Stage Struck Review

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“A Little House Christmas”: A Less Standard Christmas Offering in Sierra Madre

Sofia Naccarato, Rachel MacLaughlan, Rich Cassone, and Katie-Grace Hansen are Laura, Ma, Pa and Mary Ingalls in "A Little House Christmas" at Sierra Madre Playhouse [Photo: Gina Long]

Sofia Naccarato, Rachel MacLaughlan, Rich Cassone, and Katie-Grace Hansen are Laura, Ma, Pa and Mary Ingalls in “A Little House Christmas” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [Photo: Gina Long]


With the advent of the holiday season, the demand for something appropriate rises, and theaters – particularly small theaters – begin to struggle with what to provide for their patrons. There is always “A Christmas Carol,” and a wide variety of versions of it, and of plays about people performing it, exist. Still, that has been done so much that a theater out to make its own mark may turn to something else.

Sierra Madre Playhouse has pushed aside Dickens for Laura Ingalls Wilder, and brought back “A Little House Christmas” first produced there two years ago. Then it was all rather precious and stagey. This year’s production is thus a revelation. With a new, strong and naturalistic cast, a director who understands how to make the piece flow, and a feel of continuity – even with the injected period songs which once stood out like interruptions to the tale – this year’s “Little House” proves charming and sweet, but organically so.

The story is derived from one in Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie”. Christmas approaches, the Wilders invite those who aided them as they built their barn to come out to the country for a celebration. Unfortunately, a gully-washing rainstorm begins, the creek starts to rise, the guests must leave quickly, and it soon becomes possible that even Santa may not be able to get to the Wilder home in time for the 25th. What will the Wilders do?

Director Alison Eliel Kalmus not only has a feel for the pacing and tone of this work, she also operates the AKT children’s theater company at SMP, from which were supplied most of the talented children who take significant parts (many of which are double-cast) in the play. The quality of the child actors proves particularly important in a story told from a little girl’s perspective, but the adults are not slouches either.

Among the adults, Rachel McLaughlan’s Ma radiates practical hopefulness, even as she seems weighted by the worries prairie women faced, and sings beautifully when called upon. Rich Cassone gives Pa the open-hearted life force one expects, balanced realistically with the limitations of time and place.

Thomas Colby humanizes the lonely bachelor Mr. Edwards with a genuine heartiness and warmth far from the potentially saccharine rendition one almost expects. Barry Schwam makes family’s uncle – a man unglued by his Civil War experiences – a touching piece to this puzzle, while Valerie Gould’s extremely human Mrs. Oleson charms far more than the expected stereotype.

The children who performed on opening night were likewise un-stagey, and brought a humanizing force to the proceedings. Most especially, Sofia Naccarato’s innocently charming Laura and Katie-Grace Hansen’s Mary showed character, timing, total engagement with story and character, and – especially in Hansen’s case – strong and secure singing voices without that harsh Andrea McArdle overtone so common in youthful stage performers.

Adam Simon Krist and especially Patrick Geringer made the visiting young cousins likable and familiarly boyish. Samantha Salamoff, called upon mostly to be disgusted and moderately disengaged, did this well as the snobbish Nellie Oleson.

One of the real stars of this production has to be Stephen Gifford’s set, which takes all these remarkably realistic people and places them in time and space. Tanya Apuya’s costumes are likewise accurate and character-appropriate. There are little glitches now and then: people who are supposed to be soaking wet aren’t, and little girls sit around in their nightdresses on a winter evening when there is no dry wood for the fire without even wearing shawls, but somehow these seem minor when compared with the general genuineness of feeling this production has to offer.

In brief, this rendition of “A Little House Christmas” proves itself to be far less cloying, far better paced, and far more cohesive than SMP’s previous rendition. As a result, it makes for a fine, and comparatively unique, holiday treat for young and old. Certainly, it makes a break from the predictable Christmas fare.

What: “A Little House Christmas” When: through December 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with extra performances at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, December 10 and 17, and 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, December 20-22 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $34.50 general, $32 seniors, $25 children and youth Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

“The Fantasticks” at Sierra Madre: Intimate Charm, Old School

Michael Anthony as El Gallo, and Kelsey Hainlen as The Girl in a rehearsal shot from Sierra Madre Playhouse's "The Fantasticks" [photo: Ward Calaway]

Michael Anthony as El Gallo, and Kelsey Hainlen as The Girl in a rehearsal shot from Sierra Madre Playhouse’s “The Fantasticks” [photo: Ward Calaway]

“The Fantasticks” holds a special place in the heart of the American theatrical community. Its Off-Broadway production is not only the longest-running musical in New York history (1960 – 2002 without a stop, and then revived in a different theater in 2006 and still going), it is apparently the longest running musical in the world.

Small (eight performers and an orchestra of two or three), graced with a timeless story, a minimalist and therefore somewhat ageless production standard, and songs and characters which hum in the brain, it has become a staple of small theaters across the country. Still, it does not sell itself. Its performers need to be up to the material in a very specific way, as there is no spectacle – no elaborate production – to hide behind.

A new production at the Sierra Madre Playhouse fiddles a bit with the standard, but that generally works to good effect. The trick is to innovate without interrupting the intimacy or the charm, something the co-directors James Fowler and Barbara Schofield achieve, though there were a couple of changes which mystified.

The tale is actually quite simple. A young girl and the slightly older boy next door fall in love despite family efforts to keep them apart. What they don’t realize is that this has been maneuvered by their fathers, who, though they present themselves as enemies, are actually good friends. To bring this to final fruit, the fathers hire a romantic-looking man and his cohorts to stage an abduction of the girl, allowing the boy to be a hero and dissolve the supposed feud. All goes according to plan until the kids find out they’ve been manipulated. Will their love survive the dashing of their romanticism?

This production makes El Gallo, the romantic man, no longer a sort of Zorro figure, but a slick cool cat in a shiny suit and an open silk shirt. Michael Anthony looks the part of a jazz man, and brings a slightly different flare to the character who both guides the audience, and takes the young people through the rough shock of growth.

Kelsey Hainlen and Daniel Bellusci are the young lovers. Hainlen sings with accuracy and authority – key elements to the part – and a just slightly overbright sparkle which fits the part. Bellusci radiates innocent wonder, and with the exception of a few close-harmony slips toward the start, sings with conviction as well. They play their parts without irony – absolutely essential if this is to work.

John Szura and Peter Miller have a lovely time as the supposedly warring fathers. A startlingly, delightfully understated Barry Schwam has quite a time with The Old Actor, hired by El Gallo to help with the abduction, and Barry Saltzman is the best Mortimer (The Man Who Dies) I have seen in some time: funny and dramatic without beating his schtick to death. Helen Frederick rounds out the cast as The Mute, who creates imaginary scenery and assists in the tale-telling.

At its best, Fowler and Schofield’s vision brings a fresh spirit to this piece. The usual “plane platform with posts” set has been augmented with the vague outline of trees – still minimalist, but with the aura of a setting. The only awkwardness comes toward the start, when several characters are required, not only to mount the platform at center stage, but then to climb further onto various boxes or chairs, get down, get up again, get down again, etc., all in rather quick succession. It’s distracting, and winds the performers at crucial moments. Yet, once the story settles in, that issue is gone.

My only other issue, and it is simple curiosity, has me question the dropping a very funny and effective line about a slop pot. Also, and far more understandably, the show uses the authors’ own 1990 optional replacement lyrics to “The Rape Ballet” (though, in the original, El Gallo goes to pains to explain he uses the term in its original Latin meaning: abduction) which make it “The Abduction” instead – their acknowledgement of a change in cultural sensibilities which made the original uncomfortable.

In short, with the exception of all that climbing up and down at the start, this production moves well and has the charm and mild magic “The Fantasticks” always brings with it. And who couldn’t afford to learn, in the end, that “we all must die a bit before we grow again.” It is, after all, the almost simplistic profundity of this show which has kept people coming back to see it, wherever it is playing, for over 50 years.

What: “The Fantasticks” When: Through July 13, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 students/seniors, $15 children under 12 Info: (626) 355- 4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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