Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Category Archives: Review

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

Advertisements

“The Empty Nesters” at the Zephyr: Domestic Drama Lacks Oomph

In this era of the rise of the helicopter parent, it is genuinely fascinating to begin thinking about what these folks will do when their hovering is no longer needed and their kid goes confidently (one hopes) off to college or a career in another part of the country. Indeed, this is the major enticement in going to see “The Empty Nesters,” by Garret Jon Groenveld, at the Zephyr Theatre on Melrose: a chance to see how someone plays with the concept.

The problem is, the play itself proves repetitive, and the direction often proves static.  The two performers – a long-married couple coming back to the stage after years doing other things in the entertainment industry – exhibit such a lack of genuine chemistry onstage that the necessary sympathy for their situation doesn’t gel. The set is clever, but has its own issues. In short though there is a lot of potential in this thing, it simply isn’t realized.

We meet Greg and Frances as they stand in line for the the Sky Bridge at the Grand Canyon, on a planned vacation intended to get their minds off of the fact they just dropped their last child off at college. He is grumpy and unreasonable. She is obsessed with the fact their daughter has not called to check in. When she suddenly questions their future together – in line at this tourist attraction – a conversation begins which moves from the bridge to a cafe to their hotel. We follow.

The script is not funny, even in places it should be, but it is not tragic. It has these people saying the same things to each other – the same lines even – in several settings, sometimes with an added insight, but often not. There is a limited physicality in the meandering script, and director Richard Syed has opted for set change rather than much in the way of action to add to the piece. So they stand and talk, then sit and talk, then sit and stand and talk about what they have already talked about, with a few enhancements.

John (JW) Walker and Pamela Gaye Walker are the couple. They play the two as very realistic, with the pauses and tonalities of an ordinary conversation, which makes it surprisingly uninteresting. Neither gets wildly emotional. Neither becomes overly self-revelatory even in movement or delivery. Naturalism can be great, but in this production it just makes things rather ploddy.

The design of the production, by William Cone, uses impressive projections to create detail in the changing settings, while a beautifully orchestrated movement of furniture happens onstage. Still, lighting designer Donny Jackson and animator of those projections Andrew Jimenez should have checked to be sure that their projector was high enough in the ceiling (or behind a scrim looking toward the audience) so that the projections would not occasionally hit the upper part of John Walker’s head. It is not convincing to listen to a man talking sincerely about his life while part of the hotel room wall is shining just above his ear.

In short, “The Empty Nesters” is well-meaning, but it just doesn’t ever really engage. Sad to say, even at 75 uninterrupted minutes, it is really too long for the material – for what there is in it to say.

What: “The Empty Nesters”  When: through February 17, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Where: The Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles  How Much: $35 general, $45 reserved  Info: 866-811-4111 or http://www.EmptyNestersPlay.com

Controversial, Fascinating “Nude/Naked” Examines Art vs Societal Norms

With its provocative title, “Nude/Naked,” Lightning Rod Theater’s premiere production at the McCadden Place Theatre in Hollywood, may at first seem to be something prurient. What fascinates more than anything else is how much it is not, at least not if you’re really listening. Playwright Paul Hogan Zeidler’s examination of the once subculture world of the artist in an era of nonstop media and social commentary strikes both at cultural norms and at the particular ethos which centers the truly artistic mind. At both, this world premiere play manages to be engrossing from start to finish.

Bennett Duquesne has had an admittedly controversial career, as the once journalistic photographer shifted into art photos featuring his daughter from early puberty on in pictures made arguably more timeless by her nudity and more art because of his use of light and symbolism. His work has graced the halls of major galleries and the pages of coffee table books, and his model, now in her 20s, has become an increasingly integral part of his artistic process even when not in front of the camera.

Now, a series of events while he was away has led to the death of a rather mediocre student of his, shot in his own living room. As he and his daughter try to keep their world private, both the spread of online media and the consolidation of traditional informational outlets leave them under a judgmental and unsophisticated microscope. There they find themselves invaded, analyzed, and critiqued by people who don’t know them, or their sense of what makes their work artful.

Bjorn Johnson plays Duquesne as a man grasping to hold onto the safe space he has created for himself in great measure by constant and almost myopic focus on the art he creates. It’s a particular logic that emphasizes a good picture over any other implications, and he makes it seem both appropriate (at least for a while) and, in the end, protective. Sorel Carradine matches him in tone as Duquesne’s daughter Abby. For her the art has allowed freedom and a way to process the difficult moments of her life, or abstract it into something outside herself. They make a solid team, which allows the drama around the characters to come up against a wall of safety most evident as it cracks and reforms.

Jonathan E. Grey’s practical lawyer and friend balances out the insularity of the Duquesne duo, Lucas Alfano gives Abby’s wealthy and mercurial boyfriend an edgy, dangerous quality which underscores her deceptively calm home life. Stephen Tyler Howell creates in the shooting victim the kind of superficial self-centeredness which makes him almost completely unsympathetic, particularly as the denouement unfolds. Asia Lynn Pitts, as a writer from an arts magazine recently bought by Rupert Murdoch, offers the populist approach to artists and art which strays so far from the artistic community Duquesne identifies with.

One is often concerned when a playwright directs his own work, but here that creates a seamless sense of intent. Zeilder knows what the play is saying, and needs to say, and has the right cast there to make it come alive in just the way he intends. Pete Hickock’s set and Matt Richter’s lighting – almost a character itself sometimes – and sound design bring a sense of the immediacy and reality to the piece, and Will McMichael’s fight choreography allows a particular menace which proves the perfect explosion of the Duquesne home’s outward calm.

In short, “Nude/Naked” becomes a critique of the possibilities of art in a world of superficial judgmentalism at the same time it explores the underlying reasons for artistic choice and the demons which are sometimes exorcised thereby. It makes for a riveting evening of theater. Come early, as the biggest issue at this venue is finding street parking.

What: “Nude/Naked”  When: through February 17, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays  Where: McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place in Hollywood  How Much: $25. Info: 310-204-4883 or http://www.sewersocialistprods@gmaio.com

 

 

No Kidding: Candlelight’s “Titanic” Better than B’way Version

cwubz9ii

Passengers and crew of “Titanic” assemble to board for the ill-fated journey in the Tony-winning musical now at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater

Going to see “Titanic” at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont was something I approached with trepidation. Thought the music was written by Maury Yeston, whose work I have always liked, and the book by Peter Stone, and its storyline was based completely on actual people, which I approve of, I was haunted a bit by the first version I saw. I need not to have worried.

The first time I saw the Tony-winning musical it was somewhat anticlimactic. For one thing, the epic movie of the same name had been recently released, but for another the national tour of the original Broadway production itself, which was born at the Ahmanson production I saw, seemed a weird combination of occasionally brilliant theatricality and staging moments which were either overblown or simply ridiculous. Indeed, it was hard to connect with the musical itself because the visuals were so uneven.

Turns out (and the irony is not lost on me) that in the case of a musical about what was then the largest vehicle in the world, smaller is better. Crammed onto the comparatively little Candlelight stage, all the overblown theatricality gives way to story, and the characters shine over the comparatively subtle optics. Add the impressive quality of the performers in this new production, who sing so well that no huge chorus is needed to back them up, and the intimacy, musicality, and pathos shine far more brightly than anything I could have anticipated.

This is, in large part thanks to director/set designer Chuck Ketter’s vision.

The story is not new to much of anyone, but author Stone has concentrated on just a few people, often the less well-known among those who boarded the maiden voyage of this supposedly unsinkable ship. Yes, designer Thomas Andrews is there, along with the pompous and demanding ship-owner Bruce Ismay and the about-to-retire Captain E.J. Smith, but the rest are a combination of first, second, and third-class passengers and crew, most of them comparatively new to the general public. The songs tie in closely with the storyline rather than being stand-alone, and the small live orchestra gives a chance for emotional nuance which the theater’s usual pre-recorded instrumentals would not.

Ketter’s set design allows for quick changes of place which keep the pace electric as relationships define, personalities emerge, and the ship steams on toward its disastrous destiny. The entire production is tight, intense, and riveting in a way that old original simply wasn’t.

The talented company of 20, who cover a musical originally written for more than 40, are a true ensemble, rising out of the crowd to create well-fleshed-out characters and then moving back again with a seamless flow. Standouts in a company full of them include Gavin Juckette as the ship’s overwhelmed radio man, Catie Marron as a 3rd class passenger dreaming of new beginnings and new love, and Sarah Meals as the ambitious 2nd class passenger constantly stealing into 1st class.

As well as these, kudos go to Gregg Hammer as one of the ship’s stokers. Jamie Snyder and Samantha Wynn Greenstone as Isidor and Ida Straus, owners of Macy’s whose characters come into their own in the show’s second half, as Ida famously refuses a lifeboat if it means leaving her husband. Marc Montminy makes a wistful Captain Smith, and Greg Nicholas a despicably self-centered Ismay.

Musical director Andrew Orbison helps with the ensemble spirit as he guides performers and orchestra alike through the lush score. Dylan Pass handles the incidental choreography, and (and this is often a sticking point for me) Michon Gruber-Gonzales has done wonders with the wigs which firmly set this piece in time and place.

In short, this “Titanic” is definitely worth a look. At Candlelight it comes with a meal which tends away from standard “rubber chicken” in the dinner theaters of old, and the desserts are definitely worth the wait until intermission. Still, it isn’t the food which made this a fine production to see. They kept the best and redid the rest. It’s what a revival should do.

What: Titanic, the Musical. When: through February 23, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. There will be one special Thursday evening performance with doors open at 6 p.m. on February 21. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont. How Much: $63 – $78 general, $30 – $35 children under 12, inclusive of meal  Info: 909-626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Come and See “Come From Away”!

05_9195_The_First_North_American_Tour_Company_of_COME_FROM_AWAY_Photo_by_Matthew_Murphy_2018

The celebrating ensemble of “Come From Away”, the joyous musical about airline passengers stranded in Newfoundland, now at the Ahmanson Theatre

No argument. Anyone who was alive and over 5 or 6 on September 11, 2001 remembers with aching accuracy all that they did, heard, and reacted to that day. With the passage of more than a decade, those memories have been refined down to the the most aching bits, the saddest moments. Since then national rancor and suspicion have grown, and grown more overt, in America.

As such, sometimes it is difficult to step back and look at that entire event from an angle other than the legitimately wrenching. But there are subtly positive stories from those days which can prove a connection with our shared humanity in ways which we could all use a chance to get back in touch with. One such story – and it is quite true – is celebrated in Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s “Come From Away,” the delightfully well crafted Broadway musical just opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.

As that terrible day unfolded, and the entire air space above the United States was ordered closed to all but military traffic, international flights already in the air coming from Europe and beyond, needed to be diverted to a place outside the US as soon as possible. For dozens of aircraft, that meant Gander, Newfoundland, off the Canadian coast.

Within hours there were roughly as many people sitting on planes parked on the aging airport tarmac as there were living in the island province to begin with. How the locals dealt with this diverse, frustrated, and frightened host of people who had “come from away” makes for one celebratory, reflective musical.

Sankoff and Hein’s book for this piece is extraordinary in its ability – in 90 minutes without an intermission – to develop a host of 30+ rounded characters that the 12-member ensemble sweeps into active life. Switching seamlessly from islanders to visitors and back again, dancing and singing with extraordinary precision and art, this is by far one of the best uses of theater’s special ability to suspend an audience’s disbelief since “Man of La Mancha”.

All this with an onstage band playing a score reminiscent modern Irish music, and a sense of urgency and heart which keeps one thoroughly engaged throughout.

The ensemble of Kevin Carolan, Harter Clingman, Nick Duckart, Chamblee Ferguson, Becky Gulsvig, Julie Johnson, Christine Toy Johnson, James Earl Jones II, Megan McGinnis, Andrew Samonsky, Danielle K. Thomas and Emily Walton all sing with strength and character, and create memorable moments along the way. Perhaps the strongest, at least for me, was Gulsvig’s “Me and the Sky”, where the first female captain of an American Airlines plane not only sings the love of flying which drove her to fight for such a position, but the specific horror of seeing the thing she loves most in the world used as a bomb.

Director Christopher Ashley has used the minimalism of Beowulf Boritt’s set design to create planes, busses, seaward cliffs, bars, and high school gyms out of chairs and belief. The rhythmic, emphatic musical staging by Kelly Devine ripples with energy. Toni-Leslie James’ costume designs allow for simple but evocative character changes in the twinkling of an eye. It is all tight, compelling and completely engrossing.

What’s more, it is hopeful. In a time when horror had struck, for those who were stranded there, the people of Gander and the surrounding area were the antidote to the events overwhelming the world. “Come From Away” is funny, charming, heart-warming without becoming overly sentimental, and compelling from first to last. This is not to say that the tragedy of that time isn’t present. It was, and it is, but the balance of care and conviction counters that with a richness of spirit.

Go see “Come From Away.” In this fraught time of our current history we need to be reminded that goodness is present in the world. Not perfection, but goodness. When you realize that most of the script comes from actually sitting and listening to the islanders telling their stories of those five days, it gives you faith in the potential of the human spirit.

What: “Come From Away”  When: through January 6, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, added 2 p.m. performance Thursday, December 7, 7 p.m. performance Monday, December 31. No performance December 5, and no 8 p.m. performance December 25 or 31  Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles  How Much: $30 – $135  Info: (213) 792-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

A Hymn to the Reagans: Bad Direction, Propaganda, and Schmaltz

0D1A0106

Brent Schindele and Kelley Dorney as Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis (Reagan), at the Reagan Ranch in “In A Booth At Chasen’s” at the El Portal Theatre

One does not have to have been a fan to realize that Ronald and Nancy Reagan were fascinating individuals. Their long and dynamic marriage, their shift from the world of Hollywood to the world of state and national politics, all of this had to begin somewhere. Enter a new one-act musical, “In A Booth At Chasens’s” now at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.

It’s an interesting idea. If only it lived up to the promise. Though producer John C. Herklotz goes on record from the start about how inspirational the Reagans were, it takes more artistry to turn that enthusiasm into live theater.  If only this show met that challenge.

Ostensibly this is about Ron and Nancy’s first, blind date. What it actually is is a series of brief vignettes of stages in their romance, each one with at least one song and none so long as to allow for actual character development.

The entire enterprise is less a musical in the classic sense – telling an actual story – than a framework for this series of Al Kasha and Phil Swann’s songs, which take precedence over the few lines of Sam Bennett’s abbreviated script. In between these moments of potential plot two uncredited gents schlep furniture, bicycles and standing mirrors on and off the stage while the two cast members change clothes.

Kelley Dorney is Nancy Davis. Though she sings about being shy, this is not particularly in evidence in Dorney’s performance. Still, she has a lovely voice and gives a natural quality to the character she doesn’t get much of a chance to flesh out.

Brent Schindele is Ronald Reagan, and seems to struggle between being a fairly human, frustrated actor on the professional skids (which is mentioned in just about every scene) and being an icon. Particularly when called upon to define the Reagan world view, the icon takes over and he becomes a statue – he stops moving in order to make sure the message is delivered in icon fashion. When this bleeds over into the times he is just a guy, the whole show stalls.

However, this isn’t entirely Schindele’s fault. Director Kay Cole has simply given these characters too little to do. The fellows bringing furniture on and off do not – except in the scenes inside Chasen’s itself – supply them with much in the way of props to work with, and Cole hasn’t worked with them on motivation to do more than sing most of the time.

Even in Chasen’s, Cole doesn’t connect their physical behavior to the songs they are singing. Take as example the moment Reagan, standing by the title booth, sings that he needs to run after Nancy and keep her from walking out on him (she having just left), all the while standing stock still, and then stays in that same spot to sing another verse.

Which is all to say that this enterprise has labored mightily to bring forth a mouse. Andy Walmsley’s minimalist set pieces are backed by projection screens on which Daniel Brodie has designed an ongoing salute to late 1940s Los Angeles, using archival footage of Hollywood Boulevard, Wilshire and more. The band lead by Jonathan Tessero is solid, and gives drama to the pieces. Still, it just doesn’t work.

What: “In A Booth At Chasen’s”  When: through November 25, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday November 15, 8 p.m. Friday November 16 and 23, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday November 17 and 24, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. November 18, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Wednesday November 21, 3 p.m. Sunday, November 25.  Where: El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. How Much: $25 – $65 plus premium. Info: (818) 508-4200 or http://www.InABoothAtChasens.com

“Valley of the Heart” at the Taper: Solid Script (Mostly) But Uneven Performance

15_VH019

The two families whose interdependence becomes essential in Luis Valdez’s “Valley of the Heart,” now at the Mark Taper Forum

As someone who has taught history for a few decades, there is no doubt that the ugliness of the Japanese Internment is one of the several inexcusable black marks on our American story. At a time when the fate of immigrants and refugees has been put into question by some elements of government yet again, it is good to go back and look at the ugliness of the past, if only to warn and mobilize those in the present.

From a theatrical standpoint, what matters is how this is addressed. Should it be a history lesson, a polemic, or a smaller, human story which underscores the wrenching effects of a historic wrong? In Luis Valdez’s “Valley of the Heart,” now at the Mark Taper Forum, this last proves far more powerful than some of the other recent attempts to refocus our collective memory on the concentration camps on US soil where people were held for the simple sin of being of Japanese descent.

The script is strong, most of the time – more consistently engaging and personal than many of Valdez’s works. The production is as well. A couple of performances, and an awkward tacked-on ending mar this piece, and they do so in ways which pull one out of the story and jeopardize the very empathy the play otherwise engenders.

The play is the story of Japanese farm family in what is now the Silicone Valley just as World War II begins, and the Mexican family living on their property, helping them work the land. Both fathers are immigrants, struggling to balance their old traditions with the changing world their children inhabit. They are proud, if reluctantly interdependent men fashioning an American life.

When Benjamin Montaño falls for Thelma Yamaguchi, it flies in the face of all those family expectations. Thelma is in line for an arranged marriage with her brother’s roommate at Cal, and between cultural disconnects and lack of independent income, Benjamin has little chance. Then Pearl Harbor changes everything.

With the Yamaguchi’s farm in jeopardy, and arrests and internments looming, the young couple elopes, but then must cope with Benjamin’s agreement to keep the farm going while his wife is shipped off with her family to a desolate area of Wyoming. How the two families experience war, changing status, and the sheer unreasonableness of their lives’ shifts makes history come alive.

As Benjamin, Lakin Valdez shows passion, character, and pain as he grows into responsibilities beyond what he expected. Melanie Arii Mah gives Thelma the awkward stance of someone rooted both in American culture and the traditions and rigid roles of her parents’ world.

Likewise, the two mothers – Joy Osmanski as Thelma’s, and Rose Portillo as Benjamin’s – have an authenticity in their portraits of women deeply concerned for their families and wrenched by the choices made. Also worthy of note are Justin Chen as the Yamaguchi’s college student son, Moises Castro as the teenaged younger son of the Montaños, and Scott Keiji Takeda as the privileged city boy arranged to marry Thelma.

Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between these other naturalistic and connected performances and that of Christy Sandoval, as Benjamin’s younger sister, and Randall Nakano as Thelma’s father. Both seem more rooted in the implied tradition of Kabuki, speaking their lines with an artificial, bombastic quality which simply doesn’t fit the rest of the production, at least until Nakano’s has a health issue which must be treated more naturally. Granted, there are other hints of Kabuki, including Mariela Arteaga and Michael Naydoe Pinedo’s work as Kurogo – the anonymous persons in black who handle prop and set changes and (at least in this case) provide the occasional necessary extra character in the story. Still, Sandoval and Nakano interrupt the rhythm and reality of the play.

One is surprised at this, given that the playwright is also the director. His long history with El Teatro Campesino (an associated producer of this piece) means he is no neophyte at directing, and this is his play to interpret and work into a cohesive whole. What works so well most of the time trips up on these two performances.

Still, there is much to recommend here. The use of shðji screens and projected environments by scenic designer John Iacovelli, especially when combined with the representational actions of the Kurogo, make for powerful visuals and set the tone for the struggles within. Lupe Valdez’s costumes set the period and economic structures with subtle ease.

And, of course, there is the terrifically important tale of two immigrant cultures in California, and their joint response to the terrible inequalities of their time. As such it proves particularly powerful, and rather hopeful.

What: “Valley of the Heart” When: through December 9, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance 8 p.m. Monday, November 19 (and no performance on Thanksgiving). Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $99. Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org Read more of this post

Weirdly Fascinating: “Prelude to a Kiss” at Whittier Community Theatre

IMG_5598

Jessica Taylor Gable and Jason Cook as the soon-to-be-starcrossed lovers of “Prelude to a Kiss” at Whittier Community Theatre [photo: Amy Lauren Gettys]

In a time when so many of the old community theatre companies have disappeared, Whittier’s is remarkable, having opened the second of four shows constituting its 97th straight season. The new production, Craig Lucas’ “Prelude to a Kiss,” is hardly your typical community theater show, but then Whittier has been doing a lot of bending that image lately.

The tale follows the whirlwind romance of Peter and the often pessimistic Rita up to a wedding which, thanks to the appearance of an unknown elderly man, sets their story on an odd trajectory. Is Rita still Rita, or has there been some kind of exchange between Rita and the unknown man? If so, now what?

Jason Cook is  Peter, the boy in this boy-meets-girl fairy story. As such he becomes both protagonist and narrator, and is largely responsible for not only the tone but the tempo of the piece. It takes him a bit of time to warm to this, but once in full swing, he proves as nonplussed and yet desperately hopeful as one could wish. As Rita, Jessica Taylor Gable makes a good foil for Peter’s casual optimism, and switches gears well as the tale becomes more convoluted. In the second half, as more is revealed and things get weirder, both hit their stride in ways which propel the story and capture the audience’s focus.

Also worthy of note are Jose Barajas as Peter’s longtime and rather bland friend, and Nancy Tyler, particularly when playing the elderly man’s concerned daughter. Loriston Scott has some solid moments as a bartender, and Kathryn Hunter and Gary Page make real characters out of Rita’s quirky parents.

Still, it is as that elderly man that Lewis Crouse often nearly steals the show. He manages to balance the weird internal struggles of this dual person, while connecting with the two principals in very interesting ways.

Director Roxie Lee has a sense of what can make this production work and has created real connection between the characters. It all works, with one major exception. In also designing what set there is – mostly furniture which can be moved quickly on and offstage, she has neglected the fact that the stage of The Center Theatre, where they perform, is really quite large. The space defeats the innate intimacy of this piece. Narrowing the entire area would do the show great service, and perk up the first half which is broken too much by the episodic pauses for furniture shuffling.

Still, especially in the second half, “Prelude to a Kiss” proves amusing with an undercurrent of great heart. One word of warning, though. Unlike most community theater fare it has references to sexual fantasies and intimacy which may make it unsuitable for younger children, and those who would be offended by such elements.

Still, it’s worth taking a look, and celebrating a theater which may easily be the longest-running company in Southern California.

What: “Prelude to a Kiss”  When: through November 17, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a Sunday matinee 2:30 November 11  Where: The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier  How Much: $18 adults, $15 seniors (62+), juniors (18 and under), students and military with ID  Info: (562) 696-0600 or whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Powerful “Dear Evan Hanson”: Ethics and Angst in the Digital Age

3-BENL_1

L-R: Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen,’ Aaron Lazar as ‘Larry Murphy,’ Christiane Noll as ‘Cynthia Murphy’ and Maggie McKenna as ‘Zoe Murphy’ in the First North American Tour of “Dear Evan Hansen,” now at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles

When news hit that the Tony-winning “Dear Evan Hansen” was headed for L.A. on its first national tour, a dash for tickets seeming mildly reminiscent of the “Hamilton” frenzy began. Such enthusiasm can spark a certain amount of skepticism from someone like me, who has seen a goodly share of musicals come and go. Even a Tony only means it was the best that year on Broadway, not necessarily that it will stand the test of time.

I needn’t have worried. This is a musical for the next generation: youthful isolation, the economic divide, the power of social media to empower or increase that isolation or make a lie seem true, all of these have a place in “Dear Evan Hansen.” What proves remarkable is how well this material is woven together into a touching, warm and real piece of musical expression. Yes, it is deeply emotional, and yes, that is just fine.

Evan Hansen is a self-conscious, awkward, and lonely teenager walking into his senior year of high school. When – under pressure from his worried single mom, and his therapist – he writes a supposedly encouraging letter (though it turns out not to be) to himself and prints it out in the school computer lab, an angry, tormented bully swipes it. When that bully then kills himself with the letter in his pocket, it is taken as a suicide note addressed to Evan, and a fiction begins that gradually changes Evan’s life.

Much of what makes this work is Ben Levi Ross’s Evan. With a strong, yet youthful voice and a remarkable sense of the physical awkwardness which defines Evan’s world, he manages to become complex and vulnerable and mature as the show goes along. Marrick Smith, as Connor, the bully, is able to shift from tormented and angry young man to Evan’s interior alter-ego, again in subtle changes of vocal tone and physical carriage.

Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll, as Connor’s heartbroken and vulnerable parents, and Jessica Phillips, as Evan’s sometimes desperate, loving mother, offer the balance of adult perspectives in this tale. Jared Goldsmith as the tech geek and Phoebe Koyabe as the pushy planner provide the outsiders who fall into or help expand Evan’s increasing online life, giving focus to the immediacy of the teenage experience. As Connor’s conflicted sister and the object of Evan’s yearning, Maggie McKenna provides the general skepticism which grounds the story.

Yet all these serve the larger production, as Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songs drive the piece and wrench the heart, telling Steven Levenson’s story. Director Michael Grief has molded a technological staging to match the ever-present media which powers Evan’s rise and fall, and illustrate the runaway quality of anything posted on the ‘net. David Korins, as set designer, and Japhy Weideman’s projections bring that online world into the physical reality of the stage in fascinatingly immersive ways.

Austin Cook, as music director, directs an onstage band of power and presence. The songs themselves, especially those which essentially end each act – the powerful “You Will Be Found” which leaves few dry eyes in the the audience, and the gently loving reassurance of family in “So Big/So Small” tie together a piece rooted in emotional connection, and in the ways in which those connections fail and can be mended.

“Dear Evan Hansen” will move you. That is a given. It is for and about a generation musicals rarely work to reach. If you know young people who were thrilled by “Hamilton,” let them see this and recognize, if not themselves then people they have known along the way. It is that kind of show, and its not-completely-happy ending still resonates hope, growth and wisdom.

Note that Stephen Christopher Anthony plays Evan on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday matinees, and Sunday evening performances.

What: “Dear Evan Hansen”  When: through November 25, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m and 8 p.m., 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance 2 p.m. Wednesday, November 21 to compensate for no evening performance on November 22 (Thanksgiving Day) Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles’ Music Center  How Much: $99 – $285  Info: 213-972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

 

 

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”at ANW: Anything But Dead

R&G Craig Schwartz 06

Kasey Mahaffy and Rafael Goldstein are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, oblivious to the drama of Paul David Story’s Hamlet and Katie Rodriguez’s Ophelia in the background. [photo: Craig Schwartz]

There is a certain fascination in the fact that two theaters in Pasadena are featuring plays based on looking sideways at a Shakespearean works. At Boston Court, a new play looks at “The Merchant of Venice” from the Jewish perspective. At A Noise Within it’s the now-classic “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” in which two seemingly superfluous characters in “Hamlet” become the center of a debate about existence.

The latter, the seminal work of Tom Stoppard, demands a specific rhythm from its cast, as 20th century nihilism swirls around Elizabethan storytelling, and wry humor coats the original tragedy. This odd juxtaposition is the heart of why the play works so well, if it is done right. At A Noise Within, it is done right.

Kasey Mahaffy and Rafael Goldstein are the title characters, summoned for reasons they don’t understand to a castle full of tragic drama they are not connected to. As such, they concentrate on the vagaries of fate, the potential purposelessness of their own existences, and the simple question of what they can possibly be supposed to do regarding the unintelligible theatrics floating around them. The two create the sense of bond which makes the entire play work, and create characters of memorable quirkiness.

As the head of the troop of players who will be elemental to Hamlet’s confrontation of his uncle, though they don’t know it, Wesley Mann gives just the right tone of insular irony to the part. In this he is backed by as peculiar a crowd of performers – from the wistfully abused Alfred (Sam Christian), joined by Mark Jennings, Jonathan Fisher, Philip Rodriguez, Oscar Emmanuel Fabela – as an ANW audience could expect.

Paul David Story, as Hamlet, Jonathan Bray as his uncle Claudius, and Abby Craden as his mother Gertrude make the sudden injections of Shakespearean characters and speech seem natural segues from the contemporary discussions of the title pair. Indeed, the entire crew of Shakespeareans, by their seeming ease with the plot going on offstage, set the tone for the disconnect between that and these two hapless, somewhat dimly philosophical figures whose doom is ordained by elements outside their understanding.

Director Geoff Elliott does some of his finest work piecing this thing together into an entertaining, wistful, cohesive whole. A lot of this is pacing, and a lot of it is creating space and action for the many long and elaborate discussions between two clueless men. Costumer Jenny Foldenauer manages the historic and the fanciful equally well, while Frederica Nascimento’s set, with its seeming scrim between “Hamlet” and this play, helps signal the intersections between the two.

This “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is funny, intellectually satisfying, cleverly staged, and one of those moments when ANW tropes actually propel the sense of the thing forward. It is most certainly worth a look, especially for anyone who is a Shakespeare nut, like me.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” plays in repertory with “A Picture of Dorian Gray.”

What: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”  When: through November 18; 2 p.m. October 21 and 27, November 4, 10, 17 and 18; 7 p.m. November 4 and 18; 7:30 p.m. October 25; 8 p.m. October 26, and 27, November 9, 10, and 17  How Much: from $25 general, $20 Student Rush with ID an hour before the performance

%d bloggers like this: