Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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Last year Sierra Madre Playhouse embarked on a new endeavor: creating theatrical material suitable for school children’s weekday matinees. Last year it was “Battledrum,” an original work tackling the Civil War through the eyes of a pre-teen drummer. This year they have opted for a comparatively tried-and-true production, with the same object. For this they have chosen Karen Zacarias and Deborah Wicks La Puma’s “Einstein is a Dummy,” which tries in a fictional way to make the young and odd Alfred Einstein (and his underlying genius) approachable.
In another break from SMP tradition, this show will play in a sort of repertory: Battledrum for matinees, even on weekends, and “Putting It Together,” a salute to Sondheim opening this coming weekend, for evenings. It’s a solid choice, as “Einstein” is definitely for the pre-pubescent set.
The tale involves the young Albert – a violinist at this point – and Elsa, his friend and fellow odd person out. They are joined by Constantin, the bully of the piece, whose cello seems to represent his ego. For Einstein the world is fascinating – so fascinating it is simple to forget to practice, to bring dressier clothes for a recital, or even to listen the music teacher whose ridiculous last name is intended to elicit children’s giggles. Yet, as he ponders his world, a cat only he can see (Shrodinger’s?) encourages his wonder and his constant urge to find descriptors for the unseen.
Zacarias and Wicks La Puma are central figures in TYA, or Theater for Young Audiences, and several of their musicals are part of the children’s theatre canon, “Einstein…” especially. At SMP their work is presented by two separate casts, since many of the performances are on weekdays, intended for bus-loads of elementary school kids, and thus conflicting with many actors’ day jobs.
On opening night, The Proton Cast, as opposed to The Electron Cast, showed off the show’s best attributes, aided by Sean T. Cawelti’s elaborate video displays on Sarah Krainin’s deceptively simple set. Jonathan Brett created an Einstein both earnest and obliviously optimistic. His eyes are to the universe and snippy humans are mere distractions most of the time. Katie Hotchkiss gives Ella the warm understanding which makes for lasting friendship with a social odd-ball. Indeed, she embraces his views of the universe with a complimentary intelligence in a script determined to state that girls also like science.
Thomas Anawalt tackles the comparatively two-dimensional bully Constantin with a flare which makes him weirdly lovable, while Conor Lane makes absolutist music teacher Herr Scholoppnoppdinkerdonn a figure of comic rigidity. As the cat who spurs Einstein to think outside the box, and to stick to his theories, Molly Gilman has a ball. Freed from any possible social conventions, she can give attitude, have intellectually stimulating conversations, or just be a cat. It all seems meant.
Of course, any show about Einstein is going to have to embrace his classic equation. Here it is celebrated, but not really explained all that much. Perhaps one of the goals of the piece, other than showing that elementary school oddities who don’t fit well into society may become great thinkers, is to introduce E=MC2 to an audience who, when they meet it again in high school physics will already know without knowing that E is energy, M is mass, and C is the speed of light. A cute song emphasizes this, even if the larger implications are left for an older teacher to explain.
Director Derek Manson has kept the show light and airy, and rather silly, which is important when trying to reach a young audience. The musical director is the composer, which gives a strong emphasis to the songs which, if not memorable in the long run, make the production fun in the short term.
The show is short, lasting little over an hour. That’s just the right length for a class on a field trip. It’s also a good Sunday afternoon adventure, for people who know of kids who would enjoy a spate of children’s theater. Take advantage, as this is one of the musicals for kids people genuinely celebrate.
What: “Einstein is a Dummy” When: Through April 12, weekdays for scheduled school groups, 2:30 p.m. Sundays for the general public Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 Seniors, $15 Youth 13-21, $12 Children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org