Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

It’s “Good News” – Whittier Community Theatre turns 90

The cast of "Good News" do The Varsity Drag

Through much of the 20th century, a significant percentage of the local or small theater productions available in the greater Los Angeles area were produced by “community theater” groups. These groups often had dedicated memberships, governing boards, and found or built spaces to produce amateur productions of popular plays (or, in one case, original works gleaned from around the country) within their own communities.

Indeed, even the venerable Pasadena Playhouse, which became the most celebrated school of performing arts in the western U.S. in its heyday, began as the Pasadena Community Playhouse – a community theater. But times have changed. Almost all of those groups are gone now, along with the orange and lemon groves emblematic of a smaller Southern California.

That doesn’t bother Whittier Community Theatre, which celebrates its 90th birthday this season. To underscore their longevity they begin this banner period with a musical popular during their first decade. “Good News,” better known today for the June Allyson film, remains the classic 20s look at college life: recently co-ed, focused on football, and hopping with Charleston-dancing, hooch-drinking young people.

The new WCT production manages a spare budget well, and froths with innocent energy. The voices of those onstage vary, as does their dancing ability, but nobody can downplay their enthusiasm. In a story like this one, that is the primary requisite.

The tale is as silly as they come. Tom Marlowe, football star of Tait College, won’t be able to play in the championship game unless he passes his astronomy exam. Much waits on this game, as his rich girlfriend’s family readies to invest millions in Tait’s athletics programs upon Marlowe’s win. All that stands in the way is an exam given by the erstwhile love interest of the coach. Perhaps Tom’s girl’s cousin, a poor but academic girl, can tutor Marlowe to astronometrical victory. Perhaps she has more in common with Tom than that rich and manipulative girlfriend. The plot thickens.

Gabriel Borjon is solid if a bit pedantic as the stalwart Tom. Katherine Gutierrez is all self-focus as his girl, and Veronique Warner stands tall as his astronomy professor nemesis. Greg Stokes’ coach starts slow but seems to flourish as the tale develops. Natalie Miller needs to watch the conductor and listen to the orchestra more, but has considerable charm as the comparatively geeky tutor.

Still, the real delights of this show are the secondary players. Jay Miramontes has a ball with the third string football player desperate not to end up on the field. Heather Neinast manages the best of the dance sequences as a flapper introducing “The Varsity Drag.” Ben Otis makes neat work of the geeky water boy, and Jerry Marble’s superstitious team manager offers considerable comedy. Add to these chorus member Ruben Renteria, who becomes central and interesting in any dance number he’s involved in, and the sum total has much to recommend it.

Brian Murphy gives the musical direction of an amateur orchestra which holds up its end nicely. Lindsay Martin’s choreography evokes the correct time period, and director Roxie Lee (who seems to be WTC’s go-to director of musicals) gives the thing the right, mildly 20s-stagy feel. A special nod to costumers Nancy Tyler and Karen Jacobson who made very convincing silk purses out of a variety of sow’s ears.

In short “Good News” has a somewhat self-conscious innocence, but it’s still rather charming to look back at a time when a football game was a crisis and this was a standard type of entertainment. There are a few great period tunes (“You’re the Cream in my Coffee” and “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” to name a few), some wildly enthusiastic dances, and a general gee-whiz quality which proves quite entertaining.

And, when you think about it, it’s worthwhile just to celebrate a theater company of dedicated amateurs who have managed to surf all the cultural changes of the Southland and arrive at their 90th year. From such places many talented professionals have grown.

What: “Good News” When: through September 24, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, September 18 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 2630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $18 general, $15 students 18 and under/seniors Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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