Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Category Archives: Review

A Noise Within’s “Henry V” – Powerful Portrait, Well Played, But…

Rafael Goldstein (center) is Henry V, mounting the set at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Of all the history plays of Shakespeare, the one which has always fascinated me most is “Henry V”. From its prologue, which defines the very essence of live theater and the suspension of disbelief, through the humanity of its central figure wrestling with the understood demands of the crown and the lasting echoes of a misspent youth, it has an articulation of language and emotion which have always caught my imagination.

Now a new, pared down version of this great play is opening the spring repertory season at A Noise Within in Pasadena. Gifted with strong and versatile actors and a direction which keeps the play from becoming too static, it seethes with the balance of forces which can make a rational man move into war, and a different, more immature one look upon it as a playful adventure. The great speeches are there, and the essential elements, but the particular editing of the script (though some version is almost always necessary for modern playgoers) leaves a question mark or two.

In this production, and with a couple of exceptions, everyone in the comparatively small company plays at least two and sometimes three parts. Everyone joins in to give parts of the various speeches assigned to Chorus, rather than have someone assigned that part. This proves an interesting effect, although cutting up the speech into chunks may dilute the power of what is said. Even so, that it all works as smoothly as it does is a testament to the versatility of the company, and the singular vision of the directors.

The story is essentially that of Henry’s determination to defeat the army of France and retake lands there which had traditionally belonged to the English crown. It is a tale which, for two reasons, would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audience. First because Henry was seen and celebrated as a great warrior king. Second because this play followed upon two others about Henry’s youth, and his escapades with some rather questionable cronies, including the wildly popular Sir John Falstaff (Henry IV, parts 1 and 2) and an extra play just about Falstaff (The Merry Wives of Windsor),

Indeed, that character’s popularity had obviously begun to weigh upon the playwright, or the actor playing Falstaff, to the point where this play is used to kill him off.

Which is where the production at ANW becomes interesting. In the editing of the play done, one assumes, by directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, the comic characters who had surrounded Falstaff are given fairly short shrift. They show up briefly and some of their more comic moments are cut.

This is perhaps because the focus of this spring repertory is on courage, and too much emphasis on the bawdy or self-serving nature of these comedians would detract from that larger theme. Olivier did much the same – needing to concentrate on Henry the hero – when filming the play during World War II. It works. Still, leaving in an execution scene involving these folk, when you have not explained why that execution would be hard for Henry, makes him seem less conflicted about his role in the life and death decisions his position makes him take. That is unfortunate.

Yet, despite this, the play is very well performed. Rafael Goldstein is Henry, making him intense and direct, but as human as Shakespeare intended – able to rouse men to action and to loyalty while still wrestling with the depth of responsibility which comes with what he is doing, Goldstein excels at this kind of balance, and his work centers the play. As his most obvious foil, Kasey Mahaffy is at his best as the petulant Dauphin, while Erika Soto makes lovely work of the French princess, Katherine, who will be one of Henry’s prizes if he wins. All of this is surrounded by a solidly ensemble cast involving many of the best of the ANW company.

Still, there are a few question marks which must be addressed. The set, by Frederica Nascimento is imposing, but cumbersome. It is often positioned in a way which appears somewhat illogical, and gets in the way of some of the battle scenes. Costumer Angela Balogh Calin has created amorphous-period clothing which suits the militarism of the piece, and allows for the carrying about of broadswords, but why has the fight choreographer, Kenneth R. Merckx, Jr., only given shields to the French? It makes for much noise, but a seemingly unequal fight.

Most uncomfortably, the choice to keep a line without its reason. A sequence has been cut in which the French circumvent Henry’s lines, burn his army’s tents and massacre all the young squires waiting behind the battle. That is fine, as it neatens the whole battle concept, but then why leave in Henry’s statement, written specifically to address hearing of the massacre of these boys, as a closing line to that battle sequence? Without context it becomes wryly comic, and seems out of tune with the character or what is going on.

Which is all to say that the performers are very good, and the production proves powerful and interesting. Its visual feel, except when the set gets in the way, has an authority which ties the piece together well. Using a cast of 16 to play 30+ people resonates with what Shakespeare himself was confronted with. And the play works. One could wish some edits were designed differently, and that a Chorus was there as a single voice to call all to use their imaginations, but Henry survives all of this, and does so with style.

Go see “Henry V”. It is not often done, and this one captures the central points of Shakespeare’s concept: that a man once profligate has molded himself into an inspiring leader, but at a cost. That this king knows war is hell, but counts on God and the loyalty of his diverse army to push through against remarkably uneven odds to the attainment of what he truly believes to be the right. And all this with some of the Bard’s most inspired language.

“Henry V” will soon play in repertory with “A Raisin in the Sun” and, later, the comic “Noises Off”.

What: “Henry V” When: 2 p.m. February 17 and 18, March 10, 18 and 24 and April 1; 7 p.m. March 18 and April 7; 7:30 p.m. April 5; 8 p.m. March 9, 10, 23 and 24, and April 6 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25, group and rush tickets available Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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Unpacking the Baggage: “Water by the Spoonful” at the Taper

L-R: Josh Braaten, Sean Carvajal, Keren Lugo and Luna Lauren Vélez in “Water by the Spoonful” at the Mark Taper Forum. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Water By The Spoonful,” just opened at the Mark Taper Forum, continues the legacy of her “Elliott: A Soldier’s Fugue”, now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Elliott, honorably discharged from the Marines after being wounded in Iraq, has lost the woman who raised him to cancer – the woman he considers his mother – works a minimum wage job, and is haunted by the image of an Iraqi man uttering a phrase in Arabic. This is where we begin.

Elliott’s search for family connection, those family members’ search for roots or redemption, and the wider circle of people who influence those yearnings provide the story of this play. Clues to these people’s vital, and sometimes vitriolic, interconnectedness build gradually, and often painfully, in ways defined as much by the performers as by the script itself. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has her focus on their elemental isolation, and the devastating effect of the lost or sacrificed links to humanness.

Sean Carvajal plays Elliott as far more of a street kid than his counterpart at the Douglas – reactionary and emotional, and more youthful (which is odd, as it takes place a few years after the previous play). Still, it works as a contrast to the cousin who is also his closest friend. Keren Lugo’s Yazmin – an adjunct professor desperate to keep family traditions and connections – uses a scholarly calm to balance Elliott’s passionate intensity in ways which obviously set her up as the new family core, now that her favorite aunt is gone.

Nick Massouh provides the definition for the terrors Elliott can’t move past, as both the ghost of his dreams and the professor who translates the Arabic phrase the ghost repeats throughout the play.

Running a concurrent, then intertwined narrative with Elliott’s, Luna Lauren Velez makes understated work of Odessa, another aunt of Yazmin’s, and the web mistress of a chat site for recovering meth addicts. It works in a low-key way which heightens the tremendous angst at the play’s close. As another recovering addict on the site, Orangutan, Sylvia Kwan’s immaturity and conflict balance well against Chutes&Ladders, played by Bernard K. Addison as the calming, if overly self-protective member of the group.

As Fountainhead, the overblown nom de plume for the newest list member – a man still in denial of his powerful need for crack – Josh Braaten is awkwardly pompous, a trick in part of the script but greatly a matter of manner. This makes him difficult for the onstage group and the audience to connect to, which is, of course, the point.

Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has splayed these personalities across Adam Rigg’s broad and eclectic set. It works for the most part, until the last scenes, when the introduction of a bathtub seems disconnected from any of the spaces one has encountered, making it somewhat inexplicable.

Still, in the end, what one comes away with in this version of this production is almost a voyeuristic sense of watching train wrecks happen in slow motion. Secrets spew, fears capture, sorrows are huge, and disconnects are potent. That this is, indeed, a portrait of America (hence the Pulitzer Prize) says a great deal about the actual American experience. That this portrait is as recognizable as it is speaks to the undercurrent of our national identity in a way which is tragic, human and very real.

What: “Water by the Spoonful” When: through March 11, 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

Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue: A Trilogy Starts at the Douglas

L-R: Rubén Garfias, Peter Mendoza and Jason Manuel Olazábal in “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


What happens when a young man joins the service as his father and grandfather before him did? Over the course of our national narrative, particularly over the last century, this has been a recognized, even celebrated legacy. Bring it up to modern times, however, and modern sensibilities, and what is this legacy actually doing? How does the enormous irregularity of Vietnam play into that framework?

“Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue,” the first in a trilogy by Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes, examines this and more as it balances three generations of a Puerto Rican family’s struggle with just that legacy. Now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, the play examines what these men carry with them, what they cannot tell, how they coped, what that cost, then balances that against their innate love of the natural beauty found in an island which remains a nation within the larger nation they fight for.

Elliot is young Marine back from the invasion of Iraq to recover from wounds suffered there. He enlisted without telling his family, but proud of the fact his father and grandfather had also served. His father, Pop, never talks about Vietnam, though he met Elliot’s mother – a nurse in an evac hospital – during his own recovery from wounds. His grandfather suffered through the winters in Korea, keeping his fellow combatants’ spirits up by playing Bach on his flute. We watch an interplay – a fugue – of all four people’s experiences, both in combat and in coping with the after-effects of what they cannot fully explain.

In this mix, what will Elliot do, as he struggles to define the older men’s understanding, and prepare himself for a return to the front?

Peter Mendoza fills Elliot with the optimism of youth, and a quiet version of curiosity about how his own understandings stack up against those of the older men who will not share experiences with him. Jason Manuel Olazabal moves like a man with something twisting inside as he relives the nameless threats which balance against and overwhelm humane moments of soldiering, the scarring effects of Vietnam. Ruben Garfias handles the switches from aged grandfather declining into dementia to young soldier struggling to play a flute with frostbit fingers – the inner memories which may not surface.

All turn wistful when thinking of the lush greenery of Puerto Rico, and their sense of community there even when returning after long absence. In this they echo Caro Zeller’s former nurse, pulled into a sense of life by tending a random, junglesque garden in the midst of New York. That constant juxtaposition of verdant life with the consistent experience of death and horror which constitutes military action forms another fugue within the play.

Director Shishir Kurup has used Sibyl Wickersheimer’s seemingly simple photo panel set to create a sense of generational link and disconnect as one floats from the present to the past to the present again while the stories intertwine. The focus on the fragility of each of these characters, even as each of them pull themselves up to move forward, underscores the needed message this play has for the world. Depending on who one empathizes with, this can be read – as most fugues can – more than one way.

“Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue” is the first in Hudes’ “Elliot Trilogy,” which are all being performed in Los Angeles in overlapping productions – the first time any city has hosted all three at once. Next on the list is “Water By the Spoonful” at the Mark Taper Forum.

What: “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue” When: Through February 25, 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

Powerful, Timely “Ragtime” at Candlelight Pavilion

The Cast of “Ragtime” at Candlelight – the elements which made the 20th Century

By design or by accident several local theater companies have offered up seasons including classic shows which address very, very current issues. One such is the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater where, and not for the first time in this last calendar year, they are producing something powerfully relevant while also being impressively entertaining.

Indeed, their recently opened production of Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ musical “Ragtime,” based on E.L.Doctorow’s award-winning novel, finds the setting of Candlelight Pavilion an advantage. Originally over-produced, this less overblown presentation allows what works in the show to shine through. And in times like these, the messages it has to offer prove particularly important.

The story of both novel and musical centers around three distinct groups of people, the African-American musical scene of Harlem centered around ragtime musician Colehouse Walker, the upscale white suburbanites defined by Mother, and the eastern European refugees focused on an Ashkenazi Jew from Latvia. As their stories bump into each other, and into the famous names of their New York, the layers of hardship and privilege, of racial stereotyping and artistic creativity, of injustice and promise intertwine in ways which prove both tragic and enriching. It is a disturbing mirror for anyone watching today, as many of its concerns are still uncomfortably present.

What makes “Ragtime” work is the richness of the music, and the genuineness of the characters most central to the tale. At Candlelight, the company’s largest-ever cast includes several remarkable performances which make this all happen. Standouts include strong, intensely focused and deeply heartfelt performance of Trance Thompson as Colehouse, balanced by the sincerity of Jessica Mason as Sarah, the mother of his child. Christianna Rowader gives a balance of empathy and frustration to Mother – a woman coming into her own at a time when society had already defined her place. In this she is aided by young Andrew Bar, articulate and interesting as Mother’s Little Boy.

As Tateh, Allen Everman evokes a quiet desperation while Orlando Montes and Cheyene Omani play with the characters of two of the era’s most colorful personas: magician Harry Houdini and scandalous Evelyn Nesbit. All of these are backed by a strikingly good ensemble who supply major figures of the time, and create the world in which these people move, and sing the show’s powerful songs. Most notable is RaShonda Johnson, whose dirge for the dead Sarah becomes one of the evening’s standout moments.

But, although the ending is frankly overly hopeful, “Ragtime” is worth seeing at this time in history because of what it shows us in our past: racial injustice and the historic grounding for Black distrust of institutions, marginalization and squalor as experienced by those who immigrated to this country during that time (and who we now know laid the groundwork for much of its success), and the myopia of traditional power structures intent on turning back the clock to a “safer” place. It is a warning, and it is a rich hope for a world where we can, indeed, look back on these stories as from a time which we have finally outgrown.

What: “Ragtime” When: through February 24, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for matinees at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $63-$78 adults, $30-$35 for children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

“Pirates” at the Playhouse: Reimagined with Humor and Mayhem

Doug Pawlik as Freddy in Pirates of Penzance at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jenny Graham]

For just over 100 years, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in London produced the comic operas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan just as they had when the company hosted their premieres. But times changed, and they did not. By continuing to do these classic, silly operettas just as they had been produced originally, right down to costume designs and sets, they may have operated as a time capsule, but the world around them gradually passed them by. This is sad, because – as has been amply illustrated at the Pasadena Playhouse – by being innovative, something like “The Pirates of Penzance” can appeal to a new audience.

There, The Hypocrites, an innovative company based in Chicago, has arrived with their version of this charmingly ridiculous show. It is anything but static, either in time or for the audience itself, who not only becomes participant, but must occasionally get up and move out of the way as the small, multi-talented company dances about. To be honest, Gilbert and particularly Sullivan suffer a bit in the process, but the end result is fun, funny, and connected to the contemporary audience this company is trying to reach.

For starters, you won’t recognize the Playhouse itself. Its interior has been transformed into a tropical wharf-like space with bleachers and picnic tables, kiddie pools, a tiki bar, and a pier all of which are occupied by both the audience and the cast who wades through them. The music, originally written for a standard stage orchestra is performed by ten singer-instrumentalists, many of whom play multiple parts and all of whom play one or more of the kind of instruments you can carry around with you, including the accordion, because they are all constantly on the go.

The tale itself is silly but fairly straightforward. Freddy, as he is called here, was apprenticed by accident to pirates at a young age and has now reached his maturity. As such he informs the Pirate King that he wishes to leave and will, sadly, being now loyal to his nation, soon be hunting his former shipmates down as criminals. He is urged to take along with him Ruth, the maid who brought him to the pirates, and who has been the only woman he has ever seen, but Freddy rightfully feels he ought to see what other women look like before agreeing to settle down with Ruth. Then the pirate crew spy the lovely daughters of a local Major General, Freddy falls for Mabel, one of the daughters, and much singing, tension and general fun ensues.

At the Playhouse this is all set as if one was at a beach party on the lake. The audience interacts constantly with the performers, some of whom play several parts (pirates double as the army called in to subdue them, etc.), and the entire proceeding is rather spectacularly fluid.

Standouts in this production include Doug Pawlik as a skinny, earnest Freddy, Dana Omar in the dual role of Ruth (with her gray hair in rollers) and Mabel, and Shawn Pfatsch as the Pirate King. Still, as is always true in this silly thing, the standout is Matt Kahler as the vapid and completely unqualified Major General, in part because he does a superb job with Gilbert and Sullivan’s most ridiculous and ridiculously difficult patter song.

If there is a down side in all of this it comes in two aspects. First, the style of the thing is frenetic, bounding from spot to spot in the performance area and making it sometimes difficult for the uninitiate to tell where to focus next. Second, staging the entire thing basically in the audience space is not necessarily the most advantageous to the sound system. Gilbert’s lyrics and lines are funny and the acoustics muddy the diction, sometimes significantly.

Still, it was fun to watch small children engaging with the performers in the midst of the storyline, and to get a feel for the free-wheeling “get up if you need to, the bar is open, this is a party” spin on the thing. Director Sean Graney and his merry band are most certainly having fun, and that fun is infectious. Nods also to Katie Spelman for the seemingly impromptu choreography. In the end, those who are Gilbert and Sullivan purists must turn back to Queen Victoria’s own response to this when new: “This time… We are amused.”

What: “The Pirates of Penzance” When: through February 25, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: starting at $25 Info: (626) 356-PLAY or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

“Cabaret” in La Mirada: Remarkable and Timely

The cast, led by Jeff Skowron (center) welcomes you to “Cabaret” at the La Mirada Theatre [photo: Jason Niedle]

One of the most emotionally unsettling musicals to make it to the Broadway stage is John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Cabaret.” Based on John Van Druten’s play “I Am a Camera,” which was taken from Christopher Isherwood’s short novel “Farewell to Berlin,” it shows in small the creeping infection of Nazism into the freewheeling life of early 1930s Berlin. By balancing the story of Cliff – based on Isherwood – an aspiring writer who ends up knee deep in the social shifts of the period with performances in a dark and dubious caberet, one looks at Hitler’s rise from the under side. It has always proven telling and disquieting, and absolutely fascinating.

Never has one seen it done more strikingly than in the new production just opened at La Mirada Theatre courtesy of McCoy Rigby Entertainment. Between small adjustments to the script and song list, and a surreal setting worthy of classic UFA films of the time, graced with performances ranging from very fine to absolutely remarkable, this new production brings back and may even amplify the punch of the original. It is not comfortable, but then it was never supposed to be. It is, however, extraordinarily good theater.

The story follows Cliff as he moves into a boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider, an aging, fatalistic spinster whom he watches fall in love with the Jewish fruit seller who is one of her less questionable boarders. Cliff becomes friends, and eventually lovers, with Sally Bowles, the Englishwoman who headlines at the Kit Kat Klub, a cabaret filled with licentious and edgy entertainers led by its odd and slippery emcee. Cliff wrestles with Sally’s unique morality (or lack of it), with the fact his first real friend in Berlin turns out to be a Nazi, and with what he sees coming for Schneider and her love interest. All the while cabaret performances break into the story line to highlight the shifting winds of humor and ethic, and portend horrors to come.

There are so many things to celebrate about this particular production, but the most obvious to all is the performance of Jeff Skowron as The Emcee. Creepy, clever, cold-eyed and challenging, Skowron makes the character as lascivious and undefinable as possible, creating the chilling atmosphere which swallows all human emotion in favor a kind of sexual sarcasm. It works well and lays the foundation for all attempts at genuine feeling and lightness the show contains.

Embracing what often seems the show’s least interesting part, as he spends most of his time being the observer, is Christian Pedersen as the wide-eyed young American novelist. He gives to Chris an easily manipulated, genuinely nice guy spirit whose social innocence leads him into adventure, and to the edges of a national disaster. Zarah Mahler handles the very tricky part of Sally with an important confidence. Sally is not supposed to be as good a performer as advertised, but to do that means tamping back Mahler’s own skills until, suddenly, Sally finds her own voice on the show’s namesake song. Then she roars into life, even as her song celebrates fatalistic self-destruction.

The true standouts of the piece, other than Skowron, are Kelly Lester and Jack Laufer as the elderly, doomed romantic couple. Most particularly worthy of note is Lester’s Schneider in her wrenching “What Would You Do?”, sacrificing love for safety in a time which will allow her neither, and Laufer’s genuineness, which makes their entire affair just that much more elementally sad.

Director Larry Carpenter has reimagined this work in interesting ways. For one, removing the comparatively cutesy “Meeskite” and adding a song removed from the original Broadway production (though added to the film), “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes”, thus giving added focus to the rising intensity of the thing. The use of John Iacovelli’s mobile, forced perspective drops and set pieces, the angular choreography of Dana Solimando’s cabaret numbers, the use of puppetry at a pointed moment, the mostly gray costuming of David Kay Mickelsen, and the sense of hovering doom created by Carpenter’s staging work together to make this piece – as intentionally fractured as it is – a powerful whole,

I cannot think of a time more apt for such a polished, innovative production of this work. It is good to be reminded how the innocent can become participant in the rise of horror, how quickly what is laughable can become frightening, if ignored, and how soon fear and a sense of privilege can lead people who seem otherwise reasonable into an attitude of acquiescence or complicity in the evil which comes. Read Laufer’s bio in the program if you need a further nudge. Go see this before it disappears, if you want a rich experience of what a powerful thing musical theater can be.

What: “Cabaret” When: Through February 11, 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, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20-$70 general; student, senior and group discounts are available Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

“Nothing is The Same”: Pearl Harbor As Kids Saw It

Tristen Kim (l.), Asia Ring, Yeng Kong Thao as children on Oahu as bombs fall in 1941 in “Nothing is the Same” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Grace Kim]

For the past four years the Sierra Madre Playhouse has expanded their offerings to include a play intended to bring some piece of history, science or culture to school-aged children. In so doing they have hosted over 10,000 school children from 9 school districts. Now the fifth such production has landed on their stages, and it is particularly fine. “Nothing is the Same” by Y York examines the racial tensions of Hawai’i in the first years of World War II through the lens of four Pacific-Asian schoolmates living near Wheeler Air Force Base on the island of Oahu, on and just after December 7, 1941.

Directed by the celebrated Tim Dang, himself originally from Hawaii, the play has a specific ring of authenticity both in the characters created and the atmosphere created around them. Quick (it is only an hour and fifteen minutes long), and specific, “Nothing is the Same” uses a simple setting – the site where children gather to play marbles – to exemplify everything that was questioned, and questionable, about life on the island once the attack had come.

There are two casts which alternate in performance. The “Makai Cast” featured Melvin Biteng is George, a likable Filipino youngster focused mostly on trying to improve his technique enough to win back the marbles he consistently lost in games with his friends. Asia Ring is Bobi, the tomboy Korean girl born in Hawaii – quick to judge, but equally quick to correct herself. Tristen Kim is Daniel, the poorest of the children and Korean by birth, who harbors his family’s dislike for the Japanese based on his own people’s experience. Yeng Kong Thao is Mits, the Japanese marbles champ who attributes his skill to his samurai background until the attack places him as the enemy.

The interplay of the children is all in classic Hawaiian Pidgin English, which has its own musical lilt (the program comes with a glossary), but the themes are distinctly current in feel. The attack turns Mits into the enemy even though he was a friend the day before. As the outgoing boy becomes increasingly frightened and withdrawn, Daniel finds new power as the neighborhood bully, enjoying his suddenly assumed superiority and taking everything he can.

Still, it is Biteng’s George and Ring’s Bobi who center the piece, as they struggle to find their identities in the changing social architecture, and to wrestle with issues of fairness, friendship and what truly makes a hero or a champion in a world torn by war and invaded by masses of gullible new GIs unused to island ways. Indeed, these children, as played by young adults, evoke a genuine quality which makes their struggles easy to empathize with – especially the internal wrestles with the difference between the Japanese person they know and what is being trumpeted by adults regarding who the Japanese are.

A particular nod must go to Kelsey James Kapono Chock, whose insertion of hula movement gives power to several important but otherwise difficult to stage scenes, and whose dialect coaching grounds each character in time and space. Tesshi Nakagawa has painted a set evocative of location and art style of Hawaii in that period. Rod Salasay’s ukulele artistry adds to the sense of place. Still, with minimal props and much use of audience suspension of disbelief, it is the four performers who make this thing work, creating a solid sense of ensemble.

“Nothing is the Same” won the Hawai’i Award for Literature, a testament to its grounding in a sad but important-to-remember truth. To introduce students to another time when children and adults made snap judgments about those around them based on what, rather than who, they were is important in this day, when many do the same to yet another group of neighbors within our communities. Indeed, one cannot think of a time more ripe for making students think outside the superficial judging of people in some way unlike themselves.

The production in Sierra Madre will be enhanced by specific cultural nights focused on the Japanese cultural experience in the San Gabriel Valley, a chance to learn hula, and a collection of mini-workshops on the cultures of the Philippines, Korea and native Hawaiians – helping create further understanding of the cultures represented in the play. Check the theater’s website for more information.

What: “Nothing is the Same” When: Through March 4, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Saturday February 24 and March 3, plus multiple times and dates on school days for invited student groups. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth (20 and younger) Info: http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Hold Onto Your Funny Bone: “Something Rotten!” Roasts Both Shakespeare and Musicals

The cast of “Something Rotten!” at the Ahmanson Theatre through December 31, 2017. [Photo: Jeremy Daniel]

There are many different slants on what makes a Broadway musical worth seeing. In some cases, the focus is on message or depth of story line. In others it may be the music itself, or the choreography, or the star performing in it. In rare cases there is a moment of particular spectacle which cannot be duplicated in any other art form, and which proves so completely theatrical the entire production is put on pause until the roar of applause subsides.

Which is why, if you love musicals, you will do yourself a treat to take in Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick’s “Something Rotten,” now at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Wry, silly and satirical, it includes one of the most complete show-stoppers in recent memory: “A Musical” is almost indescribably silly, paying homage to virtually every possible style, form, or substance of Broadway musical from the past 70 years or more, all in six minutes. It is not to be missed.

Not only this, but the show starts with another number nearly as clever, and adds a third rollicking one toward its close.

A send-up of musicals, Shakespeare, vapid writing, and ever so many other things, “Something Rotten” welcomes you to the Renaissance England. There The Bard is literally a rock star, and Nick Bottom is trying to find a niche for himself and his brother Nigel as a duo of playwright and director before their patron pulls his financial backing.

Desperate, he goes to a rather scattered sooth sayer to find out what Shakespeare’s next great hit will be, so he can steal it. Armed with an imperfect answer, Nick embarks on “Omelet the Musical”. The results prove just as bad as that sounds, while Shakespeare sneaks in to steal the best lines for himself. But the story isn’t the point, which is good because it gets rather uneven by the end. Rather, the constant use of Shakespearean dialogue in non sequitur ways, the many references to the Broadway musicals (some of them delightfully subtle) and the constantly raging subtexts are the real focus.

Among a list of characters almost entirely sharing names with the rough peasants in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” or the protagonists of “The Merchant of Venice,” Rob Mcclure is the brashly ambitious Nick, played to the hilt as a man of rather hopeless ambition. Josh Grisetti gives the meek, poetic brother Nigel an innocent charm which plays well against the brash Nick.

As his love interest Portia, the rebellious daughter of a Puritan, Autumn Hurlbert matches Nigel’s earnest love of words and general niceness in ways which balance the crazy silliness of brother Nick’s storyline. As Nick’s practical wife Bea, Maggie Lakis delights, spending much of her time being a woman who dons men’s clothing (a regular Shakespearean trope) to work at jobs which support her husband’s dreams, later doing so again to save him in more direct ways. Nick Rashad Burroughs gives the occasional narrator, a minstrel, a compelling presence from the first curtain-rise.

Still, it is beyond these central characters that the true charm of this show appears. Blake Hammond proves a hoot as the somewhat iffy prognosticator, Nostradamus. Scott Cote, as Portia’s Puritan preacher father, makes subtle (and not so subtle) statements about the hypocrisy of many a religious fanatic, all with body language. Yet all these pale next to Adam Pascal’s Shakespeare, in leather jacket and bling, providing the slippery, stagey Elvis-like icon cashing in on presence.

Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw is the reason all this works so well. So much of the comedy is physical, and so much of the pacing is critical, that his direction is key to the success of the entire venture. In this he is aided by Gregg Barnes costumes, which emphasize the more unique aspects of Elizabethan era clothing, and Scott Pask’s layered quick-changing set.

Truth be told, “Something Rotten” is not a perfect musical, but it is often very entertaining, ranging from snicker-amusing to full-guffaw funny. And those ridiculously delicious spectacular numbers are worth it all. We could all use a laugh in these tough times. Anyone who loves the Broadway musical art form will find a lot to laugh at. Go see.

Polished “A Christmas Story” Charms in Sierra Madre

Since 1983 the film “A Christmas Story” has been a part of many a family’s holiday traditions. Based on the writings of Jean Shepherd it offered nostalgia for a simpler time in small-town America. There, a boy in the midst of the usual drama of growing up, focuses on convincing either Santa or his parents to bring him the one thing he wants most for Christmas: a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and “this thing which tells time”.

More recently the tale has become a play, based not just on the film but on other nostalgic Shepherd’s writings. Done right, it can have the same charm as the film in a more immediate format.

Now at Sierra Madre Playhouse comes a chance to see it done right. From gifted child performers to solid and artful direction, through a remarkable-for-SMP set (considering the size of their stage) and a unified sense of ensemble, there is much to enjoy in what even the theater’s artistic director pegs as “one of the most ambitious plays” they have ever mounted.

The children in the production, and there are seven strong character parts for young people in the play, are double-cast. In the version I attended Ralphie was played by Julian Moser, whose earnestness and subtlety of character carried the production in impressive fashion. Myles Hutchinson and Jude Gomez were equally convincing as Ralphie’s two pals,

Daisy Kopolowsky, as the class brain, and particularly Xochitl Gomez-Deines, as the girl with eyes for Ralphie, provided that intriguing underlay of pending adolescence. Gideon Cooney Lebano, required mostly to be menacing, proved imposing as the school bully. Marshall Gluck makes nice work of Ralphie’s somewhat odd little brother.

But to lay the success of this production entirely at the feet of its talented youth would be to miss several other performances of note. As Ralphie’s imposing, world-weary teacher, and as the store employee serving as Santa’s definitely disenchanted elf, Danon Dastugue finds the neat balance between humor and bitterness which makes both characters highly entertaining.

Richard Van Slyke makes Ralphie’s father’s obsessions and character quirks as naturally warm as the tale permits, while Andrea Stradling proves the epitome of the midwestern, midcentury mom. Jackson Kendall gives the adult Ralph looking back on this storyline a lot more character than that of simple narrator, providing the glue which holds the piece together.

All these fine folks operate in this episodic tale on Charles Erven’s remarkable, and impressively flexible set, which lighting designer Derek Jones transforms, along with portions of SMP’s audience space, into something bigger than one thought could fit into this size of theater. The costumes courtesy of Shon LeBlanc, long known for his sense of period, round out the visuals in important ways. Still, the ensemble, the flow and movement of the piece, and the unified spark which push this show to its potential land solidly at the feet of director Christian Lebano. His affection for this show and his understanding of the need to pacing tight make the whole enterprise work.

So, if you are looking for something to watch to get you into the holiday mood, but have had enough of A Christmas Carol to last you awhile, why not try this show. It’s a change of pace, it’s very well done, and it will leave you thinking warm thoughts about the spirit, and the silliness, of this time of year. Children are more than welcome, though very young ones may find its humor goes over their heads.

What: “A Christmas Story” When: through December 31, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with added performances at 8 p.m. Tuesday, December 19, Wednesday, December 20, and Thursday December 14 and 21 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd in Sierra Madre How Much: $36 general, $33 seniors (65+), $21 youth to age 21 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

“King Charles III” – Tradition vs Conscience

Jim Abele as Charles in KING CHARLES III at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jenny Graham]


In order to fully understand the tensions of the play now open at the Pasadena Playhouse, it would be helpful have some background in the last century of the British monarchy. By this I do not mean necessarily that fascination with the soap opera played out in public by the royal family in the last few decades, but the ways in which the monarchy has defined its role – and had that role defined for it – in what is otherwise a strongly democratic parliamentary system. What does it mean that the monarch “reigns but does not rule”?

This proves central to “Charles III”, Mike Bartlett’s examination of the constitutional and emotional conundrum facing the current Prince Charles almost as soon as he takes the throne. He, like all monarchs, must sign every bill passed by the parliament before it becomes law, but this is mostly a ceremonial formality. When one crosses his desk he feels is detrimental to his country’s freedom, what can he do? What should he do? What could any action mean to the delicate balance that is the British system?

What makes all of this particularly delicious is Bartlett’s conscious choice to tell the tale in Shakespearean format. There is a ghost speaking cryptic predictions. There is iambic pentameter. There is a moral dilemma played out in the rich format of formal dialogue. Though, by modern standards, this may make the play seem talky, at the same time it relishes in the echoes of Hamlet and Macbeth – the awesome and terrible load on those who wear the crown.

Jim Abele is Charles, a man who has waited a literal lifetime to attain the only job he has ever been trained for. As such Abele finds the balance of the formality of the job and the character’s deep passion for justice in ways which show both his warmth and his sense of command. Adam Haas Hunter, as William, suddenly a crown prince, emphasizes the stoicism and the festering frustrations of destiny, while Meghan Andrews creates in his wife a sense of command which portends a wrangle over definitions of power. Dylan Saunders’ Harry underscores the frustrating uselessness which is the fate of royal younger sons. Sarah Hollis stands out as the girl who introduces Harry to a reality outside the palace, providing a rounded sense of the real life Harry yearns for.

On the other side of the argument, both powerful and adversarial, is J. Paul Boehmer as the prime minister who finds himself in a tense standoff with a king with his own understanding of his role, the parameters of Britain’s (unwritten) constitution, and the needs of a people he may or may not understand. The resulting questions power the play. Is what the people want always the right thing to do? Is there a safety valve available through the monarchy for unwise governmental action? Are the royal family puppets of political forces who, in truth, find them superfluous?

Director Michael Michetti takes what could be a static and talky script and gives it fascinating legs, in part by bringing it out into the Playhouse audience space. Parliament is on the floor with the patrons, and the almost forbidding palatial spaces of David Meyer’s remarkable set provide the instant formality and distance which define the main conundrums of the piece. This, even by itself, helps move one past the details of British constitutional practice into the humanity of the characters and the fearsome angst of the choices being made.

“King Charles III” is, of course, a fiction. Still, by tying its format and emotional core to Shakespeare’s insightful portraits of former kings both real and imaginary, there is a larger concept at play than just wondering what Charles will be like when and if he ascends the throne. Rather, there is a real, active focus on the monarch’s role to “advise and warn”, and how that works in a world awash in sensational media and quick answers to complex questions. As such, it is a treat for the mind as well as the artistic sense.

What: “King Charles III” When: through December 3, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance 8 p.m. Tuesday, November 28, and no performance on Thanksgiving, or at 7 p.m. Sunday, November 26 Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $96 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

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