Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

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Funny, Deeply True “With Love and a Major Organ”: the necessary human touch

Daisuke Tsuji & Paige Lindsey White in “With Love and a Major Organ” at Boston Court [Photo: Jenny Graham]


Recently, as part of an assignment at a nearby public high school, students experimented at a local mall to see what people their age would do if a stranger (also their age) came up to try to engage them in conversation. Over and over, the subjects of their experiment would look down at their phones – use their electronic social network to avoid talking to a real person. Interestingly, that was the expected result, according to the teens.

In some ways, this same concept is reflected in “With Love and a Major Organ,” now at The Theatre at Boston Court. Isolation as safety, distance as lifestyle, and electronic communication as the only social contact are the norms as the play opens. Then a woman on a subway makes contact with a man safe in his isolation, and begins sending him long, poetic outpourings of enthusiastic interest, by way of acknowledgedly outmoded cassette tapes. The results are funny, insightful, and end up saying much more about the heart and human interaction than simply being a quirky, poetically symbolic love story.

Paige Lindsey White is the subway rider, giving her a physicality as effusive as her prose, and a depth of enthusiasm which one discovers has been contagious when it suddenly disappears. Daisuke Tsuji is George, the young man whose detached and regimented life White’s character is bent on reforming. Tsuji manages to make the young man distant and passive while still giving him a directness and sense of self. The two play off against each other in ways which make the central themes of the play come alive.

Still, some of the funniest moments come thanks to Bonita Friedericy, as George’s mother Mona. The character, having protected her son from heartbreak as he grew, finds herself reaching out without reaching out: using the computer as a distance-maker for everything from romance to psychology. As she and the other two characters perform an intricate dance of feeling and separation, empathy and distance, enthusiastic embracing of the world and deadened indifference to input, they illustrate – in fascinatingly, symbolically graphic ways the complexity of the human heart.

Director Jessica Kubzansky has a feel for such sweetly intricate plays, never letting the frothy surface obscure the important elements running just underneath. Her utilization of Sydnie Ponic and Hillary Bauman’s scenic structure, simple in style, rich in animations underscoring the many moods of the piece, adds to the otherworldly ordinariness of the enterprise. In the process the humanity of it all takes center stage: the innate need for connection which is how we as a species become whole.

Playwright Julia Lederer’s play, which debuted in Canada in 2012, was prescient when it comes to some of the details of our modern social media-based existence. The stolid character’s mother, having protected her son from heartbreak as he grew, connects to a computerized psychologist through Google, and tries speed dating through fairly anonymous websites. Both are now actually possible in ways they were not when Lederer thought them up.

Plus, the need for connection and the ways technology has created the ability to avoid it are here as well. Those high school students confirmed it, at least for their own generation. What then could be more important than seeing a play like “With Love and a Major Organ,” with its insistence that one’s heart, in real time, is central to everything.

What: “With Love and a Major Organ” When: Through November 5, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (except October 15) and Saturday, October 14 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $39 Info: (626) 683-6801 or http://www.BostonCourt.com

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Pasadena Playhouse and Deaf West Make “Our Town” New Again

Deric Augustine and Sandra Mae Frank in Our Town at Pasadena Playhouse.[Photo: Jenny Graham]


When Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” first appeared in 1938, its production was a radical departure from what theater had been up until that time. This intimate portrait of small town New Hampshire at the start of the 20th Century would prove to modern audiences what theater could do that film (and later television) could not: allow the audience to fill in details of setting, props and other physical elements on their own, without elaborate stage trappings. It would celebrate what Shakespeare knew, that the audience was ready to lean upon their own imaginations.

The Pasadena Playhouse has produced this Pulitzer Prize-winning play twice before in its 100 year history. Now, in association with Deaf West Theatre, it has opened again, and – thanks to this collaboration – their new production underscores the essential tenets of stagecraft which made the original such a satisfying departure. Hearing and hearing-impaired performers speak two languages at once (English and ASL), and their individual characters and performance styles meld into a whole Wilder himself would approve of. Good thing, too, for “Our Town” is completely performance-dependent. There is nothing gaudy or distracting to take attention off the actors themselves.

The story covers a few central characters over the course of life in a small town, focused most strongly on George Gibbs and the girl next door, Emily Webb. We watch them and their families as George and Emily grow from childhood friends, to a couple about to marry, and then to the moment Emily’s death closes the circle. We watch them as the “stage manager” (in this case one hearing person and three deaf persons, essentially intertwined) narrates, explains, draws verbal pictures of the larger goings on, and rounds out the town’s sense of community. All of this on a bare stage with a few ropes, a couple of ladders and a host of chairs. It has always been rather revelatory to watch.

Standouts include Jane Kaczmarek, as the stage manager, joined in some cases by Russell Harvard when he’s not playing Emily’s father, sometimes by Alexandria Wailes, when she is not playing George’s mother, and at other times by Troy Kotsur, when he’s not playing the town’s church organist and resident alcoholic. The virtual dance they do in shifting in and out of Kaczmarek’s sphere proves both humorous and fascinating. Kaczmarek herself provides the calm and patient embodiment of the town as a whole, and stands as interpreter of a script she shepherds along. The success of this combination of forces comes to define what works in this production.

Sandra Mae Frank makes a charmingly innocent Emily, aided by the voice of Sharon Pierre-Louis in a way which meshes the physicalized and vocalized lines into a very effective whole. Deric Augustine gives George the gee-whiz attitude of a small-town baseball player shy with girls and earnest in looking forward. Annika Marks makes Emily’s mother practical and loving. Jud Williford makes George’s father humorous and practical.

A remarkable ensemble of Marie-France Arcilla, Harold Foxx, David Gautreaux, Marco Gutierrez, Leonard Kelly-Young, Dot-Marie Jones, Amanda McDonough, Natasha Ofili, Sharon Pierre-Louis, and On Shiu provide the rest of the town, voices for those characters who only sign, and flesh out even the set on occasion. Of these, the true standouts are Foxx, as a milkman with a very opinionated horse, and Jones as a woman from a troubled marriage who still thrills at going to weddings.

Everyone signs. This is important, though (as has been stated elsewhere) a few hearing cast members are brand new to ASL and it sometimes shows in their slowness of speech. On the other hand, the use of sign is a theatrical virtue in itself, as it provides emphasis, enthusiasm, even a sense of prayer or dance to moments which would otherwise just be words. “Our Town” is of necessity talky, and making the talk visual breathes a newness into it all.

Director Sheryl Kaller has experience with this kind of melding, and has taken the universality she sees in this script a step further, including (obviously) those who are hearing and those who are not, but also amassing a cast rich in ethnic and cultural diversity. Choreographer David Dorfman has facilitated the sense of dance that is sign taken as music, as well as moments of movement necessary to the storyline or to this duality of voice.

In the end, what Wilder had to say with this play comes out just as strongly, if not more so, as it did in the original: things change, but not those things that define us. That, joined with a desire to treasure every moment which will not come again, meshed with the impossibility of that very desire as our day-to-day flows by far too quickly. There is a peace and perspective and timelessness to “Our Town” which is important in this fractious and divisive time. Adding together two important but often separate cultures of America – that of the hearing and the deaf – makes a statement as well about what this town, this stage, this nation really has to offer.

“Our Town” is a love song to that which is best in American culture, which we rarely take time to notice. Go. Stop for a while. Notice what’s up on stage, and celebrate what is so important in the unimportant details of life.

What: “Our Town” When: through October 22, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $92 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Rashad Shines in “Head of Passes” at the Taper

Phylicia Rashad in “Head of Passes” at the Mark Taper Forum

Every once in a while one comes across a performance which may outweigh the play it takes place in. In this case, a good play becomes greater because of one person who takes a playwright’s words and their own and their director’s understandings and makes of them something much more than the sum of those parts. This is Phylicia Rashad in “Head of Passes,” now open at the Mark Taper Forum.

In Tarell Alvin McCraney’s modern spin on trials worthy of Job, a woman’s plans for a quiet conversation with her children about her tenuous future implodes in ways she could never expect, testing her faith in ways that leave her arguing with God in a setting Noah might recognize. If all this sounds terribly religious, that’s not the only way to read the play. Still, the central character’s faith powers her responses, the affect she has had on those around her, and her eventual self-revelations in ways that would not be as palpable otherwise.

Rashad is Shelah, the matriarch of a family which has gathered at her house near the Head of Passes (where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico) to celebrate her birthday, whether she wants a celebration or not. There, on an island in the delta, and with a storm lashing at the house, she had hoped instead to quiety discuss her assets with her children before her obvious illness takes over. Those who populate her world – a neighbor, a doctor, a helper and his son, and her own children – gather, fight, fuss over the house’s increasingly decrepit condition, anything but have that discussion. As the storm worsens, so do the revelations. And that is just the start.

As Shelah, Rashad creates that recognizable form of devout woman, talking to, appealing to, and venting anger at the God she has trusted to uphold her over a long life. When, in the end, she must confront her own failings and what they have wrought, the play becomes both riveting and gut wrenching. It’s a truly tour-de-force performance.

In this she is aided by a solidly ensemble cast. Francois Battiste gives the successful son, Aubrey, the kind of confidence of carriage to match a character quick to judgement, whether it be about his mother’s future or his sister’s past. J. Bernard Calloway, by contrast, plays Spencer, the elder but less successful son as a man who, despite bluster, is used to falling short, despite his physical capabilities.

Jacqueline Williams gives Shelah’s contemporary and neighbor the observer’s voice, trying to assess Shelah’s house of cards even as it falls, while – in a brief but deeply important moment – Alana Arenas, as the daughter, delivers a portait of pain and a reality check on her mother’s dreams whichc fuels all that follows. John Earl Jelks makes Shelah’s helper a man of considerable wit but little tact, while Kyle Beltran offers up youthful anger and observation as his son. James Carpenter rounds out the cast as the doctor, whose casual moments of white privilege bring both laughter and sadness.

Director Tina Landau truly gets these characters, and makes the nearly poetic language of McCraney’s script, and the amazing special effects of G.W. Mercier’s remarkable set, seem like normal life and conversation. The tensions never let up, and the symbolism, including the symbolic physicality of it all, is its own work of art.

Still, in the end, what makes all of this something one simply must see is the performance of Rashad, whose final, extensive monologue will stick with you, regardless of what or if you believe in regards to a higher power. There is much to chew over, followed by a step back to look at all the richness of idea and symbol the play has surrounded that powerful moment with.

What: “Head of Passes” When: through October 22, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“The Madwoman of Chaillot” at ANW: Resistance Redux

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Deborah Strang is “The Madwoman of Chaillot” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

 

Jean Giraudoux’s classic play “The Madwoman of Chaillot” is one of those plays everyone should see at some point in life. Though written in 1943, during the Nazi occupation of France, and only performed after the playwright’s death, it is often associated with a celebration of the end of tyranny. The play was actually written in 1943, during that occupation, and the overtones of absurdism it contains allow for it to say much more than just the idea of France triumphant. The production now open at A Noise Within allows for these larger interpretations.

The rather fantastical tale follows the workings of Countess Aurelia, whose eccentricities all center around her sense of community in the section of Paris known as Chaillot. In the inn she frequents, she overhears financiers and prospectors plotting to tear up the Chaillot in a quest for oil, and begins to develop ways to both remove them and others who would, for profit, be so disrespectful to the good of their own community. Helped by an odd assortment of friends, including those busily arguing long-dead causes of one kind and another, she finds help and hope from a younger generation who begin to share in her dreams.

Deborah Strang floats through the play as the Countess, as a spirit lightly out of touch with the now but deeply concerned with what lasts in the world. That sense of wishful fantasy embraced in tones of solid reason allows the play expand to as it does. Rafael Goldstein, as the tormented young man she scoops into her sphere, gently becomes the play’s sense of hope, aided by Leslie Lank’s charmingly unaware waitress.

As the villains of the piece, Apollo Dukakis, Wesley Mann and Armin Shimerman, as the Baron, President, and Prospector respectively, radiate the self-regard and profit-mongering that embodies everything a lover of beauty like the Countess would abhor. Other standouts include Veralyn Jones in the dual roles of a compassionate man of science (a doctor) and one of the Countess’ cohort of imaginative “madwomen”, Jay Lee as the observant deaf mute, and Richy Storrs as the street singer whose attempts to make music in the midst of upheaval prove particularly charming.

Director Stephanie Shroyer keeps the characters engaging and the pace – easily dragged down by long speeches – moving in such a way as to keep the audience engaged. The open set by Angela Balogh Calin provides many spaces in one, which also helps, and the occasional snips of classical music in Jeff Gardner’s sound design become fascinating in their own right – especially the use of pieces written by Soviet composers to underscore the presence of various nefarious persons marching toward their collective doom. Interesting subtext comes with that, since one rarely associates Soviet principles with corporate avarice.

As I said at the start, “The Madwoman of Chaillot” has become one of those plays everyone who aspires to being literate should see at some point, and this is a sound production at which to do so. What proves particularly fascinating, however, is how well the play in all its fantasy speaks to a modern age. The evil to be defeated is corporate greed. The way that greed manifests is in the destruction of an environment for fossil fuel. Interesting how little that particular story has changed in the intervening years.

What: “The Madwoman of Chaillot” When: Through November 11, 7:00 p.m. October 1 and November 5, 7:30 p.m. October 26, 8 p.m. October 20, 21, 27 and November 11, with 2 p.m. matinees October 1 and 21, and November 5 and 11 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or anoisewithin.org

Still Fun to Listen to Sister: “Late Night Catechism 3” at Sierra Madre

Aubrey Manning as Sister, in SMP’s “Late Night Catechism: Till Death Do Us Part” [photo courtesy of Sierra Madre Playhouse]

Note: As this review is uploaded there are only two more performances available at this site.

Anyone who has ever been to one of the Late Night Catechism franchise of productions is in for a treat. Started by Maryipat Donovan, who still occasionally appears in one of its various manifestations, the shows are ostensibly one in a series of night catechism classes for adults led by a practical, habited nun. She invariably draws upon audience members’ memories of Catholic upbringings, welcomes those not of that faith into the fold with humor and a few oddities (see what happens if an audience member claims to be a Presbyterian), and gently ribs the rudiments of the religion being represented.

The prizes are prayer cards, the assumptions are intentionally silly, and the result proves very funny for Catholics, non-Catholics, even non-religious folk alike.

Now, at Sierra Madre Playhouse, one of the tribe of “Sisters”, Aubrey Manning, delivers Late Night Catechism’s session on marriage and death, “Till Death Do Us Part”. The audience interplay is as charmingly sincere as always. The prayer cards, which always come with intricate, and sometimes silly explanations, delight. The audience, having been instantly put at ease, chimes in when bid, like any good class would. It is a gentle but unmistakable hit.

As someone who has, up until now, only seen Donovan herself appear as Sister, it was delightful to see the somewhat different but equally effective, and intentionally “off the cuff” work of Manning. That balance of command and conviction, of sincerity and the occasional wink, and the ability to make an entire room of reasoning adults behave as if back in school proves right on target, and makes the humor flow from start to finish.

The story, such as it is, revolves around explaining the Catholic beliefs regarding the sacraments of marriage and what is most commonly known as “extreme unction,” or the rights given to the dying. Tying the two together is funnier than one would think, and the focus on the former – including a quiz which brings long-term couples down front to compete in what can only be called the opposite of the Newlywed Game – proves particularly effective.

Indeed, more than most theatrical offerings, the Late Night Catechism is deeply audience-based. There are warm fuzzies to be had, revelations to be made, lessons to be learned, and a good deal of innocent laughter. Is it deep? It depends on how you look at it. Unlike shows such as “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” which finds its dark comedy in bitter condemnations of Catholic doctrine, or “Doubt,” which deals quite seriously with the internal struggles between obedience and potential depravity in the institutional halls of the faith, “Late Night Catechism” celebrates the humor to be found in the earnest teachings of the roots of the thing. All serious institutions should occasionally hold such a mirror up to themselves, even if just for the fun of it.

So, if you need a warm laugh, go take a look at SMP’s offering. Manning is an old hand at this, the fun is nonthreatening, and the charm will lighten a tough era in all our lives.

What: “Till Death Do Us Part – Late Night Catechism 3” When: Through October 1, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $32 general, $28 seniors, $23 youth 21 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or sierramadreplayhouse.org

“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

“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

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