Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

“Big Night” at the Douglas: Lighthearted Tragedy Stumbles

L-R: Tom Phelan, Kecia Lewis, Wendie Malick, Brian Hutchison, Max Jenkins and Luke Macfarlane in the world premiere of “Big Night” at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


It’s not a new topic, but the superficiality of the film industry seems an easy and thus fairly constant pick as the foundation for an examination of modern ethics. The entire concept of what one is willing to sacrifice in the way of personal integrity for fame and a hefty paycheck plays well when focused on the heightened atmosphere of Hollywood. Now at the Douglas one finds this comparatively standard set-up paired with tragedy – a mixture which proves sometimes rather awkward.

Paul Ridnick’s “Big Night”, receiving its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, deals with the nerves and ethical wrestlings of a career actor suddenly made famous by an Oscar nomination. As such he is potentially in line for big money, but must now follow the kinds of rules agents and studios make when offering such opportunities. We come upon him preparing for the ceremony and being schooled on this by his very comic, but very direct agent.

Enter his nephew, a trans young man passionate about LGBTQ rights and insistent that his uncle speak to this issue in his acceptance speech. Enter his mother with news and a stand of her own, centered around a Pulitzer Prize-winning author she brings along with her. And then, just as they are about to leave for the ceremony, the actor’s partner – also a gay activist – is wrapped up in a tragedy which overshadows the Oscars, the actor Michael’s ambitions, and all the rest.

Brian Hutchison plays Michael as a man both startled by his own sudden fame and afraid of the balancing act he is now supposed to play. As such, he centers the action at several points. Tom Phelan gives the nephew that particular intensity of youth which cannot countenance compromise. Luke Macfarlane, as the partner who has been through a terrible experience, brings the trauma and the shock with him onto the stage in ways which are very moving.

Yet the most memorable performances come from Max Jenkins, whose flittingly gay agent spreads energy all around the room, Mendie Malick as the Michael’s commandingly stylish Jewish mother, and Kecia Lewis as the worldly-wise author who brings the aura of calm as a woman whose familiarity with fame balances the newness of Michael’s.

Director Walter Bobbie keeps all these people in motion on John Lee Beatty’s beautiful set, keeping this rather talky play as lively as one can. Still, the play needs to be worked on. As the storyline juxtaposes tragedy, the role of the famous, and the silliness of Oscar-based nerves, it never settles itself long enough on any one of these. Indeed, once the seriousness takes over – as it must – the playwright seems uncomfortable leaving it there, choosing instead to head back toward silliness just when the chance for a lingering profundity is possible.

Still, in its own occasionally silly way, “Big Night” has something to say, and the characters up on that stage are attractive and interesting to listen to. To some extent, it offers takes on issues which need to be noticed. Now, if only it could be comfortable going deep.

What “Big Night” When: through October 8, 8 p.m Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., in Culver City How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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“Ain’t Misbehavin'” at La Mirada: As Good As It Gets

Thomas Hobson, Amber Liekhus, Frenchie Davis, Natalie Wachen and Boise Holmes salute Fats Waller in “Ain’t Misbehavin'” at La Mirada Theatre, as part of the McCoy-Rigby Entertainment Series


In my earliest days as a theater critic, I covered for the volunteer reviewer at the Altadena Chronicle and thus was able to see the original cast of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” when they came to the old Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood. I fell in love, with the music of course, but even more with the characters this amazing cast was able to create without actually speaking more than ten words outside the songs themselves. It was magic, and those who give awards agreed.

I have searched during the decades since then for a production of this musical which can hold up a decent mirror to the original. I don’t expect a carbon copy – indeed, in general I argue against expecting any live theater to survive by refusing to do anything but what was done initially. Instead I continued to look for the same verve, the same sense of connection and, frankly, of everyone onstage having a blast, that had typified the original. It did not, apparently, translate well.

For a long time I thought it was simply that the Aquarius had been comparatively intimate, as are some Broadway theaters. Did a larger size of the space ruin the intimacy? The answer, I now know is that it does not. Thanks to the new production from McCoy-Rigby Entertainment, at the La Mirada Theatre, I now know it is the sense of ensemble, and of fun, which makes the show live no matter the height of the proscenium, or the size of the audience.

And live it does, in La Mirada, in the best production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” I have seen since the first one.

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a salute to Thomas “Fats” Waller, both as a songwriter and as an extremely popular performer of other people’s music, as well as a comedic performer – a huge star in the 1930s and 40s. The five performers embrace his stride-piano jazz style, sing favorites which have entered the American songbook, silly bits from his work for Harlem clubs, and the occasional emotional punch in the gut with character and style, and build a sense of relationship along the way.

The way this show was structured gives a flow which makes its own drama. Highlights include such moments as Boise Holmes and Frenchie Davis crooning “Honeysuckle Rose” with just the right underscore of lascivious intent, or Thomas Hobson’s slippery “Viper’s Drag,” a salute to marijuana. A salute to the trials of life during World War II brings Davis, Amber Liekhus and Natalie Wachen together to dream of “When the Nylons Bloom Again”, while Holmes and Hobson join forces to cluck over a guy who’s “Fat and Greasy.”

They all join in on commentary regarding the compromises needed to play for white audiences while “ “Lounging at the Waldorf.” Then, suddenly, the company’s wrenchingly serious “Black and Blue” underscores the truth of stardom in an era of segregation and limited acceptance. Transitions like these make this show, and they are done well throughout.

This production is directed by Ken Page, a member of the original company who has been able to communicate that ensemble feel to the performers. Under his leadership, Davis handles the part originally performed by the great Nell Carter, and manages to find a balance between that legacy and her own ways of showing strength and humor.

Wachen does solid work with the most youthful and acrobatic of the women’s roles, while Liekhus turns the often underwhelming part – the sweet counterbalance to the more demanding edges of the others – into quite an interesting addition to the whole. The men are equally excellent, with Holmes offering depth and humor while Hobson offers a slightly slippery quality full of mystery. The interconnectedness of the ensemble proves totally engaging, and great fun.

Kudos to Jeffrey Polk for the choreography, and to Lanny Hartley, who leads a top notch live band from his onstage position as pianist – a position which makes him one of the characters in the ensemble as well. An important nod to costumer Shon LeBlanc, who manages to capture the feel of the original and – like the other creative forces involved – balance it with his own vision.

In short, this show is very, very good. If you have any interest in jazz from the first half of the 20th Century, or you love classic blues, or even just want to have a great time at the theater, run, do not walk, to get tickets to this “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. It’s not here for long, but you’ll regret not seeing it if you don’t find a way.

What: “Ain’t Misbehavin’” When: through October 8, 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

They’ve Got the Horse Right Here: “Guys and Dolls” in Whittier

Carlos Lopez and Mallory Kerwin as Nathan Detroit and his long, long-time fiancé Adelaide in Whittier Community Theatre’s rendition of “Guys and Dolls”


Once upon a time, Damon Runyan was a household word. His stories, with their very specific form of dialogue and wry humor, celebrated the gamblers and chiselers of early 20th Century Broadway in a way nobody else has ever matched. Today, most who know of him at all do so thanks to the Broadway musical “Guys and Dolls,” based on two of Runyan’s stories by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and set to music by Frank Loesser.

Now at Whittier Community Theatre, as the first production of their 96th season, “Guys and Dolls” is guaranteed to charm, as always. The songs are always fun, and the storyline is essential urban Americana. At WCT the cast is mostly up to the task of making the show shine, the band, though a bit uneven in timbre, handles the music well, and the flavor of the piece – best called earnest silliness – shows through.

The story follows two paths. In the first, longtime gambling promoter Nathan Detroit searches desperately for a venue for his floating crap game while holding off showgirl Adelaide, who dreams of marriage after 15 years of being Nathan’s fiancé. In the second, Nathan tries to raise funds by betting card sharp Sky Masterson he cannot take Sarah Brown, central figure of the local Save A Soul Mission, to Havana for dinner. What deal will Sky swing to make it happen?

Director Karen Jacobson has assembled a cast of WCT regulars and specific character performers to solid effect. Jason Miramontes makes a comparatively subtle Sky, and handles his songs well, with the exception of the particularly difficult “My Time of Day”. As his challenge, Sgt. Sarah, Ciara D’Anella warms to the part as the show goes on, and at her best sings with considerable charm, particularly on the silly “If I Were a Bell” and “Marry the Man Today.”

Still, the best of this production is the interplay between Nathan and his three minions, and between Nathan and Adelaide. Carlos Lopez gives Detroit the combination of business sense and innocent guile that makes him so endearing. His minions, the three “tinhorns” – Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet and Rusty Charlie (Jay Harbison, Chris Mathews and Richard De Vicariis) – do a very solid job with the show’s signature introductory trio, “Fugue for Tinhorns” and Harbison continues to charm with “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat”. All three have engaged with their characters in very solid fashion.

Still, the real star of the piece is Mallory Kerwin, who all but steals the show as Adelaide. Her “Adelaide’s Lament” with its silly contention that being matrimonially frustrated can cause head congestion, is as delightfully silly as one could expect, and her consistent and very funny delivery throughout makes even otherwise dry moments in the show entertaining.

Also worthy of note are James Greene as Sarah’s missionary uncle, Greg Stokes and Justin Patrick Murphy as just edgy enough gangsters, and Andy Kresowski as the prowling Lt. Brannigan. The very versatile chorus manage a number street scenes and crowd moments with individuality and style.

Indeed, more than many other musicals, “Guys and Dolls” depends on dancing. Choreographer Emily Turner does what she can with a comparatively motley group of performers, finding ways to keep the musical moments engaging and atmospheric. Musical director Kevin Wiley manages the live musicians in ways which generally enhances the total production.

In short, this “Guys and Dolls” may have a few shaky moments, but the production is earnest and at times quite delightful. The music is among my favorite in the classic Broadway musical canon, and thanks to a few stirling performances it is one of the finer examples of true community theater in the area. And, frankly, you can’t beat the price. Go, sit back, and revel in the fact that any Southern California company has managed to survive for almost a century.

What: “Guys and Dolls” When: through September 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with one matinee 2:30 p.m. September 17 Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

A Noise Within’s “A Tale of Two Cities”: character, not melodrama

Frederick Stuart makes a particularly complex Sydney Carton in A Noise Within’s “A Tale of Two Cities” [photo: Craig Schwartz]


Any time someone translates a novel to the stage, there is risk involved. The depth of interior monologue, the detail of setting and character, the convolutions of plot and emotion, even the poetry of language used to provide all of this, are all limited by the confines of the stage and the time frame expected of a standard play.

Never is this more true than when dramatizing the works of Charles Dickens. A man who loved theater, his works are in many ways quite theatrical, but they are also often intricate, interior and long. One either carves much of the detailed verbiage away, as has been done several ways for, say, “Oliver Twist,” or one extends the play into two parts, as the Royal Shakespeare Company did for “Nicholas Nickleby”. Michael Poulton’s adaptation of “A Tale of Two Cities” now open at A Noise Within in Pasadena chooses the former, but in the process creates a focus on the meat of Dickens’ story: that of the dangers of both oligarchy and chaos.

For those who did not read the novel in high school (or after) the play follows the fortunes of Charles Darnay, a French aristocrat who renounces his noble family for a life of work in Britain just as the French Revolution sparks. In Britain he must fight accusations of being a spy, and in the process becomes close to three people who will define his life.

One is Dr. Manette, long a prisoner in the Bastille, whom he assists in traveling safely from France to England. Another is Manette’s daughter Lucie, whom Darnay marries. The third is the profligate Sydney Carton, his virtual look-alike, whose friendship with Darnay, and wistful love for Lucie provide lifelines for a man who, though young, sees himself as already worthless and beyond redemption. Then Darnay’s servant begs him to return to revolutionary France at the height of the Reign of Terror to save his life.

As adapted by Poulton, this becomes both a character study, and an examination of the explosion and vengeance resulting from an oligarchy pushing inequality too far. As a result, it avoids the more Victorian villainization of the rebels, turns the story to focus on personal struggles and definitions of justice, and manages to ennoble the wayward Carton without whitewashing his behaviors or his depression. As directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, this episodic and complex tale is given a sense of seamlessness which allows the main themes to rise.

Tavis Doucette makes an earnest and straightforward Darnay. Emily Goss provides a sense of innocence, bravery and devotion as Lucie, while Nicholas Hormann delivers a calm practicality as her father Dr. Manette. Also important is Michael Stone Forrest, who gives the English banker Mr. Lorry a sense of presence and a force of personality which ties together much of the most tense period in the storyline. Trisha Miller, as Lucie’s devoted governess, radiates the strength and indignation of the British servant class. Abby Craden make the villain, Madame Defarge, most convincing, but in a way which underscores this French peasant’s reasons for her searing hatred of Darnay’s family.

Still, the center of the tale in this rendition is Frederick Stuart’s Sydney Carton. Stuart makes Carton’s dissolution more a symptom of depression and oppression by opportunistic employers than simply a sin in and of itself. The other characters’ sympathy for him proves more justifiable, and his willingness to lean toward nobility and sacrifice far more logical. It’s a powerful performance.

Also integral to the production’s success are Jenny Foldenauer’s costumes which, with the exception of a couple of barrister wigs, proves authentic and unexaggerated. Fred Kinney’s modular set pieces, coupled with Kristin Campbell’s projections create drama out of crates and partitions in very effective ways, allowing swift changes of scene in the process. Robert Oriol’s original songs bring the emotional backdrop of the era’s tensions.

“A Tale of Two Cities”, as a story, is a classic in every sense of the word. At ANW it is done justice in many ways. Though some purists may miss a concentration on the inner monologues which make Dickensian characters so interesting and yet so hard to portray, this version when performed this well proves that a tale of upheaval and ethics plays well to a modern audience. Indeed, given the current state of the world, a discussion of oppression, revenge, and ethical choices takes on greater significance.

What: “A Tale of Two Cities” When: through November 19, 7 p.m. October 29, and November 19, 7:30 p.m. October 19 and November 9, 8 p.m. September 29 and 30, November 4 and 10, with 2 p.m. matinees September 30, October 29, November 4 and 19 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

“Welcome to the White Room” in Hollywood: Satisfying Intellectual Exercise

Chris Gardner, Sarah Lilly and Sierra Marcks star in the West Coast Premiere of “WELCOME TO THE WHITE ROOM”. [photo: Darrett Sanders]


As Trish Harnetiaux’s “Welcome to the White Room” began, in its west coast premiere production at Theatre of NOTE in Hollywood, my first reaction was to think of Jean Paul Sartre’s “No Exit”: three people are placed in a room without any real understanding of what they are to do there. But while Sartre’s puzzle is an existential view of hell as a place where characters who cannot stand each other are condemned to spend eternity together, “Welcome to the White Room” proves more about challenge and manipulation.

Indeed, who are these oddly formal, comparatively superficial beings whose actions often seem out of their own control?

It appears they are scientists of some sort. A lab coated Mr. Paine (Chris Gardner), Jennings (Sarah Lilly) and Ms White (Sierra Marcks) formally introduce themselves, and introduce their various odd and disruptive inventions. Yet, this seems only some segment of a larger challenge – one they are constantly worried about doing within an unknown time frame. One watches their interplay, what appear to be the lingering effects of experiments, the ways they work to figure out their purpose (guided by occasional instructions fed through a slot in the locked door), and the ways in which they analyze what happens to their compatriots. By the time they are joined by a fourth (Reuben Uy), light begins to dawn.

Director Megan A. McGuane keeps this short but intense play active and engaging from start to finish on Amanda Knehans’ small, beautiful, oddly intricately simple set. Gardner, Lilly and Marcks find ways to derive very specific aspects of humanity in their distinctly artificial characters, bringing humor and fascination to the storyline along the way. It’s an actor’s play, as everything which makes it works comes down to creating the atmosphere and structure of oddity and cohesion the script demands.

This very artificiality is underscored by the lack of it in Uy’s fourth member, whose appearance cracks the code of the thing. To say more is to be guilty of the same crime as those who read the end of a mystery before reading the puzzle, but suffice it to say it provides a distinct commentary on isolation and the power of suggestion on the human mind.

“Welcome to the White Room” is challenging and fascinating to watch. The performances are very strong, and the results prove compelling. In an era which often uses elaborate technology to enhance a theatrical experience, this underscores the entertainment value in a production focused on a single set, solid acting, and puzzle which will take a while even after the play to digest. This is theater of the intellect, and thus a particular kind of refreshing.

What: “Welcome to the White Room” When: through September 11, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd. (just north of Sunset) in Hollywood How Much: $25 general, $20 students and seniors Info: (323) 856-8611 or http://www.theatreofnote.com

“South Pacific” Proves Powerful, Relevent in Claremont

Katie Moya is Nellie Forbush, singing the comic “Honeybun” in Candlelight Pavilion’s “South Pacific” [photo: Demetrius Katsantonis]


In 1949, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II opened the Pulitzer Prize-winning “South Pacific” on Broadway. Based on James Michener’s equally Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the silliness, boredom, and racial conflicts of “behind the action” stations in the Pacific during World War II, it featured some of the duo’s most memorable songs. At the time its relevance was both obvious and challenging, only 4 years after the end of the war. Fascinatingly, sadly, the new production at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater cannot help but remind us that it still has something rather pointed to say to a modern audience.

The tale centers on a US naval supply station and hospital located on a tiny Polynesian island in what most of its temporary occupants would consider the middle of nowhere. The more permanent inhabitants, both the French planters who came as colonists and the Polynesian native population, live in an comparatively relaxed coexistence the Americans have significantly disrupted one way and another. For many of the Americans, this is their first contact with foreign cultures, and the fallout can prove jolting.

This is especially true for Nellie Forbush, a nurse at the hospital in the process of falling in love with Emile de Becque, one of the successful planters. Her Little Rock roots soon clash with de Becque’s background in a number of ways. For Lt. Joseph Cable, a young Marine about to start a fearsomely dangerous assignment as an “Island spotter,” the struggle comes as he falls heavily for a Polynesian girl his upbringing tells him he cannot marry. For Luther Billis, an opportunistic Seabee, the goal is far more mercenary, and much more lighthearted, as he tries every trick in the book to get passage to the neighboring island upon which planters and natives alike have put their young women.

At Candlelight Pavilion the balance of lighthearted silliness and wrenching comings of age are balanced just as they should be, graced by strong performances by the leads and clever choreography which keeps the show rolling along. Katie Moya is Nellie, singing with confidence the iconic songs, and giving a strong sense of the cultural and ethical dilemmas which complicate her romantic life. Michael Scott Harris has the pipes to handle de Becque – a part originally written for an opera star – and the solid presence to make his status as a commanding planter convincing.

Marc Montminy makes Luther Billis just enough of a big galoot to make him lovable even as he connives with impressive lack of cultural understanding to gather souvenirs. Shane Litchfield manages to create a sense of youth, seriousness and self-awareness as Lt. Cable, and Candida Celaya gives just enough gravitas to Bloody Mary to make her distress later in the show make sense even as she provides delightful silliness near the start. She also handles the great “Bali Ha’i” fairly well – a song in a register too low for many singers.

The ensemble who provide the rest of the island’s inhabitants, from nurses and seabees, to natives and naval commanders back up these leading figures with energy and style. The choreography by Janet Renslow makes good use of the comparatively small chorus to provide various atmospheric moments, and Chuck Ketter’s direction keeps things moving on the excellent set he also designed.

Still, what becomes most potent at this time in our nation’s history is the show’s unsweetened look at the prejudices of the past. Indeed, as Lt. Cable sang with sorrow “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are 6, or 7, or 8, to hate all the people your relatives hate,” the night I saw the show, people were marching with torches in Charlottesville. It may be 58 years old, but “South Pacific” remains a mirror we really need to gaze into.

What: “South Pacific” When: through September 9, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and Thursday March 23, 5 p.m. Sundays, for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $61 – $76 general, $30 – $35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive. Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

“Shout, Sister, Shout”: Awkward, Though Heartfelt Tribute in Pasadena

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Yvette Cason (Mahalia Jackson) and Tracy Nicole Chapman (Sister Rosetta Tharpe) in Shout Sister Shout! at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

If you love classic rock and roll, and have never heard of Sister Rosetta Sharpe, shame on you. Raised in gospel, this woman was a superstar in the 30s and 40s, playing the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall, and inventing a stage presence and guitar style which inspired the likes of Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and even Elvis. She wrote a lot of her own songs, mixing gospel with a beat considered the precursor of rock.

“Shout, Sister, Shout,” which has just ended its premiere run at the Pasadena Playhouse on Sunday, is supposed to tell her story. It does so by the creaky device of having Sister Rosetta stopped at the pearly gates, told to go save a sad-faced white boy from himself before she can go into Heaven. So, she goes down and recounts snippets of her story to him, sings a lot, and challenges the young man to reach into his own music. What the show really is is a collection of her best numbers, many of them her own, and occasional performances by those she encountered along the way, from church groups to Mahalia Jackson. The snips of life story are then thrown in for effect.

Sadly, the script is stodgy, and so episodic one rarely gets a chance to connect either with Sharpe or with those who interacted with her on the way – many of whom are given one or maybe two lines to indicate they ever existed. The wan young man is more a distraction than anything else, and his sudden heart-wrenching solo at the end, penned for this show by Melissa Manchester, does nothing to enhance Sharpe’s actual story, which should be the focus of the piece.

Tracy Nicole Chapman does bring spunk and zing to Sharpe herself, but she is called upon to play a series of guitars almost all the time, and – if the rather overblown (as in so loud you can’t hear the lyrics) amplification is telling the truth, she rarely actually plays them. This is a problem when one is representing a person especially known for her guitar stylings. If she does, it is simple strumming, rather than the blues guitar Sharpe was known for.

On the other hand, there are moments of great light from Yvette Cason, who manages to play Sharpe’s evangelist mother with a powerful voice and personality, then switch to the stylings of Mahalia Jackson without skipping a beat. Thomas Hobson, Boise Holmes and Armando Yearwood, Jr. form a powerful church-rocking trio, while Michael A. Shepperd (most memorable as the preacher briefly Sharpe’s first husband), and Angela Teek Hitchman (as the partner Sharpe toured with in her happiest period) round out the ensemble. Young Logan Charles, as the lost kid Sharpe is supposed to save, does a reasonable job, though his part is more spur to the next story than anything particularly rounded.

Still, they cannot overcome Cheryl L. West’s hopelessly episodic book, which jumps from image to image with just enough information to spur the next song. The music is good and the stage band makes it better, except that the amps are turned up so high much of the song lyrics – which, in several cases, are expected to move the story along – are completely unintelligible: okay if you already know them, but death to anyone who has come to the show to be introduced to Sharpe for the first time.

There is so much promise of what “Shout, Sister, Shout” could have been that the results proved deeply disappointing. Even the most solid performances seemed to be sitting on a very, very fragile framework. No argument that Sister Rosetta Sharpe was a powerful and fascinating element in the development of American music. One just wishes this show did her justice.

The Trick of Playing Memoir: “It’s Only Lipstick” at the Whitefire

As I have mentioned before, there is a danger in writing your own performance material. Never is this more true than when it is a form of memoir. Many an author I have known has pointed out that when you are writing anything intensely personal it takes time. First you must write it, then you must remove, gradually, all the things which may matter to the writer, but do not advance what the reader or audience needs for it to be art.

This is the only real problem with “It’s Only Lipstick, now finishing a run at the Whitefire Theater in Sherman Oaks. Claudia Di Martino, in relating her life story, has an interesting tale to tell. As a matter of fact she has about three different interesting tales to tell, and she does. Although each is able to engage the audience, that necessary trim would make them so much better, and avoid a sense of repetitiveness, and occasional disjointedness, that makes what could be fairly transcendent have less than the desired impact.

Di Martino grew up in a strict Italian Catholic family. Through dint of hard work she became a high ranking executive at a string of companies – mostly marketing cosmetics – all of which are detailed along with portraits of the variety of oppressive bosses. The life of a female executive wore her to a frazzle until she finally quit to follow her bliss and become a fairly consistently working character actor. In the process of this shift she details the religious conversion experience which now centers her life.

And believe me, that’s a lot to put into an hour and a half, at least if you are going to leave in as many details and personalities as she does, in the way that she does. To some extent, this last lies at the feet of director Jessica Lynn Johnson, who could have offered some editing advice, and tempered the way Di Martino goes about presenting it to the audience.

The thing is, Di Martino is obviously a talented actor. This is underscored by a video vignette at the end showing snips from the many filmed performances she has given in the recent past.

However, “… Lipstick” starts out almost over the top, with the high intensity health scare which convinces her to leave her executive life, deciding she doesn’t need it because “it’s only lipstick.” When you start that ramped up, however, it’s tough to give the play a climax later that goes beyond it, and that is what is called for. Instead, every other major life emotion is just paralleling the first.

With such intense emotional highs, the calmer moments need a lot of variety to keep the audience engaged. Here that’s a problem.

The bulk of the play covers her life in cosmetics marketing. In the telling, every male boss man-spreads his slimy way through her life. Each exchange involves DiMartino speaking in one voice, doing a 180 – 360 degree turn to speak as the other person, every time, acting out each conversation word for word, over and over. Some of the portraits are quite amusing, but there are so many, and so many are similar that at least a variety of approach to presenting them could make it less repetitive.

Her descriptions of coming to love acting again are fun, and could be central to her sense of self-discovery, if featured more. Her deeply profound religious experiences have the potential to be wrenching and profound, but her elation is played at the same level as her anguish at the start, creating an odd sense of emotional repetition even when that isn’t what’s really happening.  Again, much of this is how she was directed.

And one is left wondering which is more important. Is it the shift we thought we were looking at from the start, from the corporate world to the acting world? Or is the religious experience which interrupts the story?

There is no arguing that Claudia Di Martino has had an extraordinary life. The number of times she has landed on her feet is impressive, and the variety of things she has proved herself skilled at – whether or not they gave her joy – is also worthy of note. If she can take a deep breath, and continue to edit her work (as good memoirists must), she could have something a lot more powerful on her hands to show us all.

In the meantime, seeing “It’s Only Lipstick” will give you a story to ponder, and a performer to get to know.

What: “It’s Only Lipstick”  When: final performance 8 p.m. Thursday, August 17  Where: The Whitefire Theater, 13500 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks  How Much: $25  Info: itsonlyliptick.brownpapertickets.com

 

 

Heritage, Comedy, Connection: “King of the Yees” at the Douglas

Stephenie Soohyun Park and Francis Jue in the world premiere production of “King of the Yees.” [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


There is a moment toward the end of a favorite documentary where people who grew up in the then-segregated African-American neighborhood around Central and Slauson in L.A. talked about the loss of that neighborhood with regret. Entrance into the mainstream was great, they say, but they lost those close knit community ties. I could not help but think of this while watching Lauren Yee’s funny, insightful “King of the Yees” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Only this time, the community beginning to fray was, and is, San Francisco’s Chinatown, with its antique buildings and firmly held traditions.

Indeed, focal to the entire piece is the impressive, beautifully carved, red door of the Yee Family Association, of which Lauren’s father in the play is the president. That door, situated center stage, represents the Chinatown which the onstage Lauren sees as archaic and dissolving. Or does she.

In this world premiere, what begins as a standard “let me tell you about my father and my heritage” play soon takes a far more engrossing, positively Thornton Wilder-like turn. Hovered over by this very traditional, and apparently powerful door, one ends up touching on several elements of the modern Chinese-American (and larger Asian-American) experience with wit, a certain mysticism, and an underscore of hope.

Central to the piece are the performances of Stephanie Soohyun Park as Lauren and Francis Jue as her father Larry. The other cast members, Rammel Chan, Angela Lin and Daniel Smith provide a wide range of other characters, from actors to mystical persons, which pepper this engrossing journey.

Jue brings to Larry a balance of confidence and apparent innocence, tonally idealistic yet rooted in the practicalities of his supposedly insular world. This provides the perfect foil to Park’s crispness as her character’s assimilated Americanism bounces against the traditions of her childhood. The chemistry between the two creates a specific energy which powers the rest of the piece.

And that “rest” also proves engrossing, from discussions of the stereotypes demanded of Asian actors, through an examination of ritual and connection, to a brief, humorous window on the secret world beneath the touristy elements Chinatown presents to the world. The play proves, all at the same time, goofy, tender, pointed, illuminating and tremendously fun to watch.

Director Joshua Kahan Brody keeps the production’s pacing necessarily crisp, creating the quick transitions between thoughts and characters so needed in a play this potentially convoluted, allowing the audience to follow along with ease. Another star has to be Mike Tutaj, whose projections (along with set designer William Boles’ big red door) stir the mysticism, and (along with Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design) add to the comedy.

Still, all of these arrive in service of a fine play. Yee has the ability to make pointed, apparently autobiographical commentary in a way which enriches, entertains, and affirms. This play never talks down to those for whom the conceptual details are new, and manages – at least in this production – to find a common ground in the ongoing American discussion of the balance between keeping one’s own cultural heritage and becoming, if not part of a “melting pot,” at least one flavor in the tossed salad that is this country at its best.

What: “King of the Yees” When: Through August 6, 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 8:30 p.m. Thursdays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

When An Intriguing Concept Falls Flat: “The Marriage Zone” in NoHo

Perhaps the two greatest dangers in producing an original work of theater is either directing your own performance or directing your own play. In either case, the absolutely necessary second opinion – the critique where needed to make sure the thing is the best it can be – is lacking. Without it, many a good idea has gone down in flames simply because there was nobody in the creative process able to say “no.”

As case in point take “The Marriage Zone,” written and directed by Jeff Gould, and now receiving its premiere run at The Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood. The concept of the piece is actually quite intriguing, but with the necessary filter missing the result is impressively sub-par. The playwright’s choice to direct – in other words, to have to listen only to his own views on the script, stage movement, pacing, etc. – means that there was nobody left to push the play to its potential.

“The Marriage Zone” is, as one might guess, a potentially comic derivative of “The Twilight Zone”. Here a middle-aged couple with a 15-year-old son put their house up for sale, even though this is one more tension in their increasingly tense marriage. When a young, newly engaged couple show up to see the house, followed closely by a significantly older couple viewing the house out of nostalgia, it rapidly becomes clear the couple are looking at their own history. The potentially intriguing question in all of this is, is their story set in stone, or can it be changed from the current path?

Pursuing that question would have been fascinating, but it never really is. Indeed, the play is framed as a comedy, and a male-centric comedy at that. As a result, the more sophisticated issues breeze by unexplored. Instead, one deals with the superficial: does the Internet of the future let you see porn in your head? Is sex as fun later in a marriage? Are annoying habits of one’s partner going to be impossible to deal with over time? And then there is the constantly repeated emphasis on the importance of blow jobs.

What about the importance of honesty in marriage, and of communication? What about the balance of nurture and push in parenting? What about parenting at all – is it worth it to have done it if the results come out less than one hoped? All of these are sped through in favor of another sex joke. It is sad, because the result means there is little “there” there.

Which is not to say that the play is poorly acted. Anne Leighton and Jeff Pride, as the home owners, make the kinds of connection that a married couple who are willing but not particularly able would. Megan Barker and Ryan Cargill radiate youth and enthusiasm, and a certain implied shallowness, as the newly engaged. In the production’s best performances, Jacee Jule and especially Alex Hyde-White give an interesting edge and paternalism to the older couple.

Still, they all suffer from Gould’s direction. Jule and Hyde-White spend almost the entire play sitting in chairs, one way to the side, making comments. The only props on stage – cups of lemonade – are left sitting on the coffee table, to no purpose. The whole thing is remarkably static for such a potentially emotionally charged situation. The characters simply don’t have enough to do. It is not surprising that Ciaran Brown, as the couple’s son, also does little other than sit.

If “The Marriage Zone” was fall-down funny, one could forgive the lack of depth. If its dialogue was engrossing on the subject of time-bending revelation, it might excuse the fact people spend so very much of the play sitting in chairs talking. But since, in its best moments, this play falls with rather a thud somewhere in between these goals, it leaves much to be desired. On the other hand, a good workshop of this thing, with input and polish applied after significant feedback, could turn it into something one would truly wish to see.

What: “The Marriage Zone” When: through August 27, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays Where: The Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood How Much: $40 Info: (323) 960-7784 or http://www.Plays411.com/marriagezone

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