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A Triumph of Spirit – A New (Very New) “Billy Elliot” in La Mirada

The cast of McCoy Rigby's "Billy Elliot" [photo: Michael Lamont]

The cast of McCoy Rigby’s “Billy Elliot” [photo: Michael Lamont]

Every once in a while live theater offers the opportunity for a truly remarkable event. This can be planned, and the McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of “Billy Elliot the Musical” might even reach those standards on its own. But when the immediacy of a live production becomes a part of the drama, that becomes even more of a specialized thrill.

Let’s face it: from a dance perspective, or even from the perspective of its multiple themes – respecting individual promise, tolerance, dying traditions, or the tricky nature of living between two established and contradictory sub-cultures – “Billy Elliot” is a powerful, likable, satisfying piece of musical theater. The fact of McCoy Rigby Entertainment being offered one of few licenses to produce a first regional productions is not surprising, given their track record of both respect for and quality of the musical art form. And then comes the extra layer.

Mitchell Topin as Billy Elliot [photo: Michael Lamont]

Mitchell Topin as Billy Elliot [photo: Michael Lamont]


Only a week before opening, the talented young Noah Parets, their Billy, broke his arm during rehearsal. Considering how thoroughly the show rests upon Billy, who almost never leaves the stage and dances massive, emotionally charged, physically demanding solos, this stopped the show it its tracks. Thus the drama. After a quick and panicked search, 14-year-old Mitchell Tobin took over the role, which was to open in five days. The good news is, he’s terrific – emotionally satisfying, gifted and amazingly connected. He still looks around a bit, as the choreography is somewhat new even to this “Billy” veteran. Still, in watching him, feeling the audience willing him to succeed, one could not help but feel a part of the show in a uniquely participatory way.

This only enhanced an otherwise highly enjoyable production. The cast is strong throughout, the choreography by Dana Salimando rich and engaging, and the look and feel of the thing crisply paced, authentically evoked, and deeply satisfying, thanks to director Brian Kite. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the script and lyrics were written by the film’s screenwriter, Lee Hall, and the music is the best to date for Broadway by Elton John, or that as a musical it has picked up just about every award possible. Still, this production lives up to that promise.

The story, for those who do not know, is filled with the pathos of changing times. It is the 1980s, the Labour Party – associated with creating Britain’s Euro-Socialism – has been replaced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. The new government’s moves to close underproductive mines lead to coal miners’ strikes which, as it turned out, led to the defeat of the country’s most powerful union and the gradual, eventual closing of almost all deep coal mines in Britain. In the subculture of coal mining, as it wanes, a boy named Billy, pushed toward manliness by taking boxing lessons, chooses ballet instead and proves naturally talented. What happens next is, perhaps, an indicator of larger changing times.

As has been said, Tobin does well, making an engaging, vulnerable, deeply likable Billy. As the brassy woman who soon recognizes his talents, Vicki Lewis provides much of the comedy, and delivers home truths with style. Also fun, as Billy’s friend and fellow social oddity Michael, Jake Kitchin makes the slightly geeky gently engaging. He and Tobin also share one of the show’s silly-coolest moments in “Expressing Yourself.” Likewise, Marsha Waterbury’s forgetful, opinionated grandma adds to both the comedy and pathos, as she delivers both the hope and the bitterness of her world with an offhand brusqueness.

Vicki Lewis as the local ballet teacher, with her hapless pupils [photo: Michael Lamont]

Vicki Lewis as the local ballet teacher, with her hapless pupils [photo: Michael Lamont]

David Atkinson plays Billy’s father, finding a neat balance between love, frustration, and increasing fear. In her brief but important appearances, Kim Huber exudes warmth and nurture as Billy’s late mother. The host of finely articulated, embittered miners, their wives and children, and the silly squad of young girls in the ballet class with Billy all add color and texture to a very satisfying tale.

Yet, because it becomes so thoroughly the focus, what you will remember best is Tobin’s Billy. He really is an extraordinary dancer, especially for his age. And in this instance, that becomes all the more impressive. This is a finely crafted, emotionally satisfying show, and definitely worth going to see. The added bit of last-minute drama does nothing but add to the respect for all involved, and to the sheer quality of the entire product they ended up with.

What: “Billy Elliot the Musical” When: Through February 8, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or at http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

“Les Miz” Rises: Great musical done right in La Mirada

The Company of the McCoy/Rigby Entertainment production of "Les  Miserables" in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

The Company of the McCoy/Rigby Entertainment production of “Les Miserables” in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

If I had to make a list of the most fulfilling stage musicals I have ever seen, “Les Miserables” would be up there in the top five. In live performance, it offers a significant combination of strong story (well edited from another medium though it may be), strikingly memorable music, lushness, message, and star turns. When I first saw it in its original London production, one of the things which also struck me was the comparative simplicity of the performance format: tech did not outweigh content. At the time, when musical theater was full of roller skates and falling chandeliers, the production of “Les Miz” was comparatively simple – occasionally stunningly so.

Which is part of what upset me about the 25th anniversary revival tour, when it arrived at the Ahmanson. Though I am never one to insist that any theatrical work be chained to its original staging, the new rendition went higher tech, taking it a direction which, in several critical moments, picked spectacle over substance. And the performers knew it. The heart was drained from the entire proceeding.

All of this brings me to the relief I felt seeing the new rendition by the McCoy Rigby Entertainment series at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. It’s like the show has its mojo back: strong performances, tight pacing, and a more performer-centric production. It works. It works the way it always does when it is done right: the cast has chemistry, the story has power, and the audience is swept up in the sheer melodramatic richness of it all.

A strong ensemble powers the piece, creating space for some fine performances. James Barbour brings to Jean Valjean just the right measure of fear, anger and deeply loving regret. His voice handles the extreme range of music with a naturalness which belies its difficulty. Randall Dodge’s Javert vibrates with moral conviction without becoming a complete cartoon. In the brief but powerful part of Fantine, Cassandra Murphy balances desperation and heart-wrenching despair with grace, while Michael Stone Forrest becomes memorable in the even more brief but pivotal role of the Bishop of Digne.

Randall Dodge as Javert and James Barbour as Jean Valjean [photo: Michael Lamont]

Randall Dodge as Javert and James Barbour as Jean Valjean [photo: Michael Lamont]

Kimberly Hessler and Nathan Irvin make a splendid couple as the young and idealistic lovers Cosette and Marius, while Jeff Skowron and particularly Meeghan Holaway have delightful fun as the blatantly evil Thenardiers. Young Jude Mason makes a plucky little Gavroche, and sings with intensity and clarity beyond his apparent years. Anthony Fedorov looks scrappier than is sometimes portrayed, but still lights the egalitarian fires as the passionate student Enjolras. Valerie Rose Curiel’s voice has a slight pop overtone which sometimes seems inappropriate, but she gives the ill-fated Eponine considerable character.

Still, it is by looking at the production as a whole that one finds the most satisfaction. For me, the “tell” as to whether or not the words and story matter most is the death of Javert. This production returns to the simple, stylish, understated concept from the first production – a confirming moment which, I will admit, produced a fist-pump from me: if they got that, they got the whole balance right.

Kudos, thus, to director Brian Kite who took the best of the old and worked with it to make it new. Choreographer Dana Solimando, often in this production more of a movement coordinator, gives the piece visual style. Praise also to set designer Cliff Simon and lighting designer Steven Young. If there was an Achilles heel in this performance it came at the hands of the microphones which had a tendency to blank out at critical moments. I’m sure sound designer Josh Bessom has been on that ever since.

So, if you haven’t ever seen “Les Miserables” done on stage, this is a fine version to check out. If you have, this one will not disappoint. One can only hope that those in the future who wish to keep this remarkable musical alive will learn from the errors of their forebears that when the material is this good, quite often the “less is more” rule definitely applies.

What: “Les Miserables” When: Through June 22, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

Passion Up Close: La Mirada’s “Spring Awakening” proves the show’s power

The cast of Spring Awakening in La Mirada [photos: Michael Lamont]

The cast of Spring Awakening in La Mirada [photos: Michael Lamont]

Like many here locally who cannot afford to travel to New York with any regularity, my first acquaintance with Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s Tony-winning musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play “Spring Awakening” was at the Ahmanson Theatre – that sizable, if generally theatrically pleasing facility. Though I found the show interesting, the large space did not allow for much intimacy with the material – something it apparently needed.

Here is how I know. A new venture at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts has created a small performance space up on that theater’s stage, where the audience surrounds the performers on three sides, and everything they do and say is up close and very personal. “Spring Awakening” is the first production in this new arrangement. Seeing it done in this way makes obvious the power and visceral connection which won the show so many fans along the way.

The story follows a group of students in the mid-stages of puberty. As their hormones begin to rule their lives, they ask questions about basic biology which are consistently shut down by the repressive atmosphere of their society. Gradually their ignorance, and the adult world’s penchant for condemnation tear these teens apart, even as they confront the many other demons hidden behind the strict conformity of their world.

If that sounds dark, it is. Still, infused with songs of such intensity that you can feel the heat rising from the stage, this nearly Greek tragedy proves compelling watching. Children are children, and so much of what this 19th century play says about humanity rings with a core of truth that young people flock to the piece out of recognition, if only of the darker parts of themselves. That is, if it is done as well as it is in La Mirada they do.

Austin MacPhee, as Melchior,leads the cast of Spring Awakenings in La Mirada

Austin MacPhee, as Melchior,leads the cast of Spring Awakenings in La Mirada

This production is blessed with a young and vibrant cast, and an aura of total commitment to every moment on the stage. Austin MacPhee helps lead the cast as Melchior, a bright, independent thinker who believes society can grow, and researches things he wants to know which adults won’t share. MacPhee balances well Melchior’s intellect and youthful impulsiveness, setting a tone for the plot line. Micaela Martinez is Wendla, Melchior’s love interest, radiating trust and a kind of inborn innocence even as she vibrates frustration with an adult world more brutal and closed than she had realized. These two define a particular tenderness which underscores the lack of it in those adults around them.

Coby Getzug creates a memorable Moritz, the boy swept away by his own physical changes, yet crumbling under the pressures of a strict academic code he cannot keep up with. Michael Rothhaar gives the severity (and occasionally, the underlying, societally controlled pathos) to the adult men the children encounter. Linda Kerns handles the powerless empathy (and occasionally, objectification-as-power motif) of the adult women. Surrounding these performers are a large chorus of young men and women, each a distinctively interesting, if usually minor part of the storyline.

Brian Kite’s direction has emphasized the intimacy of the piece, and its almost dangerous energy. The close-up nature of the performers, on this new stage format which Kite has helped to develop at La Mirada, highlights the humanity of the thing. Cheers also for Dana Solimando’s in-your-face choreography, and Rich Rose’s simple but evocative set. Indeed, the only fault to be found comes from the uncredited costuming, as Wendla’s dress proves far less period than that of all the other girls onstage, negating much of the critique her mother makes of her first, forbidden outfit.

One word of warning to some: this is a very adult piece which includes sexual situations and a few moments of partial nudity. They are endemic to the story, and make perfect sense but, as a friend once announced before a performance, those who will be offended by the content of this production will be offended by the content of this production.

But don’t be. This musical has and will continue to mark an important moment in modern theatrical history, when a new generation learned that an old form of theater was speaking directly to them. That it does so using as core a play which was written (and banned) over a century ago says even more about the universality of its themes. One can go and, to some extent, rediscover that youthful angst which so defines everyone’s memories of that time of life.

What: “Spring Awakening” When: Through March 30, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friay, 7 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Saturday Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $60 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

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