Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: community theater

“Beauty and the Beast” in Whittier – Great for kids

Gabriel Borjon and Lencia Kebede waltz in "Beauty and the Beast" [photo: Avis Photography]

Gabriel Borjon and Lencia Kebede waltz in “Beauty and the Beast” [photo: Avis Photography]

Whittier Community Theatre always tackles an ambitious collection of productions, and their 95th season opener is no exception. Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” requires a sizable cast, a lot of costumes, and several characters who must be both excellent singers and the embodiment of various archetypes. The show also demands multiple sets, quick changes, a credible orchestra, and attractive choreography. It’s a tall order for a community group to come up with, so it is no shame to admit that there are both hits and a few misses in the WCT production.

The tale is, as the song says, “as old as time” and a consistent morality lesson. Belle is a beautiful, bookish young woman who is an oddity in her provincial French village, as is her inventor father. While the boorish local he-man, Gaston, plots to wed her, Belle sets off to find her father who has disappeared in the forest. There, she encounters an enchanted castle and a brutish beast, and trades her freedom for her father’s. While Gaston works his wiles at home, she becomes increasingly friendly with a beast who turns out to be shy, terrified, and unschooled in either behavior or learning.

The best of the WCT production is Lencia Kebede’s Belle. Beautiful, and gifted with a soaring voice, she embodies the fire, strength and charm the character must have. As the Beast, Gabriel Borjon is subjected to a combination of staging and mic problems which make many of his calmer lines tough to hear, but sings reasonably well and bellows with authority. Fortunately, their chemistry works well, centering the production on their developing romance.

John Scoggins as Cogsworth and Eric Cajiuat as Lumiere keep the comedy going [photo: Avis Photography]

John Scoggins as Cogsworth and Eric Cajiuat as Lumiere keep the comedy going [photo: Avis Photography]

Chad Adriano stumps about with appropriate boorishness as Gaston, though much of his charm is implied by the fine performances of his adoring “silly girls”: Jennifer Bales, Mallory Staley, and Meghan Duran. Cesar Carbajal accents this with a very, very good version of Gaston’s minion, LeFou. Still the show is often best served by Eric Cajiuat’s delightful candlestick, Lumiere, John Scoggins’ stuffy, practical clock, Cogsworth, and – particularly when it comes to vocals – Monika Pena’s duster, Babette.

Janet Arnold-Clark overcomes a kind of lopsided costume as the cook and teapot, Mrs. Potts, while Kassius Lake becomes an earnest Chip, her teacup son. Amanda Benjamin holds her own as the wardrobe, Mme. La Grande Bouche. As Belle’s anxious father, Mark Rainey has some fine moments, particularly in tandem with Kebede, while Mark Rosier manages a truly sinister feel as the asylum owner D’Arque. All these are surrounded by an ensemble which rises to the occasion, particularly in the second half’s castle vs village battle, in ways which are both cute and engaging.

Roxie Lee directs with an experienced hand, using the Whittier’s Center Theater stage effectively. The tale is very episodic, particularly at first, and – even with Lee’s necessarily minimalist village sets – seems to take a while to get its rhythm going. When it does, particularly in the second half when Rebecca Schroeder’s choreography has its greatest effect, things sparkle quite a bit. The small orchestra, under Brian Murphy’s steady hand, provides real quality, though sometimes the sheer volume begins to drown out those onstage – another possible mic problem to be overcome.

Still, if you want to see true stage magic, watch the glow in the eyes of the children in the audience. Perhaps the sweetest element of opening night was watching a very little girl in a Belle dress having her photo taken after the show with Kebede, who had crouched down in the signature ball gown to the child’s height. So much happiness there, and what a lovely introduction for that child to the power of live theater.

What: “Beauty and the Beast” When: through September 24, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 adults, $15 seniors (62+), juniors (18 and under), students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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“A Christmas Story” the Musical? – Covina Center’s version works up to a point

The Red Ryder BB gun at the center of the nostalgic "A Christmas Story" at Covina Center

The Red Ryder BB gun at the center of the nostalgic “A Christmas Story” at Covina Center

There are several forms of live theater which thrive in this general area. They range from the fully professional, with polished productions and highly trained casts, through the small-stage venues where the community supports seasons aimed at their interests, with a combination of old pros and newer talents working toward making a name for themselves. Then there are the true community playhouses which offer a chance for people who love to perform to do so, nurture children with talent, and do so for the love of the thing on small budgets but large doses of enthusiasm. Sometimes these companies can have rough edges, but there is a genuine quality to the enthusiasm of their audiences and the vibrance on stage which is a core element of what theater is for.

Which brings me to the new production at Covina Center for the Performing Arts. As the holidays close in, and theatrical companies look for something festive to draw a family audience, I always look for the theaters doing something less usual. There will be several renditions of “A Christmas Carol,” of course, but at CCPA they’ve opted instead for a staged, and musical version of a modern classic film. Hence, “A Christmas Story – the Musical”. That tale of Ralphie, a small town midwestern boy in the late 1940s doing everything he can to make Santa deliver a Red Ryder BB gun, has become a holiday staple itself. This live version offers that same simple and nostalgic quality which makes the film charming. Here it is done in true community spirit, with all the energy, but some of the inconsistency, which makes community theater unique.

Jim Follett leads the cast as Jean Shepherd, the narrator of the piece, looking back on the most tangled, but in many ways most wonderful Christmas of his childhood. Tony Quinn gives The Old Man (Ralphie’s dad) the combination of overt frustration and internal warmth which often makes him the quiet hero of the tale. Veronique Merrill Warner sings well, and provides the balance of practicality and kindness which you know makes that household run. Shannon Page also sings well, and has some signature moments, as Ralphie’s teacher.

Among the kids, Jackson Capitano is absolutely perfect as Ralphie’s somewhat goofy friend Flick, and Kaden Cutler makes good as Ralphie’s other pal, Schwartz. Paul Anderson and Sean Hill make decent, if somewhat self-conscious playground bullies. Gilbert Aguirre, as Ralphie’s little brother, makes the snow suit scene a thing of beauty and often shines in even ensemble scenes. The one questionable bit of casting is Ralphie himself. Why did they cast a girl in the part?

Don’t get me wrong, Kiera Ward sings beautifully, and handles the constant spouting of the tongue-twisting “a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time” as well as any kid could, but she lacks that sort of rough-and-tumble carriage so stereotypical of boys of the 40s and 50s. Most specifically there is literally no punch to Ralphie’s eventual tussle with the bullies he can no longer take. Rather, she has Ralphie “fight like a girl” when he most needs to completely let go of his bundled frustrations.

This is not Miss Ward’s fault, but must be laid at the feet of the co-directors, Wendy Friedman and especially Osbaldo Alvarado, who teaches acting to youngsters at the acting school next door to the theater. If a girl must be cast, for vocal skills or whatever, then significant movement training should have been part of the gig.

The large surrounding ensemble is enthusiastic and for the most part sings and dances well. The choreography by Emily Dauwalder highlights the skills of the performers, and keeps the company’s tendency to sing while walking back and forth across the front of the stage at bay somewhat. Kudos to the unlisted costumer of the piece, who has recreated period, class and time of year without overdoing it. The functional, multi-piece set is shuffled from scene to scene with lightning quickness by one of the fastest and best “choreographed” group of stage hands I’ve seen in a long time. There’s even a slide for Santa’s rejects, when needed. Tyler Wigglesworth’s musical direction, aided by pre-recorded instrumentals, keeps the musical portions fairly sharp.

In short, “A Christmas Story – the Muslcal” proves entertaining if not perfect. The warmth of the audience is also worthy of note – the kind of an audience which feels so at home someone actually shouted from the audience during the curtain call “That’s my aunt!” when one of the performers came forward. This is what true community theater has always been about. So, what the heck. Go be community. Don’t expect consistent polish, but do expect heart. And around the holidays, that can often count for a lot.

What: “A Christmas Story – the Musical” When: Through December 13 (excluding Thanksgiving weekend), 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $22 general, $32 luxury balcony (website pricing is incorrect) Info: (626) 331- 8133 or http://www.covinacenter.com

Silly “Little Shop” Lights Up Whittier Community Theatre

Jonathan Tupanjanin and Mallory Kerwin [photo: Avis Photography]

Jonathan Tupanjanin and Mallory Kerwin [photo: Avis Photography]

In the treasure-trove of lighthearted, silly musicals, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s “Little Shop of Horrors” has to one of the most universally beloved. Based on a “B” horror film by Roger Corman, twisted to be firmly tongue-in-cheek, it becomes a send-up of every element of early 1960s cultural framework. Now the Whittier Community Theatre brings the show to the stage once more, accompanied by a live band and filled with a youthful energy.

The tale is silly from the start. Seymour Krelborn and Audrey work at Mushnik’s Florist Shop on Skid Row. For obvious reasons, the store is struggling until Seymour produces one of his collection of exotic plants – a completely unique piece of vegetation which fascinates the public and makes the shop famous. As they cope with the rising fame, and the unique dietary habits of the plant, Seymour also worries over how to save Audrey from her sadistic boyfriend, and whether the fame he’s achieving is worth the emotional and physical cost.

Director Karen Jacobson has gathered a sharp cast to bring this lovely trifle to life. Jonathan Tupanjanin sings up a storm and looks appropriately nerdy as the hapless Seymour. Mallory Kerwin matches Tupanjanin note for note, and certainly acts the part as the voluptuously innocent Audrey. Richard De Vicaris appears in his element as the crusty, accusatory Mushnik. Matthew Berardi puts his all into the slimy boyfriend who orders Audrey around.

The show’s only major issue, which touches the leads but is most frustrating with the narrating chorus, is the uneven power and effectiveness of the performer’s body mics. Most particularly with the chorus, Mindy Duong’s Chiffon and Gracie Lacey’s Chrystal go back and forth between whose mic is on too loud, and Jenae Denise Thompson’s Ronnette often seems to not have a mic at all, which destroys the classic girl-group harmonies of their signature moments. The performers themselves sing well (though Lacey is sometimes a touch flat) but when you can only hear one of them at a time, the impact is less than stellar.

Sam Maytubby and Steven Sandborn handle the physical maneuvers of the plant life, soon named Audrey II, while Bear C.A. Sanchez gives the plant a dominating voice. The rest of the cast, an ensemble of skid row residents, sing very well, move necessary set pieces when needed, and provide a few cameo parts. Kevin Wiley’s five piece ensemble provides some of the best musical accompaniment I’ve heard at a WCT production. Indeed, with the exception of the mic glitches, the show proves one of the most polished musicals of their recent past.

Kudos go to Mark and Suzanne Frederickson for the set design, which offers a chance for the quick scenic moves so necessary to this fast-paced tale. Patty Rangel and Nancy Tyler provide just the right costumes to make the piece work.

With “Little Shop of Horrors” WCT marks the start of their 94th season. That alone is worthy of recognition. That they should be able to put up an essentially amateur production with the qualities found in this one is both remarkable and deeply satisfying. Go take a look. You’ll laugh a lot, especially if you’ve never seen the show, and help support a venerable institution working to stay relevant long into the future.

What: “Little Shop of Horrors” When: through September 26, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with one matinee at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, September 20. Where: Whittier Community Theatre, at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors, students, juniors (18 and under), and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

I Want to Laugh More! – Inconsistency of focus mars WCT’s “Johnny Guitar the Musical”

Johnny Guitar at Whittier Community Theatre

Johnny Guitar at Whittier Community Theatre

Over the past couple of years, one of the last of the strongly supported community playhouses, the all-volunteer Whittier Community Theatre, has produced several spunky productions of American musicals. Most particularly, their “Into the Woods” was quite stunning, and shows like “Quilters,” and “The Pajama Game” have garnered worthy praise. Thus, when I saw that their new production of the spoof of classic westerns, “Johnny Guitar,” leaves much to be desired, it does not come from the company’s amateur status, but from a misread on the part of those organizing the production.

“Johnny Guitar,” by Nicholas van Hoogstraten, Joel Higgins, and Martin Silvestri, takes the standard western formats and, if done right, plays them all with tongue firmly in cheek. Even the story sounds like all the B-westerns from the heyday of such things. Miss Vienna, a bad girl gone good, owns a bar outside a small western town – a town operated in tandem by Emma, the daughter of the founder of the town bank, and McIvers, the area’s largest landowner and rancher. Emma, holding a secret passion for the outlaw The Dancing Kid, is out to destroy Vienna for her supposed romantic connection to the Kid. Into all of this rides a man of height and heart bearing a guitar instead of a gun. But does he have a more violent past? Will he help Vienna?

Yes, it’s just that silly, and the staging should add more. Sound effects must be huge, choruses should appear from behind rocks, furniture, curtains, etc. Everything must be played large and melodramatically, resulting in almost constant chuckles and some significant outright laughter. Visual comedy can be emphasized, like constant references to Johnny’s being so tall, when the actor is not. It should be fast-paced, and moderately ridiculous. That’s what makes it work.

The production at WTC can’t seem to make up its mind whether it is going to play the thing straight, and thus awkwardly, or live up to the wry humor of the script. At the start, it shows promise, when the opening ballad has the chorus suddenly pop out from behind the saloon bar, and continue singing unphased when one of their number is gunned down. The sound effects are right, and the minimalist set has just the right elements. Some of the cast – most especially Jonathan Tupanjanin, as the youngest of the outlaws – can really sing up a storm, and for the most part all sing with enough energy and conviction to make it work.

But it’s uneven. They get serious too often, and that seriousness slows things down. Sometimes the chorus sings from offstage, when having them appear, sing, and disappear would have given more stage business, and more comedy to something which begins to feel drawn out.

As Vienna, Mallory Kerwin has the heart for the thing, and a powerful voice, but is visually wrong. She should look like a slightly more risqué Miss Kitty (for old “Gunsmoke” fans) but spends much of her time in an outfit more suitable to Dale Evans. Matt Berardi has great potential as Johnny. He has the swagger and the overly cool delivery down. There could be much comedy, though, as in his “playing” of a guitar which obviously has no strings, which is otherwise just kind of awkward.

Lindsay Marsh is solid – that is, slightly overdramatic and intensely repressed, just as she should be – as the vicious Emma, while Greg Stokes makes a stolid and gruff McIvers. Jay Miramontes truly enjoys his role as The Dancing Kid, though the dancing should be emphasized more, particularly if it’s going to be as intentionally unimpressive as it appears when he finally performs. Justin Patrick Murphy, Andy Kresowski and Richard DeVicariis have a lovely time playing henchmen, posse members, bartenders and the like, and, joined with Tupanjanin, becoming the chorus for song after song.

The live band accompanying them is small but good. The mics need to be balanced more, as some (especially Kerwin’s) are cranked up too high while others are very hard to hear. Special kudos to the stage crew who utilize the elements of Mark Frederickson’s very facile set design to change scene quickly and keep the pace going.

In short, this is good enough that it should have, and could have, been better. Consistency in the over-the-top melodrama of the piece would have let to more laughter (though there definitely were some funny moments) and made it all feel more cohesive. Director John S. Francis is experienced enough to know that this. What this show needs is real tongue-in-cheek everything, as the story line is just as light as the old Saturday serials, and the music is memorable more as a satire on musicals and westerns than as great art. Still, this company deserves the community’s support. Community theater, where volunteerism is prized, is always worth supporting.

What: “Johnny Guitar the Musical” When: Through March 7, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 1 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Whittier Community Theater’s “On Golden Pond”: High marks for not being “like the movie”

The cast of Whittier Community Theater's fine, if brief run of "On Golden Pond."

The cast of Whittier Community Theater’s fine, if brief run of “On Golden Pond.”

When signature performances appear on screen, even if they are recreating roles from the stage, those performances can become a huge barrier to creativity among stage productions which follow. Even reviewers can fall victim, including the former editor of mine who condemned a brilliant new production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” because the show’s lead didn’t deliver the lines as Elizabeth Taylor had.

It’s especially tough on community or semi-professional companies, where the easy fallback position for a director is sometimes to “do it like the movie.” This is why the recent production of “On Golden Pond” at Whittier Community Theater, which closed this past weekend, proved so refreshing. Each character was well-defined and well played, in a show with pacing which kept it interesting, often funny, and as touching as it should be. And nobody was “being” Henry or Jane Fonda, or Katharine Hepburn.

The tale of an aging, intellectually interesting couple at their summer cabin on the lake creates a particular opportunity for older actors to sink their teeth into characters outside the typical. Indeed, at Whittier, Eric Nelson created the essential Norman Thayer, crusty and morose with a soft underside he keeps well hidden. You can’t help but like him, just a bit – a necessity for the plot to move forward, but trickier to accomplish that one imagines.

Roxanne Barker, as Norman’s wife Ethel, created one of the finer performances of her recent career – precise, with an underlying warmth, but underplayed to match the mood of the play. Elizabeth Lauritsen’s version of their angsty, damaged adult daughter gave a well-examined view of a woman gradually righting her own ship, and Ronan Walsh pegged the preteen boy Norman warms to, making that relationship’s growth seem absolutely natural.

Andy Kresowski managed to avoid stereotype as the local guy once enamored of the Thayer daughter, making him far more genuine and less dim than sometimes portrayed. In a brief but important moment, Dave Edwards created a convincingly nervous yet resolute version of the man helping sort out the daughter’s life.

Kudos also to the set design of Mark Fredrickson, whose cabin proved so convincing you expected birds to fly by the windows. Yet, the feel of the entire production, from the ensemble spirit, through the unique renditions of characters made iconic on film, to the whole tone of subtle upbeat land at the feet of director Roxie Lee. Again, this is one of her finer moments, as it is for many in the small cast.

“On Golden Pond” can be sentimental bordering on goopy if done poorly. The Whittier production tread that fine line well. As one of the few remaining viable community theaters, now in its 92nd season no less, it bodes well for the future that this quality of performance can be expected there.

Next on the Whittier Community Theater list is the noir classic – also a famous film – “Laura,” due to open on Valentine’s Day. One hopes that they can keep going with this “new view of old classic” style, making that piece as much their own as they did “On Golden Pond.”

An Attractive Coffee Break: Whittier Community Theatre’s “Office Hours”

Cute little sex comedies have been the milieu of community theaters for, at the least, the entirety of my reviewing career. Still, the genre has limits. Problems arise when the standard spectrum of such playss has been exhausted. Some theaters begin trying works written by their members – some prove cute, some impressively disastrous. Other companies widen their search. In doing so, they may encounter hidden treasure.

This may be the case with Whittier Community Theatre, which has unearthed the late-80s charmer “Office Hours” by Canadian Norm Foster. A sort of lightweight, sometimes silly rendition of “La Ronde,” it shows a sequence of interrelated events happening in six different business offices in one downtown block on a single afternoon.

The WTC production, once its cast members find their rhythm, proves quite entertaining. There are just enough surprises to snag the audience’s interest and offer the occasional shout of startled laughter. The actors, most of whom play multiple parts, rise to the task with wit and charm. Director Susan Marx has directed the show with the appropriate clipped pacing, using Roxie Lee’s minimalist set design in such a way as to allow quick, if necessarily low-tech shifts from scene to scene. It’s a good plan.

The best of the cast includes Justin Murphy, who plays, in turn, a philandering literary agent, a lawyer hounded by an overbearing mother, and one of the world’s great salesmen, making each specific and individual in carriage, voice and character. Also worthy of note is Rosalva Reza, best as the agent’s fed-up wife, Todd Prather as a practical, if kind racetrack owner, and Julie Breihan as the bemused and rather disquieted half of a film production partnership. Steven Sullivan has his finest moment as a jockey with an insurmountable problem, and Candy Beck pecks with enthusiasm as the self-focused, overwhelming mom. Andy Kresowski underplays nicely as the henpecked husband with hidden depths.

A word to those used to WTC’s usual G-rated fare: this play is more PG-13, involving a certain amount of scatalogical reference, and some strong language. It is also fresh and, particularly in the second act, quite entertaining. WTC’s governing board has taken audience satisfaction very seriously, including audience surveys, and has concluded a need for more updated material, at least for part of each season. That’s likely to mean fewer euphemisms and more direct references to the adult drives of characters. It’s also likely to attract more young people – the life blood of local theater’s future.

In any case, “Office Hours” is not the same old same old, rehashed. Rather it has enough surprise and charm to carry the community theater day. Catch it while you can. Shows at WTC come and go quickly, by design.

What: “Office Hours” When: Through March 3, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, February 26 Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave in Whittier How Much: $12 general, 10 seniors/juniors Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Oh Brother (and Sister)! “A Nice Family Gathering” comes to Whittier Community Theatre

The cast of "A Nice Family Gathering" at WCT


Despite the media packaging, Thanksgiving, like any other major family occasion, can be fraught with underlying tensions. Not all families meet the greeting card standard. Making fun of this potential for awkwardness and insanities can prove great fodder for playwrights.

One example of this is Phil Olson’s “A Nice Family Gathering” now open at the Whittier Community Theatre. The play itself is a multiple award winning comedy. As produced at WCT, there are still struggles to find the balance of quirky comedy and meaningful family message. The awkwardness, it appears, is not in their script, but in themselves.

As a story it’s sort of a modern “A Christmas Carol” meets “All in the Family.” The Lundeens are gathering at the family home in small-town Minnesota for their first Thanksgiving since the death of their father. For each, issues arrive too. The writer feels he never lived up to his father’s expectations. His older brother, the doctor, feels the pressure to continue following in his father’s footsteps. The younger sister, generally ignored, arrives with issues of her own. And their mother seems kooky: is it depression due to loss, or the onset of Alzheimer’s?

And then, in walks the ghost of their father, offered one day to – through his writer son, who can see him – tell his wife he loved her, something he never quite got around to doing while alive.

In this production the three adult children come off as interesting individuals. As the writer, Carl, Justin P. Murphy all but vibrates with personal frustration, and juggles well the subterfuge necessary to hold conversations with someone nobody else in the room can see. As his older brother, Michael the “good son,” John Warner becomes the stuffy image of respectability, melting just a bit as he explains how such rigid goodness is dooming his marriage.

Meghan Duran gives the ignored sister Stacy an aura of fatalistic acquiescence, which works up to a point, though it doesn’t explain the connections suddenly created in the second act. Greg Stokes plays the father’s old golf buddy Jerry with a genuineness, which helps dispel the father-ghost’s suspicions regarding Jerry and the ghost’s widow. Jerry Marble plays the ghostly father rather all in one key, but perhaps that would happen if you had one day to watch your family rearrange itself without being able to contribute.

Laura MacDowell is a harder sell as Michael’s wife. Supposedly hyped on hormones and desperate for a fertility that eludes her, her only way to show emotion is to face-plant into someone’s chest and make weeping noises. A more rounded characterization would have added to the comedy. Andrea Townsend, called upon to be both goofy and mom-practical does much better with the second act’s human interaction than she does with the more bizarre actions of the first act. It’s mostly that her timing, like MacDowell’s, is off from the rest of the piece, making jokes fall flat.

Director Karen Jacobson doesn’t seem to have talked her cast through their characters’ transitions much. Michael’s abusive behavior of his little sister is simply gone suddenly, and dismissed in the process. Carl’s abuse of Jerry is equally left at the “he’ll get over it” stage. Either the emotions and interactions on stage are far more intense than the script, or that transition is supposed to be telegraphed by actions that are missing. It leads to a sense that the first and second acts are not really the same play.

I also have to wonder a bit about the choice of this play for this particular audience. So much of the crowd at WCT plays is of an older generation. A show about kids sure that all quirks of their parent are oncoming dementia, not to mention ending up listening to the ache of a long-time spouse for a companion wrested away too soon, doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing these folks would laugh at. The resulting lack of feedback may also be a part of the timing problems for the performers.

In any case, “A Nice Family Gathering” has some cute moments, and handles some difficult material with humor and pathos. Still, as served up at Whittier Community Theatre, it has some significant flaws one cannot overlook. On the other hand, if you come with food for a local food bank, they’ll give you free goodies at intermission. That, and the support of the oldest community theater in the greater Los Angeles area are incentives for attendance all by themselves.

What: “A Nice Family Gathering” When: through November 19, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 13. Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $12 general, $10 seniors/students 18 and under Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

At Sierra Madre Playhouse: A Kinder, Gentler “Mockingbird”?

The more you know about “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that great classic book of the 1960s, the more fascinating this classic becomes. Today the tale proves controversial for its childish tone, and for, as Slate writer Stephen Metcalf says, it’s white lawyer protagonist’s “preposterously unblinking courtesy” which may be seen as having “served to counsel gradualism and procedural nicety, even as the Civil Rights movement had started demanding something more.” Still, the book is taught in ¾ of America’s schools, and the film and play adaptations have reached wide followings. Some consider it the most popular American novel. Nostalgia, even politically charged nostalgia, sells.

Not surprising, then, that the venerable Sierra Madre Playhouse should choose to produce one of the better of those adaptations, by Christopher Sergel. Perhaps anticipating the vast popularity of the piece, they’ve also gone all out in production values. Still, the process of putting such a large story on such a small stage does lead to some interesting choices. Director Michael Cooper makes some of them work well, while others prove overly revisionist – a softening even of the soft-focus lens this story has always placed on institutional racism.

Most reading this can virtually recite the storyline. As seen mostly through the eyes of Scout, a roughly 8-year-old tomboy, we watch the vibrations through tiny Maycomb, Alabama as a poor black family man is arrested and tried for the rape of an even poorer white girl. That he is innocent is a given. That, despite the efforts of his idealistically pacific white lawyer, Scout’s father Atticus, he will be convicted is also a given. What becomes central is Atticus’ almost innocent refusal to acknowledge the ill will of others – a belief that almost costs his children’s lives.

Director Cooper has chosen to emphasize the calm quality of Atticus to the point where the entire enterprise operates at a slow, underplayed hum. This proves effective when the nasty and vindictive bully Bob Ewell (an enthusiastically villainous David Preston) sparks with a vicious energy against the placid whole. Yet, at other times the calmness, even of young children supposedly scared of boogey men, is like looking at the story through cheesecloth.

Brighid Fleming, as Scout, and Michael Andrew Stock as her older brother Jem, play their parts as calm little adults, which works, but only sometimes. Indeed, though Christian Lebano’s gentle Atticus and Tara Thomas’ lovingly commanding housekeeper, Calpurnia, often order them to do things like go inside, something which you would think would at least evoke a reaction (perhaps an occasional start toward compliance, even), such orders aren’t acknowledged in any way. In a child this would be overt and obstinate “attitude” – something which one does not usually associate with Scout or Jem.

This show sports a huge cast – perhaps the largest in a non-musical I’ve ever seen at SMP. Diane Kelber gives the narrator, their neighbor Maudie, warmth and open-mindedness. Alex Egan makes the sheriff wisely long-suffering. Robert Manning, Jr. gives the accused man, Tom, a meek nobility, while, as his accuser, Lindsay Wagner’s frightened, dumpy young woman underscores the villainy of the entire proceeding. As the odd boy Dill, who befriends Scout and Jem (a character based on Harper Lee’s real life-long association with Truman Capote), Patrick Fitzsimmons is certainly odd. The rest of the cast also does admirably at creating the town in small, though one is somewhat startled at the sympathetic turn Miguel Perez gives the usually partisan judge.

The set, by top-notch designer Gary Wissmann, crams a huge amount onto the tiny SMP stage, usually to fine effect, though the isolated nature of Boo Radley’s house is difficult to define. Carlos Brown has captured the look of 1935 southern clothing, and the social stratification of the time. It all looks very period.

In sum, please don’t get me wrong. I am very fond of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” its criticisms notwithstanding. Yet, when – in that most seminal moment – the African-American reverend (well played by Marvin Gay) asks Scout and Jem to stand along with the rest of the “colored” gallery as their father walks by, and all the whites in the court stand too, the kinder, gentler, diluted version of racist 1930s Alabama is almost too much to bear. I’m sorry. It just wasn’t like that.

What: “To Kill a Mockingbird” When: Through November 12, 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 12 and under Info: 626-355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

It’s “Good News” – Whittier Community Theatre turns 90

The cast of "Good News" do The Varsity Drag

Through much of the 20th century, a significant percentage of the local or small theater productions available in the greater Los Angeles area were produced by “community theater” groups. These groups often had dedicated memberships, governing boards, and found or built spaces to produce amateur productions of popular plays (or, in one case, original works gleaned from around the country) within their own communities.

Indeed, even the venerable Pasadena Playhouse, which became the most celebrated school of performing arts in the western U.S. in its heyday, began as the Pasadena Community Playhouse – a community theater. But times have changed. Almost all of those groups are gone now, along with the orange and lemon groves emblematic of a smaller Southern California.

That doesn’t bother Whittier Community Theatre, which celebrates its 90th birthday this season. To underscore their longevity they begin this banner period with a musical popular during their first decade. “Good News,” better known today for the June Allyson film, remains the classic 20s look at college life: recently co-ed, focused on football, and hopping with Charleston-dancing, hooch-drinking young people.

The new WCT production manages a spare budget well, and froths with innocent energy. The voices of those onstage vary, as does their dancing ability, but nobody can downplay their enthusiasm. In a story like this one, that is the primary requisite.

The tale is as silly as they come. Tom Marlowe, football star of Tait College, won’t be able to play in the championship game unless he passes his astronomy exam. Much waits on this game, as his rich girlfriend’s family readies to invest millions in Tait’s athletics programs upon Marlowe’s win. All that stands in the way is an exam given by the erstwhile love interest of the coach. Perhaps Tom’s girl’s cousin, a poor but academic girl, can tutor Marlowe to astronometrical victory. Perhaps she has more in common with Tom than that rich and manipulative girlfriend. The plot thickens.

Gabriel Borjon is solid if a bit pedantic as the stalwart Tom. Katherine Gutierrez is all self-focus as his girl, and Veronique Warner stands tall as his astronomy professor nemesis. Greg Stokes’ coach starts slow but seems to flourish as the tale develops. Natalie Miller needs to watch the conductor and listen to the orchestra more, but has considerable charm as the comparatively geeky tutor.

Still, the real delights of this show are the secondary players. Jay Miramontes has a ball with the third string football player desperate not to end up on the field. Heather Neinast manages the best of the dance sequences as a flapper introducing “The Varsity Drag.” Ben Otis makes neat work of the geeky water boy, and Jerry Marble’s superstitious team manager offers considerable comedy. Add to these chorus member Ruben Renteria, who becomes central and interesting in any dance number he’s involved in, and the sum total has much to recommend it.

Brian Murphy gives the musical direction of an amateur orchestra which holds up its end nicely. Lindsay Martin’s choreography evokes the correct time period, and director Roxie Lee (who seems to be WTC’s go-to director of musicals) gives the thing the right, mildly 20s-stagy feel. A special nod to costumers Nancy Tyler and Karen Jacobson who made very convincing silk purses out of a variety of sow’s ears.

In short “Good News” has a somewhat self-conscious innocence, but it’s still rather charming to look back at a time when a football game was a crisis and this was a standard type of entertainment. There are a few great period tunes (“You’re the Cream in my Coffee” and “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” to name a few), some wildly enthusiastic dances, and a general gee-whiz quality which proves quite entertaining.

And, when you think about it, it’s worthwhile just to celebrate a theater company of dedicated amateurs who have managed to surf all the cultural changes of the Southland and arrive at their 90th year. From such places many talented professionals have grown.

What: “Good News” When: through September 24, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, September 18 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 2630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $18 general, $15 students 18 and under/seniors Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Oh, Oscar! – The author’s “Salome” gets harsh treatment in Alhambra

The cast of Mozaic Lizard Theater's "Salome" confront each other and the moon.

NOTE: MY PRINT EDITOR WAS ADVISED THE DAY AFTER THIS REVIEW POSTED THAT THIS PRODUCTION HAS BEEN CLOSED.

I love seeing comparatively obscure works by major authors. Sometimes the plays an author is not known for can tell one a great deal that the famed works, having been so continuously examined, cannot. This is particularly true in the case of a piece like Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” – a work banned in his home country when it was written – as it provides further proof that its author was ahead of his time, as Wilde often was.

So, imagine my excitement when tiny Mosaic Lizard Theater announced their production of “Salome” at their theater in downtown Alhambra. I just wish the production had allowed for any of Wilde’s innovative psychological framework to emerge. As it is, the Lizard production shares more in common with the more pedantic high school drama club offerings than anything which could – as this play should – shock, disturb or teach.

The tale takes off from the Biblical story of Salome, the daughter of King Herod’s wife, and Herod’s predecessor. Herod’s fascination for his virginal but sexually interesting step-daughter is matched, in this telling, by Salome’s passionate attraction to the unattainable John the Baptist – crying his warnings from a cistern being used as Herod’s prison. Romantic yearning and sexual manipulation meet in a startling, psychologically disturbing end.

Or, they should. Although Jose Garcia makes an intense and interesting Herod, that’s just about it. Zach Guzman’s stiff John (called, for obscure reasons, Jokanaan) barks the prophesies with none of the passionate intent which inspires the Salome of the script.

Itzul Virgin is admittedly lovely, but significantly lacking in the sensual energy one expects of Salome herself. Her speeches, often very fast, very quiet and at significant moments aimed upstage into a hole, suffer from unintelligibility. Her final moments of grotesque victory, which should be richly disturbing, fall flat because it all seems kind of by rote. Her dance, choreographed by Calista Ruiz to an odd tune peculiarly reminiscent of “Three Blind Mice,” manages to unsex one of the most famous moments in the Bible.

And, unfortunately, nobody else handles their parts much better. Though Erikson Erise and Ruben Aguilar do decent work with John’s rather myopic guards, Anthony Jr. Suarez makes the potentially tragic foreign captain oddly unmotivated. Bryana Pickford’s version of Salome’s mother seems to be operating at a slightly different RPM from her supposed husband. Under director Jay Parker it’s all just a dull hum, where it should be heated and peculiarly, symbolically sensual.

And there are basic technical flaws, the most egregious of which are the constant mispronunciations of everything from “Chaldeans” to “tapestry.” For this there is no excuse.

One positive note has to be Caudia Estrada’s evocative, colorful costuming. It sets the right tone for what one should be seeing develop. Yet, in the end, this play fails not because it is obscure but because its cast, for the most part, lacks the passion and connection which would make it work. What a pity.

What: “Salome” When: runs indefinitely, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Mosaic Lizard Theater, 112 W. Main St. in Alhambra How Much: $12 general, $10 students/seniors Info: (626) 457-5293 or http://www.lizardtheater.com

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