Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Covina Center for the Performing Arts

“Footloose” in Covina: CCPA’s Young Performers Institute unites adults and the young to good effect

Normally I do not review youth productions. There are several reasons for this, including the sheer fragility of being a child on stage – sometimes for the first time. To evaluate a show one must be prepared to be honest, and though there are sometimes delightful surprises in kid shows, there can also be moments where that debate between being truthful enough to be trusted by the readers and being gentle enough to keep someone’s spirits up becomes oppressive.

In the case of Covina Center for the Arts’ Young Performers Institute summer production of “Footloose,” it is possible to make an exception. Unique among local programs, its “youth” are high school and young college-aged performers playing age-appropriate parts, in a cast also containing adults with significant local theatrical experience. This hybrid proves a great showcase for its younger artists, and a chance to work with people who have kept the passion for a lifetime.

This “Footloose” is taken from the 1998 Broadway adaptation of the seminal 1984 film. To make room for the many musical numbers, the already somewhat simple story becomes even simpler. Ren McCormick and his mother arrive in the tiny town of Bomont to live with Ren’s aunt and uncle, after Ren’s father walks out. Basically a city boy used to the variety of life in the Chicago area, Ren must adjust to being the outsider in an insular place, and the stultified social life of a town all but ruled by a ferociously conservative pastor. Forms of music and entertainment Ren is used to – particularly dancing – are out of the question. Even so, his attraction to the pastor’s rebellious daughter Ariel grows.

Among the adults, highlights include Eric Cajiuat who finds that tricky balance as the pastor, displaying passionate conviction while still evoking the isolating toll it brings. As the pastor’s wife caught in an impossible position between the absolutes of her husband and the intense fury of her daughter, the show’s director Jill B. Gerber becomes the soul of sympathetic frustration. Doug Harbin delights in his stereotypically crusty athletic coach, and Jenna Vandergrift rolls in briefly but memorably as the tolerant owner of the local burger joint.

As for the youth, Max Herzfeld warms into a charming Ren, vibrant with enthusiasm. Alexandra Tahauri gives Ariel that “bad girl who could be a good girl” vibe, and sings well too, though she could use a little less rock-voice and a little more enunciation. Other standouts among a solid group of leads include Shaina Wexler as Ariel’s buddy Rusty. Her vibrancy, timing and commitment to her character power several important scenes. This is matched by Woody Buck’s gee-whiz country boy, who becomes the object of Rusty’s affection. The two are genuinely charming together and provide many of the show’s highlights.

The biggest drawback to doing a very, very episodic musical like this in a comparatively low-tech setting is the timing. Director Gerber has choreographed set changes to be quick and efficient, and keep the show moving as tightly as possible. Still, those on stage could use more “business,” as they easily devolve into the “standing around talking” mode. Speaking of choreography, Wexler is also the choreographer, and with the exception of a slightly awkward opening number, uses her castmates’ varying talents well. The scene in a cowboy dance hall is particularly effective.

Indeed, this “Footloose” is generally enjoyable. Clever tricks like using projections to turn the entire theater into the pastor’s church continuously make the audience a part of the action. The ensemble of performers, including those whose biographies claim this is their first show, evoke enthusiasm and finesse. Particularly affecting are the polished, lovely close harmony moments on songs like “Somebody’s Eyes” – a very difficult skill made to sound very easy. Musical director Mark Macalintal is to be congratulated.

Still, the only strong criticism one has is related to sound. The band accompanying these performers is amplified too loudly, sometimes drowning out important sung dialogue. And the performers’ microphones are unpredictable at best, cutting out on individuals at critical moments.

“Footloose” the movie has become a part of America’s cultural DNA. It even inspired the students in a small town to sue all the way to the Supreme Court demanding the right to dance at their school. Watching a new generation play with the old struggle between dreams, freedoms and the seemingly oppressive adult world is a lot of fun. Watching a new generation of performers begin their journey is even more so. Even if this isn’t ready for Broadway, it’s a fun evening.

What: “Footloose” When: Through August 19, 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 and $38 Info: (626) 331-8311, ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com

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Much Ado About Procreation: “Baby” surfaces at CCPA

At time – the 1980s – when musical theater in the U.S. was increasingly synonymous with spectacle, David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr’s little gem “Baby” was born. This musical gently examined the pressures, fascinations and choices surrounding the whole idea of having a child. Now finishing a run at Covina Center for the Performing Arts, its factual information may be dated, and some of its messages might play out differently today, but it still packs charm and an essential humanity which prove very attractive.

The story centers around three women, who meet in the show’s most joyous moment in an OB’s waiting room. There, their yearning to be the newly embraced super-Moms bursts forth in the ebullient “I Want it All” – the musical’s signature song. One is a college student determinedly unwed to her musician boyfriend. One is a college athletic coach anxious to complete her shift from tomboy to feminine but struggling to become a mother. One is an empty nester startled to find herself about to sit on the nest again. The show follows all of them through their diverse journeys.

Kristin Towers-Rowles gives the college girl all the idealism, enthusiasm and impracticality of a teenager, combine with a sort of innate energy which powers her character through the piece. As her boyfriend, Keith Barletta’s overwhelmed and well-meaning music student defies stereotype to become quite endearing. In playing the older woman who thought that she was done raising children, Gail Matthius performance gives a window on a sequence of internal struggles – moving even as it is gently underplayed. Phil Oakley’s well tamed but ever-present old school machismo vibrates against her performance to create depth in this couple’s dynamic.

Jessie Withers balances the stereotypical “lady jock” with an earnest womanliness, and David Laffey creates a remarkable foil for her: passionately loving, outwardly strong, inwardly infinitely fragile. Providing doctors, fellow parents, college students and other people to populate the background, Mark Gamez, Britney Voitel, Cody Michael Perry and Michelle Griepentrog sing beautifully and help this extremely episodic piece flow from moment to moment with grace.

Director Janet Miller has all but choreographed the show, from the movement of the spare set pieces to the intertwining of those coming and going from the stage, in a way which encourages this sense of continuity. Ironically the show’s only weak point arrives when she is actually called upon to choreograph a sequence where a group of men sing and dance to a song called “Fatherhood Blues.” The dancing is corny and interferes with the song by winding the singers. It just doesn’t work.

Still, “Baby” has much to recommend it. Granted, fertility efforts have made great strides since then, and men rarely get away with (as one in this pack seems to) a “master of the universe” tone, but the essential fact of dealing with the desire to have, the fear of having, and the life-changing reality of having a child can resonate with an audience to great effect.

Special kudos to Corey Hirsch, who not only acts as musical director, but plays the entire score on an on-stage piano. Indeed, this musical is that intimate, making it a perfect fit with CCPA’s comfy, equally intimate theater space. Come, listen, smile and – at least if you have been a parent – reminisce.

What: “Baby” When: Through July 1, 8 p.m Friday and Saturday, and 7 p.m. Sunday 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

Bah Humbug: Covina Center for the Performing Arts rewrites Dickens

Frank Minano as Scrooge in his adaptation of A Christmas Carol


To tell you the truth, the best production of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” I ever saw involved Patrick Stewart, a chair, a table and a book from which he read. The story itself proves so engrossing it is hard to find a reason to over-embellish it, even to draw crowds into a theater at holiday time. With its quick lesson on the need for compassion, the ugliness of greed and the concept that happiness is less about money than human connection, not to mention the description of Marley – one of the scariest ghost appearances in literature – Dickens has supplied everything.

This is a central reason why the version of this timeless tale at Covina Center for the Performing Arts proved so irritating. The new adaptation by Frank Minano decides to add to, and change, the Dickens original.

The padding is superfluous. Belle, the love of Scrooge’s young life, is followed into older age to show her as a shining example of humanity. We get to watch Marley die and Scrooge chuckle over the body as he signs the death certificate, making Scrooge pathologically cruel rather than Dickens’ myopic skinflint.

And, once “reborn,” Scrooge doesn’t supply a huge turkey for his clerk’s family’s feast. After bounding about his room like a madman, he arrives at the Cratchits, hands them the turkey for later, and invites them all to his nephew’s house for a Christmas party and dinner to which he alone has been invited – a clash of Britain’s stratified society and a burden on the same nephew he earlier points out has little money.

Minano doesn’t stop there. He also stars as Scrooge, and helps to direct, leaving no one but fellow director Hope Kaufman to rein in his star turn. Scrooge’s moments onstage stretch and stretch, and much of the last act is played in the same overemotional key. This is a pity, as from a production standpoint, discounting the lead and the padding of the script, this is a pretty good show.

Standouts in the huge cast include Jill Gerber as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Michael Buczynski as the suitably boisterous Ghost of Christmas Present, and Max Herzfeld as a particularly personable Fred. Also worthy of note are Brett Chapin as Bob Cratchit and Gehrig Baes as a satisfyingly unsaccharine Tiny Tim.

As always, carolers have been inserted into the drama, but here they are very good carolers and their songs are used to cover set changes. It works. The set, by Mark MacKenzie follows the CCPA tradition of making modular, multi-story creations which keep the set changes short and the segues smooth. The costuming by Linda Vick is fairly accurate, though someone should inform the men in the cast that Victorian gentlemen of Scrooge or Fred’s class almost never took off their coats in public, never at a party, and certainly not if they had – which they didn’t in those days – a vest with no back.

So, although this “A Christmas Carol” is fantastically overblown, it still has things to recommend it. Unfortunately, with the carols and the additional material, it is also long, and gets longer if Minano is really on a roll in the second act – a tough thing for the small children in the audience. In the end, my advice to any and all who choose to dramatize this famous short story is this: just tell the story. Really. Dickens knew his characters and his audience. Trust him.

What: “A Christmas Carol” When: Through December 18, 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $28, VIP level $38 Info: (626) 331-8133 or http://www.covinacenter.com

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