Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Covina Center for the Performing Arts

“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

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A Heroic Misfire: “Journey to the West” in Covina

It’s seems a most romantic story. Jeff Lowe, a board member of the Covina Center for the Performing Arts, heard Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor’s score for their nascent musical, “Journey to the West” when he was in college, and fell in love. He found the music spoke to him, listened to it almost obsessively, spread CDs to his friends, and it became a part of the fabric of his life. The show, which was only produced once as a part of a festival of new musicals, disappeared until Lowe – ten years after that first listen – was able to pull together the cast and crew necessary to bring it to the stage.

Now “Journey to the West” is in an extremely limited run at CCPA, in association with Alchemy Theatre Company. West, who is directing, has combined a talented cast of varied experience, added the choreographic skills of Jenny Moon Shaw, costumer Aja Bell and set designers/buildiers Jonathan Daroca, Dan Malarky, Jeremy Ojeda and Jesse Runde. The show is on its feet.

The good news is the quality of his troupe. The bad news, sadly, is that these fine people’s talents cannot counteract the fact that the show itself just isn’t very strong. Add some technical glitches, and the net result is simply not ready for prime time.

The story is is based on one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, and an elemental hero’s journey. Jiang-Lai, an arhat or minor god, is forced to return to earth as a human child unaware of his immortal past, and to grow up and complete a specific quest within a certain time frame if he wishes to return to the skies. In his quest he is aided by Kuan-Yin, the beautiful arhat who loves him, and thwarted by Hou-Lai, a jealous arhat who wants Kuan-Yin for himself. He gathers three acolytes – the monkey god Monkus, a boar-like demigod Tu-Bao, and the river dragon Tsunami. They also protect, or divert, him on his journey to find the sutras which will save mankind.

R. Adam Trent makes a charmingly innocent Jiang-Lai. Andrea Somera becomes a richly heart-felt Kuan-Yin. Both sing well and lead the cast in every way. Yet, here is also the underscore to the technical issues of the piece. Whereas Somera is comparatively easy to hear throughout, Trent’s mic is so placed that his lines – both spoken and sung – are often too soft. This is only made worse by the mics on the live band (particularly the guitarist), which are left way too hot and create a booming musical “underlay” which has a tendency to drown out singing and spoken lines on a regular basis. This is bad for many, but most painfully true in the case of Brian Piernat’s Monkus, who introduces himself in a hip-hop rap which looks like it might be quite clever, but nobody can hear at all.

William Crisp looks terrific and sounds even better as the menacing Hou-Lai. Paul Stuflosky is just silly enough to be the boorish Tu-Bao, and Kenny Ugwa has a wonderful time as the somewhat “iffy” helper, Tsunami. Yet, in Ugwa’s case an introductory song reminiscent of reggae ends up with no accompaniment at all (other than something going boing on occasion). This leaves both Ugwa and the chorus behind him searching for key and harmony, which is especially unfortunate given the truly ingenious visuals which accompany this moment.

In other words, the audio design credited to director Lowe needs significant overhaul, and music director Matthew Capurro – the liaison to the band – would be a large part of that as well. They should also address the blank spots between scenes: moments screaming for some sort of transition. But to just condemn the show because you have trouble hearing it properly, or it’s staged a bit choppily, would not really say all that needs saying. One still must wrestle with a couple of essential facts about the script itself.

First, Oberacker and Taylor bit off a very, very long and complex story which they have tried with only moderate success to fit to the length of a standard American musical. The result is a show which, including a standard intermission, comes in at about three hours long. Secondly, though some of the music is quite beautiful, including the tune to “Happy Little Arhat,” and “I’ve Learned Mine,” the lyrics are far too often very fast-paced patter songs which are difficult to spit out, and regularly offer up such predictable and simplistic rhythm and rhyming schemes as to be comparatively unmemorable. In the end, the show can’t really tackle all that the novel wanted to say, and tries to cram the rest into one long final musical number.

Still, there has been a lot of hard work put into producing “Journey to the West.” Shaw’s choreography proves fascinating from start to finish, and there are captivating and innovative uses of dance as incidental to the plot (especially the dancers with lanterns signaling elements of life force) which make a powerful visual statement. The chorus is good – very good – and the energy in the production is high.

Which makes a person wish they could hear it all. Which makes one wish even more that the things these talented folk have worked so hard on were more worth hearing, as written. I can empathize with Lowe falling in love with something he wants the world to see. I also empathize from experience with the syndrome – I’m sure at play here – of working on a production for long enough to become convinced it’s awesome simply because one is living inside it for so long.

Sadly, the only thing which can assist this production other than a rewrite is to at least get the sound right. Perhaps the sense that one must have the story explained at the end will be less powerful if one can hear what people are saying and singing along the way.

What: “Journey to the West” When: Through August 16, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave, in Covina How Much: $30 and $40 Info: (626) 331-8133, ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com

It’s Good, If You Can Catch It: On Golden Pond’s Short Stay in Covina

Joe Parrish and Rosemary London lead the cast in Covina Center for the Performing Arts' "On Golden Pond"

Joe Parrish and Rosemary London lead the cast in Covina Center for the Performing Arts’ “On Golden Pond”

As comfort-plays go, you can’t do much better than “On Golden Pond,” by Earnest Thompson. Written originally in 1979, it has been updated by the author several times since, for film and later productions, to keep pace with the shifts which have made the timeless places less so over the years. Yet, at its core this play is less about place than character, and a good production of the play focuses on the creation of people you can believe care about each other.

Given this essential factor, “On Golden Pond” as presented at the Covina Center for the Performing Arts is, indeed, a good production. The performers range from good to very good, and the feel of their interrelatedness is right. This sense of ensemble makes it possible for director Jeff Lowe to shift from a very representational setting to what he calls a “more stripped away” feel – something comparatively unusual with this particular piece.

The story has been a film, and on stage locally many times. Norman Thayer, a crusty retired professor, and his wife Ethel, both at the tail end of life, return for another summer to their well-worn cabin at a lake they have loved since their individual childhoods. There they are joined by their somewhat estranged daughter Chelsea, and her new companion Bill, who end up leaving Bill’s 13-year-old son Billy behind as they move on to Europe. The time proves transformative to Norman, who finds Billy an antidote to the evidence of age’s toll, and to Chelsea, as she comes to terms with her relationship with what she sees as a demanding and consistently displeased father.

Again, this really only works if both Norman and Ethel are not only believable as individual actors, but believable as a richly fond couple whose mutual love and respect has kept an outwardly frustrating marriage very much alive. Joe Parrish and Rosemary London do just that, giving an almost constant, subtle underscore to the brusk familiarity of their lines which make you understand how that relationship could have held on so well for so long.

Lisa Apostle handles the nervous Chelsea well, and John Catanzaro gives considerable humor – and another underscore of relational wisdom – to her beau. Tyler Campbell has a lovely time as the somewhat simple, earnest mailman who was Chelsea’s long-ago summer boyfriend. Most importantly, Jackson Capitano becomes quite convincing most of the time as Billy, and the chemistry between him and Parrish creates a significant factor of charm in the production. Capitano does need to occasionally slow his lines a bit to be sure we get all the humor in them, however.

Set Designer Dillon Nelson has provided the requested skeletal set. It works better than one expects, allowing for some of the show’s running “gags” – the screen door’ issues, the tendency for Norman to lock the door when his wife is outside – to work better than one would expect simply by being offstage. Sound designer Steven Humenski has managed to mesh a few bits of the film score in at just the right times, and of course the calls of the lake’s loons.

“On Golden Pond,” when done as well as this, is a peaceful thing. It is not a stunning new statement of life. It is not cynical or challenging. Rather, it is an homage to aging and relationship, and as such says things that few plays have said better. This production is certainly worth seeing, but you’ll have to be fast to catch it. Though it only opened on June 19, it will close on the 28th.

What: “On Golden Pond” When: through June 28, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N Citrus Ave in Covina How Much: $15 – $25 Info: (626) 331-8133 ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com

A Fine Frolic: “The Wedding Singer” in Covina

Kyle Caldwell (center) is The Wedding Singer at Covina CPA, backed with style by Ricky Wagner and Ryan Jones

Kyle Caldwell (center) is The Wedding Singer at Covina CPA, backed with style by Ricky Wagner and Ryan Jones

If one is going to see one of those rather cliche, tap-dancing musicals from the 30s, one does not expect depth. The reason to go is the dancing, the music, the comedy and the romance. So, that being true, why not consider embracing a musical from the late 1990s based on a film celebrating the eccentricities of the early 1980s in the same vein? If this appeals to you, then head on over to the Covina Center for the Performing Arts and their cheerful, lighthearted, often silly rendition of Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy’s “The Wedding Singer.”

The production, under the direction of Wendy Friedman, proves just as well crafted as the show itself proves silly. The story pays homage to the 1998 movie: Robbie is the lead singer/performer in a band which has become known throughout New Jersey for a great wedding song, and thus a favorite at receptions. That’s great until his fiancé leaves him and his bitterness begins to infect his work. At the same time, Julia, who waits on people at a reception hall, becomes engaged to a boyfriend focused on finance who considers his new fiancé more as a trophy than a love interest. Can Robbie and Julia save each other?

Kyle Caldwell makes a highly entertaining Robbie – just over-the-top enough to make his struggles comic and his joys delightfully silly. He sings well, and can play the guitar enough to be convincing as a locally popular musician. Ryan Jones, as the band’s stereotypically randy bassist, and particularly Ricky Wagner as a veritable Boy George look-alike make entertaining counterpoint to Robbie’s angst, and prove equally musical.

It's all about the romance for Robbie (Kyle Caldwell) and Julia (Susanna Vaughan)

It’s all about the romance for Robbie (Kyle Caldwell) and Julia (Susanna Vaughan)

Susanna Vaughan makes an appealingly mainstream sweet young thing, as Julia. Jackie Bianchi has an absolute blast as her dissolute cousin, and Jabriel Shelton gives Julia’s fiancé all the intensity and hubris one expects from a Wall Street up-and-comer. Also worthy of note are Susan E. Silver as various moms, and Christina Marie Harrell as Robbie’s dedicatedly romantic grandmother. In two brief, but memorable appearances, Taj Johnson rocks the house as Robbie’s self-focused ex-girl.

Still, this is a very silly show. Along with fine individual performances, what makes it all work is a solid ensemble of dancer/actors who create incidental character after character, and dance up a storm. Lindsay Martin’s lively and evocative choreography really comes alive in the hands of these performers, and music director Richard Seymour manages to balance the vocal talents of the entire company with the recorded soundtrack in such a way that one soon forgets one is listening to pre-fab music.

Despite one moment where the thing should look a bit more Vegas-like, Dillon Nelson’s facile set proves terrific at keeping the pacing flowing – a necessity in such an episodic tale. Costumer Mark Gamez has the era down, right to the period wedding veils. The look helps make the show a true success.

In short, don’t go for depth, but for the same kind of sheer fun one might find at a production of “42nd Street” go see “The Wedding Singer.” One note: there is the occasional scatological reference, so be cautious about young children. Other than that, it will prove a great way to have a good time in the theater without carrying any particular baggage away.

What: “The Wedding Singer” When: Through May 3, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $20-$30 Info: (626) 331-8133, ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com

Simple Delights: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” in Covina

I admit, I’m sometimes astonished at the wide, wide scope of the modern American musical. “Rent” and “Miss Saigon” are classic romantic melodramas based on Puccini’s “La Boheme,” and “Madama Butterfly” respectively, “Sweeney Todd” conjures tales of horror from the Victorian age, while “The Drowsy Chaperone” can make glorious fun of the silliest musicals of the 1920s. And then there are those which thrive on a kind of youthful joy, like “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Now in a charming, funny rendition of this musical is onstage at the Covina Center for the Performing Arts. Gifted with a fine cast, operating on a rather bare-bones set, the show utilizes the entire theater well, keeps up an energetic pace throughout, and proves to be a real crowd pleaser.

The story is pretty much in the title. It is time for the annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – the county competition which will send a single student to the national finals. A group of moderately to enormously misfit 10-year-olds have come to compete. The competition is operated and rules enforced by a local realtor who won the thing herself, when a child. The questions are asked by a rather edgy school vice-principal. The musical introduces to all of these characters lives and aspirations, and the quirky things strong competitors do to help them with rote memory of so many words.

Sarah Rae Jackson is Rona Perretti, the realtor awash in nostalgia for her moment of victory. Spencer D. Blair has a great time as the uptight vice principal who must ask questions, not only of the cast but of audience members brought onstage to engage in the initial part of the bee. Michelle Mahoney also delights in the tough girl assisting in the event as a condition of her parole.

Still, what one remembers most are the “kids” – high school and college-aged actors being those 10 and 11-year-olds, who start out as geeky stereotypes but end up as very real people with often painful histories. Aaron Lyons gives last year’s winner the combination of ego, earnestness and immaturity, and plays more than one kid’s parent as well. Molly Billman becomes the ultimate liberal geek, lisp and all, yet vibrates with the almost-panic of a kid pushed to achieve.

Richie Ferris has a great time as the gleeful but unique Leaf Coneybear – from a hippy-esque family who considers him the dull one. Stanton Kane Morales develops the male version of the ultimate geek, writing words on the floor with his foot, and dealing with nasal issues. Kendra Harris brings the “gee whiz” quality into focus as the friendly girl somewhat baffled by the drama in those around her. Katharine McDonough contributes genuine pathos, yet youthful enthusiasm and optimism, as the victim of neglect and at least verbal abuse who has found refuge in her dictionary.

Jill Gerber finds that delicate balance between humor and ridicule, and between humor and over-done pathos, as the show’s director. It is brisk and brimming with enthusiasm from start to finish. Kim Eberhardt’s choreography is clever, and makes excellent use of her able cast. Mark Gamez has found just the right costume for each extremely individual character. Indeed, there is quite a bit of polish here, even if the “set” is mostly a bunch of black curtains, a table, and a set of risers. That’s not what you’re watching anyway.

In short, the show is fun. You will laugh out loud, at times, and feel earnest empathy at others. Certainly, you’ll leave the show with a smile on your face. When done at this level, it’s almost impossible not to. It may not be deep, and the music may be more in service of the story than memorable on its own, but sometimes a musical is mostly about fun. In that case, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” as done at Covina Center for the Performing Arts, is just the ticket.

What: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” When: Through October 13, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $28 and $38 Info: (626) 331-8133 ext 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com

Timing is all: “Lend Me a Tenor” at Covina Center

The art of farce is, to a great extent, about precision. Timing is everything, as doors and windows begin to slam. A good farce starts calmly, in a way which seems ordered and logical, and then disintegrates. The very collapse enhances the comedy, as the audience looks at people who once seemed reasonable beginning to cope with a world become increasingly outrageous.

One of the truly well-crafted farces of recent decades is Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor.” Done right, it has all the elements above: characters of supposed intelligence, increasing pandemonium, and the obligatory flapping of doors. It can be wildly funny. It’s reasonably funny – at least the second half is – even if everything isn’t really as precise as needed. This I learned watching the production at Covina Center for the Performing Arts. There is still much to laugh at and with, but not as much as could be.

The tale starts innocuously enough. A midwestern opera company has managed to snag a famous tenor for a benefit performance of “Othello.” The tenor arrives later than expected. The artistic director of the company, supposing he will not arrive at all, has done what he can to mask the lack of a headliner. Pretty soon, the wave of mistaken identities, women mad for a famous Italian, and nervous imposters begins.

The problem at CCPA, is that it begins to be crazy from the very start. Mark E. Rainey, as the opera’s artistic director, is nearly apoplectic even before the craziness really begins. As his daughter – a girl with a mad crush on the Italian – Emily Lappi also starts at a heightened level which doesn’t give her much room for expansion. As the mild-mannered assistant who ends up a part of coping with the Italian’s absence, Sean Larson is made such a total geek, high-waters and all, that he too seems to have already taken his character somewhat over the top before the script calls for it.

Which is not to say they lack as performers. Once the silliness is in full swing, they rise to the occasion. It’s just that, by being so outrageous so early, they actually slow up the exposition which lets the rest of the comedy happen, making the start of the thing drag. It’s almost like director Joshua Prisk doesn’t trust the material, and has to juice it up at the start. This is unwise.

Still, by the end everyone watching will be laughing up a storm. Rainey’s outrage, when it is supposed to happen, is classic. Lappi’s mad passion for the opera singer proves quite hysterical at points. Larson, as the person trying to be reasonable in the midst of a distinctly crazy situation, finds that balance well. And they are joined by a cast equally up to the wild frenzy of the physical comedy of the show’s second half.

Patty Rangel proves delightful, and wonderfully elegant as the woman in charge of the institution putting on the gala. Micah Papalia finds all the comedy in the hapless Italian. Viera Lee makes absolutely terrific work of the Italian’s passionately jealous wife. Christina Carabajal slinks convincingly as the worldly-wise soprano. Stephen Ferrand – though he, again, begins his assault a bit early – offers significant clowning as the opera fan bellhop.

Indeed, by the end the only thing missing – and it is not trivial – is the fact that neither Papalia nor Larson, both of whom play men who are supposed to be able to hold down a leading role in a Verdi opera, can sing. Well, that and the fact that the set (also attributed to Prisk) proves very fragile, with wobbling walls and doors which rip off hinges. Farces take a lot out of a set, so that is rough to see on opening night.

Still, you will laugh at this show. You can’t help it. Good farce is almost automatically funny, particularly if the actors can get the timing on the craziest bits down cold, which these people do. Still, just a bit more subtlety and sturdiness would make it really sing.

What: “Lend Me a Tenor” When: Through April 28, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $23 – $33 Info: (626) 331-8133 or http://www.covinacenter.com

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” – a Musical Romp at Covina Center

Sometimes a musical is just for laughs. One well done, even by a small or semi-pro theater, can be a truly relaxing way to spend an evening. Taken all in all, that’s what you’ll find at Covina Center for the Performing Arts, where the Broadway spin on “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” – the 2006 Tony-nominated musical by David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane – has taken up residence. Ridiculous, raucous and energetic, the CCPA production overcomes its occasional amateur underpinnings to have most of the makings of a hit.

The silly tale is essentially the same as the film: longtime flim-flam man Lawrence Jameson is making an impressive living along the French Riviera by pretending to be a financially strapped prince. Word spreads that another con artist known as The Jackel is treading on his turf. Then, he meets Freddy, a course and youthful grifter, and operating under the assumption that this is that competitior, the comedy begins.

Freddy helps Lawrence extricate himself from the grasp of a Oklahoma heiress bent on marriage, then both turn their attention (and are soon betting on) innocent young American heiress Christine. All the while, Lawrence’s stalwart ally Andre finds himself first distracting and then drawn to the middle aged, wealthy Muriel (one of Lawrence’s cast-offs), to great comic effect.

Central to the success of this venture are the performers, and here all the main characters are delightfully realized. Jeff Lowe gives Lawrence the faux sophistication necessary for his particular style of con, laced as it is with an air of underlying practicality. Jeremiah Concepciion is just dignified enough, and yet just goofy enough, to make Andre particularly lovable. Jenny Moon Shaw has a ball with the increasingly devil-may-care Muriel, and Katie McConaughy makes the most of the stereotypical Oklahoman.

Stephanie Draude manages her own balance of gee-whiz innocence and heat, as the girl who becomes the target for both men. Still, nobody has the chance to chew the scenery, or enjoys doing so with such obvious pleasure, as much as Nicholas Herbst. As Freddy, his nonstop energy powers much of the comedy, as it should in this work. Surrounding these folk are an ensemble, who create the rest of the atmosphere, and sing and (for the most part) dance with more than expected polish.

Director Wendy Friedman keeps this thing moving, using the fairly small CCPA space with considerable creativity in order to do so. Choreographer Adrianna Castillo brings originality and energy to the dance moments, finding ways to highlight the best of her variously-abled ensemble. Joshua Prisk’s lighting design becomes a character, using the comparatively sophisticated CCPA system to great affect. Melissa Morin’s costuming, though sometimes a bit low-rent, certainly has most of the woman looking glamourous.

Though I am not often an advocate of recorded orchestras, in this venue the choice is a wise one. The peculiar acoustics of this former movie house have a tendency to leave the sound of live musicians bouncing around in the rafters, and the musicians themselves stuck in odd spots within the theater space. A recording can be aimed, and tempered, allowing a consistent balance between singers and instruments.

Indeed, the main weaknesses tend to lie mostly with the ongoing challenge at this venue: the weird height of the stage space itself, and the large expanse of plain, flat back curtain which continuously underscores that fact. An odd series of arches and columns simply disappear against that blah scrim, making what is supposed to be the recurring setting of an imposing mansion look more like something built from Tinker Toys. There is no set designer listed, so this may be a matter of borrowed material, but in general this company needs to address what to do with that background.

One advisory: unlike many Broadway musicals, this one is not for children. The discussion is sometimes crude, and often scatalogical in language and intent. Still, for the more adult, this thing is a hoot. In short, go see “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” for relaxing grown-up laughs, without the need for much in the way of mental calisthenics to disrupt the fun.

What: “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” When: Through March 10, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave., Covina How Much: $28 and $38 Info: (626) 331-8311, ext. 1 or ww.covinacenter.com

“Honky Tonk Angels” in Covina Offers Country Music Mash-Up

Musical revues come in many forms. One of the most common has a vague plot, so that those singing can inhabit characters while on stage. When this works, it can be a lot of fun. When it doesn’t, it just seems to create interruptions between songs which would have been just as much fun without the plot.

Somewhere in the middle is “Honky Tonk Angels,” just finishing a short run at the Covina Center for the Performing Arts. This show, an homage to an extremely eclectic list of country music songs, purports to be about three disparate women who decide to leave home and go to Nashville, meet on a bus, and become a country music girl group. It’s not, really, but the songs are fun.

Ellen Dostal is the middle-aged Texas housewife. Jennifer Kersey is the haunted, impoverished Louisiana kid. Anne Montavon is the twice-divorced transplanted Texan getting tired of her abusive Los Angeles boss. Their one and only moment of earnest meshing comes in the sequence in which they meet on the bus. Other than that, they could do just as well giving a concert.

All three have good country-style voices. Graced with a live band to sing with (more about them later), they belt out classics with authority and handle the common close harmonies of such music with great style. Moreover, they handle a few feedback glitches from their sound equipment like pros, never letting it interfere with their performances.

Montavon is, by far, the best dancer, and director/choreographer Allison Bibicoff takes advantage of her skills. Indeed, she pretty much overdoes this, as there is no real balance between Montavon’s character movements and the simple stuff the others can accomplish. While everyone else sways, Montavon climbs on and drapes over furniture – an unfortunate choice at one point, as she stands on top of a bar in a skirt so short the entire audience has no choice, when watching her, but to look up it.

Still, the results are generally cheerful. The band is fairly good, too, though its set-up has problems. One of the amplifiers has been placed much too close to the drum set, causing the snares to rattle loudly at times when that sound is inappropriate. The bass guitar’s amp is too loud, and the steel guitar’s amp is too quiet for the balance to sound appropriately countrified.

“Honky Tonk Angels” most interesting feature may be the varied nature of its music, from Loretta Lynn to Bobby Gentry to Dolly Parton to Roger Miller, to Nancy Sinatra, to REO Speedwagon and more. To pull all of this material into something trying to tell a single story may be the real problem: the story is built to fit the music, rather than the other way around, and the result is a nice concert occasionally interrupted by tiny snips of character.

But then, that may be the nature of this kind of show. It is still fun to hear, and even occasionally sing along with. It’s just not great art.

What: “Honky Tonk Angels” When: Through February 3, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $28 – $38 Info: (626) 331-8133 or http://www.covinacenter.com

Death of a Salesman: The great play staggers a bit in Covina

Jody St. Michael, Chad Goodwin and Shawn Vena are Willy Loman and his sons in the Covina Center’s “Death of a Salesman”.


Arguably, the greatest play written by an American in the 20th century is Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” Studied in public schools all over the nation, it is a modern tragedy constructed using the rules established by the ancient Greeks, yet seems at the same time an elemental tale of American machismo. The gradual unraveling of Willy Loman has become absolutely iconic as the reverse side of the American dream.

Now a new, rather stylized production of this great work is on the boards at the Covina Center for the Performing Arts. Director Steve Julian has made some interesting choices, some of which create a fluid tale, some of which are a bit more questionable. In the end, the production doesn’t always come through, but isn’t awful either.

A disturbingly telling moment comes even before the play begins, when Julian comes on the P.A. system to explain the show to the audience. Is this an assumption that the audience can’t “get” the play (which includes flashbacks) without help? Certainly a play commonly read by high school students can’t be that tough. The play then starts with an interesting, shadow-like animation – a portrait of defeat. It never reappears. Neither does any other symbolic or animated enhancement, leaving that first impression (and it is the very first thing you see) as an odd outlier.

The intensity of the production proves important, and a lot of the success of any production of “Death of a Salesman” hangs squarely on the shoulders of the man playing Willy. In this case, Jody St. Michael makes an interesting work of the part. Physically, he is far more diminutive than those who have often played Willy, but that can work – actually makes a lot of sense, played the way St. Michael sees him. Unfortunately, he starts the evening already vibratingly anxious and stutteringly depressive, leaving Willy no place to go. The growth toward abject despair proves elemental to the play. Here it cannot happen.

Supporting St. Michael, Jill Gerber makes Willy’s wife a woman gentle wisdom, who sees the train wreck coming even as she remains unheard on any deep level by the others in her world. Shawn Vena plays Willy’s jock son rather all in one key, his deflation somewhat harder to believe than his teenaged bravado. Chad Goodwin makes really excellent work of the younger, often ignored son. His move toward instant gratification makes as much sense as in any version I have seen.

These folks are backed by a solid cast. Standouts include Mike Johnson as Willy’s good-hearted neighbor, Andrew Batiz, particularly effective as the neighbor’s once-nerdy and now successful son, and Candida Orosco as the woman who changes not only Willy’s world but his son’s as well.

Maureen Weiss has designed a stark, angular and bare-bones set which works well in this equally stark tale, allowing the pacing to move forward without interruption for time or place shifts. Linda Vick has found evocatively 50s costumes, though all the ties are very 70s.

In short, “Death of a Salesman” is inarguably a great play. At Covina one can see it on its feet – something comparatively rare. Still, one wonders what would have happened if the director had both trusted his audience, and completed the interesting symbolic vision he began. As it is, with Willy played mostly in one key and an underlying atmosphere of “here – I’ve made this obvious for you,” it seems to miss some of what the play actually had to say.

What: “Death of a Salesman” When: Through November 4, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $23 and $33 Info: (626) 331-8133 ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com

Try Seeing It Under Light: “The Fantasticks” at Covina Center for the Performing Arts

“The Fantasticks,” Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’ legendary musical, became the longest continually running theater piece in U.S. history for a reason. Its essential humanity and its send-up of sentimental fantasy, theater itself, and the very representational artifice which makes it work prove charming and gently thought-provoking. Intentionally intimate, it played for over 40 years in a NY theater the size of a postage stamp. Simplicity in staging is an essential part of what made it work.

Which brings us to the new production at Covina Center for the Performing Arts. The greatest challenge of this piece is simply handling all the space CCPA provides. The show must be performed somewhat larger to reach an audience physically farther away, yet engage the audience in the same sense of shared experience. For the most part, CCPA’s cast achieves this.

The tale itself, borrowed (sort of) from a play of Edmund Rostand, looks at two fathers who pretend to feud in order to nudge their children into defying them and falling in love. The young couple, filled with fantasy and naivete, receive the final push when the fathers hire a romantic-looking gypsy and his traveling player sidekicks to stage an abduction so the boy can rescue the girl. But this is only half the story. As the narrator says, “…the play [is] never done until all of us have been burned a bit and burnished by the sun.”

Chrissi Erickson makes the girl delightfully flighty, though one could argue with the somewhat pop stylings of her simple, lyrical songs. Aaron Lyons offers up an almost ferocious innocence, and sings with assurance, as the boy who is certain he knows everything. Jeremiah Concepcion and Osbaldo Alvarado have captured the energy of the two plotting fathers, though Alvarado sometimes seems to be operating on a slightly different RPM from the rest of the show.

Alastair James Murden makes the mysterious El Gallo somewhat less spectacular than sometimes – more down-to-earth, and accompanies himself neatly on the guitar. Maxwell Herzfeld has a lovely time with Mortimer – the Man Who Dies. Heather Cadarette and Jenna Keiper, dividing the role of the mute who prepares the stage, make that division work well. Still, the absolute standout is Phil Oakley’s Old Actor – a delightfully hammy send-up of theatrical has-beens which can provide some of the show’s greatest laughs.

Indeed, the performers are definitely up to the task of this production. What issues one has lie firmly at the feet of director Mark Gamez.

For example, the very simplicity of “The Fantasticks” is underscored by its lack of any need for sound effects beyond what the musical accompaniment and the cast can create. Yet Gamez has seen fit to import thunder and rain sounds into the scene were they sing “Soon it’s Gonna Rain” – a song about impending, not current precipitation. It is an unneeded distraction, and it implies a lack of trust in his performers or the piece itself.

In another annoying moment, when given a mask by which to see horrors essentially through “rose colored glasses,” the girl doesn’t keep the mask on, but still sees things rosily. The sequence thereby makes less sense. Frustratingly, the entire cast seem occasionally unaware of where the lights are, standing just out of a spotlight, or moving into the dark at moments they should be featured. In a production otherwise comparatively polished, this is odd.

Still, kudos do go to Coleen Thatcher, who plays the entire score on the onstage piano. Costumes and minimalist set design – uncredited – are appropriate. The use of masses of flowers and vegetables to reduce the stage space while defining the fathers’ gardens is a stroke of genius.

“The Fantasticks” is fun, and if you’ve never heard anything but “Try to Remember,” it has a lot more to say about love in a time of wisdom. Indeed, the moral that “without a hurt the heart is hollow” can resonate with anyone comparing the infatuation of the young with the abiding love of the mature. And despite occasional roughness around the edges, this production would make a good introduction.

What: “The Fantasticks” When: Through September 30, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $28 – $38 Info: (626) 331-8133 ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com

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