Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Terrific “Gin Game” at Sierra Madre Playhouse

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The husband-and-wife team of Katherine James and Alan Blumenfeld shine in “The Gin Game” at Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

When a play being produced locally has a long history of excellence, that can be both a blessing and a curse for a theater company, especially a comparatively small one. On the one hand, the name recognition connected to the play itself has the potential to bring in audience who might not otherwise have come through the doors. On the other hand, the expectation of that audience will be an excellence they remember or have heard of from previous productions (or even televised versions), which may be a tall order to produce.

When those expectations are realized in a positive way, however, it can be a particularly winning moment. Such a win is the production of D.L. Coburn’s 1970s classic, “The Gin Game” at Sierra Madre Playhouse. An articulate, well-known play is produced with great polish and passion. The visuals are evocative. The performers are impressive. The net result is well worth the price of admission.

The story is deceptively simple. Two comparatively active elderly people living in an “old folks home” meet and decide to play gin. The woman – Fonsia – though seemingly retiring, is a wizard at cards. The comparatively overt and opinionated man – Weller – is taken aback, as he considers himself to be excellent at cards as well and has increasing issues with being beaten. Still, they share a common bond of comparatively intact intellect and general dislike of the facility into which they have been relegated. Which will win out, the friction, or the bond?

At SMP the two are played by husband-and-wife team Katherine James and Alan Blumenfeld. They have a strong handle on the characters’ foibles, and bring the audience along with both laughter and revelation as they gradually uncover the more lovable and more unlovable elements of each these people. Director Christian Lebano has utilized the SMP space about as well is possible, aided by Tesshi Nakagawa’s extraordinary set.

“The Gin Game” is not new. It was even filmed for television with its original cast, also a married couple, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. Still, the performers here do not lean overmuch on previous portrayals, but rather on the words themselves, which become increasingly potent as our nation ages. The play is not, at its core, a comedy though the comedic elements are very funny indeed. It is, rather, a play of awareness. As such, though set quite determinedly in the 1970s (when it was originally produced), it has a wisdom which is totally contemporary.

What: “The Gin Game”  When: through October 6, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre. How Much: $40 general, $36 seniors, $25 youth 22 and younger  Info: (626) 355-4318 or www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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“Native Gardens”: Do Great Performances Balance Uncomfortable Script?

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(L-R) Bruce Davison, Frances Fisher, Jessica Meraz and Christian Barillas in Native Gardens at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jenny Graham]

There is a fine line between humor which skewers privilege and prejudice by making its claims sound as ridiculous as they are, and writing which pronounces the same beliefs and then does a kind of wink to indicate that, really, it was said to be funny. One is reminiscent of, say, “All In The Family,” the other is not. That the latter appears as much as the former in Karen Zacarias’ “Native Gardens,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse, make it slightly uncomfortable to call the play funny, even though humor is definitely one of its elements. Still, as has happened before, one wonders how many in the audience will find affirmation of their own beliefs rather than what is intended to be laughable.
This is not the fault of the actors, who play the thing to the hilt and thanks to solid direction offer up both timing and structure intended to give the piece its place as a comedy. Still, one is left ambivalent about whether laughing is buying into things one would rather not, or actually an honest response to a good joke.
Pablo and Tania, a young and successful Latinex couple (he’s a lawyer, she’s finishing up her PhD), have just bought a somewhat run-down house in an upper crust neighborhood outside of Washington, DC. Their neighbors, Frank and Virginia, a late-middle-aged white couple with a grown son, have been in their home for a long time, and are stalwart elements of the neighborhood. Frank is semi-retired and an avid gardener. Virginia is a prominent engineer.
As they meet, there seems hope of an easy and neighborly friendship. Then Pablo discovers that the fence all have agreed should be replaced between their two back yards is actually in the wrong place. Some of Frank and Virginia’s yard doesn’t belong to them.
Christian Barillas, as Pablo, embodies the intensity of the young legal mind and the fighting spirit of the up-and-coming immigrant with a genuine sense of impetuous thrill at what he are achieving. Jessica Meraz, as the American-born Tania, voices the claim to nationhood so often necessarily heard by those of Mexican descent whose upbringing has been rooted in the US, balanced against a body language evincing a genuine niceness which wants a peaceful coexistence with those around her, at least most of the time.
Bruce Davison, as the alternately obsessed and unfocused Frank, has terrific and subtle timing which creates great humor even as he utters things which sometimes make one feel guilty laughing. Frances Fisher gives Virginia the intensity of the self-made professional, used to a fight and unwilling to concede as a matter of principle – a woman confident in knowing the people who will help get things done.
Binding these together, in a stroke of genius by director Jason Alexander, is the trio of Julian Armaya, Richard Biglia and Bradley Roa II as gardeners who both move stage elements as the border fight wages on, and provide immensely entertaining announcements of change of date and time of day. These characters’ joie de vivre helps to keep the light touch necessary in a play which becomes increasingly about race, age, and identity in a time when these are such a hot-button issues.
Looked at intellectually, this is a huge metaphor for this nation, its walls, its increasing xenophobia, its war between entitlement and access, and the easy condemnation of one age group by another. As such, it is potent, though the tacked-on ending seems yet another underscoring apology for everything it has otherwise been. Still, it is – on occasion – quite funny, it is beautiful to look at thanks to David Meyer’s terrific garden set, and nobody can argue it isn’t superbly acted. Now if only one didn’t have to wonder if laughing was affirming something one would rather not affirm.
What: “Native Gardens”. When: through September 30, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, with one 8 p.m. performance on Tuesday, September 25. Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. How Much: prices start at $29. Info: (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Solid Staging Carries Whittier’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame”

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Anthony Michael Frias and Michelle Chaho are Quasimodo and Esmeralda in Whittier Community Theatre’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

It is quite remarkable how many times the Victor Hugo novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” has been dramatized, in film, on television, and on the stage. Originally written in part to encourage Parisians to appreciate the medieval architecture in their midst, the story has captured the imaginations of generations. This thanks to the drama of that architecture, the general fascination with the colorful life of gypsies, the equal fascination with obsessive and exclusionary religious fervor, and that very peculiar character whose gentle, innocent ugliness has become a metaphor all its own.

Finally, a Disney-produced theatrical has taken the songs and a few fantasy characters from the Disney film, and elements of both the novel and the most popular live action movies, and created a dark and relatively interesting hodgepodge of a musical. Now at the Whittier Community Theatre, it has some true star turns, some interesting quirks, and a couple of stumbles, but has moments worth celebrating.

Director Mark Torreso is also the set designer, and that integration works well, for the most part. Unable, due to the layout of the theater, to have a “pit chorus,” – that is, hidden singers who augment chorus numbers – he has created space for an onstage choir of monks, who look down on the dramatic proceedings when necessary and flesh out the richly dramatic, if startlingly unmemorable, music. This sets the tone for the rest of the work, as the cathedral is ever-present physically even when action takes place outside its doors.

In this atmosphere lives this version of the story, which focuses on the conflict between the self-righteously religious Claude Frollo, who has raised Quasimodo to follow him, and the gypsy Esmeralda, whom Frollo both detests for her beliefs and lusts after in spite of himself. Balanced against this is the returning soldier Phoebus de Martin, whose promotion to captain of the cathedral guards puts him squarely in the center of the conflict, along with Quasimodo, who so appreciates Esmeralda’s warmth toward him that her attraction to Phoebus is painful. And so it goes.

Best of this production is Anthony Michael Frias as Quasimodo. His onstage transformation proves impressive, and his ability to portray a disabled character without ever devolving into caricature makes the show possible. Michelle Chaho makes a charming and tuneful Esmeralda, and Jeff Campbell as Phoebus manages both the devil-may-care playboy and the underlying honorable man well. As the leader of the gypsies, Jason Miramontes exhibits a lightness and panache in what is one of his best performances at WCT.

The puppeteers, who speak and sing for Quasimodo’s friendly gargoyles – Scott Charles Felver, Vanessa Evans, Jasmine Vigil and Scott Silson – make those characters come humorously and connectedly alive. Only WCT veteran Richard De Vicariis seems to struggle with the villainous character of Frollo, particularly when called upon to sing. That, the small and distracting projections, and a way, way too amplified orchestra are really the only awkward elements of the piece.

Be aware that the tale of the “Hunchback” is a dark one. This is not a kiddie show, Disney’s involvement in its creation notwithstanding. There is lust and torment and death, and a rather ferocious condemnation of some religious elements, which, though adapted, are more from Hugo than the adapters. The music advances the storyline well, but you will not go away humming it. Come see what this tale can be like when adapted for stage, but do not expect to leave feeling all is right with the world.

What: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. When: through September 22, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, September 16. Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theater, 7630 S. Washington Ave. in Whittier  How Much: $25 general, $20 seniors, students and military with ID   Info: (562)696-0600 or www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Powerful “Sweat” – Rust Belt Anguish on Tap

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Mary Mara and Portia are shop floor pals facing an uncertain future in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat” at the Mark Taper Forum

The Pulitzer Prize for drama is given, when it is given, for a piece of theater which reflects something elemental to understanding an aspect of American culture. Rarely has that seemed a more apt designation than the 2017 prize handed to playwright Lynn Nottage for “Sweat.” A portrait of the disintegration of the traditional manufacturing towns of the midwest, it answers for the uninitiate multiple questions about the elements of malaise which have infected that part of the country, from amplified racism to opioid abuse. That it does so without preaching or reaching for easy answers, and with considerable humor, makes “Sweat” a gift to watch.

The play is set in Reading, Pennsylvania, where the struggles between union and management have led to at least one long-extended walkout, and – at another factory – tensions are simmering regarding the future of an industry which has generationally been a definition of life in the town. At the neighborhood bar, where both the longtime connections and current tensions are liberally amplified by alcohol, a picture of a town wrestling with coming to terms with crisis, looking for escape, and searching for someone to blame are narrowed down to a few shop-floor friends.

The powerfully ensemble cast ably peels gradual layers off their characters to illustrate the dissolving of veneer caused by the ripped expectations and sense of powerlessness the sea change in their community brings. Mary Mara, Portia, and Amy Pietz center the play as the three factory-floor friends whose unified sense of identity is tested and torn by issues of addiction, race, and ambition as the union-corporation conflict grows. As the sons inheriting the disaster, Grantham Coleman and Will Hochman create young men whose actions frame the storyline and thread the rest of the play together.

Michael O’Keefe, as the injured factory worker now tending bar, provides a link to the working man’s heritage. John Earl Jelks offers up the increasing degradation of a people too proud of that heritage to accept its lessening impact. Peter Mendoza creates the outsider character whose choices underscore what the others have lost, bringing out the casually ugly side of this insular community. Kevin T. Carroll, as a probation officer, becomes the occasional guide through the tragedies to come.

Director Lisa Peterson has created a pacing and a visual presence for the play which underscores the disconnect between the world of the characters and the world outside. Using Yee Eun Nam’s excellent projections and Paul James Prendergast’s evocative sound design and original music, drama happens on Christopher Barreca’s remarkably evocative set even when the characters aren’t onstage. The pacing is clean, seamless and keeps the tension building as it should, even as it makes room for the necessary and very human moments of humor which make these people real. Emilio Sosa’s costumes absolutely define character differences, sending messages in visual shorthand.

Still the best of this is that all the above operate in service of a truly important play. What one can hope is that many who see “Sweat” will finally have that “aha moment” when they begin to understand – not embrace necessarily, but understand – in a more visceral way the terrible boiling pot of racial tensions, abandonment sentiments, and destroyed expectations which have led to some of the ugliest current scenes in our country. There are no solutions offered up here, as that would be too easy, but the final scene does offer some hope if people can come back to their better selves. One can only hope that some do.

What: “Sweat”. When: through October 7, 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 1 p.m. performance Sept 30)  Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $99  Info: (213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“A Hole in the Sky”: Climate Change Drama Needs Focus

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Lola Kelly and Joseph D. Valdez star in the world premiere production of “HOLE IN THE SKY” by Octavio Solis [photo: Jeff Galfer]

It’s an interesting concept: interview people from small towns in Siskiyou County who are in the middle of the climate change/water use battle, and form what is gleaned into a play about the passions and tensions this friction creates. That is what playwright Octavio Solis has done in “Hole in the Sky,” receiving its world premiere courtesy of the Circle X Theatre Company. Moreover, to give a feel of farm town life, the piece is being staged amid the dust and animal scent of a horse ranch just a hop up the I-210.

With all of that, one wants it to be good. Its material has impact and a genuine foundation. The passions carried by people weighing short term gain against long term preservation, arguing the debate over restrictions and who has rights to water or land, and wrestling with a deep resistance to the realities of climate change are elemental for us here in California. One trip up the I-5 will tell you that. So, what goes awry?

First, the choice of setting is picturesque, but has some basic issues. Most especially, in this open setting it is essential for the performers to wear mics in order to be heard, however because there is a building between the “booth” controlling the mics and some of the performers occasionally, it is difficult to set a levels for the mics (often far too hot) or even to have a consistent signal at all. This becomes a major distraction at often pivotal moments in the play.

Second, the play slips into repetitive patterns. Because it is taken from interviews – a static moment in people’s lives – there is not a whole lot of growth among the characters, and when it does come suddenly toward the end it seems tacked on. Still, there are important things for us city folk to hear about life in a rural valley imperiled by drought.

Connor has come home from San Francisco to the ranch where she grew up, after a nasty divorce and feeling a general sense of failure. She hopes everything will be the same as when she left, but fire and drought have underscored community tensions. The locals, from the state employee evaluating realities, to ranchers desperate to preserve their way of life, to Native Americans dependent on leaving scarce resources untouched, are ranged against each other. A cascade of events as the play ends test characters’ belief and – in Connor’s case, at least – sanity.

The cast proves talented, if some of the portraits remain two-dimensional. Lola Kelly is Connor, outwardly reasoned, but inwardly wrenched. Kelly gives her so much of that sense of reason it is difficult to square that with the haunted person the script seems to infer, making the latter moments of the play seem to come from nowhere. William Sayers, as her father, carries the confidence of a self-made man. Christine Avila, in one of the show’s best performances, gives the ranch’s manager both heart and practicality.

Also worthy of note is the spot-on portrait of an aging ranch hand given by Leon Russom. Nicole Erb’s depressed wife, Joseph D. Valdez’s government agent whose truth-telling angers the valley, Cliff Weissman’s bitter neighbor, and Michael G. Martinez voicing the anger of local Native Americans round out the cast. They handle their parts well and with passion. It is the play which doesn’t quite work. Arguments are circular. Realism suddenly morphs into spiritual haze. It’s almost as if nobody could figure out how to end the thing.

Director Kate Jopson, who grew up in the county where this takes place, has used her unique performance space with great creativity. She knows these people and the feel of the characters and their interactions flows as well as the script will allow. Of special note is the sound design by Cricket Myers, which becomes a character all its own: what the valley used to sound like, and what it sounds like in ultimate distress.

“Hole in the Sky” has the potential to have something important to say as to why there aren’t any easy answers when climate change threatens an entire way of life. The arguments of ranchers, officials and the native population, though repetitive, are all treated with a sense of truth. What is lacking, and what may be lacking in society as well, is any sense of what – other than erasure – can be done. This may be truth, but makes for a fuzzy dramatic arc.

What: “Hole in the Sky”. When: through September 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with added performances at 8 p.m. Monday, September 10 and 17, and Thursday September 20. Where: Courtship Ranch, 11270 Dominica Ave. in Lake View Terrace  How Much: $35 – $50 general, $10 students with ID. Info: http://circlextheatre.org

The Comedy is Too Closed a Circle: “Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin”

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Front: Sammi-Jack Martincak, Travis York and Hunter Milano, Rear: Laura Julian, Cathy Ladman in a silly scene near the end of “Jews, Christians, and Screwing Stalin”, a guest production at The Matrix [Photo: Ed Krieger}

The trick in writing a play highlighting the idiosyncrasies of a single cultural group is finding a way to celebrate those specific aspects while finding avenues toward the universal. This is the art of plays by the likes of Neil Simon, Lorraine Hansberry, or Joe DiPietro: they manage nostalgia, a ferocious sense of identity, and culturally specific humor, but scoop up the rest of the audience for the ride too. Without that ability to cross barriers a play becomes as isolated as, say, the famed Yiddish theater of New York, which faded away as its patrons Americanized over generations.

Which brings me to Mark Lonow and Jo Anne Astrow’s new play, “Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin.” Deeply nostalgic, and admittedly only slightly exaggerated from Lonow’s very real grandparents, it follows the antics in a Brighton Beach boarding house filled with Jewish former Russian revolutionaries, and the grandson from Hollywood who brings a surprise – his very Christian girlfriend – when requested to come home for Rosh Hashanah. There is a lot of potential, and there are some fascinating comic types among the characters, but it is only marginally humorous to anyone not intimate with the cultural details of these people in this setting, that is until the very funny last 10 minutes. In the end, it’s just too long a wait.

Minka Grazonsky has pulled both her son and her grandson back to celebrate the high holy days in order to honor the request of her late husband Murray that they reconcile. Murray watches over the results from his celestial bedroom, in-between moments sharing cocktails with Trotsky and others, over and over, with whom he is supposedly hanging out in the afterlife. The son, David, who long ago abandoned his wife and young son, and Joseph, the grandson, have not spoken in years and do not know the other is coming. And then there is that girlfriend.

Minka’s borders, struggling with age, include an amusingly theatrical gossip named Lillie who makes sure that everyone knows everyone else’s business. Much of their dialogue is in Yiddish, particularly in the first half, which either Murray, whose entire part consists of asides to the audience, or the girlfriend Caitlin (dictionary in hand, to try to fit in) has to translate for those who don’t get it. It’s a construct that doesn’t quite do that work of inclusion, and mutes the potential comic value of moments along the way.

Lonow, who also directs, has assembled just about as good a cast as one could possibly get to try to make this work. John Pleshette makes as much as he can of the repetitive bits, and inessential asides Murray is limited to. Cathy Ladman, as the quirky, grumpy Minka, injects her character with enough innate humanity to avoid becoming a cartoon. Laura Julian’s Lillie is a cartoon and is supposed to be one – including finessing some of the more humorous lines in the play.

Hunter Milano, as the comparatively hip young Joseph, resonates with the generational shifts which balance tradition – even offbeat tradition, in this case – with the larger, more inclusive world. As his father David, Travis York vibrates with character flaws in a way which makes him more stereotypically tragic than humorous. As Caitlin, the obviously token non-Jewish person in the cast, Sammi-Jack Martincak spends the entire play looking like she’s trying too hard, which may be in character, but becomes generally uncomfortable.

Still, the largest discomfort is left for those in the audience who are not instantly connected to the cultural references of the play. By the end, there are some very funny moments for which the entire play has been a set-up, but this bit of silliness and slap-stick does not make up for the insular nature of the rest. Despite the remarkable set by Joel Daavid, Lonow and Astrow need to go back and look at cultural nostalgia which has worked better, start to finish, and get out the editor’s pen.

What: “Jews, Christians, and Screwing Stalin”. When: through September 17, 8 p.m. Saturdays and Mondays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Where: A guest production at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles. How Much: $35. Info: (323) 960-4412 or http://www.Plays411.com/Matzoballs

“I Am Sophie”: Examining the Meaning of Identity

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Corinne Shor – playwright and performer of “I am Sophie,” presented by LA Vie Theatre [photo: Marlow Everly}

The entire idea of identity is one which has come increasingly to the forefront of modern conversation. What makes someone who they are? What if what they see in the mirror isn’t who they feel they are inside? What if being genuine to themselves means not being the person others have always known them to be? What may be lost in the process?

This is the core fascination with Corinne Shor’s “I am Sophie,” a one-woman show performed by the author, now at The Pico. An expansion of Shor’s initial exploration during the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival, the play is a monologue by a young Minnesota woman named Kate.

Kate – after spending a period in France – comes home to be near her father in his last hours having turned herself into someone else. She is Sophie. She speaks with a French accent, uses French as much or more than English, and feels freed by the entire process of reinvention. Now, when asked to be Kate, she finds it stilted and a grim denial of who she really is. Some of her family embrace the change. Some do not. It proves good for business, as she and her brother take over the shop, however, some look askance at what they see as playacting.

Director Susan Angelo gets the story beneath the story, and creates a sense of movement which keeps the whole thing from being static: enough furniture, enough costume adjustments, and generally enough business to make Sophie’s journey from discovery to comfort, to true self-acceptance animated, emotional, and consistently engaging. Shor gives to her creation a sense of light and dark and light, as Sophie must occasionally try to be Kate again, and then returns to the person she believes is her personal truth. It all works.

Of course, Sophie’s journey is a metaphor for many other journeys of discovery. As she meets with resistance, finds acceptance (her mother, embracing the change, still warns her she will “lose people” over it) and comes to terms with what her future holds, it can resonate with an audience facing any number of struggles for the self. It is that very universality which makes the play and performance work.

Take a look at “I Am Sophie,” if only to capture a lovely tale, but mostly because it is likely to make you hold up your own mirror to check who you are.

What: “I Am Sophie”  When: through September 2, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, plus 8 p.m. Thursday, August 23, and 5 p.m. Sunday, September 2  Where: The Pico, 10508 W. Pico Blvd in Los Angeles. How Much: $25.  Info: https://iamsophie.brownpapertickets.com

Timely “Yellow Face”: Moral Dilemma Made Funny, but Still True

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Jeffrey Sim and Alfonso Faustino as David Henry Hwang and his father, respectively, in Hwang’s “Yellow Face” now at Beverly Hills Playhouse [photo: Megumi Smisson]

When Rachel Dolezal was forced to step down from the presidency of the local branch of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington in 2015 because she was not (as she had claimed) African-American, it spurred a debate on the nature of race and cultural appropriation which was long past due. Yet, playwright Henry David Hwang had already addressed the issue, and with a minority population which if anything is even more likely to face casual appropriation, in “Yellow Face,” which had its premiere in Los Angeles in 2007.

In the play, now revived with considerable skill at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, Hwang uses humor and a certain amount of poetic license, to tell the story of the frustrations Asian performers have wrestled with over the comparatively regular casting of non-Asians in Asian parts.

From the era of Charlie Chan, played by white actors from Warner Oland to Peter Ustinov, to the upheaval in Actors Equity in the 90s over the use of a white British actor as the central character – a Vietnamese – in “Miss Saigon,” Hwang points to the inequity of giving Asian roles to white performers. This even as he underscores how easy it is to convince those who want to be convinced that the false Asian is, indeed, real.

The production, itself a revival of a coproduction with Firescape Theatre in San Francisco, is even more bare-bones than the original, with all the actors seated in a row on the stage, most then becoming several different people over the course of the play. Essentially, the show posits what would happen if a playwright of Hwang’s prominence misled the public, for a lot of internal reasons, into thinking a purely white actor is of Asian descent, and then that actor runs with the idea far enough to begin becoming an Asian entertainment icon.

This tale is then juxtaposed against Hwang’s very real wrestling with his banker father’s misconceptions about western business practices – ones which lead to the father’s downfall as his Far East National Bank becomes embroiled in investigations into possible Chinese influence-peddling.

Still, the power in this play comes from its humor as well as its poke at social responsibility, and the quality of the performers who make the whole thing come to life. Jeffrey Sim is Hwang himself, both the narrator and protagonist of the piece. Sim’s tight comic timing, and his casual humanity keeps the play both serious and very funny, sometimes at the same moment. Roman Moretti, as the actor who discovers his calling in being someone he is not, is just handsome enough, with just vague enough ethnic markers to make his role work – a role he handles in a straightforward, even earnest way which keeps it from being innately insulting.

Alfonso Faustino creates Hwang’s banker father, and a host of other entertainment and cultural figures, Jennifer Vo Le creates all of the play’s Asian women, from Hwang’s mother to his false creation’s girlfriend. Lisagaye Tomlinson handles a startlingly varied collection of other characters, making each impressively individual, while Dennis Nollette does the same as a broad spectrum of producers and politicos, some of them quite recognizable. John Pendergast, in the smaller but profoundly essential role of an actual, though elaborately unnamed New York Times reporter, carries his character’s nonjudgementalism with a somewhat sinister air.

All of these actors and characters intertwine in an elaborate choreography at the hands of director Robert Zimmerman. The minimalist staging works splendidly, and the finesse with which the cast handles the fast-paced, sometimes overlapping storytelling keeps the audience engaged, even occasionally on the edge of their collective seats, throughout.

“Yellow Face” remains profound, even as it also remains very humorous. It’s theme underscores one of the last seemingly acceptable cultural appropriations (remember the controversy over Scarlett Johansson’s voicing of a character in The Ghost in the Shell series), and – albeit with humor – claims identity as an important aspect of the 21st century entertainment sphere.

What: “Yellow Face”  When: through September 26, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Where: Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd. in Beverly Hills  How Much: $20 – $30. Info: http://www.plays411.com/yellowface

Frothy, Tuneful “Little Mermaid”at Candlelight Pavilion

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Desmond Clark, as Sebastian, leads a talented ensemble in “Under the Sea”, in Candlelight Pavilion’s production of “The Little Mermaid”

The entire idea of taking the Disney film (or the Hans Christian Andersen original story) of “The Little Mermaid” and putting it on the stage creates a challenge. Disney did it themselves, taking the show to Broadway where it ran for over 2 years. Transferring that to a smaller, more intimate setting brings new problems to solve, quite aside from finding singer-performers who are up to the characters most audience members are already very familiar with.

At Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, it is made to look easy for the most part. The use of “heelies” to give underwater characters a fluid movement works as it did in the original (as opposed to the odd flapping required of some recent revivals), the voices are strong and the energy high. Director John Lalonde knows how to use the small Candlelight stage to the fullest, and has assembled a cast both convincing and entertainingly quirky.

The Disney version of the story is well known. Ariel, the youngest daughter of Triton, king of the ocean depths, has become fascinated with the world which exists outside their watery universe. This only intensifies as her father destroys her collection of “otherworldly” things, and she ends up rescuing a young Prince Eric, thrown off of his ship in a storm.

Ariel trades her voice to her evil witch of an aunt, Ursula, for a pair of legs so she can go after Eric, with the understanding that she must be kissed by the prince within a short time frame to avoid Ursula owning her, body and soul. Ariel’s friends Sebastian the crab, Scuttle the seagull, and Flounder the fish do what they can to help, as Ursula’s own sidekicks plot the opposite.

Erin Dubreuil makes a sweet and innocent Ariel, singing beautifully and absolutely bursting with earnest naivete. Tyler Matthew Burk, as Prince Eric, gives him the right combination of frustration and wistful yearning for simplicity necessary for the piece to work. Donovan Wright brings a touching warmth to Triton.

But, of course, it is the character parts which get to have the most fun. Bob Bell grumps appropriately as Eric’s frustrated tutor. Ryan Watson manages to make Flounder sound, if not look, as childlike as needed, and Alex Allen flaps about with abandon as Scuttle. In a choice which works extremely well, Cody Bianchi makes a truly villainous Ursula, aided by the puppeteers Nicholas Alexander and Anthony Vaca, playing her evil eel henchmen.

In the small but vital part of Chef Louis, cooking up seafood for Eric’s dinner, Andrew Metzger displays his comic chops. Still, the real star of the piece is, as always happens, Sebastian, here given great character by Desmond Clark. Even as adapted for Broadway, he has the two best songs in the show, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” Clark and a truly fine ensemble do a fine job with both.

Kudos to choreographer Chelsea Morgan Stock for movement and dance which define the spaces in which the characters operate. Praise also to Julie Lamoureaux, who as musical director is tasked with creating, in even the show’s more complex pieces, a sound reminiscent of the film, yet doing so for an ensemble who will perform the songs without benefit of a conductor. It all works.

One must remember that this “Little Mermaid” simplifies some of the darker moments of even the film version, and definitely of the original short story. Expect tunefulness, a certain amount of froth, and a lot of charm which is suitable for the entire family. All this, and a good meal as well, at what is now the only remaining dinner theater in the greater Los Angeles area.

What: “The Little Mermaid” When: through September 1, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for lunch Saturdays and Sundays. Where: The Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont. How Much: $63-$78 adults, $30-$35 children 12 and under  Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Tribute play “Screwball Comedy”: great potential, shaky comic timing

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The classic screwball comedy films of the 1930s and 40s have remained popular from that time on because of four basic elements: the ridiculousness of the essential storyline, the crisp and evocative dialogue, the quality of and apt casting of the performers, and timing – always the fast-paced, pinpoint timing of the lines and scenes which makes the whole thing memorably funny. This is what playwright Norm Foster wants to celebrate in his play “Screwball Comedy,” now receiving its U.S. premiere at Theatre Forty in Beverly Hills.

Although Foster himself has created a play which honors all the above, with dialogue only slightly more ridiculous than the real thing, and just as deliciously improbable a plot, the current production does little with the rest. With a few exceptions the casting (or at very least character interpretation) is problematic, and the direction by Howard Storm profoundly uneven.

The play follows all the classic tropes. A rough-around-the-edges newspaper editor sends his star reporter (whose ego and nightlife have begun to erode his gifts) and an earnest young woman trying to get hired off to cover the society wedding of the son of the paper’s wealthy-widow owner. What they find is conniving on all fronts, which in turn leads to a certain amount of romantic sparks between the two.

The highlights of performance in this piece come mostly from the performers who seem to have grasped the timing aspect, even if those around them don’t always. Gail Johnston, as Jones, the editor’s secretary, is keen and consistently funny in ways one hopes the rest of the show will emulate. As the wealthy widow, Sharron Shayne has a flamboyance which works well, and an energy which powers points in the production which would otherwise wobble. As the son, hiding his gifts to keep his mother happy, Niko Boles charmingly underplays his part, making it stand out in lovely ways.

Although Lane Compton, as the egotistical ace reporter, has conquered the style of that specific kind of comedy part, he often plays against people whose timing is so slow it remains somewhat difficult to assess his gifts in that regard. As his supposed foil, the prospective cub reporter, Kate Whitney lacks that immediacy of delivery so necessary in this kind of script, where lines need to jump on top of each other to create the humor. As the gold digger trying to marry money, Jean Mackie also supplies little to play off of, as her way to embrace her character’s constant state of inebriation is to slow things down.

Daniel Leslie, as the editor, seems to struggle with his lines, though his characterization proves fitting. George Villas, as the man trying to marry the widow, is so off from the feel of the play he isn’t even giving his lines at the same volume as the rest, booming them out with overelaborate zest. David Hunt Stafford, as the grumpy, bumbling butler, is indeed funny, but funny like a recurring burlesque joke, and thus out of keeping with the rest of the tale.

Much of this lands at the feet of director Storm. Indeed, even among those doing a good job, they are flying solo – there is no sense of directorial coordination of the humor. On the other hand, the set by Jeff G. Rack uses the stage space remarkably well. The costuming by Michele Young misses at important moments, especially in over-dowdying Whitney’s character, though it generally seems to be roughly in that early 40s period. Brandon Baruch does a fine job with the lighting, absolutely necessary when you place different rooms on different parts of the set.

In short, there is nothing horribly wrong with “Screwball Comedy,” except that it doesn’t seem to have any feel of ensemble, and ensemble is what made the great screwball comedies work. It is sometimes quite funny, but not anywhere near as funny as it could easily have been.

What: “Screwball Comedy”  When: Through August 19, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays  Where: The Reuben Cordova Theatre on the campus of Beverly Hills High School, 241 S. Moreno Drive in Beverly Hills  How Much: $35. Info: (310) 364-0535 or www.theatre40.org

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