Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

“A Little House Christmas”: A Less Standard Christmas Offering in Sierra Madre

Sofia Naccarato, Rachel MacLaughlan, Rich Cassone, and Katie-Grace Hansen are Laura, Ma, Pa and Mary Ingalls in "A Little House Christmas" at Sierra Madre Playhouse [Photo: Gina Long]

Sofia Naccarato, Rachel MacLaughlan, Rich Cassone, and Katie-Grace Hansen are Laura, Ma, Pa and Mary Ingalls in “A Little House Christmas” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [Photo: Gina Long]


With the advent of the holiday season, the demand for something appropriate rises, and theaters – particularly small theaters – begin to struggle with what to provide for their patrons. There is always “A Christmas Carol,” and a wide variety of versions of it, and of plays about people performing it, exist. Still, that has been done so much that a theater out to make its own mark may turn to something else.

Sierra Madre Playhouse has pushed aside Dickens for Laura Ingalls Wilder, and brought back “A Little House Christmas” first produced there two years ago. Then it was all rather precious and stagey. This year’s production is thus a revelation. With a new, strong and naturalistic cast, a director who understands how to make the piece flow, and a feel of continuity – even with the injected period songs which once stood out like interruptions to the tale – this year’s “Little House” proves charming and sweet, but organically so.

The story is derived from one in Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie”. Christmas approaches, the Wilders invite those who aided them as they built their barn to come out to the country for a celebration. Unfortunately, a gully-washing rainstorm begins, the creek starts to rise, the guests must leave quickly, and it soon becomes possible that even Santa may not be able to get to the Wilder home in time for the 25th. What will the Wilders do?

Director Alison Eliel Kalmus not only has a feel for the pacing and tone of this work, she also operates the AKT children’s theater company at SMP, from which were supplied most of the talented children who take significant parts (many of which are double-cast) in the play. The quality of the child actors proves particularly important in a story told from a little girl’s perspective, but the adults are not slouches either.

Among the adults, Rachel McLaughlan’s Ma radiates practical hopefulness, even as she seems weighted by the worries prairie women faced, and sings beautifully when called upon. Rich Cassone gives Pa the open-hearted life force one expects, balanced realistically with the limitations of time and place.

Thomas Colby humanizes the lonely bachelor Mr. Edwards with a genuine heartiness and warmth far from the potentially saccharine rendition one almost expects. Barry Schwam makes family’s uncle – a man unglued by his Civil War experiences – a touching piece to this puzzle, while Valerie Gould’s extremely human Mrs. Oleson charms far more than the expected stereotype.

The children who performed on opening night were likewise un-stagey, and brought a humanizing force to the proceedings. Most especially, Sofia Naccarato’s innocently charming Laura and Katie-Grace Hansen’s Mary showed character, timing, total engagement with story and character, and – especially in Hansen’s case – strong and secure singing voices without that harsh Andrea McArdle overtone so common in youthful stage performers.

Adam Simon Krist and especially Patrick Geringer made the visiting young cousins likable and familiarly boyish. Samantha Salamoff, called upon mostly to be disgusted and moderately disengaged, did this well as the snobbish Nellie Oleson.

One of the real stars of this production has to be Stephen Gifford’s set, which takes all these remarkably realistic people and places them in time and space. Tanya Apuya’s costumes are likewise accurate and character-appropriate. There are little glitches now and then: people who are supposed to be soaking wet aren’t, and little girls sit around in their nightdresses on a winter evening when there is no dry wood for the fire without even wearing shawls, but somehow these seem minor when compared with the general genuineness of feeling this production has to offer.

In brief, this rendition of “A Little House Christmas” proves itself to be far less cloying, far better paced, and far more cohesive than SMP’s previous rendition. As a result, it makes for a fine, and comparatively unique, holiday treat for young and old. Certainly, it makes a break from the predictable Christmas fare.

What: “A Little House Christmas” When: through December 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with extra performances at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, December 10 and 17, and 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, December 20-22 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $34.50 general, $32 seniors, $25 children and youth Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Funny, Bitter, Powerful, Unforgettable: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” at the Taper

Aisling O’Sullivan and Marie Mullen in the Druid production of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" by Martin McDonagh, directed by Garry Hynes. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Aisling O’Sullivan and Marie Mullen in the Druid production of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” by Martin McDonagh, directed by Garry Hynes. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


There seems to be a pattern in modern Irish drama – one both constructed (in part) by and reflected in the work of playwright Martin McDonagh – of developing characters of great richness and charm, in situations which can appear darkly humorous until these same characters prove invested with fantastically fatal flaws. Such a work is “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” just opened at the Mark Taper Forum.

This production by the Druid theater company of Galway, features essential elements of their premiere of the work in the 1990s: from director, and Druid Artistic Director, Garry Hynes (the first woman to win a Tony for directing, for the New York production of this piece), to award-winning actress Marie Mullen, who created one role in the original production and returns to play another. Add to this strong new performances by from Druid regulars, and you have a work steeped in modern Irish thought and culture, filled with unforgettable characters recognizable as funny, infuriating, and, on occasion, grippingly awful.

Maureen Folan, in her 40s, is the sole caregiver to her somewhat hypochondriacal and seriously manipulative mother, Mag. At a celebration nearby, she reconnects with the elder of two brothers from a neighboring farm, Ray, and begins to dream about a life outside of the drudgery of her current situation. Mag’s interference brings up implications both imaginary and real, as Ray’s immature younger brother Pato is called upon to act as go-between when Ray returns to work in England. Each of these connections, fraught with friction, may lead to either happiness or terror.

Central to the piece is Aisling O’Sullivan’s Maureen, edgy and consistently, sharply, seething with resentments. Balancing this sharpness is the wry charm, and devious maneuvering of Mullen’s Mag, the sort of full-body performance (oh, those facial expressions) one can easily recognize as remarkable. Indeed, she manages to make the audience like Mag and despise her all at once.

Aaron Monaghan creates, in Ray, an open, decent man whose straightforward nature provides a profound contrast to the roiling complexities of the Folan household. As the character often central to the comic relief, Marty Rea’s Pato radiates a constant restless energy and an obtuse, silly and selfish view of things which balances out the tensions and deviousness of the rest of the play.

Hynes knows these characters from long acquaintance, bringing an organic feel to the play as if it rises out of its very setting, Francis O’Connor’s decayingly gray country cottage. The aura of looming darkness and the moments of lighthearted humor seem likewise to have a sense of natural flow, and her respect for the language itself and the rich roundness of the characters brings with it a deep humanity which connects across all barriers of culture and framework.

Like other great works examining the affect of fatal flaws on humankind, from Chekhov to Miller, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” reflects a potential truth far beyond its context, yet in this case uses the specifics of Irish life, accent and cultural framework to create something at once pointed in its beauty and disturbing in its implications. This is, in short, a true work of art, both as written and as performed.

This is the first stop on Druid’s U.S. tour of this production.

What: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” When: through December 18, 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 performance on Thanksgiving Where: The Mark Taper Forum, at the Music Center 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

Dignity and Nostalgia: Fine Cast at Whittier Community Theatre celebrate “The Dining Room”

The cast of "The Dining Room" at Whittier Community Theatre illustrates one use for that iconic part of the house. [Photo: Avis Photography]

The cast of “The Dining Room” at Whittier Community Theatre illustrates one use for that iconic part of the house. [Photo: Avis Photography]

Playwright A.R. Gurney’s best work has revolved around the upper-middle class New England of the early to mid-20th Century, either by placing his plays in that space, or among people reminiscent for that time and space. As such, his works become a window on an entire society, with its structures, standards, and mores, which has essentially evaporated in the intervening societal upheavals. Never is this more true than in “The Dining Room,” a set if interlaced vignettes revolving around that once-formal space in a more formal era.

Now finishing a short run at Whittier Community Theatre, “The Dining Room” offers a small group of 8 performers a chance to become a wide array of people, current and historical, inhabiting, reminiscing about, or even rediscovering the value of a home’s formal dining room. If this sounds rather silly, it isn’t. Instead, it is a window on a particular kind of intimacy, observed even in the breach.

Director Candy Beck has brought together a particularly skilled cast, and her near-choreography of their comings and goings makes the transitions from scene to scene and character to character both seamless and easy to follow. It’s a neat piece of direction, as well as a nod to the quality of the versatile performers.

The characters shift quickly, and Keith Bush, Michael Durack, Allison Hicks, Jay Miramontes, Jonah Snyder, Nancy Tyler, Randi Tahara and Veronique Merrill Warner produce a wild collection of family members, visiting professionals, servants and observers. Their interactions, which range from an aged father giving funeral instructions to his son to a little boy sad to hear that his favorite maid is going to stop working for the family, from a college student whose surprise visit home uncovers a family scandal to a couple of teenagers stealing from the liquor cabinet, create a communal portrait of a room and its purpose. The standout among this crowd of fine performers has to be Tahara, most particularly as the aged woman with dementia who doesn’t recognize her own house or her own sons, and as a woman watching her marriage fall apart.

The stories are often poignant, sometimes very funny, and always contain the kind of conversations which tend to happen in this specific room’s formal surroundings. Director Beck has also designed the set, which allows the flow of persons on and off stage, including a number of quick changes, and gives the feel of a large house’s formal dining room.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to see “The Dining Room,” do so. It provides a unique kind of window on a disappearing formality of finger bowls and live-in cooks, table manners and fine china, which is a part of Americana, even if out of reach for most of us. And it will give anyone a greater appreciation for that formal dining table which has been passed down the family. WCT have done themselves proud, making this particular production worth seeing.

What: “The Dining Room” When: through November 19, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general; $12 seniors, students, and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Lighthearted Farce Done Right: “Lend Me a Tenor” in La Mirada

J. Paul Boehmer, Catherine LeFrere, Davis Gaines and John Shartzer star in the LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS/McCOY RIGBY ENTERTAINMENT production of "LEND ME A TENOR." [photo: Michael Lamont]

J. Paul Boehmer, Catherine LeFrere, Davis Gaines and John Shartzer star in the LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS/McCOY RIGBY ENTERTAINMENT production of “LEND ME A TENOR.” [photo: Michael Lamont]

In the world of well-crafted farces, Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor” has proven itself dependably clever in a variety of different settings. That is, when the cast is up to the rather specific demands of a tale about a regional opera company. Filled with classic slamming doors and mistaken identities, its sheer ridiculousness combined with its endearing characters makes it a deceptively easy hit.

Now playing at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, courtesy of the McCoy Rigby Series there, a new production of this silly piece has all the required elements to make it a sure-fire hit, and the results don’t disappoint. Those who must sing really can. Those who must be over-the-top do so with delightful abandon. The look, and the timing, all enhance the whole.

In short, this “Tenor” sings like an angel.

The tale, as much as there is one, centers upon a two-room hotel suite in Cleveland in 1934. The Cleveland Opera has invited the great Italian tenor, Tito Merelli, to sing “Otello” in a one-night gala performance. When he doesn’t arrive on the expected train, panic ensues among those hovering around that room waiting for him. When he finally does show up, a series of missteps, mistakes, and eventually mistaken identities create complete pandemonium.

Director Art Manke has collected a remarkably able ensemble cast to make all of this work, and his combination of choreographed movement and pacing makes the entire thing come together just as it should.

Central to the piece is John Shartzer’s Max, the harried assistant to the company’s general manager upon whom all the pressure regarding Tito’s appearance lands. Shartzer creates in Max a wiry, anxious, and – in the end – surprisingly talented man, even in the midst of panic. As his charge, Davis Gaines makes Tito stereotypically emotional, yet with an underlying kindness which humanizes the stereotype. Both sing well, which cements a major element of the storyline.

J. Paul Boehmer gives the company’s general manager the appropriately officious combination of command and fatalism. Kelley Dorney, as Max’s starstruck fiancé, radiates an innocent sense of daring. Colette Kilroy gives the older chairman of the Opera Guild an endearing enthusiasm, while Leslie Stevens creates the aura of a budding diva as the soprano anxious to use her connection with Tito to further her career.

In somewhat smaller but no less polished performances, Catherine LeFrere has a field day with Tito’s wildly dramatic, fed-up wife, while Jeff Skowron proves consistently funny as an opera-obsessed bellhop who co-opts the role of room service waiter to snag Tito’s autograph.

The set, by Tom Buderwitz, is filled with a sense of period luxury. David Kay Mickelsen has created period costumes which evoke the era, and meet the rather circumspect needs of the McCoy Rigby audience for decorum in the play’s more sensual moments. Katie McCoy’s wigs are perfect for both time and character. In short, the visuals set the scene and allow certain outmoded elements necessary for the plot to appear historically appropriate.

This “Lend Me a Tenor” will allow for genuine and lighthearted laughter, and who couldn’t use a bit of silliness in this fractious time? Go and enjoy, and leave happily unencumbered by anything deeper than the requisite happy ending.

What: “Lend Me a Tenor” When: through November 13, 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, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

Sharp “Sister Act”: Upbeat Treat at Candlelight Pavilion

The nuns of "Sister Act" show off their new sense of spectacle in the production at Candelight Pavilion [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

The nuns of “Sister Act” show off their new sense of spectacle in the production at Candelight Pavilion [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

As the election tensions mount, it’s time for a feel-good moment. Such is available at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, with their sparkling production of “Sister Act – The Musical”. Tuneful and fast-paced, it offers up a lot of heart, some terrific performances, and an elemental joy which provide just the antidote to the divisiveness of our time.

Born at the Pasadena Playhouse, this Broadway musical riffs off of the 1992 movie of the same name, and – like the movie – depends largely on the central character to make the entire concept work. In the Candlelight production, this is not a problem. Indeed, with only minor exceptions, the entire cast proves particularly strong, allowing all the charm of the piece to shine through.

The story centers on Deloris Van Cartier, an aspiring singer and girlfriend of a married gangster. When she happens upon her boyfriend and his henchmen murdering a suspected stool pigeon, she runs to the nearest police station. There Eddie, a high school acquaintance who is now a cop, arranges for her to hide in a nearby convent. After considerable resistance to convent life, Deloris begins working with the terrible convent choir, improving their “act” so much that the once nearly empty church becomes so popular it attracts attention from the Pope himself. And, of course, thereby hangs a problem: publicity for someone who is supposed to be hiding.

Daebreon Poiema proves a huge ball of energy as Deloris, singing and dancing up a storm and setting the pace and tone for the entire production. As her main foil, the traditionalist Mother Superior of the order where Deloris hides, Debbie Prutsman finds the balance between severity and care the character needs, sings her wistful, important songs with conviction and style, and makes the counterbalance between these two strong characters work.

Also worthy of note are Pete Cole, quite intimidating as Deloris’ murderous boyfriend, Michaelia Leigh as Sister Mary Robert, the shy postulant who comes bursting out of her shell, and Sister Brittany Tangermann as the enthusiastic and friendly Sister Mary Patrick. Indeed, all the supporting cast of nuns create a solidly entertaining ensemble as they jazz up mass.

As the henchmen looking for Deloris, Robert Hoyt, Christopher Mosley, and Marcos Alexander have several moments of comic silliness. As Eddie, the cop whose earnest concern for Deloris begins to rub off on her, Fabio Antonio dances well and gives his character the mild nerdiness which contrasts well with Deloris’ view of “cool”, though he needs to work on his vocals. Jamie Snyder gives the Monsignor threatening to close the nuns’ home church a gentleness which makes him more empathetic than sometimes.

Director/choreographer John Vaughan keeps the pacing clean, and provides just the right kind of dance moves to contrast the two parts of Deloris’ life – what works in full habit, and what works on the nightclub stage. As a result of his cohesive vision, the show has a strong feeling of polish from start to finish.

“Sister Act” may not be the deepest show one could see, but it has a message of hope and understanding which seems much needed in the current public atmosphere. At Candlelight – the last real dinner theater in the Los Angeles area, and a very going concern – one also gets a good meal, in a relaxing atmosphere. And with a production as good as this one, this all becomes a great retreat, and a fine entrance into the mellow nature of fall.

What: “Sister Act – the Musical” When: through November 19, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and Thursday November 10 and 17; 5 p.m. Sundays; and for lunch 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58 – $73 general, $30 – $35 children under 12, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

A Touch of Modernity?: Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid” at A Noise Within

 Kelsey Carthew (center) as the daughter panicked at her father's choice of mates in "The Imaginary Invalid" at A Noise Within [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


Kelsey Carthew (center) as the daughter panicked at her father’s choice of mates in “The Imaginary Invalid” at A Noise Within [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

The thing about classic theatrical works is that sometimes they fall prey to the modern suspicion that anything said in old and/or artful language loses its ability to connect with a contemporary audience. One could argue that this is short-sighted and looks down on the audience’s ability to stretch intellectually. On the other hand, remembering that these plays were originally speaking to people in their own time, perhaps updating the language of a work can add back the freshness it had when new.

As someone who grew up surrounded by people who appreciated Shakespeare, I admit to an abiding suspicion of updating done for its own sake. Thus, I approached the production of Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid” at A Noise Within with a certain amount of skepticism. The production of this 343-year-old play uses a 9-year-old adaptation by Constance Congdon based on a translation by Dan Smith, and adaptation – often rather fanciful – it is.

Still, what is lost in the artfulness of some of Moliere’s poetic style (even in translation), is gained back again by focusing on the spirit of the piece as a send-up of both severe hypochondriasis and the bamboozling nature of the medical quack. In this it succeeds with all the silliness and elaborate double entendre that one could ask for.

The tale, as with other of Moliere’s best work, seems remarkably timeless, and very silly. Argan is a wealthy man obsessed with his own ostensibly failing health. To save himself money, he has decided that his daughter will marry the nephew of his doctor – also recently become a doctor – so there will be medical help in the house at all times. Meanwhile, his much younger wife plots to absorb all her husband’s money and avoid paying the dowry required in a marriage by sending his daughter, her step-daughter, to a convent. The daughter, Angelique, having fallen madly for a young man she met at the theater, is appalled at her father’s marriage arrangements for her. The wise servant Toinette observes all of this, and works to wise up Argan, and sort things out in Antoinette’s favor.

Artistic co-director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott has given this piece a nice balance between the cartoonish and the historical, though there are still a few oddities for which ANW productions of antique comedies are known. The play has been developed as a combination of French farce, with the elaborate timing of comings and goings which enhance the comedy, and an old fashioned melodrama complete with sound cues to announce the villain. It works fairly well, filled with silliness and innuendo, and performed as it is by a fine ensemble.

Apollo Dukakis has a lovely time as the jaw-droopingly self-absorbed Argan, delighting in his supposed knowledge of his own mostly fanciful ailments. Deborah Strang shines once again as the practical and often annoyed Toinette, providing a solidity which balances Argan’s flightiness. Kelsey Carthew makes Angelique impressively air headed, even as she decries her status as a pawn in the hands of her elders. Carolyn Ratteray gives Argan’s wife a delightfully comical aversion to her husband, and enough personal villainy to fit the melodramatic plot.

Jeremy Rabb makes Argan’s doctor richly pompous and amazingly agile at spouting multi-syllable words for conditions that don’t exist. Rafael Goldstein provides an appallingly, comically awful potential husband for Antoinette as the doctor’s nephew. As contrast, Josh Odsess-Rubin creates a gentle earnestness in Cleante, the man Antoinette actually loves, making her choice all the more obvious. As two rather slimy characters after their own segment of Argan’s money, Freddy Douglas not only makes each broadly different from the other, but impressively memorable as well.

The scenic design by Angela Balogh Calin make good use of the basic communal pieces shared by other plays in ANW’s fall repertory, while her costume designs range from subtle to florid as the character demands. Rodriguez-Elliot’s wildly elaborate ending, including a costume made from a parachute, seems almost over-much for what is generally a more intimate if silly adventure, but by and large this comedy is worth seeing for many reasons.

In the end, the themes of desire, skulduggery and gullibility, not to mention the sensible observational nature of the servant class, are all Moliere. That we readily accept the idea that a doctor would make up illnesses to keep himself employed by a hypochondriac proves how thoroughly the concept has echoes in modern, pharmaceutically swollen times. “The Imaginary Invalid” plays in repertory with Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” and Jean Genet’s “The Maids”.

What: “The Imaginary Invalid” When: Through November 19; 8 p.m. October 29, November 4 and 18; 7:30 p.m. November 3 and 17, 7 p.m. October 23 and November 13; 2 p.m. October 23 and 29, November 13 and 19 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $44, student rush $20 Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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 http://www.YoungStarsTheatre.org

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

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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 http://www.bostoncourt.com ;

“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 http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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