Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
February 27, 2019Posted by on
The tricky bit about reviewing a play laden with suspense is how to discuss the show without committing the mortal sin of giving out spoilers. Even with a well-crafted but also well known play like Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap,” there is always a significant population of potential audience who does not yet know the whodunit, or even the why. With one as convoluted as “Deathtrap” is, the chances for over-explaining are even more present.
In discussing the Whittier Community Theatre production this is a particular problem. The play is done very well indeed. The set is suited to not only the stage but the needed elaborations necessary for the scary bits. The cast of confident, well-honed actors never telegraph answers before their time, and create fleshed out characters as much as possible. The intelligent direction does all the things needed for the tension to build appropriately.
WCT, currently in its 97th season, has a real reason to feel proud.
The story centers on playwright Sidney Bruhl, whose most famous, certainly most successful play – a mystery of considerable nuance – is in the rear view mirror of his career. Struggling to find some new thing which will spark the next great hit, he has had to resort to giving playwriting workshops to stay afloat, all the while living on his wife’s rapidly shrinking inheritance.
Now he has received a brand new script from one of the workshop attendees, which has all the elements of the best of his genre of work. Shall he convince the young man to let him fiddle with, and thus co-author it? Shall he steal it as his own? Or, shall he act the benevolent grandparent of the piece, and offer the younger playwright a chance to shine on his own? This is the first of many decisions which will have Bruhl and those around him twisted in knots.
Guy C. van Empel is a convincing Bruhl, fussing over his own career, plotting and planning to reclaim it one way and another. As the younger man, Mason Meskell vibrates with confidence and drive. Andrea Stradling manages the gentle, supportive, ethical wife whose presence can’t help but underscore Bruhl’s current situation. Todd Rew has a lovely time as Bruhl’s rather fussy lawyer, and Phyllis M. Nofts gives a standout performance as an internationally acclaimed psychic visiting a home nearby.
Director Justin Patrick Murphy has really taken apart the nuances of this play and found the essence of each. The surprises really are surprising. The characterizations bounce off of each other with just enough friction to keep one wary. The set, designed by the director, manages to fit the feel of a two-story restored colonial farmhouse onto the Whittier stage with just the right amount of room for each necessary action. The props are an impressive collection of miscellaneous weaponry, adding to the fun.
In short, this production of “Deathtrap” shows polish and the appropriate tension, and is a hoot to see, whether you’ve memorized the ending or have never seen the thing ever before. Well paced, well performed, and edge-of-your-seat fun, it will leave you with that nice balance of fear and laughter (yes, laughter) which proves a satisfying, and not particularly taxing, evening in the theater.
Note: WCT production runs are very short. This coming weekend is the last time to see this show. Take the time. It’s worth it.
What: “Deathtrap” When: one remaining weekend, 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday. Where: The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier. How Much: $18 general, $15 seniors (62 and over), juniors (18 and under), and military with ID. Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
February 21, 2019Posted by on
[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
January 21, 2019Posted by on
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
December 5, 2018Posted by on
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
November 12, 2018Posted by on
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
November 12, 2018Posted by on
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
November 4, 2018Posted by on
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