colonel absolutely settled in his understanding of his superiority – a superiority which entitles him to a particular, often subtle sadism to which Hero has learned to acquiesce. When this man shouts to the skies how grateful he is to be white, because no matter what happens he will never be as low as Hero is, the message is potent and one Hero unconsciously absorbs.

Patrena Murray and Sterling K. Brown as Odyssey Dog and Hero/Ulysses [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Patrena Murray and Sterling K. Brown as Odyssey Dog and Hero/Ulysses
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]


In the end, though, the voice of this tale and the icing on this fascinating piece is Patrena Murray’s portrayal of Hero’s dog, Odyssey. Accompanying his return, and speaking to all of the truths brought home with him, this character becomes the sage tying together loose ends, all the while defining the unwavering loyalty of a dog balanced against the loyalty Hero gave the Colonel and seems unable to give anyone else. Also integral to the production are Russell G. Jones, Julian Rozzell, Jr., Tonye Patano, Roger Robinson and Josh Wingate, all offering alternate voices to the one in Hero’s head.

Add to all of this the remarkable talents of Steven Borgonetti, who, accompanying himself on guitar, creates a musical landscape which sets the tone for some of the play’s most important moments.

“Father Comes Home…” is long, but so engrossing you really don’t notice. There is so much to absorb, and so many different subtle things being said about the long-term messages aimed at Black America and the coping mechanisms – some of which prove emasculating – that a people in and out of bondage have used to deal with those messages. And this production shines as brightly as the play, as Neil Patel’s simple, easily adjusted set design and Dan Moses Schreier’s evocative sound design inevitably prove.

Go see this. Expect to have to work, as there is much to discover, absorb and analyze. Still, that can be a major joy of watching a fine play: it leaves you with a lot to work over long after the show itself is done. This is one of the reasons for the art form.

What: “Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3” When: Through May 15, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 S. Grand Ave.at The Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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