Stage Struck Review

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Candlelight Pavilion’s “Peter Pan”: Tweaking the Nose of Tradition, Done Well

Gavin Juckette (l.) as Peter, and Randy Ingram (r.) as Captain Hook battle for the Lost Boys and the Darling children in Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater’s “Peter Pan”

Children who grew up when I did are divided into two camps: those who think the best “Peter Pan” is the Disney animated version, and those – like me – who know that the Mary Martin version is the “real” one. Of course, both are based on J.M Barrie’s original 1904 script for a British “panto”. The musical Martin brought to television after its triumph on Broadway used much of the original script, adding the music of Morris (Moose) Charlap with additions by Jule Styne, and the lyrics of Carolyn Leigh plus Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Since then, all productions of this musical version, whether Sandy Duncan’s and, later, Cathy Rigby’s Broadway hits, or more local productions, have honored the panto format: that is, the tradition of having one character (in this case, Peter) played by a cross-dressing performer. In other words, in live theater Peter has always been played by a woman, the most convincingly boyish being former Olympic gymnast Rigby.

Now the folks at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater have decided to defy tradition, go literal, and have Peter be played by a male. Add to this the challenge, well met, of having people fly on a stage notably lacking the “flies” – the large space above a stage where rigging and set pieces can hang out of view – and one could not help but be curious. Besides, who doesn’t have moments of wanting to sing “I Won’t Grow Up”?

For the show to work, four characters (or three actors) have to be top-notch, and play their often deeply silly parts absolutely straight. Gavin Juckette makes an earnestly boyish Peter, with the serious sense of fun which makes the piece work, even if in defiance of tradition. Randy Ingram, in a practice which does keep to tradition, in the dual parts of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook gives each character individuality, but in both a delightfully overblown sense of self-importance.

In the somewhat treacherous role of “Indian Princess” Tiger Lily – always a cartoon, as it would be if made up by a prepubescent British boy – Amaris Griggs dances well, proves commanding, and by dealing with Peter as an equal squashes some of one’s disquiet over the role’s stereotypical underpinnings. Valerie Rose Lohman balances the budding-woman and little-girl-fantasy aspects of Wendy, with Andrew Bar as John and Asher Broberg as Michael doing a lovely job as the Darling children.

Add to all of this a delightful collection of lost boys, rather inept pirates (especially Thomas Stanley as Smee – always a personal favorite), and forest animals in an ensemble who bring Neverland to life, and you have a genuinely lovely time.

John LaLonde’s direction keeps the pace moving and the relationships between these fantasy characters engaging. He knows how to use the Candlelight space, using needed entrances and exits through the audience to scoop everyone into the spirit of the thing. Kirklyn Robinson’s choreography uses the comparatively small Candlelight stage particularly well, keeping the atmosphere and energy of the piece. Douglas Austin, as musical director, has given the ensemble a lovely blend.

Kudos also to Chuck Ketter for yet another set fitting a great deal into a small space. The lighting design by Aspen Rogers and Jonathan Daroca, including the character of Tinkerbell, make the piece work as it does.

If you have somehow never seen “Peter Pan,” this is a good one, even if a bit nontraditional. If you wish to introduce a new generation to the magic “Peter” has brought to the young for over 100 years, I’d go see this version, which comes with a lovely meal (including a kids menu). One warning: tickets are scarce. Get on a waiting list if you need to.

What: “Peter Pan” When: through August 17, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch matinees 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $63 – $78 adult, $30 – $35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive. Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or www.thecpdt.com

The Most Hysterical Disaster: “The Play that Goes Wrong” at the Ahmanson

The company of the national tour of “”The Play That Goes Wrong”.” Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields and directed by Mark Bell. [Photo: Jeremy Daniel]

There are terms I learned a long time ago not to put in a review, because they are overused to the point of meaning nothing. At least normally. This time, though, there are few words more apt than “hysterical” or “laugh riot” or even “side-splitting” for the deliciously insane “The Play That Goes Wrong” just opened at the Ahmanson. Seriously, this is one of the funniest things I’ve seen anywhere, ever.

Pretend that an extremely amateur, pompously overconfident, poorly cast company of players decides to stage a mystery best described as low-rent Agatha Christie. And then pretend that this is done with all the extremes of artifice, technical ineptitude, and sheer bumbling possible. Then you have some sense of what this show contains, but not really.

Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields’ play isn’t echoing Monty Python. It isn’t a Sherlock Holmes spoof. Rather, it’s a terrific send-up of amateur theatricals: occasionally cartoonish, tremendously physical, and impressively silly.

As with anything this physical, the old adage applies: it can take greater expertise to do something wrong on purpose than to do something right. The cast of this show lives up to this, handling the necessarily precise direction designed by Mark Bell, and carried out on tour by Matt DiCarlo, while making everything still seem spontaneous. This precision not only keeps the humor rich, but keep the actors safe as the physical comedy reaches heights even such spoofs as “Noises Off” dare not attempt. The thing must work like clockwork, and it does.

The members of the “Cornley University Drama Society” include Evan Alexander Smith, exuding righteously British pomposity as the group’s first-time director who has cast himself as the wise detective. Peyton Crim, whose sonorous voice is a delight, plays the stereotypical British aristocrat, shooting jacket and all, as the brother of the murdered man’s fiancé. Ned Noyes goes jaw-droopingly over the top on all occasions as the brother of the murdered man, unconvincingly romantically intwined with said fiancé.

Scott Cote’s stereotypical butler proves one of the greater comedic assets as the play implodes. Jamie Ann Romero turns the internal play’s only female into a delightful comedy turn, and a remarkably physical one – she faints with impressive skill. Still, perhaps the funniest aspects of this production are the two “techies” who disrupt or cope with this deeply flawed troupe’s foibles.

Brandon J. Ellis gives the overly casual lights and sound guy so much presence he, in his offstage cubicle, is sometimes all you can watch. Angela Grovey’s practical, then panicked stage manager turned sudden understudy becomes probably the most howlingly funny performer in the piece.

Someone should give set designer Nigel Hook a medal for creating a set which can seem so classically formulaic and can destroy itself to such remarkable comedic effect, without killing the actors. Andrew Johnson’s sound design becomes its own comic character. This truly is as ensemble a production as can be imagined.

So, drop everything and go see “The Play That Goes Wrong.” The times are stressful, and the world is a bit dark. We all need a vacation, and a chance to laugh, and laugh you will, almost constantly. My companion admitted afterward that she “laughed so hard no sound was coming out.” What a great way to spend a summer afternoon or evening.

What: “The Play That Goes Wrong” When: Through August 11, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with a 2 p.m. performance Thursday, August 8 Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $30 – $135 Info: http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org or 213-972-4400

Airy “Dames at Sea” Docks at Sierra Madre Playhouse

Aaron Shaw and Katie Franqueira, as Dick and Ruby, tapping their toes in Sierra Madre Playhouse’s “Dames at Sea”

There is an elemental silliness to the movie musicals of the 1930s, but that was intentional. The films offered an inexpensive escape from the strain of the Great Depression, and quite intentionally featured lavish costumes, elaborate settings, and the kinds of visual splendor only the Busby Berkeleys of this world can provide.

In 1968, George Maimsohn, Robin Miller and Jim Wise decided to create that silly, upbeat world in small, opening “Dames at Sea” in an off-off Broadway cafe. Though it has roamed far and wide in the meantime, “Dames at Sea” has returned to its tiny-stage roots at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. There, once again, a six-person cast must create all the splendor and schlock of the “go out a chorus girl but come off a star” tap-dancing magic that so enthralled our forebears.

Reducing the show once again to its minimalist beginnings works well at SMP. Director Joshua Finkel understands that the only way to play this gentle satire for laughs is to play it straight, and that’s what his cast does. Aided by Jeffrey Scott Parsons’ classic 30s choreography, heavy as always on the tap dancing, and Sean Paxton’s musical direction, they manage to make this small, silly show lighthearted fun.

Katie Franqueira leads the cast as the idealistic Ruby, arriving in NYC with nothing but tap shoes, hoping to star on Broadway. Franqueira’s Ruby has an interesting combination of earnestness and nervousness which makes some of her tap numbers a bit intense, but particularly in a delightfully Busby Berkeley-worthy version of “Raining in my Heart,” she sings with an innocence and charm which prove quite engaging.

As her love interest Dick, the sailor dreaming of songwriting, Aaron Shaw has a loose-limbed charm and the kind of wide-eyed presence which balances Franqueira’s Ruby nicely. Marissa Mayer shows the right brassy style as Ruby’s new friend in the chorus, while Ruben Bravo nearly steals several scenes as Dick’s somewhat goofy Navy buddy.

Chuck McLane, in the dual role of the theatrical producer fallen on hard times, and Dick’s commanding officer talked into allowing a Broadway show to be staged on board, has a lovely time with each, managing to carve them into individuals with their own silly moments. Jennifer Knox flounces with all the necessary ego as that show’s officious and controlling star.

Shon LeBlanc – a wizard with period costumes for small venues – has given the show the right feel. Jeff G. Rack has provided all the right set pieces, including the deck of a battleship, at a size which will somehow fit on the tiny SMP stage. In short, all the pieces are there.

In short, “Dames at Sea” is silly, tuneful, and – for some – nostalgic. It makes gentle fun of an entire film genre, but not in a mean way. Rather, that almost ferocious innocence proves an antidote to the tensions of our current world, just as was true back then. And in that, even it its occasional awkward moments, this production has something in common with what it celebrates.

Also check out the theater’s movie series, which celebrates the movies “Dames” was based on. It continues with “Footlight Parade” on July 10.

What: “Dames at Sea” When: through August 3, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with an extra 2:30 p.m. matinee on Saturday, August 3 Where: The Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre. How Much: $45 general, $40 seniors, $25 youth up to age 21. Info: 626-355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Why History? – Two productions lean on the past, differently, to speak to now

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The cast of “Indecent” at the Ahmanson through July 7.

The cast of “Ladies,” ending its run at Boston Court Pasadena this Sunday, June 30.

In the past week I have seen two theatrical endeavors – both nearing the ends of their runs – which tackle current social issues by looking at the past. In one case, the history is given theatrical flourish, but is fascinating in its poignant accuracy. In the other, an acknowledged incomplete understanding of history gives a playwright license to turn an antique moment in time into something it never was in order to make a point. Both work as pieces of theater, which fascinates me as a long-time teacher of history and a historian, as well as a theatrical critic.

Why use history to make a modern point? When is it essential that the history be true, and when doesn’t it matter that much? It appears it depends on the purpose history is given in the work itself.

The first of show for discussion, closing this Sunday, is “Ladies,” in its premiere run at Boston Court Pasadena. Playwright Kit Steinkellner uses the inspiration of four historical 18th Century intellectual women who formed The Blue Stocking Society, or (as the playwright says) were feminists before that term was invented, to explore the role of women as writers, artists, sexual independents and free spirits. In this case, the rather uninformed assumptions admitted by the play itself make for fuzzy history, but important social commentary.

The second show is the national tour production of Paula Vogel’s Tony-winning Broadway play-with-music, “Indecent.” At the Ahmanson only through July 7, the show essentially chronicles the life of a controversial 1907 play. Developed in the rich artistic world of eastern Europe’s Yiddish theater, where it was acclaimed, the piece ran into a firestorm when it opened much later, in English and heavily adapted, on Broadway. Why the difference, and what happened to those involved becomes a cautionary tale on the American Dream and the rise of authoritarianism.

Whether using historical figures as the poet does (i.e.: with less interest in accuracy than in spirit) to make a contemporary point, or telling a documentable story of increasing intolerance as a cautionary tale about echoes to be found in our society, the use of history is elemental to each production’s impact. That the role of history in one is pretty much the opposite of its role in the other is fascinating, in that they both succeed in placing a current issue in the longer story of human art and intellect.

In “Ladies,” director Jessica Kubzansky has the four Blue Stocking members emerge from a modern base, and revert to the modern narrative simply by putting on glasses. Thus the back-and-forth between a conceived repressive past and a questioning present become seamless and fascinating. The historical figures are real, and did exist. They include a novelist, a painter, a poet, and the woman who has brought these others together to, in this play anyway, advocate for women’s place in the arts.

How much of what results is an accurate look at the women’s lives, and how much is a modern lens clumping together more and less repressive time periods is immaterial to the point of the play. Rather, this is a playwright’s own wrestle with a past once inconceivable: that women rejected docility in favor of artistic expression before the concept of women’s rights was articulated in English culture. It is the wrestling which matters, not the really rather inaccurate sense of the society which created and either supported or rejected the Blue Stockings (a term which eventually morphed into a catch-all designation for academic-minded women in Britain).

Meghan Andrews, Carie Kawa, Jully Lee, and Tracey A. Leigh create the four women plus servants, husbands, and other occupants of their world, then shift to offer commentary not only on those women’s stories, but the playwright’s internal monologue concerning them. Costumes by Ann Closs-Farley allow quick character shifts, and even occasionally become characters all their own. The focus on women as physical beings, and on desires they may have had along the way is universal, and in the end history (such as it is here) becomes a mere tool for a very modern philosophical musing.

On the other hand, “Indecent” is the true story of Sholem Asch’s play “God of Vengeance,” written in Yiddish in 1907, about an oppressive father whose fortune comes from running the brothel downstairs, and his young, innocent daughter who finds true love – to that father’s horror – with one of the prostitutes below. After a long and successful run in Jewish theaters around Europe, with its leads becoming stars of note throughout that world, it heads to America, is a hit in Yiddish circles there, and then – in a bowdlerized version – becomes a scandal on Broadway, with its cast convicted of indecency.

The story is real, and in this case the history is told with considerable accuracy, yet the story itself is not entirely the point. Once again the tale of artistic freedom, embraced in one part of society and yet increasingly rejected by the more powerful as violating societal norms, and the echoes of that increasingly powerful provincialism and intolerance in our modern world, especially toward recent immigrants, give a gravitas beyond what is simply historical. Indeed, there are elements which speak to Carlos Santayana’s famous phrase that “those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.”

Steeped in the traditions of Jewish Europe, with much of the dialogue in Yiddish (in print and in translation to English on the wall above) there is a strong cultural center to the piece. Yet, at the same time, the openness of an artistic Europe is placed against the rigid rules of decency which infected even the segment of the Jewish population of the US anxious to achieve assimilation: where Yiddish culture is rejected for a shot at the American mainstream. Indeed, much has been written about the freedom of the culturally rich Yiddish art scene in New York in the early 20th century, and how it vanished. This in part because of fears of deportation as exclusionary immigration laws stifled attempts to use the US as escape from the rising terror – the “return to morality” via fascism – overseas.

The intolerance here is both internal and external, with those who cannot abide the loss of freedom returning to a Europe where soon more than freedom will be lost. Still, the moral authority which deems a famous play indecent, the sense of fear surrounding immigration policies, the perceived need to meld into the mainstream to avoid hatred, not to mention the intolerance toward a positive view of lesbian love, sounds a lot like the more judgmental elements of modern America.

Under the guiding hand of Tony-winning director Rebecca Taichman a remarkably versatile cast – Richard Topol, Elizabeth A. Davis, Joby Earle, Harry Groener, Mimi Lieber, Steven Rattazzi, and Adina Version, with musicians (who also are active characters) Matt Darriali, Patrick Farrell and Lisa Gutkin – sing, play, and dance as an elemental expression of culture. They create a myriad of parts to flesh out the story of the play, and its author who wrote only stories and novels, leaving his own play in a dust his actors could not, and the performers whose lives were forever changed by the parts they played. It is a powerful picture of disconnects, fears, and foundational beliefs.

In the end, it is striking to what extent each play’s historical context proves essential to the playwright’s point. Whether that arc of history is deeply, affectingly accurate as in “Indecent,” or almost an artifice, as in “Ladies,” giving a sense of the long arc of history provides a needed underpinning to talking about the world in which we currently live. And that, to some extent, is why history remains important: we are still human beings capable of making the same mistakes those before us did, or learning how not to, by looking back to look forward.

What: “Ladies” When: this production’s last two performances, Saturday June 29 and Sunday, June 30, are both sold out Where: Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena

What: “Indecent” When: through August 7, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $155. Info: 213-972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“No, No Nanette”: Tunes, Taps, and Dinner at Candlelight

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Erin Dubreuil, as Nanette, and Mary Murphy-Nelson as the comic maid Pauline, star Candlelight Pavilion’s “No, No Nanette” on an upbeat note.

The musical “No, No Nanette,” though originally a product of the 1920s, became a hit first on Broadway and then in stages large and small around the nation beginning in the 1970s. As such it sparked a revival of the “classic” old school musical filled with frothy songs, tap dancing, and a remarkably simplistic romantic plot. Still, it’s fun to see the one which started it all, at least in modern terms. Now one can, at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont.

The plot is typical: Jimmy Smith, a good-hearted, wealthy businessman goes behind his skinflint wife’s back to platonically assist three women from around the country who inspired his sympathy. Now they are coming to see him and he asks his lawyer and friend Billy, whose spendthrift wife spends all he makes, to square the three women away so they will no longer intrude upon his life. In the midst of this, Billy’s ward Nanette, despite having decided she loves Billy’s nephew Tom, decides she wants to sow a wild oat or two before marrying him. Through secrets and happenstance, all these folk end up heading for the same Atlantic City cottage at the same time. Hilarity, and a lot of song and dance, ensue.

Erin Dubreuil makes a sweet Nanette, singing and dancing with skill and style. Tracy Ray Reynolds gives Billy’s wife Sue a flamboyant glee. Colette Peters radiates sensibility but still cuts a mean rug as Jimmy’s more cautious mate. Frank Minano has a lovely time as the over-generous, innocently enthusiastic Jimmy, making him a lovely accompaniment to the equally pure adventuring of Dubreuil’s Nanette. The other characters, and the versatile chorus, give the show its fluffy feel. It’s all light-hearted fun.

Still, the real standout of this production is Mary Murphy-Nelson as the grumpy, and extremely funny maid, Pauline. As she threatens to quit, dances with and scolds her vacuum cleaner, and otherwise offers commentary on the world at large and the silliness of the proceedings around her in particular, Murphy-Nelson’s comic timing remains the best thing in this show.

Director John Lalonde knows how to create order out of all this silliness. Choreographer John Vaughan has the tappers tapping and the waltzers waltzing with Busby Berkeley-esque period style. The set by Chuck Ketter adapts well. One can argue that it is tough to cut a three-act show into the required two a Candlelight production must have, but even this is done with a kind of confidence which takes the audience along for the ride.

In short, “No, No Nanette” is light, frothy fun. Songs like “Tea for Two” have re-entered the American songbook because of it, and even the most titilating moments are nothing which could offend anyone of any age. At Candlelight, of course, this comes with a good meal and (should one wish) a luscious dessert.

What: “No, No Nanette When: through April 13, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and a special Thursday performance April 11, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch matinee at 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $63 – $78 adult, $30 – $35 children 12 and under Info: http://www.candlelightpavilion.com or (909) 626-1254 ext.1

The Glass Menagerie at ANW: Their Best Work, Mostly

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Deborah Strang as the demanding Amanda and Rafael Goldstein as the increasingly detached Tom in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” at A Noise Within in Pasadena. [photo: Craig Schwartz]

One of the seminal works of American theatrical literature is Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” the play which vaulted him to fame. It was in my high school English textbook, in the equivalent for that preliminary English course everyone has to take in college, and one of the great plays studied in my theater lit course. It appears on stage with remarkable regularity, and has been on television more than once. A sad and introspective tale, it can be taken as Greek tragedy, as a statement on America’s disconnect, as one of several Williams’ treatises on the tawdry aftereffects of Southern culture, or simply as a character study.

At A Noise Within in Pasadena what seems to win out is character study. Perhaps this is because the four-person cast contains the strongest performers in the ANW membership stable. Co-Artistic Director Geoff Elliott has given these performers space to create far more rounded and interesting characters than on some occasions, and there are haunting moments in the production worthy of special note. If only there wasn’t an over-literal tacked on ending to annoy a Williams aficionado at the play’s close.

Deborah Strang makes comparatively (and interestingly) subtle work of the unsubtle Amanda, a faded Southern belle whose desperate hold the youth she enjoyed before marrying the wrong man has poisoned any possible connection with her only son. As that son, Tom, Rafael Goldstein radiates with resentment, thwarted ambition, and an edgy empathy for his disabled sister.

Erika Soto makes Laura,  the sister, more complex than is often seen. The touchingly memorable moment – shared, thanks to a particularly apt bit of direction, with the audience – when she looks in a mirror and can actually see herself as beautiful for a moment will stick with the observer long after the play ends. Likewise Kasey Mahaffy as Jim, the “gentleman caller,” gives a nervous edge to the part which intimates a connection that just almost comes off. It makes the pain and the depth of their scenes worth the entire production.

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Kasey Mahaffy as Jim and Erika Soto as Laura

Fred Kinney’s scenic design is clever, but the adaptability it has to have is mostly due to the one weird twist in the direction at play’s end. This is a memory play. Memory plays have to stop where the memories end. The fact that Laura’s memory will not leave Tom alone, and the underlying question mark about the people/lives he left behind is the lingering fog which gives the play some of its power. Here, that question is answered, nullifying Williams’ point.

Why Elliott chose to do this – answering a question which is aways left for the audience to surmise – is an abject mystery. Frankly, it seems a sign of distrust, either in his audience or in his performer, or (even worse) Williams himself. In any case, it proves moderately insulting, and fudges what is otherwise a fine, fine production of an American classic.

Still, given everything which leads up to that moment, this version of “Glass Menagerie” is worth taking a look, my sincere, rueful “if only” qualifier to the ending notwithstanding.

“The Glass Menagerie” plays in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Othello” and Mary Zimmerman’s “Argonautika”.

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What: “The Glass Menagerie”  When: through April 26, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. March 30, 2 p.m. April 20, 7 p.m. April 14, 7:30 p.m. April 4 and 25, 8 p.m. April 5, 20 and 26  Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena  How Much: from $25, Student Rush with ID one hour before performance $20, On April 14 all remaining tickets $25 (available online with the code SUNDAYRUSH) or at box office Info: http://www.anoisewithin.org or (626) 356-3121

Watching the Mighty Fall: “The Judas Kiss” at Boston Court

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Rob Nagle as Oscar Wilde and Colin Bates as the source of his downfall, Lord Alfred Douglas, in “The Judas Kiss” at Boston Court Pasadena [photo: Jenny Graham]

One of the tragic tales to come from the criminalization of homosexuality in Britain has always been the story of Oscar Wilde, the celebrated, flamboyant author and playwright whose great fame turned into great scandal, imprisonment, and self-imposed exile. Modern playwrights have examined this to highlight historic injustices, make comparisons with the intolerance of modern nations, and even to highlight the double standards of the Victorian Era. David Hare’s “The Judas Kiss” takes a different tack.

Now at Boston Court Pasadena, Hare’s play looks instead at Wilde and the man whose relationship with him caused his downfall: Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquis of Queensbury, commonly called “Bosie.” The petulant and self-absorbed Bosie’s hold over the older Wilde, pushing him (among other things) to try to sue the Marquis for libel and thus to open himself to prosecution for homosexuality, becomes a framework with which to study how relationships can turn manipulative and eventually destructive to the person manipulated.

There seems ample evidence for Bosie’s petulance and opportunism. Most certainly, the destructive effect on Wilde’s life and fortunes is undeniable. What Hare’s play does, however, is look at how this manipulation worked.  Bosie pushes Wilde one way, Wilde’s friend and former lover (and eventual executor of his literary estate) Robert Ross tries to reason him into another, and Wilde makes disastrous decisions in the name of love.

Rob Nagle gives Wilde the right combination of flamboyance and deep insecurity, ready to lean on a young man who never has an interest at heart except his own. Even with the elaborate language and gesture, this is a romantic caught in that time-old trap of allowing blind love to push him away from those who actually have his best interests at heart. As Bosie, Colin Bates radiates immaturity, self-obsession, and obliviousness as he drags Wilde to shame and bankruptcy.

Darius De La Cruz makes a worried, earnest and frustrated friend as Robert Ross, giving a gravitas to the disaster his character is trying to help his former lover avoid. Matthew Campbell Dowling, Maria Klein and Kurt Kanazawa provide a backdrop of lasciviousness which was the secret underpinning of Victorian society, as does Will Dixon as the hotel manager busy keeping his clients’ secrets.

Director Michael Michetti has kept the production spare, allowing the larger-than-life Wilde a central place, seeming increasingly pure and victimized as all around him exude a sensuality he seems to have eschewed for what he sees as a more spiritual connection. That contrast alone says a great deal about what set him up for disaster.

Se Hyun Oh’s set hints at both opulence and penury consecutively, and Dianne K. Graebner’s costumes give color to these colorful lives. Still, the net result is a fine writer’s ruin. To see in that antique echoes writ large of modern romantic disasters is a point of the play all its own.

The play includes nudity and sexual situations, and is recommended for children and adults 17 years old and up. Children under 13 will not be admitted.

What: “The Judas Kiss”  When: through March 24, 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance at 8 p.m. Monday, March 18. Where: Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena. How Much: $39 adult, $34 senior, $20 student  Info: http://www.bostoncourtpasadena.org or 626-683-6801

 

Quietly Soulful: “Tuesdays with Morrie” in Sierra Madre

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Jackson Kendall as Mitch Albom and Larry Eisenberg as his former professor Morrie Schwartz in Sierra Madre Playhouse’s “Tuesdays with Morrie” [photo: Gina Long]

In Mitch Albom’s memoir “Tuesdays with Morrie: an old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson,” Albom details his mid-life reconnection with a favorite Brandeis sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz. Albom, by then a respected sports reporter, and Schwartz, retired and diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), begin an every-Tuesday conversation which becomes Albom’s escape from the rigors of an intense and unending job, and for Schwartz a chance to offer elemental lessons to a favorite student.

Dramatized by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher, the play version of “Tuesdays with Morrie” now graces the stage of the Sierra Madre Playhouse. I mean “graces” quite literally. Schwartz’s peaceful openness provides a strong balance to Albom’s focused energy, and in the process offers up the lessons about calm acceptance, the humor in life, and the inevitability of its finalities. All this happens in a gentle series of conversations kept active and engaging by director L. Flint Esquerra’s subtle choreography.

Jackson Kendall plays Mitch Albom, both narrator and and participant in the dialogues which so shaped his world. Kendall balances the intensity of a man dashing from event to event with his character’s inner desire to get back to something more meaningful. Larry Eisenberg, as Morrie Schwartz, a man at home in his own life and, even as it begins to betray him, his own body makes realistic, convincing shifts required of advancing ALS, without being maudlin or losing the sense of the man behind the disease.

Indeed, Eisenberg’s humorous delivery underscores the practical positivity which made the encounters between the two men worth recording. So too the production, which allows for audience empathy without ever reaching a place where tragedy is the preeminent theme.

Set designer Amanda Knehans has provided a polished yet homey space capable of changing with the storyline without need for actual shifts of scenery, allowing the story to flow unimpeded through time. This it does, as “Tuesdays with Morrie” is performed without intermission, a choice which can sometimes feel long but in this instance proves exactly what the arc of these encounters needs.

Though it is true that watching someone convincingly disintegrate under the ravages of ALS may sound excruciating, in this production that proves not to be the case. Rather, one ends up focused on the profound legacy Morrie leaves behind for all of us, and not just Mitch Albom.

“Tuesdays with Morrie” plays in brief overlap with “Stuart Little,” SMP’s annual program for young people.

What: “Tuesdays with Morrie”  When: through March 31, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, except March 17. A special “Pay What You Can” performance will take place at 7 p.m. Monday, March 18  Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre. How Much: $40 general, $36 seniors 65+, $20 students 21 and under.  Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

“Deathtrap” in Whittier: Reliably Convoluted Suspense, Well Done

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Guy C. van Empel and Andrea Stradling as the struggling playwright and his supportive wife in “Deathtrap” at Whittier Community Theatre [photo: Amy Lauren Gettys]

Note: Short run ends March 2

The tricky bit about reviewing a play laden with suspense is how to discuss the show without committing the mortal sin of giving out spoilers. Even with a well-crafted but also well known play like Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap,” there is always a significant population of potential audience who does not yet know the whodunit, or even the why. With one as convoluted as “Deathtrap” is, the chances for over-explaining are even more present.

In discussing the Whittier Community Theatre production this is a particular problem. The play is done very well indeed. The set is suited to not only the stage but the needed elaborations necessary for the scary bits. The cast of confident, well-honed actors never telegraph answers before their time, and create fleshed out characters as much as possible. The intelligent direction does all the things needed for the tension to build appropriately.

WCT, currently in its 97th season, has a real reason to feel proud.

The story centers on playwright Sidney Bruhl, whose most famous, certainly most successful play – a mystery of considerable nuance – is in the rear view mirror of his career. Struggling to find some new thing which will spark the next great hit, he has had to resort to giving playwriting workshops to stay afloat, all the while living on his wife’s rapidly shrinking inheritance.

Now he has received a brand new script from one of the workshop attendees, which has all the elements of the best of his genre of work. Shall he convince the young man to let him fiddle with, and thus co-author it? Shall he steal it as his own? Or, shall he act the benevolent grandparent of the piece, and offer the younger playwright a chance to shine on his own? This is the first of many decisions which will have Bruhl and those around him twisted in knots.

Guy C. van Empel is a convincing Bruhl, fussing over his own career, plotting and planning to reclaim it one way and another. As the younger man, Mason Meskell vibrates with confidence and drive. Andrea Stradling manages the gentle, supportive, ethical wife whose presence can’t help but underscore Bruhl’s current situation. Todd Rew has a lovely time as Bruhl’s rather fussy lawyer, and Phyllis M. Nofts gives a standout performance as an internationally acclaimed psychic visiting a home nearby.

Director Justin Patrick Murphy has really taken apart the nuances of this play and found the essence of each. The surprises really are surprising. The characterizations bounce off of each other with just enough friction to keep one wary. The set, designed by the director, manages to fit the feel of a two-story restored colonial farmhouse onto the Whittier stage with just the right amount of room for each necessary action. The props are an impressive collection of miscellaneous weaponry, adding to the fun.

In short, this production of “Deathtrap” shows polish and the appropriate tension, and is a hoot to see, whether you’ve memorized the ending or have never seen the thing ever before. Well paced, well performed, and edge-of-your-seat fun, it will leave you with that nice balance of fear and laughter (yes, laughter) which proves a satisfying, and not particularly taxing, evening in the theater.

Note: WCT production runs are very short. This coming weekend is the last time to see this show. Take the time. It’s worth it.

What: “Deathtrap”  When: one remaining weekend, 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday. Where: The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier.  How Much: $18 general, $15 seniors (62 and over), juniors (18 and under), and military with ID. Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Powerful “Ragtime” at the Pasadena Playhouse

Photo by Nick Agro / Pasadena Playhouse

The cast of “Ragtime” at the Pasadena Playhouse: a smaller ensemble proves mighty where it counts.

[This show has now been extended through March 9.]

One of the first things that resonates from the new production of the musical “Ragtime” at the Pasadena Playhouse is its timeliness. Nevermind that it is set in roughly 1900, that it is based on a 1975 book by E. L. Doctorow, or that the musical had its American premiere here in Los Angeles in 1997. The topics of the book, and of the musical – the complacency of the rich, the struggles of the immigrant, and an income and justice system rigged against African Americans – are as clearly resonant today as perhaps at any time in-between.

Newly reimagined by director David Lee, the Playhouse production has been paired down to its essentials in ways which may not allow for the roar of a crowd, but create an intimate connection with the central characters that carries the story. Set in New York and peppered with that period’s famous individuals, it boils down to the story of a well-off white family from New Rochelle whose comfortable life is contrasted with, and eventually collides with other elements of the times. These include a desperate immigrant artist and his young daughter whose dreams of American prosperity come up against the harsh realities of the East Side slums, and a Harlem romance that goes sideways in the face of overt racial hatred.

The cast forms a fluid ensemble as characters rise who, one after another, form more than usually powerful connections with the audience. Standouts include Clifton Duncan in the wrenching part of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a man whose dreams dissolve in the brutality of racial divide. Marc Ginsburg manages the hope and the desperation of Tateh, the Eastern European immigrant unprepared for the reality of America.

Bryce Charles as the innocent young woman Walker woos, and Valerie Perri as the revolutionary Emma Goldman also shine, while Shannon Warne, as the white, well cared-for Mother in New Rochelle offers up a subtlety of emotional shift which, though not as dynamic as some of the others, creates a unifying arc.

Lee’s direction is tight, though setting the piece in the modern “warehouse of a national historical museum” (something you only discover if you read the program) is overly subtle. Still, Tom Buderwitz’s design – mostly masses of stacked, rather facile crates – does allow for a flow of empathetic projections by Hana Sooyeon Kim, and a constant tempo unimpeded by needed set changes. The hidden onstage orchestra, directed by Darryl Archibald, balances with the intimacy of the rest of the production while allowing some remarkable voices like Duncan’s to shine.

What sets this “Ragtime” apart from its predecessors is its ability to be large and small at the same time. There are huge themes underscoring the more personal individual tales, and these themes are, sadly, not foreign to anyone in the audience. Still, the connection created by individual characters, and the lack of white noise from a large supporting cast, brings this large world into a more audience-involved arena, where emotional connection can leave a lasting impact. Yes, sometimes small is better. Come see for yourself.

What: “Ragtime”  When: through March 3, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays (no 7 p.m. performance Sunday, 2/24). Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. How Much: tickets start at $25. Info: (626) 356-7529 or PasadenaPlayhouse.org

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